Mary Queen of Scots documents at the Museum of Edinburgh: The daily business of being Queen

Vicky Garrington, History Curator at Museums & Galleries Edinburgh, has created the latest exhibition on Capital Collections. We invited her to tell us about this very special collection of documents:

“A group of documents believed to have been signed by Mary Queen of Scots have recently come to light at the Museum of Edinburgh. Although information about them was held on file, they were lost in storage before being unearthed during recent inventory and conservation work. After decades spent unseen, they have been photographed ready to share on Capital Collections.

Document dated 1553, signed by James, Duke of Chastlerault, stating that Mary Queen of Scots has gifted a portion of the sands at Leith for the building of a bulwark.

The beautifully handwritten documents, carefully dated, numbered and signed, relate to the busy commercial life of Edinburgh during the 16th century. Papers covering markets and the selling of meat sit alongside permits for London salt sellers to operate in the City and for the building of a bulwark (defensive wall) at Leith. The documents date from 1553 to 1567 (Mary reigned in Scotland from 1542 to 1567), and are signed variously by Mary, her then husband James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell, and James, Duke of Chastlerault.

Together, the documents shed light on a key part of Scotland’s past. We all know the tragic story of Mary Queen of Scots, her eventful life and eventual execution in 1587, but in these documents we see a different side to Mary. Here, she can be seen carefully managing the everyday affairs of Edinburgh, both from France and Scotland. It’s fascinating to think of her reading through these official papers before carefully applying her signature.

Detail view of signature of Mary Queen of Scots from a 1557 order relating to the privileges of fleshers

New information on the documents has come to light during the inventory and conservation process: two of the documents include watermarks in the paper which can only be seen when they are held up to the light. One features a goat, the other a hand holding a flower. This discovery shows how our museum objects can keep teaching us things, revealing new secrets as we work with them.”

Visit Capital Collections to see the documents and read the daily business of being Queen.

ELISA Libraries Fair – Beyond the bookshelves

Central Library is delighted to be hosting the Edinburgh Libraries and Information Services Agency (ELISA) Libraries Fair on the mezzanine level on Saturday 23 March, 1.30 – 4pm.

Come along and find out about the wide and diverse array of libraries in Edinburgh and to discover how you can get an ELISA library passport to enable you to gain access to these other libraries across Edinburgh.

There are many different libraries in Edinburgh and the Libraries Fair invites you to meet representatives from a range of libraries all under one roof. Libraries taking part include:
Edinburgh City Libraries
Edinburgh Zine Library
French Institute Library
National Library of Scotland
Royal Botanic Garden Library and Archive
Scottish Poetry Library
University of Edinburgh including the Centre for Research Collections.

There will be a free (but ticketed) family-friendly storytelling session with Janis Mackay, live music, a mini drop-in zine workshop and badgemaking.

Come along, enjoy the fun and discover what our city’s world of libraries has to offer!


Panorama print goes on display

Thanks to the generous support of Edinburgh Old Town Association, a long ignored panorama of ‘Edinburgh and the surrounding countryside from Calton Hill’ has again found a home in the Edinburgh and Scottish Collection of Central Library.

The print depicts the view seen from Calton Hill in the 1820s and highlights points of interest.  Measuring more than 6ft in length it is full of detail not only of the architecture and town planning, but of the many people who used Calton Hill as a viewpoint.

Cleo Jones, Schools and Lifelong Learning Strategic Officer accepts a cheque from Barbara Logue, Convenor of Edinburgh Old Town Association.

Remounted and framed by Edinburgh Arts we hope many of our visitors from both near and far will appreciate seeing such a charming and informative image of Edinburgh.

Members of the Edinburgh Old Town Association who attended the presentation:
Naomi Richardson, Vice Convenor ; Rosemary Mann, Treasurer; Eric Drake, Newsletter Editor; Laura Harrington, Membership Secretary; Kate Marshall, committee member.

History of the house: 94 and 96 Grassmarket

Our house history spotlight falls on no.s 94 and 96 Grassmarket, now occupied by Biddy Mulligans Irish pub but which facade hides an interesting past.

First though, we need to set the scene and go back to the mid 19th century when the Grassmarket was a melting pot of activity and commerce.

East end of Grassmarket showing foot of West Bow, c1856

Using the old Edinburgh Post Office records we find in 1854, the occupations of Grassmarket residents included surgeon, draper, brewer and spirit dealers, baker, flesher (butcher), an Innkeeper at no 100, victual dealer, grain merchant, ropemaker, saddler, ironmonger, china merchant, stables worker and corn merchant.

By 1874 new occupations have appeared including horse dealer, tanner, tobacco manufacturer, wright, iron merchant, brass founder, cork cutter, sack manufacturer, clockmaker and saw maker.

In 1884, rag merchant, teacher, hairdresser, egg merchant are added to the variety or working lives in the Grassmarket area.

Let us look now at no.s 94 and 96.

The Grassmarket Mission was founded by James Fairbairn in 1886 for the relief of those in need. It supported the local community by providing food and clothing, and fellowship through meetings and refuge.

Grassmarket Mission, c1920

With financial support, Fairbairn bought the site at 94 Grassmarket and in 1890 commissioned architect James Lessels to build the Mission Hall. Fairbairn was one of eight Trustees and also Superintendent of the Mission.

At this time many properties in the area were very dilapidated and could have been classified as slum dwellings. One study in the 1860s for the Canongate, Tron, St.Giles and Grassmarket  recorded that of the single room homes surveyed as many as 1530 had between 6 and 15 people living in them. This overcrowding was made worse by the practice of taking in lodgers, necessary to enhance meagre incomes.

Some people turned to drink to try to escape the harsh realities of their existence and environment. It was principally the children of these families and homeless people who the Mission sought to help.

A later survey in 1913 recorded that Edinburgh had 7106 one roomed houses where 94% shared a common WC and 43% a common sink.

In 1930 the Mission bought the building next door at number 96 and converted it to contain a new Mission Hall, an up to date kitchen, a clothing department and flats upstairs all of which allowed it to expand the services it could provide.

After World War Two the number of people requiring support and help fell due to the assistance provided by the agencies of the new welfare state and the rehousing of families from the city centre to new outlying council estates. As a result, the Mission reached the point of being underused and with costs increasing due to regulation changes, staffing and maintenance, in 1989 it was decided to sell the properties.

The important work of the Mission however continues with its involvement in the Grassmarket Community Project, a joint venture Charity with Greyfriars Kirk and New College Students.

Discover more about the Grassmarket Mission’s history and activity today.

View of Grassmarket and Hub from the Apex Hotel, 2007

During the 1990s the buildings at 94 and 96 became a pub and applications were made to alter and restore 101-107 West Bow to form an extension to the hotel at 96 Grassmarket.

Biddy Mulligan’s pub now occupies numbers 94 and 96 and continues the tradition of being a place where people come to meet and receive hospitality, albeit now on commercial terms. Next time you’re passing, look up, and you’ll see the ‘Mission Hall’ sign still visible above the door.

Read other articles in this ‘History of the house’ series:
History of the house: King’s Wark
History of the house: Bowhead house
History of the house: Nicolson Square and Marshall Street
History of the house: White Horse Close


Your City, Your Place exhibition

On the staircase at Central Library is a exhibition related to historical town planning and the City of Edinburgh Council’s current consultation for a new local development plan for Edinburgh.

The display features a beautiful model of Edinburgh’s traditional architectural style. The amazing cut-out was made by one of Central’s staff team, Kevi Johnstone and her husband, Bulent. The model is inspired by an original artwork by Edinburgh printmaker and designer, Susie Wright who kindly gave permission for her design to be used in the display.

Backlit, the outline of the tenement buildings is an engaging start to the display by the City of Edinburgh Council’s Development Plan Team who would love you to respond to to their ‘Your City, Your Place’ consultation.

You can see the model and the consultation in Central Library from now until the end of January 2019.

Our exhibitions team also welcomes feedback, so let us know what you think at


History of the house: White Horse Close

Near the foot of the Canongate lies one of Edinburgh’s hidden architectural treasures. Enter through an archway to find a square of houses and in front of you the distinctive facade of the former White Horse Inn.

Old White Horse Inn, Canongate, 1819 by James Skene

According to a plaque on the wall, the Inn was probably built by Laurence Ord around 1603. It had stabling for horses in an undercroft entered from Calton Road. The stables were used by residents of nearby Holyrood Palace and it’s thought the close is named after a favourite horse of Mary Queen of Scots.

In those early days, a gentleman dressed in his riding boots and gambadoes (leggings) setting out for London would come to the Inn to hire a suitable roadster to take him there.

Another plaque in the Close commemorates a famous former resident. William Dick was born there in 1793. He studied Human Medicine at Edinburgh University and at the Royal College of Surgeons. In 1833, he funded the erection of a building at Clyde Street (today, the approximate site of Multrees Walk). In 1839, this became a college where William Dick was Professor and students were able to also study Veterinary Medicine. By his death in 1866 William Dick had taught more than 2000 students. The College he founded is now the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine of Edinburgh University.

John Paterson who was Bishop of Edinburgh from 1679 until his move to Glasgow in 1687, was another former resident of White Horse Close. His house was most probably at the entrance where there is now a tenement block. Paterson grew up in the church and in 1642 was elected as minister of the Tron Kirk in Edinburgh. He supported the Stuart Kings’ belief in the Divine Right of Kings and that they were the spiritual head of the Church of Scotland. This view was bitterly opposed by the Covenanters (those who signed and supported the National Covenant in 1638).

Another notable resident was Ned Holt. Holt began his working life as an apprentice baker but gave that up for a career as a showman and then as an actor. His legacy today, though are his colourful paintings of the characters and daily life he encountered in the Old Town. You can see Edinburgh Libraries’ collection of Ned Holt paintings online.

Edinburgh characters at St Giles, 1850 by Ned Holt

In 1889 the Close was purchased by Dr John Barbour and his sister and the courtyard buildings including the Inn were updated and converted into working class accommodation.

White Horse Close, c1885, unknown photographer

The 1901 census shows the industries and occupations of men and women living at White Horse Close. They included maltman, coal carter, core maker in a glass foundry, glass packer, laundress, lemonade bottler, paper folder and clay pipe maker.

One socially mobile occupant who lived at White Horse Close between 1872 and 1900 was John Cowan, a paper manufacturer and political organiser. He arrived in 1872 as Mr John Cowan but having received the Baronetcy of Beeslack, Midlothian in 1894, died in 1900 as Sir John Cowan. The title became extinct on his death.

Like many other areas in the old town, the properties in the Close had become run down again by the mid 1900s. The city council began a programme of Slum Clearance and redevelopment in the 1950s, and fortunately White Horse Close was selected for restoration rather than demolition.

A surveyor noted the difficulties encountered at White Horse Close:

  • poor people living in intolerable conditions
  • no wall was the same thickness as any other
  • no floor levels were the same.

White Horse Close, c2006 by Bernard Murphy

White Horse Close today is a lesser-known tourist spot and a desirable place to live. In the middle of the 20th century considered a deprived and rundown location, it’s now a picturesque and restored Old Town relic.

Read other articles in this ‘History of the house’ series:
History of the house: King’s Wark
History of the house: Bowhead house
History of the house: Nicolson Square and Marshall Street
History of the house: 94 and 96 Grassmarket

Calton Hill and its monuments

With exciting developments afoot – or should we say, atop – Calton Hill, and the imminent opening of the Collective Gallery in the restored City Observatory, we thought we’d take a look at some of the fantastic historical images in our collections which depict the area and the distinctive monuments at its summit.

Over the years, the hill has had many uses, including being the site of a quarry, a jousting place, an area for farming, a monastery, and a leper colony. In 1725, the City of Edinburgh bought 22 acres of land on the Hill to be a public open space, making it one of the first public parks in Scotland. Locals enjoyed the space for walking but they would also take their washing up to the summit to dry.

Calton Hill stands 100 metres above sea level and provides superb panoramic views across the city. Today, it is perhaps particularly renowned for the various monuments at its top.

The Old Observatory was the first building to be constructed at the summit. Its foundation stone was laid in 1716, but due to financial problems, the structure wasn’t finished until 1792.

Washerwomen on the Calton Hill (Old Observatory in background), c1887 by Thomas Begbie

The building was soon judged not fit for purpose and a New, or now, City Observatory designed by William Playfair was completed in 1818. By the 1800s, the self-styled ‘Athens of the North’ was taking its architectural influences from ancient Greece and Playfair modelled his new observatory on the Temple of the Winds in Athens.

The Playfair Monument is dedicated to Professor John Playfair, a geologist and mathematician, who was instrumental in the project to build the New Observatory. His monument is situated in the south-east corner of the Observatory wall. It is designed by his nephew, William Playfair, in the Greek Doric style.

The New Observatory and Playfair’s Monument, 1829, from ‘Modern Athens!’ by Thomas Hosmer Shepherd

The Nelson Monument resembles an upturned telescope and was built to commemorate Admiral Lord Nelson. The foundation stone was laid in 1807 and building works were completed in 1816. In 1852, a time ball signal was installed for the benefit of sailors in the Forth and Leith docks who would know the exact time and enable them to calculate longitude.

The monument to Dugald Stewart was designed by William Playfair constructed between 1828 and 1832 and is based on the monument to Lysicarates on the Acropolis in Athens. Although, this monument appears regularly in townscape views of the city, it’s likely that many tourists or locals, are unfamiliar with the writing or even the name of philosopher, Dugald Stewart.

Edinburgh from Calton Hill, with Dugald Stewart Monument in foreground, 1868 by Archibald Burns


An idea for a National Monument to commemorate the sailors and soldiers who died in the Napoleonic Wars was first mooted in 1816. In 1822, to the accompaniment of much pomp and ceremony, the foundation stone was laid for a replica structure of the Parthenon Temple in Athens. However, construction did not start until 1826. Sandstone used for the construction was from Craigleith Quarry and the blocks weighed between 12 and 15 tons. It’s reported that it took seventy men and 12 horses to get the largest blocks to the top of hill.

Calton Hill from south-east, showing Nelson Monument and the National Monument completed, postcard, c1937

The monument was supposed to be paid for entirely by public donations but funds ran out and work stopped in 1829. It’s hard to imagine a completed structure today, but there have been several proposals over the years to finish the replica Parthenon design. At the time, there were many critics of the project and even now, its not shaken off the nickname, Edinburgh’s ‘disgrace’. A student of architecture writing about the monument in a letter to the Editor of  Edinburgh Evening Courant in the Saturday 25 July 1829 edition is quoted:

“For what a degrading opinion must strangers form of us from its present neglected state?”

The National Monument from the top of Nelson’s Monument, 2007

View more great pictures of Calton Hill and its monuments in our Capital Collections exhibition.