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Chapter 2 – The Canongate (continued)., pp.13-17.

[Old & New Edinburgh Contents]

Execution of the Marquis of Montrose – The First Dromedary in Scotland – The Streets Cleansed – Roxburgh House – London Stages of 1712 and 1754 – Religious Intolerance – Declension of the Burgh. 

   OF all the wonderful and startling spectacles witnessed amid the lapse of ages from the windows of the Canongate, none was perhaps more startling and pitiful than the humiliating procession which conducted the great Marquis of Montrose to his terrible doom. 

   On the 18th of May 1650, he was brought across the Forth to Leith, after his defeat and capture by the Covenanters at the battle of Invercarron, where he had displayed the royal standard; and it is impossible now to convey an adequate idea of the sensation excited in the city, when the people became aware that the Graham, the victor in so many battles, and the slayer of so many thousands of the best troops of the Covenant, was almost at their gates. 

   Placed on a cart-horse, he was brought in by the eastern barrier of the city, as it was resolved, by the influence of his rival and enemy, Argyle, to protract the spectacle of his humiliation as long as possible, by compelling him to traverse the entire length of the excited and tumultuous metropolis, by the Canongate and High Street, “overlooked by the loftiest houses in Europe, with their forestairs, balconies, bartizans, and outshots, that afforded every facility for beholding the spectacle. On this day the whole length of that vast thoroughfare was one living mass of human beings; but for one who had come to pity, there were more than a hundred whose hearts were filled with a tiger-like ferocity, which the clergy had inspired to a dangerous degree, and for the most ungenerous purpose.” 

   The women of the kail-market and the “saints of the Bowhead” were all there, their tongues trembling with abuse, and their hands full of stones or mud to launch at the head of the fallen Cavalier, who passed through the Water Gate at four in the afternoon, greeted by a storm of yells. Seated on a lofty hurdle, he was bound with cords so tightly that he was unable to raise his hands to save his face; preceded by the magistrates in their robes, he was bareheaded, his hat having been torn from him. Though in the prime of manhood and perfection of manly beauty, we are told that he “looked pale, worn, and hollow-eyed, for many of the wounds he had received at Invercarron were yet green and smarting. A single horse drew the hurdle, and thereon sat the executioner of the city, clad in his ghastly and sable livery, and wearing his bonnet as a mark of disrespect.” He was escorted by the city guard, under the notorious Major Weir – Weir the wizard, whose terrible fate has been recorded elsewhere. 

   In front marched a number of Cavalier prisoners, bareheaded and bound with cords. Many of the people now shed tears on witnessing this spectacle; but, says Kincaid, they were publicly rebuked by the clergy, “who declaimed against this movement of rebel nature, and reproached them with their profane tenderness;” while the “Wigton Papers” state that how even the widows and the mothers of those who had fallen in his wars wept for Montrose, who looked around him with the profoundest serenity as he proceeded up the Canongate, even when he came to Moray House – 

“Then, as the Graham looked upward, he met the ugly smile 

Of him who sold his king for gold, the master-fiend Argyle!”

   On the broad stone balcony which there projects into the street was Argyle, with a gay bridal party in their brave dresses. His son, Lord Lorne, had just been wedded to the Earl of Moray’s daughter, Lady Mary Stuart, and the young couple were there, with the Marchioness, the Countess of Haddington, Sir Archibald Johnston of Warriston, and others, to exult over the fallen Royalist. “Their malice was not confined to that,” says Monteith of Salmonet; “they caused the cart to be stopped for some time before the Earl of Moray’s house, where, by an unparalleled baseness, Argyle, with the chief men of his cabal, who never durst look Montrose in the face while he had his sword in his hand, appeared in the balcony in order to feed merrily their sight with a spectacle which struck horror into all good men. But Montrose astonished them with his looks, and his resolution confounded them.” 

   Then with broad vulgarity the marchioness spat full in his face! Argyle shrank back at this, and an English Cavalier who stood among the crowd below reviled him sharply, while Lorne and his bride continued to toy and smile in the face of the people. (“Wigton Papers.”) 

   So protracted was this melancholy spectacle that seven o’clock had struck before the hurdle reached the gate of the Tolbooth, where Montrose, when unbound, gave the executioner a gold coin, saying – “This is your reward, my man, for driving the cart.” 

   On the following day, Sunday, the ministers in their pulpits, according to Wishart, rebuked the people for not having stoned him. One declared that “he was a faggot of hell, and that he already saw him burning,” while he was constantly taunted by Major Weir as “a dog, atheist, and murderer.” 

   The story of Montrose’s execution on the 21st of May, when he was hanged at the Cross on a gibbet thirty feet high, with the record of his battles suspended from his neck, how he died with glorious magnanimity and was barbarously quartered, belongs to the general annals of the nation; but the City Treasurer’s account contains some curious items connected with that great legal tragedy:- 

1650. Ffebruar. To making a scaffold at ye Cross for burning ye Earl of Montrose’s papers. 2   8 0 
May 13. For making a seat on a cart to carry him from ye Water Gate to ye Tolboooth. 12 16 0 
    “     For making a high new gallows and double leather, and setting up a galbert 12   8 4 
    “     Pd. 6 workmen for carrying ye trunk of his body and burying it in ye Burrowmuir 2   0 0 
    “     Pd. the Lockman for making sd. grave deeper and covering it again 1 16 0 
    “     Pd. for sharping the axe for striking away the head, legs, and arms from the body 0 12 0 

   As a set-off against these items, we have the following, in 1660-1, when Argyle’s fate came:- 

To Alexander Davidson for a new axe to ye Maiden, and is to maintain it all ye days of his life 70 12 0 
To 4 Drummers when Argyle and Swinton were brought from Leith 14   8 0 
To 17 extra Drummers, 2 days, when Montrose was buried and Argyle executed 21 12 0 

   The marquis was interred amid great pomp in the Church of St. Giles at the Restoration; but when a search was made for his remains in the Chapman aisle, in April, 1879, no trace of them whatever could be found there. 

   Amid the gloom and horror of scenes such as these executions, and the general events of the wars of the Covenant, all traces of gaiety, and especially of theatrical entertainments, disappeared in Edinburgh as forbidden displays; but in January, 1659, the citizens were regaled with the sight of a travelling dromedary, the first that had ever been in Scotland. Nicoll describes it as “ane heigh great beast, callit ane dummodary, quhilk being keepit clos in the Canongate, none had a sight of it, without three pence the person… It was very big, and of great height, cloven futted like unto a kow, and on the bak ane saitt, as it were a sadill to sit on. Thair was brocht in with it ane lytill baboun, faced lyke unto an aip.” 

   In 1686 the public attendance at mass by some of the officers of state excited a tumult in the city, and many persons of rank were insulted on returning therefrom by the rioters. One of these, a journeyman baker, was, by order of the Privy Council, whipped through the Canongate, and ultimately the Foot Guards had to fire on the mob that assembled. 

   In that year an Act of Parliament empowered the magistrates to impose a tax of £500 sterling yearly, for three years, to cleanse the town and Canongate, and free both from beggars; and in 1687 the whole members of the College of Justice voluntarily offered to bear their full share of this tax, and appointed two of their body to be present when it was levied. 

   In 1692 we find an instance in the Canongate of one of the many troubles which in those days arose from corporation privileges, by which the poor and industrious tradesman was made the victim of monopoly. 

   In the open ground which now surrounds Milton House, there stood in those days the mansion of the Earls of Roxburgh, surrounded by a beautiful garden. In October, 1692, William Somerville, a wright-burgess of the city, was engaged on some repairs in this house, when Thomas Kinloch, Deacon of the Wrights in the Canongate, came with others, and violently carried off all the tools of Somerville and his workmen, on the plea that they were not freemen of the burgh; and when the tools were demanded formally, two days after, they were withheld. 

   Robert, Earl of Roxburgh (who afterwards died on his travels abroad), was then a minor, but his curators resented the proceedings of Kinloch, and sued him for riot and oppression. Apparently, if the Roxburgh mansion had been subject to the jurisdiction of the Canongate, the Privy Council would have given no redress; but when the earl’s ancestor, in 1636, had given up the superiority of the Canongate, as he reserved his house to be holden of the Crown, it was found that the local corporation had no right to interfere with his workmen, and Somerville’s tools were restored to him by order of the Council. 

   Earl Robert was succeeded in this house by his brother John, fifth Earl and first Duke of Roxburgh, K.G., who sold his Union vote for £500, became Secretary of State for Scotland in 1716, and died in 1741. 

   Long ere that time the effect of the Union had done its worst upon the old court burgh. Maitland, writing in 1753, says:- “This place has suffered more by the union of the kingdoms than all the other parts of Scotland: for having, before that period, been the residence of the chief of the Scottish nobility, it was then in a flourishing condition; but being deserted by them, many of their houses are fallen down, and others in a ruinous condition; it is in a piteous case!” 

   Five years after the Union we find a London coach announced as starting from the Canongate, the advertisement for which, with regard to expedition, comfort, and economy, presents a curious contrast to the announcements of today, and is worth giving at length, as we find it in the Newcastle Courant of October, 1712. 

   “Edinburgh, Berwick, Newcastle, Durham, and London Stage-coach begins on Monday, 13th October, 1712. All that desire to pass from Edinburgh to London, or from London to Edinburgh or any place on that road, let them repair to Mr. John Bailies, at the Coach and Horses at the head of the Canongate, every Saturday, or the Black Swan in Holborn, every other Monday, at both of which places they may be received in a stage-coach which performs the whole journey in thirteen days, without any stoppage (if God permit), having eighty able horses to perform the whole stage. Each passenger paying £4 10s. for the whole journey, allowing each 20 lbs. weight, and all above to pay 6d. per lb. The coach sets off at six in the morning. Performed by Henry Harrison, Nich. Speighl, Rob. Garbe, Rich. Croft.” 

   When we consider the cost of food on a thirteen days’ journey, the fees to successive guards and drivers, the small allowance of luggage, and the overcharge, the contrast of travelling in the days of Anne and Victoria seems great indeed. 

   In July, 1754, the Edinburgh Courant advertises the stage-coach, drawn by six horses, with a postillion on one of the leaders, as “a new, genteel, two-end glass machine, hung on steel springs; exceeding light and easy, to go in ten days in summer and twelve in winter,” setting out from Hosea Eastgate’s, at the Coach and Horses, Dean Street, Soho, and from John Somerville’s, in the Canongate, every other Tuesday. “In the winter to set out from London and Edinburgh every other Monday morning, and to go to Burrowbridge on Saturday night; and to set out from thence on Monday morning, and to get to London and Edinburgh on Saturday night. Passengers to pay as usual. Performed (if God permits) by your dutiful servant, HOSEA EASTGATE. Care is taken of small parcels, according to their value.” 

   A few years before this move in the way of progress, the Canongate had been the scene of a little religious persecution; thus we find that on a Sunday in the April of 1722 the Duchess Dowager of Gordon, Elizabeth Howard, daughter of the Duke of Norfolk, venturing to have mass celebrated at her house in the Canongate for herself and some fifty other Roman Catholics, Bailie Hawthorn, magistrate of the burgh, broke open the doors at the head of an armed party, and seized the whole. The ladies he permitted to depart on bail, but John Wallace, the priest, he cast into prison; this he did all the more zealously that some thirty-five years before the latter had been – according to Wodrow – a Protestant clergyman. Thomas Kennedy, the Lord Advocate, refused bail for him, though five persons of rank offered it. It was at length taken to the extent of 5,000 merks, and failing to stand his trial under the statute of 1700, according to Arnot’s “Criminal Trials,” he was outlawed. 

   Notwithstanding the gloom, ruin, and desertion of which Maitland wrote in 1753, many persons of rank and note continued to linger in the Canongate, and a curious list of them is given by Robert Chambers, as taken down by “the late Mr. Chalmers Izett, whose memory extended back to 1769.” It includes two dukes, sixteen earls, two dowager countesses, seven lords, and seven lords of session, thirteen baronets, four commanders of the forces in Scotland, and five eminent men – Adam Smith, Drs. Young, Dugald Stewart, Gardner, and Gregory; and he adds that the last blow was given to the locality by the opening of the road along the Calton Hill in 1817, which rendered it no longer the avenue of approach to the city from the east. 

   Among the last of the old noblesse who resided in it was the Lady Janet Sinclair, daughter of William, Lord Strathnaver (who died in July, 1720). She was the relict of George Sinclair of Ulbster, and mother of Sir John Sinclair, the famous agriculturist. She died in her seventy-eighth year, in June, 1795. 

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