The Luckenbooths and the Krames

Considering its fine pavements, its width, and the lofty houses on each side, this would be undoubtedly one of the noblest streets in Europe, if an ugly mass of mean buildings, called the Lucken-Booths had not thrust itself, by what accident I know not, into the middle of the way,… Smollett 1769[1]

The Luckenbooths together with the adjacent Parliament Square was the Old Town shopping centre. The origin of the name is uncertain, some thought that it a corruption of ‘locked booths’. Maitland believed that it was derived from the Flemish luken for woollen cloth ‘which appellation will no doubt continue during the standing of these rotten, noisome and offensive buildings’. They consisted of seven adjoining tenements of varying height and appearance built over several centuries, extending eastward from the Old Tolbooth along the north face of St Giles from which they were separated by a narrow alley referred to as the Stinking Style.

The Luckenbooth’s viewed from the North. They are contiguous with the Bellhouse of the Old Tolbooth – the building on the right. Creech’s Land is at the opposite end. The cross marks the entrance to the Stinking Style and the north entrance to St. Giles which no longer exists.
Another view of the Luckenbooths showing their relationship with St Giles

The buildings, which were originally mansions of the wealthy before the Union of Parliaments in 1707, had become much modified and decayed over the years although the upper floors were still used as dwellings at the time of the Painting.  The lower floors were occupied by shops and offices in the manner of the buildings around Parliament Square on the other side of St Giles.

The best and most recent of the buildings, built in the early eighteenth century, were at the east end of the Luckenbooths and are shown in the illustration to be made of dressed ashlar, contrasting with the rubble and timber fronts of which the rest were built. The most easterly of these, which became known as Creech’s Land, offered a splendid unobstructed view down the High Street to the shore of the Firth of Forth and East Lothian with the Mercat Cross in the foreground until its demolition in 1756. The first floor was occupied for nearly a century by a series of eminent authors, booksellers and publishers including Alan Ramsay, Alexander Kincaid and William Creech who are described more fully in Publishing. It became a favourite haunt of Edinburgh’s literati and visitors such as the poet John Gay and the author Tobias Smollett gathered there to exchange news and gossip and observe the activities around the site of the Cross beneath the window.  

Creech’s shop on the second floor at the east end of the Luckenbooths overlooking the Mercat Cross

The Krames (Kreims, Creams, Crames or Craims)

In 1555 the Town Council allowed booths to be built against the north wall of St Giles in the passage between the Church and the Luckenbooths. These booths, called Krames, occupied each recess in the wall of the church. Scott described them in Heart of Midlothian:[3]

To give some gaiety to this sombre passage, (well known by the name of Krames,) a number of little booths, or shops, after the fashion of cobblers’ stalls, are plaistered, as it were, against the Gothic projections and abutments, so that it seemed as if the traders had occupied with nests,…every buttress and coign of vantage, as the martlett [house martin] did in Macbeths’s Castle.  Of later years these booths have degenerated into mere toy-shops, where the little loiterers chiefly interested in such wares are tempted to linger enchanted by the rich display of hobby-horses, babies, and Dutch toys, arranged in artful and gay confusion; yet half-scared by the cross looks of the withered pantaloons, or spectacled old lady, by whom these tempting stores are watched and superintended. But, in the times we write of, [1736] the hosiers, the glovers, the hatters, the mercers, the milliners, and all who dealt in the miscellaneous wares now termed haberdasher’s goods were to be found in this narrow alley.[4]

 Cockburn recalled:[5]

But the delightful place was The Krames.  It was a low narrow arcade of booths, crammed in between the north side of St Giles Cathedral and a thin range of buildings that stood parallel to the Cathedral [the Luckenbooths],….Shopless traffickers first began to nestle there about the year 1550 or 1560, and their successors stuck to the spot till 1817, when they were all swept away. In my boyhood their little stands, each enclosed in a tiny room of its own, and during the day all open to the little footpath…and all glittering with attractions, contained everything fascinating to childhood, but chiefly toys.  It was like one of the Arabian Nights’ bazaars in Bagdad.  Throughout the whole year it was an enchantment.  Let any one fancy what it was about the New Year, when every child had got its handsel. and every farthing of every handsel was spent there.  The Krames was the paradise of childhood.

James Boswell’s son, Sir Alexander Boswell, was another admirer:[6]

How the reviving scene my bosom soothes!
In Creech’s rear, behold the Lucken-booths!
Beneath the Church’s shadow, in the Craims,
See toys, and gloves, and pattens, for the dames;

Chambers[7] describes one of the Krames occupied by a glover.  It measured seven by three feet and there the proprietor and his wife sold their wares for many years even in winter without the comfort of a fire.  The rent for such flimsy structures ranged from £3 to £6 per annum. The Krames were cleared away in 1817 together with the Old Tolbooth and the Luckenbooths, opening up the Royal Mile.

The antiquarian poet, Claudero inevitably predicted the end of the Luckenbooths;

The Luckenbooths, Weigh-house and the Guard. 
By the new scheme will not be spared.

The Luckenbooths together with the Old Tolbooth were demolished in 1817, opening up the High Street and removing the obstructions of which so many of the visitors to the City complained.  The Weigh House on Castle hill had been demolished by the order of Cromwell in 1650 but was rebuilt ten years later without its steeple.  It was demolished for a second time in 1822 to make way for the visit of George IV. The Guardhouse was demolished in 1785.

The Weigh House by Storer

The Guardhouse was home to the City Guard and also accommodated the equipment of the Tron men (the city chimney sweepers). Sir Walter Scott described it in Heart of Midlothian as a ‘a long low, ugly building, which, to a fanciful imagination, might have suggested the idea of a long black snail crawling up the middle of the High Street, and deforming its beautiful esplanade.’ It was eventually demolished in 1785.

The demolition of the Old Tolbooth and the Luckenbooths, created a new space now called the West Parliament Square.  While the demolition was taking place, a new building, the Midlothian County Hall, was erected on the west side of the area and opened in 1818.  This splendid building designed by Archibald Elliott, contained the accommodation for the business of the County of Midlothian and a sheriff court. It ‘is a great improvement to the High Street, particularly as the old and dreary prison of the Tolbooth has been taken down during the period of its erection’.[8]

Midlothian County Hall built near the site of the Old Tolbooth


[1]  Smollet p173

[2]  Maitland p130.  Maitland really disliked the Luckenbooths: ‘The High Street wherein those markets are held, is greatly pestered with numerous Obstructions, viz the City–wells or Conduits, the Luckenbooth Row, the Market-Cross, and the Town’s Guard House, whereby the Beauty of this noble street is greatly eclipsed.’ P183

[3] Heart of Midlothian  (1818 ed) p57

[4] When the Krames were first permitted to exist, the Town Council, out of respect to the dignity of St Giles, decreed that their use should be restricted to booksellers, watchmakers, jewellers and goldsmiths  (Grant I p147).  This standard seems to have undergone a progressive decline.

[5] Cockburn Memorials  p 100

[6] Boswell, A. In  Edinburgh or the Ancient Royalty

[7] Chambers, R.  Traditions of Edinburgh  p103

[8] Storer (1820) in legend to illustration of  New County Hall