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Memorials of Edinburgh in the Olden Time


THE LA WNMARKET. I81 On the west side of the County Hall there still exists a part of the “ transs ” of Libberton’s Wynd, but all other remains have been swept away by the same “ improvement‘ mania,” whose work we have already recorded in the neighbouring closes. This wynd formed, at one period, one of the principal thoroughfares for pedestrians from the fashionable district of the Cowgate to the “ High Town.” Its features did not greatly differ from those of many other of the old closes, with its substantial stone mansions eked out here and there by irregular timber projections, until the narrow stripe of sky overhead had well-nigh been blotted out by their overhanging gab1es.l The most interesting feature in the wynd was Johnie Dowie’s Tavern, already alluded to,-the Mermaid Tavern of Edinburgh during the last century,-whither the chief wits and men of letters were wont to resort, in accordance with the habits of society at that period. Here Ferguson the poet, David Herd, one of the earliest collectors of Scottish songs, “ antiquarian Paton,” with others of greater note in their own day than now,-lords of session, and leading advocates, inhabitants of the neighbouring fashionable district,-were wont to congregate. Martin, a celebrated portrait painter of the last century, instituted a club here, which was quaintly named after the host, Boway College, and thither his more celebrated pupil, Sir Henry Raeburn, often accompanied him in his younger days. But, above all, this was the favourite resort of Robert Burns, where he spent many jovial hours with Willie Nicol, and Allan Masterton,-the ‘‘ blithe hearts ” of his most popular song,- and with his city friends of all degrees, during his first visit to Edinburgh. On the death of John Dowie (a sober and respected city, who amassed a considerable fortune, and left his only son a Major in the army), the old place of entertainment acquired still greater note under the name of Burns’s Tavern. The narrow room was visited by strangers as the scene of the poet’s most frequent resort; and at the period of its demolition in 1834, it had taken a prominent place among the lions of the Old Town. The house had nothing remarkable about it as a, building, It bore the date of its erection, 1728, and in the ancient titles, belonging to a previous building, it is described as bounded on the south by U the King’s auld wall.” This ancient thoroughfare appears to have retained its original designation, while closes immediately adjoining were receiving new names with accommodating facility on every change of occupants, Libberton’s Wynd is mentioned in a charter granted by James 111. in the year 1477; and in later years its name occurred in nearly every capital sentence of the criminal court, the last permanent place of public execution, after the demolition of the Old Tolbooth, having been at the head of the wynd. The victims of the law’s highest penalty, within the brief period alluded to, offer few attractions to the antiquarian memorialist, unless the pre-eminent infamy of the “ West Port murderers,” Burke and Hare,-the former of whom was executed on this spot-be regarded as establishing their claim to rank among the celebrated characters of Edinburgh. The sockets of “ the fatal tree ” were removed, along with objects of greater interest and d u e , in completing the approach to the new bridge. Carthrae’s, Forrester’s, and Beth’s Wynds, all once stood between Libberton’s Wynd and St Giles’s Church, but every relic of them had been swept awyyears before the latter work of destruction was projected. Forrester’s Wynd waa evidently a place of note in earlier times, and frequent allusions to it occur in some of the older diaries ; e.g., ‘‘ Vpoun A very accurate and characteristic view of this wynd, from the Cowgate, ie given among Geikie’e Etchings.
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IS2 MEMORIALS OF EDINBURGH. the nynt day of Aprile, the zeir of God 1566 zeris, Johne Sinclare, be the mercie of God bischope of Brechin and Dean of Redalrig, deceissit in James Mosmanis hous in Frosteris Wpd, ane honest and cunning letterit man, and president of the College of Justice the tyme of his deceiss, &c.’” Another diarist records, in describing the firing of the town by the garrison of the Castle, under Sir William Kirkaldy, in 1572, “ the fyre happit fra hous to hous throw the maisterie of ane grit wynd, and come eist the gait to Bess Wynd at the kirk end of Sanct Geill,” e in consequence of which ther wee ane proclamatioun maid, that all thak houssia suld be tirrit,’ and all hedder stakis to be transportit at thair awine bounds and brunt; and ilk man in Edinburgh to haue his lumes full of watter in the nycht, wnder the pane of deid ; ” a very graphic picture of the High Street in the sixteenth century, with the majority of the buildings on either side covered with thatch, and the main street encumbered by piles of heather and other fuel accumulated before each door, for the use of the inhabitants ; and, from amid these, we may add the stately ecclesiastical edifices of the period, and the Eubstantial mansions of the nobility, towering with all the more imposing effect, in contrast to their homely neighbourhood. The venerable alley called Bess or Beth’s Wynd, after suffering greatly from the slow dilapidation of time, was nearly destroyed by successive fires in the years 1786 and 1788. On the latter occasion it was proposed to purchase and pull down the whole of its buildings extending from the Lawnmarket to the Cowgate, in order to open up the Parliament House.* This was not effected, however, till 1809, when the whole were swept away in preparing the site for the Advocate’s Library. ‘‘ All the houses in Beth’s Wynd,” says Chambers, “ were exceedingly old and crazy ; and some mysterious ‘looking cellar doors were shown in it, which the old wives of the wynd believe to have been kept shut since the time of t4.e plague.” The same superstitious belief was prevalent in regard to some grim and ancient uninhabited dwellings in Mary King’s Close, part of which now remain. An old gentleman has often described to us his visits to the latter close, along with his companions, when a schoolboy. The most courageous of them would approach these dread abodes of mystery, and after shouting through the keyhole or broken window-shutter, they would run off with palpitating hearts,- ‘‘ Like one, that on a lonesome road Doth walk in fear and dread, And having once turned round, walks on And turns no more his head ; Because he know a frightful fiend Doth close behind him tread.” The popular opinion was, that if these houses were opened, the imprisoned pestilence would burst out, spreading disease and death through the land,-a belief that was probably thrown into discredit on the peaceful demolition of the former wynd. A house at the head of Beth’s Wynd, fronting the Old Tolbooth, was the residence of Mr Andrew Maclure, writing-master, one of the civic heroes of 1745. He joined the reluctant corps of volunteers who marched to meet the Highland aruy ou its approach towards Corstorphine ; but they had scarcely left the town walls a mile behind, when their Diurnal of Occurrents, p. 98. Ibid, Part 11. p. 326. . a i.e., All thatched houses should be unroofed. 4 Caledonian MeTcuTy, 17th JanuaT 1788.
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