It's an unassuming road, running off the southern side of Edinburgh's Royal Mile. Because of the limited vehicle access around the Old Town, it's also a bit of a 'rat run' for drivers trying to make the surprising tricky journey from Cowgate to High Street. So Blackfriars Street, like many of Edinburgh's historic streets, is surprisingly easy to overlook.
But this one road has a wealth of interesting historical connections that are worth exploring, and although I often take groups through the lane I only ever really scratch the surface of the history here.
So, here's my more in-depth exploration of the history of Blackfriars Street.
Like many of the streets in the Old Town, Blackfriars Street was originally much narrower than it is today. It was named Blackfriars Wynd, and like many of the old closes and wynds it was only 3ft/1m wide - a dark and imposing channel cutting between the high tenement buildings and leading down to the depths of the Cowgate in the valley.
At the bottom of the lane was the Blackfriars monastery, the feature which gives the street its name to this day. The original Dominican friars had occupied the land here since it was given to them in 1230, but the monastery was finally destroyed during rioting in 1559, a year before the Reformation in Scotland.
In 1508, Scotland's first licensed printing press was established at the bottom of Blackfriars Wynd. The men who operated their press were Walter Chepman and Andrew Myllar, and the first book they printed was a longform poem entitled The Complaint of the Black Knight. A rare surviving copy of this first text to be printed in Scotland bears the date of printing: 4 April 1508.
Chepman and Myllar had been awarded a monopoly licence to print books in Scotland in 1507 by the king, James IV, although the business may only have been short-lived as the latest printed book by them which has survived is dated 1510.
The building near where this early press was established was the house of the Catholic Cardinal David Beaton, a high profile churchman who would fall foul of a mob for his role in the torture and execution of Protestant reformer George Wishart in 1546. Beaton himself would be murdered at St Andrews castle, with his body hanged naked from the battlements...
By the 19th century, Beaton's Palace, as it had been, was a run-down slum accommodation, and the property was demolished as part of the Improvement of the city.
On this photo, showing Cowgate c.1867, the building with the corner turret is Beaton's former palace, and the narrow entry on the left in front of it is Blackfriars Wynd - so narrow it's not even apparent that it's a street.
Perhaps surprisingly, this narrow alley was also the site of a brutal skirmish between warring factions who were competing for favour after the power vacuum left by the Battle of Flodden.
In 1520, the lord provost of Edinburgh, the Earl of Arran, cousin of the late King James IV, picked a fight with the Earl of Angus, step-father to the eight-year-old James V. Both men wanted control of the young king, which would allow them to rule Scotland until he turned 18, and Arran had lodged himself at Cardinal Beaton's palace with a plan to arrest Angus.
Angus and five hundred of his men gathered at the Netherbow Port, and the two mobs fought hand-to-hand in the narrow thoroughfare of Blackfriars Wynd, where around 80 of Arran's men were killed. Arran had angered many of Edinburgh's traders and guild leaders with his governance of the city, and it is said that local people watched the fighting from the windows overlooking the lane, passing down weapons to Angus's men as they needed them...
Arran himself narrowly escaped Edinburgh with his life, fleeing down one of the narrow closes to the north of the High Street. The bloody event became known by the cry which had gone up as the fight went on: 'Cleanse the Causey' - meaning to clear the street of filth. (A causey - often mistranslated as 'causeway' - being a cobbled lane or road.)
In 1850 a social researcher named George Bell produced a document titled Blackfriars Wynd Alanysed, which detailed the lives of people living on this single lane of the Old Town. Bell interviewed people residing in the buildings here, and described the impoverished conditions in which they lived.
He calculated that Blackfriars Wynd had a total of 1,025 people living along it, many of them raising families in single rooms, and living on the average salary of just £5 per year - £3 of that was spent on food, with the remaining £2 being spent on whisky. The additional money needed for rent, clothing, and goods for daily life would generally be sourced from a variety of sources, including theft, gambling, prostitution and charity or begging.
A decade later, during the Improvements to Edinburgh in the late 1860s, the eastern side of the wynd was demolished, with the road widened and rebuilt. The date visible on the corner of this Victorian-era development is 1871, and a weathered text panel under a window on the first floor records how the tenements were built by the Blackfriars Building Association.
The western side of the street has also been largely rebuilt, but the upper section retains one of the original sixteenth century structures. This is the Regent Morton's house - James Douglas, the fourth earl of Morton, was one of the men who governed Scotland during the childhood of King James VI.
Today the building is a youth hostel, but above its original doorway, with its turret staircase, is an emblem of two unicorns with a crown between them. This was the royal emblem of Scotland prior to the union with England in 1603. At that time one of the two unicorns - the national animal of Scotland - was replaced with a lion, to represent England.
It was Morton who is credited with purchasing Edinburgh's guillotine, nicknamed the Maiden, which was used to behead high status figures on the square near St Giles' Cathedral - including, ironically, Morton himself, in 1581, after he was found guilty by James VI of involvement in the plot to murder his father over a decade earlier. Today the Maiden can be seen in the National Museum of Scotland.
So although relatively few people ever look in detail at Blackfriars Street today, or even notice its surviving historic features, it's a good example of how in Edinburgh there's history on (literally) every street corner and down every alleyway!
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