OREALD.COM - An Old Electronic Library
eng: a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z

Romantic Edinburgh


Pages: <1> 2

Neither poet nor painter can hope to express the whole variety or loveliness of Edinburgh, though neither could fail to discern certain elements of her magic. In the first place, her "stage-management " by the cherubim of weather is superb. There is a cold fineness in her brightest suns which recalls the dim splendour of a Byzantine altar-piece. Even the most dazzling morning, the most riotous sunset, fails to bedizen her for she is, fundamentally, a city of "haars" and shadows.

The world-forces dealt rigorously with the site of Edinburgh aeons before she was thought of. Earthquake and volcano tortured and upthrew her future stage into fantastic ridges and lofty heights. The nearness of the sea, over which she glooms like a cloud, secured her an eternity of shadow. But in few of the haunts of antiquity has the spirit of old romance so many lurking-places. In our great cities the shrines of memory are usually to be encountered in isolated sanctity, but in the Old Town of Edinburgh entire streets have been preserved whose stones are eloquent of Scottish history.

Down the spine of Old Edinburgh straggles the Royal Mile, an ancient thoroughfare, spacious in its middle courses, but sinking gradually as it approaches the Palace of Holyrood into depths of almost canyon-like gloom and profundity, a narrow cobbled gorge hedged by lofty "lands" or tenements. It is within the precincts of this highway of nearly a thousand years that the majority of "Auld Reekie's" historic houses are situated. From Princes Street, on the northern flat, the skyline of this mile of history in stone presents the aspect of a soaring ridge packed with high-shouldered houses, and peaked with spires and turrets and the "crown" of St. Giles.

To the west, the black crag of the Castle rock, the last basaltic bubble from the mouth of a volcano, writes a bold and fantastic initial letter to the chronicle of Edinburgh, and down the tail of softer soil which the winds of the ages have heaped against this martial height the tempestuous story of the city has been inscribed in grey gable and crowstep, corbelled close and dormer casement. Old Edinburgh is indeed a sculptured mountain.

Time and the seven winds may slightly alter its craggy profile, but its present outlines are easily recognized in a print or painting of the seventeenth century.

The Saxon origin of "Dunedin," formerly insisted upon, has long been discredited, and its early British foundation is now fully realized. Its earliest site was perhaps on the eastern slope of Arthur's Seat. But inroads from the sea forced its "Welsh-speaking" folk inland to the Castle Hill which, like Arthur's Seat, still bears on its southern declivity the traces of the terraces on which they grew their scanty crops. The Roman associations of the city have not as yet been satisfactorily ascertained, still it is known that Roman highroads skirted the Castle rock, passing north and south to Cramond, where they met.

Early paths or roads across the primeval moorland are known to have formed a junction, still existing, at Main Point, near the West Port. That Edinburgh, like Dumbarton, was a centre of importance in Romano-British times seems highly probable, in view of its wealth of Arthurian tradition. But it was with the coming of the Normans in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries that the plan of the Old Town, as it is now, began to take on a definite shape.

The great town-planners of their era, the Norman or Normanized kings and notables of Scotland, saw in Edinburgh's "crag-and-tail" formation, as geologists call it, a fitting site for a feudal burgh-town-an impregnable castellated rock, with a broad space beneath for a market-place and, to the east, a gradually falling slope on which a village might advantageously be planted. A church must, of course, occupy the centre, and defence was amply secured by the deep and sombre lakes which then practically surrounded the ridge.

The second phase was reached in 1128, when David I, "the sore saint," raised his Abbey of the Holy Rood on piles driven into the marshy soil which skirted the shaggy forest of Drumselch, on the site of his miraculous preservation from an infuriated deer. The village of Canongate, a separate burgh attached to the Abbey which David had founded, began to straggle up the hill, at last to join with the burgh of the Castle and latterly to form the Royal Mile. For centuries the house-fringed way, from the "Castle of the Maidens " to the Abbey on the fringes of the forest which covered the present site of the King's Park, was Edinburgh. Later it overflowed into the gulfs and howes beneath its craggy shoulders. But not until the whole separate drama of Scottish history had been played out were the surrounding hollows and precipices bridged over so that the levels to the north and south might be conveniently reached from the Royal Mile and become municipally dependent upon it.

The first glance down this mile of memories is perhaps slightly disappointing. On either side high and dingy tenements built of unsquared stones tower upwards in raking and undistinguished ugliness.

But the grim lands on the causeway are not Auld Reekie's "howffs" of antiquity, as the stranger might suppose, and as many misguided natives actually believe. The fayade is, indeed, but a rough casket to the treasure it conceals. The monuments of the Canongate are more conspicuous than those of the High Street, which are too often occluded by insignificant and featureless structures dating from the early part of last century. But it is the score or so of gracious mansions which lurk in the closes of the Royal Mile which constitute its chief architectural charm. These closes or wynds are narrow sloping passages-one cannot even dignify them by the name of lanes-which are entered from the main street by way of arches or gateways.

In the old walled city room was extremely precious, and the builder was forced not only up into the air, where he piled storey upon storey, but had later to intrude upon the garden spaces behind the mansions abutting on the main thoroughfare.

The first step in the Royal Mile is the Castle Hill, the fashionable promenade of the eighteenth century, a straitened yet decorous gateway to this street of the centuries. On the immediate right is Boswell's Court, once the dwelling-place of the uncle of the great biographer, where Dr. Johnson was sadly baited by the grudging and sceptical wits of Edinburgh on the occasion of his grand tour through Scotland. It also contains the battered mansion of the Sempills of Castle Sempill, a race of vernacular poets. From its narrow and usually deserted confines we pass into the Lawnmarket, a broad, steep thoroughfare looking down upon the High Street, and anciently a quarter of the merchants in "dry-goods." Here it was that Robert Burns lodged during his gay sojourn among the literary circles of Old Edinburgh at the thrifty charge of eighteenpence weekly. The adjoining Lady Stair's Close contains the exquisite early seventeenth century mansion of the Dowager Countess of Stair, immortalised in the tale of "Aunt Margaret's Mirror."

The house was restored by Lord Rosebery, and is now in use as a municipal museum. Over the way is Riddle's Close, once the home of David Hume, the historian, and among the best preserved of Edinburgh's ancient dwellings, with its outer and inner courtyard embellished by gargoyles, and its chambers lit by dormer windows.

Crossing George IV Bridge at right angles, the grey bulk of St. Giles' Cathedral now fills the eye to the exclusion of aught else. Until about a century ago it was masked by the soaring donjon towers of the Tolbooth or prison, "the Heart of Midlothian," to mark the former site of which a stone heart is set into the pavement. Only a few yards from this symbol is the grave of John Knox, indicated solely by the simple letters "I.K." and the date of his death. But it is the venerable fane itself which compels attention. Its famous " crown " or spire, gnawed by the east winds of five centuries, dominates the entire city. As a place of Christian worship, the site dates at least from Saxon times, but it is to the Norman era that its foundation as an edifice of stone is now generally referred. As a "collegiate" kirk in pre-Reformation times its massive roofs sheltered some seventy officiating priests, it was the nucleus of the reforming zeal of the Calvinists and the pulpit of John Knox, and it was within its walls that Jenny Geddes, the huckster-wife, hurled her cutty stool at the head of the bishop who read the unpopular episcopal liturgy.

Immediately behind St. Giles', partially surrounding it, in fact, is Parliament House, with its rather aloof Grecian facade, where the Law Courts stand. It contains at least one notable chamber of antiquity, the Parliament Hall, the meeting-place of the Scots Parliament from 1640 till the Union of 1707. Its magnificent oak roof, gilt and garnished with graceful drooping finials, crowds down upon its 120 feet of length in heavy menace of ornament, and its great southern window of Victorian stained glass colours the floor where advocates promenade arm-in-arm. In the Laigh House beneath, the Scottish National Library, formerly the Advocates' Library, is at present accommodated in a regular labyrinth of gloomy chambers and corridors.

East of and below St. Giles' is the Mercat Cross, from which royal proclamations are issued by herald and pursuivant. Of the ancient cross only the shaft remains, the handsome pedestal on which it stands being a gift to the city from William Gladstone. Directly opposite loom the heavy arched entrance and handsome Georgian frontage of the Royal Exchange, as the Municipal Buildings are still called. In Old Stamp Office Close, hard by, Flora Macdonald, who sleeps in a neglected grave in distant Skye, attended a ladies' seminary; and in Anchor Close, not many steps away, in a building now removed, the Edinburgh edition of Burns's poems was printed. At the south-east corner of the High Street towers the graceful spire of the Tron Kirk built by Charles I in 1637 to accommodate the overflow from St. Giles' when it was raised to the status of a Cathedral charge. Crossing the junction of the North and South Bridges at this point, we enter that part of the High Street which abuts on the Canongate.

Narrower and steeper grows the highway, and several modern buildings somewhat disturb the Gothic unity of the thoroughfare.

Blackfriars Street, on the right hand, is built upon the site of the old Blackfriars' Wynd, the scene of the sanguinary brawl known as "Cleanse the Causeway," in which the faction of Arran and the Hamiltons fought out their feud with the rival Angus party. Here the house of the hapless Regent Morton still stands. Farther down the High Street, on the left, is the ancient timber-fronted dwelling popularly known as " John Knox's House," which, if it ever harboured the great reformer, could only have done so for some six months. But, thanks to the mere tradition, one of the finest surviving examples of sixteenth century domestic architecture in Scotland has been preserved.

Immediately below the jutting gable of John Knox's House stood the old Netherbow Port, the city gate which entered upon the extra-mural burgh of the Canongate. A short way down stands Playhouse Close, where one of the earliest theatres in Edinburgh was erected, and where in 1756 the production of the Rev. John Home's tragedy of "Douglas" resulted in his expulsion from his church. In St. John Street, close at hand, lived James Ballantyne, Scott's printer and publisher, and here for a time resided Tobias Smollett, the racy if somewhat scandalous novelist and naval surgeon.

A notable example of the almost unchanged though sadly impaired architecture of the late sixteenth century is Huntly House, a long, low, timber-fronted building. Almost over against it is the frowning and arresting mass of the Canongate Tolbooth or burgh jail, built in the Scoto-French style of the late sixteenth century, its great bell-tower and heavy outer staircase preserving a medieval aspect which is scarcely dissipated by its modern use as a fire-station and reading-room. On the same side is the Old Canongate Kirk, dating from 1688, in the graveyard of which are interred many of Auld Reekie's famous dead, notably Adam Smith, author of "The Wealth of Nations," Dugald Stewart, Fergusson the poet-the "elder brother in the Muses" of Robert Burns whose tomb the younger bard restored-and Dr. James Gregory, inventor of the world-famous powder familiar to every nursery.

Opposite and farther to the east, Moray House, dating from 1618, strikes an almost exotic and strangely modern note, with its balconied stone front, from which Argyll jeered at the doomed Montrose. Cromwell made it his headquarters after the " crowning mercy " of Dunbar field, and here he indited his letters of " fraternal " remonstrance to the Scots ministers who had taken refuge in the Castle, receiving rejoinders no less acrid. In its arboured garden the Treaty of the Union of 1707 was precariously and only partly signed, the signatories being very violently interrupted and hounded from their retreat by a menacing band of perfervid patriots.

With the fine and well-preserved court of White Horse Close, a splendid example of Jacobean architecture embellished with dormer windows and a noble staircase, antiquarian interest in the Canongate well nigh ends. But not quite, for certain S-shaped stones in Abbey Strand mark the western limits of the royal sanctuary of Holyrood, where debtors found a "city of refuge" from duns until imprisonment for civil debt was abolished in 1881. And so we come face to face with Holyrood, with its French flanking-towers and its ruined chapel of the square Celtic tower, the whole now surrounded by massive new gates commemorative of King Edward VII.

The Cowgate, anciently a pasture-land and in the sixteenth century a fashionable promenade, has now, if viewed from either of the viaducts which span it, the appearance of a deep and dingy lane in which most of the really ancient buildings have been replaced by comparatively modern slums, or by the roots of great edifices like the Court of Session and the Scottish National Library. During the past three-quarters of a century the majority of its storied mansions and chapels, the houses of Gavin Douglas and Beaton and the Scottish Cunzie or Mint, have been swept away, until now only some three or four of note remain. Perhaps its finest remaining antiquity is the Magdalen Chapel, lying towards the western extremity of the street, built in 1504 by a pious lady, Janet Rynd, whose tomb it still contains. Later it became the Tailors' or Hammermen's Hall. It contains the last examples of pre-Reformation stained glass in Scotland and an ancient bell, which may be contemporary with its foundation.

>>> Next page >>>
Pages: <1> 2

Pictures for Romantic Edinburgh

HOW EDINA'S STORIED STREETS LIE OUTSTRETCHED BELOW HER ROMANTIC CASTLE HILL
HOW EDINA'S STORIED STREETS LIE OUTSTRETCHED BELOW HER ROMANTIC CASTLE HILL >>>>
FAITHFUL 'GREYFRIARS BOBBY'
FAITHFUL 'GREYFRIARS BOBBY' >>>>
LOOKING TOWARDS OLD EDINBURGH FROM THE DUGALD STEWART MEMORIAL ON CALTON HILL
LOOKING TOWARDS OLD EDINBURGH FROM THE DUGALD STEWART MEMORIAL ON CALTON HILL >>>>
MEMORIAL TO 18,000 COVENANTERS
MEMORIAL TO 18,000 COVENANTERS >>>>
THE MERCAT CROSS, PARLIAMENT SQUARE
THE MERCAT CROSS, PARLIAMENT SQUARE >>>>
Crassmarket dominated by the Castle on its Crag
Crassmarket dominated by the Castle on its Crag >>>>
THE CASTLE FROM THE SAD LAWNS OF GREYFRIARS
THE CASTLE FROM THE SAD LAWNS OF GREYFRIARS >>>>
REPUTED HOME OF JOHN KNOX IN HIGH STREET
REPUTED HOME OF JOHN KNOX IN HIGH STREET >>>>
CANONGATE'S GRIM TOLBOOTH
CANONGATE'S GRIM TOLBOOTH >>>>
EDINBURGH'S 'CATHEDRAL': ST. GILES, A CHURCH OF MANY CHANGES
EDINBURGH'S 'CATHEDRAL': ST. GILES, A CHURCH OF MANY CHANGES >>>>
THE FINEST STREET IN EUROPE: PRINCES STREET AND THE SCOTT MEMORIAL
THE FINEST STREET IN EUROPE: PRINCES STREET AND THE SCOTT MEMORIAL >>>>
ROYAL PALACE OF HOLYROOD AND ITS GRIM BACKGROUND
ROYAL PALACE OF HOLYROOD AND ITS GRIM BACKGROUND >>>>
HOUSE OF DEPARTED GLORIES IN THE CANONGATE
HOUSE OF DEPARTED GLORIES IN THE CANONGATE >>>>
ONE OF AULD REEKIE'S MANY CLOSES
ONE OF AULD REEKIE'S MANY CLOSES >>>>

Home | Privacy Policy | Copyright | About