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Grassmarket Edinburgh World Heritage Site


An open space that serves as a market place, surrounded by a variety of pubs and independent retailers. (Image via Greater Grassmarket)

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Backdrop to Edinburgh’s dark past

The Grassmarket is one of the oldest parts of the city, and although the architecture has changed the layout of its open space retains its historic character.

It has always been a bustling market place, in the past with many taverns and inns for the drovers coming to sell their cattle. Today there are still a variety of pubs and independent shops to visit.

The White Hart Inn here is probably the oldest pub in Edinburgh, visited by the poet Robert Burns in 1791 and later by the poet Dorothy Wordsworth.

Grassmarket Edinburgh World Heritage Site

The Grassmarket. Image via VisitScotland

By the foot of Victoria Street is the recently restored Bow Well. Built in 1681, it was the first provider of piped running water in Edinburgh.

The eastern part of the market was once the site of public executions, marked today by the Covenanters’ memorial.

Perhaps the most remarkable story connected with the place is the tale of Half-Hingit Maggie. After her hanging she miraculously came back to life and was allowed to go free. Look out for the pub named after her nearby.

The Grassmarket was used as a market from the 14th century, with cattle fairs, horse fairs and corn being bought and sold in its wide open space. But this also made it suitable for public executions, with the last hanging taking place here in 1784.

West Bow Well Grassmarket Night Edinburgh

The West Bow Well. Image via Carlos Delgado

Wizard of the West Bow

Major Weir, ‘the Wizard of the West Bow’, was executed for witchcraft in 1670.

Weir was part of a very strict religious sect and had a reputation for being a fiery preacher. However he fell sick, and in his fever he confessed to a secret life of supernatural activities with his sister Jean.

They were both arrested and sentenced to death for witchcraft. Weir was burned alive somewhere between Edinburgh and Leith, and his sister was hanged in the Grassmarket.

His house remained empty for many years, as it had a reputation for being haunted.

Neighbours confirmed sightings of his ghost and strange lights from within his former home, with sounds of laughter and revelry.

Major Weir’s house was demolished in 1829 when Victoria Street was constructed, but people still claimed to see the major and his sister riding down the street in a fiery coach driven by the devil.

Victoria Street Edinburgh World Heritage Site

Victoria Street

Romantic get-aways at the White Hart

The White Hart is one of Edinburgh’s oldest pubs, linked to famous poets and once infamous for offering secret marriages…

In 1791 Robert Burns stayed there, on his return to Edinburgh to say goodbye to his mistress Agnes Maclehose, known as Clarinda. She was sailing off to the West Indies to try and repair her relationship with her husband, and in response to what must have been a tearful farewell, Burns wrote the poem, ‘Ae Fond Kiss’.

In 1803 William and Dorothy Wordsworth stayed at the White Hart, in preference to the classy hotels in the New Town. In her journal she described the inn as, “…not noisy and tolerably cheap.”

In the 18th century the inn was well-known as a place offering a ‘half-merk’ marriage, a quick no-questions asked ceremony for eloping couples. One of the ministers offering this service was James Wilson, who also wrote poems under the name ‘Claudero’. He told the tale of one customer of his at the White Hart who queried the cost of 15s, when a soldier dealt with previously was charged only 1s. Wilson told him, “He’s a gude customer…I’ll hae him here at least once a week.”

The Killing Time

In the 1680s over a hundred people were executed in the Grassmarket because of their religious faith.….

This was the time of the Covenanters, a protestant religious group dedicated to protecting their presbyterian faith from interference by the King. The government saw them as rebels and tried to stamp out the movement.

During what became known as ‘the killing time’, over a hundred Covenanters were executed in the Grassmarket. Some had fought in pitched battles with the king’s troops, but others like Isabel Alison and Marion Harvey were executed for simply hearing a Covenanter preacher.

The Duke of Rothes was quoted as saying to one particularly difficult prisoner, “…then e’en let him glorify God in the Grassmarket…” In fact many did choose to offer a final speech from the scaffold, such as John Finlay, who was executed on 15 December 1682:

“Men and brethren – showing you that I am condemned unjustly by a generation of bloody men who are thirsting after the blood of the saints of God, and upon no other account but for being found in the way of my duty in the sight of God….”

Porteous riot

Grassmarket West Bow Engraving Edinburgh World Heritage Site

Engraving of Grassmarket and West Bow, courtesy of edinphoto

The Grassmarket was the scene of one of Edinburgh’s most notorious riots, in September 1736.

Earlier that year two popular smugglers, Wilson and Robertson, were sentenced to death. As Wilson was cut down from the gallows, the crowd began to throw stones and the city guard opened fire killing 16 people, including a small boy watching the scene from a tenement window.

John Porteous, the captain of the guard, was put on trial and found guilty of murder, but as he had many friends at court a pardon seemed likely. Many people were angry at what they took to be meddling in their legal process, and they stormed the Tolbooth prison where Porteous was held. The mob found the captain hiding up a chimney, and he was dragged to the Grassmarket where he was hanged from a dyers pole.

The following day Porteous was cut down and buried in Greyfriars kirkyard. News of the riot caused alarm in London, and a reward of £200 was offered for information. Although a city carpenter called James Maxwell was suspected as the ringleader, no one came forward.

Little Italy

By the early 20th century the Grassmarket was home to so many Italian immigrants it became known as ‘Little Italy’…

The tradition amongst old Italians was that the first immigrant to settle was an Italian organ-grinder, who arrived in Edinburgh in about 1882 from the town of Picinisco. Certainly by 1885 the records show many names: Antonio Perillo, Saliatore Maggarillo, Giacomo Aregenzi, Vincenzo Pacell, Michelo De Pelocito, Donato Perillo, Gevioni Baldo and Alexander Antonella.

The most popular jobs were musician and ice cream seller, both of which could be peddled in the streets. The ice cream was served direct from the barrows with shouts of “Gelati, ecco un poco’, and so to locals they became known as the ‘Hokey Pokey men’.

ice-cream seller hokey pokey Edinburgh Old Town World Heritage Site

An ice-cream seller standing in the street in Edinburgh’s Old Town. His cart has the words “Hokey Pokey” written on it. Taken in 1896. Courtesy of Capital Collections

Toni Capaldi, who moved to Edinburgh in 1915 recalled: “…the Grassmarket was so full of Italian immigrants it was called ‘Little Italy’. One woman used to go around with a hurdy gurdy with a little monkey, and one with a little bird – a sparrow or something – that was used to pick out a card for telling people’s fortunes. One of these daft things but it used to collect money and that’s how they lived a lot of them, by playing accordions and that.”

Barrie’s Mission

In the past No’s 94-96 Grassmarket were well known to locals as Barrie’s Mission – look up and you can still see the sign on the first floor.

The mission was formed in 1886 at a time when the Grassmarket was one of the worst slum areas in the city. The mission gave support to local families in poverty and the homeless, offering food, clothing, talks and services. In 1916 Alexander Barrie was appointed as superintendent, and under his leadership it became so successful that locals simply called it ‘the Barrie’s’.

The mission organised annual summer trips for local children. At one time up to 1,500 children are said to have assembled in the Grassmarket, accompanied by 200 adult volunteers, to take the tram out to Gorgie terminus for a picnic in a field at Stenhouse Mills.

The children even made a rhyme about these trips:

‘A’m no gaun tae Barrie’s trip
A’m no gaun again
A’m no gaun tae Barrie’s trip
Fur it ayways comes oan rain.’
(Hear this song on the Kist O’Riches oral history archive)

Hatter’s Land

In the 1850s Warden’s Close was home to the notorious Hatters’ Land, described as ‘…perhaps the most wretched close in Edinburgh’…

The surgeon Dr Robert Foulis was only too aware of its problems, and said that it was: ‘…celebrated, at least in the medical profession, for more fever and cholera being taken to the Infirmary from that building than any other in Edinburgh’.

Dr Foulis describes ‘from the top of the close to the bottom, one continuous pool of wet, filth and pollution.’ The inhabitants were Irish immigrants, living in dirty and overcrowded conditions. Foulis mentions that: ‘In one room alone at the top of the house, between sixty and seventy people have been known to sleep during the harvest season’.

At his own expense, Dr Foulis bought Hatters’ Land and other buildings in the close. He had them all re-built or extensively repaired and also provided a drying green, grocer’s, coffee shop, reading room, and a lodging house for working men.

The improvements certainly worked and Dr Foulis reported that: ‘Since the opening of the house eight months ago, 13,000 night’s lodgings have been paid for. Out of these not a single case of fever has occurred…’

Listen to the Grassmarket podcast episode with Charles McKean, Professor of Architectural History at Dundee University:


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