The Mercat Cross

But since I now must lose my head;
I at my last, this lesson read,
“Tho’ wealth, and youth and beauty shine,
And all the graces round you twine,
Think on your end, nor proud behave,
There’s nothing sure this side the grave.”

Claudero lamenting the removal of the Cross and other pieces
of Edinburgh’s heritage.[1]

Just out of view in the Painting is the Market Cross which was closely associated with the activities in the Square. The Mercat or Market Cross was an essential feature of most towns from medieval times as a meeting place and rallying point for civic functions. Edinburgh’s Cross was at various times the site of executions, the scene of public rejoicings such as pageants at the entries of sovereigns, and the centre of business ‘where merchants most did congregate’.[2]  These functions necessitated that the Cross had to be in an open space where crowds could congregate.  In old Edinburgh, confined as it was within the town wall along a ridge extending from the castle to Holyrood Palace, open space was at a premium.  The Edinburgh Cross which is known to have existed since 1365 was built in the only space available – in the High Street.  Over the years it has been reconstructed and relocated four times but always within or beside the High Street, adjacent to St Giles and Parliament Square.

There is no clear picture of the original cross but Miller, who has carefully researched all available records, gives a good account of its structure and probable location.[3]  It had a doorway and a stair leading to a platform from which proclamations were made and was big enough so that on festive occasions the king and magistrates could gather and drink wine.[4]  It was built around a ‘lang stane’ or stone column, about twenty feet in height, surmounted by a gothic capital on which stood a crowned unicorn.  The lang stane was hexagonal and decorated with images of thistles.  The exact location of the first Cross is not known; Miller, makes a good case for it to have been on the south side of the High Street a short distance to the east of St Giles.

The Old Mercat Cross blocking the High Street (From Grant Old and New Edinburgh)

In 1617, in preparation for the triumphal return visit of James VII and II, the Council decreed that the Cross be removed to make way for the King’s procession.  A party of mariners from Leith safely dismounted the lang stane ‘from the place where it stoode, past memorie of man.’[5] and it was safely stored but the rest of the structure was scrapped.  A new Mercat Cross was constructed later the same year just a few yards further down the High Street.

Gordon’s map of 1647 showing the location of the second Market Cross

There seems to have been some urgency over the rebuild for sixteen masons were involved and received extra pay for working a sixteen hour day.[6]  It was an octagonal structure sixteen feet in diameter and fifteen feet high.  It took four and a half months to build and cost £4486 Scots. The original lang stane was restored in it with its gothic capital and the unicorn. The unicorn, a mythical animal which symbolized purity and power, had been Scotland’s national animal since the twelfth century. Two unicorns featured in the Scottish coat of arms until the Union of the Crowns in 1603 when one was replaced by the English lion by James VI and I. In February 1652 Cromwell’s Commissionaires of Parliament decreed that all carvings and features relating to the monarchy be destroyed.  Accordingly the unicorn was taken down and all royal coats of arms in the City were erased.

Despite this desecration the Cross continued to be the locus of commercial, legal and social exchanges in the city.  Forbes in his Memoirs  wrote:-

In those days it was the  custom for the merchants and bankers in Edinburgh, to assemble  regularly every day at one o’clock at the Cross, where they transacted business with each other, and talked over the news of the day; and as there were among the merchants at that time – I speak of the period before 1772 – several gentlemen of a literary turn, and possessed of considerable powers of conversation, we were joined by many who had no concern in the mercantile world, such as physicians and lawyers, who frequented the Cross nearly with as much regularity as the others for the sake of gossiping and amusement merely.[7]

Alan Ramsay in his poem Auld Reekie refers to the business conducted at the Cross:

When Phoebus blinks wi’ warmer ray,
And schools at noonday get the play,
Then bus’ness, weighty bus’ness comes:
The trader glours, he doubts, he hums;
The lawyers eke to Cross repair,
Their wigs to shaw, and toss an air,  (shaw – show)
While busy agent closely plies,
And a’ his kittle cases tries.        (kittle – difficult)

In 1756 the Town Council decided to remove this Cross which was obstructing traffic in the High Street, although it must have been a relatively minor obstruction compared with the Luckenbooths and the Old Tolbooth. Wilson wrote:[8]

No incident in history appears to us more strongly to mark the perversion of taste, and the total absence of the wholesome spirit of veneration, that prevailed during the eighteenth century, than the demolition of this most interesting national monument.  The love of destructiveness could alone instigate the act, for its site was in the widest part of the High Street, at a time when the Luckenbooths narrowed the upper part of that thoroughfare to half its breadth….

The poet James Wilson[9] (Claudero), a great lover of antiquities, wrote a poem deploring the demolition in 1753 of the Royal Porch at Holyrood Palace, which included the following lines;-

My Cross likewise, of old renown,
Will next to you be tumbled down;
And by degrees each ancient place,
Will perish by the modern race.

When his prediction was fulfilled three years later,  he wrote; The Last Speech and Dying Words of the CROSS of Edinburgh, which was hanged, drawn, and quartered, on Monday the 15th of March 1756, for the horrid crime of being an Encumbrance to the Street  – a long poem from which the following extracts have been taken;

Ye sons of Scotia, mourn and weep,
For kings and queens I did proclaim.
I peace and war did oft declare,
And rous'd my country ev'ry where:
Your ancestors around me walk'd;
Your kings and nobles 'side me talk'd;
And lads and lasses, with delight,
Set tryst with me to meet at night;
No tryster e'er was at a loss,
For why, I'll meet you at the Cross.
On me great men have lost their lives,
And for a maiden[10] left their wives.

The Scots Magazine of 1756 recorded that:

The demolition of the cross has now taken place. As soon as the workmen began, which was in the morning of March 13th, some gentlemen, who had spent the night over a social bottle, caused wine and glasses to be carried thither, mounted the ancient fabric, and solemnly drank its dirge.  The beautiful pillar which stood in the middle fell, and broke to pieces, by one of the pulleys used on that occasion giving way.[11]

It is not clear from this report whether the mourning gentlemen had anything to do with the breakage.[12]  Thus was the sad and undignified end of a piece of Edinburgh’s heritage which had lasted four hundred years.  The footprint of the demolished Cross was marked in the High Street by an octagonal arrangement of stone setts which remains to this day.  So deeply held were the ancient customs and traditions associated with the Cross that proclamations continued to be made and business conducted from the vacated site after the Cross was removed.

The footprint of the old Mercat Cross marked out in the pavement of the High Street. In the background the present Cross can be seen in a less obstructing location.

The Town Council felt that it was undignified that business should be conducted in the open street in this way and in 1753-1766 built the Royal Exchange on the site of some decayed tenements on north side of the High Street almost opposite St Giles and the site of the demolished Cross.  This grand building was intended to provide some shops and coffee houses, and a piazza to serve as a dignified meeting place for merchants and business people to conduct their affairs but the merchants largely ignored this facility and preferred to continue in their accustomed ways.  One visitor in 1793 recorded  ‘….the Exchange, an useless building, for the merchants, as at Bristol, prefer standing in the street…’.[13]

The Royal Exchange Edinburgh by T H Shepherd

Smollett, in 1771, observed that:[14]

All the people of business at Edinburgh, and even genteel company, may be seen standing in crowds every day, from one to two in the afternoon, in the open street, at a place where formerly stood a market-cross…from the force of custom, rather than move a few yards to an Exchange that stands empty on one side, or to the Parliament-close on the other, which is a noble Square….The company thus assembled are entertained by a variety of tunes, played on a set of bells, fixed in a steeple hard by.  As these bells are well toned, and the musician… is no bad performer, the entertainment is really agreeable….’

Robert Fergusson commented on this in his poem Mutual Complaint of Plainstanes and Causey – a poetical conversation between Causey (High Street) and Plainstanes (the cobbles);

Yet a’ your advocates, and braw fouk,
Come still to me twixt ane and twa o’clock,
And never yet were kent to range
At Charlie’s Statue or Exchange.

The unused Exchange was gradually occupied by Council offices and in 1811 became the Edinburgh Council Chambers.

The Royal Exchange today. Now the Council Chambers

Fergusson also pointed out the absurdity of getting rid of the Cross in order to clear the High Street while leaving the more obstructive guardhouse which blocked the street a few yards further east.

Tho’ magistrates the Cross discard,
It makes na, whan they leave the Guard, -
A lumberson and stinkin biggin,
That rides the sairest on my riggin,

Scott, who had not been born at the time of the demolition of the Cross, nevertheless greatly mourned its absence.  ‘The Magistrates of Edinburgh in 1756, with the consent of the Lords of Session pro pudor! [for shame!], destroyed this curious monument, under a wanton pretext that it encumbered the street; while, on the one hand, they left the ugly mass called the Luckenbooths, and, on the other, an awkward long low guard house, which were fifty times more encumbrance than the venerable and inoffensive Cross’.[15]

In Marmion Canto V he lamented:-

Dunedin’s cross, a pillar’d stone, 
Rose on a turret octagon;
(But now is razed that monument, 
Whence royal edict rang,
And the voice of Scotland’s law was sent,
In glorious trumpet clang, 
O! be his tomb as lead to lead
Upon its dull destroyer’s head! –
A minstrel’s malison is said.)

Scott witnessed the proclamation of King George IV on 2 February 1820 from the vacant site of the old Cross and felt obliged to apologise to his guest, Prince Gustavus Vasa, for the barbarity of the Auld Reekie baillies.[16]

Scott was, however, able to acquire remnants of the demolished Cross and had them incorporated in his home at Abbotsford.  Five circular medallions from the Cross had been preserved by a keen antiquarian lawyer, Walter Ross WS and were built into the walls of a tower extension to his house in Deanhaugh.  The artist, Henry Raeburn, later became owner of Deanhaugh through his marriage with Ann Edgar whose father had bought the house from Ross in 1777.  During alterations to the house the medallions became available and in 1822 Raeburn offered them to Scott who wrote to Raeburn, 8 May 1822 ‘Our friend Skene having informed me that you deigned me the great favour of parting with some of your old stones and my own building here being in progress I am greedy enough to send carts for them as soon as I heard of your kind intention’.[17]  Scott had them set into the wall of his garden at Abbotsford where they may be seen today.  The medallions now much weathered are crudely carved in stone in alto relievo.[18] One depicts the city arms, the others are profiles of heads, one helmeted, one adorned with a wreath, one carrying a twisted staff and the last a woman with some folds of linen around her hair.  Scott also obtained a stone basin from the Cross which had ‘flowed with wine at the coronation of our kings and on other occasions of public rejoicing’.[19]  He had this converted into a fountain at Abbotsford, where it still remains but in a new location and no longer a fountain.

Medallion from the demolished Cross – one of several incorporated in the garden wall – and the stone basin from the Cross installed in Scott’s home at Abbotsford

The left image is a medallion of the Edinburgh City Arms from the old Mercat Cross, now at Abbotsford. The right image shows a medallion of the City Arms on the present Mercat Cross.

Some other bits of the Cross survived.  Five broken pieces of the lang stane were salvaged by Lord Somerville of Drum, who had it re-erected in the grounds of his estate, joining the pieces together with iron clamps. The reconstructed column measured only fourteen feet having lost about a third of its original height. A cross was put in the place of the missing unicorn.

In July 1848 Mr James Sinclair, Unicorn Pursuivant of the Scottish College of Arms, aggrieved that the Heralds had no worthy site from which they could make their proclamations, presented a memorial to the Lord Provost and Magistrates requesting that they ‘fulfil and complete the obligates undertaken by their predecessors and resting upon them, to restore to dignity among the cities, burghs this capital of the kingdom of Scotland by re-erecting the Old Cross.’[20] The magistrates visited Drum to look at the residual column but concluded that ‘no practical inconvenience arises from the non-existence of the Cross in Edinburgh and that it does not seem either necessary or expedient to comply with the request’.

A century after the demolition of the Cross, a meeting of the Society of Antiquaries on 13 May 1861, with Professor J Y Simpson in the chair,[21] discussed its replacement. A committee on the Restoration of the Cross together with a committee of the Royal Scottish Academy reported that it would be practicable to rebuild the structure and Mr Bryce an architect agreed to prepare a plan. At a meeting on 10 March 1862 Mr David Laing, Librarian of the WS Society and an antiquarian book seller, felt that a full restoration was hopeless for financial reasons. He put forward an alternative, more modest plan, to restore the residual fragment of the original column to a site near St Giles.  In 1866 his plan was fulfilled.  The then proprietor of Drum, Alexander Mitchell, donated the column which was set up on the North side of St Giles on two steps of an octagonal pedestal, inside the kirk railings.  Laing and the City shared the cost.[22] A new unicorn finial, carved by John Rhind, was set upon the capital in 1869 to replace the one destroyed by Cromwell.

This gesture, although well intended and undoubtedly an improvement over a mark in the pavement, was hardly an adequate substitute for the Cross. On 21 March 1884 William Gladstone, Member of Parliament for Midlothian and Prime Minister wrote a letter to the Lord Provost of Edinburgh:-

I have to request of your Lordship and of the Town Council the favour of being allowed to undertake the restoration of the Mercat Cross.

As your great historic City is the Capital of Midlothian no less than of the Kingdom of Scotland, I earnestly desire, in the character of the representative of the County, to leave behind me this small but visible record of grateful acknowledgement and sincere affection, in a form closely associated with the local and national tradition.

The site which has been suggested to me as most suitable is the entrance to Parliament Square.

The Council accepted this generous offer and in 1885, one hundred and thirty years after the last Cross had been demolished, the fourth Cross was built on the site suggested by Gladstone at the east entrance to Parliament Square.  The architect, Sydney Mitchell, followed closely the design of its predecessor and incorporated the remains of the ‘lang stane’. The arms of Mr and Mrs Gladstone were carved on the walls.  The Scotsman of 20 June 1885 reported that there was room for thirty people to stand on the top platform.  From there the Heralds and Pursuivants again ‘proclaim a new law…before two score of boys, thieves and hackney coachmen’.[23]

The Mercat Cross today in the East entrance to Parliament Square.

In 1970 the original patched up lang stane had deteriorated to such an extent that it had to be replaced.  Two fragments of the original stane were incorporated in the new column and these plus the old gothic capital which is carved with eight dragons with heads and tails interweaving beneath a circlet of foliage (much weathered) are the only surviving relics of the original fifteenth century Cross.[24]

The original Capital of the Cross (ex Wilson p115) and the Capital today with a new unicorn replacing the one removed by Cromwell.

Historic happenings at the Cross

The Cross, in its time, had witnessed many historic events.  It was the focus for celebrations of kings and queens during their visits to Edinburgh.  For example when Queen Mary made her entry to Edinburgh on 2 September 1561, she was greeted by four fair virgins who addressed her at the Tolbooth, and at the Cross by another four fair virgins clad in the most heavenly clothing. ‘From the Cross wine ran out of the spouts in great abundance; there was the noise of people casting the glasses with wine’.[25]

In 1587 James VI, in an attempt to reconcile differences with the clergy and some of his nobles, held an entertainment at Holyrood Palace followed by a banquet of wines and sweetmeats at the Market Cross in order to demonstrate to the assembled citizens their mutual friendship.  ‘This reconciliatione of the nobilitie and diversse of the gentry was the gratest worke and happiest game the king had played in all his raigne heithertills…’[26]  Alas the reconciliation was not to last. 

On 19 May 1590 during the visit of Queen Anne, the newly married  wife of James VI,

there stood upon the top of the Crosse a table covered, whereupon stood cups of gold and silver full of wine with the Godess of Corne and Wine sitting thereat, and the corne in heaps by her,….on the side of the Crosse sate the God Bacchus upon a punchion of wine, winking  and casting it by cupful upon the people, besides others of the tounsmen that cast apples and nuts among them; and the Crosse itself ranne claret wine upon the causeway, for the royalty of that day.[27]

To celebrate the restoration and birthday of Charles II on 19 June 1660, the Town Council ordered pipes of lead for running of wine from the spouts of the Cross and wine glasses and other necessaries with dry confection and eight trumpeters.  John Nicoll gave a vivid account of the event[28] which is here reproduced in modern English:

…After attending a sermon, the Magistrates and Town Council in best robes with the great mace and sword of honour carried before them, with a great number of Citizens went to the Mercat Cross where a great long board was covered with all sorts of sweet meats, and there drank the health of the King and his brother; the spouts of the cross ran all that time with abundance of claret wine.  There were three hundred dozen glasses broken…All the bells of Edinburgh and Canongate did ring and drums did beat and trumpets sounded.

At night there were bonfires in the streets and fireworks there and at the Castle and the Citadel of Leith….Bacchus was seated upon a punzeon (barrel) of wine at the Cross with his cummerhaldis (accolytes) and was not idle.  At the end of the solemnity, effigies of that notable tyrant and traitor Oliver Cromwell were set up on a pole and the Devil on another on Castle Hill.  Fireworks were arranged so that the Devil chased the traitor and pursued him till he blew him in the air.

In Sept 1745 following Prince Charles bloodless entry to the City;

The Highland Party which entered the City in the morning, having secured the Heralds, Pursuivants etc. repaired with them, about noon, to the market-cross of Edinburgh, in their formalities , and by the sound of of trumpets,  read the Pretender’s declaration and commission of regency, given to his son…,[29]

Thus James VIII was proclaimed the King of Scotland, England, France, and Ireland. ‘A great multitude of sympathising spectators was present at the ceremony, and testified their satisfaction by cordial cheers’.[30] The written proclamation was attached to the Cross ‘that none may pretend ignorance’.

The Cross witnessed many less happy occasions such as the execution by hanging or beheading and quartering of countless victims including the Earl of Morton and the Marquises of Montrose and Argyll.  Grant[31] lists some of the lesser punishments which were carried out there including ‘scourging, branding, ear nailing, and nose-pinching, with tongue boring.’  In the seventeenth century a pillory was erected at the Cross where debtors and bankrupts, who avoided imprisonment, were obliged to sit on mercat day from 10am to one hour after dinner, wearing garment and a hood half yellow and half brown.

Chambers[32] describes some of the more domestic activities which took place at the Cross.  It was:

… the great centre of gossip in former days.  The principal coffee-houses and booksellers’ shops were close to the spot.  The chief merchants, the leading official persons, the men of learning and talents, the laird, the noble, the clergyman, were constantly clustering hereabouts during certain hours of the day.  It was the very centre and cynosure of the old city. 

Another commentator[33]  wrote that it ‘…was promenade for the ruffled and powdered exquisite to display his finery, no less than for the trader bent only on business.  The wits of Edinburgh used to meet there, at the poet’s [Alan Ramsay] shop, to amuse themselves with the intelligence of the day, and the most recent news in the world of letters’.

The Caddies (Cadies or Cawdies)

The Cross was the gathering place of the Caddies – a group of men who acted as street porters or guides to visitors to the city.  They knew all the gossip of the day and were a useful source of information and scandal.  In 1763 they were an organised society incorporated under regulations of the magistrates and required to wear a badge and linen apron.[34] 

The caddy in his uniform. Painting by David Allan Courtesy of the National Gallery of Scotland

Topham wrote:[35]

It is impossible at Edinburgh to be concealed or unknown…you cannot be there many hours before you are watched, and your name and place of abode, found out by the Cadies.  These are a society of men who constantly attend the Cross in the High Street and whose office is to do any thing that any body can want, and discharge any kind of business.  On this account it is necessary for them to make themselves acquainted with the residences and negotiations of all the inhabitants; and they are of great utility as without them it would be very difficult to find any body, on account of the great height of the houses, and the number of families in every building.  This Society is under particular regulation, and it requires some interest to become a member of it.  It is numerous and contains persons for every use and employment, who faithfully execute all commands at very reasonable price.  Whether you stand in need of a valet de place, a pimp, a thief catcher, or a bully, your best source is the fraternity of Cadies.  In short they are the tutelary guardians of the city and it is entirely owing to them, that there are fewer robberies and less housebreaking in Edinburgh, than any where else.

Each gainful trade a starving Cadie knows, And bid him go to Hell – to hell he goes.[36]

By 1783, however their reputation and number had declined.  They had become impudent and avaricious, expecting sixpence where formally they got a penny, and tormenting citizens and strangers for contributions for the poor.[37]

The Mercat Cross survives to this day but sadly without the excitements to which its predecessors were exposed. Royal Proclamations are still read from its platform, but no longer does royalty mingle there with nobles and the magistrates to drink claret, nor is it the meeting place for the exchange of news and gossip at midday, nor do lawyers and business men now meet their clients there and the caddies have long since departed to the golf course.  Edinburgh citizens pass it daily with scarcely a glance, yet it remains as an important reminder of Edinburgh’s eventful heritage.


[1] Claudero, the pseudonym of  James Wilson (c1730-89) writing in The last Speech and Dying words of the Cross of Edinburgh

[2]  Reekiana p196

[3] Miller, P The Mercat Cross in Edinburgh from 1365-1617 – its site and form PSAS XX p377-389

[4] During the visit of James VI on 11 August 1600 ’hes Majestie past to the Crosse, the Crosse being hung with tapestrie, and went up theron with his nobills’ quoted in Miller,P p386

[5] Drummond, J Notice of some stone crosses, with especial reference to the market crosses of Scotland   PSAS IV p101.  The sailors, who successfully dismounted the pillar, were rewarded with a celebratory dinner to the  accompaniment of trumpets and a drum. City of Edinburgh. Inventory of Monuments p121 fn

[6] Ibid p121

[7] Forbes (1859) Memoirs of a Banking House p26

[8] Wilson p113

[9] James Wilson (Claudero see ref. 1 above) dedicated his Miscellanies in prose and verse (1766) to Peter Williamson.

[10] The maiden was the nickname given to Edinburgh’s guillotine.

[11] McCulloch, W T (1859) Notices of the City Cross of Edinburgh PSAS II p290

[12] Kincaid (1787) p 336 also records this episode but makes no mention of the broken pillar.

[13]  Quoted in Brown, I G ‘Spectator of the busy scene’: a visitor of 1793 experiences Edinburgh outside and in. BOEC NS 10 (2014) pp157-164

[14] Smollet The Expedition of |Humphrey Clinker p263-4

[15] Scott’s note no XXV in Marmion

[16] Life of Sir Walter Scott  vol 6 p177-8

[17] Letters VII p157

[18] Arnot p232

[19] Scott’s letter to Daniel Terry 29 Oct 1817 and Lockhart’s Life of Sir Walter Scott Vol VII p372

[20] McCulloch loc cit p293-4

[21] PSAS IV p228

[22] Harris, S The Mercat Cross of Edinburgh , BOEC XXXIII p150-6.  When the Mercat Cross was rebuilt in in 1885 the stepped  base on which the column had stood was used to support the Canongate Cross.

[23] Stevenson. Picturesque Notes p27

[24] Catalogue of Monuments and Burial Grounds, (1979) City of Edinburgh District Council Department of Architecture Vol I.

[25] Miller p351

[26] From Balfour’s Annales quoted in Grant 1p200

[27] From Papers relating the Marriage of James VI. Bannatyne Club p41. Quoted in Miller p386-7

[28] Nicoll, J  p293-4

[29] Kincaid (1787) p310

[30] Grant  I p327

[31] Grant  I p151

[32] Chambers, R Traditions of Edinburgh, p174.  Arnot p176 wrote “There the company daily resort from one to three o’clock for news, business or meeting acquaintances.”

[33] Wilson I p 201

[34] Arnot p512 and Maitland p326

[35] Topham vol I p105-6, see also vol II p164-166

[36] Ibid vol II p166

[37] Arnot p512