Chapter 39 – Nicolson Street and Square., pp.334-338.

[Old & New Edinburgh Contents]

Lady Nicolson – Her Pillar – Royal Riding School – M. Angelo – New Surgeons’ Hall – The Earl of Leven – Dr. Borthwick Gilchrist – The Blind Asylum – John Maclaren – Sir David Wilkie – Roxburgh Parish – Lady Glenorchy’s Chapel. 

NICOLSON STREET, which runs southward to the Cross Causeway, on a line with the South Bridge, was formed about the middle of the eighteenth century, on the grounds of Lady Nicolson, whose mansion stood on an area now covered by the eastern end of North College Street; and a writer in a public print recently stated that the house numbered as 82 in Nicolson Street, presently occupied as a hotel, was erected for and occupied by her after the street was formed. 

   In Shaw’s “Register of Entails” under date of Tailzie, 7th October, 1763, and of Registration, 4th December, 1764, is the name of Lady Nicolson (Elizabeth Carnegie), relict of Mr. James Nicolson, with note of the lands and heritable subjects in the shire of Edinburgh that should belong to her at her death. 

   In Edgar’s plan for 1765, her park, lying eastward of the Potterrow, is intersected by the “New Road,” evidently the line of the present street, and at its northern end is her mansion, some seventy feet distant from the city wall, with a carriage gate and lodge, the only other building near it being the Royal Riding School, with its stables, on the site of the present Surgeons’ Hall. 

   On the completion of Nicolson Street, Lady Nicolson erected at its northern end a monument to her husband. It was, states Arnot, a fluted Corinthian column, twenty-five feet two inches in height, with a capital and base, and fourteen inches diameter. Another account says it was from thirty to forty feet in height, and had on its pedestal an inscription in Latin and English, stating that Lady Nicolson having been left the adjacent piece of ground by her husband, had, out of regard for his memory, made it to be planned into “a street, to be named from him, Nicolson Street.” 

   On the extension of the thoroughfare and ultimate completion of the South Bridge, from which it was for some years a conspicuous object, it was removed, and the affectionate memorial, instead of being placed in the little square, with that barbarous want of sentiment that has characterised many improvements in Edinburgh and elsewhere in Scotland in more important matters, was thrown aside into the yard of the adjacent Riding School, and was, no doubt, soon after broken up for rubble. 

   One of the first edifices in the newly-formed thoroughfare was the old Riding School, a block of buildings and stables, measuring about one hundred and fifty feet each way. 

   The first “master of the Royal Riding Menage” was Angelo Tremamondo, a native of Italy, as his name imports, though it has been supposed that it was merely a mountebank assumption; as it means the tremor of the world, a universal earthquake; but be that as it may, his Christian name in Edinburgh speedily dwindled down to Ainslie. He was in the pay of the Government, was among the earliest residents in Nicolson Square, and had a salary of £200 per annum. 

   In the account given of the formation of the school in the Scots Magazine for December, 1763, he is called M. Angelo; and it was agreed at a meeting of the subscribers that the institution should be opened in the subsequent January. “Each scholar pays four guineas the first month, and two every other month; sixteen teaching days in the month. Gentlemen whose business will not allow them to attend regularly, get sixteen tickets for a month, and pay three guineas for the first, and £2 16s. for every other month.” The sum raised to build this edifice was only £2,733 15s., and in 1776 it received a royal charter. The actual school was 124 feet long by 42 broad. 

   The Weekly Magazine for 1776 describes “a carousal” held at the Royal Riding School, at which the gentlemen performed their various equestrian exercises with great dexterity, and at which “a gold medal, with a suitable device and motto, given by M. Angelo,” was presented by the Countess of Selkirk, as the prize of successful merit, to Robert Cay, Esq., of Northumberland. 

   Kay gives us an equestrian portrait of Angelo, in a Kevenhuller hat and long riding-boots. He died at Edinburgh in April, 1805, in his eighty-fourth year. 

   The edifice in which he so long officiated was pulled down to make way for the new Surgeons’ Hall, and the scene of equestrian exercise was removed to the now defunct school at the back of the Royal Scottish Naval and Military Academy, so long superintended by the veteran Captain John Orr, in St. Cuthbert’s Lane. 

   Its successor, the new Surgeons’ Hall, on the east side of Nicolson Street, and a little south of Drummond Street, is a remarkably chaste and beautiful building, in the Grecian style, with a noble portico and pediment, supported by six great fluted Ionic columns, after a design by W. H. Playfair, at a cost of £20,000. 

   It was opened in 1832, during the presidency of John Gairdner, M.D., whose portrait, painted by order of the College, is in the hall, the committee-rooms of which are adorned by many of the old oak panels of 1697, from the former hall in Surgeon Square; and some of the sculptured stones and armorial bearings which belonged to that edifice are now to be seen in the front of the Medical Lecture Rooms, behind the hall in Nicolson Street. (“Hist. Sketch R. C. S.”) 

   The extensive museum here contains a valuable collection of anatomical and surgical preparations, and may be seen almost daily free. 

   Nearly opposite, on the west side, is Nicolson Square, containing a house occupied by Lady Sinclair of Stevenson in 1784, and another at its north-west corner, long occupied by David, Earl of Leven and Melville, who in 1782 became Commissioner to the General Assembly, an office which he held with honour till his eightieth year, in 1801. He married in 1747 Wilhelmina, the nineteenth child of William Nisbet of Dirleton, and after years of conjugal affection and happiness, he celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of his marriage with her at Melville House in 1797, and there she died in the following year. He died at 2, St. Andrew Square, in 1802. In the Directory for 1784, Sir John Dalrymple, Baron of Exchequer, appears among the residents in Nicolson Street, the Countess of Aberdeen in No. 25, and Robert, Lord Colville, and Lady Nisbet of Dean, in No. 26. 

   Sir Charles Preston, Bart., of Valleyfield, one of the Commissioners of Customs for Scotland, died at his house in Nicolson Square, 23rd March, 1800; and in No. 3 of the same square there lived long the celebrated Orientalist, John Borthwick Gilchrist, LL.D., a native of the city, born in 1759, and who, from Heriot’s Hospital, passed into the service of the East India Company, when he devoted himself with ardour and industry to the acquirement of all Oriental languages, for which purpose he travelled in Indian garb wherever he deemed them to be spoken with the greatest purity. 

   From his pen issued many most valuable works on these languages; and after resigning his chair as Professor of Hindostanee and Persian in the new College of Fort William, he returned to take up his residence in Edinburgh in 1804, and among other schemes, instituted a bank in 7, Hunter Square, under the name of “Inglis, Borthwick Gilchrist, and Co.;” but as other banks refused the notes, the establishment was relinquished. 

   He quitted his house in Nicolson Square in 1815, and after engaging in many literary publications, all of an Oriental nature, he spent the latter years of his life in retirement and died at Paris, in his eighty-first year, in 1841. 

   At the south-west corner of the square is a Wesleyan Methodist church, with a handsome Roman front. It was built in 1814, measures 80 feet by 60, with a minister’s house and schools attached. It was regularly attended by the President of the United States, General U. S. Grant, during his sojourn in Edinburgh. 

   The most interesting building in the street is undoubtedly the Royal Blind Asylum and School, instituted in 1793; nor is this lessened by the recollection that it long formed the residence of the celebrated chemist, Dr. Joseph Black, who, as we have elsewhere stated, was found dead in his chair in November, 1799, and whose high reputation contributed so largely in his time to the growing fame of our University. 

   The institution was first suggested by the celebrated Dr. Thomas Blacklock, who lost his sight before he was six months old, and by Mr. David Miller, also a sufferer from blindness; but it was chiefly through the exertions of Dr. David Johnstone, the philanthropic minister of North Leith, aided by a subscription of only £20 from the great Wilberforce, that the asylum was founded in 1793, in one of the dingy old houses of Shakespeare Square, into which nine blind persons were received; but the public patronage having greatly increased, in 1806 the present building, No. 58, was purchased, and in 1822 another house, No. 38, was bought for the use of the female blind. 

   The latter are employed in sewing the covers for mattresses and feather beds, knitting stockings, &c. The males are employed in making mattresses, mats, brushes, baskets of every kind, in weaving sacking, matting, and “rag-carpets.” No less than eighteen looms are employed in this work. The sales of the above kinds of work have in some years, amounted to £10,000, and in 1880 to £18,724 8s., notwithstanding the general depression of trade; but this was owing to the Government contract for brushes. Hence the directors have been enabled to make extensive alterations and improvements to a large amount. 

   The asylum has received a new and elegant facade, surmounted by stone-faced dormer windows, a handsome cornice, and balustrade, with a large central doorway, in a niche above which is a bust of Dr. David Johnstone, the founder, from the studio of the late Handyside Ritchie. 

   The inmates seem to spend a very merry life, for though the use of their eyes has been denied them, they have no restriction placed upon their tongues; thus, whenever two or three of them are together, they are constantly talking, or singing their national songs. 

   A chapel is attached to the works, and therein, besides regular morning worship, the blind hold large meetings in connection with the various benefit societies they have established among themselves. The younger lads who come from the Blind School at Craigmillar, and are employed here, spend a portion of each day in education, often passing an hour or more daily in learning to read by means of raised letters, under the direction of the chaplain. 

   One of the most remarkable inmates here was John Maclaren, who deserves to be recorded for his wonderful memory. He was a native of Edinburgh, and lost his sight by small-pox in infancy. He was admitted into the first asylum in Shakespeare Square in 1793, and was the last survivor of the original members. With little exception, he had committed the whole of the Scriptures to memory, and was most earnest in his pious efforts to instruct the blind boys of the institution in portions of the sacred volume. He could repeat an entire passage of the Bible, naming chapter and verse, wherever it might be opened for him. As age came upon him the later events of his life eluded his memory, while all that it had secured of the earlier remained distinct to the last. Throughout his long career he was distinguished by his zeal in promoting the spiritual welfare and temporal comfort of the little community of which he was a member, and also for a life of increasing industry, which closed on the 14th of November, 1840. 

   In West Richmond Street, which opens off the east side of Nicolson Street, is the McCrie Free Church, so named from being long the scene of the labours of Dr. Thomas McCrie, the zealous biographer of Knox and Melville. Near it, a large archway leads into a small and dingy-looking court, named Simon Square, crowded by a humble, but dense population; yet it has associations intimately connected with literature and the fine arts, for there a poor young student from Annandale, named Thomas Carlyle, lodged when he first came to Edinburgh, and in a narrow alley called Paul Street David Wilkie took up his abode on his arrival in Edinburgh in 1799. 

   He was then in his fourteenth year; and so little was thought of his turn for art, that it required all the powerful influence of the kind old Earl of Leven to obtain him admission as a student at the Academy of the Board of Trustees. The room he occupied in Paul Street was a little back one, about ten feet square, at the top of a common stair on the south side of the alley, and near the Pleasance. 

   From this he removed to a better lodging in East Richmond Street, and from thence to an attic in Palmer’s Lane, West Nicolson Street, where he occupied the same apartment as that in which resided, till the year before his death, in 1785, Alexander Runciman, one of the most eminent Scottish artists of his day, and where, no doubt, he must have entertained the poet Robert Fergusson, “while with ominous fitness he sat as his model for the Prodigal Son.” 

   Nicolson Street church, erected in 1819-20, at a cost of £6,000, has a handsome Gothic front, with two turreted pinnacles ninety feet in height. It is built upon the site of the old Antiburgher Meeting-house, and is notable for the ministry of Dr. John Jamieson, author of several theological works, and of the well-known “Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language.” It was among the first efforts at an improved style of church architecture in Edinburgh, where, as elsewhere in Scotland after the Reformation, the accommodation of the different congregations in the homeliest manner was all that was deemed necessary. 

   The quoad sacra parish called Lady Glenorchy’s lies eastward of Nicolson Street, and therein quite a cluster of little churches has been erected. The parish church was built as a relief chapel in 1809, by the Rev. Mr. Johnstone, and altered in 1814, when it was seated for 900 persons. The Independent congregation in Richmond Court was established in 1833; but their place of worship till 1840 was built about 1795 by the Baptists. The Hebrew congregation was established in 1817, but has never exceeded 100 souls. The Episcopal congregation of St. Peter’s, Roxburgh Place, was established in 1791, and its place of worship consisted of the first and second flats of a five-storeyed tenement, and was originally built, at the sole expense of the clergyman, for about 420 persons. 

   To Roxburgh Place came, in 1859, the congregation of Lady Glenorchy’s church, which had been demolished by the operations of the North British Railway. The Court of Session having found that this body must be kept in full communion with the Established Church, authorised the purchase of Roxburgh Place chapel in lieu of the old place of worship, and trustees were appointed to conduct their affairs. 

   The chapel handed over to them was that of the Relief Communion just mentioned. Externally it has no architectural pretensions; but many may remember it as the meeting-place of the “Convocation” which preceded the ever-memorable secession in 1843, after which it remained closed and uncared for till it came into the hands of the Glenorchy trustees in 1859, in so dilapidated a condition that their first duty was to repair it before the congregation could use it. 

   The remains of the pious Lady Glenorchy, which had been removed from the old church near the North Bridge, were placed, in 1844, in the vaults of St. John’s church; but the trustees, wishing to comply as far as was in their power with the wishes of the foundress, that her remains should rest in her own church, had a suitable vault built in that at Roxburgh Place. It was paved and covered with stone, set in Roman cement, and formed on the right side of the pulpit. 

   Therein her body was laid on the evening of Saturday, 31st December, 1859. The marble tablet, which was carefully removed from the old church, was placed over her grave, with an additional inscription explaining the circumstance which occasioned her new place of interment. 

   The portion of St. Cuthbert’s parish which was disjoined and attached to Lady Glenorchy’s is bounded by Nicolson Street and the Pleasance on the west and east, by Drummond Street on the north, and Richmond Street on the south, with an average population of about 7,000 souls. 

   Roxburgh Terrace is built on what was anciently called Thomson’s Park; and the place itself was named the Back Row in the city plan of 1787.

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