Once an ancient wynd and scene of important events in Scotland's history, later one of Edinburgh's 19th century Improvement Streets
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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.
The architects, Cousin and Lessels, designed the eastern buildings of the considerably widened street, but, in remembrance of the original wynd, incorporated an 16th century lintel into their design for the ‘Catholic Institute’. St Mary’s Wynd was originally named after a Cistercian convent in the vicinity and dates back to at least 1335. After 1513 part of the Flodden Wall raised around the City was built on its west side, and remnants of that wall lie below some of the buildings on the west side today.
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:
Bothwell (and followers) endeavoured to get out of the city by leaping a broken part of the town-wall in Leith Wynd, but finding it too high, was obliged to rouse once more the porter at the Netherbow. They then passed down St Mary’s Wynd.
(Robert Chambers, Traditions of Edinburgh, 1824)
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.’
Another famous tavern in St Mary’s Wynd was the Red Lion, also known as Ramsay’s. The proprietor allowed his pigs to roam for scraps which led, in the 18th century, to two young aristocratic residents of the wynd having a lot of fun. Robert Chambers, in his ‘Traditions of Edinburgh’, describes the young Duchess of Gordon and her ‘witty sister’ as the ‘wildest romps imaginable’.
He describes the sisters riding on the back of pigs in the High Street: ‘the sows upon which the Duchess of Gordon and her witty sister rode, when children, were not the common vagrants of the High Street, but belonged to Peter Ramsay, of the inn in St Mary’s Wynd, and were among the last that were allowed to roam abroad’.
By the 1850s the wynd was the home of a multitude of tailors, workshops, clothing retailers and shoemakers. One particularly interesting enterprise on the west side was the ‘Operatives’ Hat Company’. It was an early example of a workers’ cooperative owned and run by the ‘operatives’. In 1859 they advertised in the Edinburgh Post Office Directory:
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.
In the 1950s number 52 became the outlet for Casey’s Confectioners who specialised in making their own chocolates as well as selling fudge and Highland toffee. Their reputation for high quality traditional confectionaries led to this family firm operating until their closure in 2009. Their closure is regretted by many who satisfied their sweet tooth there. John Stoddart, a former resident of St Mary’s Street, now living in Sydney Australia, reminisces in Peter Stubbs’ website EdinPhoto:
‘Casey’s sweetie shop. This was at the bottom of my stair. They made all the Edinburgh Rock and various other well-known sweeties. The smells were brilliant, but we rarely had any money to buy the sweeties.’