Saturday, 29 June 2013

At the foot of Edinburgh's Royal Mile: Abbeyhill, Holyrood and the Canongate

We are very lucky to live very near to the heart of old Edinburgh. Only five minutes away is the Royal Mile, which runs uphill between Holyrood Palace and Edinburgh Castle. The lower part of this street is called the Canongate. In this post, we are going to take a walk from Abbeyhill, where we live, around the outside of Palace of Holyroodhouse (we'll go inside another day) and up the Canongate as far as Canongate Kirk. This is a walk I take quite often so I have got to know its idiosyncrasies quite well.

On the Royal Mile, the wealthy live cheek by jowl with those on much more modest incomes, just as they did in the past. Sixteenth century palaces and townhouses hide behind shabby exteriors. Dark alleyways (or closes) harbour stories from the past. Our neighbourhood is certainly worth exploring, so why not come on a walk with us? (NB The photos have been taken at various times of year, so don't be surprised if snowy December is juxtaposed with sunny June!)

A couple of minutes from where we live is a strange tunnel under the main east-coast railway line. Beyond it lies Croft-an-Righ, here dazzling our eyes with winter sunshine. This strange little enclave, huddled against the walls of Holyrood Palace, has been left over from the sixteenth century. Croft-an-Righ (pronounced rye) means 'The King's Field' (as in the traditional song Coming through the rye).

A favourite with film crews, the cobbled street leads us through old mill buildings. On the right, just before we reach Holyrood Park is an old mansion house, said to have belonged to James Stewart, 1st Earl of Moray, the illegitimate son of King James V. He acted as Regent of Scotland for his nephew, the young King James VI of Scotland, from 1567 until he was assassinated in 1570. A peek through the gate shows us a pleasant courtyard, backed by the wall of the Palace garden, whose trees you can see rising above the stonework.

We  follow the walls of the Queen's garden all the way round. They are surprisingly low, so you get a pretty good view of the palace. You have an even better view if you are prepared to climb Salisbury Crags - a short diversion from our walk - and gaze down on the palace. The stretch of water you can see beyond it is the Firth of Forth, with the hills of Fife on the other side.

The Queen is a pretty good neighbour of ours. She lets us - and everybody else - use her park free of charge. We visit her palace and garden if we are prepared to pay, and also the Queen's Gallery to see her pictures. And she and her family are well behaved and quiet, just the odd helicopter hovering overhead, a slight parking problem and some traffic jams during June when she holds her Garden Parties.

Having walked further round her garden walls, we peer through her magnificent gates.

Indeed, the Queen can peer out, if she so wishes, and gaze on the impressive new Scottish Parliament just opposite her front door.

On the right we pass the Abbey Strand, once a sanctuary for aristocratic debtors. Now the sixteenth century buildings are lived in by Palace officials.

Turn your back on Abbey Strand and you will be looking up the Canongate, so called because that is the route the canons or Augustinian monks of Holyrood Abbey, next to Holyrood Palace, used to take when entering the Royal Burgh of Edinburgh. On an overcast day, the Canongate can look quite dark and grim, but peep through the archways and enter the courtyards and you come across unexpected treasures.

On the right as you walk up the hill is White Horse Close. This courtyard used to be the Royal Mews.  In 1623, a local merchant built an inn and stables. Here you would come to catch the stage coach to Newcastle and London. When the army of Bonnie Prince Charlie, the Young Pretender, occupied Edinburgh in 1745, the Prince lived in Holyrood Palace and his officers in White Horse Mews. The building was rescued from demolition by Patrick Geddes, the innovative town planner as were eighteen other buildings up and down the Royal Mile.

On the left of the street is Queensberry House, a mansion house built in 1667 and now part of the Scottish Parliament complex. The 2nd Duke of Queensberry was one of the key actors in the Treaty of Union in 1707. Queensberry House was used as a hospital from 1803 until 1996. The building also featured in Ian Rankin's novel Set in Darkness.

Keep an eye on the walls on each side of you and above your head as you walk up the Canongate, for there are interesting things to see.

A figure representing the Emperor of Morocco is set above Mid Common Close. The statue marks the home of an Andrew Gray who, having escaped from the Edinburgh Tolbooth (jail) and gone to sea, returned in 1645 at the head of a group of pirates, who were apparently Moors. He agreed to spare the city if the Provost handed over his son. The latter, however, only had a daughter, who turned out to be dying of plague. Cured by Gray who prescribed a Moorish 'elixir', the girl eventually married him and they settled down to wedded domesticity in the Canongate. This story is so fanciful it has to be true!

Craftsmen carried out their trades along the Canongate, for example the shoemakers. A lovely carving of a shield marks where they used to work. The coat of arms includes the crown and knife of St Crispin, the king who was their patron saint. The words are taken from Psalm 133.

Behold how good a thing it is
and how becoming well
Together such as brethren are
in unity to dwell.
It is an honour for men to cease from strife.

So speaks the common man, and so, no doubt, spoke many men and their families as political, religious and military conflict raged up and down the Canongate.

In 1570, a more cynical sentiment was carved into the stonework of Huntly House (rescued by Patrick Geddes and now the Museum of Edinburgh) further up the hill: Hodie mihi cras tibi cur igit curas. This Latin tag can be loosely translated as: Today for me, tomorrow for thee. Why therefore carest thou? In more modern parlance, 'Why worry, we're all going to die some time anyway!'

Many of the names of buildings and closes reflect earlier times, even if the actual structures have been demolished, for example Old Playhouse Close.

Golfers' Land was the name of a tenement, now knocked down, commemorating a golf match on Leith Links between two English noblemen and the Duke of York, who later became James VII of Scotland (James II in England). The Duke's golfing partner was a John Paterson, a shoemaker who came from a long line of golfers. Typical of the Edinburgh of the past is this companionship between the wealthy - and, indeed, royal - and those of more humble origin. When they won the match, the Duke rewarded his partner handsomely and Paterson built the tenement with the proceeds. Erected in the 1700s, the building was, sadly, demolished in 1960.

Bakehouse Close, however, still exists, though its neighbour, Sugarhouse Close, was knocked down years ago and is now a student hostel. Go through the archway of Bakehouse Close and you will arrive in an ancient courtyard, now occupied by the Royal Fine Art Commission for Scotland, so, presumably, in good hands.

There are other signs that this relatively neglected corner of Edinburgh is now attracting attention. Another example is Dunbar's Close where a garden has recently been recreated, using the kinds of plants which would have been planted at the time when the Canongate was the 'garden suburb' of the old city of Edinburgh further up the hill.

Still walking up the Canongate, we pass a series of large houses, some of them once grand mansion houses and some the dwellings and businesses of ordinary people.

Reid's Court, an old coaching inn built in 1690, has been Canongate Kirk Manse for many years now.

As we walk further up the hill, we see Moray House on our left, also rescued by Patrick Geddes and now Edinburgh University's Institute of Education. Moray House was built in 1628 for the daughter of Lord Darnley (erstwhile husband of Mary Queen of Scots) and was where Oliver Cromwell stayed on his visit to Edinburgh in 1648. Sadly its glorious formal garden is long gone.

Step through some recently reconstructed archways on the left and you will see, standing back from the street, the wonderful Chessel's Court, built in 1748 and also rehabilitated by Patrick Geddes. It has now been converted into highly desirable apartments. Behind the palatial building lie the original gardens, developed further in the nineteenth and early twentieth century as a 'children's garden', the second 'kindergarten' to be built in Scotland. Set up for the desperately poor children of the slums fo the Canongate, its approach to child development was astonishingly 'modern'.

On the right we can now see the Tolbooth , built in 1591. It was where taxes or tolls were collected. It also served as the courtroom and jail. It is now a museum called The People's Story, with exhibits about the lives of ordinary people in Edinburgh. Impressive as the view of the Tolbooth is from the street, you receive a wonderful view from inside the churchyard of Canongate Kirk.

Canongate Kirk is what we have been aiming for. I am very fond of this plain and dignified church. When you view it from Regent Road which runs round Calton Hill, you see its elegant proportions.

Around the church lie the tombstones of Edinburgh citizens buried over hundreds of years, some wealthy and famous, some prosperous craftsmen, some soldiers from the castle further up the hill and some nameless, lying below the grass with no stone to mark their resting places - the rich and poor side by side. Beyond the church you may just be able to make out some modern flats on Holyrood Road which runs parallel to the Canongate and leads into the Cowgate. The residents of Dumbiedykes have supplied a number of the villains and ne'er-do-wells for Iain Rankin's novels. Beyond the flats are Salisbury Crags, here seen icy and menacing on a cold winter's day.

The Canongate Kirk impresses by its simplicity, surprising given its royal connections. It was built in 1688 by King James VII (II of England) to replace the old Holyrood Abbey from before the Reformation. The Royal Arms are on the facade, together with a stag's head - here decorated by a passing raven. The stag recalls the founding of Holyrood Abbey following King David's vision when out hunting of a stag with a cross on its antlers. The original antlers were replaced by those of a stag shot by King George VI in 1949.

Its controversial blue paintwork surprises the eye as does the light-filled interior, so different from the gloom of many old churches.

There are many reminders of King David's stag, on the furniture and in Stanley Cursiter's painting on the subject - also controversial as the depiction of a crucifix was not considered sufficiently Presbyterian.

The current Royal Family and Household retain their links and, indeed, their pews, for they attend when in residence. Two years ago, Zarah Phillips, the Queen's grand-daughter, held her wedding here.

However, it is the churchyard which many visitors come to see, with its cross-section of Edinburgh society, including famous figures associated with the Scottish Enlightenment. Here lie the famous like Adam Smith, the economist and Robert Fergusson, the poet, a recent statue of whom stands outside the church and the erection of whose memorial was organised by  Robert Burns and, later repaired and paid for RL Stevenson. Burns, shocked by Fergusson's terrible death in an asylum for the insane, wrote the verse on the stone.

No sculptured marble here or pompous lay,
No storied Urn, nor animated Bust;
This simple stone directs Pale Scotia's way
To pour her sorrows o'er her poet's Dust.

Here too is Nancy Craig, the 'Clarinda' of Burns' poetry. For her he wrote the lovely song:
Ae fond kiss, and then we sever;
Ae farewell, and then for ever!
Deep in heart-wrung tears I'll pledge thee
Warring sighs and groans I'll wage thee.

The grave of Rizzio is here, the Italian musician and secretary who worked for Mary Queen of Scots and was stabbed to death following accusations about their relationship. Also lying here is Handel's favourite bassoonist, Johann Frederick Lampe.

But not all the dead are grand or well-known. The Society of Coachmakers provided a memorial for their members. You may just be able to make out the coach and horses carved onto its badly eroded base.

Here too lies a plumber, George Chalmers, quite a successful one, by the looks of it for he was able to bequeath some money to found an infirmary in the city.

And then there are the simple poignant stones, reflecting family tragedies typical of previous centuries, when children died young and were buried by their grieving parents, and women died in childbirth.

There are several excellent graveyard trails for you to follow when you visit Canongate Kirkyard. Well worth picking up!

From Canongate churchyard we raise our eyes to Calton Hill and to the beautiful classical eighteenth century building of what used to be the Royal High School (now council offices called New Parliament House). New flats and offices stand  between the old graves and this symbol of the educational and intellectual Enlightenment.

We are now going to turn back down the hill. A few yards further up the hill is St Mary's Street, which marks the division between the High Street of the old city and the Canongate beyond the city walls. On the corner is the World's Inn pub, for the citizens of Edinburgh believed that when you had reached the end of the city you had reached the end of the world! More of that and the of High Street, however, in our next post about the Royal Mile.

Back down the Canongate we go, past the old Mercat Cross, which stands to one side of the church.

The nineteenth century building of Royal Mile Primary School, once called Milton House School, is on our right as we go down the street. There at the bottom is the Parliament on our right and the Palace buildings directly ahead.

We turn to the left, passing the last building of note, Queen Mary's bath house, a sixteenth century structure of doubtful purpose.

By now we have reached the final corner of the Palace's garden wall. We are almost home.

We hope you have enjoyed this walk around our neighbourhood. Here you have seen the houses where the craftsmen and tradesmen lived as well as the rich and powerful who relied on their services. What we haven't seen much evidence of are the poor and destitute. In the past they died and were buried in anonymity. Sadly, today their living homeless descendants spend their nights sleeping among the tombs of Canongate churchyard.

I referred to the following helpful guides to Edinburgh when visiting the Canongate.

A Guide to The Royal Mile: Edinburgh's Historic Highway by Gordon Wright
The Edinburgh Graveyard Guide, by Michael TRB Turnbull
City Walks: Edinburgh, by Margot McMurdo

If you enjoyed this post, you may also be interested in the following:
Exploring the secrets of the Royal Mile

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