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The Royal Mile is Edinburgh’s most famous historic street

Posted in Architecture, British Cities, Historical articles, History, Royalty, Scotland on Friday, 31 January 2014

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This edited article about Scotland first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 534 published on 8 April 1972.

Edinburgh's Royal Mile,  picture, image, illustration

A picture history of Edinburgh's Royal Mile by Peter Jackson

More than half a million years ago, great glaciers ground and crunched through Europe, scouring away the soil and rocks and leaving behind them, when the weather warmed, floods which smoothed the devastated areas into broad valleys.

One of these valleys lies like a midland girdle across the map of Scotland, studded with huge “bosses” of rock too hard for the ice to shift: the remains of old volcanoes. Once the floods retreated, early men clung to these giant crags. They built fortresses atop them, wattled huts surrounded by rough stone ramparts. In the valleys they hunted, and gathered berries and spring water.

Two of these great mounds dominate the city of Edinburgh. The narrow spiny strip running between them is one of the most historic miles in all Britain: the Royal Mile. If the Thames can fairly be called liquid history, this surely is solid history!

At one end, Castle Rock rears its head, crowned by Queen Margaret’s Chapel and the grim castle itself; at the other, Arthur’s seat, with the skeleton of the ancient Abbey of the Holy Rood, and the palace where David Rizzio, Queen Mary’s secretary, was dragged screaming from her dining-table, blood spurting from his dagger-wounds.

Mary’s unhappy ghost haunts the Royal Mile. At the further end, in the rough security of one of the castle’s tiny rooms, she gave birth to the baby who was to unite three kingdoms for the first time: James VI of Scotland and I of England (“the wisest fool in Christendom”). The castle, too, was her last stronghold; held by her loyal followers for three years when hope was virtually gone.

Scores of times, over the centuries, it was besieged, and stormed. Once the raiding party climbed the rock at black of night, led by a lad who had earlier learned to scale it in the dark to visit his girlfriend!

Edinburgh’s name is popularly believed to have come from King Edwin, the 7th-century King of Northumbria, who certainly needed a strongpoint to dominate the wild northern fringes of his territory. But there are other possibilities. The Gaelic eudin means “a hill-brow.” And it was 400 years after Edwin that the city really entered history, with King Malcolm III, who moved his capital there from Dunfermline. It was Malcolm’s beautiful and saintly Queen Margaret who ordered the building of the sturdy little chapel (the oldest building still standing in the city) on the summit of Castle Rock.

It was Margaret’s pious son, David I, who built the Abbey a mile away. Out hunting one day, he suddenly found himself cornered by a vicious white hart. He was only saved by a mysterious (he believed miraculous) “rude” (cross) which appeared between the beast’s antlers, forcing it back. In gratitude, he founded the Abbey of the Holy Rude in the shadow of Arthur’s Seat. He also granted the Canons of the Abbey the right to establish their own burgh (town) between the Abbey buildings and the burgh of Edinburgh, which had grown up around the castle.

Gradually the two burghs reached out towards each other along a ridgeback of rock; Canongate from the Holyrood end, High Street from the Castle end, until they eventually met. The 19th century writer, Carlyle, then described it as being “like some rhinoceros skin, with many a gnarled embossment, church steeple, chimney. . . .”

Later James IV began to build a splendid house alongside the abbey as a more comfortable alternative to the gaunt castle. Our Queen Elizabeth still stays there when she makes official visits to Scotland.

In the early days, for safety’s sake Edinburgh’s citizens huddled behind its walls. As the population grew, the streets and alleys filled up and Edinburgh did what many other cities have done since: built upwards. She must have been one of the very first to build high-rise apartments.

As long ago as the 16th century, ten or even fourteen storey “lands,” as they were called, were common. Common, too, was fire, which leaped across the narrow alleys “as easily as bubonic plague,” and so frequently that an order was at last made prohibiting the storing of heather and peat before the doors.

Edinburgh in James IV’s time was cramped, noisy and smelly. The 16th-century Scots poet, William Dunbar, wrote of “the stink of haddicks and of skates.” The alleys were shadowed and gloomy under the towering walls. Several devastating fires around 1530 improved matters a little.

An English traveller in the late 1530s was able to write: “There are two spacious streets, of which the principal one leading from the palace to the castle is paved with square stones. The city itself is not built of bricks, but of square free-stones, and so stately is its appearance that single houses may be compared to palaces. From the abbey to the castle there is a continued street, which on both sides contains a range of excellent houses.”

He judged it by the standards of his own time. Household “slops” were still cheerfully tossed from the high windows each evening at ten o’clock to the shrill-warning cry of “Gardylool” (“Gardez-l’eau”).

More devastation fell on the city in 1544. Henry VIII fancied the infant Princess Mary as consort for his son Edward. He chose a strange method of winning her. Even in those violent days it became known as “the rough wooing.” On May Day, Henry’s brother-in-law, the Earl of Hertford, led an English fleet into Leith Roads, and all that lay between them and the ships was sacked and burned. Holyrood itself, both palace and abbey, were destroyed.

But by mid-century, Holyrood Palace was being rebuilt, and many of the “lands” in the Royal Mile had once again reared their towering storeys.

The foot of Castle Rock is joined to High Street by one of the most prosperous areas of Lands: Lawnmarket. During the 16th century, it was the home of ambassadors; in the 17th and 18th centuries of prosperous merchants who “every morning, about 7 o’clock, met and walked down to the Post Office, where they made themselves acquainted with the news of the morning.”

Many of these houses were set in little private courts, named after their often colourful owners. “Brodie’s Close” commemorates an 18th-century Edinburgh worthy who inspired Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, he being by day a respectable cabinet-maker, by night an even more successful burglar! He actually invented the “drop” system of hanging criminals and was, alas, its first victim.

St Giles’s Cathedral, part-way along High Street, throws its shadow now over the shape of a heart picked out in the cobblestones. This, the Heart of Midlothian, commemorates the Old Tolbooth, Edinburgh’s Parliament building turned prison, made famous in Walter Scott’s The Heart of Midlothian.

Along the length of St Giles, and hard against the Tolbooth, once stood a long, narrow, arcade of booths: the Luckenbooths, or closed shops which, together with the Krames (wooden stalls set against the buttresses of the kirk itself) for many centuries formed the fashionable shopping centre.

One of the most famous Luckenbooths belonged to the poet Allan Ramsey (who established Edinburgh’s first theatre in 1736) where the fashionable and rich came to see, and borrow, the latest books, to meet their friends or merely to enjoy the view down High Street. On the ground floor of the same building William Creech, Robert Burns’s publisher, also had his bookshop.

The Luckenbooths, as an 18th century writer tells “were all glittering with Attractions, containing everything fascinating to childhood, but chiefly toys. It was like one of the Arabian nights’ bazaars in Bagdad.”

In 1639, the Scottish Parliament left the Tolbooth for its new premises, Parliament House. Here, in the Great Hall, less than a century later the debates which led to the Union with England were acrimoniously conducted. (The fatal documents had to be signed in a cellar off the High Street, so that the signatories could escape the fury of the mob outside.)

It was the end of Scotland as a separate nation; the end of Edinburgh as a true capital city. Politically, and socially, she declined, but she became something of an intellectual centre, and this side of her saw a new flowering after World War II, when the International Festival of the Arts was established for three weeks every summer. Today artists, musicians, dancers, and actors come from all over the world to take part, and it has become a magnet for tourists, all of whom, at some time, find themselves straying from the theatres and smart restaurants and shops, to walk that mile of solid history; Carlyle’s “rhinoceros skin” of Edinburgh’s Old Town.

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