The Canongate forms part of what is now called the Royal Mile running from Edinburgh Castle down to Holyrood Palace. Moray House, now part of the University of Edinburgh, occupies a number of properties on the south side of this historic street. This section describes the colourful history and development of this area.
The Canongate has probably existed for over a millennium initially as a rough track running eastwards down the rocky ‘tail’ of the Castle Rock. The surrounding area was once shrub, mire and part of the forest of Drumselch, with Arthur’s Seat, part of an ancient volcano, rising to the south.
Holyrood Abbey and Holyrood Palace
Legend has it that on the 14 September 1128 King David I of the Scots was out hunting, despite this being a Holy Day. He became separated from the rest of his party and was suddenly attacked by a stag (hart). Thrown from his horse he raised his arms to protect himself. But instead of its antlers, he found across (or rood). That night he dreamt that a great religious house would be established at the place of his miraculous escape.
That same year the establishment a monastery was approved which was to become the Augustine Holyrood Abbey. He also granted a charter to the adjacent burgh which was to become Canongate. On the death of Queen Margaret in 1093 she bequeathed a casket of holy relics to her sons which was later given to the Abbey.
The walk between the Abbey and the walled town of Edinburgh around Castle Rock became known as ‘Canon’s Gait’ or Canongate. The arms of the burgh still include a stag’s head surmounted by a cross. The Palace of Holyrood was started in 1501 and completed by Charles II. The Burgh of Canongate grew up around the Abbey and Palace and was separate from Edinburgh until the 19th century.
The Seventeenth Century
Following the death of Elizabeth I and the Union of the Crowns of England and Scotland in 1603 under James VI and I a more stable political environment ensued.At this time Edinburgh was overcrowded. Tenements 8 or 9 storeys tall were crammed together in the Old Town. These were often of wood and had steep, narrow and filthy stairs.
There was a major outbreak of the plague in 1645.
It became popular with the nobility, ‘noble and genteel families’, to move their townhouses out to the Canongate. Here spacious buildings were possible with gardens and orchards. It was also close to the palace and the Scottish Court. One such house was to become Moray House, built by Mary Home around 1618. The standard of the buildings was enforced by Acts of Parliament: one in 1621 ensured that houses should be covered in slates, stone or lead and another in 1677 that houses should not be built of wood or thatch because of the risk of fires.
The Burgh of Canongate prospered and by 1663 had six parishes. It’s Tolbooth, built in 1591, housed the burgh’s Council Chamber, court and later included a prison. It had its own Provost and incorporated its own trades. However, with the Union of the Scottish and English parliaments in 1707 there was a loss of some of the nobility, professionals and MPs to London.
Water was supplied from local wells, with water caddies employed to carry water up the stairs of the lands. The first piped water didn’t appear in Edinburgh until 1694.
The Eighteenth Century
Despite the loss of the Scottish parliament, the Canongate continued to be favoured by the townhouses of the nobility and professionals. In 1769 two dukes, sixteen earls, seven barons, seven judges and thirteen baronets had their houses there. Chessel’s Court, built by Andrew Chessels, was a mid-century mansion with spacious flats. St. John’s Street, a high-quality tenement development, was commenced in 1765.
The foundation stone for the first regular theatre in Edinburgh after the Reformation, the Playhouse, was laid in 1746 between Playhouse Close and Old Playhouse Close and opened in following year. It had a double row of dormer windows providing light for the dressing rooms. John Hume’s tragedy ‘Douglas’ was first performed there on 14 December 1756, when a Mr Diggs was a manager. The theatre was periodically opposed by the Kirk and Town Council. It closed in 1786.
In 1767 an Act of Parliament allowed the building of Edinburgh’s New Town, across the Nor Loch, to start. In 1772 the North Bridge was completed. From the end of the eighteenth century, there was a gradual decline in the whole area.
But of late, since the increase of the buildings in the New Town and south districts the number of these (nobles) has considerably diminished.
The burgh was also affected by the loss of revenue from customs at the Watergate when the carriage road to Leith (Leith Wynd) was altered and the old road, now called Cranston Street, was no longer used for this purpose.
Towards the end of the century, Canongate parish had some 6200 inhabitants and a reasonably stable population. There was a public grammar school in the parish under the patronage of the magistrates and Kirk Session.
The Nineteenth Century
The area to the north and south of the Canongate became heavily industrialised. For example, the Edinburgh Gas Light Company was formed in 1817. In 1818 the first shops were lit by gas. Coal was bought from Dalkeith or shipped in via the Union Canal or the Edinburgh & Glasgow railway. At one time there were eight gasometers in the area.
Other local industries included foundries, tobacco pipe manufacturing, glass making, and a large number of breweries.
Industrialisation was accompanied by a significant increase in population: to 8932 as recorded in the 1841 population return. In 1865 the Burgh of Canongate lost its independence and was subsumed into the City of Edinburgh. In the same year, the City Improvement Act led to the loss of many old buildings.
The Twentieth Century
Over the first half of the century, much of the Canongate area became ruinous. However, in the early 1950’s, the architect Robert Hurd amongst others initiated a major programme of conservation and sympathetic development. The 4th Marquis of Bute provided initial funding. The retention of the exterior of Moray House’s St. John’s Land and the sympathetic redevelopment of Simon Laurie House is representative of this phase in the urban development of this historic street.
At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the New Scottish parliament building at the foot of the Canongate is the culmination of a millennium of local history for this area.