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Chapter 36 – St. Mary’s Wynd., pp.297-300.

St. Mary’s Wynd and Street – Sir David Annand – St. Mary’s Cistercian Convent and Hospital – Bothwell’s Brawl in 1562 – The Cowgate Port – Rag Fair – The Ladies of Traquair – Ramsay’s “White Horse” Inn – Pasquale de Paoli – Ramsay Retires with a Fortune – Boyd’s “White Horse” Inn – Patronised by Dr. Johnson – Improvements in the Wynd – Catholic Institute – The oldest Doorhead in the City.


ST. MARY’S WYND and Leith Wynd lay in the direct line of the old Roman road, that crossed the rough and rugged slope on which, since then, the old city has been gradually developed. The former took its name from a chapel and convent of Cistercian nuns, together with a hospital dedicated to St. Mary, the two former being situated on the west side of the street at the head thereof, or near the boundary of the present Tweeddale Court, or Close; but when or by whom founded, not a trace or record are given by history.

When the battle of the Burghmuir was fought in 1335, Abercrombie1 tells us that the Namurois, when defeated by the Scots, “made an orderly retreat to Edinburgh; they faced about several times, as occasion offered or necessity required, particularly as they entered St. Mary’s Wynd; and here a Scots knight, Sir David Annand, a man of incredible strength and no less courage, having received a wound from one of the enemy, was thereby so much exasperated, that, at once exerting all the vigour of his unwearied arms, he gave his adversary such a blow with an axe, that the sharp and ponderous weapon clave both man and horse, and falling with irresistible force to the ground, made a lasting impression upon the very stones of the street. This story may seem a little too romantic, and I would not have related it had I not cited a very good voucher, John de Fordoun, who flourished in 1360, not long after it happened.” 

John de Fordoun, called the father of Scottish history, was a priest in the diocese of St. Andrews, and if the street was known as St. Mary’s Wynd in his days, the convent must have existed in the fourteenth century. The revenues of the hospital were very small; thus the Town Council passed an Act in 1499, during the provostry of Walter Bertraham, ordaining the most respectable citizens to beg daily through the streets from all well-disposed persons; the money so obtained to be applied for the maintenance of the beads-people of that hospital; and every person who refused to collect thus, was fined forty pence Scots, for the use of the poor. At this period the chaplain’s salary was only six shillings and eightpence per annum. Spottiswoode tells us that in the chartularies of St. Giles, “the nuns of St. Mary’s Wynd, in the city of Edinburgh, are recorded,” and in the statutes of the burgh, enacted during a terrible plague in 1530, a reference to the chapel is made in the case of Marion Clark, who was convicted by an assize of concealing her infection, and attending, with many others, mass in “the chapell of Sanct Mary Wynd, on Sonday,” and thereby risking the safety of all. For this crime the poor woman was ordained to suffer death by drowning at the Quarry Holes, near the east end of the Calton Hill. 

In 1562 great excitement was occasioned in the city by an act of violence perpetrated by the notorious Earl of Bothwell, who, with the aid of the Marquis d’Elbœuf, Lord John of Coldinghame, and other wild spirits, broke up the doors of Cuthbert Ramsay’s house in St. Mary’s Wynd one night, while searching, sword in hand, for his daughter-in-law, Alison Craig, a celebrated courtesan, who, though living under the protection of “the godly Erl of Arrane,” as Knox records in very coarse language, yet contrived to be on very good terms with other nobles who were his avowed enemies. A strong remonstrance was presented to the Queen on this subject, beseeching her to punish the perpetrators; but as that was no easy matter, the brawl was hushed up, and, thus emboldened, Bothwell and other gallants proceeded to play wilder pranks in the streets during the night, till Gavin Hamilton, Abbot of Kilwinning, who had joined the Reformation party, resolved to curb their violence by the strong hand. According to the histories of Knox and Keith, he armed all his followers, sallied forth to oppose the revellers, and a serious conflict ensued in the street, between the Cross and Tron. Crossbow bolts and hackbut shots flew far and near, while the alarm-bells summoned the burghers to “the redding of the fray,” and rival leaders came sallying forth as hate or humour led them, to join in the riot; till the Earls of Murray and Huntley, who were then residing at Holyrood, by order of the Queen, marched up the Canongate with all the armed men they could muster, and crushed the tumult. Bothwell afterwards, by the mediation of Knox, effected a reconciliation with the Earl of Arran, the Abbot of Kilwinning, and others who were his enemies. 

In the subsequent conflicts of 1572, the houses in Leith Wynd and St. Mary’s Wynd were unroofed, and all the doors and windows of those on the west side of the latter were built up, among other preparations made by Sir William Kirkaldy to defend the town against the king’s men. At a still later date in the same year all the houses at the head of each of those wynds were “tane doun,” and no doubt on this occasion the chapel of St. Mary would be ruined and dismantled with the rest. 

Again in 1650, when preparations were made to defend the city against Cromwell, Nicoll records in his quaint diary, that the magistrates demolished all the houses “in St. Marie Wynd, that the enymie sould half no schelter thair,” and that the cannon mounted on the Netherbow might have free passage for their shot.

In a house which had its entrance from the east side of the wynd, but the windows of which opened to the Canongate, there long resided two maiden ladies of the now extinct house of Traquair – the Ladies Barbara and Margaret Stuart – twin sisters, the children of Charles fourth Earl of Traquair (who died in 1741), and his Countess, Mary Maxwell, of the noble house of Nithsdale. The last of these two, Lady Barbara, died on the 15th of December, 1794, and they were among some of the last of note who lingered in the Old Town. “They drew out their innocent lives in this place,” says Robert Chambers, “where latterly one of their favourite amusements was to make dolls, and little beds for them to lie on – a practice not quite uncommon in days long gone by, being to some degree followed by Queen Mary.” 

In the tenement opposite the site of St. Mary’s chapel, on the east side of the wynd, and forming the portion of it that led into Boyd’s Close, there long dwelt the celebrated artistic decorator of many of the best old houses in Edinburgh, John Norrie, whose workshop adjoined the coach-house of Lord Milton, and both of which were converted into stables for Boyd’s famous old “White Horse” Inn, one of the great hostelries of Edinburgh, in the days when “hotels” were unknown, and when guests, except those whose business was of a very temporary nature, usually repaired to lodging-houses, of which the most famous in 1754 was Mrs. Thomson’s at the Cross, who, as per advertisement, served people who had not their own silver plate, tea china, table china, and tea linen, with all these luxuries, together with wines and spirits.

When the famous patriot chief, Pasquale de Paoli, had been driven into exile by the French invaders of Corsica, among other places in his wanderings he came to Edinburgh in the autumn of 1771, accompanied by the Polish Ambassador, Count Burzyuski; and on the 3rd of September they arrived at Peter Ramsay’s “White Horse” Inn, in St. Mary’s Wynd, from whence he was immediately taken home by Boswell to his house in James’s Court, while the Count became the guest of his neighbour, Dr. John Gregory, “to whom they brought a letter from the ingenious Mrs. Montague.” Boswell introduced Paoli to Lord Kames, Dr. Robertson, David Hume, and others, who though greatly his seniors, admitted him into their circle, and he showed him over the Castle, Holyrood, Duddingston, and other places. Ramsay’s inn was chiefly famous for its stables, and in that establishment he realised a large fortune.

In 1776 he advertised that, exclusive of some part of his premises recently offered for sale, he possessed “a good house for entertainment, good stables for above one hundred horses, and sheds for above twenty carriages.” He retired from business in St. Mary’s Wynd in 1790, with above £10,000, according to one account, and his death is thus recorded in the “Scottish Register.” “Jan. 1, 1794. At his son’s house of Gogar, Co. Edinburgh, Peter Ramsay, Esq., formerly an eminent innkeeper at the Cowgate Port, in which station he acquired upwards of £30,000. He has left one son, William Ramsay, jun., Esq., banker in Edinburgh, and one daughter, the widow of Captain Mansfield, of the South Fencible Regiment, who lost his life at Leith in 1779, when attempting to quell a mutiny.” 

Boyd’s Close, or the White Horse Close, as it was often called, opened into Boyd’s Entry from St. Mary’s Wynd. The inn there was more modern, and was larger than Ramsay’s, but had, like his, the principal rooms above the stables; and at this “White Horse” it was that Dr. Johnson, on arriving at Edinburgh on the 17th of August, 1773, put up, and from whence he sent his curt note to Boswell:-

“Saturday night:- “Mr. Johnson sends his compliments to Mr. Boswell, being just arrived at Boyd’s.” 

And here it was, as we have related, that Boswell found him storming at the waiter, when he and William Scott, afterwards Lord Stowell, repaired thither, and received an instalment of that domineering manner which excited the aristocratic contempt that old Lord Auchinleck so freely expressed for “the dominie – the auld English dominie, that keepit a schule and ca’ad it an academy.” 

In Boyd’s “White Horse Inn” one particularly large room was the scene of many a marriage between runaway English couples; and on a window, written with a diamond, were long to be seen the remarkable names of 

Jeremiah and Sarah Bentham, 1768.

“James Boyd, the keeper of this inn, was addicted to horse racing, and his victories on the turf, or rather on Leith sands, are frequently chronicled in journals of that day. It is said that he was one time on the brink of ruin, when he was saved by a lucky run with a white horse, which in gratitude he kept idle all the rest of its days, besides setting up its portrait as his sign. He eventually retired from this ‘dirty and dismal’ inn with a fortune of several thousand pounds; and, as a curious note upon the impression which its slovenliness conveyed to Dr. Johnson, it may be stated as a fact, well authenticated, that, at the time of his giving up the house he possessed napery to the value of five hundred pounds.” 

St. Mary’s Wynd was, in 1869, the first scene of the operations of the trustees who acted under the Improvement Act of 1867, when they commenced to pull down the buildings between it and Gullan’s Close, in the Canongate. By this time it had become one of the most wretched slums in the city, a narrow and stifling alley, to navigate the intricacies of which required some courage. It was scarcely possible to avoid coming in contact with cast-off apparel of all kinds, or stumbling against piles of old boots, pots, pans, and furniture. Under designs furnished for the upper part by the late David Cousin, who for many years occupied an important official post in connection with the municipality, and for the lower part by Mr. Lessels, another architect, the wynd has now become a broad and spacious thoroughfare, named St. Mary’s Street, presenting on its eastern side a series of handsome façades, in the Scottish domestic style, with a picturesque variety of outline and detail. 

One of the most striking of the new buildings here, is the Edinburgh Catholic Institute, a turreted and gabletted edifice, the basement of which is occupied by spacious shops, and which stands upon the site of the old “White Horse” Inn, as an inscription built into the wall records thus:- 

Boyd’s Inn, at which Dr. Samuel Johnson arrived in Edinburgh, 14th August, 1773, on his memorable tour to the Hebrides, occupied the larger part of the site of this building.”

At the foot of the wynd was situated the Cowgate Port, a city gate constructed as a portion of the second wall in 1513. At a subsequent date another was erected across the wynd, at its junction with the Pleasance; it figures in Rothiemay’s map as the Porta platea Sanctæ Mariæ, a large arched building with gables at each end, and in Gordon’s day it was seldom without the head, hands, or quarters of some unfortunate, such as Garnock and other Covenanters, displayed on its spikes. On the approach of the Highlanders in 1715, it was demolished, the citizens believing themselves unable to defend it; but a portion of its wall, with one rusty spike thereon, remained until 1837, when it was removed to make way for a new Heriot’s school. The whole alley was long, and until quite recently a species of great Rag Fair, where all manner of cast-off garments were exposed for sale, the walls literally appearing to be clothed with them from end to end. 

There is also built into another part of the edifice a relic of one of the older ones, a lintel inscribed thus, with the city motto:- 

IB            1523            EL 

The Young Men’s Catholic Society was established in 1865, and has an average yearly attendance of about 1,000 members, inclusive of many who are honorary, but subscribe to the Association, the objects of which are to promote sobriety, religious deportment, and a brotherly feeling among young men of the Catholic faith. It contains a library and reading room, lecture and billiard room. It has a dramatic association, and by the committee who conduct it no means are left untried to increase the moral culture of the members.


1  “Martial Achievements of the Scottish Nation.” 
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