Separate or Detached Edifices therein – Sir Walter Scott in the Canongate – The Parish Church – How it came to be built – Its Official Position – Its Burying Ground – The Grave of Fergusson – Monument to Soldiers interred there – Eccentric Henry Prentice – The Tolbooth – Testimony as to its Age – Its later uses – Magdalene Asylum – Linen Hall – Moray House – Its Historical Associations – The Winton House – Whiteford House – The Dark Story of Queensberry House.
THE advancing exigencies of the age and the necessity for increased space and modern sanitary improvements have made strange havoc among the old alleys and mansions of the great central street of the court suburb, but there still remain some to which belong many historical and literary associations of an interesting nature. Scott was never weary of lingering among them, and recalling the days that were no more. “No funeral hearse,” says Lockhart, “crept more leisurely than did his landau up the Canongate; and not a queer, tottering gable but recalled to him some long-buried memory of splendour or bloodshed, which, by a few words, he set before the hearer in the reality of life.” The Canongate church, a most unpicturesque-looking edifice, of nameless style, with a species of Doric porch, was built in 1688. The Abbey church of Holyrood had hitherto been the parish church of the Canongate, but in July, 1687, King James VII. wrote to the Privy Council, that the church of the Abbey “was the chapel belonging to his palace of Holyrood, and that the knights of the Most Noble Order of the Thistle, which he had now [re]erected, could not meet in St. Andrews’ church (i.e. the cathedral in Fife), being demolished in the Rebellion; and so it was necessary for them to have this church, and the Provost of Edinburgh was ordained to see the keys of it given to them. After a long silence,” says Fountainhall, “the Archbishop of Glasgow told that it was a mansal and patrimonial church of the Bishopric of Edinburgh, and though the see was vacant, yet it belonged not to the Provost to deliver the keys.”
Yet the congregation were ordered to seek accommodation in Lady Yester’s church till other could be found for them, and the Canongate church was accordingly built for them, at the expense, says Arnot, of £2,400 sterling. A portion of this consisted of 20,000 merks, left, in 1649, by Thomas Moodie, a citizen, called by some Sir Thomas Moodie of Sauchtonhall, to re-build the church partially erected on the Castle Hill, and demolished by the English during the siege of 1650.
Two ministers were appointed to the Canongate church. The well-known Dr. Hugh Blair and the late Principal Lee have been among the incumbents. It is of a cruciform plan, and has the summit of its ogee gable ornamented with the crest of the burgh – the stag’s head and cross of King David’s legendary adventure – and the arms of Thomas Moodie form a prominent ornament in front of it “In our young days,” says a recent writer in a local paper, “the Incorporated Trades, eight in number, occupied pews in the body of the church, these having the names of the occupiers painted on them; and in mid-summer, when the Town Council visited it, as is still their wont, the tradesmen placed large bouquets of flowers on their pews, and as our sittings were near this display, we used to glance with admiration from the flowers up to the great sword standing erect in the front gallery in its splendid scabbard. This life is full of contrasts; so when the magistrates, in ermine and gold, took their seats behind this sword of state in the front gallery, on the right of the minister, and in the gallery, too, were to be seen congregated the humble paupers from the Canongate poorhouse, now divested of its inmates and turned into a hospital. Our dear old Canongate, too, had its Baron Bailie and Resident Bailies before the Reform Bill in 1832 ruthlessly swept them away. Halberdiers, or Lochaber-axe-men, who turned out on all public occasions to grace the officials, were the civic body-guard, together with a body in plain clothes, whose office is on the ground flat under the debtors’ jail.”
But there still exists the convenery of the Canongate, including weavers, dyers, and cloth-dressers, &c., as incorporated by royal charter in 1630, under Charles I.
In the burying-ground adjacent to the church, and which was surrounded by trees in 1765, lie the remains of Dugald Stewart, the great philosopher, of Adam Smith, who wrote the “Wealth of Nations;” Dr. Adam Fergusson, the historian of the Roman Republic; Dr. Burney, author of the “History of Music;” Dr. Gregory; David Allan; Lord Cromarty; and many others who have left their “footprints on the sands of time.”
There, too, is the grave of the ill-fated Fergusson the poet, above which is the tombstone placed at the order of Robert Burns by Gowans, a marble-cutter in the Abbey Hill, “to remain for ever sacred to the memory of him whose name it bears,” with the inscription Burns penned:-
“HERE LIES ROBERT FERGUSSON.
Born Sept. 5th, 1751. Died October 16th, 1774.
No sculptured marble here, nor pompous lay,
No storied urn nor animated bust;
This simple stone directs pale Scotia’s way
To pour her sorrows o’er her poet’s dust.”
Here, on the 16th of June, 1821, Sir Walter Scott attended the funeral of John Ballantyne, and displayed considerable emotion. “He cast his eyes along the overhanging line of the Calton Hill, with its gleaming walls and towers, and then turning to the grave again, ‘I feel,’ he whispered in Lockhart’s ear, “I feel as if there would be less sunshine for me from this day forth.’ ”
In May 1880 there was erected here a monument of rose-coloured granite, twenty-six feet high, by Mr. Ford of the Holyrood Glass Works, “In memory of the soldiers who died in Edinburgh Castle, situated in the Parish of Canongate, interred here from the year 1692 to 1880.” It is very ornate, has on its base sculptured trophies, and was inaugurated in presence of General Hope, his staff, and the 71st Highlanders. Prior to its erection the spot where so many soldiers have found their last home was only a large square patch covered by grass.
In the “Domestic Annals” we find recorded the death, in 1788, of Henry Prentice, by whom the field culture of the potato was first introduced into the county of Edinburgh, in 1746. He had made a little money as a travelling merchant, was an eccentric character, and in 1784 sunk £140 with the managers of the Canongate poorhouse for a weekly subsistence. He had his coffin made, with the date of his birth thereon, 1703, and long had his gravestone conspicuously placed in the burgh churchyard, inscribed thus:-
“Henry Prentice. Died…
Be not curious to know how I lived;
But rather how yourself should die.”
He was, however, eventually interred at Restalrig.
At least three tenements of three storeys each would seem to have occupied the site of the church.
One of the picturesque relics of the past in Edinburgh is the old Canongate Tolbooth, with its sombre tower and spire, Scoto-French corbelled turrets, huge projecting clock, dark-mouthed archway, its moulded windows, and many sculptured stones. Above the arch is the inscription;
S. L. B.
PATRIÆ ET POSTERIS 1591;
and in a niche are the usual insignia of the burgh, the stag’s head and cross, with the motto SIC ITUR AD ASTRA, while the appropriate motto ESTO FIDUS surmounts the inner doorway to the courthouse. At the south-east comer is the old shaft of the cross and pillory, near the entrance to the police-station.
Altogether it is a fine example of the polished edifices of the reign of James VI. In the tower are two bells, one inscribed SOLI DEO HONOR ET GLORIA, 1608, and a larger one, cast in 1796. Between the stately windows of the Council Hall is a pediment surmounted by a great thistle and the legend:-
J. R. 6. JUSTITIA ET PIETAS VALIDE SUNT PRINCIPIS ARCES.
Herein the magistrates who came as successors of the abbots of Holyrood as over-lords of the burgh, held weekly courts for the punishment of offenders, the adjustment of small debts, and the affairs of the little municipality. That the building is older than any of the dates upon it, or that it had a predecessor, the following extracts from the “Burgh Records” attest:-
“Vndecimo decembris, an: 1567.
“The quhilk day it was concludit, be the Baillies and Counsall, to pursew quhatsomever person that is known and brutit wt the breking of the Tolbooth of this burcht, the tyme of the furth letting of Janet Robertsoun, being werdit within the samyn, &c.”
In 1572 the following item occurs:-
“To sax pynonis (pioneers?) att the Baillies command for taking doun of the lintel-stone of the Auld Tolbooth window – iij.s vi.d.”
In 1654 several Scottish prisoners of war, confined here under a guard of Cromwell’s soldiers, effected their escape by rending their blankets and sheets into strips. In January, 1675, the captain of the Edinburgh Tolbooth complained to the Lords of Council that his brother official in the Canongate used to set debtors at liberty at his own free will, or by consent of the creditor by whom they were imprisoned without permission accorded.
After the erection of the Calton gaol this edifice was used for the incarceration of debtors alone; and the number therein in October, 1834, was only seventeen, so little had it come to be wanted for that purpose.
Within a court adjoining the Tolbooth was the old Magdalene Asylum, instituted in 1797 for the reception of about sixty females; but the foundation-stone of a new one was laid in October, 1805, by the Provost, Sir William Fettes, Bart., in presence of the clergy and a great concourse of citizens. “In the stone was deposited a sealed bottle, containing various papers relating to the rise, progress, and present state of the asylum.” This institution was afterwards transferred to Dalry.
A little below St. John Street, within a court, stood the old British Linen Hall, opened in 1766 by the Board of Manufactures for the Sale and Custody of Scottish Linens – an institution to be treated of at greater length when we come to its new home on the Earthen Mound. Among the curious booth-holders therein was “old John Guthrie, latterly of the firm of Guthrie and Tait, Nicholson Street,” who figures in “Kay’s Portraits,” and whose bookstall in the hall – after he ceased being a travelling chapman – was the resort of all the curious book collectors of the time, till he removed to the Nether Bow.
A little below the Canongate Church there was still standing a house, occupied in 1761 by Sir James Livingstone of Glentenan, which possessed stables, hay-lofts, and a spacious flower-garden.
By far the most important private edifice still remaining in this region of ancient grandeur and modern squalor is that which is usually styled Moray House, being a portion of the entailed property of that noble family, in whose possession it remained exactly 200 years, having become the property of Margaret Countess of Moray in 1645 by an arrangement with her younger sister, Anne Home, then Countess of Lauderdale, by whom the mansion was built. “It is old and it is magnificent, but its age and magnificence are both different from those of the lofty piled-up houses of the Scottish aristocracy of the Stuart dynasty.”
Devoid of the narrow, suspicious apertures, barred and loopholed, which connect old Scottish houses with the external air, the entrances and proportions of this house are noble, spacious, and pleasing, though the exterior has little ornament save the balcony, on enormous trusses, projecting into the street, with ornate entablatures over their great windows and the stone spires of its gateway. There are two fine rooms within, both of them dome-roofed and covered with designs in bas-relief.
The initials of its builder, M. H., surmounted by a coronet, are sculptured on the south window, and over another on the north are the lions of Home and Dudley impaled in a lozenge, for she was the daughter of Lord Dudley Viscount Lyle, and then the widow of Alexander first Earl of Home, who accompanied James VI. into England. She erected the house some years before the coronation of Charles I. at Edinburgh. in 1633; and she contributed largely to the enemies of his crown, as appears by a repayment to her by the English Parliament of £70,000 advanced by her in aid of the Covenanters; and hence, no doubt, it was, that when Cromwell gained his victory over the Duke of Hamilton in the north of England, we are told, when the (then) Marquis of Argyle conducted Cromwell and Lambert, with their army, to Edinburgh they kept their quarters at the Lady Home’s house in the Canongate, according to Guthrie, and there, adds Sir James Turner, they came to the terrible conclusion “that there was a necessitie to take away the king’s life;” so that if these old walls had a tongue they might reveal dark conferences connected with the most dreadful events of that sorrowful time. In conclave with Cromwell and Argyle were the Earls of Loudon and Lothian, the Lords Arbuthnot, Elcho, and Burleigh, with Blair, Dixon, Guthrie, and other Puritans. Here, two years subsequently, occurred, on the balcony, the cruel and ungenerous episode connected with the fallen Montrose, amid the joyous banquetings and revelry on the occasion of Lord Lorne’s marriage – that Lorne better known as the luckless Earl of Argyle – with Lady Mary Stuart, of the House of Moray.
In the highest terrace of the old garden an ancient thorn-tree was pointed out as having, been planted by Queen Mary – a popular delusion, born of the story that the house had belonged to her brother, the subtle Regent; but there long remained the old stone summer-house, surmounted by two greyhounds – the Moray supporters – wherein, after a flight from “the Union cellar,” many of the signatures were affixed to the Act of Union, while the cries of the exasperated mob rang in the streets without the barred gates.
When James VII, so rashly urged those measures in 1686 which were believed to be a prelude to the re-establishment of the Catholic hierarchy, under the guise of toleration, a new Scottish ministry was formed, but chiefly consisting of members of the king’s own faith. Among these was the proprietor of this old house, Alexander Earl of Moray, a recent convert from Protestantism, then Lord High Commissioner to the Parliament, and as such the representative of royalty in festive hall as well as the Senate; and his mansion, being in the very centre of what was then the most aristocratic quarter of the city, was admirably suited for his court receptions, all the more so that about that period the spacious gardens on the south were, like those of Heriot’s Hospital, a kind of public promenade or lounging place, as would appear chiefly from a play called “the Assembly,” written by the witty Dr. Pitcairn in 1692.
The union of the kingdoms is the next historical event connected with Moray House; and that much of the intrigue and discussion, and of the foul and degrading bribery connected with that event took place within its walls, may safely be inferred from the fact that it was the residence of the Earl of Seafield, then Lord High Chancellor, and one of the commissioners for the negotiation of the treaty, by which he pocketed £490, paid by the Earl of Godolphin; and he it was who, on giving the royal assent by touching the Act of Union with the sceptre, said, with a brutal laugh, “There’s an end of an auld sang.”
From those days Moray House ceased, like many others, to be the scene of state pageantries. For a time it became the office of the British Linen Company’s Bank. Then the entail was broken by a clause in one of the Acts of the North British Railway; and since 1847 it has fortunately become the property of the Free Church of Scotland, by whom it is now used as a training college or normal school, managed by a rector and very efficient staff.
On the same side, but to the eastward, is Milton House, a large and handsome mansion, though heavy and sombre in style, built in what had been originally the garden of Lord Roxburghe’s house, or a portion thereof, during the eighteenth century, by Andrew Fletcher of Milton, raised to the bench in 1724 in succession to the famous Lord Fountainhall, and who remained a senator of the Court of Session till his death. He was the nephew of the noble and patriotic Fletcher of Salton, and was an able coadjutor with his friend Archibald the great Duke of Argyle, during whose administration he exercised a wise control over the usually-abused Government patronage in Scotland. He sternly discouraged all informers, and was greatly esteemed for the mild and gentle manner in which he used his authority when Lord Justice Clerk after the battle of Culloden.
From the drawing-room windows on the south a spacious garden extended to the back of the Canongate, and beyond could be seen the hill of St. Leonard and the stupendous craigs. Its walls are still decorated with designs and landscapes, having rich floral borders painted in distemper, and rich stucco ceilings are among the decorations, and “interspersed amid the ornamental borders there are various grotesque figures, which have the appearance,” says Wilson, “of being copies from an illuminated missal of the fourteenth century. They represent a cardinal, a monk, a priest, other churchmen, painted with great humour and drollery of attitude and expression. They so entirely differ from the general character of the composition, that their insertion may be conjectured to have originated in a whim of Lord Milton’s, which the artist has contrived to execute without sacrificing the harmony of his design.”
Lord Milton was the guardian of the family of Susannah Countess of Eglinton for many years, and took a warm and fatherly interest in her beautiful girls after the death of the earl in 1729; and the terms of affectionate intimacy in which he stood with them are amusingly shown in “The petition of the six vestal virgins of Eglinton,” signed by them all, and addressed “To the honourable Lord Milton, at his lodgings, Edinburgh,” in 1735 – a curious and witty production, printed in the “Eglinton Memorials.”
Lord Milton died at his house of Brunstane, near Musselburgh, on the 13th of December, 1766, aged seventy-four. Four years after that event the Scots Magazine for 1770 gives us a curious account of a remarkable mendicant that had long haunted his gates:- “Edinburgh Sept. 29th. A gentleman, struck with the uncommon good appearance of an elderly man who generally sits bareheaded under a dead wall in the Canongate, opposite to Lord Milton’s house, requesting alms of those who pass, had the curiosity to inquire into his history, and learned the following melancholy account of him. He is an attainted baronet, named Sir John Mitchell of Pitreavie, and had formerly a very affluent estate. In the early part of his life he was a captain in the Scots Greys, but was broke for sending a challenge to the Duke of Marlborough, in consequence of some illiberal reflections thrown out by his Grace against the Scottish nation. Queen Anne took so personal a part in his prosecution that he was condemned to transportation for the offence; and this part of his sentence was, with difficulty, remitted at the particular instance of John Duke of Argyle. Exposed, in the hundredth year of his age, to the inclemencies of the weather, it is hoped the humane and charitable of this city will attend to his distresses, and relieve him from a situation which appears too severe a punishment for what, at worst, can be termed his spirited imprudence. A subscription for his annual support is opened at Balfour’s coffee-house, where those who are disposed to contribute towards it will receive every satisfaction concerning the disposal of their charity and the truth of the foregoing relation.”
The aged mendicant referred to may have been a knight, but the name of Mitchell is not to be found in the old list of Scottish baronets, and Pitreavie belonged to the Wardlaws.
In later years Milton House was occupied as a Catholic school, under the care of the Sisters of Charity, who, with their pupils, attracted considerable attention in 1842, on the occasion of the first visit of Queen Victoria to Holyrood, from whence they strewed flowers before her up the ancient street. It was next a school for deaf and dumb, anon a temporary maternity hospital, and then the property of an engineering firm.
Where Whiteford House stands now, in Edgar’s map for 1765 there are shown two blocks of buildings (with a narrow passage between, and a garden 150 feet long) marked, “Ruins of the Earl of Winton’s house,” a stately edifice, which, no doubt, had fallen into a state of dilapidation from its extreme antiquity and abandonment after the attainder of George, fourth Earl of Winton, who was taken prisoner in the fight at Preston in 1715, but who, after being sentenced to death, escaped to Rome, where he died in 1749, without issue, according to Sir Robert Douglas; and, of course, is the same house that has been mentioned in history as the Lord Seton’s lodging “in the Cannogait,” wherein on his arrival from England, “Henrie Lord Dernlie, eldest son of Matho, erle of Lennox,” resided when, prior to his marriage, he came to Edinburgh on the 13th of February, 1565, as stated in the “Diurnal of Occurrents.”
In the same house was lodged, in 1582, according to Moyse, Mons. De Menainville, who came as an extra ambassador from France, with instructions to join La Motte Fenelon. He landed at Burntisland on the 18th of January, and came to Edinburgh, where he had an audience with James VI. on the 23rd, to the great alarm of the clergy, who dreaded this double attempt to revive French influence in Scottish affairs. One Mr. James Lawson “pointed out the French ambassaye” as the mission of the King of Babylon, and characterised Menainville as the counterpart of the blaspheming Rabshakeh.
Upon the 10th February, says Moyse, “La Motte having received a satisfying answer to his commission, with a great banquet at Archibald Stewart’s lodgings in Edinburgh, took his journey homeward, and called at Seaton by the way. The said Monsieur Manzeville remained still here, and lodging at my Lord Seaton’s house in the Canongate, had daily access to the king’s majesty, to whom he imparted his negotiations at all times.”
In this house died, of hectic fever, in December, 1638, Jane, Countess of Sutherland, grand-daughter of the first Earl of Winton. She “was interred at the collegiat churche of Setton, without any funerall ceremoney, by night.”
In front of this once noble mansion, in which Scott lays some of the scenes of the “Abbot,” there sprang up a kind of humble tavern, built chiefly of lath and plaster, known as “Jenny Ha’s,” from Mrs. Hall, its landlady, famous for her claret. Herein Gay, the poet, is said to “have boosed during his short stay in Edinburgh;” and to this tavern it was customary for gentlemen to adjourn after dinner parties, to indulge in claret from the butt.
On the site of the Seton mansion, and surrounded by its fine old gardens, was raised the present edifice known as Whiteford House, the residence of Sir John Whiteford, Bart., of that ilk and Ballochmyle, a locality in Ayrshire, on which the muse of Burns has conferred celebrity, and whose father is said to have been the prototype of Sir Arthur Wardour in the “Antiquary.” Sir John was one of the early patrons of Burns, who had been introduced to him by Dr. Mackenzie, and the grateful bard never forgot the kindness he accorded to him. The failure of Douglas, Heron, & Co., in whose bank he had a fatal interest, compelled him to dispose of beautiful Ballochmyle, after which he resided permanently in Whiteford House, where he died in 1803. To the last he retained a military bearing, having served in the army, and been a major in 1762.
Latterly, and for many years, Whiteford House was best known as the residence of Sir William Macleod Bannatyne, who was raised to the bench on the death of Lord Swinton, in 1799, and was long remembered as a most pleasing example of the old gentleman of Edinburgh “before its antique mansions and manners had fallen under the ban of modern fashion.”
One of the last survivors of the Mirror Club, in private life his benevolent and amiable qualities of head and heart, with his rich stores of literary and historical anecdote, endeared him to a numerous and highly distinguished circle of friends. Robert Chambers speaks of breakfasting with him in Whiteford House so late as 1832, “on which occasion the venerable old gentleman talked as familiarly of the levees of the sous-ministre for Lord Bute in the old villa at the Abbey Hill as I could have talked of the Canning administration, and even recalled, as a fresh picture of his memory, his father drawing on his boots to go to make interest in London on behalf of some men in trouble for the ‘45, particularly his own brother-in-law, the Clanranald of that day.” He died at Whiteford House on the 30th of November, 1833, in the ninety-first year of his age. His mansion was latterly used as a type-foundry.
On the south side of the street, nearly opposite the site of the Seton lodging, the residence of the Dukes of Queensberry still towers up, a huge, dark, gloomy, and quadrangular mass, the scene of much stately life, of low corrupt intrigue, and in one instance of a horrible tragedy.
It was built by Lord Halton on land belonging to the Lauderdale family; and by a passage in Lord Fountainhall’s folios would seem to have been sold by him, in June, 1686, to William first Duke of Queensberry and Marquis of Dumfries-shire, Lord High Treasurer and President of the Council, a noted money-lender and land-acquirer, who built the castle of Drumlanrig, and at the exact hour of whose death, in 1695, it is said, a Scottish skipper, being in Sicily, saw one day a coach and six driving to flaming Mount Etna, while a diabolical voice was heard to exclaim, “Way for the Duke of Drumlanrig!” He died in Queensberry House.
His daughter, Anne Countess of Wemyss, died a miserable death on the 16th of February, 1700. She set fire accidentally to her apron, “night-rail, and steinkirk. Her nose was burnt off and her eyes burnt out. Opening her mouth to call, the flame went in and burnt her tongue and throat.”
His son James, the second duke, resigned all his many appointments under James VII., including the command of the Scots Horse Guards, and was received by William of Orange with great cordiality. He made him a captain in his Dutch Guards, and Lord of the Bedchamber and Treasury. He was one of the commissioners for the Treaty of Union, to achieve which the sum of £12,325 was paid him by the Earl of Godolphin, and then he fled from Edinburgh, but was elected as one of the peers to represent Scotland. On his return to London he was met by a cavalcade of noblemen and gentlemen, and was preceded to his house at Kensington by forty coaches and four hundred horsemen. Next day he was presented to the queen, who, to reward his services and servility, created him Duke of Dover, Marquis of Beverley, and Baron Ripon.
Connected with his residence in Queensberry House, against which the whole fury and maledictions of the mobs were directed at the time of the Union, there is a tale of awful mystery and horror, His eldest son, James Earl of Drumlanrig, is simply stated in the old peerages “to have died young.” It is now proved, however, that he was an idiot of the most wretched kind, rabid and gluttonous as a wild animal, and grew to an enormous stature, as his leaden and unornamented coffin in the family vault at Durisdeer attests at this day. This monstrous and unfortunate creature was always confined in a ground-floor room of the western wing of Queensberry House; and “till within these few years the boards, still remained by which the windows of the dreadful receptacle were darkened to prevent the idiot from looking out or being seen.”
On the day the Treaty of Union was passed all Edinburgh crowded to the vicinity of the Parliament House to await the issue of the final debate, and the whole household of the duke – the High Commissioner – went thither en masse for that purpose, and perhaps to prevent him from being torn to pieces by the exasperated people, and among them went the valet whose duty it was to watch and attend the Earl of Drumlanrig.
Hearing all unusually still in the vast house, the latter contrived to break out of his den, and roamed wildly from room to room till certain savoury odours drew him into the great kitchen, where a little turnspit sat quietly on a stool by the fire. He seized the boy, took the meat from the fire, stripped and spitted him, and he was found devouring the half-roasted body when the duke returned with his train from his political triumph, to find dire horror awaiting him. “The common people, among whom the dreadful tale soon spread, in spite of the duke’s endeavours to suppress it, said that it was a judgment upon him for his odious share in the Union. The story runs that the duke, who had previously regarded his dreadful offspring with no eye of affection, immediately ordered the creature to be smothered. But this is a mistake; the idiot is known to have died in England, and to have survived his father many years, though he did not succeed him upon his death in 1711, when the titles devolved upon Charles, a younger brother.”
The latter, who was born in Queensberry House, had been created Earl of Solway in 1706, says Douglas, “when very young, his elder brother being then alive.” He married Catharine Hyde, the second daughter of Henry Earl of Clarendon and Rochester, and they frequently resided in the old Canongate mansion. The duchess was altogether an extraordinary woman, whose eccentricity bordered on madness, and, indeed, prior to her marriage she had been confined in a strait-waistcoat. Her beauty has been celebrated coarsely by Pope, and her irrepressible temper by Prior:-
“Thus Kitty, beautiful and young,
And wild as colt untamed,
Bespoke the fair from whom she sprung,
By little rage inflamed:
Inflamed with rage at sad restraint,
Which wise mamma ordained;
And sorely vexed to play the saint
Whilst wit and beauty reigned.”
After the duke and duchess had embroiled themselves with the Court in 1729, in consequence of patronising the poet Gay, they came to Queensberry House, and brought him with them. Tradition used to indicate an attic in an old mansion opposite, as the place where – appropriate abode of a poet – Gay wrote the “Beggar’s Opera” – “an entirely gratuitous assumption,” says Mr. Chambers. “In the history of his writings nothing of consequence occurs at this time. He had finished the second part of the opera some time before, and after his return to the south he is found engaged in new writing a damned play, which he wrote several years before, called “The Wife of Bath,” a task which he accomplished while living with the Duke of Queensberry in Oxfordshire, during the ensuing months of August, September, and October.”
The Duchess Catharine disliked the Scots and their manners, particularly the use of a knife in lieu of a fork, on which she would scream out and beseech them not to cut their throats. “To the lady I live with,” wrote Gay to Swift in 1729, “I owe my life and fortune. Think of her with respect, value and esteem her as I do, and never more despise a fork with three prongs.” When in Scotland she always dressed herself as a peasant-girl, to ridicule the stately dresses and demeanour of the Scottish dames who visited Queensberry House or Drumlanrig, and this freak of costume led to her being roughly repelled at a review. Her eldest son, the Earl of Drumlanrig, was altogether mad, and contracted himself to one lady while he married another, a daughter of the Earl of Hopetoun. He served two campaigns under the Earl of Stair, and commanded two battalions of Scots in the Dutch service. But in 1754 the family malady proved so strong for him, that during a journey to London he rode on before the coach in which the duchess travelled, and shot himself with one of his pistols. It was given out that it had gone off by accident. His brother Charles, after narrowly escaping the earthquake at Lisbon in 1755, died in the following year.
On the death of their father, in 1778, the title and estates devolved on his cousin, the Earl of March, an old debauchee, better known as “Old Q.” In his time, and before it, Queensberry House had other occupants than the Douglases.
In 1747 the famous Marshal Earl of Stair died there; and in 1784 it was the residence of the Right Hon. James Montgomery of Stanhop, Lord Chief Baron of Exchequer – the first Scotsman who held that office after the establishment of the Court at the Union. Prior to his removal to Queensberry House (of which the duke gave him gratuitous use) he had occupied the third flat of the Bishop’s Land, formerly occupied by the Lord President Dundas.
In 1801 the blasé “Old Q.” ordered Queensberry House to be stripped of its decorations, and sold. With fifty-eight fire rooms, and a noble gallery seventy feet long, besides a spacious garden, it was offered at the singularly low upset price of £900, and was bought by Government as a barrack. It is now, and has been since 1853, a House of Refuge for the Destitute, in which upwards of 12,000 persons are relieved every year, or an average of thirty-three nightly for the twelvemonth, while during the same period nearly 40,000 meals of broth and bread are issued from the soup kitchen. A very handsome building, in baronial style, called Queensberry Lodge, adjoins it, for the reception and treatment of inebriates – but ladies only.