Edinburgh's Old Town is far from an easy place to explore today, with its narrows closes and wynds running down the often steep inclines of the rock on which the city is built, and cut through with long, steep staircases and treacherous cobbles (actually called setts) underfoot.
But in times past the city would have been even trickier to negotiate, with the lanes often being far narrower than they are today, few areas that were paved, and - worst of all - open sewers running along almost every surface...
Pity the unfortunate high status person who had need to visit this part of town! For those who were to the manor (or, later, New Town) born, the dirty, overcrowded and dangerous city was a threat not just to their health, but to the cleanliness of their clothes.
Thus, on 19 October, 1687 the city's first formal taxi service was proposed. Alexander Hay, a carpenter, had constructed six sedan chairs - padded seats enclosed in a wooden compartment, mounted on two wooden poles - which could be carried between the shoulders of two footmen, for the purpose of transporting those who could afford his service through the areas of the city not accessible by coach and/or horse.
Hay applied to the council for a monopoly to run this service exclusively, and was granted the right to operate his sedan chairs without competition for a period of 11 years. For just 7 Scots shillings per hour travellers could use the taxi service to travel along any of the lanes and alleys between Edinburgh Castle and Holyrood. Travel outwith the limits of the city, beyond the Old Town, was by a price to be negotiated on pick-up.
The sedan chairs had to be stored overnight in sheds around the city, and Tweeddale Court, near the World's End, still has one of the buildings which served this purpose. The unassuming looking stone structure on the right of the alley as you go into the lane from the Royal Mile is the last surviving sedan chair storage shed in Edinburgh and is (some claim) the smallest protected structure in the city.
(And Tweeddale Court itself, in the section immediately off the Royal Mile, gives an indication of how narrow many of these lanes originally would have been...)
Today the only sedan chairs you're likely to see on the streets of Edinburgh can be found on the sign for the Museum of Edinburgh on Canongate, where the red-liveried jackets of the footmen carrying the sedan chair give an indication of how strikingly colourful this method of transport would have been.
Following Alexander Hay's death, his widow made an application to Edinburgh council in 1700 to extend the monopoly her husband held on operating the service. Her petition was granted, allowing her to continue drawing income from the business, in order to pay for the support and education of her children.
I can't offer tours of Edinburgh in sedan chairs, but my walking tours will help you explore the lanes and alleys of the city's Old Town!
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...
Search the blog archive...
About Your Tour Guide
Edinburgh Expert Blog
Frequently Asked Questions
Telephone: +44 (0) 131 235 2351
© COPYRIGHT GARETH DAVIES 2014-22