Chapter 3 – The Canongate (continued)., pp17-22.

[Old & New Edinburgh Contents]

Closes and Alleys on the North Side – Flesh-market and Coull’s Closes – Canongate High School – Rae’s Close – Kinloch’s Lodging – New Street and its Residents – Hall of the Shoemakers – Sir Thos. Dalyell – The Canongate Washhouse – Panmure House – Hannah Robertson – The White Horse Hostel – The Water Gate. 

 AMONG the earliest breaches made in the Old Town by the City Improvement Trustees were those at the head of the Canongate, where several closes were swept away, especially on the north side, where we now find the entrances to Jeffrey and Cranston Streets. 

   The first of these was the old Fleshmarket Close (which adjoined Leith Wynd on the east), once a thickly-peopled locality, but a cul-de-sac, the bottom of which was blocked up by ancient buildings. On the west side of this squalid and filthy alley there stood a mansion, the interior of which presented undoubted evidence of its magnificence in the sixteenth century, as it had among its many carved details a beautifully canopied, cusped, and ornate Gothic niche, with two shields, of which a drawing has been preserved, and which, in details, is identical with those found in the palace of Mary of Guise. Traditionally it was named “the old Parliament House,” wherein it is supposed the Regent Lennox, with Morton, Mar, Glencairn, and others, held their meeting in the troublesome time subsequent to the enforced abdication of Queen Mary. At the foot of the close there was once an opening to the old Flesh-market of the Canongate – hence its name – an area shown in Edgar’s map as entered by a gate, and measuring about 100 feet by 60. 

   Coull’s Close lay next, with a very narrow entrance, and latterly it opened into Macdowal Street, and long exhibited – ere it absolutely tumbled into ruins – many a sculptured doorway, and many an inscription dictated by the piety or pride of its former inhabitants, of whom not even the name can now be traced. 

   The High School Close adjoined it, so named as leading to a large, and handsome edifice which stood in an open court at its foot, and was long occupied as the burgh High School. In the central pediment, which bore a sundial, was the date 1704, and Dutch-looking dormer windows studded its roof, but the school had a date far beyond the days of Queen Anne; it appears to have been founded by the monks of Holyrood, and is referred to in a charter granted by James V. in 1529; therein mention is made of Henryson, clerk and orator of the monastery, having taught with success in the grammar school of the Canon-gate, and many notices of this old educational establishment occur in the Register of the Burgh, printed in the “Maitland Club Miscellany.” 

   Under date 5th of April, 1580, Gilbert Tailyour, schoolmaster, renounced his gift of the school, given him for his lifetime by Adam Bothwell, Bishop of Orkney, in favour of the bailies and Council, who therefore restored it to him. 

   Of Midcommon Close, a narrow, blocked-up, and tortuous alley, little more is known than the name; but there once stood on its eastern side a stately old tenement, bearing the date 1614, with this pious legend: I. TAKE. THE. LORD. JESUS. AS MY. ONLY. ALL. SUFFICIENT. PORTION. TO. CONTENT. ME. This was cut in massive Roman letters, and the house was adorned by handsome dormer windows and moulded stringcourses; but of the person who dwelt therein no memory remains. And the same must be said of the edifices in the closes called Morocco and Logan’s, and several others. 

   Between these two lies Rae’s Close, very dark and narrow, leading only to a house with a back green, beyond which can be seen the Calton Hill. In the sixteenth century this alley was the only open thoroughfare to the north between Leith Wynd and the Water Gate. In 1568 the foot of it was closed by a stone wall for security, and there was ordered to be “cast ane stank at the slope yatt comis fra the Justice Clark landis to the Abbaye, on the south side of this burghe.” In 1574 a gate with a secure lock was placed upon it for the same purpose.    

   In 1647 only three open thoroughfares are shown to the north – one the Tolbooth Wynd – and all are closed by arched gates in a wall bounding the Canongate on the north, and lying parallel with a Iong watercourse flowing away towards Craigentinnie, and still extant. 

   Kinloch’s Close, described in 1856 as “short, dark, and horrible,” took its name from Henry Kinloch, a wealthy burgess of the Canongate in the days of Queen Mary, who committed to his hospitality, in 1565, when she is said to have acceded to the League of Bayonne, the French ambassadors M. de Rambouillet and Clernau, who came on a mission from the Court of France. Their ostensible visit, however, was more probably to invest Darnley with the order of St. Michael. They had come through England with a train of thirty-six mounted gentlemen. After presenting themselves before the king and queen at Holyrood, according to the “Diurnal of Occurrents,” they “there after depairtit to Heny Kynloches lugeing in the Cannogait besyid Edinburgh.” 

   A few days after Darnley was solemnly invested with the collar of St. Michael in the abbey church; and on the 11th of February the ambassadors were banqueted, and a masked ball was given, when “the Queenis Grace and all her Maries and ladies were cled in men’s apparell,” and each of them presented a sword, “brawlie and maist artificiallie made and embroiderit with gold, to the said ambassatour and his gentlemen.” Next day they were banqueted in the castle by the Earl of Mar, and on the next ensuing they took their departure for France via England. 

   Kinloch’s mansion and that which adjoined it – the abode of the Earls of Angus – were pulled down about 1760, when New Street was built, “a curious sample of fashionable modern improvement, prior to the bold scheme of the New Town” and first called Young Street, according to Kincaid. Though sorely faded and decayed, it still presents a series of semi-aristocratic, detached, and not indigent mansions of the plain form peculiar to the time. Among its inhabitants were Lords Kames and Hailes, Sir Philip Ainslie, the Lady Betty Anstruther, Christian Ramsay daughter of the poet, Dr. Young the eminent physician, and others. 

   Henry Home, Lord Kames, who was raised to the bench in 1752, occupied a self-contained house at the head of the street facing the Canongate on the east side, and then deemed one of the best in the city; thus strangers were taken by their friends to see it as one of the local sights, with its front of grooved ashlar-work. Born in 1695, he early exhibited great talent with profound legal knowledge, and the mere enumeration of his works on law and history would fill a large page. He was of a playful disposition, and fond of practical jokes; but during the latter part of his life he entertained a nervous dread that he would outlive his noble faculties, and was pleased to find that by the rapid decay of his frame he would escape that dire calamity; and he died, after a brief illness, in 1782, in the eighty-seventh year of his age. The great Dr. Hunter, of the Tron church, afterwards lived and died in this house. 

   Lord Hailes, to whom we have referred elsewhere, resided during his latter years in New Street; but prior to his promotion to the bench he generally lived at New Hailes. His house, No. 23, was latterly possessed by Mr. Ruthven, the ingenious improver of the Ruthven printing-press. 

   Christian Ramsay, the daughter of “honest Allan,” and so named from her mother, Christian Ross, lived for many years in New Street. She was an amiable and kind-hearted woman, and possessed something of her father’s gift of verse. In her seventy-fourth year she was thrown down by a hackney-coach and had her leg broken; yet she recovered, and lived to be eighty-eight. Leading a solitary life, she took a great fancy to cats, and besides supporting many in her house, cosily disposed of in bandboxes, she laid out food for others around her house. “Not a word of obloquy would she listen to against the species,” says the author of “Traditions of Edinburgh,” “alleging, when any wickedness of a cat was spoken of, that the animal must have acted under provocation, for by nature, she asserted, they were harmless. Often did her maid go with morning messages to her friends, inquiring, with her compliments, after their pet cats. Good Miss Ramsay was also a friend to horses, and indeed to all creatures. When she observed a carter ill-treating his horse she would march up to him, tax him with cruelty, and by the very earnestness of her remonstrances arrest the barbarian’s hand. So, also, when she saw one labouring in the street with the appearance of defective diet, she would send rolls to its master, entreating him to feed the animal. These peculiarities, though a little eccentric, are not unpleasing; and I cannot be sorry to record those of the daughter of one whose head and heart were an honour to his country.” 

   The hideous chapel of ease built in New Street in 1794 occupied the site of the houses of Henry Kinloch and the Earls of Angus, the latter of which formed during the eighteenth century the banking office of the unfortunate firm of Douglas, Heron, and Co., whose failure spread ruin and dismay far and wide in Scotland. 

   Little Jack’s Close, a narrow alley leading by a bend into New Street, and Big Jack’s Close, which led to an open court, adjoin the thoroughfare of 1760, and both are doubtless named from some forgotten citizen or speculative builder of other days. 

   In the former stood the hall of the once wealthy corporation of the Cordiners or Shoemakers of the Canongate, on the west side, adorned with all the insignia of the craft, and furnished for their convivalia with huge tables and chairs of oak, in addition to a carved throne, surmounted by a crowned paring-knife, and dated 1682, for the solemn inauguration of King Crispin on St. Crispin’s Day, the 25th of October. 

   This corporation can be traced back to the 10th of June, 1574, when William Quhite was elected Deacon of the Cordiners in the Canongate, in place of the late Andrew Purvis. 

   It was of old their yearly custom to elect a king, who held his court in this Corporation Hall, from whence, after coronation, he was borne in procession through the streets, attended by his subject souters clad in fantastic habiliments. Latterly he was conducted abroad on a finely-caparisoned horse, and clad in ermined robes, attended by mock officers of state and preceded by a champion in armour; and in fooleries such as these the funds of the corporation became, in time, utterly exhausted before the classic of the last century. 

   The Shoemakers’ Close was, at the end of the last century, the abode of a curious dwarf, known as Geordie Cranstoun, who figures twice in Kay’s remarkable portraits. 

   In Big Jack’s Close there was extant, until within a few years ago, the town mansion of General Sir Thomas Dalyell of Binns, commander-in-chief of the Scottish forces, whose beard remained uncut after the death of Charles I., and who raised the Scots Greys on the 25th of November, 1681, and clad them first in grey uniform, and at their head served as a merciless persecutor of the out-lawed Covenanters, with a zest born of his service in Russia. The chief apartment in this house has been described as a large hall, with an arched or coach roof, adorned, says Wilson, with a painting of the sun in the centre, surrounded by gilded rays on an azure dome. Sky, clouds, and silver stars filled up the remaining space. The large windows were partially closed with oak shutters in the old Scottish fashion. “The kitchen also was worthy of notice, for a fireplace formed of a plain circular arch, of such unusual dimensions that popular credulity might have assigned it for the perpetration of those rites it had ascribed to him of spitting and roasting his miserable captives!… A chapel formerly stood on the site of the open court, but all traces of it were removed in 1779. It is not at all inconsistent with the character of the fierce old Cavalier that he should have erected a private chapel for his own use.” 

   It was to this house in Big Jack’s Close that the Rev. John Blackadder was brought a prisoner in 1681, guarded by soldiers under Johnstone, the town major, and accompanied by his son Thomas, who died a merchant in New England, and where that interview took place which is related in “Blackadder’s Memories,” by D. A. Crichton:- 

   “I have brought you a prisoner,” said Major Johnstone. 

   “Take him to the guard,” said Dalyell, who was about to walk forth. 

   On this, the poor divine, whose emotions must have been far from enviable in such a terrible presence, said, timidly, “May I speak with you a little, sir?” 

   “You have already spoken too much, sir,” replied Dalyell, whose blood always boiled at the sight of a Covenanter, “and I should hang you with my own hands over that outshot!” 

   On this, Major Johnstone, dreading what might ensue, took hastily away his prisoner, who, by order of the Privy Council, was sent to the Bass Rock, escorted by a party of the Life Guards, and there he died, a captive, in his seventieth year. 

   In the Tolbooth Wynd, on the east side thereof and near the foot, was built the old Charity Workhouse of the burgh. It was established by subscription, and opened for the reception of the poor in 1761, the expense being defrayed by collections at the church doors and voluntary contributions, without any assessment whatever; and in those days the managers were chosen annually from the public societies of the Canongate. The city plan of 1647 shows but seven houses within the gate, on the west side of the Wynd, and open gardens on the other, eastward nearly to the Water Gate. 

   Panmure Close, the third alley to the eastward – one with a good entrance, and generally more pleasant than most of those narrow old streets – is so named from its having been the access to Panmure House, an ancient mansion, which still remains at the foot of Monroe’s Close, and bore, till within the last few years, the appearance of those partly quadrangular manor-houses so common in Scotland during the seventeenth century. It became greatly altered after being brought into juxtaposition with the prosaic details of the Panmure Iron Foundry, but it formed the town residence of the Earls of Panmure, the fourth of whom, James, who distinguished himself as a volunteer at the siege of Luxemburg, and was Privy Councillor to James VII., a bitter opponent of the Union, lost his title and estates after the battle of Sheriffmuir, and died, an exile, in Paris. His nephew, William Maule, who served in the Scots Guards at Dettingen and Fontenoy, obtained an Irish peerage in 1743 as Earl Panmure of Forth, and was the last who possessed this house, in which he was resident in the middle of the last century, and was succeeded in it by the Countess of Aberdeen. 

   From 1778 till his death, in 1790, it formed the residence of Adam Smith, author of “The Wealth of Nations,” after he came to Edinburgh as Commissioner of the Customs, an appointment obtained by the friendship of the Duke of Buccleuch. A few days before his death, at Panmure House, he gave orders to destroy all his manuscripts except some detached essays, which were afterwards published by his executors, Drs. Joseph Black and James Hutton, and his library, a valuable one, he left to his nephew, Lord Reston. From that old mansion the philosopher was borne to his grave in an obscure nook of the Canongate churchyard. During the last years of his blameless life his bachelor household had been managed by a female cousin, Miss Jeanie Douglas, who acquired a great control over him. 

   At the end of Panmure Close was the mansion of John Hunter, a wealthy burgess, who was Treasurer of the Canongate in 1568, and who built it in 1565, when Mary was on the throne. Wilson refers to it as the earliest private edifice in the burgh, and says “it consists, like other buildings of the period of a lower erection of stone with a forestair leading to the first floor, and an ornamental turnpike within, affording access to the upper chambers. At the top of a very steep wooden stair, constructed alongside of the latter, a very rich specimen of carved oak panelling remains in good preservation, adorned with the Scottish lion, displayed within a broad wreath and surrounded by a variety of ornaments. The doorway of the inner turnpike bears on the sculptured lintel the initials I. H., a shield charged with a chevron, and a hunting horn in base, and the date 1565.” It bore also a comb with sixteeth. It was demolished in August, 1853. 

   A little lower down are Big and Little Lochend Closes, which join each other near the bottom and run into the north back of the Canongate. In the former are some good houses, but of no great antiquity. One of these was occupied by Mr. Gordon of Carlton in 1784; and in the other, during the close of the last and first years of the present century, there resided a remarkable old lady, named Mrs. Hannah Robertson, who was well known in her time as a reputed grand-daughter of Charles II. 

   From her published memoir-which, after its first appearance in 1792, reached a tenth edition in 1806, and was printed by James Tod in Forrester’s Wynd – and from other sources, we learn that she was the widow of Robert Robertson, a merchant in Perth, and was the daughter of a burgess named George Swan, son of Charles II. and Dorothea Helena, daughter of John Kirkhoven, Dutch baron of Ruppa, the beautiful Countess of Derby, who had an intrigue with the king during the protracted absence of her husband in Holland, Charles, eighth earl, who died in 1672 without heirs. 

   According to her narrative, the child was given to nurse to the wife of Swan, a gunner at Windsor, a woman whose brother, Bartholomew Gibson, was the king’s farrier at Edinburgh; and it would further appear that the latter obtained on trust for George Swan, from Charles II. or his brother the Duke of York, a grant of lands in New Jersey, where Gibson’s son died about 1750, as would appear from a notice in the London Chronicle for 1771. 

   Be all this as it may, the old lady referred to was a great favourite with all those of Jacobite proclivities, and at the dinners of the Jacobite always sat on the right hand of the president, till her death, which occurred in Little Lochend Close in 1808, when she had attained her eighty-fourth year, and a vast concourse attended her funeral, which took place in the Friends’ burial-place at the Pleasance. Unusually tall in stature, and beautiful even in old age, her figure, with black velvet capuchin and cane, was long familiar in the streets of Edinburgh. 

   From a passage in the “Edinburgh Historical Register” for 1791-2, she would appear to have been a futile applicant for a pension to the Lords of the Treasury, though she had many powerful friends, including the Duchess of Gordon and the Countess of Northesk, to whom she dedicated a book named “The Lady’s School of Arts.” 

   One of the most picturesque and interesting houses in the Canongate is one situated in what was called Davidson’s Close, the old “White Horse Hostel,” on a dormer window of which is the date 1603. It was known as the “White Horse” a century and more before the accession of the House of Hanover, and is traditionally said to have taken its name from a favourite white palfrey when the range of stables that form its basement had been occupied as the royal mews. The adjacent Water Gate took its name from a great horse-pond which was, no doubt, an appendage to this establishment. In 1639, when Charles I. had made his first peace with the Covenanters, and came temporarily to Berwick, he sent messages to the chief nobles of the National Church party to have a conference with him. 

   In obedience to this, with their various retinues, they were all mounting their horses in the yard of this inn, to which a kind of arched porte-cochère gives access from the main street, when a mob, taught wisely by the clergy to distrust a monarch who was under English influences, compelled them to desist and abandon their intended journey. The Earl of Montrose alone broke through all restraint; he went to the king, and from, thence-forward was lost to the cause of the Covenant for ever. 

   The invariable mode of a gentleman setting out for London in those days was to come to the White Horse with his saddle-bags, boots, and gambadoes, and there engage a suitable roadster to convey him the whole way. In more recent times it was associated with the Cavalier officers and Highland gentleman of Charles Edward’s picturesque court, and the quarters of Scott’s hero, Captain Waverley. According to a passage in the Gentleman’s Magazine for 1786, there were then set apart, “in the inns at Edinburgh, Glasgow, &c., English rooms, where English travellers could eat and converse together.” 

   When the White Horse ceased to be an inn is unknown, but the vicinity is connected with the memory of more than one Episcopal dignitary. A tenement which serves to complete the courtyard is pointed out as the residence of John Paterson, Bishop of Edinburgh in 1679, a special object of hate to the Covenanters, as he had been chaplain to the cruel and brutal Duke of Lauderdale. 

   After his translation to Glasgow in 1687, he was succeeded by Bishop Alexander Rose, who was ejected in the following year by the Revolution party – the last survivor of established Episcopacy in Edinburgh. He has been described by Bishop Keith as a man of sweet disposition and most venerable aspect. He died on the 20th of March, 1720, in his sister’s house in the Canongate. “Tradition,” says Chambers, “points to the floor, immediately above the porte-cochère (of the White Horse), by which the stable-yard is entered, as the humble mansion in which the Bishop breathed his last. I know at least one person who never goes past the place without an emotion of respect, remembering the self-abandoning devotion of the Scottish prelates to their engagements at the Revolution.” 

   A barrier called the Water Gate, existing now only in name, closed the lower end of the street on the north side. It was by this avenue that the English entered Edinburgh in 1544, and advanced to their futile attack on the Castle. It was the principal entrance from the east, not only to the Canongate, but to the whole city prior to the North Bridge; nearly all public entrances were made by it, and many state prisoners, on their way to execution, have passed through it; but the Water Gate, and the “Post and yet passand in to the Abbaye Knok,” have long been numbered with the past. A single rib, or arch of wood, surmounted by a ball, indicated the locality latterly, till it was blown down in 1822. 

   According to the “City Records,” the Council granted to the Baron Bailie, of the Canongate, as a gift of escheat, all the goods and chattels of witches found therein; accordingly that official, in, 1661 was not long in discovering a certain Barbara Mylne, who Janet Allen, burnt for witchcraft, once saw enter by the Water Gate in the “likeness of a catt, and did change her garment under her owin staire, and went into her house.” 

   Canongate dues were long levied at the site of the gate after it had ceased to exist; but on the fall of’ the ornamental structure referred to, the fishwomen of Musselburgh and Newhaven stoutly refused payment of all burghal customs on the contents of their creels, till the magistrates again restored – but for a time only – the arch of wood across the street. 

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