Home > Areas > The Canongate

The Canongate

Previous page: John Knox House

The Canongate is a district of Edinburgh. The Canongate means the "way of the canons," or monks of Holyrood Abbey. Founded by David I. in 1128, the Canongate was a burgh of regality almost from its origin and was granted various privileges by David I., Robert I., and Robert II.; the abbots of Holyrood, as superiors, appointing bailies and council.

At the Reformation the superiority passed into lay hands, and in 1636 was acquired by Edinburgh, though the last remnants of Canongate as a separate municipality were not swept away till 1856. Burnt by Hertford's army in 1544, Canongate was in 1571 the temporary seat of the Parliament.

Near the top (south side) is Chessel's Court, at the far end of which is the old Excise Office, the scene of Deacon Brodie's last burglary.

Opposite Chessel's Court is a gloomy building on the front of which will be noticed the figure of a Moor wearing a turban and necklace. Some claim it to depict the Emperor of Morocco but whether it does or not, the effigy recalls a curious story. In the seventeenth century a student, Andrew Gray, was arrested as ringleader of a mob which had attacked the house of an unpopular Provost. Gray was imprisoned, but escaping, went to sea, and eventually rose to high position in the service of the Emperor of Morocco. Years after, a Moorish vessel, of which he was captain, arrived in Leith Roads. Learning that the daughter of the Provost of his student days was ill of the plague, Gray is said to have cured, and then married her. The couple set up house in this building, which has long been known as Morocco Land. In the 1950s the tenement was rebuilt but the turbaned figure remains.

At Little Jack's Close, farther down on the same side, David Hume wrote most of his History of England.

On the opposite side, behind the building with the double row of dormer windows was established in 1747 the earliest regular Edinburgh Theatre, in which, in 1756, was produced John Home's tragedy of Douglas.

Almost facing Playhouse Close a circle of stones in the causeway marks the site of St. John's Cross, where Charles I. in 1633 knighted the Provost of Edinburgh.

Farther down is an archway leading to St. John Street. James Ballantyne, the Scott's printer lived at No. 10 and other noted people of that time. On the first floor above the arch Tobias Smollett, the novelist, lived in 1766.

Passing through the arch, the first building on the right is the hall of Lodge Canongate Kilwinning No 2 (Freemasons), of which Burns was poet-laureate.

In the second close from Canongate Church's churchyard (north side), within a little courtyard on the right, stands Panmure House, the home of Adam Smith from 1778 till his death in 1790.

Still farther down (south side), a tall house, with projecting wings and enclosed by a high wall, arrests attention. This mansion was built in 1681 by Lord Haltoun, afterwards 3rd Earl of Lauderdale, and was for about a century the residence of the Dukes of Queensberry. After their day the edifice was raised a storey, and last century it was used as a barrack and as a fever hospital.

Opposite is Whitefoord House, which occupies the site of the mansion of the Earls of Winton, referred to in Scott's Abbot. Darnley lodged here on his first visit to Scotland.

In White Horse Close, at the foot of Canongate (north side), there is a picturesque group of buildings which, for their better preservation, are in the hands of a trust. Here was established the White Horse Inn, of which the curious may read in Scott's Waverley. From this Inn, which bears the date 1623, travellers in the old days started on their journey to London.

Nearby, a narrow thoroughfare leading to the courtyard of Holyroodhouse has an arrangement of stones in the causeway marked with the letter "S". This is the site of the Girth Cross, and indicates the limit in this direction of the royal Sanctuary of Holyrood.

Until the abolition in 1881 of imprisonment for civil debt, any debtor might live secure from creditors so long as he remained within Sanctuary and conformed to certain rules. The Sanctuary of Holyrood included the whole of the King's Park, the limit on the south being Duddingston Loch.

Next page: The Cowgate