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Old and New Edinburgh Vol. I


190 OLD AND NEW EDINBURGH. [The Great Fire. while the weather changed rapidly ; the wind, accompanied by rain, came in fierce and fitful gusts, thus adding to the danger and harrowing interest of the scene, which, from the great size of the houses, had much in it that was wild and weird. ? About five o?clock,?? says Dr. James Browne, in his ? Historical Sketch of Edinburgh,? ?the fire had proceeded so far downwards in the building occupied by the Coura~rf office, that the upper part of the front fell inwards with a dreadful crash, the concussion driving the flames into the middle of the street. By this time it had communicated with the houses on the east side of the Old Fish Market Close, which it burned down in succession ; while that occupied by Mr. Abraham Thomson, bookbindet, which had been destroyed a few months previously by fire and re-built, was crushed in at one extremity by the fall of the gable. In the Old Assembly Close it was still more destructive ; the whole west side, terminating with the .king?s old Stationery Warehouse, and including the Old Assembly Hall, then occupied as a warehouse by Bell and Bradfute, booksellers, being entirely consumed. These back tenements formed one of the most massive, and certainly not the least remarkable, piles of building in the ancient city, and in former times were inhabited by persons of the greatest distinction. At this period they presented a most extraordinary spectacle. A great part of the southern Zand fell to the ground ; but a lofty and insulated pile of side wall, broken in the centre, rested in its fall, so as to form one-half of an immense pointed arch, and remained for several days in this inclined position. ?By nine o?clock the steeple of the Tron Church was discovered to be on fire ; the pyramid became a mass of flame, the lead of the roof poured over the masonry in molten streams, and the bell fell With a crash, as we have narrated, but the church was chiefly saved by a powerful engine belonging to the Board of Ordnance. The fire was now stopped; but the horror and dismay of the people increased when, at ten that night, a new one broke forth in the devoted Parliament Square, in the attic floor of a tenement eleven storeys in height, overlooking the Cowgate. As this house was far to windward of the other fire, it was quite impossible that one could have caused the other-a conclusion which forced itself upon the minds of all, together with the startling belief that some desperate incendiaries had resolved to destroy the city ; while many went about exclaiming that it was a special punishment sent from Heaven upon the people for their sins.?? (Browne, p. 220; Courant of Nov. 18, 1824; &c.) As the conflagration spread, St. Giles?s and the Parliament Square resounded with dreadful echoes, and the scene became more and more appalling, from the enormous altitude of the buildings; all efforts of the people were directed to saving the Parliament House and the Law Courts, and by five on the morning of Wednesday the scene is said to have been unspeakably grand and terrific. Since the English invasion under Hertford in 1544 no such blaze had been seen in the ancient city. ? Spicular columns of flame shot up majestically into the atmosphere, which assumed a lurid, dusky, reddish hue ; dismay, daring, suspense, fear, sat upon different countenances, intensely expressive of their various emotions ; the bronzed faces of the firemen shone momentarily from under their caps as their heads were raised at each successive stroke of the engines ; and the very element by which they attempted to extinguish the conflagration seemed itself a stream of liquid fire. The County Hall at one time appeared like a palace of light ; and the venerable steeple of St. Giles?s reared itself amid the bright flames like a spectre awakened to behold the fall and ruin of the devoted city.? Among those who particularly distinguished themselves on this terrible occasion were the Lord President, Charles Hope of Granton ; the Lord Justice Clerk, Boyle of Shewalton ; the Lord Advocate, Sir Williani Rae of St. Catherine?s ; the Solicitor- General, John Hope; the Dean of Faculty ; and Mr. (afterwards Lord) Cockburn, the well-known memorialist of his own times. The Lord Advocate would seem to have been the most active, and worked for some time at one of the engines playing on the central tenement at the head of the Old Assembly Close, thus exerting himself to save the house in which he first saw the light. All distinction of rank being lost now in one common and generous anxiety, one of Sir Wiiliam?s fellow-labourers at the engine gave him a hearty slap on the back, exclaiming, at the same time, ? Wee1 dune, my lord !I? On the morning of Wednesday, though showers of sleet and hail fell, the fire continued to rage with fury in Conn?s Close, to which it had been communicated by flying embers ; but there the ravages of this unprecedented and calamitous conflagration ended. The extent of the mischief done exceeded all former example. Fronting the High Street there were destroyed four tenements of six storeys each, besides the underground storeys ; in Conn?s Close, two timber-fronted ? lands,? of great antiquity ; in the Old Assembly Close, four houses of seven storeys each ; in Borthwick?s Close, six great tenements ; in the Old Fish Market Close, four of
Volume 1 Page 190
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