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Chapter 49 – The Pleasance and St. Leonards., pp.382-384.

The Convent of St. Mary – Friends’ Burial Place – Old Chirurgeons’ Hall – Surgeon Square – “Hamilton’s Folly” – The Gibbet – Chapel and Hospital of St. Leonard – Davie Deans’ Cottage – “The Innocent Railway” – First Public Dispensary.


AT a period subsequent to the panic after Flodden there was built across the junction of St. Mary’s Wynd with the Pleasance, parallel with the south back of the Canongate, an arched barrier named St. Mary’s Port. South of this, sixty yards from the south-east angle of the city wall and near the foot of the present Roxburgh Street, stood the convent of St. Mary, which must have been a branch of the Franciscan House of “S. Maria di Campagni,” so much patronised by Pope Urban II., in the Parmese city of Placentia – as the latter name was given to the foundation in Edinburgh, long since corrupted into Pleasance, though the place was of old called Dearenough. It is unknown by whom or when it was founded, and nothing of it now remains save a fine piece of alabaster carving, representing our Saviour brought before the Jewish high-priest, which was discovered among its ruins, and presented to the Antiquarian Museum in 1781. 

The name of Pleasance is borne by the narrow, quaint, and straggling street southward till it joins the other ancient suburb of St. Leonard, of which it seems to have formed a portion, as proved by a charter of Charles I. confirming the magistrates in the superiority of “the town of St. Leonard.” In it are many houses, or the basements thereof, that date from the early part of the sixteenth century. St. John’s Hill and this now absorbed village occupy the long ridge that overlooks the valley at the base of the Craigs, and the whole of which seems to have been the ecclesiastical property in earlier ages of several foundations, all of which were subject to the Abbots of Holyrood. 

On the east side of the street is still a great quadrangular edifice, called Bell’s Brewery (long famous for its ale), which is shown as such in Edgar’s Map in 1765, and was nearly consumed by fire in 1794; and near it is still the Friends’ meeting-house and burial-ground, in which are interred the Millars of Craigantinie, the Hereditary Master Gardeners to the king. This sect, whose members underwent much persecution in the early part of the eighteenth century, and were often arrested by the town guard for preaching in the streets, and thrust into the Tolbooth, had their first place of worship in Peebles Wynd, where it was built in 1730. “Though it was roofed,” says the Courant for September, “there is as yet no window in it; but some merrily observe these people have light within.” 

On the west side of the Pleasance, and immediately within the south-east angle of the city wall referred to, stood the old Chirurgeons’ Hall, in the High School yards. The surgeons and barbers were formed into a corporation by the town-council on the 1st of July, 1505; under the seal of cause, or charter, certain rules were prescribed for the good order of this fraternity. On the 13th of October in the following years James V. ratified this charter; and Queen Mary, says Arnot, “in consideration of the great attendance required of surgeons upon their patients, granted them an exemption from serving upon juries, and from watching and warding within the city of Edinburgh, privileges which were afterwards confirmed by Parliament.” 

On the 25th of February, 1657, the surgeons and apothecaries were, at their request, united into one community. This was ratified by Parliament, and from that time the corporation ceased entirely to act as barbers. In consequence, the council, on the 26th July, 1682, recommended the new corporation to supply the city with a sufficient number of persons qualified “to shave and cut hair,” and who should continue to be upon it; but in 1722 it ceased to have all connection with the barbers, save that the latter were obliged to enter all their apprentices in a register kept by the surgeons. By a charter of George III., dated 14th March, 1778, the corporation was erected into “The Royal College of Surgeons of the City of Edinburgh,” a document which established a scheme of provision for the widows and children of members. 

In the old edifice overlooking the Pleasance the College held all its meetings till the erection of the new hall, to be referred to in its place; but the name of the first establishment still survives in the adjacent Surgeon Square. In it was a theatre for dissection, a museum, in which a mummy was long the chief curiosity, and the hall was hung with portraits of surgeons who had grown to eminence after it was built. 

William Smellie, F.R.S. and F.A.S., an eminent printer, and well known as the author of the “Philosophy of Natural History” and the translator of Buffon, was born in one of the quaint old houses of the Pleasance in 1740. 

A quaint three-storeyed edifice, having a large archway, peaked gables, and dormer windows, bearing the date of 1709, stood on the south side of the Pleasance, and was long known as “Hamilton’s Folly,” from the name of the proprietor, who was deemed unwise in those days to build a house so far from the city, and on the way that led to the gibbet on which the bodies of criminals were hung. But the latter would seem to have been in use till a much later period, as in the Courant for December, 1761, there are advertised for sale four tenements, “lying at the head of the Pleasance, on the east side of the road leading to the gibbet.” Here still stands a goodly house of three storeys, which was built about 1724 by a wealthy tailor, and which in consequence has been denominated “the Castle of Clouts,” in the spirit of that talent which the Scots have of conferring absurd sobriquets

By the wayside to Duddingstone, south of the Pleasance, a rising piece of ground or slight eminence is called Mount Hooly, a corruption of Mount Holy, which marks the site of the chapel of St. Leonard and of a hospital dedicated to the same saint. As is the case with most of the ecclesiastical edifices in Edinburgh, nothing is known as to when or by whom either the chapel or hospital was built, and not a vestige remains of either now. 

The chapel, ere it became a ruin, was the scene of a remarkably traitorous tryst, held by the Douglas faction on the 2nd of February, 1528, having nothing less in view than the assassination of their sovereign, James V., “the Commons King,” who was the idol of his people. They were to enter the palace of Holyrood by a window near the head of the king’s bed in the night, and under the guidance of Sir James Hamilton, one the monarch loved and trusted much; but the dastardly plot was discovered in time, and by the energetic measures taken to crush the devisers of it, peace and good government were secured to Edinburgh for a period. 

At St. Leonard’s Loan, which bounded the property of the abbots of Holyrood on the south, separating it on the side from the western flank of the vast Burghmuir, there stood in ancient times a memorial known as Umphraville’s Cross, erected in memory of some man of rank who perished there in a conflict of which not a memory remains. The cross itself had doubtless been demolished as a relic of idolatry at the Reformation; but in 1810, its base, a mass of dark whinstone, with a square hole in its centre, wherein the shaft had been fixed, was still remaining on the ancient site, till it was broken up for road metal! 

In his “Diary,” Birrel records that on the 2nd April, 1600, “being the Sabbath-day, Robert Achmuty, barber, slew James Wauchope at the combat in St. Leonard’s Hill, and upon the 23rd the said Robert was put in ward in the Tolbooth of Edinburgh. In the meantime of his being in ward, he hung ane cloak without the window there, and saying that he was sick, and might not see the light, he had acquafortis* continually seething at the iron window, while (till) at last the iron was eaten through.” Then, one morning, he desired his apprentice-boy to watch when the town guard should be dismissed, and to give him a sign thereof by waving his handkerchief. This was done, and tying “ane tow,” or rope, to the window, he was about to lower himself into the street; but the guard “spied the wave of the handcurch, and sae the said Robert was disappointit of his intention and device.” On the 10th of April he was conveyed down to the Market Cross, and there beheaded on the scaffold, by the Maiden probably. 

In 1650, when Cromwell’s army was repulsed by the Scottish under Leslie, he made an attempt to turn the flank of the latter at this point. “Encircling Arthur’s Seat, a strong column of infantry, a brigade of cavalry, and two pieces of cannon attempted to enter the city by the southern road that led from the Pleasance. On this Campbell of Lawers brought his regiment of musketeers at double-quick march up the glen by the base of Salisbury Craigs to the ruins of St. Leonard’s chapel, and taking an alignment behind the hedges and walls of the King’s Park, poured from thence a deadly fire, which drove back the infantry in disorder. They threw aside their muskets, pikes, and collars of bandoliers, and fled, abandoning their cannon, which were brought by the horse brigade.” 

St. Leonard’s Hill corresponds somewhat in position, but not in contour, with the locality of Davie Deans’ story in Sir Walter Scott’s “Heart of Midlothian” and an ancient cottage is actually indicated as being his in the Post-office maps. Eastward of this, the ridge of the hill bears the name of Kaim Head, indicating that of old a camp had been there. 

St. Leonard’s coal depôt and railway station have destroyed all the old and picturesque amenities of the locality. The station was erected here on the formation of a railway from Edinburgh to Dalkeith in 1826, but the traffic did not begin until 1831. It is still in existence, but has undergone great changes. 

To see the train start by successive carriages for Dalkeith was then one of “the sights” of Edinburgh. “Towards the close of its ‘horsy’ days,” says Bremner (in his “Industries of Scotland”), “when railways worked by locomotives became common, this railway with its lumbering carriages, slow-paced steeds, and noisy officials, was laughed at as an old-fashioned thing; but many persons have pleasant recollections holiday trips made over the line. Then, as now, people took advantage of the fast days to spend a few hours outside the city, and it was no uncommon thing for the Dalkeith railway to bear away four or five thousand pleasure-seekers on such occasions.” No accident ever having occurred on this line, it bears the name of the “Innocent Railway,” under which title it appears in one of Robert Chambers’s pleasant essays. 

St. Leonard’s Hill and all its locality are inseparably connected with the boyhood of the celebrated philosopher and phrenologist, George Combe, who spent the summer months of his earlier years with his aunt, Mrs. Margaret Sinclair, whose husband was proprietor of a brewery, a garden, and other ground there. 

At the junction of the Pleasance with St. Leonards, an old street, known as the East Cross Causeway branches north-westward. Here was to be found the latest example of the legendary door-head so peculiar to Edinburgh:- “1701 GOD’S PROVIDENCE.” It was over the door of a house in which Lady Jane Douglas, wife of Sir John Stewart, of Grandtully, is said to have resided during some of the years of her long-contested peerage case with the Duke of Hamilton; and where she – the sister of the last duke of the grand old Douglas line – was in circumstances so reduced that she was compelled to work at the wash-tub while rocking with her foot the cradle wherein lay her son, who became Lord Douglas of Douglas in 1790. 

In this quarter of the city there was founded in West Richmond Street, in 1776, the first public dispensary in Edinburgh, chiefly through the exertions of Andrew Duncan, M.D., whose portrait, painted by Raeburn, now hangs in the hall. The good doctor lived long enough to see his generous labours crowned with complete success.


*  “Acquafortis” or aquafortis was what nitric acid was called. 
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