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The Cowgate

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The "Cow - gait" (also known as the "Via Vaccarum" of Alexander Alesse in the early sixteenth century, and the "Platea Bovina" of Gordon of Rothiemay in the middle of the following century) proclaims its own origin and use. It was the road taken by the cows of the community, on the way between the meadows around St. Cuthbert's Kirk, at the west end of the Nor' Loch, and the pastures on the braes of St. Leonard's, under the shadow of Arthur's Seat.

Down almost to the time when it was enclosed by the "Flodden Wall," it was suburban, nay, rural quarters, with a smell of "Flora and the country green."

It was the first ring of the city's growth formed after the old boundary, marked by the earlier bulwark of 1450, became too narrow to contain it.

A stretch of the imagination is required, wrote Sir Daniel Wilson in 1848 "to conceive the crowded steep" - rising from the gulley of the Cowgate and surmounted by the Town Wall built by James II. of Scots - "which has rung for centuries with the busy sounds of life and industry, a rugged slope, unoccupied, save by brushwood and flowering shrubs."

In the course of time the Cowgate has experienced many changes. It became the residence of nobles and prelates, or, as Alesse says, the "patricians and Senators" of the Scottish Capital. Georg Braun and Frans Hogenberg, in the 1581 edition of their atlas of major cities Civitates Orbis Terrarum, said the Cow Gate was where "...the noble families and city councillors have their residences, together with other princely houses and palaces most handsome to behold."

Here the Scottish Mint was established in 1559, or "Cunzie House" at the foot of South Gray's Close; near by, at the corner of Blackfriars' Wynd, was the house of Archbishop Beaton of Glasgow, and, it is said, of Cardinal Beaton of St. Andrews; and on the opposite side of the Cowgate, near the High School Yards, frequented by Sir Walter Scott, was the palace of the Bishops of Dunkeld, in which Gavin Douglas may have written part of his translation of the Aeneid.

To the west, the Horse Wynd and the College Wynd led from it to the site of our "Tounis College," and to the church of St.Mary's-in-the-Fields, in the precincts of which was enacted the Darnley tragedy.

In the College Wynd, Scott was born; in the Horse Wynd, Burns read his poems to Jane, Duchess of Gordon.

In a "land" situated where the Cowgate opens into the Grassmarket, the father and mother of Lord Brougham - one of three Lord Chancellors whose early life is associated with the purlieus of this now humble thoroughfare - first took up house in Edinburgh, and Henry Mackenzie, the "Man of Feeling," was born in the tributary Candlemaker Row.

The Cowgate was for centuries an artery of traffic, as well as a resort of fashion. At the Cowgatehead, it debouches, as has been seen, into the famous and ancient Grassmarket, once the scene of pageants and executions, where travellers from the west, like Wordsworth, put up on coming within city bounds, but now also gone into comparative retirement, since the Corn and Cattle Markets have been removed to Slateford.

The "gait of the cows" must have run close under the Castle Rock, on the line of the present King's Stables Road - a name reminiscent of the jousts held here in the days of chivalry; but the main stream of trade and of state entries, like that of Mary Queen of Scots, passed through the West Port, from the little burgh of Wester Portsburgh, immediately without the Town Wall.

The Cowgate has a very eventful history. In the Grassmarket and in the Cowgate when Captain Jock Porteous was hanged from a dyer's pole, not far from the Cowgatehead, and when Reuben Butler, escaping from the crowd, slipped out through the Cowgate Port, into the open spaces around Holyrood.

At this east end, also, were many arrivals and meetings, for "Rag Fair" in St. Mary's Wynd, and for hostelries such as the "Black Bull" or the "White Horse," where Johnson was set down on his way to the Hebrides.

By the mid 18th Century the Cowgate had bome a poor overcrowded slum area and in the following century was nicknamed "Little Ireland" due to its concentration of Irish immigrants.

Apart from a few armorial and other relics, all that is left to represent the previous state and consequence of the Cowgate are the Magdalen Chapel, whose spire rises out of the depths to a level little above that of George IV. Bridge, and the Tailors' Hall, for a long time the site of a brewery but in the 1990s converted to a hotel. The Tailors' Hall has witnessed many important national and civic events, such as the preliminaries to the signing, in 1638, of the National Covenant; besides housing, as its many mottoes relate, "the Companie of the Tailzeours within this good town," it was for a time "the refuge of the Scottish drama."

The Scottish Banks and the Scottish Courts - which still hang over it - had their accesses to the Cowgate by the "Parliament stairs."

The Carnegie Public Library, standing on ground once covered by the mansion of the famous jurist, Sir Thomas Hope, rises from its pavement.

The great Hospital, founded by "Jinglin' Geordie," is, however, as stately, and more venerable and, like the neighbouring Infirmary and Medical School, more precious and manifold in public service than in its earlier days; George Square, Scott's home as boy and young man, has gained as much charm as it has lost; while beyond it, in the hollow once filled by the Borough Loch, are the free spaces and the shadowed walks of the Meadows.

The Magdalen Chapel, founded at the beginning of the sixteenth century by "Janet Rynd, spous of umquhil Micel Makquhen, burgess," has heard the preaching of John Craig, and the debates of General Assemblies. From a Hammerman's Hall it later become a Medical Mission and in 1993 following major restoration the Chapel became the headquarters of the Scottish Reformation Society. It is open to visitors Monday to Friday 10am - 4pm.