The Cowgate – Origin and General History of the Thoroughfare – First Houses built there – The Vernour’s Tenement – Alexander Alesse – Division of the City in 1512 – “Dichting the Calsay” in 1518 – The Cowgate Port – Beggars in 1616 – Gilbert Blakhal – Names of the most Ancient CIoses – The North Side of the Slreet – MacLellan’s Land – Mrs. Syme – John Nimmo – Dr. Graham – The House of Sir Thomas Hope and Lady Mar – The Old Back Stairs – Tragic Story of Captain Cayley – Old Meal Market – Riots in 1763 – The Episcopal Chapel, now St. Patrick’s Roman Catholic Church – Trial of the Rev. Mr. Fitzsimmons.
THE Cowgate is, and has always been, one of the most remarkable streets in the ancient city. A continuation of the south back of the Canongate it runs along the deepest part of a very deep gorge, into which Blair, Niddry, and St. Mary’s Streets, with many other alleys, descend rapidly from the north and others from the south, and though high in its lines of antique houses, it passes underneath the over-spanning central arch of the South Bridge and the more spacious one of George IV. Bridge, and, though very narrow, is not quite straight.
For generations it has been the most densely peopled and poorest district in the metropolis, the most picturesque and squalid, and, when viewed from the two bridges named, it seems to cower in its gorge, a narrow and dusky river of quaint and black architecture, yet teeming with life, bustle, and animation. Its length from where the Cowgate Port stood to the foot of the Candlemaker Row is about 800 yards.
It is difficult to imagine the time when it was probably a narrow country way, bordered by hedge-rows, skirting the base of the slope whereon lay the churchyard of St. Giles’s, ere houses began to appear upon its line, and it acquired its name, which is now proved to have been originally the Sou’gate, or South Street.
One of the earliest buildings immediately adjacent to the Cowgate must have been the ancient chapel of the Holyrood, which stood in the nether kirk-yard of St. Giles’s till the Reformation, when the materials of it were used in the construction of the New Tolbooth. Building here must have begun early in the 15th century.
In 1428 John Vernour gave a land (i.e., a tenement) near the town of Edinburgh, on the south side thereof, in the street called Cowgate, to Richard Lundy, a monk of Melrose, for twenty shillings yearly. He or his heirs were to have the refusal of it if it were sold. (“Monastic Ann.,” Teviotdale.)
In 1440 William Vernour, according to the same authority, granted this tenement to Richard Lundy, then Abbot of Melrose, without reserve, for thirteen shillings and fourpence yearly; and in 1493, Patrick, Abbot of Holyrood, confirmed the monks of Melrose in possession of their land called the Holy Rood Acre between the common Vermel, and another acre which they had beside the highway near the Canongate, for six shillings and eight-pence yearly.
On the 31st May, 1498, James IV. granted to Sir John Ramsay of Balmain (previously Lord Bothwell under James III.) a tenement and orchard in the Cowgate. This property is referred to in a charter under the Great Seal, dated 19th October, 1488, to Robert Colville, director of the chancery, of lands in the Cowgate of Edinburgh, once the property of Sir James Liddell, knight, “et postea Johannis Ramsay, olim nuncupati Domini Boithvele” now in the king’s hands by the forfeiture first of Sir James Liddell, and of tenements of John Ramsay.
Many quaint timber-fronted houses existed in the Cowgate, as elsewhere in the city. Such mansions were in favour throughout Europe generally in the 15th century, and Edinburgh was only influenced by the then prevailing taste of which so many fine examples still remain in Nuremberg and Chester; and in Edinburgh open piazzas and galleries projecting from the actual ashlar or original front of the house were long the fashion – the former for the display of goods for sale, and the latter for lounging or promenading in; and here and there are still lingering in the Cowgate mansions, past which James III. and IV. may have ridden, and whose occupants buckled on their mail to fight on Flodden Hill and in Pinkey Cleugh.
Men of a rank superior to any of which modern Edinburgh can boast had their dwellings in the Cowgate, which rapidly became a fashionable and aristocratic quarter, being deemed open and airy. An old author who wrote in 1530, Alexander Alesse, and who was born in the city in 1500, tells us that “the nobility and chief senators of the city dwell in the Cowgate – via vaccarum in qua habitant patricii et senatores urbis,” and that “the palaces of the chief men of the nation are also there; that none of the houses are mean or vulgar, but, on the contrary, all are magnificent – ubi nihil humile aut rusticum, sed omnia magnifica!”
Much of the street must have sprung into existence before the wall of James II. was demolished, in which the High Street alone stood; and it was chiefly for the protection of this highly-esteemed suburb that the greater wall was erected after the battle of Flodden.
A notarial instrument in 1509 concerning a tenement belonging to Christina Lamb on the south side near the Vennel (or wynd) from the Kirk of Field, describes it as partly enclosed with pales of wood fixed in the earth and having waste land adjoining it.
In the division of the city into three quarters in 1512, the first from the east side of Forester’s Wynd, on both sides of the High Street, and under the wall to the Castle Hill, was to be held by Thomas Wardlaw. The second quarter, from the Tolbooth Stair, “quhair Walter Young dwellis in the north part of the gaitt to the Lopley Stane,” to be under the said Walter; and the third quarter from the latter stone to Forester’s Wynd “in the sowth pairt of the gaitt, with part of the Cowgate, to be under George Dickson.”
In 1518, concerning the “Dichting of the Calsay,” it was ordained by the magistrates, that all the inhabitants should clean the portion thereof before their own houses and booths “als weill in the Kowgaitt venellis as on the Hie Gaitt,” and that all tar barrels and wooden pipes be removed from the streets under pain of escheat. In 1547 and 1548 strict orders were issued with reference to the guards at the city gates, and no man who was skilled in any kind of gunnery was to quit the town on any pretext, under pain of forfeiture of all he possessed and final banishment – measures rendered necessary by the recent defeat at Pinkey.
In 1555 the magistrates assigned the care of the Cowgate Port – the gate which closed the street on a line with the Pleasance – to Luke Moresoun for thirty shillings yearly, with orders “to steik and oppin the samyn,” from Michaelmas to Candlemas, between 6 a.m. and 5 p.m., and from Candlemas to Michaelmas between 6 a.m. and 8 p.m.; and in the same year they paid fourteen shillings to Mungo Hunter, smith, for a new great hanging lock and key for the gate, because “the auld loke was first brokin and mendit that it could nocht be eftir mendit.”
In 1558 the causeway of the Cowgate was ordered to be raised and re-laid level at the expense of the heritors, from the (Black) Friars Wynd to Marlin’s Wynd.
The gorge through which the Cowgate runs must once have been much deeper than it is now become, by the accumulation of soil and successive causeways. As a proof of this, in 1836 the blade of a large knife or dagger was found eleven feet below the present surface, while a drain was being dug; and in the October of the same year an ancient iron hammer was found six feet below the surface, lying close to a thick stone wall, which had once crossed the Cowgate diagonally towards the west side of the Candlemaker Row.
Both these relics are now preserved in the Museum of Antiquities.
An act of the Privy Council in 1616 describes Edinburgh as infested by strong and idle vagabonds, having their resorts “in some parts of the Cowgate, Canongate, Potterrow, West Port, &c., where they ordinarily convene every night, and pass their time in all kind of riot and filthy lechery, to the offence and displeasure of God,” lying all day on the causeway, extorting alms with “shameful exclamations,” to such an extent that passengers could neither walk nor confer in the streets without being impeded and pestered by them; hence the magistrates gave orders to expel them wholesale from the city and keep it clear of them.
The Burgh Records throw some light on the names of certain of the oldest closes – those running between the central street and the Cowgate, as being the residences or erections of old and influential citizens. Thus Niddry’s Wynd is doubtless connected with Robert Niddry, a magistrate in 1437; Cant’s Close with Adam Cant, who was Dean of Guild in 1450, though it is called Alexander Cant’s Close in 1514; Todrig’s Wynd is mentioned in 1456, when Patrick Donald granted two merks yearly from his tenement therein for repairing the altar of St. Hubert, and in 1500 a bailie named Todrig, was assaulted with drawn swords in his own house by two men, who were taken to the Tron, and had their hands stricken through.
Carrubber’s Close was probably named from “William of Caribris,” one of the three bailies in 1454, as doubtless Con’s Close was from John Con, a wealthy flesher of 1508. William Foular’s Close is mentioned in 1521, when Bessie Symourtoun is ordered to be burned there on the cheeks and banished for passing gear infected with the pest; and Mauchan’s Close was no doubt connected with the name of John Mauchane, one of the bailies in 1523; Lord Borthwick’s Close is frequently mentioned before 1530, and Francis Bell’s Close occurs in the City Treasurer’s Accounts, under date 1554. Liberton’s Wynd is mentioned in a charter by James III. in 1474, and the old protocol books of the city refer to it frequently in the twelve years preceding Flodden; William Liberton’s heirs are mentioned as residents in it in 1501. He was Provost in 1425, and was succeeded in 1434 by Sir Henry Preston of Craigmillar.
Other alleys are mentioned as having existed in the sixteenth century: Swift’s Wynd, Aikman’s Close, and “the Eirle of Irgyllis Close,” in the Dean of Guild’s Accounts in 1554, and Blacklock’s Close, where the unfortunate Earl of Northumberland was lodged in the house of Alexander Clarke, when he was betrayed into the hands of the Regent Moray in December, 1569. In a list of citizens, adherents of Queen Mary, in 1571, are two glassier-wrights, one of them named Steven Loch, probably the person commemorated in Stevenlaw’s Close, in the High Street.
From Palfrey’s bustling inn, at the Cowgate-head, the Dunse fly was wont to take its departure twice weekly at 8 a.m. in the beginning of the century; and in 1780 some thirty carriers’ wains arrived there and departed weekly. Wilson says that “Palfrey’s, or the King’s Head Inn, is a fine antique stone land of the time of Charles I. An inner court is enclosed by the buildings behind, and it long remained one of the best frequented inns in old Edinburgh, being situated at the junction of two of the principal approaches to the town from the south and west.”
In this quarter MacLellan’s Land, No. 8, a lofty tenement which forms the last in the range of houses on the north side of the street, has peculiar interest from its several associations. Towards the middle of the last century this edifice – the windows of which look straight up the Candlemaker-row – had as the occupant of its third floor Mrs. Syme, a clergyman’s widow, with whom the father of Lord Brougham came to lodge, and whose daughter became his wife and the lady of Brougham Hall. He died in 1810, and is buried in Restalrig churchyard. Mrs. Brougham’s maiden aunt continued to reside in this house at the Cowgate-head till a period subsequent to 1794.
In his father’s house, one of the flats in MacLellan’s Land, Henry Mackenzie, “the Man of Feeling,” resided at one time with his wife and family.
In the flat immediately below Mrs. Syme dwelt Bailie John Kyd, a wealthy wine merchant, who made no small noise in the city, and who figures among Kay’s etchings. He was a Bailie of 1769, and Dean of Guild in 1774.
So lately as 1824 the principal apartments in No. 8 were occupied by an aged journeyman printer, the father of John Nimmo, who became conspicuous as the nominal editor of the Beacon, as his name appeared to many of the obnoxious articles therein. This paper soon made itself notorious by its unscrupulous and scurrilous nature, and its attacks on the private character of the leading Whig nobles and gentlemen in Scotland, which ended in Stuart of Dunearn horsewhipping Mr. Stevenson in the Parliament Square. The paper was eventually suppressed, and John Nimmo, hearing of the issue of a Speaker’s warrant against him, after appearing openly at the printing office near the old back stairs to the Parliament House, fled the same day from Leith in a smack, and did not revisit Edinburgh for thirty-one years. He worked long as a journeyman printer in the service of the great Parisian house of M. Didot, and for forty years he formed one of the staff of Galignani’s Messenger, from which he retired with a pension to Asnières, where he died in his eighty-sixth year in February, 1879.
In this quarter of the Cowgate was born, in 1745, Dr. James Graham (the son of a saddler), who was a man of some note in his time as a lecturer and writer on medical subjects, and whose brother William married Catharine Macaulay, authoress of a “History of England” and other works forgotten now. In London Dr. Graham started an extraordinary establishment, known as the Temple of Health, in Pall Mall, where he delivered what were termed Hymeneal Lectures, which in 1783 he redelivered in St. Andrew’s Chapel, in Carrubber’s Close. In his latter years he became seized with a species of religious frenzy, and died suddenly in his house, opposite the Archer’s Hall, in 1794.
In Bailie’s Court, in this quarter, lived Robert Bruce, Lord Kennet, 4th July, 1764, successor on the bench to Lord Prestongrange, and who died in 1786. This court latterly a broker’s yard for burning bones – and Allison’s Close, which adjoins it – a damp and inconveniently filthy place, though but a few years ago one of the most picturesque alleys in the Cowgate – are decorated at their entrances with passages from the Psalms, a custom that superseded the Latin and older legends towards the end of the seventeenth century.
In Allison’s Close a door-head bears, but sorely defaced, in Roman letters, the lines from the 120th Psalm:- “In my distress I cried unto the Lord, and he heard me. Deliver my soul, O Lord, from lying lips and from a deceitful tongue.”
In Fisher’s Close, which led directly up to the Lawnmarket, there is a well of considerable antiquity, more than seventy feet deep, in which a man was nearly drowned in 1823 by the flagstone that covered it suddenly giving way.
The fragment of a house, abutting close to the northern pier of the centre arch of George IV. Bridge, with a boldly moulded doorway, inscribed,
TECUM HABITA, 1616,
(i.e., “keep at home” or “mind your own affairs”) indicates the once extensive tenement occupied by the celebrated Sir Thomas Hope, King’s Advocate of Charles I. in 1626, and one of the foremost men in Scotland, and who organised that resolute opposition to the king’s unwise interference with the Scottish Church, which ultimately led to the great civil war, the ruin of Charles and his English councillors.
This mansion was one of the finest and most spacious of its day, and possessed a grand oak staircase. “AT HOSPES HUMO” was carved upon one of the lintels, an anagram on the name of the sturdy old Scottish statesman. In the Coltness Collections, published by the Maitland Club, is the following remark:- “If the house near Cowgeat-head, north syde that street, was built by Sir Thomas Hope, the inscription on one of the lintall-stones supports this etymologie – (viz., that the Hopes derive their name from Houblon, the Hop-plant, and not from Esperance, the virtue of the mind), for the anagram is At hospes humo, and has all the letters of Thomas Houpe.” But Hope is a common name, and the termination of many localities in Scotland.
In the tapestried chambers of this old Cowgate mansion were held many of the Councils that led to the formation of the noble army of the Covenant, the camp of Dunselaw, and the total rout of the English troops at Newburnford. Hope was held by the Cavaliers in special abhorrence. “Had the d——d old rogue survived the Restoration he would certainly have been hanged,” wrote C. Kirkpatrick Sharpe. “My grandfather’s grandfather, Sir Charles Erskine of Alva, disgraced himself by marrying his daughter, an ugly slut.”
Honours accorded to him by Charles failed to detach him from the national cause; in 1638 he was one of the framers of the Covenant, and in 1645 was a Commissioner of Exchequer. Two of his sons being raised to the bench while he was yet Lord Advocate, he was allowed to wear his hat when pleading before them, a privilege which the King’s Advocate has ever since enjoyed.
He died in 1646, but must have quitted his Cowgate mansion some time before that, as it became the residence of Mary, Countess of John, seventh Earl of Mar, guardian of Henry Duke of Rothesay (afterwards Prince of Wales). She was the daughter of Esme Stuart, Lord D’Aubigne and Duke of Lennox, and she died in Hope’s house on the 11th May, 1644.
These and the adjacent tenements, removed to make way for the new bridge, were all of varied character and of high antiquity, displaying in some instances timber fronts and shot windows.
A little farther eastward were the old Back Stairs, great flights of stone steps that led through what was once, the Kirkheugh, to the Parliament Close. Here resided the young English officer, Captain Cayley, whose death at the hands of the beautiful Mrs. Macfarlane, on the 2nd October, 1716, made much noise in its time, and was referred to by Pope in one of his letters to Lady Mary Wortley Montagu.
Captain John Cayley, Commissioner of Customs, was a conspicuous member of a little knot of unwelcome and obnoxious English officials, whom new arrangements subsequent to the Union had brought into Edinburgh. He seems to have been a vain and handsome fellow, whose irregular passions left him little prudence or discretion. Among his new acquaintances in the Scottish capital was a young married woman of uncommon beauty, the daughter of Colonel Charles Straiton – a well-known adherent of James VIII. – and wife of John Macfarlane, Writer to the Signet, at one time agent to Simon Lord Lovat. By her mother’s side she was the grand-daughter of Sir Andrew Forester.
One Saturday forenoon Mrs. Macfarlane, then only in her twentieth year, and some months enceinte, was exposed by the treachery of Captain Cayley’s landlady to an insult of the most atrocious kind on his part, in his house adjacent to the Back Stairs – one account says opposite to them. On the Tuesday following he visited Mrs. Macfarlane at her own house, and was shown into the drawing-room, anxious – his friends alleged – to apologise for his recent rudeness. Other accounts say that he had meanly and revengefully circulated reports derogatory to her honour, and that she was resolved to punish him. Entering the room with a brace of pistols in her hand, she ordered him to leave the house instantly.
“What, madam,” said he, “d’ye design to act a comedy?” “If you do not retire instantly you will find it a tragedy!” she replied, sternly.
As he declined to obey her command, she fired one of the pistols – Cayley’s own pair, borrowed but a few days before by her husband – and wounded his left wrist. With what object – unless self-preservation – it is impossible to say, Cayley drew his sword, and the moment he did so, she shot him through the heart. So close were they together that Cayley’s shirt was burned at the left sleeve by one pistol, and at the breast by the other.
In wild terror Mrs. Macfarlane now rushed from the room, locked the door, and sending for her husband showed him the body, and told him all that had transpired. “Oh, woman!” he exclaimed, in misery, “what have you done?” His friends whom he consulted advised her instant flight, and at six o’clock that evening she walked down the High Street, followed by her husband at a little distance, and disappeared.
By ten that night – deeming her safe – Mr. Macfarlane sent for the magistrates, who secured the house and servants. A contemporary says:- “I saw his (Cayley’s) corpse after he was unclothed, and saw his blood where he lay on the floor for 24 hours after he died just as he fell, so it was difficult to straighten him.” (“Dom. Ann.,” Vol. III.)
Criminal letters were raised against Mrs. Macfarlane by the Lord Advocate, Sir David Dalrymple, and the father and brother of the deceased, who was a native of York. Not appearing for trial she was declared an outlaw, while her husband was absolved from all blame.
Mrs. Murray, Cayley’s landlady, who kept a grocery shop in the Cowgate, vindicated herself in a pamphlet from imputations which Mrs. Macfarlane’s accusations had thrown upon her character, and denying that the lady had been in the house on the Saturday before the murder; “but evidence was given that she was seen issuing from the close in which Mrs. Murray resided, and after ascending the Back Stairs was observed passing through the Parliament Square towards her own house.”
Of this Scottish Lucretia the future is unknown, and the only trace seems something of the marvellous. Margaret Swinton, a grand-aunt of Sir Walter Scott, related to him more than once, that when she, a little girl, was once left alone in Swinton House, Berwickshire, she wandered into the dining-room, and there saw an unknown lady, “beautiful as an enchanted queen, pouring out tea at a table. The lady seemed equally surprised as herself, but addressed the little intruder kindly, in particular desiring her to speak first to her mother by herself of what she had seen.” Margaret for a moment looked out of the window, and when she turned the beautiful lady had vanished! On the return of the family from church, she told her mother of what she had seen, was praised for her discretion, and pledged to secresy in what seemed to be a dream. Subsequently she was informed that the lady was Captain Cayley’s slayer, who had found a temporary shelter in the house of the Swintons as a kinswoman, and had a hiding-place concealed by a sliding panel. Sir Walter Scott, who introduced the incident into “Peveril of the Peak,” states in a note to that work, that she afterwards returned to Edinburgh, where she lived and died.
When excavations were made for the erection of the new Courts of Law in 1844, and the site of the old Back Stairs was cleared, some curious discoveries were made, illustrative of the changes that had taken place in the Cowgate during the preceding 400 years.
A considerable fragment of the wall of James II. was laid bare, proving it to have been a solid and magnificent piece of masonry, when compared with the hasty erection of 1513. On the slope nearer the Cowgate, at fourteen feet below the present surface, there was found a range of strong oak coffins, lying close together, and full of human remains. In form these coffins were remarkable, being quite straight at the sides, with lids ridged in the centre. The same operations brought to light, beyond the first city wall, and at the depth of eighteen feet below the present level of the Cowgate, a common shaped barrel, six feet high, standing upright, embedded eighteen inches deep in a stratum of blue clay, and with a massive stone beside it. The appearance of the whole showed that the barrel had been placed so as to collect the rain water from the eaves of a long defunct house, with a stepping-stone to enable any one to reach its contents.
The old Meal Market was the next locality of importance on this side. In 1477 James III. ordained this market to be held “fra the Tolbooth up to Liberton’s Wynd, alsua fra thence upward to the treviss;” but the meal market of 1647, as shown in Gordon’s map, directly south of the Parliament House, seems to have been a long, unshapely edifice, with two high arched gates. In 1690 the meal market paid to the city, £77 15s. 6d. sterling. As we have related elsewhere, all this quarter was destroyed by the “Great Fire” of 1700, which “broke out in the lodging immediately under Lord Crossrig’s lodging in the meal market,” and from which he and his family had to seek flight in their night-dress. One of his daughters, Jean Home, died at Edinburgh in Feb. 1769.
Edgar’s map shows the new meal market, a huge quadrangular mass, with 150 feet front by 100 in depth, immediately eastward of the Back Stairs. This place was the scene of a serious riot in 1763. In November there had been a great scarcity of meal, by which multitudes of the poor were reduced to great suffering; hence, on the evening of the 21st, a great mob proceeded to the girnels in the meal market, carried off all that was there, rifled the house of the keeper, and smashed all the furniture that was not carried off. At midnight the mob dispersed on the arrival of some companies of infantry from the Castle, to renew their riotous proceedings, however, on the following day, when they could only be suppressed “by the presence of the Provost (George Drummond), bailies, train-band, constables, party of the military, and the city guard.” Many of the unfortunate rioters were captured at the point of the bayonet, and lodged in the Castle, and the whole of the Scots Greys were quartered in the Canongate and Leith to enforce order. “The magistrates of Edinburgh, and Justices of Peace for the County of Midlothian,” says the North British Magazine for 1763, “have since used every means to have this market supplied effectually with meal; but from whatever cause it may proceed, certain it is that the scarcity of oatmeal is still severely felt by every family who have occasion to make use of that commodity.”
The archiepiscopal palace and the mint, which were near each other, on this side of the street, have already been described (Vol. I., pp. 262-4; 267-270); but one of the old features of the locality still remaining unchanged is the large old gateway, recessed back, which gave access to the extensive pleasure-grounds attached to the residence of the Marquises of Tweeddale, and which seem to have measured 300 feet in length by 250 in breadth, and been overlooked in the north-west angle by the beautiful old mansion of the Earls of Selkirk, the basement of which was a series of elliptical arcades. These pleasure grounds ascended from the street to the windows of Tweeddale House, by a succession of terraces, and were thickly planted on the east and west with belts of trees. In Gordon’s map for 1647, the whole of this open area had been – what it is now becoming again – covered by masses of building, the greatest portion of it being occupied by a huge church, that has had, at various times, no less than three different congregations, an Episcopal, Presbyterian, and, finally, a Catholic one.
For a few years before 1688 Episcopacy was the form of Church government in Scotland – illegally thrust upon the people; but the self-constituted Convention, which transferred the crown to William and Mary, re-established the Presbyterian Church, abolishing the former, which consisted of fourteen bishops, two archbishops, and 900 clergymen. An Act of the Legislature ordered these to conform to the new order of things, or abandon their livings; but though expelled from these, they continued to officiate privately to those who were disposed to attend to their ministrations, notwithstanding the penal laws enacted against them – laws which William, who detested Presbyterianism, and was “an uncovenanted King,” intended to repeal if he had lived. The title of archbishop was dropped by the scattered few, though a bishop was elected with the title Primus, to regulate the religious affairs of the community. There existed another body attached to the same mode of worship, composed of those who favoured the principles which occasioned the Revolution in Scotland, and, adopting the ritual of the Church of England, were supplied with clergy ordained by bishops of that country. Two distinct bodies thus existed – designated by the name of Non-jurants, as declining the oaths to the new Government. The first of these bodies – unacknowledged as a legal association, whose pastors were appointed by bishops, who acknowledged only the authority of their exiled king, who refused to take the oaths prescribed by law, and omitted all mention of the House of Hanover in their prayers – were made the subject of several penal statutes by that House.
An Episcopal chapel, whose minister was qualified to preach openly, by taking the oaths to Government, had been founded in Edinburgh by Baron Smith, and two smaller ones were founded about 1746, in Skinner’s and Carrubber’s Closes; but as these places were only mean and inconvenient apartments, a plan was formed for the erection of a large and handsome church. The Episcopalians of the city chose a committee of twelve gentlemen to see the scheme executed. They purchased from the Royal College of Physicians the area of what had formerly been the Tweeddale gardens, and opened a subscription, which was the only resource they had for completing the building, the trifling funds belonging to the former obscure chapels bearing no proportion to the cost of so expensive a work. But this impediment was removed by the gentlemen of the committee, who generously gave their personal credit to a considerable amount.
The foundation stone was laid on the 3rd of April, 1771, by the Grand Master Mason, Lieutenant-General Sir Adolphus Oughton, K.B., Colonel of the 31st Foot, and Commander of the Forces in Scotland. The usual coins were deposited in the stone, under a plate, inscribed thus:-
EDIFICII SAC. ECCLESIÆ EPISC. ANGLIÆ,
PRIMUM POSUIT LAPIDEM,
I. ADOLPHUS OUGHTON,
IN ARCHITECTONICA SCOTIÆ REPUB.
REGNANTE GEORGIO III.
TERTIO APR. DIE,
Towards this church the Writers to the Signet subscribed 200 guineas, and the Incorporation of Surgeons gave 40 guineas, and on Sunday, the 9th of October, 1774, divine service was performed in it for the first time. “This is a plain, handsome building,” says Arnot, “neatly fitted up in the inside somewhat in the form of the church of St. Martin’s-in-the-Fields, London. It is 90 feet long by 75 broad over the walls, and is ornamented with a neat spire of a tolerable height. In the spire hangs an excellent bell, formerly belonging to the Chapel Royal at Holyrood, which is permitted to be rung for assembling the congregation, an indulgence that is not allowed to the Presbyterians in England. This displays a commendable liberality of sentiment in the magistrates of Edinburgh; but breathes no jealousy for the dignity of their national Church. In the chapel there is a fine organ, made by Snetzler of London. In the east side is a niche of 30 feet, with a Venetian window, where stands the altar, which is adorned with paintings by Runciman, a native of Edinburgh. In the volta is the Ascension; over the small window on the right is Christ talking with the Samaritan woman; on the left the Prodigal returned. In these two the figures are half-length. On one side of the table is the figure of Moses; on the other that of Elias.”
At the time Arnot wrote £6,800 had been spent on the building, which was then incomplete. “The ground,” he adds, “is low; the chapel is concealed by adjacent buildings; the access for carriages inconvenient, and there is this singularity attending it, that it is the only Christian church standing north and south we ever saw or heard of… There are about 1,000 persons in this congregation. Divine service is celebrated before them according to all the rites of the Church of England. This deserves to be considered as a mark of increasing moderation and liberality among the generality of the people. Not many years ago that form of worship in all its ceremonies would not have been tolerated. The organ and paintings would have been downright idolatry, and the chapel would have fallen a sacrifice to the fury of the mob.”
Upon the death of Mr. Carr, the first senior clergyman of this chapel, he was interred under its portico, and the funeral service was sung, the voices of the congregation being accompanied by the organ. In Arnot’s time the senior clergyman was Dr. Myles Cooper, Principal of New York College, an exile from America in consequence of the revolt of the colonies.
In the middle of February, 1788, accounts reached Scotland of the death and funeral of Prince Charles Edward, the eldest grandson of James VII., at Rome, and created a profound sensation among people of all creeds, and the papers teemed with descriptions of the burial service at Frascati; how his brother, the Cardinal, wept, and his voice broke when singing the office for the dead prince, on whose coffin lay the diamond George and collar of the Garter, now in Edinburgh Castle, while the militia of Frascati stood around as a guard, with the Master of Nairn, in whose arms the prince expired.
In the subsequent April the Episcopal College met at Aberdeen, and unanimously resolved that they should submit “to the present Government of this kingdom as invested in his present Majesty George III.,” death having broken the tie which bound them to the House of Stuart. Thenceforward the royal family was prayed for in all their churches, and the penal statutes, after various modifications, were repealed in 1792. Eight years afterwards the Rev. Archibald Alison (father of the historian) became senior minister of the Cowgate chapel.
One of his immediate predecessors, the Rev. Mr. Fitzsimmons, an Englishman, became seriously embroiled with the authorities, and was arraigned before the High Court of Justiciary in July, 1799, on the charge of aiding the escape of Jean Baptiste Vanvelde, Jean Jacques Jaffie, Réné Griffon, and Hypolite Depondt, French prisoners, from the Castle of Edinburgh, by concealing them in his house, and taking them in the Newhaven fishing boat of Neil Drysdale to the Isle of Inchkeith, where they remained hidden till taken to a cartel ship, commanded by Captain Robertson, in Leith Roads.
Two of these four, Vanvelde and Jaffie, had escaped from the Castle by sawing through their window bars with a sword-blade furnished to them by John Armour, a clerk in the city. The other two were on parole. The Hon. Henry Erskine defended Mr. Fitzsimmons, who was sentenced to three months’ imprisonment in the Tolbooth. In the following September 600 French prisoners (including the crew of the Victorieux) were marched from the Castle, under a guard of the North York Militia, to Leith, where they embarked for England in care of 150 bayonets of the 71st Highlanders.
After the erection of St. Paul’s Church, in York Place, the Cowgate Chapel was purchased by the United Secession congregation. It was then seated for 1,792, with a stipend of £210 and £12 allowance for sacramental purposes. And in 1856, it became, by purchase, the property of the Roman Catholic body, with whom it still remains. It was dedicated to St. Patrick, and the then adjacent mansion of the Earls of Selkirk was repaired and restored with admirable taste by the late Rev. Dr. Marshal, as a chapel-house; but it has since been uselessly and recklessly removed by the Improvement Trust, and a hideous edifice substituted in its place.
Since then, with the exception of the Tweeddale archway, the whole north side of the street from the Blackfriars’ Wynd to the foot of St. Mary’s Wynd, or street, has been pulled down; also, the east side of the High School Wynd, with all its picturesque and overhanging timber fronts and dovecot gables.
In 1784 Mr. John Francis Erskine, of the attainted house of Mar, who died in 1825, resided in the Cowgate, but in what part we have no means of ascertaining.
That the ancient name of this street was the Southgate is proved by the title-page of a work presented to the Advocate’s Library in 1788 –