Continuing my efforts to showcase some of the smaller details and hidden features of Edinburgh, to encourage visitors to look beyond the tourist trail attractions of the city and get a wider overview of its history and culture.
As all the features of the last entry could be found in the New Town, this time I'm choosing three Old Town gems to highlight - and these can all be found in the Canongate area of the city...
You can find other parts of this series here: part 1 | part 2 | part 3 | part 4 | part 5 | part 6 | part 7
10. A town centre
Traditionally, Scottish towns which were granted royal permission to hold a market - requiring payments of tax - would mark their right to do so with a structure called a mercat cross. These devices stood in the centre of the towns and would effectively act as gathering points for traders and visitors to the market.
Mercat crosses can be found right across Scotland, typically eight-sided structures with a central pillar, at the top of which can often be found a cross or an emblem of a unicorn - Scotland's national animal.
Edinburgh's mercat cross is a major landmark on the Royal Mile, outside St Giles' Cathedral, and gives its name to one of the city's biggest tour companies.
A smaller cross can be found just a short distance away, in the graveyard of the Canongate Kirk. This is Canongate's mercat cross, dating back to the twelfth century, when King David I of Scotland granted Holyrood abbey the right to establish a settlement on the land between the abbey and Edinburgh. Canongate, as the town was originally called, remained under separate governance and jurisdiction from Edinburgh right up until it was formally integrated with the city in the 1850s.
And so Canongate's mercat cross, less spectacular than Edinburgh's, is an authentic reminder of this area's independence and historic separation.
11. A secret garden
The burgh of Canongate was, for a long time, a more high status, wealthier town than Edinburgh. The people living on this section of the Royal Mile would have been more likely to have associations with the royal court, and being outside of Edinburgh necessity would have to pay to enter the city through the Netherbow Port. By necessity, the people living here could easily afford that charge, unlike the majority of the citizens of Edinburgh who were effectively trapped within the city walls.
One of the indicators of status and wealth was not just a larger house, but a private garden attached to it. This space would often be divided into distinct sections with their own purposes - fruits would be grown in orchard areas, herbs and fragrant flowers in another section, with perhaps a stretch of pathways with attractive borders and a separate small lawn for relaxing on. In some of the early maps of the city, these separate functions of the garden areas are indicated by different designs and imagery, and one place where the original style of gardens can still be experienced is on Dunbar's Close.
This narrow lane leads off the busy main street to a well-maintained public space that recreates the style of eighteenth-century gardens. From gravel paths and boxed hedges to a small herbaceous border with seating, and a small lawn, this is the closest visitors today can get to what would have been an exceptionally high-status feature of the historic city.
The garden is signposted off the Royal Mile, just past the Canongate Kirk.
12. A place of safety
One of the social functions of the Holyrood Abbey was as a debtors' sanctuary. Being in debt was a criminal offence for a long time, with severe punishments for failing to repay monies owed. For people who couldn't meet their obligations, a declaration of bankruptcy and the seeking of refuge with the monks at Holyrood was one way out of trouble.
At the Abbey Sanctuary, debtors were given bed and lodgings, and some meagre employment to help them earn a few pennies to be able to start paying back what they owed. The care of the abbey was so good for these people that they were known colloquially as 'abbey lairds', or abbey lords! At one time the abbey had in excess of 2,000 people under its care, and Robert Burns's father was one such person who spent time in the care of the Holyrood Abbey.
Whilst staying at the sanctuary debtors were protected from the legal authorities (and their less pleasant enforcers) of the city of Edinburgh. However, to stay protected debtors had to keep within the boundaries of the sanctuary - beyond the boundary line the abbey had no jurisdiction, and so the protection was effectively a form of house arrest. The sanctuary was a fairly significant area, however, reaching up as far as the summit of Arthur's Seat.
Part of the boundary line is still visible today, running across the Royal Mile at the Abbey Strand junction, just in front of the Palace of Holyroodhouse. Look into the roadway here and you'll see some brass letter S's set into the cobbles. These stand for 'sanctuary', and to the east of the line debtors were protected, to the west of it they were vulnerable to arrest...
Look out for these features as you explore Edinburgh, and find more with my private city walking tours!
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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