Edinburgh's Grassmarket is a popular area of the city today, just as it has been for many years. Originally an outlying settlement by the name of New Bygging, beyond the city wall, the area had a large open space of relatively flat ground which made it ideal for hosting a large market, trading corn and other grains, and animal feed (for the cattle who were sold a short distance away on King's Stables Road).
The entire area was brought within the boundary of the second defensive wall built following the battle of Flodden in 1513; take a short walk up the Vennel to the west of the Grassmarket to see a remarkably well preserved section of this wall surviving today.
As well as being a market area, the eastern end of the Grassmarket was one of the city's sites of execution, hosting the public gallows on which criminals would be hanged. Public executions were a large part of the city's economy for a long time, with people traveling from outside the city to witness convicted criminals meeting their death. The area could hold several thousand people (some suggest up to 20,000 for a high profile hanging), with the coaching inns and taverns along the northern side providing accommodation and food for visitors.
One of these buildings, the White Hart Inn, claims to be the oldest surviving public house in the city, with parts of the building dating back to the sixteenth century, and the building has hosted its share of famous (and infamous) visitors, including Robert Burns.
It was in inns and taverns like the White Hart that William Burke and William Hare preyed on their victims in the early nineteenth-century, buying strangers to the city any number of friendly drinks to intoxicate them, before taking them back to Hare's lodging house on nearby Tanner's Close to murder them. The bodies of their victims would be loaded into a large barrel and rolled through the Grassmarket - attracting little attention from locals - before being unloaded at the university's medical school and exchanged for hard cash.
In 1736 a series of events known as the Porteous Riots took place, culminating in the brutal mob execution of a commander of the City Guard on the night of 7 September 1736. John Porteous had been found responsible for the deaths of six people during the execution of a convicted smuggler, and on learning that his death sentence was to be commuted an unruly mob took the law into their own hands. Porteous was dragged down an alleyway at the east end of the Grassmarket and hanged from a dyer's pole. His death led to changes in the laws on public executions which were later phased out in the city altogether.
Today the Grassmarket area is home to a number of fine restaurants and bars, as well as popular local pubs and a number of hotels. A visit to Edinburgh is not complete without at least a cursory visit to the Grassmarket, where at various times in the year you'll find it transformed into a thriving contemporary market area, with craft stalls, antiques, artisan designer goods and local food producers selling their wares.
Book a private tour of the city with me and explore the Grassmarket area in more detail!
Edinburgh Expert Walking Tours is run by Gareth, an adopted native of Edinburgh, with over 20 years experience of living and working in the city...
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