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Chapter 12 – The Mound, pp.80-87.

[Old & New Edinburgh Contents]

The North Loch used for Sousings and Duckings – The Boats, Swans, Ducks, and Eels – Accidents in the Loch – Last Appearance of the Loch – Formation of the Mound – “Geordie Boyd’s Mud Brig” – The Rotunda – Royal Institution – Board of Manufactures – History of the Board – The Equivalent Money – Sir J. Shaw Lefevre’s Report – School of Design – Gallery of Sculpture – Royal Society of Edinburgh – Museum of Antiquities. 

   THE garden wherein St. David budded trees and cultivated such fruits and flowers as were then known in Britain is a place of flowers and shrubs again, save where it is intersected by the prosaic railway or the transverse Earthen Mound; but those who see the valley now may find it difficult to realise, that for 300 years it was an impassable lake, formed for the defence of the city on the north, when the wall of 1450 was built; but the well that fed it is flowing still, as when David referred to it in his Holyrood charter. Fed by it and other springs, the loch was retained by a dam and sluice at the foot of Halkerston’s Wynd – the dam being a passable footway from the city to the northern fields. 

   In the royal gardens a tournament was held in 1396, by order of Annabel Drummond, queen of Robert III., at which, according to Bower, the continuator of Fordun, her eldest son, David, Duke of Rothesay, the same prince who perished so miserably at Falkland, presided when in his twentieth year. 

   In 1538, prior to committing the effigy of St. Giles to the flames, the Reformers ducked it in the loch – it being the legal place for sousing all offenders against the seventh commandment. 

   In 1562 the Town Council enacted that all persons of loose life should be ducked in a certain part of the loch, wherein a pillar and basin were formed for the purpose; but this not having the desired effect, all such persons were ordered to be committed, without distinction, to the iron room of the Tolbooth, to be kept therein for a month on bread and water, and to be then whipped out of the city at a cart’s tail. The deacon of the fleshers having fallen under this law, the crafts, deeming it an indignity to their order, assembled in arms, broke open the prison, and released him. 

   For the sake of ornament the magistrates kept swans and wild ducks on the loch, and various entries for their preservation occur in their accounts; and one passed in Council between 1589-94 ordained a boll of oats to be procured for feeding them. A man was outlawed for shooting a swan in the said loch, and obliged to find another in its place. “The loch,” says Chambers, “seems to have been a favourite place for boating. Various houses in the neighbourhood had servitudes of the use of a boat upon it, and these, in later times, used to be employed to no little purpose in smuggling whisky into the town… It was also the frequent scene of suicide, and on this point one or two droll anecdotes are related. A man was proceeding deliberately to drown himself, when a crowd of the townspeople rushed down to the water-side, venting cries of horror and alarm at the spectacle, yet without actually venturing into the water to prevent him from accomplishing the rash act. Hearing the tumult, the father of the late Lord Henderland threw up his window in James’s Court, and leaning out, cried down the brae to the people: ‘What’s all the noise about? Can’t ye e’en let the man gang to the deil his ain gate?’ Whereupon the honest man quietly walked out of the loch, to the no small amusement of the lately appalled neighbours.” There a lady was saved from suicide by her hoop-petticoat. 

   The loch must have abounded in some kind of fish, as the Council Register refers to an eel-ark set therein, at ten merks yearly, for the benefit of the Trinity Hospital; and in February, 1655, Nicoll records that in consequence of the excessively stormy weather, some thousands of dead eels were cast upon its banks, “to the admiration of many.” 

   On the 11th February, 1682, three men were drowned in the loch by the ice giving way. “We have a proverb,” says Lord Fountainhall, under whose windows perhaps the accident occurred, “that the fox will not set his foot on the ice after Candlemas, especially in the heat of the sun, as this was, at two o’clock; and at any time the fox is so sagacious as to lay his ear on the ice to see if it be frozen to the bottom, or if he hear the murmuring and current of the water.” 

   In 1715, when the magistrates took measures for the defence of the city, the sluice of the loch was completely dammed up to let the water rise, a precaution omitted by their successors in 1745. In Edgar’s plan, twenty years later, the bed of the loch is shown as “now devised,” measuring 1,700 feet in length, from the foot of Ramsay Garden to the foot of Halkerston’s Wynd, and 400 feet broad at the foot of the gardens below the Advocate’s Close. From the upper point to the West Church the bed is shown as “bog or marsh.” 

   “Yet many in common with myself,” says Chambers, “must remember the by no means distant time when the remains of this sheet of water, consisting of a few pools, served as an excellent sliding and skating ground in winter, while their neglected, grass-grown precincts too frequently formed an arena whereon the high and mighty quarrels of the Old and New Town cowlies were brought to lapidarian arbitration;” and until a very recent period woodcocks, snipe, and water-ducks used to frequent the lower part of the West Princes Street Gardens, attracted by the damp of the locality. 

   “The site of the North Loch,” says a writer in the Edinburgh Magazine for 1790, “is disgusting below as well as above the bridge, and the balustrades of the east side ought to be filled up like those of the west, as they are only meant to show a beautiful stream, not slaughter-houses.” 

   The statute for the improvement of the valley westward of the mound was not passed until 1816; but Lord Cockburn describes it as being then an impassable fetid marsh, “open on all sides, the receptacle of many sewers, and seemingly of all the worried cats, drowned dogs, and blackguardism of the city. Its abomination made it so solitary that the volunteers used to practise ball-firing across it. The men stood on its north side, and the targets were set up along the lower edge of the castle hill, or rock. The only difficulty was in getting across the swamp to place and examine the targets, which could only be done in very dry weather and at one or two places.” 

   In the maps of 1798 a “new mound” would seem to have been projected across it, at an angle, from South Castle Street to the Ferry Road, by the western base of the castle rock – a design, fortunately, never carried out. One of the greatest mistakes committed as a matter of taste was the erection of the Earthen Mound across the beautiful valley of the loch, from the end of Hanover Street to a point at the west end of Bank Street. It is simply an elongated hill, like a huge railway embankment, a clumsy, enormous, and unremovable substitute for a bridge which should have been there, and its creation has been deplored by every topographical writer on Edinburgh. 

   Huge as the mass is, it originated in a very accidental operation. When the bed of the loch was in a state of marsh, a shopkeeper, Mr. George Boyd, clothier, at Gosford’s Close, in the old town, was frequently led from business or curiosity to visit the rising buildings of the new, and accommodated himself with “steps” across this marsh, and he was followed in the construction of this path by other persons similarly situated, who contributed their quota of stone or plank to fill up, widen, and heighten what, in rude compliment to the founder, was becoming known as “Geordie Boyd’s Mud Brig.” The inconvenience arising from the want of a direct communication between the old town and the new began to be seriously felt about 1781, when the latter had been built as far west as Hanover Street. 

   Hence a number of residents, chiefly near the Lawnmarket, held a meeting in a small public-house, kept by a man called Robert Dunn, and called in burlesque, “Dunn’s Hotel,” after a fashionable hotel of that name in Princes Street, and subscriptions were opened to effect a communication of some kind; but few were required, as Provost Grieve, who resided at the corner of Hanover Street, in order to fill up a quarry before his house, obtained leave to have the rubbish from the foundations of the various new streets laid down there. From that time the progress of the Mound proceeded with rapidity, and from 1781 till 1830 augmentations to its breadth and height were continually made, till it became the mighty mass it is. By the latter date the Mound had become levelled and macadamised, its sides sown with grass, and in various ways embellished so as to assume the appearance of being completed. It is upwards of 800 feet in length, on the north upwards of 60 feet in height, and on the south about 100 feet. Its breadth is proportionally much greater than its height, averaging about 300 feet. It is computed to contain more than 2,000,000 of cartloads of travelled earth, and on the moderate supposition that each load, if paid for, was worth 6d., must have cost the large sum of £50,000. 

   It was first enclosed by rough stone walls, and was almost a permanent place for caravans and wild beast shows. A row of miserable temporary workshops, and at one time a little theatre, disfigured its western side. Among other edifices that were there until about 1850 was the huge wooden peristrophic Rotunda, which was first opened in 1823 to exhibit some great pictures of the battles of Trafalgar and Waterloo. 

   In the same year was laid the foundation of the Royal Institution, after the protracted and laborious process of driving about 2,000 piles into the site, to make firm the travelled earth at its southern end. Though founded in 1823, it was not finally completed until 1836, after designs by W. H. Playfair, at a cost of £40,000. As shown in the view on the next page, it was at first without enrichment in the pediments, and was finished above the cornice, by a plain parapet all round, with a base and moulding; and had eight large pedestals, intended for statues, against the walls, between the flat Grecian pilasters. The building was, however, subsequently largely altered and improved. It is in the pure Doric style of Pericles, and forms an oblong, nearly akin in character to that of a peripteral temple, with fluted columns all rising from a uniform base of steps, and surmounted by a pure Greek entablature. There projects from its north front a triple octostyle portico, and from its south front a double octostyle portico, and the pediments of both are filled with beautifully-carved Greek scroll-work and honeysuckle. From the flanks of these, at both ends, there projects a distyle portico. Behind the apex of the northern portico, facing Hanover Street, is a colossal statue of Queen Victoria, seated, with crown, sceptre, and robes of state, sculptured by Steel. Eight sphinxes adorn the four angles of this stately edifice, which, like all others in the New Town, is built of pure white freestone, and contains a school of design, a gallery of sculpture, the antiquarian museum, the apartments of the Royal Society, and those of the Board of Trustees for Manufactures in Scotland. We shall treat of the last first. 

   By the fifteenth article of the Treaty of Union with England, among other provisions for giving Scotland some equivalent for the increase of duties of Customs and Excise, it was agreed that for some years £2,000 per annum should be applied by the new Imperial Parliament towards the encouragement and formation of manufactures in the coarse wool of those counties that produced it, and afterwards to be wholly employed towards “encouraging and promoting the fisheries and such other manufactures and improvements in Scotland as may conduce to the general good of the United Kingdom.” 

   In 1718 this £2,000 was made payable for ever out of the Customs and Excise in Scotland. In 1725 an addition was made to this sum by an Act which provided that when the produce of three-pence per bushel to be laid on malt should exceed £20,000 per annum, such surplus should be added to it and applied to the same purposes. In 1726 the Crown was empowered to appoint twenty-one trustees, who were named in 1727 by letters patent, which prescribed their duties and the plan for expending the funds at their disposal in the encouragement of the woollen, linen, and hempen manufactures and the Scottish fisheries, which had always been fostered by the Stuart kings, as numerous laws, enacted by the Third, Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Jameses, attest. 

   But in regarding a Scottish institution which now occupies a place so conspicuous in the eye of the public, it is curious to trace the difficulties it had to contend with, in consequence of the lack of local government and the monetary vacuum caused by a conflict between the banks. On the 26th of June, 1728, Duncan Forbes, then Lord Advocate, wrote to the Duke of Newcastle:- “The trustees appointed by His Majesty for taking care of the manufactures proceed with great zeal and industry; but at present credit is run so low, by a struggle between the bank lately erected by His Majesty and the old bank, that money can scarcely be found to go to market with.” 

   Matters, however, improved, and the activity and use of the Board were shown in the promotion of the linen manufacture, which, under the stimulus given by premiums, rose from an export sale of 2,183,978 yards in 1727 to 4,666,011 yards in 1738, 7,358,098 yards in 1748, and 12,823,048 yards in 1764. 

   In 1766 the trustees opened a hall in Edinburgh (The British Linen Hall) for the custody and sale of Scottish linens, which the owners thereof might sell, either personally or by their factors. “For whatever period the goods should remain in the hall unsold,” says Arnot, “their respective owners pay nothing to the proprietors of the hall; but upon their being sold, 5 per cent, upon the value of the linens sold is demanded by way of rent. As the opening of this hall was found to be attended with good consequences to the linen manufactures, so in 1776 the trustees extended it upon the same terms to the woollen manufactures of Scotland.” 

   Under these trustees and their successors the business of the Board was carried on until 1828 with little change of system, save that in 1809 their number was increased from twenty-one to twenty-eight, and out of that number the Crown was empowered to appoint seven to be Commissioners for the Herring Fishery; and from that time the Fishery Board and the Board of Manufactures have virtually been separate bodies. 

   Regarding the Royal Institution, in which it now has chambers, Lord Cockburn says:- “Strictly, it ought to have been named after the old historical board of trustees, because it was by their money and for their accommodation chiefly it was made, and ‘the Trustees’ Hall’ had been the title ever since the Union, of the place in the old town where they had met.” 

   In 1828 new letters patent were issued, giving to the trustees a wider discretion, and empowering them to apply their funds to the encouragement not only of manufactures, but also of such other undertakings in Scotland as should most conduce to the general welfare of the United Kingdom. 

   In 1847 an Act was passed by which the Treasury was enabled to direct the appropriation of their funds towards the purposes of education in the fine arts generally, in decorative and ornamental art, and also in taste and design in manufacture. In the same year Sir John Shaw Lefevre was sent down by Government to report on the constitution and management of the Board and the erection of the Galleries of Art in Edinburgh. 

   Since the Board began to give premiums for the encouragement of the linen trade, that branch of business has made giant strides in Scotland. “It takes about six months,” says David Bremner, “from the purchase of the raw material before the goods can be manufactured and the proceeds drawn, so that the stock-in-trade of manufacturers and merchants will amount to £5,000,000. It would thus appear that a capital of £12,000,000 is required for carrying on the linen trade of Scotland.” 

   It was under this Board of Manufactures that the quality of Scottish linen was improved. One of their earliest acts was to propose to Nicholas d’Assaville, a cambric weaver of St. Quintin, in France, to bring over ten experienced weavers in cambric, with their families, to settle in Scotland and teach their art to others. The proposal was accepted, and the trustees purchased from the governors of Heriot’s Hospital five acres of ground eastward of Broughton Loan, whereon were built houses for the French weavers, who, in memory of their native land, named the colony Little Picardy, and thereon now stands Picardy Place. This was in 1729. The men taught weaving, their wives and daughters the art of spinning cambric yarn; and by the trustees a man well skilled in all the branches of the linen trade was at the same time brought from Ireland, and appointed to travel the country and instruct the weavers and others in the best modes of making cloth. 

   Before proceeding further, we shall here quote the comprehensive statement concerning the Board of Trustees which appears in Knox’s “View of the British Empire,” London, 1785:- 

   “By the Treaty of Union it was stipulated that £398,085 should be paid to the Scots as an equivalent for the customs, taxes, and excises to be levied upon that kingdom in consequence of the English debt, £20,000,000, though estimated at £17,000,000. This equivalent, if it may be so called, was applied in the following manner:- 

   “Firstly, to pay off the capital of the Scottish India Company, which was to be abolished in favour of the English Company trading to the East indies. 

   “Secondly, to indemnify for any losses they might sustain by reducing the coin of Scotland to the standard and value of England; and thirdly, in bribing a majority of the Scottish Parliament when matters came to the last push

   “Of the whole equivalent, therefore, only £40,000 was left for national purposes; and so lost to public spirit and to all sense of honour were the representatives of Scotland, three or four noblemen alone excepted, that this balance was supposed to be useless in the English Treasury till the year 1727, when the royal burghs began to wake from their stupor, and to apply the interest of the £40,000 towards raising a little fund for improving the manufactures and fisheries of the country.” 

   “An Act of Parliament” (the Act quoted before) “now directed the application of the funds to the several purposes for which they were designed, and appointed twenty-one commissioners, who were entrusted with the management of the same and other matters relative thereto.” 

   In Lefevre’s Report of July 20th, 1850, it is stated that “having regard to the origin of this Board as connected with the existence of Scotland as a separate kingdom, and to the unbroken series of distinguished trustees of whom it has been composed since its formation; considering also that the power of appointing persons to be members of the Board offers the means of conferring distinction on eminent individuals belonging to Scotland, I entertain a strong conviction that this Board should be kept up to its present number, and that its vacancies should be supplied as they occur. I am disposed to think also that it would be desirable to give this Board a corporate character by a charter or Act of Incorporation.” 

   Under the fostering care of the Board of Manufactures first sprang up the Scottish School of Design, which had its origin in 1760. On the 27th of June in that year, in pursuance of previous deliberations of the Board, as its records show, “a scheme or scroll of an advertisement anent the drawing school was read, and it was referred to Lord Kames to take evidence of the capacity and genius for drawing of persons applying for instruction before they were presented to the drawing school, and to report when the salary of Mr. Delacour, painter, who had been appointed to teach the school, should commence.’” 

   This was the first School of Design established in the three kingdoms at the public expense. “It is,” said the late Sir W. Stirling-Maxwell, in an address to the institution in 1870, “a matter of no small pride to us as Scotsmen to find a Scottish judge in 1760 and two Scottish painters in 1837 taking the lead in a movement which in each case became national.” 

   The latter were Mr. William Dyce and Mr. Charles Heath Wilson, who, in a letter to Lord Meadowbank on “the best means of ameliorating arts and manufactures in point of taste,” had all the chief principles which they urged brought into active operation by the present Science and Art Department; and when the Royal Scottish Academy was in a position to open its doors to art pupils, the life school was transferred from the Board to the Academy. Of the success of these schools it is only necessary to say that almost every Scotsman who has risen to distinction in art has owed something of that distinction to the training received here. There are annual examinations and competitions for prizes. The latter though small in actual and intrinsic value, possess a very high value to minds of the better order. “They are,” said Sir W. Stirling-Maxwell, “tokens of the sympathy with which the State regards the exertions of its students. They are rewards which those who now sit or have sat in high places of a noble profession – the Harveys, the Patons, the Faeds, the Robertses, and the Wilkies – have been proud to win, and whose success in these early competitions was the beginning of a long series of triumphs.” In the same edifice is the gallery of sculpture, a good collection of casts from the best ancient works, such as the Elgin marbles and celebrated statues of antiquity, of the well-known Ghiberti gates of Florence, and a valuable series of antique Greek and Roman busts known as the Albacini collection, from which family they were purchased for the Gallery. 

   In the western portion of the Royal Institution are the apartments of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, which was instituted in 1783, under the presidency of Henry Duke of Buccleuch, K.G. and K.T., with Professor John Robinson, LL.D., as secretary, and twelve councillors whose names are nearly all known to fame, and are as follows:- 

Mr. Baron Gordon. Dr. Munro. 
Lord Elliock. Dr. Hope. 
Major-Gen. Fletcher Campbell. Dr. Black. 
Adam Smith, Esq. Dr. Hutton. 
Mr. John McLaurin. Prof. Dugald Stewart. 
Dr. Adam Ferguson. Mr. John Playfair. 

   The central portion of the Royal Institution is occupied by the apartments and museum of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, which was founded in 1780 by a body of noblemen and gentlemen, who were anxious to secure a more accurate and extended knowledge of the historic and national antiquities of their native country than single individual zeal or skill could hope to achieve. “For this purpose, a building and an area formerly occupied as the post office, situated in the Cowgate, then one of the chief thoroughfares of Edinburgh, were purchased for £1,000. Towards this, the Earl of Buchan, founder of the Society, the Dukes of Montrose and Argyle, the Earls of Fife, Bute, and Kintore, Sir Laurence Dundas, Sir John Dalrymple, Sir Alexander Dick, Macdonnel of Glengarry, Mr. Fergusson of Raith, Mr. Ross of Cromarty, and other noblemen and gentlemen, liberally contributed. Many valuable objects of antiquity and original MSS. and books were in like manner presented to the Society.” 

   After being long in a small room in 24, George Street, latterly the studio of the well-known Samuel Bough, R.S.A., the museum was removed to the Institution, on the erection of the new exhibition rooms for the Scottish Academy in the art galleries. Among the earliest contributions towards the foundation of this interesting museum were the extensive and valuable collection of bronze weapons referred to in an early chapter as being dredged from Duddingstone Loch, presented by Sir Alexander Dick, Bart., of Prestonfield, in 1781, and a selection of upwards of one hundred Scottish gold, silver, and copper coins, presented in the same year by Dr. William Hunter, the celebrated founder of the Hunterian Museum, which, together with a donation of the same date by Lord MacDonald of Slate, formed the nucleus of the noble numismatic collection now possessed by the Society, a body which has attained both numbers and influence. 

   The first difficulty it experienced arose in consequence of the application for a royal charter, in which the members were, singular to say, opposed by various learned and literary bodies, as rivals; but fortunately the advisers of the Crown were guided by more liberal views, and the charter passed the great seal on the 5th of May, 1783. 

   The success of the Society, according to the third volume of its “Transactions,” “during the first ten years of its existence was owing to the patriotic zeal and personal exertions of its founder, the Earl of Buchan. Under this nobleman’s protection nothing was wanting to ensure the prosperity of the institution, except some addition to its funds with the view of establishing a permanent museum.” 

   During the earlier years of the Society’s existence objects of natural history formed a prominent feature in its collection, under the auspices of Mr. William Smellie, author of “The Philosophy of Natural History,” who was secretary in 1793. These have ceased to be included among the pursuits of the Society, whose “Transactions” furnish gratifying evidence that, notwithstanding the many vicissitudes it has undergone, scarcely a single article of any value is missing of all the objects of archaeological interest presented to the museum since its foundation. 

   In the year 1829, by an arrangement with the Royal Society, all the objects of natural history collected by Mr. Smellie and others were transferred to the museum of that body, the Antiquaries receiving in return such objects as more properly came within the compass of their pursuits, including bricks impressed with cuneiform inscriptions from Babylon, and several large Indian idols. 

   The museum is visited by thousands of visitors annually; and every year the collection receives considerable additions by purchase and donation; and the value of such depository is proved, not only by the preservation for study and popular education of so large a collection of antiquties, which must otherwise have been scattered or lost; but also by the fact that the domestic implements and personal ornaments which in its earlier years were only beginning to fall into disuse, have now, after the lapse of nearly a century, become curious illustrations of Scottish manners and a state of society almost obsolete. 

   Through Mr. Robert Hay, Under Secretary of State, the Government presented the Society, in 1830, with a magnificent collection of Cyrenaic antiquities; and the Barons of the Scottish Exchequer have given valuable contributions from time to time. 

   Many interesting Northern antiquities were presented by his Danish Majesty, Christian IX., in 1844, and some Roman and mediaeval remains from London, by the Marquis of Breadalbane, in 1846; but one of the most valuable gifts bestowed on the Society was the bequest in the same year by Mr. E. W. A. Drummond Hay (H.M. Consul-General to the Barbary States) of his whole private collection, including 603 Roman gold and silver coins, upwards of 2,000 Roman brass, a large collection of Scottish, English, and foreign coins, besides bronzes, medallions, and other objects of antiquity. 

   Among the multifarious contents of this most valuable museum may be briefly enumerated a splendid collection of Egyptian antiquities; sculptures and works in terra-cotta from various countries; ancient British implements, warlike and domestic; examples of Roman-British pottery and glass; old Scottish wood carvings; ancient cannon and armour, and various Scottish instruments of punishment and torture, including that famous old guillotine, the Maiden, by which the Regent Morton was beheaded in 1581, Sir John Gordon of Haddo in 1644, President Spottiswood in 1642, the two Argyles, and a multitude of others; the repentance stool of the old Greyfriars’ church; the pulpit of Knox; the alleged “creepie” of Jenny Geddes; a banner borne by the Covenanters at Bothwell Bridge; a portrait of Cardinal Innes, advanced to the purple by Pope John XXIII. – the first Scotsman who ever attained that rank; the blue ribbon worn by Prince Charles as Knight of the Garter, and his ring, the farewell gift of Flora Macdonald; Rob Roy’s purse; the witches’ iron branks; copies of the national covenant, signed by Montrose and all the Scottish nobles and notables of the period: autograph letters of Mary, James VI., Charles I. Cromwell, and a vast collection of objects of antiquity generally. 

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