Chapter 30 – The High Street (continued)., pp.253-258.

Dickson’s and Cant’s Closes – The House of the” Scottish Hogarth” and the Knight of Tillybole – Rosehaugh’s, or Strichen’s, Close – House of the Abbots of Melrose – Sir George Mackenzie of Rosehaugh – Lady Anne Dick – Lord Strichen – The Manners of 1730 – Provost Grieve – John Dhu, Corporal of the City Guard – Lady Lovat’s Land – Walter Chapman, Printer – Lady Lovat.

DICKSON’S CLOSE, numbered as 118, below the modern Niddry Street, gave access to a handsome and substantial edifice, supposed to be the work of that excellent artificer Robert Mylne, who built the modern portion of Holyrood and so many houses of an improved character in the city about the time of the Revolution. Its earlier occupants are unknown, but herein dwelt David Allan, known as the “Scottish Hogarth,” a historical painter of undoubted genius, who, on the death of Alexander Runciman, in 1786, was appointed director and master of the academy established by the board of trustees for manufacturers in Scotland.

While resident in Dickson’s Close he published, in 1788, an edition of the “Gentle Shepherd,” with characteristic etchings, and, some time after, a collection of the most humorous old Scottish songs with similar drawings; these, with his illustrations of “The Cottar’s Saturday Night” and the satire, humour, and spirit of his other etchings in aquatinta, won him a high reputation as a successful delineator of character and nature. His drawing classes met in the old college, but he received private pupils at his house in Dickson’s Close after his marriage, on the 15th November, 1788. His terms were, as advertised in the Mercury, one guinea per month for three lessons in the week, which in those simple days would restrict his pupils to the wealthy and fashionable class of society. He died at Edinburgh on the 6th of August, 1796.

Lower down the close, on the same side, a quaint old tenement, doomed to destruction by the Improvements Act, 1867, showed on the coved bed-corbel of its crowstepped gable the arms of Haliburton, impaled with another coat armorial, with the peculiar feature of a double window corbelled out; and in a deed extant, dated 1582, its first proprietor is named Master James Haliburton. Afterwards it was the residence of Sir John Haliday, of Tillybole, and formed a part of Cant’s Close.

Its appearance in 1868 has been preserved to us by R. Chambers, in a brief description in his “Traditions.” According to this authority, it was two storeys in height, the second storey being reached by an outside stair, within a small courtyard, which had originally been shut by a gate. The stone pillars of the gateway were decorated with balls at the top, after the fashion of entrances to the grounds of a country mansion. It was a picturesque building in the style of the sixteenth century in Scotland. As it resembled a neat old-fashioned country house, it was odd to find it jammed up amid the tall edifices of this confined alley. Ascending the stair, the interior consisted of three or four apartments, with elaborately-carved stucco ceilings. The principal room had a double window on the west to Dickson’s Close.

In 1735 this mansion was the abode of Robert Geddes, Laird of Scotstoun in Peeblesshire, who sold it to George Wight, a burgess of Edinburgh, after which it became deteriorated, and its stuccoed apartments, from the attics to the ground floor, became each the dwelling of a separate family, and a scene of squalor and wretchedness.

Chapter 30

A considerable portion of the edifices in Cant’s Close were once ecclesiastical, and belonged to the prebendaries of the collegiate church, founded at Crichton in 1449, by Sir William Crichton of that ilk, Lord High Chancellor of Scotland.

In Rosehaugh’s Close, now called Strichen’s, the next alley on the east, was the town-house of the princely mitred abbots of Melrose. In Catholic times the great dignitaries of the church had all their houses in Edinburgh; the Archbishop of St. Andrews resided at the foot of Blackfriars Wynd; the Bishop of Dunkeld in the Cowgate; the Abbot of Dunfermline at the Netherbow; the Abbot of Cambuskenneth in the Lawnmarket; and the Abbot of Melrose in the close we have named, and his “lodging” had a garden which extended down to the Cowgate, and up the opposite slope on the west side of the Pleasance, within the city wall.

The house of the abbot, a large and massive building enclosing a small square or court in the centre of it, was entered from Strichen’s Close. “The whole building has evidently undergone great alterations,” says the description of it written in 1847; “a carved stone bears a large and very boldly-cut shield, with two coats of arms impaled, and the date 1600. There seems no reason to doubt, however, that the main portion of the abbot’s residence still remains. The lower storey is strongly vaulted, and is evidently the work of an early date. The small quadrangle also is quite in character with the period assumed for the building; and at its north-west angle is Cant’s Close, where a curiously-carved fleur-de-lis surmounts the gable, a grotesque gurgoyle of antique form serves as a gutter to the roof.”

Abbot Andrew Durie, who was nominated to the abbacy of Melrose in 1526 by James V., resided here; and Knox assures us that his death was hastened by dismay and horror occasioned by the terrible uproar on St. Giles’s day, in 1558.

The Close in earlier time took its name from the abbots of Melrose; but at a later period was called Rosehaugh’s Close, from Sir George Mackenzie of Rosehaugh, King’s Advocate during the reigns of Charles II. and James II., author of many able works on Scottish law, and also a successful cultivator of general literature.

He obtained a charter of the property from Provost Francis Kinloch and the magistrates in 1677, and the house he occupied still exists, and seems to have been a stately-enough edifice for its age. Sir George has still an unpleasant place in the local imagination of the Edinburgh people as “The Bluidy Mackenzie,” the persecutor of the Covenanters; and though the friend of Dryden, and the founder of the first and greatest national library in Scotland, he is regarded as a species of ogre in his native capital.

The mausoleum in which he lies in the Greyfriars’ Churchyard, a domed edifice with ornate Corinthian columns and niches, is believed by the urchins of the city to be haunted still, as it was commonly believed that his body could never rest in its grave. Hence it used to be deemed a “brag” or feat, for a boy more courageous than his fellows to shout through the keyhole into the dark and echoing tomb –

“Bluidy Mackenzie, come out if ye daur,
Lift the sneck, and draw the bar!”

After which defiance all fled, lest the summoned spirit might appear, and follow them.

He had a country house, ten miles south of Edinburgh, called Shank, now in ruins. His granddaughter was Lady Anne Dick, of Corstorphine, whose eccentricities were wont to excite much attention in Edinburgh society, and who was the authoress of many droll pasquils, and personal pasquinades in verse, which created many enemies, who exulted in the follies of which she was guilty.

Chapter 30a

Among the latter was a fancy for dressing herself like a gallant of the day, and going about the town at night in search of adventures and frolics, one of which ended unpleasantly in her being consigned to the City Guard House. In many of her verses she half-banteringly deplores the coldness of Sir Peter Murray of Balmanno, in Kincardineshire, but more, it is believed, from whim than actual fancy or regard. One begins thus:-

“Oh, wherefore did I cross the Forth,
And leave my love behind me?
Why did I venture to the north
With one that did not mind me?
Had I but visited Carin,
It would have been much better,
Than pique the prudes and make a din
For careless, cold Sir Peter!


“I’m sure I’ve seen a better limb,
And twenty better faces;
But still my mind it ran on him
When I was at the races;
At night when we were at the ball
Were many there discreeter;
The well-bred duke, and lively Maule,
Panmure behaved much better.”

In conclusion, she expresses an opinion that she must be mad “to follow cold Sir Peter.” She died in 1741.

During a great part of the eighteenth century the ancient mansion in Rosehaugh’s Close was occupied by Alexander Fraser of Strichen, who was connected by marriage with the descendants of Sir George Mackenzie, and who gave to the alley the name it now bears, Strichen’s Close. He was raised to the bench as Lord Strichen, in 1730, and occupied a seat there and his residence in the close for forty-five years subsequent to that date, and was the direct ancestor of the present Lord Lovat in the peerage of Great Britain.

The manners and habits of the people of Edinburgh in those days – say about 1730 – were as different from those of their successors as if they had been the natives of a foreign country. From Carlyle’s Memoirs we learn that when gentlemen were invited to dine, each brought his own knife, fork, and spoon with him in a case (just as gentlemen did in France prior to the first Revolution), and a marked peculiarity of the period was a combination of showy and elegant costume with much simplicity, coarseness of thought, and roughness of speech, occasional courtesy, and great promptness to ire. Intercourse with France, and the service of so many Scottish gentlemen in the French army, led to a somewhat incongruous ingrafting of French politeness on the homely manners of the Scottish aristocracy; yet it was no uncommon thing for a lady to receive gentlemen, together with lady visitors, in her bed-room, for then, within the walled city, the houses had few rooms without a bed, either openly or screened; while the seemliness and delicacy now attendant on marriages and births were almost unknown.

The slender house accommodation in the turnpike stairs compelled the use of tavern more than now. There the high-class advocate received his clients, and the physician his patients – each practitioner having his peculiar howff. There, too, gentlemen met in the evening for supper and conversation without much expense, a reckoning of a shilling being deemed a high one, so different then were the value of money and the price of viands. In 1720 an Edinburgh dealer advertises his liquors at the following prices:- “Neat claret wine at 11d., strong at 15d.; white wine at 12d.; Rhenish at 16d.; old hock at 20d., all per bottle; cherry-sack at 28d. per pint; English ale at 4d. per bottle.”

In those days it was not deemed derogatory for ladies of rank and position to join oyster parties in some of those ancient taverns; and while there was this freedom of manner on one hand, we are told there was much of gloom and moroseness on the other; a dread of the Deity with a fear of hell, and of the power of the devil, were the predominant feelings of religious people in the age subsequent to the Revolution; while it was thought, so says the author of “Domestic Annals” (quoting Miss Mure’s invaluable Memoirs), a mark of atheistic tendencies to doubt witchcraft, or the reality of apparitions and the occasional vaticinative character of dreams.

A country gentleman, writing in 1729, remarks on “the increase in the expense of housekeeping which he had seen going on during the past twenty years. While deeming it indisputable that Edinburgh was now much less populous than before the Union, yet I am informed,” says he, “that there is a greater consumption since than before the Union of all provisions, especially fleshes and wheatbread. The butcher owns that he now kills three of every species for one he killed before the Union… Tea in the morning and tea in the evening had now become established. There were more livery servants, and better dressed, and more horses than formerly.”

Lord Strichen did not die in the house in the close wherein he had dwelt so long, but at Strichen in Aberdeenshire, on the 15th January, 1775, in his seventy-sixth year, leaving behind him the reputation of an upright judge. “Lord Strichen was a man not only honest, but highly generous; for, after his succession to the family estates, he paid a large sum of debts contracted by his predecessor, which he was not under any obligation to pay.”

One of the last residents of note in Strichen’s Close was Mr. John Grieve, a merchant in the Royal Exchange, who held the office of Lord Provost in 1782-3, and again in 1786-7, and who was first a Town Councillor in 1765. When a magistrate he was publicly horsewhipped by some “Edinburgh bucks” of the day, for placing some females of doubtful repute in the City Guard House, under the care of the terrible Corporal Shon Dhu – an assault for which they were arrested and severely fined.

The house he occupied had an entrance from Strichen’s Close; but was in reality one that belonged to the Regent Morton, having an entrance from the next street, named the Blackfriars Wynd. He afterwards removed to a house in Princes Street, where he became one of the projectors of the Earthen Mound, which was long – as a mistake in the picturesque – justly stigmatised as the “Mud Brig,” the east side of which was commenced a little to the eastward of the line of Hanover Street, opposite to the door of Provost Grieve’s house, long ago turned into a shop. He died in 1803.

John Dhu, the personage referred to, was a well-known soldier of the City Guard, mentioned by Sir Walter Scott as one of the fiercest-looking men he had ever seen. “That such an image of military violence should have been necessary at the close of the eighteenth century to protect the peace of a British city,” says the editor of “Kay’s Portraits,” “presents us with a strange contrast of what we lately were and what we have now become. On one occasion, about the time of the French Revolution, when the Town Guard had been signalising the King’s birthday by firing in the Parliament Square, being unusually pressed and insulted by the populace, this undaunted warrior turned upon one peculiarly outrageous member of the democracy, and, by one blow of his battle-axe, laid him lifeless on the causeway.”

The old tenement, which occupied the ground between Strichen’s Close and the Blackfriars Wynd (prior to its destruction in the fire of 22nd February, 1825), and was at the head of the latter, was known as “Lady Lovat’s Land.” It was seven storeys in height. There lived Primrose Campbell of Mamore, widow of Simon Lord Lovat, who was beheaded on Tower Hill in 1747, and there, 240 years before her time, dwelt Walter Chepman of Ewirland, who, with Miller, in 1507, under the munificent auspices of James IV., introduced the first printing press into Scotland, and on the basement of whose edifice a house of the Revolution period had been engrafted.

Though his abode was here in the High Street, his printing-house was in the Cowgate, from whence, in 1508, “The Knightly Tale of Golagras and Gawane” was issued; and this latter is supposed to be the same tenement with which he endowed an altar in the chapel of the Holyrood, at the south or lower end of St. Giles’s churchyard.

From the trial in 1514, the year after Flodden, of “ane quit for slauchter in his awin defence,” we learn that Walter Chepman was Dean of Guild for the City.

“The 24th day of October, anno suprascript [year specified above], Alexander Livingstone indytit [indicted] and accusit for the art and pairt of the creuall slauchter of umquhile [deceased] Jak, upoun the Burrowmuir of Edinburgh in this month of September by-past. Thai beand removit furth of court, and again in enterit, they fand and deliverit the said Alexander quit and innocent of ye [ƿe / the] said slauchter, because thai clearlie knew it was in his pure defence. John Livingstoune petiit instrumenta [the tools he asked]. Testibus Patricio Barroun et Johanne Irland, Ballivis, Magistro Jacobo Wischeart de Pitgarro, clerico Justiciario S.D.N. Regis, Waltero Chepman Decano Gild, Johanne Adamson juniore, Jacobo Barroun, Patricio Flemyng, et multis aliis [and many others].”

This, says Arnot, is the earliest trial to be found in the records of the city of Edinburgh.

Lady Lovat – niece of the first Duke of Argyll – was born in 1710, and, under great domestic pressure, became the wife of that cunning and politic old lord, who was thirty years her senior, and by no means famous for his tenderness to her predecessor, Janet Grant of that ilk. She passed years of seclusion at Castle Downey, where, while treated with outward decorum, she was secretly treated with a barbarity that might have broken another woman’s heart. Confined to one apartment, she was seldom permitted to leave it, even for meals, and was supplied for these with coarse scraps from his lordship’s table. They had one son, Archibald Fraser, afterwards a merchant in London, and before his birth the old lord swore that if she brought forth a girl he would roast it to death on the back of the fire; and he often threatened her, that if aught befell the two boys of his first marriage in his absence, he would shoot her through the head. “A lady, the intimate friend of her youth,” says Sir Walter Scott, “was instructed to visit Lady Lovat, as if by accident, to ascertain the truth of those rumours concerning her husband’s conduct which had reached the ears of her family. She was received by Lord Lovat with an extravagant affectation of welcome, and with many assurances of the happiness his lady would receive from seeing her. The chief then went to the lonely tower in which Lady Lovat was secluded, without decent clothes, and even without sufficient nourishment. He laid a dress before her becoming her rank, commanded her to put it on, to appear and to receive her friend as if she were the mistress of the house in which she was, in fact, a half-starved prisoner. And such was the strict watch he maintained, and the terror which his character inspired, that the visitor durst not ask, nor Lady Lovat communicate, anything respecting her real situation.”

Long after, by a closely-written letter, concealed in a clue of yarn dropped over a window of the Castle to a confidant below, she was enabled to let her relations know how she was treated, and means were taken to separate her judicially from her husband.

When, years after, his share in the Jacobite rising in 1745 brought him to the Tower of London, Lady Lovat thought only of her duties as a wife, and offered to attend him there; but he declined the proposal, and the letter in which he did so contained the only expressions of kindness he had bestowed upon her since their marriage day; but he made no reference to her in the farewell letter which he sent to his son Simon, the Master of Lovat, to whose care he specially commended his other children.

After his execution some demur arose about the jointure of his unfortunate widow – only £190 per annum – and for years she was left destitute, till some of her friends, among others Lord Strichen, offered money on loan, which, being of an independent spirit, she declined. At length the dispute was settled, and she received a pretty large sum of arrears, £500 of which she spent in furnishing her house at the head of the Blackfriars Wynd; and small though her income she was long famous in Edinburgh for her charity and goodness to the poor.

In her gloomy house, on the first floor of the turnpike stair, with a cook, maid, and page, she not only maintained herself in the style of a gentlewoman of the period, but could give a warm welcome to many a poor Highland cousin whose all was lost on the field of Culloden.

Lady Dorothea Primrose, who was her niece, and third daughter of Archibald first Earl of Rosebery, lived with her for many years, and to her, in the goodness of her heart, she assigned the brightest rooms, that overlooked the broad High Street, contenting herself with the gloomier, that faced the wynd. There, too, she supported for years another broken-down old lady, the Mistress of Elphinstone, whose nightly supper of porridge was on one occasion fatally poisoned by a half-idiot grandson of her ladyship.

She was small in stature, and retained much of her beauty and singular delicacy of feature and complexion even in old age. “When at home her dress was a red silk gown, with ruffled cuffs, and sleeves puckered like a man’s shirt, a fly-cap encircling the head, with a mob-cap laid across it, falling over the cheeks and tied under the chin; her hair dressed and powdered; a double muslin handkerchief round the neck and bosom; lammer-beads [amber beads used as a charm/amulet];* a white lawn apron edged with lace; black stockings with red gushets, and high-heeled shoes… As her chair emerged from the head of the Blackfriar’s Wynd, any one who saw her sitting in it, so neat and fresh and clean, would have taken her for a queen in wax-work pasted up in a glass case.”

One of her chief intimates was the unfortunate Lady Jane Douglas of Grantully, the heroine of the long-contested Douglas cause. She contemplated the approach of her own death with perfect calmness, and in anticipation of her coming demise had all her grave-clothes ready, and the turnpike stair whitewashed. When asked by her only son, Archibald (before mentioned), if she wished to be put in the family burial vault at Beaufort, in Kilmorack, she replied, “Indeed, Archie, ye needna put yoursel’ to any fash aboot me, for I carena’ though ye lay me aneath that hearthstane.”

She died in her house at the Wynd head, in 1796, in the eighty-sixth year of her age. The old Scottish tirling-pin of her house door is now preserved in the Museum of the Scottish Antiquarian Society.


Her stepson, Simon, Master of Lovat, who died a Lieutenant-General in 1782, was a man of irreproachable character, who inherited nothing of old Lovat’s nature but a genius for making fine speeches. He raised the Fraser Highlanders, or old 71st regiment, which was disbanded in 1783, after a career of brilliant service in America. The rapidity with which the ranks of previous Highland regiments, raised by him in 1757, were filled by Frasers, so pleased George III., that on the embodiment of the 71st he received from the king a free grant of his family estates of Lovat, which had been forfeited by his father’s attainder after Culloden.

At the first muster of the 71st in Glasgow, and Old Highlander, who had brought a son to enlist, and was looking on, shook the general’s hand with that familiarity so common among clansmen, and said, “Simon, you are a good soldier, and speak like a man! While you live old Simon of Lovat will never die” – alluding to his close resemblance personally to his father, the wily old lord of the memorable “Forty-five.”

Blackfriars Wynd, which has now become a broad street, has many a stirring memory of the great and powerful, who dwelt there in ages past; hence it is that Sir Alexander Boswell wrote –

“What recollections rush upon my mind,
Of Lady Stair’s Close and Blackfriars Wynd!
There one our nobles, and here judges dwelt.”


*  For more on amulets see ‘Scots Lore’, pp.61-78.