EDINBURGH EXPERT WALKING TOURS - BLOG
EDINBURGH EXPERT WALKING TOURS - BLOG
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.
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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 had been 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 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 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.
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Edinburgh Expert Walking Tours is run by Gareth Davies, an adopted native of Edinburgh since 1998...