Chapter 39 – The West Bow (concluded)., pp.315-321.

A Hand to Hand Combat in the Bow – Murder in 1605 in the Bow 0 The House of Lord Ruthven – The Hidden Sword – Processions in the Bow – The Jacobite Prisoners – House of Provost Stewart – A Secret Entertainment to Prince Charlie – Donaldson the printer – State of Printing and Publishing in his Day – The Edinburgh Advertiser – Splendid Fortune of his Descendant – Town House of the Napiers of Wrightshouse – Trial of Barbara Napier for Witchcraft – Clockmaker’s Land – Paul Romieu – The Mahogany Land – Duncan Campbell, Chirurgeon – Templar Houses.


A BITTER personal quarrel had existed for some years between James Johnstone of Westerhall and Hugh (from his bulk generally known as Braid Hugh) Somerville of the Writes, and they had often fought with their swords and parted on equal terms. Somerville, in the year 1596, chancing to be in Edinburgh on private business, was one day loitering about the head of the Bow, when, by chance, Westerhall was seen ascending the steep and winding street, and at that moment some officious person said, “Therre is Braid Hugh Somerville of the Writes.” 

Westerhall, conceiving that his enemy was lingering there either in defiance, or to await him, drew his sword, and crying, “Turn, villain!” Gave Somerville a gash behind the head, the most severe wound he had ever inflicted, and which, according to the “Memoirs of the Somervilles,” was “much regrated eftirwards by himself.” 

Writes, streaming with blood, instantly drew his sword, and ere Westerhall could repeat the stroke, put him sharply on his defence, and being the taller and stronger man of the two, together with the advantage given by the slope, he pressed him sorely. Keeping on the defensive, Westerhall gave way step by step, seeking to gain the advantage of the ascent, and thus supply the defect of his stature, which Writes perceiving, he bore in close upon him hand to hand. Thus they continued in close and mortal combat for about a quarter of an hour, “clearing the causeway,” so that none could venture near them, or leave the shop doors; neither dared any man attempt to part them, for every thrust and stroke of their swords threatened all who came near. 

Westerhall eventually was driven down, fighting every inch of the way to the foot of the Bow; and, having on – for riding, probably – a pair of long black boots drawn close up, was becoming quite weary, and stepping within a shop door, stood there on his defence; and then the last stroke given by Hugh Somerville nearly broke his good sword, as it struck the stone lintel of the door, where the mark remained for years after. 

“The toune being by this tyme all in an uproar,” they were separated by a party of halberdiers, and conveyed to their lodgings. Their wounds were slight, save that which Writes had just received on his head, from which several pieces of bone came away. After he was cured, and after the death of Hugh Lord Somerville, Privy Councillor to James VI. (an event which occurred in 1597), these combatants were reconciled, and their feud committed to oblivion. 


Eleven years after this, in the month of June, 1605, William Thomson, a dagger-maker in the Bow, was slain by a neighbour of his own, named John Waterstone, who, being taken red hand, was next day beheaded on the Castle Hill. The Earl of Dunfermline was at that time Provost. 

The arched gate at the foot of the first bend in the Bow is distinctly shown in Rothiemay’s map [see chapter 12]. Within this and the old city wall, on the west side, was an ancient timber-fronted tenement, known as “Lord Ruthven’s Land,” being the residence of the gloomy and daring Patrick third Lord Ruthven, whose son was the first Earl of Gowrie – the same dark and terrible lord who rose from his sick-bed (a few months after to be his death-bed, though he fled to Newcastle in the interim), and, donning his armour, drew back the arras of the Queen’s chamber, looking like a pale spectre under his steel-barred helmet, on that fatal night in the March of 1566, when he planted his dagger into David Rizzio, whose death was mainly his contrivance; and in the demolition of this house a singular relic of him apparently was discovered. “Between the ceiling and floor in one of the apartments, a large and beautifully chased sword was found concealed, with the scabbard almost completely decayed, and the blade, which was of excellent temper, deeply corroded with rust half-way towards the hilt.” Was this the corrosion of blood? “The point of it,” says Daniel Wilson, “was broken off, but it still measured 321/4 inches long. The maker’s name, WILHELM WIRSBERG, was inlaid in brass upon the blade. His device, seemingly a pair of pincers, was engraved on both sides, surmounted by a coronet, and encircled on one side with a motto partly defaced, and on the other with his name repeated, and the words in . sol . ingen. Various other mottoes were engraved amid the ornamental work with which the blade was covered, such as Vincere aut mori, Fide sed cui fied, and Soli Deo Gloria. The manner of its concealment, and the fierce character of the old Lord Ruthven, within whose ancient lodging it was discovered, may readily suggest to the fancy its having formed the instrument of some dark and bloody deed ere it was consigned to its strange hiding-place.” 

He died at the close of 1566, or early in the following year; and a curious key, which was found in the demolition of his house, was procured by the Society of Antiquaries in 1848. 

Up the West Bow for centuries did all that was regal, noble, and diplomatic, advance on entering the city; and down it, for 124 years – between the Restoration and 1784 – went more criminals than can be reckoned, to their doom, and many a victim of misrule, such as the luckless and unflinching Covenanters, testifying to the last and glorying in their fate. 

Down the Bow, on the 3rd of September, 1716, there were marched from the Castle, en route for trial at Carlisle, eighty-nine Jacobite prisoners. “The departing troop was followed by a wail of indignant lament from the national heart, the Jacobites pointing to it with mingled howls and jeers, as a proof of the enslavement of Scotland.” 

Outside the archway of the Bow Port, and on the west side of the street, was the house of Archibald Stewart, Lord Provost of Edinburgh in the ever memorable year 1745. Its upper windows overlooked the Grassmarket, and it was as full of secret stairs, trap-doors, little wainscoted closets, and concealed recesses, as any haunted mansion in a nursery tale. In one apartment there stood a cabinet, or what appeared to be such, but which in reality was the entrance to a trap-stair. It is unknown whether Provost Stewart – whose Jacobite proclivities are well known, as they brought him before a court on charges of treason – contrived this means of retreat, or whether (which is more probable) it had been a portion of the original design of the house; but local tradition avers that he turned it to important use on one occasion. 

It is said that during the occupation of Edinburgh by the Highland army in 1745 he gave a secret entertainment to Prince Charles and some of the chiefs of his army; and it was not conducted so secretly but that tidings of it reached the officer commanding in the adjacent Castle, which was then garrisoned chiefly by the 47th or Lascelles Regiment. A party of the latter was sent to seize the Prince if possible, and, to do so, came down the Bow from the street of the Castle Hill. Fortunately, their own appearance created an alarm, and before they gained admission the guests of the Provost had all disappeared by the secret stair. 

Tradition has never varied in the relation of this story, but the real foundation of it is difficult of discovery. This house stood at the foot of Donaldson’s Close, and Archibald Stewart was the third chief magistrate of Edinburgh who had inhabited it. 

In subsequent years it came into possession of Alexander Donaldson, the well-known bookseller, whose litigation with the trade in London made much noise at one time, as he was in the habit of deliberately reprinting the most modern English works in Edinburgh, where, before his epoch, both printing and publishing were at the lowest ebb. Referring to the state of this branch of industry at the time he wrote (1779), Arnot says:- “Till within these forty years, the printing of newspapers and of school-books, of the fanatic effusions of Presbyterian clergymen, and the law-papers of the Court of Session, joined to the patent Bible printing, gave a scanty employment to four printing-houses. Such, however, has been the increase of this trade by the reprinting of English books, that there are now no fewer than twenty-seven printing-offices in Edinburgh.” In our own time there are about eighty. 

From his printing-house in the Castle Hill, Alexander Donaldson issued the first number of his once famous newspaper, The Edinburgh Advertiser, on the 3rd of January, 1764. It was a large quarto, and was also issued and sold from his shop, “near Norfolk Street in the Strand, London;” and his first number contains the following curious advertisement, among others:- 

“Any young woman not under 15, nor much over 30 years of age, that is tolerably handsome, and would incline to give her hand to a Black Prince, upon directing a letter to F. Y., care of the Publisher, will be informed particularly as to this matrimonial scheme, which they may be assured is a good one in every respect, the colour of the husband only excepted. If desired, secresy may be depended on.”

For a long course of years this journal, prominent as a Conservative organ, proved a most lucrative speculation; and as all his other undertakings prospered, he left, together with his old house in the Bow, a rich inheritance to his son, the late Mr. James Donaldson, who eventually realised a large fortune, the mass of which (about £240,000) at his death, in 1840, he bequeathed to found the magnificent hospital with bears his name at the west end of the city. 

Six years before his death the old house in the Bow, where he and his father had resided for so many years, and wherein they had entertained most of the literati of their time, was burned to the ground. 

Lower down than the house of the Donaldsons was an ancient edifice, with a timber front of picturesque aspect, in former times the town mansion of the Napiers of Wrighthouse – a family which passed away about the close of the 17th century, but was of some importance in its time. 

Alexander Napier of Wighthouse appears as one of an inquest in 1488. His coat armorial was a bend, charged with a crescent between two mullets. He married Margaret Napier of Merchiston, whose father, Sir Alexander, was slain at Flodden, and whose brother (his heir) was slain at Pinkie. In 1581, among the names of the Commissioners appointed by James VI., “anent the cuinze,” that of William Napier of the Wrightshouse appears; and in 1590 his sister Barbara Napier was accused of witchcraft on the 8th of May, and of being present at the great meeting of Scottish witches held by the devil in North Berwick. 

The wife of Archibald Douglas (brother of the Laird of Carshoggil), her trial was one of great length, involving that of many others; but a portion of the charges against her will suffice as a sample of the whole, from “Pitcairn’s Trials.” 

“Satan had informed the witches that James VI. of Scotland was the greatest enemy he had, and the latter’s visit to Norway, to bring over his queen, seemed to afford an opportunity for his destruction. Accordingly, Dr. Fiar of Tranent, the devil’s secretary, summoned a great gathering of witches on Hallow Eve, when 200 of them embarked, each in a riddle or sieve, with much mirth and jollity; and after cruising about somewhere on the ocean with Satan, who rolled himself before them on the waves, dimly seen, but resembling a huge haystack in size and aspect, he delivered to one of the company, named Robert Grierson, a cat, which had been drawn previously nine times through a crook, giving the order to ‘cast the same into the sea.’ ” 

This remarkable charm was intended to raise such a furious tempest as would infallibly drown the king and queen, then on their homeward voyage from Christiania, which, if any credit may be given to the declaration of James (who greedily swallowed the story), was not without some effect, as the ship which conveyed him encountered a furious contrary wind, while all the rest of the fleet had a fair one and a smooth sea. 

On this, Barbara Napier and her infernal companions, after regaling themselves with wine out of their sieves, landed, and proceeded in procession to North Berwick Kirk, where the devil awaited them in the pulpit, singing as they went – 

“Cummer go ye before, cummer go ye; 
 Gif ye winna gang before, cummer let me.” 

Sir James Melville gives us a most distinct account of the devil’s appearance on this auspicious occasion. His body was like iron; “his faice was terrible; his nose like the bek of an egle;” he had claws like those of a griffin on his hands and feet. He then called to roll to see that all were present, and all did him homage in a manner equally humiliating and indecorous, which does not admit of description here. 

All this absurdity being proved against Barbara Napier, she was sentenced, with many others, on the 11th of May, 1590, to be burnt “at the stake sett on the Castle Hill, with barrells, coales, heather, and powder;” but when the torch was about to be applied, pregnancy was alleged, according to “Calderwood’s Historie,” as a just and sufficient cause for staying proceedings; the execution was delayed, and ultimately the unfortunate creature was set at liberty by order of James VI. Now nothing remains of these Napiers but their tomb and burial-place on the north side of the choir of St. Giles’s. 

In the basement of the house which was once theirs was the booth from which the rioters, on the night of the 7th September, 1736, obtained the rope with which they hanged Porteous. It was then rented by a woman named Jeffrey, a dealer in miscellaneous wares, who offered them the rope gratis when she learned for what purpose it was required, but one of the conspirators threw a guinea on the counter as payment. The house of the Napiers was demolished in 1833. 

Opposite the mansion of Provost Stewart, and also outside the Bow Port, but on the east side of the bend, was a tenement known as “the Clockmaker’s Land,” which was demolished in 1835, to make way for what is now Victoria Street, but which took its name from an eminent watchmaker, a native of France, named Paul Romieu, who is said to have occupied it from the time of Charles II. (about 1675) till the beginning of the eighteenth century. In front of the house there remained, until its demolition, one of the wonders of the Bow – a curious piece of mechanism, which formed the sign of the ingenious Paul Romieu. It projected over the street from the third storey – a gilded ball representing the moon, which was made to revolve by means of clockwork. A large iron key of antique form, which was found among the ruins of this house, is preserved in the Museum of Antiquities. 

Among the oldest edifices in this part of the street was one which bore the singular name of the “Mahogany Land,” having an outer stair protected by a screen of wood. There was no date to record its erection, but its ceilings were curiously adorned by paintings precisely similar to those which were found in the palace of Mary of Guise in the Castle Hill; and no record remained of its generations of inmates, save that, like others about to be mentioned, it bore the iron cross of the Temple, and also the legend – which, from being a simply moral apophthegm, and not Biblical, was supposed to be anterior to the Reformation – He . yt . tholis . overcommis. (i.e., “He that bears overcomes.”) There was also a half-obliterated shield.


For ages the Bow was famous as the chief place for whitesmiths, and till about the time of its demolition there was scarcely a shop in it occupied by any other tradesmen, and even on Sunday the ceaseless clatter of their hammers on all hands rang from morning till night. 

Behind the Mahogany Land “lay several steep, narrow, and gloomy closes, containing the most singular groups of huge, irregular, and diversified tenements that could well be conceived. Here a stunted little timber dwelling black with age, and beyond it a pile of masonry, rising, storey above storey, from some murky propound that left its chimneys, scarcely rivalling those of its dwarfish neighbours, after climbing thus far from their foundations in the depths below.” 

The Edinburgh Gazette for July, 1702, informed the public that Duncan Campbell, of Ashfield, chirurgeon to the city of Glasgow, was receiving patients in his lodging at the foot of the West Bow, and that he was great in operations for stone, having “cutted nine score persons without the death of any, except five”; and one astounding case of his is thus reported by Lord Fountainhall, under date July 6th, 1709:- 

“Duncan Campbell, of Ashfield, giving himself out to be the best lithotomist and cutter for the stone, pursues Mungo Campbell, of Netherplace, that he being under the insupportable agony of the gravel, and was kept down in his bed by two servants, sent for the said Duncan to cure him, who leaving the great employment he had, waited on him for several weeks; and by an emaciating diet, fitted him for the operation, then cut him and brought away a big stone of five ounces’ weight, and since that time he has enjoyed better health, for which extraordinary cure all he got in hand was seventeen guineas; whereas, by his attendance and diversion from patients, and his lucrum assans, he has lost more than £50 sterling, and craves that sum as his fee and the recompense of his damage.” 


But as it was represented for the Laird of Netherplace, that he had done his work unskilfully, and caused much agony to the patient, the Lords held that the sum of seventeen guineas was sufficient payment. 

At the foot of the Bow, and on the west side chiefly, were a few old tenements, that, in consequence of being built upon the ground which had originally belonged to the Knights of the Temple, were styled Templar Lands, and were distinguished by having iron crosses on their fronts and gables. In the “Heart of Midlothian,” Scott describes them as being of uncommon height and antique appearance; but of late years they have all disappeared. 

It was during the Grand Mastership of Everhard de Bar, and while that brave warrior, with only 130 knights of the order, was fighting under the banner of Louis VII. at Damascus, that the Grand Priory of Scotland was instituted, and the knight who presided over it was then styled Magister Domus Templi in Scotiâ, when lands were bestowed on the order, first by King David I., and then by many others. To all the property belonging to the Temple a great value was attached, from the circumstance that it afforded, until the extinction of heritable jurisdictions in 1747, the benefit of sanctuary; thus the Temple tenements in Fifeshire are still termed houses of refuge. 

In the city the order possessed several flat-roofed tenements, known as the Temple Lands, and one archway, numbered as 145, on the south side of the Grassmarket, led to what was called the Temple Close, but they have all been removed. It was a lofty pile, and is mentioned in a charter of Lord Bynning, dated 1623, as “the fore-and-back Tempillands, lyand next ye Gray Friers’ Yard;” and in 1598, “a temple tenement lyand near the Gray Friars’ Yett” was confirmed to James Kent (Torphichen Charters). On these the iron cross was visible in 1824. 

On the dissolution of the order all this property in Scotland was bestowed upon their rivals, the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem; and the houses referred to became eventually a part of the barony of Drem (of old a Temple Priory) in Haddingtonshire, the baron of which used to hold courts in them occasionally, and here, till 1747, were harboured persons not free of the city corporations, to the great annoyance of the adherents of local monopoly; but so lately as 1731, on the 24th of August, the Temple vassals were ordered by the Bailie of Lord Torphichen, to erect the cross of St. John “on the Templelands within the Burgh, amerciating [fining] such as did not affix the said cross.” This was a strange enactment in a country where it is still doubtful whether such an emblem can figure as an ornament upon a tomb or church. Clearly there must have been some disinclination to affix the crosses, otherwise the regulation would scarcely have been passed. 

14 thoughts on “Chapter 39 – The West Bow (concluded)., pp.315-321.

  1. Der Jenny, my name is Tomek Borkowy and I am a co-director of Scotland Watch Company I am horologist interested in history of Scottish clocks and watch making. I was looking for information about the Watchmaker’s land and found your very good article. I would like to use the picture of the Romieu’s Hous in our watch booklet and I wonder who owns the copyrights for it. Apart from this I wonder if you would be interested in working with us and publish more interesting facts about Scottish watchmaking. Please contact me on

    1. Of course you may use the images. They’re from James Grant’s ‘Old & New Edinburgh’ (1880) and I only upload text & images that are from out of copyright publications or those created by ourselves – mostly so I don’t have to contend with copyright issues as well as it being unnecessary, the publications often being so full of illustrations or the Random Scottish History artist extraordinaire, Alex, being so amenable to requests – it would be lovely if you would cite as your source for any images you use, but those from the original publications are all available for you to use in whatever way you like. J x

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