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Edinburgh World Heritage/Thistle Street

Thistle Street


Planned in 1767 as part of James Craig’s design and named after the national flower of Scotland, now a charming backstreet of the New Town full of independent retailers

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Thistle Street was planned in 1767 as part of James Craig’s design and named after the national flower of Scotland. Although originally built as homes it was not long before shops started opening up, offering luxury goods to the residents of the New Town.

Thistle Court

Image via Cobble Tales

Thistle Court at the far east end of Thistle Street was probably the first building to be completed in the New Town, but it ignored a key intention of the plan. The developer John Young received £20 from the council as an incentive for buying the first plot of land in the New Town. But instead of building a terrace of houses facing the street, he created two houses facing each other across a courtyard. The use of space and the style of the building is more like the Old Town than the New, but it does make good use of the space and offers more privacy.

New Town Dispensary

The dispensary was set up in 1815 at No.17 Thistle Street to afford relief to the sick and diseased poor, give attendance on ‘lying-in-women’ and to inoculate for cowpox.
The Earl of Wemys was appointed as President, with Drs Thomson and Alison as Consulting Physicians, and Mr J.W.Turner consulting surgeon. The dispensary was open from 1pm – 2pm every day except Sunday. A patient had to be recommended by a subscriber, and the rule was one patient for every 5 shillings subscribed.
One of the first doctors for the dispensary was David MacLagan. He was a veteran of Wellington’s army in Portugal, seeing action at the battles of Badajoz, Salamanca, Vittoria, the Pyrenees, Nivelle and Nive.

All the King’s Horses

In August 1822 the scene in North East Thistle Street Lane would have caused much excitement in the city, as the royal coach horses arrived to be stabled – proof that the king himself was about to arrive.

This lane like many others in the New Town was specifically designed for mews and stables. The narrow passageways of the Old Town made travel by coach and horses impossible, so owning one was another status symbol for New Town residents.

King George IV’s visit in 1822 was the first by a monarch since the 17th century, and Edinburgh was at a fever pitch of excitement. The first sign that he was on his way was the arrival of the royal coach and horses, under the care of coachman Mr Billings. They were kept here at Smith’s Stables, for easy access to Leith where the king was to land.

Madam Tussaud’s waxworks

In 1803 No.28 Thistle Street saw the UK premiere of one the world’s most famous attractions – Madame Tussaud’s waxworks. Taking advantage of a brief peace between Britain and France, Madame Tussaud arrived in Edinburgh with her young son. She set up her exhibition at 28 Thistle Street, known at the time as Bernard’s Rooms and used for teaching dancing to Edinburgh’s middle-classes.
Her ‘Grand European Cabinet of Figures’ included life-sized models of the French royal family, only recently executed, and an Egyptian mummy said to be 3299 years old.
Although the exhibition had a slow start, soon Edinburgh society was flocking to see her waxworks. Madame Tussaud wrote that, “the Edinburgh show gives a great deal of pleasure and everyone is amazed”. She returned to Edinburgh with different shows several times, and finally settled in London in 1835.

Dentist by Royal Appointment

If you had trouble with your teeth in 1815 you could do no better than visit James Law at No. 35 Thistle Street – dentist by appointment to the Prince Regent.

The Prince was well known for living a life of excess, particularly in his love of food and drink. He had employed the French chef Antonin Careme as his personal cook, a man regarded as the father of haute cuisine. By 1815 he was considerably overweight and it is safe to assume he would have needed a good dentist.

Although James Law would have studied his work, there was no organised training for being a dentist. A lot of his work would have involved extracting teeth, and of course there were no painkillers. His clients would have been wealthy, not just because of his costly fees but because of their sugar-packed diets. This was appreciated at the time, as one dentistry textbook said, “people who eat most sweetmeats are subject to disorders. Peasants suffer less in this way, unlike those of rank and opulence.”

Mary’s Chapel Lodge

Since 1825, numbers 17 – 19 Hill Street have been a drawing institution, a medicinal baths, and now a Masonic Lodge. Image via duncan c

This street was built between 1790 – 1800 and was intended as affordable housing, but quickly became home to professionals and gentry. In 1815 for example the lawyer William Renny had his office at No.19. Then in 1825-28 numbers 17 and 19 were converted to become a drawing academy and medicinal baths. The Edinburgh Drawing Institution was established to teach art to the wealthy. They used the top floors of the building as studio space, exhibition rooms and accommodation for the teachers.
The Medicinal Baths were on the first and second floors and offered ‘hot, cold, vapour or shower’ baths, with separate facilities and entrances for ladies and gentlemen. In an advert of 1838 they reassure potential visitors ‘prepared and regulated on a system recommended by the highest medical authorities’ and offered the ‘utmost comfort with longevity’ to users.

In 1893 Mary’s Chapel Lodge No. 1 bought number 19 and later number 17 and turned the building into a Masonic lodge. The diagram over the main door was designed by a member of the lodge, and incorporates symbols for the different office-bearers of the lodge.

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