From seedy backwater, to a haunt for Scotland's new wave poets, Rose Street is now a popular thoroughfare full of famous pubs and restaurants
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Designed as part of James Craig’s New Town plan in 1767, Rose Street was named after the national flower of England, a consciously unionist paring with Thistle Street. In the 19th century, Rose Street gained a reputation as a seedy backwater, not a place for the respectable classes to be seen after dark…
Behind No.180 Rose Street there was once a court for playing Rackets, a forerunner of the modern game of squash.
The enclosed court was 30 feet high, with dark coloured walls to show up the hard white ball. It is a fast and potentially dangerous game, as Prince Alfred found out to his cost:
‘On Tuesday the Prince met with a slight accident while he was enjoying a game of rackets at the racket-court in Rose Street. One of the balls struck his Royal Highness in the eye, which became much swollen…’ Illustrated London New, February 1864
In the 19th century Rose Street gained a reputation as a seedy backwater, not a place for the respectable to be seen after dark.
By the 1960s this had started to change, as tenement flats gave ways to antique shops and boutiques. In 1973 the transformation was completed as the section between Castle Street and Frederick Street became the first pedestrianised street in the city. ‘If the smells and personalities that gave Rose Street its great character have almost vanished, a new and more salubrious character has emerged. Rose Street…has suddenly become fashionable’. The Edinburgh Tatler, May 1966
In 1830 McVitie’s provision shop opened at No.129 Rose Street, establishing the famous firm of biscuit manufacturers.
William McVitie’s background was in farming, but his son Robert had been apprenticed to a baker, and he soon began to specialise. In 1888 the firm opened a biscuit factory in Robertson Avenue, Edinburgh, and a few years later came their most famous invention – the digestive biscuit.
One of the first fire stations in the country was set up at No.66 Rose Street in 1824.
Edinburgh was the first place in the UK to establish a proper fire service, organised by City Firemaster James Braidwood. The Rose Street station was to cover the New Town district, with a team of 12 firemen equipped with a hand cart.
The location was carefully chosen, as Braidwood advised:
‘Generally speaking, it ought to be central and on the highest ground of the district it is meant to protect…’ On the Construction of Fire-Engines and Apparatus, by James Braidwood.
In the 1950s and 60s Rose Street became well-known as the haunt of a new wave of Scottish poets.
Writers such as Hugh MacDiarmid and Robert Garioch gathered with their friends for lively debate, in places such as Milne’s Bar, the Abbotsford and the Café Royal. They often wrote in Scots or Gaelic to revive a distinctly Scottish literary style.
In one of his poems, Robert Garioch describes his anger at having the pub invaded by noisy visitors:
‘Tak me, O Lucifer, frae out this mess.
Hell’s bad, but this is fair abominable’
Doktor Faust in Rose Street,
by Robert Garioch
In 1789 one Miss Margaret Burns moved into a house on Rose Street. Her looks and fashionable dress quickly attracted a lot of attention, but not everyone approved. Her neighbours complained that she kept ‘…a very irregular and disorderly house’.The city magistrates warned her away from the city, threatening a spell in jail.The case was a sensation, and Robert Burns even wrote a poem, ‘Under the portrait of Miss Burns’.
‘Cease, ye prudes, your envious railings,
Lovely Burns has charms: confess!
True it is that she had one failing:
Had a woman ever less.’
Under the portrait of Miss Burns by Robert Burns