EDINBURGH EXPERT WALKING TOURS - BLOG
It's a street in Edinburgh that is often (literally) overlooked, but the Cowgate is one of the oldest thoroughfares of the city and the extent of modern development along it disguises centuries of history.
So here's a trip along Cowgate, from east to west, highlighting some of the historical features you might miss (or which have long since been demolished). The Cowgate is more than just a shortcut through the Old Town, and deserves a closer examination!
The line of Cowgate is shown on early maps of Edinburgh, where from the 1490s it was marked as Via Vaccarum, meaning 'the way of the cows'. It was a road which lay outside of the city boundaries for much of its history, and at a time when it was illegal to drive cattle through the city streets the Cowgate provided a route to bring cattle from the fields and pastures to the south and east of Edinburgh to the cattle market near the Grassmarket.
It was a practical road, running along the valley to the south of the Royal Mile and parallel with it, starting at the junction with St Mary's Wynd (or St Mary Street as it is today) and finishing at the east end of the Grassmarket at the junction with West Bow.
In the sixteenth century, when the Flodden Wall was built, expanding the area contained within the city, Cowgate was brought inside the perimeter and at its eastern end had one of the six gates into to the town, called the Cowgate Port.
The area just inside the wall at this eastern end has changed considerably, but one of the major structures here today is St Patrick's Church, which was built in the 1770s. St Patrick's became a Catholic church in the nineteenth century, at a time when Edinburgh was receiving considerable numbers of migrant families moving here from Ireland.
The notorious potato famine of the 1840s in particular forced many to uproot their lives, and many Irish workers travelled to Scotland to find jobs, bringing their families with them when they came. They would often find themselves living in rundown lodgings, and Cowgate at that time was a notorious slum district - the area around St Patrick's became known as 'Little Ireland' due to the large number of Irish families settling here.
In 1875, the parish priest at St Patrick's had the idea to create a football team from the boys' social club which operated out of the church. They would travel to other churches and districts of Edinburgh to play other local teams, and they took the name 'Hibernian', which was from Hibernia, the Latin name for Ireland.
Today Hibernian - or Hibs - is one of the top-ranking football teams in Scotland, and play their home games at the nearby Easter Road stadium.
The next junction along Cowgate has the St Ann's community hall, which has had various uses over the years. But the site here was originally the grand sixteenth-century home of Cardinal David Beaton, a major figure at the time of Mary, Queen of Scots.
Beaton had put himself forward to rule Scotland in Mary's place during her infancy. His home on Cowgate was often described as a palace, which seems remarkable given that the area was a slum 300 years later.
In fact for a long time Cowgate had been a higher status housing district, attracting wealthy figures and families who could afford to live outside of the city, and could enjoy a more comfortable and spacious property than those poor souls crowded into the narrow lanes of the Old Town.
That all changed once the New Town was built, when wealthy families moved to the grand surrounds of George Street and Princes Street, and the housing on Cowgatewas left empty. Much of it was later taken over by the slum landlords.
Cardinal Beaton's house stood until the 1870s, when the area was undergoing a wholesale redevelopment as part of the Improvement Acts to renovate the Old Town. The by-then derelict property was removed and the buildings you see today erected in its place.
Further along Cowgate you'll find the characteristic cow figures pictured above, mounted on the side of the building, a fun reminder of the street's origins. On the opposite side of the street you'll find a former Freemason's Hall, now St Cecilia's Music Hall, and Bannerman's bar, a popular live music venue.
But the major feature just here is the arch of South Bridge, a late eighteenth century development built to try to improve access into Edinburgh.
There are 19 arches in total, but 18 of them are concealed by the buildings built alongside to enclose the structure in the 1780s.
The bridge itself was built as high-status housing and business space, at the time that the area below it was transitioning into a slum district. Later, Robert Louis Stevenson would describe standing on South Bridge and wrote:
Edinburgh's Old Town had officially become a split-level society, not just geographically but also economically.
Continue under South Bridge and the modern hotel on the left hand side of the street was built to replace the former Gilded Balloon venue and arts spaces, which were destroyed by fire in 2002. A little further ahead is another modern development, with a set of blue gates closing access to a lane marked College Wynd.
Although the building here is new, the lane itself is not, and it was here, at the junction of College Wynd and Cowgate, that that author Walter Scott was born in 1771. Scott's family would move from the area shortly after - part of the exodus of wealthy residents away from Cowgate at that time - but the lane continues to be marked as a reminder of Scott's Old Town origins.
The New Town development also led to the Cowgate achieving another notable feature - it became the first underground sewer line in Edinburgh! The artificial loch which had filled the valley to the north of the Royal Mile (where Princes Street Gardens are today) was drained, and the stream which fed it was re-routed around the other side of the castle rock, and was enclosed beneath the level of the roadway to wash away filth and waste flushing down the steep Old Town lanes.
But the oldest surviving buildings of the Cowgate lie ahead of us. Firstly, on the right hand side, the Three Sisters pub and sports bar occupies the former Tailors' Hall, the original guildhall of the tailors of Edinburgh, one of the fourteen recognised guilds or trades of the medieval city.
Tailors' Hall dates from the 1620s, and was originally a quad with a range of buildings along the front of the street and an archway leading into the open square that is visible today, on the inside of the structure. The building was occupied as military offices in the nineteenth century,and the front range of the structure was demolished to make the building more functional.
On either side of Cowgate there are now the rear entrances to the Sheriff Court (on the left) and the National Library of Scotland (on the right).
The second of the two bridges over Cowgate is George IV Bridge, built in the 1820s, and a higher structure than South Bridge previously.
In 1868, a young boy named James Connolly was born in one of the buildings on the left of George IV Bridge. His parents, like many others, had settled here after leaving Ireland, and young James would go on to be one of the major figures in the rise of the Irish republicans uprising of 1916, when he led a faction of rebels opposing British rule in Ireland.
Connolly was executed for his role in the rebellion, but remains a controversial figurehead for many.
Through George IV Bridge, the last feature to note before arriving at Grassmarket is the Magdalen Chapel, on the left hand side of the street.
Built in the 1540s, this remains the oldest surviving structure on the Cowgate. It was built by Michael Macqueen, who left the money in his will to build the chapel in his will as a form of indulgence, a Catholic tradition to help ease the passage into the afterlife by offsetting some of the sins committed during life.
The mother of Mary, Queen of Scots led prayer sessions in this chapel during her time in Edinburgh, and the building was given to the care of the guild of Hammermen, who were silversmiths and jewellers.
Shortly after it was constructed, in 1560 the Scottish Reformation saw the nation converted from Catholicism to Protestanism, and with it the destruction of many Catholic churches and chapels. The buildings were desecrated, relics destroyed, silver candlestick melted down for other uses, and the decorative stained glass windows smashed.
Today the Magdalen Chapel has the only surviving, intact, pre-Reformation stained glass windows in the whole of Scotland. The building is open to visitors to see the inside of this small historic space, with its (rather small) stained glass windows.
And so we arrive in the Grassmarket, the original destination for the drovers and farmers who brought their cattle along this roadway.
Today, locals (and visitors) often see the Cowgate as a bit of a shortcut, providing access across the city without being troubled by the Royal Mile itself. Hopefully you may now look a little closer at some of the buildings along the way, and have a better sense of the history of this ancient thoroughfare!
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