St Mary’s Street

St Mary's Street

St Mary’s Street, Edinburgh

The history of St Mary’s Street

In 1513, the city records chronicle the army and weaponry of King James IV leaving Edinburgh via St. Mary’s Wynd on their fateful journey south to the battle of Flodden. Other records allege that the third husband of Mary Queen of Scots, the Earl of Bothwell, made two notorious visits to the wynd. The first alleged visit, in 1562, saw Bothwell seeking to punish the Earl of Arran for infidelity with his daughter-in-law. As a result ‘crossbow bolts and hackbut bolts flew far and near’ in the street (James Grant, Old and New Edinburgh, 1882). During the second visit, in February 1567, Bothwell escaped through St Mary’s Wynd after allegedly being party to the murder of the Queen’s second husband, Darnley.

Cultural significance

St Mary Street was formed as part of the first wave of sanitary  improvements within the Old Town. As wealthier residents moved to the New Town, the Old Town declined and by 1850, the area had one of the worst slums in Europe. The Town Council decided to begin a Sanitary Improvement Scheme and in 1867 instituted the Edinburgh Improvement Act. This involved the large-scale clearance, on health grounds, of 34 selected areas of the Old Town, including the eastern section of the old St Mary’s Wynd.

Why is it important to Edinburgh?

By the 1850s the wynd was the home of a multitude of tailors, workshops, clothing retailers and shoemakers. In the late 1860s, on the eastern side, architects David Cousin and John Lessels designed a street of shops and tenements in Scottish baronial style. St Mary’s Hall was included within these buildings from 16-28, and was to be the home at various times of the Catholic Institute, The Young Men’s Catholic Society and St Patrick’s School. From 1914 it became one of Edinburgh’s early cinemas. The Star Picture House was known locally as the ‘Starry’. No doubt many locals laughed and cried watching Charlie Chaplin’s ‘little tramp’ before its doors closed as a picture house, in the mid-1920s.

Key events

In the 18th century, on the east side of the wynd at what is now Boyd’s entry, you would find James Boyd’s Inn (also known as the White Horse Inn) in what became known as Boyd’s Close. A plaque in today’s Boyd’s entry reminds us of a notable visitor: ‘Boyd’s Inn, at which Dr Samuel Johnson arrived in Edinburgh, 14th August, 1773 on his memorable tour of the Hebrides.’

Johnson was not impressed by the quality of service. James Boswell, Johnson’s companion and chronicler on his Hebridean journeys, tells us that Johnson ‘asked to have his lemonade made sweeter, upon which the waiter with his greasy fingers, lifted a lump of sugar, and put it into it. The Doctor, in indignation, threw it out of the window.’

Additional information

St. Mary’s Street was constructed during the 1860s, when the former narrow and overcrowded medieval St Mary’s Wynd, together with several closes to the east, were demolished as a result of the 1867 Edinburgh Improvement Act.
St Mary’s Street’s distinctive blend of medieval and Georgian architecture, combined with its lively atmosphere, sets it apart. It provides a sensory journey through Edinburgh’s evolving urban landscape.
St Mary’s Street connects the Royal Mile with the vibrant Cowgate.

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