One of the most prominent - and best recognised - features on Edinburgh's Royal Mile is its mercat cross, a traditional feature of Scottish towns and cities, and a reminder of Edinburgh's status as a trading town.
'Mercat' is an old Scots word for market, and a mercat cross marked out a town as having the royal charter or licence to hold a market. Having such a right allowed the towns to levy taxes, and so a mercat cross was an emblem of the town's status.
The cross would mark the central point of the town, where people would gather to do trade, and also became the point from which public proclamations would be made - announcing new laws or aspects of current news meant that everybody would be able to stay informed. Today the mercat cross in Edinburgh is still used to announce the calling of general election, along with notable royal proclamations.
In the eighteenth century, it was remarked by one visitor to Edinburgh that he could stand at the mercat cross and "can, in a few minutes, take fifty men of genius by the hand", such was the city's reputation as a centre of innovation.
Mercat crosses were also often the point where punishments would be meted out, a very public demonstration of the consequences or transgressing laws or customs. The square adjacent to Edinburgh's mercat cross was where high-status criminals would be executed, on a fearsome guillotine known as 'the Maiden'. As such the cross was essentially the heart of the city, in the middle of all the action and business of the town.
The crosses themselves were often built to a similar style or standard. Generally they were eight-sided structures - Edinburgh's is relatively large, but generally they might just have an octagonal pediment rather than anything more substantial - with a stone column in the middle, and then either a cross or a unicorn at the top. The unicorn is the national animal of Scotland, hence its prevalence in emblems and carvings across the country!
The cross in Edinburgh originally stood in the main line of the main street itself - in the eighteenth century the cross was dismantled and in 1885 parts of the original were reassembled on its current site, in a new octagonal 'drum house' structure paid for by William Gladstone, who had previously been Prime Minister of the United kingdom (and would later be PM again!).
The emblems around Edinburgh's mercat cross today represent districts and institutions in the city, and were recently repainted and the stonework cleaned.
A little further down the Royal Mile, visitors can still see a second mercat cross, that of the burgh of Canongate, which had formerly been an entirely separate town just beyond the city walls, granted its own right to hold a market. This rather unusual arrangement meant that Edinburgh developed a very important trading competitior just a few hundred yards outside of its city boundary, and Canongate remained separate and independent of Edinburgh until 1856.
Travellers around Scotland are advised to keep their eyes peeled to spot other crosses in towns across the country.
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