Development of the Square

‘…the great modern object has uniformly been to extinguish all the picturesque relics and models of antiquity, and to reduce everything to the dullest and baldest uniformity… our escape from the old town gave us an unfortunate propensity to avoid whatever had distinguished the place we had fled from.’ Henry Cockburn[1]

Parliament Square, the area shown in the Painting, was originally the town burial ground adjoining St Giles Cathedral.  In the fifteenth century the land south of the graveyard was largely open ground sloping steeply down to the Cowgate valley occupied only by the residence of the Vicar (Provost after 1466) and his garden and orchard.  By 1477 the graveyard had reached full capacity and the then Provost, William Forbes, allowed the cemetery to be extended into the manse garden but eventually this too became filled.  In 1562 Mary, Queen of Scots, granted the Town Council land for a public cemetery in the grounds of the Greyfriars monastery and the graveyard ceased to be used for burials from 1566. (An exception was made to allow the burial of John Knox in 1572).

The move to Greyfriars was much welcomed by the Council on health grounds for it was then outside the town boundary “so that therethrough the air within our said town may be the mair pure and clean”[2].  Alas this was not to last.  Arnot writing in 1779 observed that the Greyfriar’s churchyard was now surrounded by buildings and he paints a disgusting picture of conditions in the graveyard at that time[3]:-

Such multitudes have been interred in the Greyfriar’s church yard… the graves are so crowded upon each other, that the sextant frequently cannot avoid, in opening a ripe grave, encroaching upon one not fit to be touched.  The whole presents a scene equally nauseous and unwholesome.  How soon this spot will be so surcharged with animal juices and oils, that, becoming one mass of corruption, its noxious steams will burst forth with the fury of pestilence, we shall not pretend to determine; but we will venture to say the effects of this burying ground would, ere now, have been severely felt, were it not, that, besides the coldness of the climate they have been checked by the acidity of the coal smoak and the height of the winds, which in the vicinity of Edinburgh, blow with extraordinary violence. 

The last individual, and certainly one of the most important, to be buried in the St Giles graveyard on 24 November 1572 was John Knox, minister of St Giles. His burial there was allowed by special permission after the graveyard had been closed to further burials in 1566.  Knox was chiefly responsible for introducing the protestant reformation into Scotland and for establishing the Presbyterian religion.  His funeral was attended by the Earl of Morton,  who had been appointed Regent on the day of Knox’s death.  Although the funeral was one of the most notable to have taken place in Edinburgh, like that of his mentor, John Calvin in Geneva, John Knox was buried without a memorial of any kind. 

Engraving by Kay copied from an earlier portrait of Knox.

 David Laing 1793-1885, distinguished antiquarian and librarian to the Signet Library, felt that one of the most important individuals associated with the Square should not be forgotten.  Although the exact site of Knox’s burial was not known, Laing persuaded the Town Council to have a stone with the inscription IK 1572 set in the Square at the presumed site of his burial two hundred and fifty years earlier – close to the statue of Charles II.  This stone was removed when the Square was resurfaced to create a car park about 1970 and has now been placed inside St Giles Church, where it can be seen set in the the Moray Aisle. The site from which it was removed was marked with a yellow slab in car park space 23 – an undignified token with which to commemorate the great reformer! Recently it has been replaced by an inscribed stone. 

Left; Knox’s original gravestone, now displayed in the Moray Aisle in St Giles. Centre; the undignified yellow slab which replaced the gravestone in car park space 23. Right; the current inscribed stone which restores some dignity to the site.

Robert Louis Stevenson objected strongly to the desecration of the burial ground and the neglect of Knox:

The ancient burying ground of Edinburgh… has disappeared utterly as the prison and the Luckenbooths…. only one token remains. In the Parliament Close, trodden daily underfoot by advocates, two letters and a date mark the resting-place of the man who made Scotland over again in his own image, the indefatigable, undissuadable John Knox. He sleeps within call of the church that so often echoed to his preaching…. The King has his back turned and seems to be trotting clumsily away from such a dangerous neighbour.

 A bronze statue of Knox, cast by Pittendrigh MacGillivray in 1904, now stands within the Church and a stained-glass window featuring Knox conducting the funeral service of Regent Moray, goes some way towards redeeming this slight. Knox, himself, would have strongly disapproved of these memorials to an individual within a sacred precinct.

The creation of the Parliament Close

During the seventeenth century the demand for land within the City boundary was so great that the disused graveyard became too valuable to remain sacrosanct and it became utilised for secular developments.  A poet William Julius Mickle wrote an elegy for the occupants of the desecrated graveyard which includes the following:[4]

          Now, O my soul,
Be filled with sacred awe – I tread
Above our brave forgotten ancestors.  Here lie
Those who in ancient days the kingdom ruled,
The counsellors and favourites of kings,
High lords and courtly dames, and valiant chiefs,
Mingling their dust with those of lowest rank
And basest deeds, and now unknown as they.

Gradually the graveyard was surrounded with buildings leaving a central area which became known as Parliament Yaird [5] or later Parliament Close.  Civic events were held on the site such as a banquet to celebrate the birthday of James VI on 26 June, 1617 and another for the coronation of Charles I on 23 June 1633. Wilson writes:[6]

Instead of the old monk or priest treading among its grassy hillocks, it became the lounge of grooms and lackeys waiting on their masters during the meetings of Parliament, or of quarrelsome litigants, and the usual retainers of the law, during the sessions of the College of Justice, all idea of sacredness must have been lost.  

The headstones and bones uncovered during these developments were treated with scant respect.  Large numbers of skeletal remains were dug up (including no doubt those of John Knox) which were disposed of in various ways including reburial en masse in other locations such as the Greyfriar’s Churchyard, and by some accounts, in the land fill of the Mound  – ‘that receptacle of all things’ according to Lord Cockburn[7].  

The land to the west side of the Close became the site for housing the clergy of St Giles – to be replaced by Parliament House in 1632.  Tenements and shops were erected on the east side and wooden booths were built against the walls of St Giles.  The Town Council, with some regard to the dignity of the site, stipulated (1643) that only upper class tradesmen such as jewellers, watch makers, goldsmiths, booksellers and mathematical instrument makers should be allowed to occupy the booths bordering the Close. 

The land to the south, being very steep and difficult to build upon, resisted development for many years and remained largely open agricultural ground, traversed halfway down by an old city wall which was built in 1450 at the command of James II.  Beyond that were the residence of the vicar and an old Chapel of the Holy Rood dating back to the fifteenth century. 

 James Gordon Edinodunesis Tabulam (1647), the earliest detailed map showing St Giles and the Parliament Close.  It was made just after Parliament House (no 20) was completed in 1640.  Otherwise the land to the south of St Giles remains undeveloped except for a fragment of the old city wall and the residence of the Vicar. At the very bottom was the Meal Market (no 10) opening onto the Cowgate.

Maitland records[8] that in 1662 the Town Council instructed a gardener, John Thomsone, to plant a hedge on the southern slope and lay out walks with trees, herbs and flowers exclusive of cabbage and other common garden stuff. A month later further instruction detailed that the planting was to include plum and cherry trees, bordered by gooseberry, curran (sic) and rose bushes. Three months month later the Council had a change of plan and decided instead of a garden to build shops on the south side of the Close. These shops were to be fifteen feet square and to be let at a yearly rent of twenty merks.  Gradually the south side was developed and the Close became enclosed. A series of fires in 1676, 1700 and two in 1824 destroyed many of the properties around the south and east sides of the Close allowing progressive development to take place.

The Close during the eighteenth century 

The Painting shows three sides of the Close around 1794.  To the west lies Parliament House and the Goldsmiths Hall.  On the north side is St Giles with a row of shops attached like limpets to its southern face and on the east are tenements with shops, businesses and living accommodation.  The southern elevation from which the painting was made is not shown but adjoining Parliament House was an L shaped extension which held the Court of Session at ground level, the Privy Council and the Exchequer above and storage rooms containing the records of Scotland in the basement rooms below.  The south side was completed with a row of magnificent buildings including Forbes Bank and the Post Office which was seven stories in height facing the Close and twelve stories to the south facing the Cowgate due to the steep slope of the land on which it was built. It was possibly the highest building on Earth according to Maitland.[9] The buildings facing the Square were built of dressed stone (ashlar) and the ‘noble court’ was paved with stone of a dark grey marble[10].

The south east aspect of the Close with Parliament Hall to the right and the Exchequer and other buildings on the south side. From H. Arnot, History of Edinburgh 1816.

The Close could be entered by a narrow pedestrian passageway to the west of St Giles and a slightly wider entrance to the east of St Giles allowing the passage of coaches. To the south there were three stairs leading down to the Meal Market and the Cowgate – President’s (Meal Mercat) Stair at the east end, Parliament Stair at the west and the Post Office Stair in a central position. These stairs disappeared during the reconstructions of the Square after the Great Fire of 1824. 

Parliament Stair leading from the Cowgate to Parliament House. One of the town’s water outlets can be seen at the bottom of the stair. From Storer J. Views in Edinburgh and its Vicinity 1820.

Occupations and industries in the Square

Williamson’s Directory of 1792 lists some of the occupants of Parliament Square. These included 12 writers (solicitors), 7 jewellers, 5 goldsmiths, 5 booksellers, 3 engravers, 3 mantua (dress) makers, 2 wine merchants, 2 tobacconists and an assortment of bankers, brokers, cloth and lace merchants, landladies, a surgeon, a miniature painter (John Kay), a watch maker, a lending library, a coffee shop (John’s), a mathematical instrument maker, a midwife, an ironmonger, a messenger at arms and the offices of the law courts.  Some of these are described in more detail elswhere.  According to Chambers[11], the inhabitants of the Close formed an informal society The Parliament Close Council consisting of fifty to one hundred members. They met once or twice a year for a dinner ‘in the utmost harmony’.  Members were given honorary titles such as Lord Provost or Dean of Guild.  Sir William Forbes, the banker, was designated Member for the City in recognition of his generosity.

The effect of the New Town Development

By the time of the Painting, the developing New Town led to a gradual migration from the Square of many of the more affluent shop owners and craftsmen including most of the jewellers, watchmakers and other upper-class residents such as the law lords to more commodious and modern premises elsewhere.   Sir Alexander Boswell (whose grandfather Lord Auchinleck once lived in the Close) described the exodus:[12]

The City grows and spreads on every side,
In all the honour of masonic pride.
From narrow lanes, where Pestilence was spent,
Now emigrate the Squire and thriving Gent,
To spacious mansions, elegant or neat,
Where sweeping breezes ventilate each street,
And where expanding, fanciful and free,
The rising City stretches to the Sea.

Those who still remained in the Close in the early nineteenth century were, according to Lockhart ‘trades people and the inferior persons attached to the Courts of Law’[13].  The apartments which the gentry had vacated were taken over by lesser mortals; thus Lord President Craigie’s flat was taken over by a ‘rouping wife’ (a dealer in second hand furniture) and Lord Drummond’s by a charwoman who deserted it as being unsuitable and uncommodious.[14]  Reekiana describes the situation in 1833.

The truth is, that Edinburgh is at present two cities…. The fine gentlemen, who daily exhibit their foreign dresses and manners in Princes Street, have no idea of a race of people who roost in the tall houses of the Lawnmarket and the West Bow and retain about them many of the primitive modes of life, and habits of thought, that flourished among their grandfathers … Edinburgh is in fact two towns in more ways then one. It contains an upper and an under town, – the one a sort of thoroughfare for the children of business and fashion, the other a den of retreat for the poor, the diseased, and the ignorant.

The Close experienced a vast transformation. The architectural features on the south and east sides were completely altered as new law courts and banks replaced the haphazard commercial and residential developments of the previous century and the south face of St Giles was exposed in all its glory by the clearing away of the motley assortment of shops and workshops which had been applied to the wall.  The bustling life shown in the Painting was a thing of the past. Even the name changed, the Close became the Square. These subsequent changes are described more fully in a later chapter. See: The “Close” becomes the “Square”.  

[1] Cockburn Memorials p275

[2] Burgh Records 27 August 1562

[3] Arnot p209.  Other cemeteries were gradually developed to relieve the congestion – Canongate Graveyard was opened at the foundation of the Church in 1688, St Cuthbert’s Graveyard was enlarged in 1701 and extended further in 1787 on land reclaimed by the draining of the Nor’ Loch, the Old Calton Cemetery opened in 1718 and was succeeded by the New Calton in1817 and Newington Cemetery in 1820.

[4] Quoted in Chambers, Traditions p116, from Collection of Original Poems by Scotch Gentlemen vol ii p137 (1762)

[5] Coutts p 16

[6] Wilson D Memorials of Edinburgh p204

[7] In Cockburn  Letter to the Lord Provost

[8] Maitland p185-6

[9] Maitland also wrote that an even higher building of fifteen stories had been burnt down in the fire of 1700.

[10] Maitland p187

[11] Traditions of Edinburgh p115

[12] Boswell’s Poetical Works p55

[13] Lockhart J G Peters letters  no 14, 1819

[14] Storer (1820) in legend to drawing of Charlotte Square