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Chapter 32 – Alleys of the High Street (continued)., pp.266-274.

Toddrick’s Wynd – Banquet to the Danish Ambassador and Nobles – Lord Leven’s House in Skinner’s Close – The First Mint Houses – The Mint – Scottish Coin – Mode of its Manufacture – Argyle’s Lodging – Dr. Cullen – Elphinstone’s Court – Lords Loughborough and Stonefield – Lord Selkirk – Dr. Rutherford, the Inventor of Gas.


BELOW Blackfriars Street opens Toddrick’s Wynd, to which a special interest is attached, from its association with one of the darkest deeds of a lawless age, for it was by that dark and narrow alley that James Hepburn Earl of Bothwell and his heartless accomplices proceeded towards the gate of the Blackfriars monastery in the Cowgate, on the night of the 9th of February, 1567, to fire the powder lodged in the vaults of the provost’s house in the Kirk-of-field,

– “and blew a palace into atoms,
Sent a young king – a young queen’s mate at least,
Into the air, as high as e’er flew night-hawk,
And made such wild work in the realm of Scotland
As they can tell who heard.”

Till the recent demolitions, the closes between this point and the Netherbow remained unchanged in aspect, and in the same state for centuries, save that they had become woefully degraded by the habits, character, and rank of their inhabitants.

In Toddrick’s Wynd, a lofty building with a massive polished ashlar front at the foot thereof, and long forming a prominent object amid the faded grandeur of the Cowgate, was the abode of Thomas Aitchison, master of the Mint; and therein, in 1590, the provost and magistrates, at the expense of the city, gave a grand banquet to the ambassador and nobles of Denmark, who had come to Scotland in the train of Queen Anne.

The handsome alcoved chamber in which the banquet was given existed till recently; but the style of the entertainment would seem to have been remarkable for abundance rather than elegance. There were simply bread and meat, with four boins of beer, four gangs of ale, and four puncheons of wine. The house, however, was hung with rich tapestry, and the tables were decorated with chandeliers and flowers. We hear, too, of napery, and men to keep them.” The furnishing of the articles had been distributed among the dignitaries of the city, with some reference to their respective trades. Among those present at the banquet were Peiter Monck, admiral of Denmark; Stephen Brahe (a relative, perhaps, of the great Tycho Brahe) captain of Eslingburg; Braid Ransome Maugaret; Theophilus, Doctor of Laws; Henry Goolister, captain of Bocastle; William Vanderwent – whose names are doubtless all misspelt in the record.

The “napery” on this occasion was provided by the Lord Provost, and the musicians, “fydleris at the bankit,” as it is written in the lord High Treasurer’s accounts, were paid for by him. He had also to pay “for furnessing fyftene fedder beddis to the Densis (Danes) within the palice of Halierudhous.”

Murdoch’s Close, a gloomy old cul-de-sac, lay between this alley and Skinner’s Close, at the head of which was the town house of the Earls of Leven. The last who resided in Edinburgh, David, sixth Earl, who was born in 1722, and who was wont, when Royal Commissioner, to hold his levées in Fortune’s tavern, removed from Skinner’s Close to a house at the north-west corner of Nicolson Square, and latterly at No. 2, St. Andrew Square (now the London Hotel), where he died, in his eightieth year, in 1802.

In his lordship’s time the office of Commissioner to the Church, which he held from 1783 to 1801, was attended with more “pomp and circumstance” than now. The levées were numerously attended by the Scottish nobility, and the opening procession to the Assembly created great excitement and enthusiasm. The Sunday processions to church were usually very attractive; there was a strong military force always present, and as the regimental bands were all in requisition, their music, which always struck up the moment the procession began to issue from the old Stamp Office, gave keen annoyance to many a sturdy Presbyterian, till it ceased at the High Church door, whither the Commissioner proceeded on foot, escorted by his guard of honour.

South Gray’s, or the Mint Close, was one of the stateliest alleys in the old city, and herein stood the Cunzie Hous, as the Scottish Mint was named (after its removal from near Holyrood in Queen Mary’s time) till the Union in 1707, and until lately its sombre and massive tower of finely polished ashlar projecting into the narrow thoroughfare of Cowgate, for three hundred and four years formed one of the leading features of the latter, and to the last the old edifice retained many traces of the important operations that once went on within its walls.

The first Mint House had been originally erected in the outer court of the palace of Holyrood, somewhere near the Horse Wynd, from whence, for greater safety, it was removed to the castle, in which a new Mint House had been built in 1559, as shown by the following entry in the accounts of the High Treasurer, under the date February, 1562-3:-

“Item, allowit to the carpenter, be payment maid to Johne Achesoun, Maister Congreave, to Maister William McDowgale, Maister of Werk, for expensis maide be him vpon the bigging of the çwnge-house, within the castell of Edinburgh, and beting of the çwnge-hous within the Palice of Halierud-house, fra the xi. day of Februar, 1559, zeris, to the 21 of April, 1560, £460 4s. 1.”

This edifice probably perished during the siege of 1572, and the date over the nobly and heavily moulded doorway in the new Mint in the Cowgate at the foot of Gray’s Close was 1574, with the legend in Roman letters,


Above this was a deep round bevelled niche, supposed to have contained a bust of James VI. “This remnant of one of the most important Government offices of Scotland, at that date, is a curious sample of the heavy and partially castellated edifices of the period,” says Wilson, describing the edifice prior to its removal. “The whole building was probably intended, when completed, to form a quadrangle, surrounded on every side by the same substantial walls, well suited for defence against any ordinary assault, while its halls were lighted from the enclosed court. The small windows in this part of the building remain in their original state, being divided by an oaken transom, and the under part closed by a pair of folding shutters. The massive ashlar walls are relieved by ornamental stringcourses, and surmounted by crowsteps of the earliest form and elegant proportions… The internal marks of former magnificence are more interesting than their external ones, notwithstanding the humble uses to which the buildings have latterly been applied; in particular some portions of a very fine oak ceiling still remain, wrought in Gothic panelling, and retaining traces of the heraldic blazonry with which it was originally adorned. Two large and handsome windows, above the archway leading to Toddrick’s Wynd, give light to this once magnificent hall, which is said to have formed the council-room where the officers of the Mint assembled to assay the metal, and to discuss the general affairs of the establishment.”

Wilson wrote this in 1847, thirty years before the old Scottish Mint was doomed to total destruction.

In the reign of Charles II. other buildings were added to the edifice of 1574, forming a stately quadrangle, and there the national coin was produced till the Union, when a separate coinage was abandoned in both countries; but to gratify prejudice, and the hope than many clung to, of having the Union repealed, the offices were maintained even though they were sinecures. This court, with its buildings, was, like the royal mews at the end of the Grassmarket – a sanctuary for persons prosecuted for debt; and a small den near the top of the building of 1574, lighted by a little window looking westward up the Cowgate, was used as a gaol for debtors and other delinquents, condemned by the officers of the Mint.

It may surprise readers now to hear that much of the gold coined in this establishment, and its predecessors, was native produce.

The first historical notice we have of gold in Scotland is the grant by David I. to the Abbey of Dunfermline, in 1153, of all the gold accruing to the crown from Fife and Fotherif. About a century later Gilbert, Bishop of Caithness (afterwards canonised as St. Gilbert), is credited with the discovery of gold in Sutherlandshire; but it was not until the 15th century that gold-mining in Scotland became of sufficient importance to warrant its regulation by the Legislature. Thus, in 1424, Parliament granted to the Crown all the gold mines in the realm, and also all the silver mines, that yielded three halfpennies of silver to the pound of lead.

The disaster at Flodden prevented immediate advantage being taken of the gold mines discovered on Crawford Muir in the reign of James IV.; but in 1524 the famous Albany medal was made from gold obtained there; and it is apparent that much of the coin of James V. was minted of native metal. Miners were brought from Germany, Holland, and Lorraine, and they worked under the care of John Mossman, goldsmith, who made a crown for Mary of Guise, and inclosed with arches the present crown of Scotland.

The early gold coins of Mary’s reign were of native ore, and, during the minority of James VI., Cornelius de Vos, a Dutchman, who had licence to seek for gold and silver, obtained considerable quantities, according to the records relating to mines and mining in Scotland, published by Mr. Cochran-Patrick.

The oldest gold coin found in Scotland bears the name of Robert, but which of the three monarchs so called is uncertain. Gold was not coined in England till 1257. The first gold coins struck in Scotland were of a broad surface and very thin. There is some doubt about when copper coinage was introduced, but in 1466, during the reign of James III., an Act was passed to the effect that, for the benefit of the poor, “there be cuinyied copper money, four to the (silver) penny, having on the one part the cross of St. Andrew and the crown, and on the other part the subscription of Edinburgh,” together with JAMES R.

The same monarch issued a silver coin containing an alloy of copper, which went under the name of black money, and to ensure the circulation of this depreciated coin the parliament ordained that no counterfeits of it be taken in payment, or used, under pain of death. The coins current in Scotland in the reign of James III. Were named the demi, the lion, the groat of the crown, the groat of the fleur-de-lis, the penny, farthing, and plack. English coins were also current, but their value was regulated by the estates. From “Miscelleanea Scotica” we learn that in 1512 Sir Alexander Napier of Merchiston found gold in the Pentland Hills, and from the Balcarres MSS. (in the Advocates’ Library) he and his son figure conspicuously in connection with the Mint, of which the latter was general for some years after 1592.

In 1572 the Regent Morton coined base money in his castle at Dalkeith, and by proclamation made it pass current for thrice its real value; and having got rid of it all in 1575, by paying workmen in the repair of Edinburgh Castle and other public places, he issued a council order reducing it to its intrinsic value, an act of oppression which won him the hatred of the people. In the reign of James VI., all the silver coin, extending to two hundred and eleven stone ten pounds in weight, was called in, and a coin was issued from the Mint in Gray’s Close, “in ten shilling pieces of eleven pennies fine,” having on one side his effigy with the inscription, Jacobus VI., Dei Gratia Rex Scotorum, on the other the royal arms, crowned. In his reign were also struck some very small copper coins called pennies, worth one-twelfth of the sterling penny, inscribed, Nemo me impunè lacessit; but in those days the manufacture of coins was not confined to the capital alone.

Balfour records that, in 1604, “the Laird of Merchiston, General of the Cunyie House, went to London to treat with the English Commissioners anent the (new) cunyie, who, to the great amazement of the English, carried his business with a great deal of dexterity and skill.”

In the closing days of the Mint as an active establishment, the coining-house was in the ground floor of the building on the north side of the court; in the adjoining house on the east the coinage was polished and fitted for circulation. The chief instruments used were a hammer and steel dies, upon which the various devices were engraved. The metal being previously prepared of the proper fineness and thickness, was cut into longitudinal slips, and a square piece being cut from the slip, it was afterwards rounded and adjusted to the weight of the coin to be made.

The blank pieces of metal were then placed between two dies, and the upper one struck with a hammer. After the Restoration another method was introduced at Gray’s Close – that of the mill and screw, which, modified with many improvements, is still in use. At the Union, the ceremony of destroying the dies of the Scottish coinage took place in the Mint. After being heated red hot in a furnace, they were defaced by three impressions of a punch, “which were of course visible on the dies as long as they existed; but it must be recorded that all these implements, which would now have been great curiosities, are lost, and none of the machinery remains but the press, which, weighing about half a ton, was rather too large to be readily appropriated, otherwise it would have followed the rest.”

The Scottish currency was, when abolished in 1707, of only one-twelfth the value sterling, and £100 Scots equalled £8 6s. 8d. sterling; or £1 Scots equalled 1s. 8d. sterling. The merk was 13s. 4d. Scots, and the plack, 2 bodles, equal to 4d. Scots.

The ancient key of the Mint is preserved, with some other relics of it, in the Scottish Antiquarian Museum.

The goldsmiths connected with the Mint appear to have had apartments either within the quadrangle or in its immediate neighbourhood, and there is no doubt that it was the professional avocations of the great George Heriot that led to his obtaining the large tenement that formed the north side of the Mint court which, during his lifetime, he conceived to be the most central and suitable place for the erection of his future hospital, and which he describes in his will (see the Appendix to Stevens’ biography) as “theis my tenements of landes, &c., lyand on the south side of the King his High Streit thairoff, betwixt the Cloise or Venall, callit Gray’s Clois, or Coyne-hous Clois, at the east, the Wynd or Venall, callit Todrig’s Wynd, at the west, and the said Coyne-hous Cloise at the south.”

His tenements there were found to be ruinous, and every way unsuitable for the purpose for which they were designed by his executors, and the buildings which afterwards formed the north side of the quadrangle were those erected in the reign of Charles II. in 1674.

On the 22nd of February, 1656, during the Protectorate of Cromwell, a committee was appointed by the Commissioners of the shire of Edinburgh for the equalisation of the assessment, “and for the more speedie effectuating thereof, the whole heritors, liferenters, woodsetters, and other persons whatsomever, liable in payment of cess,” were ordered to appear before the said committee, at the Judge Advocate’s lodging at foot of Gray’s Close, on certain forenoons in March, according to a paper in the Scottish Literary Magazine for 1819.

The door to the floors above the coining-house in the Mint bore the letters “C. R. II., God save the King, 1674.” Here was the lodging of Archibald ninth earl of Argyle, during his attendance on the Parliament, after Charles II. had most unexpectedly restored him to his father’s title. Under date November 22nd, 1681, only a few days after the escape of the Earl from the Castle, disguised as his stepdaughter’s page, Lord Fountainhall records that “Joseph Brown and James Clark, having poinded the Earl of Argyle’s cabinet forth of the coin-house at Edinburgh, for a debt owing to them by the Earl’s bond, the said cabinet having been rescued from them by violence, they gave in a complaint to the Privy Council of the riotous deforcement.”

In defence it was alleged that the Mint was a sanctuary, and no poinding could be enforced there. It was answered that it was unknown whether it was by law or usurpation that the Mint was an asylum, and that it could protect only those in the service of the King; “but to extend this to extraneous persons running in there to avoid captions, much less to secure goods and plenishing, &c., is absurd. They fearing the want of this, alleged that the wright who made it (the cabinet) retained it jure tacito hypothecæ till he was paid the price of it.”

The same house was, in the succeeding century, occupied by Dr. William Cullen, the eminent physician; while Lord Hailes lived in the more ancient lodging in the south portion of the Mint, prior to his removal to the modern house which he built for himself in New Street, Canongate.

William Cullen was born in Lanarkshire, in 1710, and after passing in medicine at Glasgow, made several voyages as surgeon of a merchantman between London and the Antilles; but tiring of the sea, he took a country practice at Hamilton, and his luckily curing the duke of that name of an illness, secured him a patronage for the future, and after various changes, in 1756, on the death of Dr. Plummer, he took the vacant chair of chemistry in the University of Edinburgh. On the death of Dr. Alston he succeeded him as lecturer in materia medica, and three years afterwards resigned the chair of chemistry to his own pupil, Dr. Black, on being appointed professor of the theory of medicine.

As a lecturer Dr. Cullen exercised a great influence over the state of opinion relative to the science of medicine, and successfully combated the specious doctrines of Boerhaave depending on the humoral pathology; his own system was founded on the enlarged view of the principles of Frederick Hoffman. The mere enumeration of his works on medicine would fill a page, but most of them were translated into nearly every European language. He continued his practice as a physician as well as his medical lectures till a few months before his death, when the infirmities of age induced him to resign his professorship, and one of many addresses he received on that occasion was the following:-

“On the 8th of January, 1790, the Lord Provost, magistrates, and Council of Edinburgh, voted a piece of plate of fifty guineas of value to Dr. Cullen, as a testimony of their respect for his distinguished merits and abilities and his eminent services to the university during the period of thirty-four years, in which he has held an academical chair. On the plate was engraved an inscription expressive of the high sense the magistrates, as patrons of the university, had of the merit of the Professor, and of their esteem and regard.”

Most honourable to him also were the resolutions passed on the 27th of January by the entire Senatus Academicus; but he did not survive those honours long, as he died at his house in the Mint, on the 5th of February, 1790, in his eightieth year. By his wife – a Miss Johnston, who died there in 1786 – he had a numerous family. One of his sons, Robert, entered at the Scottish Bar in 1764, and distinguishing himself highly as a lawyer, was raised to the bench in 1796, as Lord Cullen. He cultivated elegant literature, and contributed several papers of acknowledged talent to the Mirror and Lounger; but it was chiefly in the art of conversation that he shone. When a young man, and resident with his father in the Mint Close, he was famous for his power of mimicry. He was very intimate with Dr. Robertson, the historian, then Principal of the university.

“To show that Robertson was not likely to be imitated it may be mentioned from the report of a gentleman who has often heard him making public orations, that when the students observed him pause for a word, and would themselves mentally supply it they invariably found that the word which he did not use was different from that which they had hit upon. Cullen, however, could imitate him to the life, either in the more formal speeches, or in his ordinary discourse. He would often, in entering a house which the Principal was in the habit of visiting, assume his voice in the lobby and stair, and when arrived at the drawing-room door, astonish the family by turning out to be – Bob Cullen.”

On the west side of the Mint were at one time the residences of Lord Belhaven, the Countess of Stair, Douglas of Cavers, and other distinguished tenants, including Andrew Pringle, raised to the bench, as Lord Haining, in 1729. The main entrance to these lodgings, like that on the south, was by a stately flight of steps and a great doorway, furnished with an enormous knocker, and a beautiful example of its ancient predecessor, the risp, or Scottish tirling-pin.

The Edinburgh Courant of August 12, 1708, has the following strange announcement:-

“George Williamson, translator (i.e. cobbler) in Edinburgh, commonly known by the name of Bowed Geordie, who swims on face, back, or any posture, forwards or backwards, and performs all the antics that any swimmer can do, is willing to attend any gentlemen and to teach them to swim, or perform his antics for their divertisement: is to be found at Luckie Reid’s, at the foot of Gray’s Close, on the south side of the street, Edinburgh.”

Elphinstone’s Court, in the close adjoining the Mint, was so named from Sir James Elphinstone, who built it in 1679, and from whom the loft tenement therein passed to Sir Francis Scott of Thirlstane. The latter sold it to Patrick Wedderburn, who assumed the title of Lord Chesterhall on his elevation to the bench in 1755. His son, Alexander Wedderburn, afterwards Lord Loughborough, first Earl of Rosslyn, and Lord High Chancellor of England, resided here while practising at the Scottish Bar. He was born in East Lothian, in 1733, where his great-grandfather, Sir Peter Wedderburn of Gosford, was a man of influence in the reign of Charles II., and rose to be an eminent lawyer and judge. Admitted an advocate at the early age of nineteen, he obtained a full share of practice, and the rooms of his mansion in Elphinstone Court were frequently crowded by his clients; but having gained a cause in which the celebrated Lockhart (Lord Covington) was the opposing counsel, that eminent barrister, in bitter chagrin at his signal defeat, styled him “a presumptuous boy.” Young Wedderburn’s reply was so terribly sarcastic as to draw upon him a severe rebuke from one of the judges, on which he threw off his gown, and declared that never again would he plead in a place where he was subjected to insult.

All unaware of the brilliant future that awaited him, with great regret he quitted the Scottish courts for ever, was called to the English bar in 1753, and soon gained fresh fame as counsel for the great Lord Clive; and in 1768-9 his eloquence in the famous Douglas cause won him the notice of Lord Camden and the friendship of the Earls of Bute and Mansfield. He sat in the Commons as member for the Inverary Burghs, and for Bishop’s Castle, and in 1780 was raised to the British peerage as Lord Loughborough, in the county of Leicester, in April, 1783, he united with Lord North in forming the celebrated Coalition Ministry, in which he held the appointment of first Commissioner for keeping the Great Seal. On its dissolution, he joined the Opposition under Fox; but, amid the alarm of the expected French invasion, he gave in his adhesion to the Administration of Pitt, and on succeeding Lord Thurlow as Lord High Chancellor, in April, 1801, was created Earl of Rosslyn in Midlothian, and then, when nearly worn-out with the fatigues of a long and active career, he retired from public life.

When visiting his native capital for the last time, after an absence of nearly fifty years, with an emotion which did him honour, he caused himself to be carried in a sedan chair to Elphinstone Court, in that now obscure part of the city, that he might again see the house in which his father dwelt, and where his own early years as a boy and as a barrister had been spent. He expressed particular anxiety to know if a set of holes in the paved court before his father’s door, which he had used for some youthful sport were still in existence; and finding them still there intact, it is related that as all the past came upon him, the veteran statesman burst into tears.

The memory of the early friendship he formed with the “select society” of Edinburgh, including David Hume, Robertson, Adam Smith, and Blair, he cherished with unceasing fondness. “His ambition was great,” says Sir Egerton Bridges, “and his desire of office unlimited. He could argue with great ingenuity on either side, so that it was difficult to anticipate his future by his past opinions.” He died of an apoplectic fit in 1805, and was interred in St. Paul’s Cathedral at London. Shortly after the death of his father, Lord Chesterhall, which occurred in 1756, he sold the old mansion in Elphinstone Court to John Campbell, a senator under the title of Lord Stonefield, who succeeded Lord Gardenstone as a justiciary judge, and who retained his seat upon the bench till his death in June, 1801. It is somewhat remarkable that his two immediate predecessors occupied the same seat for a period of ninety years; Lord Royston having been appointed a judge in 1710, and Lord Tinwald in 1744. By his wife, Lady Grace Stuart, daughter of John third Earl of Bute, he had several sons, all of whom pre-deceased him. The second of these was the gallant Lieutenant-Colonel John Campbell, of the Black Watch, whose memorable defence of Mangalore from May, 1783, to January, 1784, arrested the terrible career of Tippoo Sahib [contemporary opinion varies with regards to Tipu Sahib], and shed a glory over the British campaign in Mysore. The colonel died of exhaustion at Bombay soon after.

Upon leaving Elphinstone Court, his father resided latterly in George Square, where he died in June, 1801.

Midway up South Gray’s Close, a tall turreted mansion, with a tolerably good garden long attached to it, and having an entrance from Hyndford’s Close, was the town residence of the Earls of Selkirk – there, at least in 1742, resided Dunbar, fourth Earl (eldest son of Basil Hamilton, of Baldoon), who resumed the name of Douglas on his succeeding to the honours of Selkirk. He married a grand-daughter of Thomas, Earl of Haddington, and had ten children, one of whom, Lord Daer, on attaining manhood, became, at the commencement of the French Revolution, an adherent of that movement and a “Friend of the People;” and deeming the article of the Union with England, on which was founded the exclusion of the eldest sons of Scottish peers from representing their native country in Parliament, and from voting at elections there, injurious, insulting, and incorrectly interpreted, he determined to try the question; but decisions were given against him in the Court of Session and House of Lords. He pre-deceased his father, who died in 1799.

The next occupant of that old house was Dr. Daniel Rutherford, professor of botany, and said to be the first discoverer or inventor of gas. For his thesis, on taking his degree of M.D. at the University of Edinburgh in 1772, he chose a chemical subject, De Aëre Mephitico, which, from the originality of its views, obtained the highest encomiums from Dr. Black. In this dissertation he demonstrated, though without explaining its properties, “the existence of a peculiar air, or new gaseous fluid, to which some eminent modern philosophers have given the name of azote, and others of nitrogen.”

That Dr. Rutherford first discovered this gas is now generally admitted; and, as Bower remarks in his “History of the University of Edinburgh,” the reputation of his discovery being speedily spread through Europe, his character as a chemist of the first eminence was firmly established. He died suddenly on the 15th of December, 1819, in his seventy-first year, and it was somewhat remarkable that one of his sisters died two days after him, on the 17th, and another, the excellent mother of Sir Walter Scott, within seven days of the latter, viz., on the 24th of the same month, and that none of the three knew of the death of the other, so cumbrous were the postal arrangements of those days. “Sir Walter Scott, who,” says Robert Chambers, “being a nephew of that gentleman, was often in the house in his young days, communicated to me a curious circumstance connected with it. It appears that the house immediately adjacent was not furnished with a stair wide enough to allow of a coffin being carried down in decent fashion. It had, therefore, what the Scottish law calls a servitude upon Dr. Rutherford’s house, conferring the perpetual liberty of bringing the deceased inmates through a passage into that house, and down its stair into the lane,” thus affording another curious example of how confined and narrow were the abodes of the ancient citizens. It was latterly the priest’s house of St. Patrick’s Roman Catholic church, and was beautifully restored by the late Dr. Marshall, but is now demolished.

In Edgar’s map of Edinburgh in 1765 the whole space between the Earl of Selkirk’s house on the west and St. Mary’s Wynd on the east, and between the Marquis of Tweeddale’s house on the north, nearly to the Cowgate Port on the south, is shown as a fine open space, pleasantly planted with rows of trees and shrubbery.

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