Reader, I’m glad you are back! I am so enjoying writing this blog. Writing is such a fun hobby for me and I feel privileged that you indulge me in sharing something I love. I hope you are having fun as well, learning a little bit about Scotland. Thanks for popping by!
A few days ago I gave an introduction to Edinburgh’s Grassmarket by telling you a story of one of the most famed individuals to ever be associated with this area. Raise your hand if you remember her name. I’m kidding.
Her name was Maggie Dickson, i.e. Half-Hangit Maggie (see previous blog post) and I’m sorry to say, she was not the only one who faced her mortality on those gallows.
But before we talk about that, let me first give you a quick history of the Grassmarket. This section of the city sits in Edinburgh’s Old Town, directly in the shadow of Edinburgh Castle.
Since at least the 1400’s and on through the centuries, the Grassmarket was one of Edinburgh’s main centers of commerce. A bustling market place where people could purchase everything from corn to textiles to livestock, it was also historically the site of inns and taverns, particularly for the drovers that went into the city to sell their cattle. Today the medieval street plan is virtually unchanged and the area continues to be home to an eclectic mix of shops, street markets, lively pubs, and restaurants.
My husband and I have had the fun of dining in the Grassmarket on two separate occasions. On our first trip to the area, we chose a quaint French restaurant called Petit Paris (actually French owned and operated) and it was as close to being in France as I had been then or since. It was quite good. In my memory, I mainly recall a fabulous bowl of tomato/basil bisque. Oh my.
On our most recent trip we tried out an Irish pub- Biddy Mulligans (named for an old Irish folk tune celebrating a woman named…surpise…Biddy Mulligan) where I had a plate of most excellent fish & chips. And beer. Really good beer.
Just for the fun of it, Google “Biddy Mulligan” and a band called “The Dubliners” and you will find their cheery recording of this old tune. I promise it will put a smile on your face.
But I digress. Back to Grassmarket.
Although the street plan is remarkably untouched from its original medieval scheme, many of the buildings in the Grassmarket are “newer”, dating from the 1800’s when the Old Town went though a period of improvements. Additionally, there are several buildings from the 1700’s (most notably the White Hart Inn) and one complete building from the 1600’s at the entrance to Victoria Street.
A couple of interesting sites to note: At the foot of Victoria Street you will find the Bow Well-the first piped outlet of running water in Edinburgh-built in 1681. And close to that is the Covenanter’s Memorial, a memorial and humble reminder of Edinburgh’s grim past.
And that takes us back to the terrifying gallows. Aside from being a major market area, the Grassmarket served for many years as the place for public executions. Allow your imagination to picture what it must have been like, the sight of raucous crowds cheering and jeering as criminals and innocents alike were strung up on the gibbet to meet their fate. It’s a bit chilling, really.
During a period in the late 1600’s, known as “The Killing Time”, over one hundred Convenanters were executed for their religious faith. This group of individuals tried to protect their Presbyterian faith from interference by the king, however, they were viewed as rebels and traitors and many were arrested. Some actually engaged in battles with the king’s troops. Others were executed for simply being an audience participant to the preaching of a Covenanter minister.
Another notable hanging was that of John Porteous, captain of the city guard. Mr. Porteous was found guilty of murder, however, he apparently had many friends in the court system and a pardon seemed likely. The people would have none of it, though. As it happened, a massive mob of around 4,000 people stormed the Old Tolbooth where he was being held, found him hiding in a chimney, and dragged him to the Grassmarket where he was lynched.
And then there was Wilson and Robertson-two smugglers sentenced to death in 1736. As Wilson was cut down from the gallows, all mayhem broke loose and people began throwing stones. The city guard responded by opening fire and sixteen people were killed that day, among them, a small boy watching from a window.
Thankfully, public executions came to an end after the hanging of the last man in 1784-a fellow by the name of James Andrews (have a pint at The Last Drop, a tavern in Grassmarket aptly named in recognition of this final event). Executions were thereafter carried out at the Old Tolbooth.
I know you can already see that our wonderful Edinburgh has quite a dark, macabre past. It’s so fascinating, isn’t it? I think so! We’ll definitely be exploring this more at a later time.
One of the things I love so much about Edinburgh is that it is a city that seems to truly understand itself and yet not take itself too seriously. Its history is rich and complex and deep and a whole lot of it isn’t pretty. And yet the Scottish people embrace it, honor it, remember it, and learn from it. They know from where they came and where they want to go.
There is a joke that goes like this:
Question: What does a Scotsman wear under his kilt?
Answer: Scottish Pride