“The Salamander Land” – The Old Fishmarket Close – Heriot’s Mansion – The Deemster’s House – Borthwick’s Close – Lord Durie’s House – Old Assembly Rooms – Edinburgh Assemblies, 1720-53 – Miss Nicky Murray – Formalities of the Balls – Ladies’ Fashions – Assemblies Removed to Bell’s Wynd – Blair Street and Hunter’s Square – Kennedy’s Close – George Buchanan’s Death – Niddry’s Wynd – Nicol Edward’s House – A Case of Homicide in 1597 – A Quack Doctor – Livingstone’s Liberty.
IN describing the closes and wynds which diverge from the great central street of the old city on the south we must resume at the point where the great fire of 1824 ceased, a conflagration witnessed by Sir Walter Scott, who says of it:-
“I can conceive no sight more grand or terrible than to see those lofty buildings on fire from top to bottom, vomiting out flames like a volcano from every aperture, and finally crashing down one after another into an abyss of fire, which resembled nothing but hell; for there were vaults of wine and spirits, which sent up huge jets of flames wherever they were called into activity by the fall of these massive fragments.”
“The Salamander Land,” an enormous black tenement, so named from its having survived or escaped the fires that raged eastward and westward of it, and named also from that curious propensity, which is so peculiarly Scottish, for inventive and appropriate sobriquets, was removed to make way for the Police Chambers and the Courant office, in the latter of which James Hannay, the author of “Satire and Satirists” and several other works, and Joseph Robertson, the well-known Scottish antiquary, conducted the editorial duties of that paper, the first editor of which was Daniel Defoe. “We have been told,” says Wilson, writing of the old tenement in question, “that this land was said to have been the residence of Daniel Defoe while in Edinburgh; the tradition, however, is entirely unsupported by other testimony.”
Descending the street on the south, as we have done on the north, we shall peep into each of the picturesque alleys that remain, and recall those which are no more, with all the notables who once dwelt therein, and summon back the years, the men, and the events that have passed away.
Through “the Salamander Land” a spacious archway led into the Old Fishmarket Close, where, previous to the great fire, an enormous pile of buildings reared their colossal front, with that majestic effect produced now by the back of the Royal Exchange and of James’s Court, and where now the lofty tenements of the new police office stand.
To this alley, wherein the cannon shot of Kirkaldy fell with such dire effect during the great siege of 1573, Moyse tells us the plague was brought, on the 7th of May, 1588, by a servant woman from St. Johnston.
Within the Fishmarket Close was the mansion of George Heriot, the royal goldsmith, wherein more recently resided President Dundas, “father of Lord Melville, a thorough bon vivant of the old claret-drinking school of lawyers.”
Here, too, dwelt, we learn from Chambers’s “Traditions,” the Deemster, a finisher of the law’s last sentence, a grim official, who annually drew his fee from the adjacent Royal Bank; and one of the last whom, when not officiating at the west end of the Tolbooth or the east end of the Grassmarket, eked out his subsistence by cobbling shoes.
Borthwick’s Close takes its name from the noble and baronial family of Borthwick of that ilk, whose castle, a few miles south from the city, is one of the largest and grandest examples of the square tower in Scotland. In the division of the city in October, 1514, the third quarter is to be – according to the Burgh records – “frae the Lopelie Stane with the Cowgaitt, till Lord Borthwick’s Close,” assigned to “Bailie Bansun,” with his sergeant Thomas Arnott, and his quartermaster Thomas Fowler.
The property on the middle of the east side of the close belonged to one of the Lords Napier of Merchiston, but to which there is no record to show; and it is not referred to in the minute will of the inventor of logarithms, who died in 1617.
A new school belonging to Heriot’s Hospital occupies the ground that intervenes between this alley and the old Assembly Close.
On that site stood the town mansion of Lord Durie, President of the Court of Session in 1642, the hero of the ballad of “Christie’s Will,” and according thereto the alleged victim of the Earl of Traquair, as given in a very patched ballad of the Border Minstrelsy, beginning:-
“Traquair he has ridden up Chapelhope,
And sae has he doon by the Greymare’s Tail;
But he never stinted his light gallop,
Till he spiered for Christie’s Will.”
And hence for a time the alley bore the name of Lord Durie’s Close.
On the site of his mansion, till its destruction by the fire of 1824, stood the Old Assembly Rooms of Edinburgh, to which the directors of haut ton removed their fashionable réunions about the year 1720 from the West Bow; and which in a “sasine” in the charter room of the burgh, dated 1723, is described as being “that big hall, or great room, now known by the name of the Assembly House, being part of that new great stone tenement of land, lately built.”
There it was that the Honourable Miss Nicky Murray reigned supreme as lady-directress and goddess of fashion, for many years during the middle of the eighteenth century. She was a sister of the Earl of Mansfield, and was a woman possessed of much good sense, firmness, knowledge of the world, and of the characters of those by whom she was surrounded. With her sisters she lived long in one of the tenements at the head of Bailie Fyfe’s Close, where she annually received whole broods of fair country cousins, who came to town to receive the finishing touches of a girl’s education, and be introduced to society – the starched and stately society of old Edinburgh.
The Assembly Room was in the close to which it gave its name. It had a spacious lobby, lighted by sconces, where the gilded sedans set down their powdered, hooped, and wigged occupants, while links flared, liveried valets jostled, and swords were sometimes drawn; and where a reduced gentleman – a claimant to the ancient peerage of Kirkcudbright – sold gloves, for which he was rather ungenerously sneered at by Oliver Goldsmith.
From this lobby the dancing-hall opened at once, and up-stairs was a tea-room. The former had in its centre a railed space, within which were the dancers; while the spectators, we are told, sat on the outside, and no communication was permitted between the different sides of this sacred pale. Here it was that in 1753 Goldsmith first saw, with some astonishment, the formalities of the old Scottish balls. He relates that on entering the dancing-room he saw one end of it taken up by the ladies, who sat dismally in a group by themselves. “On the other end stand their pensive partners that are to be, but no more intercourse between the sexes than between two countries at war. The ladies, indeed, may ogle, and the gentlemen sigh, but an embargo is laid on any closer commerce.”
The lady directress occupied a high chair, or species of throne, upon a dais at one end, and thereon sat Miss Nicky Murray in state. Her immediate predecessors there had been Mrs. Browne of Colstoun, and Lady Minto, daughter of Sir Robert Stuart of Allanbank.
The whole arrangements were of a rigid character, with a general tending to the promotion of dulness, there being but one set at a time permitted to occupy the floor; it was seldom that any one was twice upon it in one night, and often the most beautiful girls in the city passed it, as mere spectators, which threw serious duties on the gentlemen in the way of conversation.
The latter usually sorted themselves with one partner for the whole year! The arrangements were generally made at some preliminary ball or other gathering, when a gentleman’s cocked hat was unflapped and the ladies’ fans were placed therein, and, as in a species of ballot, the beaux drew forth the latter, and to whomsoever the fan belonged he was to be the partner for the season, a system often productive of absurd combinations and many a petty awkwardness. “Then,” as Sir Alexander Boswell wrote –
“The Assembly Close received the fair –
Order and elegance presided there –
Each gay Right Honourable had her place,
To walk a minuet with becoming grace.
No racing to the dance, with rival hurry –
Such was thy sway, O famed Miss Nicky Murray!
Each lady’s fan a chosen Damon bore,
With care selected many a day before;
For, unprovided with a favourite beau,
The nymph, chagrined, the ball must needs forego,
But previous matters to her taste arranged,
Certes, the constant couple never changed;
Through a long night, to watch fair Delia’s will,
The same dull swain was at her elbow still.”
With sword at side, and often hat in hand, the gallants of those days escorted the chairs of their partners home to many a close and wynd now the abode of squalor and sordid poverty; for much of stately and genuine old-fashioned gallantry prevailed, as if it were part of the costume, referred to by the poet:-
“Shades of my fathers! In your pasteboard skirts,
Your broidered waistcoats and your plaited shirts,
Your formal bag-wigs, wide extended cuffs,
Your five-inch chitterlings and nine-inch ruffs.
Gods! how ye strut at times in all your state,
Amid the visions of my thoughtful pate!”
Those who attended the assemblies belonged exclusively to the upper circle of society that then existed in Edinburgh; and Miss Murray, on hearing a young lady’s name mentioned to her for approval, was wont to ask, “Miss – of what?” and if no territorial or family name followed, she might dismiss the matter by a wave of her fan, for, according to her views, it was necessary to be “a lady o’ that ilk;” and it is well known, that “upon one occasion, seeing at an assembly a man who had been raised to wealth in some humble trade, she went up to him, and without the least deference to his fine laced coat, taxed him with presumption in coming there, and turned him out of the room.”
The hours kept were early in those days, and the moderate time was never protracted. When the hour of departure came even the most winning young couples would crowd about her throne, petitioning for “one dance more,” but the inexorable Miss Nicky vacated her seat, and by a wave of her fan silenced the musicians and summoned the candle-snuffers.
The evening was then the fashionable time for receiving company in Edinburgh, when people were all abroad upon the streets, after dinner calling and shopping, just as people perform these duties before that meal now.
Then gentlemen wore the Ramillies wig or tied hair, small three-cornered hats laced with gold or silver, large skirted, collarless coats with square cuffs, and square-toed shoes; and the dresses of the ladies, if quaint, gave them dignity and grace. “How fine it must have been to see, as an old gentleman told me he had seen,” says Dr. Chambers, “two hooped ladies moving along the Lawnmarket in a summer evening, and filling up the whole footway with their stately and voluminous persons!”
Ladies in Edinburgh then wore the calash, a kind of hood formed of cane covered with silk, to protect the powdered head of loftily-dressed hair, when walking or driving, and it could be folded back flat like the hood of a carriage; they also wore the capuchin or short cloak tippet, reaching to the elbows, usually of silk trimmed with velvet or lace. In walking the carried, the skirt of the long gown over one arm, a necessary precaution in the wynds and closes of 1750, as well as to display the rich petticoat below; but on entering a room, the full train swept majestically behind them; and their stays were so long, as to touch the chair before and behind when seated.
The vast hoops proved a serious inconvenience in the turnpike stairs of the Old Town, when, as ladies had to tilt them up, it was absolutely necessary to have a fine show petticoat beneath; and we are told that such “care was taken of appearances, that even the garters were worn fine, being either embroidered, or having gold or silver fringes and tassles… Plaids were worn by ladies to cover their heads and muffle their faces when they went into the street;” and we have already shown how vain were the fulminations of magistrates against the latter fashion.
In 1733 the silk stockings worn by ladies and gentlemen were so thick, and so heavily adorned with gold and silver, that they could rarely be washed perhaps more than once. The Scottish ladies used enormous Dutch fans; and all women high and low wore prodigious busks.
Below the Old Assembly Close is one named from the Covenant, that great national document and solemn protest against interference with the religion of a free people having been placed for signature at a period after 1638 in an old mansion long afterward used as a tavern at the foot of the alley.
Lower down we come to Bell’s Wynd, 146, High Street, which contained another Assembly Room, for the Edinburgh fashionables, removed thither, in 1758, to a more commodious hall, and there the weekly reunions and other balls were held in the season, until the erection of the new hall in George Street.
Blair Street, and Hunter’s Square, which was built in 1788, occasioned the removal of more than one old alley that led down southward to the Cowgate, among them were Marlin’s and Peebles’ Wynds, to which we shall refer when treating of the North and South Bridges. The first tenement of the former at the right corner, descending, marks the site of Kennedy’s Close, on the first floor of the first turnpike on the left hand, wherein George Buchanan, the historian and poet, died in his 76th year, on the morning of Friday the 28th of September, 1582, and from whence he was borne to his last home in the Greyfriars’ churchyard. The last weeks of his life were spent, it is alleged, in the final correction of the proofs of his history, equally remarkable for its pure Latinity and for its partisan spirit. He survived its appearance only a month.
When on his death-bed, finding that all the money he had about him was insufficient to defray the expense of his funeral, he ordered his servant to divide it among the poor, adding “that if the city did not choose to bury him they might let him lie where he was.”
The site of his grave is now unknown, though a “throchstone” would seem to have marked it so lately as 1710. A skull, believed to be that of Buchanan, is preserved in the Museum of the University, and is so remarkably thin as to be transparent; but the evidence in favour of the tradition, though not conclusive, does not render its truth improbable. From the Council Records in 1701, it would seem that Buchanan’s gravestone had sunk into the earth, and had gradually been covered up.
In the Edinburgh Magazine for 1788 we are told that the areas of some of the demolished closes westward of the Tron Church and facing Blair Street, were exposed for sale in April, and that “the first lot immediately west of the new opening sold for £2,000, and that to the southward for £1,500, being the upset price of both.”
Niddry’s Street, which opens eastward of the South Bridge, occupies the site of Niddry’s Wynd, an ancient thoroughfare, which bore an important part in the history of the city. “It is well known,” says Wilson, “that King James VI. was very condescending in his favours to his loyal citizens of Edinburgh, making no scruple, when the larder of Holyrood grew lean, and the privy purse was exhausted, to give up housekeeping for a time, and honour one or other of the substantial burghers of his capital with a visit of himself and household; or when the straitened mansions within the closes of old Edinburgh proved insufficient singly to accommodate the hungry train of courtiers, he would very considerately distribute his favours through the whole length of the close!”
Thus from Moyse’s (or Moyses’) Memoirs, page 182, we learn that when James was troubled by the Earl of Bothwell in January, 1591, and ordered Sir James Sandilands to apprehend him, he, with the Queen and Chancellor (and their suite of course), “withdrew themselves within the town of Edinburgh, and lodged themselves in Nicol Edward’s house, in Niddry’s Wynd, and the Chancellor in Alexander Clark’s house, at the same wynd head.” In after years the lintel of this house was built in to Ross’s Tower, at the Dean. It bore this legend:-
“THE LORD IS MY PROTECTOR,
Nicol Edward was Provost of Edinburgh in 1591, and his house was a large and substantial building of quadrangular form and elegant proportions.
The Chancellor at this time was Sir John Maitland of Lethington, Lord Thirlestane.
Moyses next tells us that on the 7th of February, George Earl of Huntly (the same fiery peer who fought the battle of Glenlivat), “with his friends, to the number of five or six score horse, passed from his Majesty’s said house in Edinburgh, as intending to pass to a horse-race in Leith; but after they came, they passed forward to the Queensferry, where they caused to stop the passing of all boats over the water,” and crossing to Fife, attacked the Castle of Donnibristle, and slew “the bonnie Earl of Murray.”
From this passage it would seem that if Huntly’s six score horse were not lodged in Nicol Edward’s house, they were probably billeted over all the adjacent wynd, which six years after was the scene of a homicide, that affords a remarkable illustration of the exclusive rule of master over man which then prevailed.
On the first day of the sitting of Parliament, the 7th December, 1597, Archibald Jardine, master-stabler and servitor to the Earl of Angus, was slain, through some negligence, by Andrew Stalker, a goldsmith at Niddry’s Wynd head, for which he was put in prison.
Then the cry of “Armour!” went through the streets, and all the young men of Edinburgh rose in arms, under James Williamson, their captain, “and desirit grace,” as Birrel records, “for the young man who had done ane reckless deed. The King’s majesty desirit them to go to my Lord of Angus, the man’s master, and satisfy and pacify his wrath, and he should be contentit to save his life.”
James Williamson thereupon went to the Earl of Angus, and offered, in the name of the young men of the city, “their manreid,” or bond of man-rent, to be ready to serve him in war and feud, upon which he pardoned the said Andrew Stalker, who was immediately released from prison.
In December, 1665, Nicoll mentions that a doctor of physic named Joanna Baptista, acting under a warrant from his Majesty Charles II., erected a stage between the head of Niddry’s Wynd and Blackfriars’ Wynd, whereon “he vended his drugs, powder, and medicaments, for the whilk he received a great abundance of money.”
In May, 1692, we read that William Livingstone. Brother of the Viscount Kilsyth, a cavalier, and husband of the widow of Viscount Dundee, had been a prisoner in the Tolbooth from June, 1689, to November, 1690 – seventeen months; thereafter, that he had lived in a chamber in the city under a guard for a year, and that he was permitted to go forth for a walk daily, but still under the eye of a guard. In consequence of his being thus treated, and his rents being sequestrated by the Revolutionary Government, his fortune was entirely ruined. On his petition, the Privy Council now permitted him “to go abroad under a sentinel each day from morning to evening furth of the house of Andrew Smith, a periwig-maker, at the head of Niddry’s Wynd,” he finding caution under £1,500 sterling to remain a prisoner.
Under an escort of dragoons he was permitted to leave the periwig-maker’s, and visit Kilsyth, after which he was confined in two royal castles and the Tolbooth till 1693, so that, as a writer remarks, “in the course of the first five years of British liberty, Mr. Livingstone must have acquired a tolerably extensive acquaintance with the various forms and modes of imprisonment, so far as these existed in the northern section of the island.”