White Horse Close is a picturesque collection of buildings at the foot of the Canongate, but although stepping into its courtyard feels like stepping back in time, all is not as it seems. The close was heavily restored in the 1960s, enhancing the typically Scottish features such as crow-stepped gables, forestairs and pantiled roofs. The effect is described by one architectural historian as “…so blatantly fake that it can be acquitted of any intention to deceive.”
The close takes its name from an inn which used to stand at its north end. The White Horse Inn on the Canongate closed its doors in the late 18th century, but in its day it was one of the best known coaching inns in Edinburgh. Its location at the beginning of the Great North Road meant that a journey to London would start from its courtyard. The inn was built in the early 17th century by Lawrence Ord, who perhaps named the place after its association with Mary Queen of Scots, who was said to have stabled her favourite white horse there.
In 1639 the White Horse Inn was at the scene of the ‘Stoppit Stravaig’. This was a time of religious turmoil, with many in Scotland in open rebellion against King Charles I. A group of Scottish noblemen had gathered at the inn before setting off to negotiate with the king. But presbyterian ministers heard of the planned trip, and encouraged a mob of townsfolk to lay siege to the inn and prevent the group from leaving. They were largely successful, with only the Marquis of Montrose escaping to join the king.
As well as the inn, the close also had some famous residents. John Paterson, who was made Bishop of Edinburgh in 1679, lived in a tenement in the close, and William Dick who founded the Royal School of Veterinary Studies in 1823, was born there.
A particularly intriguing resident was Ned Holt, a notorious showman in Victorian Edinburgh. During an eventful career, he left his apprenticeship as a baker to become an actor in a ‘penny gaff’ theatre, ran a small shop in the Netherbow and a kind of fairground booth in the Grassmarket. There people could pay to see a ‘living skeleton’, a 1,000 year old mummy or a demonstration of Holt killing rats with his teeth. Today he is best remembered for his sketches of Edinburgh street-life, many of which can still be seen in the Museum of Edinburgh.
As with much of the Old Town, White Horse Close went into a steep decline in the Victorian period. In the 1950s the city council started a programme of slum-clearance in the Canongate, but it was decided to restore White Horse Close. The surveyor sent to draw up measured plans found it
“…a difficult task as the buildings were still inhabited by poor people living in deplorable accommodation. No wall was the same thickness as any other, nor parallel or at right angles to any other and nor were the floor levels in any way related.”
Today White Horse Close is undoubtedly one of the most picturesque parts of Edinburgh’s Old Town, and yet because of its rather hidden location it is rarely visited by tourists. Whatever its authenticity, the close it is still definitely worth seeing as an imaginary vision of the past – or as one historian has described it: “…a Hollywood dream of the seventeenth century”.