Standing on the corner of Princes Street and the Mound in the New Town, a rather dapper looking figure stands looking down on the shoppers and passersby. This is Allan Ramsay, an Edinburgh man notable for establishing the world's first circulating library, and today remembered for his former home in the buildings which bear his name adjacent to Edinburgh Castle itself, Ramsay Garden.
Ramsay had been born in Lanarkshire in 1686, and by 1701 had settled in Edinburgh as an apprentice wig-maker. At the turn of the eighteenth century wigs were worn by men as a form of status symbol, elaborate constructions of human, goat or horse hair that often fell in ringlets below a man's shoulders, or were elevated to a significant height as a means of increasing their wearer's sense of physical stature. They were expensive products and were created by skilled craftsmen whose reputations rested on their ability to create ever newer and greater objects for their customers to display in public.
By 1712 Ramsay had become a well-known wig-maker of excellent reputation with premises on the High Street (today's Royal Mile) for the richest and most high status customers to buy.
His love of reading and literature saw Ramsay join the Easy Club, a cultural group established to celebrate traditional Scots writing just after the union with England in 1707, when many features of Scots culture were threatened with extinction. From this association Ramsay began writing, and by 1718 was a successful enough poet to turn his wig shop into a bookshop. Some people have credited Ramsay's early writing with being a major influence on the careers of Robert Fergusson, and later Robert Burns.
In time Ramsay's bookshop mutated into the world's first organised circulating library, a cultural hub for readers to borrow books, magazines and periodicals and take them away in order to peruse them at leisure, and then return them for other readers to enjoy.
The modern notion of a library providing such access free of charge is quite different from the original circulating library system, where members where charged an annual subscription fee in order to have access to the collections of materials available. The early function of such organisations was not primarily an educational one, as might be expected, but a capitalist one - to profit from those who had money to spend on such memberships.
In Edinburgh, the rise of the Enlightenment ideals and the city's relative affluence made Ramsay's library a roaring success, and he was able to spend time focusing on his own writing, penning not just poems but also dramas, his 1725 pastoral play The Gentle Shepherd being performed and celebrated as a work of theatre in his own lifetime.
Ramsay opened a theatre on Carubbers Close, off the High Street, which was opposed by the religious fervour of the Calvinists, and later forced to close. Ramsay railed against the dour principles of the Presbyterian church in some of his poems of this time.
In 1740 Ramsay retired to the house he had built for himself, still seen on the land immediately east of Edinburgh Castle - the cream and orange coloured building at the top of the Royal Mile is called Ramsay Garden, and the central structure - Ramsay's original home - was popularly known during his own lifetime as 'Goose Pie House' because of its octagonal shape.
Ramsay died in 1743 and in buried in the Greyfriars Kirkyard, where a memorial on the side of the church building celebrates his life. The statue of Ramsay on Princes Street was carved by John Steell, and ensures that Ramsay is still visibly commemorated in the city where he made most impact during his lifetime.
Explore more of Edinburgh's literary influences with my private city walking tours!
On 18 May 1650, the Marquess of Argyle was hosting a wedding party on the occasion of his son's marriage to the daughter of the Earl of Moray - the venue was Moray House, a grand townhouse on the Canongate, which had been built in 1625 and was at one time described as the most handsome house in the whole of Edinburgh.
Just as today you might hire a country house hotel for your family wedding, Moray House was a sumptuous setting for the nuptials, with spectacular gardens to the rear with views that overlooked Arthur's Seat, and on the front of the building a stone balcony which allowed those inside the building to look out onto the bustling Canongate.
Later that same year the house would be requisitioned by Oliver Cromwell as he brought the English army to Edinburgh, en route to take Edinburgh Castle, but in the late spring May sunshine an almost equally dramatic event was about to unfold on the balcony which can still be seen from the Royal Mile today.
The date of the Argyll family wedding coincided with the date of the execution of the Marquess of Montrose, a long-time enemy of the Argylls. The two families had fought on opposite sides of the Civil War, with Montrose supporting the English forces whilst Argyll defended the integrity and culture of Scotland. Montrose had been captured some weeks prior to the Argyll wedding, had been put on trial for treason, and having been found guilty as a traitor to Scotland was sentenced to be executed at St Giles' Cathedral, in the heart of the city.
There are differing versions of what may have transpired that day, but the more dramatic telling of the story which I favour has it that Argyll saw the opportunity to make a bold statement of vengeance against his enemy, and had arranged with the prison authorities for the prisoner Montrose to be brought down to Moray House before the execution, and to have him dropped in the roadway beneath the balcony, where tour buses and visitors pass by today.
All the guests at the wedding were then invited out onto the balcony, to spit onto Montrose, to show their contempt for him, and their commitment to the Argyll family. And then, having been roundly spat on, Montrose was dragged back up the Royal Mile to St Giles' Cathedral where his execution took place.
So, not a good day for Montrose, but everyone at the Argyll wedding said it was the best one they'd ever been to!
Montrose's head was removed and his limbs distributed to Glasgow, Stirling, Perth and Aberdeen as a warning to other would-be traitors. His head was placed on the highest spike above the Tolbooth prison of Edinburgh.
Unfortunately for Argyll, the political tables in Scotland were ever turning, and almost ten years to the day later, in 1661, Montrose's corpse was being dug up from its grave - and his limbs returned from the four cities - to be given a commemorative funeral procession through the city, followed by burial inside St Giles' (where his tomb can still be seen today).
It was now Argyll's turn to face execution for treason! On 27 May 1661, Argyll was executed on the Maiden, the guillotine that can still be seen in the National Museum of Scotland on Chambers Street, with his head being placed on the same spike that had held the head of his enemy Montrose for the previous decade. A memorial to Argyll can also be found within St Giles' Cathedral today.
Explore more of Edinburgh's history with my private city walking tours!
On 1 May 1707, the formal Acts of Union which brought Scotland and England together under one government for the first time in their respective histories came into effect.
The two nations had been under one monarch for nearly a century, after the so-called Union of Crowns in 1603.
But separate governments had managed the power in the separate countries, with England ruled from London whilst Scotland was governed from the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh, which at that time sat in the buildings adjacent to St Giles' Cathedral on the Royal Mile. The area today is still named Parliament Square.
A number of efforts had been made to bring the two countries under one government during the seventeenth century, although Oliver Cromwell had separated out the three nations (Scotland, England and Ireland) under his so-called Commonwealth, during the interregnum between Charles I and the restoration of the monarchy with Charles II. But it was really only after the ill-fated Darien expedition, which had sought to settle a new colony of Scots on the narrow strip of land between North and South America which made the political union between the countries an economic necessity.
The company behind the risky recolonisation was funded with almost a fifth of all of the money circulating in Scotland at the time, which was lost when the venture failed catastrophically. The English government was persuaded to bail out the financial losses that threatened to cripple Scotland, leading to the stabilising of currency rates between the Scots and English pounds, and ultimately to the establishment of the Royal Bank of Scotland.
In order to save Scotland from financial ruin, a political union between the two countries would allow England to provide support to the nation under a favourable funding arrangement, and it was this need for stability which helped to further the cause for those seeking a political union in Scotland.
In 1707, the Scottish parliament in Edinburgh acted to make itself obsolete as it voted in favour of the union with England, and on the day the final treaties between the two countries were signed the bells of St Giles' Cathedral rang out the tune Why Should I Be So Sad on My Wedding Day? - a sign of the lack of public support for the union itself!
The novelist Daniel Defoe, at that time a spy in Edinburgh on behalf of the English government, reported that for every Scot in favour of the union, there were 99 against it - not an auspicious level of support for such a momentous political union.
The second Duke of Queensberry, resident at Queensberry House on the Royal Mile, was considered instrumental in securing the union, with his dedication to bribing the lords and landowners of Scotland in order to secure their assent to the union. Many noble families were gifted tracts of land in England - helping to expand their power and their economic potential - in exchange for support to the union. (It is pleasingly ironic that the home of a man who helped to secure the union with England is now incorporated into the modern Scottish parliament building...)
Signatures to the act of union were allegedly added in the modest summerhouse in the gardens of Moray House, today part of the University of Edinburgh. A structure believed to be part of the original summerhouse survives, and is visible in the university car park from Holyrood Road.
On 1 May 1707, Scotland and England formally entered joint rule under a single government, and remained that way until 1997, when in recognition of a majority level of support for self-governance among the Scottish people, permission was given for Scotland to establish a devolved parliament.
When this new devolved Scottish parliament sat for the first time, at the Assembly Hall off the Lawnmarket, on 12 May 1999, the session was opened by the oldest elected MSP, Dr Winnie Ewing, with the words: "I want to start with the words that I have always wanted either to say or to hear someone else say - the Scottish Parliament, which adjourned on March 25, 1707, is hereby reconvened."
After nearly 300 years, the control of Scottish politics was back in the hands of the Scots.
Explore more of Edinburgh's political history with my private city walking tours!
Search the blog archive...