The Grassmarket’s origins lie with it being in a valley, which meant it was easier for livestock and carts to access rather than having to negotiate the steep slope up to the Old Town. For this reason the area was probably used as a market from the 1300s. Originally the site of cattle fairs, various stables and yards were built around the market for the cattle to be fattened and butchered before taken to the meat market. This ended around 1670 when the market became used more as a transit point where traders would bring in their goods before unloading carts and carrying them up the West Bow into the city by barrow or porter. Indoor corn markets were located in the area until 1912 and open air markets continue to this day.
Improvements to the Grassmarket in Edinburgh carried out as part of the Capital Streets Project provided a rare opportunity to archaeologically monitor excavations as well as shallower areas for drainage and resurfacing between September 2007 and November 2008. Click this report link to read Headland Archaeology Report.
“It is this history that makes the Grassmarket a unique setting for 21st century life, the area has so much character as do some of the locals…..” Gary Mckenzie The Edinburgh Echo News
A central feature of the Grassmarket is the Bow Well built in 1681 as the first piped outlet of running water in Edinburgh. Although renovated in the late 1700s it kept the original Robert Milne design. Next to the well is the Covenanter’s memorial which stands as a humble reminder of the Grassmarket’s place in the history of Edinburgh as the site of the city’s gallows. The history of the Grassmarket and the gallows are inextricably linked, it is difficult to think of them without your head conjuring up images of body snatcher Burke and Hare, the unlucky Captain Porteous of the town guard, and half-hingit Maggie who actually survived the experience. The White Hart pub is a reminder of other historical figures who are known to have stayed here, including the poet Wordsworth and Robert Burns, who spent his last night in Edinburgh here in 1791.
Most of the buildings in the Grassmarket date from the 1800’s following a period of improvement in the Old Town. Several buildings from the 1700’s survive on the northern and eastern sides most notably the White Hart Inn. Sadly only one complete building remains from the 1600’s at the entrance to Victoria Street, which dates from 1616. This makes the building the oldest in the Grassmarket and in its day would have been of high status as much of the town was built of wood. However, stone from older buildings was often reused as you can see at number 74-82 , which was built in the 1930’s but incorporates an earlier door frame dated 1634. This mixture of old and new can also be seen in the innovative new design of Dance Base, Scotland’s national centre for dance.
“Celebrated as a place of bustle and life” – Modern Athens, 1829
From the shadow of Edinburgh Castle the Grassmarket continues to be “a place of bustle and life” within the city’s UNESCO World Heritage Site. In the Grassmarket the past literally lays the foundation for how we use the space as many buildings occupy ancient sites. The area also retains uses such as taverns and shops which have been here since the 1500s and continue to be a popular attraction. The architecture that surrounds the square sets the backdrop to many infamous stories some of which involve the site of the former gallows.
Edinburgh’s Old and New Towns were inscribed as a World Heritage Site in 1995 recognising the Old Town’s Medieval street pattern and the formal planning of the New Town. The layout of the Grassmarket is still according to the regulations laid down by the medieval burgh magistrates and it is a testament to them that it maintains an historical streetscape that copes with contemporary demands on the space.
Nestled in the heart of Edinburgh’s historic Old Town, the Grassmarket area is one of the most vibrant, picturesque and convivial areas of the city. A paradise of independent merchants, designers and artisans, the Grassmarket Edinburgh is simply bursting with some of the best shopping Edinburgh has to offer.
Far more than simply a retail haven, the area is well known for being home to some of the best restaurants in Edinburgh as well as some of the most vibrant and eclectic bars in Edinburgh. In fact the Grassmarket pubs, many with a history dating back to the notorious days of Burke and Hare, are known throughout the world for their exciting, dark Edinburgh history mixed with some of the best traditional food, ales and music in the city!
The area’s dramatic and intriguing history, well preserved cobbled streets, medieval architecture and inspiring views of Edinburgh Castle help to create an atmosphere unparalleled in Edinburgh, Scotland or indeed Europe.
With so much to see and do it’s easy to see why a visit to Edinburgh wouldn’t be complete without shopping, dining, exploring in Edinburgh’s beautiful Grassmarket.
The Magdalen Chapel – Cowgate
Michael MacQueen’s purpose in this foundation is interesting in light of the subject history of the Chapel. The Foundation Charter of 1547 says ‘that when the said Michael was greatly troubled with an heavy Disease, and oppressed with Age, yet mindful of Eternal Life, he esteemed it ane good Way to obtain Eternal Life, to erect some Christian Work, for ever to remain and endure.’ One of the reasons for the existence of the Scottish Reformation Society is to warn people against the false Roman Catholic teaching of Salvation by Works.
The Chapel and almshouse were prosperous for a while, but after the Reformation of 1560 the patrons, who were the Hammermen, ran into trouble. Their chaplain adhered to the Church of Rome and in his place they appointed a Protestant minister. The chaplain, however, brought a successful action against them for the salary, and he continued to draw this until his death in 1567. Meanwhile the Foundation Charter stated that, in the event of the Hammermen failing to observe its terms, the trust and the property were to revert to the descendants or relations of Janet Rynd. The Charter specified in great detail the form of Roman Catholic worship that was to take place in the Chapel and prohibited the Hammermen from doing anything against the interests of ‘the Holy See’ (i.e. the Church of Rome). These terms were now illegal to fulfil, and the relations of Janet Rynd were well aware of this and made as much trouble as they could. The tenants, likewise, saw no particular need to pay their rent, knowing that the Hammermen would be unable to enforce their right in law. It was only because of the considerable wealth of the Hammermen that they were able to weather this storm.
Immediately prior to the Reformation the Chapel was being used for academic lectures arranged by the Queen Regent, Mary of Guise. John Knox’s colleague John Craig preached in the Chapel several times in 1560-1 (in Latin, because he had been abroad so long that his English was rusty) and the Chapel was possibly used for the first General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in December 1560. It was certainly used for the Assembly of April 1578 at which Andrew Melville was Moderator and at which the Second Book of Discipline was discussed. About 1615 the lay-out of the Chapel was altered, and the present semi-circular wooden platform at the east end was installed. The tower and spire were added about 1620 and the bell, made by the Dutch bell-founder Michael Burgerhuys from Middleburg, dates from 1632.
In Covenanting times the Chapel was used for conventicles on a number of occasions (1674, 1676, 1679), and the bodies of several of the martyrs (Marquis of Argyle 1661, Hew Mackail 1666, John Dick 1684) were taken there after execution to be dressed in their grave-clothes. The table on which the bodies were placed is still to be seen in the Chapel, as is a sword said to have belonged to the Covenanter Captain John Paton. At the Glorious Revolution of 1689 the heads and hands of martyred Covenanters, which had been exhibited on the ports of Edinburgh by their executioners, were gathered together at the Chapel prior to interment in Greyfriars.
In 1992/93 a major restoration programme was undertaken and the Chapel became the headquarters of the Scottish Reformation Society. The Honorary Curator of the Chapel is Rev A Sinclair Horne (former Secretary and Lecturer of the Scottish Reformation Society).After the Revolution, the Chapel was used as a place of worship by Episcopalians, and in the eighteenth century a Baptist congregation met there for a number of years. Part of the Chapel, or a building adjoining, was used as a printing press in the mid-eighteenth century. The Chapel continued in the possession of the Hammermen until 1857 when it was sold to the newly-formed Protestant Institute for Scotland. The plan was to use it as a base for outreach among Roman Catholics in the Cowgate.
The Chapel is open to visitors, usually on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays from 10.30-2.30 (but prospective visitors are advised to check first).