Closes and Alleys on the South Side – Chesser’s Court – The Canongate Theatre – Riots Therein – “Douglas” Performed – Mr. Digges and Mrs. Bellamy – St. John’s Close – St. John’s Street and its Residents – The Hammerman’s Close – Horse Wynd, Abbey – House of Lord Napier.
LIKE most burghs in former ages, the Canongate had a piper, of whom repeated notices occur in the treasurer’s accounts, with reference at times to his “claise and pasements thereto.” This official was superseded in 1587 by a drummer, whose duty it was to beat through the streets at “ffour houres in the morning;” and of the sanitary state of the community in those days some idea may be gathered from the fact that swine ran loose in the Canongate till 1583, when an attempt was made to put down the nuisance. In the city this was done earlier, as we find that in 1490 the magistrates ordain “the lokman, quhairwer he fyndis ony swyne betwix the Castell and the Netherbow upon the Gaitt,” to seize them, with a fine of fourpence upon each sow taken.
Again, in 1506, swine found in the streets or kennels are to be slaughtered by the “lokman” and escheated; and in 1513 swine were again forbidden to wander, under pain of the owners being banished, and each sow to be escheat. At the same time fruit was forbidden to be sold on the streets, or in crames, “holden thairupon, under the pain of escheitt” – that is, of forfeit.
In 1562 no flesh was to be eaten or even cooked on Friday or Saturday, under a penalty of ten pounds and in 1563 all markets were forbidden in the streets upon Sunday.
Among the first operations of the Improvement Trust were the demolitions at the head of St. Mary’s Wynd, including with them the removal of the Closes of Hume and Boyd, the first alleys at the head of the street on the south side, and the erection on their site of lofty and airy tenements in a species of Scottish style.
Four alleys to the eastward, Bell’s, Gillon’s, Gibbs’ and Pirie’s Closes, all narrow, dark, and filthy, have been without history or record; but Chessel’s Court, numbered as 240, exhibits a very superior style of architecture, and in 1788 was the scene of that daring robbery of the Excise Office which brought to the gallows the famous Deacon Brodie and his assistant, thus closing a long career of secret villainy, his ingenuity as a mechanic giving him every facility in the pursuits to which he addicted himself. “It was then customary for the shopkeepers of Edinburgh to hang their keys upon a nail at the back of their doors, or at least to take no pains in concealing them during the day. Brodie used to take impressions of them in putty or clay, a piece of which he used to carry in the palm of his hand. He kept a blacksmith in his pay, who forged exact copies of the keys he wanted, and with these it was his custom to open the shops of his fellow tradesmen during the night.”
In a house of Chessel’s Court there died, in 1854, an aged maiden lady of a very ancient Scottish stock – Elizabeth Wardlaw, daughter of Sir William Wardlaw, Bart., of the line of Balmule and Pitreavie in Fifeshire.
In the Playhouse Close, a cul-de-sac, and its neighbour the Old Playhouse Close, a narrow and gloomy alley, we find the cradle of the legitimate drama in Edinburgh.
In the former, in 1747, a theatre was opened, on such a scale as was deemed fitting for the Scottish capital, where the drama had skulked in holes and corners since the viceregal court had departed from Holyrood, in the days of the Duke of Albany and York. From 1727 till after 1753 itinerant companies, despite the anathemas of the clergy, used with some success the Tailors’ Hall in the Cowgate, which held, in professional phraseology, from £40 to £45 nightly. In the first-named year a Mr. Tony Alston endeavoured to start a theatre, in the same house which saw the failure of poor Allan Ramsay’s attempt, but the Society of High Constables endeavoured to suppress his “abominable stage plays;” and when the clergy joined issue with the Court of Session against him, his performances had to cease. But, according to Wodrow, there had been some talk of building another theatre as early as 1728
In 1746 the foundation of the theatre within a back area (near St. John’s Cross), now called the Playhouse Close, was laid by Mr. John Ryan, a London actor of considerable repute in his day, who had to contend with the usual opposition of the ignorant or illiberal, and that lack of prudence and thrift incidental to his profession generally. The house was capable of holding £70; the box seats were half-a-crown, the pit one-and-sixpence; and for several years it was the scene of good acting under Lee, Digges, Mrs. Bellamy, and Mrs. Ward.
After the affair of 1745 the audiences were apt to display a spirit of political dissension. On the anniversary of the battle of Culloden, in 1749, some English officers who were in the theatre commanded the orchestra, in an insolent and unruly manner, to strike up an obnoxious air known as Culloden; but in a spirit of opposition, and to please the people, the musicians played “You’re welcome, Charlie Stuart.” The military at once drew their swords and attacked the defenceless musicians and players, but were assailed by the audience with torn-up benches and every missile that could be procured. The officers now attempted to storm the galleries; but the doors were secured. They were then vigorously attacked in the rear by the Highland chairmen with their poles, disarmed, and most ignominiously drubbed and expelled; but in consequence of this and similar disturbances, bills were put up notifying that no music would be played but such as the management selected.
Another disturbance ensued soon after, occasioned by the performance of Garrick’s farce, “High Life below Stairs,” which the fraternity of footmen bitterly resented, and resolved to stop. On the second night of its being announced, Mr. Love, one of the management, came upon the stage and read a letter containing the most bitter denunciations of vengeance upon all concerned if the piece should be performed. It was, nevertheless, proceeded with, and the gentlemen who were in the theatre having provided accommodation for their servants in the gallery, the moment the farce began “a prodigious noise was heard from that quarter.”
The liverymen were ordered to be silent, but without success. Their masters, assisted by some others of the audience, endeavoured to quiet them by force; swords and sticks were freely resorted to, but it was not until after a tough battle that the gentlemen of the cloth were fairly expelled; “and servants from this time were deprived of the freedom of the theatre.”
About 1752 Mr. Lee purchased the Canongate Theatre from the original proprietors for £648 and £100 per annum during the lives of the lessees; but he failed in his engagement, and James Callender, a merchant of the city, undertook to conduct the business, with Mr. Digges as stage manager. Callender soon after resigned his charge to Mr. David Beatt, another citizen, who had ventured in the past time to read Prince Charles’s proclamations at the Cross. Mr. Love also withdrew from the charge, and was succeeded by Mr. John Dawson of Newcastle; but dissensions arose among the performers themselves. Two parties were formed in the theatre, which, during a performance of “Hamlet,” they utterly wrecked and demolished, and set on fire in a riot, to the supreme delight of all opponents of the drama.
Legal actions and counter-actions ensued; the house was again fitted up, and nothing of interest occurred till the night of the 14th December, 1756, when, to the dismay of all Scotland, there was brought out the tragedy of “Douglas,” written by the pen of a minister of the kirk!
The original cast was thus:- Douglas, Mr. Digges; Lord Randolph, Mr. Younger; Glenalvon, Mr. Love; Norval, Mr. Hayman; Lady Randolph, Mrs. Ward; Anna, Mrs. Hopkins.
With redoubled zeal the clergy returned to the assault, and though they could no more crush the players, they compelled John Home, the author of the obnoxious tragedy, to “renounce the orders that had been tarnished by a composition so unwonted and unclerical.” Ultimately he became captain in the Buccleuch Fencibles, and lived long enough to see the prejudices of many of his countrymen pass away; but he was long viewed with obloquy. “To account for this extraordinary phenomenon,” says Dr, Carlisle, “so far down in the eighteenth century, it is to be observed that not a few well-meaning people and all the zealots of the time were seriously offended with a clergyman for writing a tragedy, even with a virtuous tendency, and with his brethren for giving him countenance. They were joined by others out of mere envy.”
The Presbytery of Edinburgh suspended all clergymen who had witnessed the representation of “Douglas,” and at the same time “emitted an admonition and exhortation, levelled against all who frequented what they supposed to be the Temple of the Father of Lies, and ordered it to be read in all the churches within their bounds.”
The personal elegance of Digges and the rare beauty of Mrs. Bellamy were traditionally remembered in the beginning of the present century, and made them even objects of interest to those by whom their scandalous life was regarded with just reprehension. They lived in a small country house at Bonnington near Leith. It is remembered that Mrs. Bellamy was extremely fond of singing birds, and when visiting Glasgow was wont to have them carried by a porter all the way, lest they might suffer by the jolting of a carriage, and people wondered to hear of ten guineas being expended for such a purpose. “Persons under the social ban for their irregular lives often win the love of individuals by their benevolence and sweetness of disposition – qualities, it is to be remarked, not unlikely to have been concerned in their first trespasses. This was the case with Mrs. Bellamy. Her waiting-maid, Anne Waterstone, who is mentioned in her ‘Memoirs,’ lived many years after in Edinburgh and continued to the last to adore the memory of her mistress. Nay, she was, from this cause, a zealous friend of all players, and would never allow a slighting remark upon them to pass unreproved. It was curious to find in a poor old Scotchwoman of the humbler class such a sympathy with the follies and eccentricities of the children of Thespis.”
The erection of the New Theatre Royal in the extended royalty eclipsed its predecessor in the Canongate, which was deserted in 1767. The front land, through which an arch gives access to the old Playhouse Close, is a fine specimen of the Scottish street architecture in the time of Charles I. It has a row of dormer windows, with another of storm-windows on a steep roof, that reminds one of those in Bruges and Antwerp. Over a doorway within the close is an ornamental tablet, the inscription on which has become defaced, and the old theatre itself has long since given place to private dwellings. In one of these lived, in 1784, a man named Wilson Gavin, whose name appears in “Peter Williamson’s Directory” as an “Excellent Shoemaker and Leather Tormentor.”
The adjoining alley, St. John’s Close, is open towards St. John’s Street. Narrow and ancient, it shows over a door-lintel on its west side the legend, within a sunk panel, THE LORD IS ONLY MY SUPORT. The doorway is but three feet wide.
Near this a spacious elliptical archway gives access to St. John’s Street, so named with reference to St. John’s Cross, a broad, airy, and handsome thoroughfare, “one of the heralds of the New Town,” and associated with the names of many of the Scottish aristocracy who lingered in the old city, with judges and country gentlemen. By a date over a doorway in it, this street had been in progress in 1768.
At the head of the street, with its front windows overlooking the Canongate, is the house on the first floor of which was the residence of Mrs. Telfer of Scotstown, the sister of Tobias Smollett, who was her guest in 1766, on his second and last visit to his native country, and where, though in feeble health, he mixed with the best society of the capital, the men and manners of which he so graphically portrays in his last novel, “Humphrey Clinker,” a work in which fact and fiction are curiously blended, and in which he mentions that he owed an introduction into the literary circles to Dr. Carlyle, the well-known incumbent of Inveresk.
Mrs. Telfer, though then a widow with moderate means, moved in good society. She has been described as a tall, sharp-visaged lady, with a hooked nose and a great partiality for whist. Her brother had then returned from that protracted Continental tour, the experiences of which are given in his “Travels through France and Italy,” in two volumes. The novelist has been described as a tall and hand-some man, somewhat prone to satirical innuendo, but with a genuine vein of humour, polished manners, and great urbanity. On the latter Dr. Carlyle particularly dwells, and refers to an occasion when Smollett supped in a tavern with himself, Hepburn of Keith, Home the author of “Douglas,” Commissioner Cardonel, and others. The beautiful “Miss R–n,” with whom, Jerry Milford is described as dancing at the hunters’ ball, was the grand-daughter of Susannah Countess of Eglinton, whose daughter Lady Susan became the wife of Renton of Lamerton in the Merse. The wife of the novelist, Anne Lascelles, the Narcissa of “Roderick Random,” was a pretty Creole lady, of a somewhat dark complexion, whom he left at his death nearly destitute in a foreign land, and for whom a benefit was procured at the old Theatre Royal in March, 1784. A sister of Miss Renton’s was married to Smollett’s eldest nephew, Telfer, who inherited the family estate and assumed the name of Smollett. She afterwards became the wife of Sharpe of Hoddam, and, “strange to say, the lady whose bright eyes had flamed upon poor Smollett’s soul in the middle of the last century was living so lately as 1836.”
The house in which Smollett resided with his sister in 1766 was also the residence, prior to 1788, of James Earl of Hopetoun, who in early life had served in the Scots Guards and fought at Minden, and of whom it was said that he “maintained the dignity and noble bearing of a Scottish baron with the humility of a Christian, esteeming the religious character of his family to be its highest distinction. He was an indulgent landlord, a munificent benefactor to the poor, and a friend to all.”
No. 1 St. John Street was the house of Sir Charles Preston, Bart., of Valleyfield, renowned for his gallant defence of Fort St. John against the American general Montgomery, when major of the Cameronians. No. 3 was occupied by Lord Blantyre; No. 5 by George Earl of Dalhousie, who was Commissioner to the General Assembly from 1777 to 1782; No. 8 was the house of Andrew Carmichael the last Earl of Hyndford.
In No. 10 resided James Ballantyne, the friend, partner, and confidant of Sir Walter Scott – when the Great Unknown – and it was the scene of those assemblies of select and favoured guests to whom “the hospitable printer read snatches of the forth-coming novel, and whetted, while he seemed to gratify, their curiosity by many a shrewd wink and mysterious hint of confidential insight into the literary riddle of the age.” No. 10 must have been the scene of many a secret council connected with the publication of the Waverley Novels. Scott himself, Lockhart who so graphically describes these scenes, Erskine, Terry, Sir William Allan, George Hogarth, W.S. (Mrs. Ballantyne’s brother), and others, were frequent guests here. In this house Mrs. Ballantyne died in 1829, and Ballantyne’s brother John died there on the 16th of June, 1821. The house is now a Day Home for Destitute Children.
In No. 13 dwelt Lord Monboddo and his beautiful daughter, who died prematurely of consumption at Braid on the 17th of June, 1790, and whom Burns – her father’s frequent guest there – describes so glowingly in his “Address to Edinburgh”:-
“Fair Burnet strikes the adoring eye,
Heaven’s beauties on my fancy shine;
I see the sire of Love on high,
And own his work indeed divine!”
The fair girl’s early death he touchingly commemorates in a special ode. She was the ornament of the elegant society in which she moved; she was her old father’s pride and the comfort of his domestic life. Dr. Gregory, whom she is said to have refused, also lived in St. John Street, as did Lady Suttie, Sinclair of Barrock, Sir David Rae, and Lord Eskgrove, one of the judges who tried the Reformers of 1793, a man of high ability and integrity. He removed thither from the old Assembly Close, and lived in St. John Street till his death in 1804.
Among the residents there in 1784 were Sir John Dalrymple and Sir John Stewart of Allanbank, and afterwards the Earl of Aboyne. The first house on the west side of the street was the meeting place of the old Canongate Kilwinning lodge, where Burns was affiliated and crowned as poet laureate, in presence of Lord Napier and many other masonic worthies of the day. A house a little to the south of this, having a gable to the street and a garden on the south, was, in 1780, the residence of the Earl of Wemyss, whose brother, Lord Elcho, was attainted after the battle of Culloden. A Lady Betty Charteris of this ancient family occupied the farthest house to the south on the same side. She had a romantic and melancholy history; being thwarted in an affair of the heart, she lay in bed for six-and-twenty years, till removed by death.
No. 18 is the Royal Maternity Hospital, which was founded in 1835, an institution the benefits of which are cordially extended to all who come to it, though many patients are attended at their own homes.
Eastward of St. John’s Street is the Bakehouse Close, on the east side of which stands the mansion built and occupied by Sir Archibald Acheson, Bart., of Glencairnie, who was one of Charles I.’s Secretaries of State for Scotland. An archway, ornamented, and having a pendant keystone, gives access to the picturesque little quadrangle, three sides of which are formed by his house, which is all built of polished ashlar, with sculptured dormer windows, fine stringcourses, and other architectural details of the period. The heavily moulded doorway, which measures only three feet by six, is surmounted by the date 1633, and a huge monogram including the initials of himself and his wife Dame Margaret Hamilton. Over all is a cock on a trumpet and scroll, with the motto Vigilantibus. He had been a puisne judge in Ireland, and was first knighted by Charles I., for suggesting the measure of issuing out a commission under the great seal for the surrender of tithes. He was the friend of Drummond of Hawthornden and of Sir William Alexander Earl of Stirling.
A succession of narrow and obscure alleys follows till we come to the Horse Wynd, on the east side of which lay the royal stables at the time of Darnley’s murder. In this street, on the site of a school-house, &c., built by the Duchess of Gordon for the inhabitants of the Sanctuary, stood an old tenement, in one of the rooms on the first floor of which the first rehearsal of Home’s “Douglas” took place, and in which the reverend author was assisted by several eminent lay and clerical friends, among whom were Robertson and Hume the historians, Dr. Carlyle of Inveresk and the author taking the leading male parts in the cast, while the ladies were represented by the Rev. Dr. Blair and Professor Fergusson. A dinner followed in the Erskine Club at the Abbey, when they were joined by the Lords Elibank, Kames, Milton, and Monboddo. To the south of this house was the town mansion of Francis Scott Lord Napier, who inherited that barony at the demise of his grandmother, Lady Napier, in 1706, and assumed the name of Napier, and died at a great old age in 1773.
At its southern end the wynd was closed by an arched gate in the long wall, which ran from the Cowgate Port to the south side of the Abbey Close.