Chapter 1 – The Canongate., pp.1-12.

[Old & New Edinburgh Contents]

Its Origin – Songs concerning it – Records – Market Cross – St. John’s and the Girth Crosses – Early History – The Town of Herbergare – Canongate Paved – The Governing Body – Raising the Devil – Purchase of the Earl of Roxburgh’s “Superiority” – The Foreign Settlement – George Heriot the Elder – Huntly’s House – Sir Walter Scott’s Story of a Fire – The Morocco Land – Houses of Oliphant of Newland, Lord David Hay, and Earl of Angus – Jack’s Land – Shoemakers’ Lands – Marquis of Huntly’s House – Nisbet of Dirleton’s Mansion – Golfer’s Land – John and Nicol Paterson – The Porch and Gatehouse of the Abbey – Lucky Spence. 

   THE Canongate – of old the Court-end of Edinburgh – takes its name from the Augustine monks of Holyrood, who were permitted to build it by the charter of David I. in 1128, and to rule it as a burgh of regality. “The canons,” says Chalmers, “were empowered to settle here a village, and from them the street of this settlement was called the Canongate, from the Saxon gaet, a way or street, according to the practice of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries in Scotland and England. The immunities which the canons and their villagers enjoyed from David’s grant, soon raised up a town, which extended from the Abbey to the Nether Port of Edinburgh and the townsmen performed their usual devotions in the church of the Abbey till the Reformation,” after which it continued to retain its distinct dignity as a burgh of regality. In its arms it bears the white hart’s head, with the cross-crosslet of the miraculous legend between the horns, and the significant motto “SIC ITUR AD ASTRA.” 

   As the main avenue from the palace to the city, so a later writer tells us, it has borne upon its pavement the burden of all that was beautiful and gallant, and all that has become historically interesting in Scotland for the last seven hundred years; and though many of its houses have been modernised, it still preserves its aspect of great quaintness and vast antiquity. 

   It sprang up independent of the capital, adhering naturally to the monastery, whose vassals and dependents were its earliest builders, and retaining to the last legible marks of a different parentage from the city. Its magistrates claimed a feudal lordship over the property of the regality as the successors of its spiritual superiors; hence many of the title-deeds therein ran thus:- “To be holden of the Magistrates of the Canongate, as come in place of the Monastery of the Holy Cross.” 

   The Canongate seems to have been a favourite with the muse of the olden time, and is repeatedly alluded to in familiar lyrics and in the more polished episodes of the courtly poets of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. A Jacobite song has it:- 

“As I cam doun the Canongate, 

The Canongate, the Canongate, 

As I cam doun the Canongate, 

I heard a lassie sing, 

‘Merry may the keel rowe. 

That my true love is in,’ ” &c. 

 The “Satire on Court Ladies” tells us, 

“The lasses o’ the Canongate, 

Oh they are wondrous nice; 

They winna gie a single kiss 

But for a double price.” 

 And an old song concerning a now-forgotten belle says:- 

“A’ doun alang the Canongate 

Were beaux o’ ilk degree; 

And mony ane turned round to look 

At bonny Mally Lee. 

And we’re a’ gaun east and west,  

We’re a’ gaun agee, 

We’re a’ gaun east and west, 

Courtin’ Mally Lee!” 

   The earliest of the register-books preserved in the archives of this little burgh commences in 1561 – about a hundred years before Cromwell’s invasion; but the volume, which comes down to 1588, had been long in private hands, and was only restored at a recent date, though much of it is printed in the “Maitland Miscellany” for 1840. 

   Unlike Edinburgh, the Canongate had no walls for defence – its gates and enclosures being for civic purposes only. If it relied on the sanctity of its monastic superiors as a protection, it did so in vain, when, in 1380, Richard II. of England gave it to the flames, and the Earl of Hertford in 1544; and in the civil wars during the time of Charles I., the Journal of Antiquities tells us that “the Canongate suffered severely from the barbarity of the English – so much so that scarcely a house was left standing.” 

   In 1450, when the first wall of the city was built, its eastern extremity was the Nether Bow Port. Open fields, in all probability, lay outside the latter, and though the increasing suburb was then building, the city claimed jurisdiction within it as far as the Cross of St. John, and the houses crept gradually westward up the slope, till they formed the present unbroken street from the Nether Bow to the palace porch but it seems, strange that even in the disastrous year 1513, when the Cowgate was enclosed by a wall, no attempt was made to secure the Canongate, though it had gates which were shut at night, and it had boundary walls, but not of a defensive character.

   Of old, three crosses stood in the main street: that of St. John, near the head of the present St. John Street, at which Charles I. knighted the Provost on his entering the city in 1633; the ancient Market Cross, which formerly stood opposite the present Tolbooth, and is represented in Gordon’s Map as mounted on a stone gallery, like that of the City Cross, and the shaft of which, a very elegant design, still exists, attached to the southeast corner of the just-named edifice. lts chief use in later times was a pillory, and the iron staple yet remains to which culprits were attached by the iron collar named the jougs. The third, or Girth Cross, stood at the foot of the Canongate, 100 feet westward from the Abbey-strand. “It consisted,” says Kincaid, “of three steps as a base and a pillar upon the top, and was called the Girth Cross from its being the western limit of the Sanctuary; but in paving the street it was removed, and its place is now known by a circle of stones upon the west side of the well within the Water Gate.” 

   In the earlier ages of its history the canons to whom the burgh belonged had liberty to buy and sell in open market. It has been supposed by several writers that a village of some kind had existed on the site prior to the erection of the Abbey, as the king says in more than one version of the foundation charter of the latter, “I likewise grant to the said canons the town of Herbergare, lying betwixt the said church, and my town (of Edinburgh), and that the burgesses thereof have the liberty of buying and selling goods and merchandise in open market as freely, and without molestation and reproach, as any of my own burgesses.” According to Sir Walter Scott, in his “Provincial Antiquities,” the Canongate was formerly denominated the Herbergérie (or Hospitium) of the monastery. But in time it came to be called Canongate, from its proprietors. Be this as it may, many privileges were conferred upon it by Robert, Abbot of Holyrood, and these were confirmed and extended by David II., Robert III., James II., and James III., who “granted to the bailies, council, and community of the burgh of the Canongate the several annuities payable at the Exchequer by the said burgh, the common muir lying between the lands of Broughton on the west, those of Pilrig on the east, and the way leading from Edinburgh to Leith on the south, with all the rights and customs thereunto belonging, together with the liberties, commodities, privileges, and immunities appertaining to a burgh of regality.” 

   The Canongate would appear to have been paved about the same time as the High Street, and in 1535 James V. granted to the Abbot of Holyrood a duty of one penny upon every loaded cart, and of a halfpenny upon every empty one, to repair and maintain the causeway. 

   According to the record books of the Canongate, it was governed in 1561 by four old bailies, three deacons, two treasurers, and four councillors, “chosen and elected;” and, as enacted in 1567, the council met every eighth day, on fuirsdaye. The Tolbooth was then, as till a late period, the council-room, court-house, and place of punishment. 

   By 1561 the monastic superiority over the community had been swept away by the Reformation; and by the king’s grant a commendator succeeded the last abbot, enjoying the privileges of the latter, while the temporal superiority of the Canongate was conferred on the future Earl of Roxburgh. 

   Among the older legends of the Canongate is one mentioned by Sir John Scott of Scotstarvit, who tells us that Sir Lewis Bellenden, a Lord of Session, Council, and Exchequer, about the year 1591, “dealt with a warlock, called Richard Graham, to raise the devil,” which he did in the back-yard of his own house in the Canongate, “and he was thereby so terrified that he took sickness, and thereof died. And having left his lady, sister to the Lord Livingstone, a great conjunct-fee, the Earl of Orkney married her, and after some years, having moved her to sell her conjunct-fee-lands, and having disposed of all the monies of the same, sent her back to the Canongate, where she lived divers years very miserably, and there died in extreme poverty.” 

   In 1636 the superiority acquired by the Earl of Roxburgh was purchased by the magistrates of Edinburgh. This included the Canongate, North Leith, part of Broughton, and the village of the Pleasance – a purchase which was confirmed by Charles I., and cost 42,100 merks Scots. By this the Canongate became subordinate to Edinburgh, and was governed by a “baron and bailiff” appointed by the council of the latter; but the real glory of the Canongate may be said to have departed with the court when James VI. succeeded to the throne of England in 1603, though, as we shall show, it long continued to be a fashionable quarter of the metropolis even after the time of the Union. 

   In pursuing the general history of the suburbs, we find that in 1609, under favour of James VI., when a number of foreigners were introduced into the kingdom to teach the making of cloths of various kinds, a colony of them settled in the Canongate, under John Sutherland, and a Fleming named Jacob Van Headen, where they “daily exercised in their art of making, dressing, and litting of stuffs,” giving great “light and knowledge of their calling to the country people.” Notwithstanding that these industrious and inoffensive men had royal letters vesting them with special privileges, they were – as too often happens in those cases where the enterprise of foreigners appears to clash with the interests of natives – much molested and harassed by the magistrates of the Canongate, with a view of forcing them to become burgesses and free men in the regular way; but an appeal to the Privy Council affirmed their exemption. 

   Among the inhabitants of the Canongate was a George Heriot, who died in the following year, 1610, aged seventy. He was the father of the founder of that famous and magnificent hospital, which is perhaps the greatest ornament of either Old or New Edinburgh. 

   In 1639, we learn from Spalding that George, second Marquis of Huntly, who in his youth had commanded the Scottish Guard of Louis XIII. was residing at his old family mansion in the Canongate, wherein, about the month of November, two of his daughters were married “with great solemnities” – the Lady Anne, who was “ane precise Puritan,” to the Lord Drummond; and Lady Henrietta, who was a Roman Catholic, to Lord Seton, son of the Earl of Winton. These ladies had each 40,000 merks Scots as a fortune, their uncle, the Earl of Argyle, being cautioner for the payment, “for relief whereof he got the wadset of Lochaber and Badenoch.” Lady Jean, a third daughter, was also married in the ensuing January, with a fortune of 30,000 merks, to Thomas, Earl of Haddington, who perished in the following year when the Castle of Dunglass was blown up by gunpowder. 

   An old house at the head of the Canongate, on the north side, somewhere in the vicinity of Coull’s Close, but now removed, was always indicated as being the scene of that wild story which Scott relates in his notes to the fifth canto of “Rokeby,” and in his language we prefer to give it here. 

   He tells us that “about the beginning of the eighteenth century, when the large castles of the Scottish nobles, and even the secluded hotels, like those of the French noblesse, which they possessed in Edinburgh were sometimes the scenes of strange and mysterious transactions, a divine of singular sanctity was called up at midnight to pray with a person at the point of death. This was no unusual summons; but what followed was alarming. He was put into a sedan-chair, and after he had been transported to a remote part of the town the bearers insisted upon his being blindfolded. The request was enforced by a cocked pistol, and submitted to; but in the course of the discussion he conjectured, from the phrases employed by the chairmen, and from some parts of their dress not completely concealed by their cloaks, that they were greatly above the menial station they had assumed. After many turnings and windings the chair was carried up-stairs into a lodging, where his eyes were uncovered, and he was introduced into a bed-room, where he found a lady newly delivered of an infant, and he was commanded by his attendants to say such prayers by her bedside as were fitting for a person not expected to survive a mortal disorder. 

   “He ventured to remonstrate, and observed that her safe delivery warranted better hopes; but he was sternly commanded to obey the orders first given, and with difficulty recollected himself sufficiently to acquit himself of the task imposed on him. He was then again hurried into the chair; but as they conducted him down-stairs he heard the report of a pistol! He was safely conducted home, and a purse of gold was forced upon him; but he was warned at the same time that the least allusion to this dark transaction would cost him his life. He betook himself to rest, and after long and broken musing, fell into a deep sleep. From this he was awakened with the dismal news that a fire of uncommon fury had broken out in the house of ————, near the head of the Canongate, and that it was totally consumed, with the shocking addition that the daughter of the proprietor, a young lady eminent for beauty and accomplishments, had perished in the flames. The clergyman had his suspicions; but to have made them public would have availed nothing. He was timid; the family was of the first distinction; above all, the deed was done, and could not be amended. 

   “Time wore away, and with it his terrors; but he became unhappy at being the solitary depository of this fearful mystery, and mentioned it to some of his brethren, through whom the anecdote acquired a sort of publicity. The divine had long been dead when a fire broke out on the same spot where the house of ———— had formerly stood, and which was now occupied by buildings of an inferior description. When the flames were at their height, the tumult that usually attends such a scene was suddenly suspended by an unexpected apparition. A beautiful female in a nightdress, extremely rich, but at least half a century old, appeared in the very midst of the fire, and uttered these tremendous words in her vernacular idiom:- ‘Anes burned – twice burned – the third time I’ll scare you all!’ The belief in this story was so strong, that on a fire breaking out, and seeming to approach the fatal spot, there was a good deal of anxiety testified lest the apparition should make good her denunciation.” 

   According to a statement in Notes and Queries, this story was current in Edinburgh before the childhood of Scott, and the murder part of it was generally credited. He mentions a person acquainted with the city in 1743 who used to tell the tale and point out the site of the house. It is remarkable that a great fire did happen there in the seventeenth century, and the lofty buildings on the spot date from that time. 

   Of the plague, which in 1645 nearly depopulated the Canongate as well as the rest of Edinburgh a singular memorial still remains, a little lower down the street, on the north side, in the form of a huge square tenement, called the Morocco Land, from the effigy of a turbaned Moor, which projects from a recess above the second floor, and having an alley passing under it, inscribed with the following legend:- 

“MISERERE MEI, DOMINE: A PECCATO, PROBRO,

DEBITO, ET MORTE SUBITA. LIBERA ME. 1.6.18.”

Of the origin of this edifice various romantic stories are told: one by Chambers, to the effect that a young woman belonging to Edinburgh having been taken upon the sea by an African rover, was sold to the harem of the Emperor of Morocco, whose favourite wife she became, and enabled her brother to raise a fortune by merchandise, and that in building this stately edifice he erected the black nude figure, with turban and necklace of beads, as a memorial of his royal brother-in-law; but the most complete and consistent outline of its history is that given by Wilson in his “Memorials,” from which it would appear that during one of the tumults which occurred in the city after the accession of Charles I., the house of the Provost, who had rendered himself obnoxious to the rioters, was assaulted and set on fire. Among those arrested as a ringleader was Andrew Gray, a younger son of the Master of Gray, whose descendants inherit the ancient honours of Kinfauns, and who, notwithstanding the influence of his family, was tried, and sentenced to be executed on the second day thereafter. 

Newspaper Clipping found within ‘Old and New Edinburgh.’

   On the very night that the scaffold was being erected at the Cross he effected his escape from the City Tolbooth by means of a rope conveyed to him by a friend, who had previously given some drugged liquor to the sentinel at the Puir-folks-purses, and provided a boat for him, by which he crossed the North Loch and fled beyond pursuit. 

   Time passed on, and the days of the great civil war came. “Gloom and terror now pervaded the streets of the capital. It was the terrible year 1645 – the last visitation of the pestilence to Edinburgh when, as tradition tells us,” says Wilson, “grass grew thickly about the Cross, once as crowded a centre of thoroughfare as Europe could boast of.” 

   The Parliament was compelled to sit at Stirling, and the Town Council, on the 10th of April, agreed with Joannes Paulitius, M.D., that he should visit the infected at a salary of £80 Scot per month. A number of the ailing were hutted in the King’s Park, a few were kept at home, and aid for all was invoked from the pulpits. The Session of the Canongate ordained, on the 27th of June, that, “to avoid contention in this fearful time,” all those who died in the park should be buried therein; for it would seem that those who perished by the plague were buried in places apart from churchyards, lest the infection might burst forth anew if ever the graves were reopened.1 

   Maitland records that such was the terror prevailing at this period that the prisoners in the Tolbooth were all set at liberty, and all who were not free men were compelled, under severe penalties, to quit the city, until at length, “by the unparalleled ravages committed by the plague, it was spoiled of its inhabitants to such a degree that there were scarcely sixty men left capable of assisting in the defence of the town in case of an attack.” 

   At this crisis a large armed vessel of peculiar rig and aspect entered the Firth of Forth, and came to anchor in Leith Roads. By experienced seamen she was at once pronounced to be an Algerine rover, and dismay spread over all the city. This soon reached a culminating point when a strong band landed from her, and, entering the Canongate by the Water Gate, advanced to the Netherbow Port and required admittance. The magistrates parleyed with their leader, who demanded an exorbitant ransom, and scoffed at the risk to be run in a pIague-stricken city. 

   The Provost at this time was Sir John Smith, of Groat Hall, a small mansion-house near Craigleith, and he, together with his brother-in-law, Sir William Gray, Bart., of Pittendrum, a staunch Cavalier, and one of the wealthiest among the citizens, to whom we have referred in our account of Lady Stair’s Close, agreed to ransom the city for large sum, while at the same time his eldest son was demanded by the pirates as a hostage. “It seems, however,” says Wilson, “that the Provost’s only child was a daughter, who then lay stricken of the plague, of which her cousin, Egidia Gray had recently died. This information seemed to work an immediate change on the leader of the Moors. After some conference with his men he intimated his possession of an elixir of wondrous potency, and demanded that the Provost’s daughter should be entrusted to his skill, engaging that if he did not cure her immediately to embark with his men, and free the city without ransom. After considerable parley the Provost proposed that the leader should enter the city and take up an abode in his house.” 

   This was rejected, together with higher offers of ransom, till Sir John Smith yielded to the exhortations of his friends, and the proposal of the Moor was accepted, and the fair sufferer was borne to a house at the head of the Canongate, wherein the corsair had taken up his residence, and from thence she went forth quickly restored and in health. 

   The most singular part of this story is its denouement, from which it would appear that the corsair and physician proved to be no other than the condemned fugitive Andrew Gray, who had risen high in the favour and service of the Emperor of Morocco. “He had returned to Scotland,” says Wilson, “bent on revenging his own early wrongs on the magistrates of Edinburgh when, to his surprise, he found in the destined object of his special vengeance a relation of his own. He married the provost’s daughter, and settled down a wealthy citizen in the burgh of Canongate. The house to which his fair patient was borne, and whither he afterwards brought her as his bride, is still adorned with an effigy of his royal patron, the Emperor of Morocco, and the tenement has ever since borne the name of the Morocco Land… We have had the curiosity to obtain a sight of the title-deeds of the property, which prove to be of recent date. The earliest, a disposition of 1731, so far confirms the tale that the proprietor at that date is John Gray, merchant, a descendant, it may be, of the Algerine rover and the Provost’s daughter. The figure of the Moor has ever been a subject of popular admiration and wonder, and a variety of legends are told to account for its existence. Most of them, though differing in almost every other point, seem to agree in connecting it with the last visitation of the plague.” 

   Near this tenement, a little to the eastward, was the mansion of John Oliphant of Newland, second son of Laurence, fourth Lord Oliphant, and father of the sixth lord who bore that title. His elder brother, the master, was one of the Ruthven conspirators in 1582, and perished at sea when fleeing from Scotland. 

   Beside it, a building of the same age was the residence of Lord David Hay, of Belton, son of John, second Earl of Tweeddale (who was among the first to join the royal standard at Nottingham in 1642), and who granted that barony to the former in 1687, at a time when he, the earl, was oppressed by debts which compelled him to sell his whole estate of Tweeddale to the Duke of Queensberry. 

   Northward of this edifice, and partly on the site now occupied by the Chapel of Ease in New Street, was the ancient residence of the Earl of Angus, only a portion of the walls of which were standing in 1847. It is supposed to have been the abode of Archibald, ninth Earl of Angus, who, as nephew and ward of the Regent Morton, was involved in his ruin, and fled the realm to England, where he became, as Godscroft tells us, the favourite “of that worthie Queen Elizabeth, partly in memorie of his uncle, but no lesse for his own sake.” Moreover, he adds that he became the friend of Dudley, Walsingham, and Sir Philip Sidney, who was then writing his “Arcadia,” which “hee delighted much to impart to Angus, and Angus took as much pleasure to be partaker thereof.” 

   Returning to Scotland, he became involved in many troubles, and died in 1588 – the victim, it was alleged, of sorcery, by the spells, says Godscroft, of Barbara Napier, in Edinburgh “wife to Archibald Douglas, of Carshogle, who was apprehended on suspition,” but set at liberty. “Anna Simson, a famous witch, is reported to have confessed at her death that a picture of waxe was brought to her having A. D. written on it, which, as they said to her, did signifie Archibald Davidson, and she (not thinking of the Earl of Angus, whose name was Archibald Douglas, and might have been Davidson, because his father was David) did consecrate or execrate it after her forms, which, she said, she would not have done for all the world… His body was buried at Abernethy and his heart in Douglas, by his oune direction. He was the last Earle of the race of George, Master of Angus, who was slain at Flowden.” 

   On the same side of the street, opposite to the archway leading into St. John Street, Jack’s Land, a lofty stone tenement, formed, in her latter years, the residence of the beautiful Susannah, Countess of Eglinton, and there she was frequently visited by the famous Lady Jane Douglas during the vexed progress of “the Douglas cause;” and in another flat thereof resided David Hume, who came thither from Riddel’s Land in 1753, while engaged on his “History of England.” 

   “The Shoemakers’ Lands, which stand to the east of Jack’s Land,” says Wilson, writing in 1847, “are equally lofty and more picturesque buildings. One of them especially, opposite to Moray House, is a very singular and striking object in the stately range of substantial stone tenements that extend from New Street to the Canongate Tolbooth. A highly-adorned tablet surmounts the main entrance, enriched with angels’ heads and a border of Elizabethan ornament enclosing the shoemakers’ arms, with the date 1677. An open book is inscribed with the first verse of the Scottish metre version of the one hundred and thirty-third Psalm – a motto which appears to have been of special repute towards the close of the seventeenth century among the suburban corporations, being also inscribed over the Tailors’ Hall of Eastern Portsburgh and the Shoemakers’ Land in the West Port. The turnpike stair, the entrance to which is graced by this motto and the further inscription, in smaller letters, ‘IT IS AN HONOUR FOR MAN TO CEASE FROM STRIFE,’ rises above the roof of the building, and is crowned by an ogee roof of singular character, flanked on either side by picturesque gables to the street. The first of the two tenements to the west of this, at the head of Shoemakers’ Close, has an open panel on its front, from which the inscription appears to have been removed; but the other, which bears the date 1725, is still adorned with the same arms, and the following moral aphorism:- 

“BLESSED IS HE THAT WISELY DO 

TH THE POOR MAN’S CASE CONSIDER.’ ” 

   We have referred to the mansion of the Marquis of Huntly, in the Canongate, and the marriage of his daughters therein. This singularly picturesque and antique edifice stands on the southern side of the street, opposite the old Tolbooth, and is erroneously said to have been at one time the Royal Mint. 

   Here George, sixth Earl and first Marquis of Huntly, is said to have resided – the same noble who was suspected of corresponding and conspiring with Spain. In his “History of the Troubles,” Spalding tells us that this peer, in June, 1636, was borne from his lodging in the Canongate, in the desire of reaching his northern house in Badenoch, but got no farther than Dundee, where he died, in his seventy-fourth year. 

   Here, too, abode his son, the second marquis, who was forfeited in 1645 by the Covenanting Parliament for his steady adherence to the king, and after being deprived of his stately castles of Gicht and Strathbogie, lost his head on the block at the Market Cross in 1649, ten years after the marriage festivities referred to. 

   When Maitland wrote, in 1753, this house was the residence of the Dowager of Cosmo George, third Duke of Gordon, who had been Lady Catharine Gordon, of the Aberdeen family. 

   It still presents a picturesque row of timber fronted gables to the street, resting on a row of carved corbels and a cornice projecting from the basement, and a series of sculptured tablets adorn it, filled with certain pious phrases peculiar to the sixteenth century. One of these is – “Vt tu lingvæ tuæ, sic e, o mear; avrium Dominvs svm;” another is – “Constanti pectori res mortalivm vmbra.” 

   Lower down the street, on the same side, at the head of Reid’s Close, a square projecting turret, corbelled well out over the pavement, with a huge gable, indicates the town mansion of the Nisbets of Dirleton, an old baronial family in East Lothian, erected in the year 1624. In accordance with the general style of all Scottish houses in those days, the basement storey is arched with stone; and the first of the family who resided there seems to have been Sir John Nisbet of Dirleton, who was raised to the bench in 1664, “a man of great learning, both in law and many other things, chiefly in Greek,” according to Burnet, who adds that “he was a person of great integrity, and always stood firm to the law.” He was the son of Patrick Nisbet, Lord Eastbank in 1636, and was appointed King’s Advocate, and was author of an old legal work, well known as “Dirleton’s Doubts.” He died in 1678. He was a tool of the Bishops, and rendered himself unpopular by his zeal in prosecuting the unfortunate Covenanters. Of this Wodrow relates an instance. One named Robert Gray having been brought before the Privy Council, and examined as to his knowledge of their hiding-places without success, Sir John Nisbet artfully and cruelly took a ring from his finger, and sent it to Mrs. Gray, with a message that her husband had revealed all he knew of the Whigs. Deceived by this, she told all that she knew of their lurking-places, and thus many were arrested, which so affected her husband that he sickened, and died a few days after. 

   Nearly opposite Queensberry House, and on the north side of the street, a narrow, old-fashioned edifice is known as John Paterson’s House, or “The Golfers’ Land,” concerning which there is recorded a romantic episode connected with James VII., when, as Duke of Albany, he held his court at Holyrood. Conspicuously placed high upon the wall is a coat-armorial, and a slab above the entrance door contains the two following inscriptions:- 

“CUM VICTOR LUDO, SCOTIS QUI PROPRIUS, ESSET, 

TER TRES VICTORES POST REMEDITOS AVOS, 

PATERSONUS, HUMO TUNC EDUCEBAT IN ALTUM 

HANC, QUÆ VICTORES TOT TULET UNA, DOMUM.” 

“I HATE NO PERSON.” 

The latter is an anagram on the name of “John Paterson,” while the quatrain was the production of Dr. Pitcairn, and is referred to in the first volume of Gilbert Stuart’s Edinburgh Magazine and Review for 1774, and may be rendered thus:- “In the year when Paterson won the prize in golfing, a game peculiar to the Scots (in which his ancestors had nine times won the same honour), he then raised this mansion, a victory more honourable than all the rest.” 

   According to tradition, two English nobles at Holyrood had a discussion with the royal duke as to the native country of golf, which he was frequently in the habit of playing on the Links of Leith with the Duke of Lauderdale and others, and which the two strangers insisted to be an English game as well. No evidence of this being forthcoming, while many Scottish Parliamentary edicts, some as old as the days of James II., in 1457, could be quoted concerning the said game, the Englishmen, who both vaunted their expertness, offered to test the legitimacy of their pretensions on the result of a match to be played by them against His Royal Highness and any other Scotsman he chose to select. After careful inquiry he chose a man named John Paterson, a poor shoemaker in the Canongate, but the worthy descendant of a long line of illustrious golfers, and the association will by no means surprise, even in the present age, those who practise the game in the true old Scottish spirit. The strangers were ignominiously beaten, and the heir to the throne had the best of this practical argument, while Paterson’s merits were rewarded by the stake played for, and he built the house now standing in the Canongate. On its summit he placed the Paterson arms – three pelicans vulned; on a chief three mullets; crest, a dexter-hand grasping a golf club, with the well-known motto – FAR AND SURE. Concerning this old and well-known tradition, Chambers says, “it must be admitted there is some uncertainty. The house, the arms, and the inscriptions only indicate that Paterson built the house after being victor at golf, and that Pitcairn had a hand in decorating it.” 

   In this doubt Wilson goes further, and believes that the Golfers’ Land was lost, not won, by the gambling propensities of its owner. It was acquired by Nicol Paterson in 1609, a maltman in Leith, and from him it passed, in 1632, to his son John (and Agnes Lyel his spouse), who died 23rd April, 1663, as appears by the epitaph upon his tomb in the churchyard of Holyrood, which was extant in Maitland’s time, and the strange epitaph on which is given at length by Monteith. He would appear to have been many times Bailie of the Canongate. Both Nicol and John, it may be inferred from the inscriptions on the ancient edifice, were able and successful golfers. The style of the building, says Wilson, confirms the idea that it had been rebuilt by him “with the spoils, as we are bound to presume, which he won on Leith links, from ‘our auld enemies of England.’ The title-deeds, however, render it probable that other stakes had been played for with less success. In 1691 he grants a bond over the property for £400 Scots. This is followed by letters of caption and horning, and other direful symptoms of legal assault, which pursue the poor golfer to his grave, and remain behind as his sole legacy to his heirs.” 

   The whole tradition, however, is too serious to be entirely overlooked, but may be taken by the reader for what it seems worth. 

   Bailie Paterson’s successor in the old mansion was John, second Lord Bellenden of Broughton and Auchnoule, Heritable Usher of the Exchequer, who married Mary, Countess Dowager of Dalhousie, and daughter of the Earl of Drogheda. Therein he died in 1704, and was buried in the Abbey Church; and as the Union speedily followed, like other tenements so long occupied by the old courtiers in this quarter, the Golfers’ Land became, as we find it now, the abode of plebeians. 

   Immediately adjoining the Abbey Court-house was an old, dilapidated, and gable-ended mansion of no great height, but of considerable extent, which was long indicated by oral tradition as the abode of David Rizzio. It has now given place to buildings connected with the Free Church of Scotland. Opposite these still remain some of the older tenements of this once patrician burgh, distinguishable by their lofty windows filled in with small square panes of glass; and on the south side of the street, at its very eastern end, a series of pointed arches along the walls of the Sanctuary Court-house, alone remain to indicate the venerable Gothic porch and gate-house of the once famous Abbey of Holyrood, beneath which all that was great and good, and much that was ignoble and bad have passed and repassed in the days that are no more. 

   This edifice, of which views from the east and west are still preserved, is supposed to have been the work of “the good Abbot Ballantyne,” who rebuilt the north side of the church in 1490, and to whom we shall have occasion to refer elsewhere. His own mansion, or lodging, stood here on the north side of the street, and the remains of it, together with the porch, were recklessly destroyed and removed by the Hereditary Keeper of the Palace in 1753. 

   A little gable-ended house now occupies the site of the former, and was long known as the dwelling of a very different personage, a Lucky Spence, of unenviable notoriety, whose “Last Advice” figures somewhat coarsely in the poems of Allan Ramsay

 About 1833 a discovery was made, during some alterations in this house, which was deemed illustrative of the desperate character of its seventeenth-century occupant. “In breaking out a new window on the ground floor, a cavity was found in the solid wall, containing the skeleton of a child, with some remains of fine linen cloth in which it had been wrapped. Our authority,” says Wilson, “a worthy shoemaker, who had occupied the house for forty-eight years, was present when the discovery was made, and described very graphically the amazement and horror of the workman, who threw away his crowbar, and was with difficulty persuaded to resume his operations.” 

1  “Dom. Ann.,” Vol. II. 

One thought on “Chapter 1 – The Canongate., pp.1-12.

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