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 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


A stitch in time – WEA tapestry commemorates Central Library’s history

Today at Edinburgh Central Library, we are celebrating the completion and display of a tapestry marking our 125th anniversary. The Workers’ Educational Association Stitching Times group embroidered the tapestry. They began work in the autumn of 2015 – the 125th anniversary year of the opening of the library.

Central Library – 125 years in stitch

Founded in 1903, the Workers’ Educational Association (WEA) is a charity dedicated to bringing high quality, professional education into the heart of communities. WEA are the UK’s largest voluntary sector provider of adult education. Their goal is to widen participation in education and they are committed to education with a social purpose.

Archie Campbell, WEA Area Education Manager says:

“The WEA’s Scottish headquarters is in Edinburgh and we have been very fortunate to have built up a strong and mutually beneficial relationship with Edinburgh Central Library. This partnership goes back several decades and is one WEA feel privileged to be involved in and are keen to nurture and develop. Learners circumstances, learning requirements and the ways they learn (in particular the use of I.T.) change over the years but the WEA will always look to work closely with Central Library to ensure learners are able to access high quality adult education opportunities in a friendly and welcoming environment. The beautiful tapestry the WEA Stitching Times group have produced is fitting testament to this and we are absolutely delighted it is to take pride of place at the library and be viewed by so many library users and visitors.”

Rebecca Mackay, who leads the Stitching Times group added:

“The WEA Stitching Times group began about six years ago with a project for the Museum of Edinburgh, and we call ourselves Stitching Times because our community projects over the years have had an historic connection which we not only stitched into a visual expression but also researched. Our group has its work in the collections of the Museum of Edinburgh – notably in conjunction with their Maude Pentland archive – and on display at Riddles Court. Our commemoration tapestries for the Women of World War One have been exhibited across the country at numerous Library and WEA events. It was a great honour when the Central Library and the WEA approached us with a request to develop an embroidered tapestry celebrating 125 years of Edinburgh Central Library. We are delighted with its completion. It has been a labour of love by many hands.”

‘EPL’ detail taken the gates at main entrance

The tapestry is on display on the main staircase at Central Library. It shows some fantastic details from the library’s history including Daisy Carnegie, the library cat, and the only baby born in the library.

The people who helped shape Edinburgh Libraries: the tradesmen who built Central Library

When the doors of Edinburgh Central Library were formally opened on Monday 9 June 1890, it was the fulfilment of many years preparation.

Selected design for Edinburgh Public Library, elevation to George IV Bridge and plans for third and fourth floors, by George Washington Browne, 1887

In our collections, we have two volumes of handwritten ledgers kept by the then Clerk of Works, William Bruce, which record in detail the building works as they progressed.

Clerk of Works’ record books for Edinburgh Public Library

We know from the record books that preparation work had begun as early as 1879 when it was recorded that “Official tests of Pentland Cement” were being methodically undertaken. The pages are filled with neat notes with details such as the amount of cement used, how many days the cement had been set for, and the amount of shrinkage.

On the 18 November 1887, the following words appear at the top of the page:
“The contractors began operations on the 17 Nov…. excavating area of site and carting away stuff”.
So began the building of Central Library.

In the 2 years and 7 months it took from start to finish, many different trades and tradesmen worked on the building. Thanks to the detailed notes by Bruce, we know that at times there were up to 137 tradesmen working on site each day. Building sites in the late 1800s didn’t conform to the same standards of health and safety as they do today. From newspaper reports and an entry in one of the volumes we know that serious accidents occurred. An article in the Edinburgh Evening News of 10 August 1889, describes how:
a plasterer engaged at work at a ceiling inside, fell off the scaffold on which he was working and sustained severe bruises to his back and arms”.

A volume entry dated 14 April 1888 records the tragic death of a workman on site:
a labourer fell from a scaffold about 11ft high in staff staircase, and was killed”.

Note (front) found on Central Library roof in 1974

Note (reverse) found on Central Library roof in 1974









The Clerk of Works refers frequently to the architect, ‘Mr Browne’, in his record books, but few other tradesmen are named individually. However in 1974, while work was being carried out on the roof of the library, evidence was found naming 3 plumbers who worked on the building. A torn page from a diary dated September 1889 was found. On it, written in pencil, are the names of 3 plumbers, T. McLaren , Hugh Brown and G. Cairns. Clerk of Works, William Bruce noted that on 9 November 1889:
“The plumbers work is still delayed by the rubbish on the Reference Library floor”.
Perhaps while they waited to continue, the plumbers took the opportunity go and enjoy the view from the roof, leaving their signatures behind…

Edinburgh Castle and the Grassmarket from the roof of Central Library, 2008

Read all the articles in this series of ‘The people who helped shape Edinburgh Libraries’:

George Washington Browne: architect

Robert Butchart: City Librarian

Andrew Carnegie: steelmaker and philanthropist

Henry Dyer, engineer, educationist and Japanophile

William McEwan: brewer and philanthropist

David Mather Masson: scholar and biographer

Thomas Ross: architect and antiquarian

Charles Boog Watson: local historian and antiquarian

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.

World War One resources from Edinburgh Libraries

A few years ago, like so many other heritage, cultural and community organisations, we started to look at how we could mark the centenary anniversary of World War One, recognising that this momentous time would provide opportunity for research and reflection.

We delved into our collections to see what material had significance and wide appeal. After we had started making material available online, we were also contacted by individuals who had unique items and memories they wanted to share.

Here are a few of the highlights from our WW1 collections that you can browse online:

Edinburgh in World War One – 1914-1918 on Our Town Stories
This story describes the impact of World War One on the people at home. Read out about the zeppelin raid, the Gretna Rail Disaster, the city’s football heroes, recuperating war poets and pioneering female doctor, Elsie Inglis.


Ethel Moir’s diaries on Capital Collections
“We are supposed to reach Archangel in a couple of days, so I will start a letter, in hopes of getting it posted there. You will want to hear everything from the beginning; so here goes!”
And so begins the diary of Ethel Moir, a nursing orderly serving with the Scottish Women’s Hospital. Over the next two years she would record the realities of life near the battlefields of the Russian Front in two handwritten diaries and photograph album.
Ethel’s diaries are perhaps one of the most prized items in our collection, and so we were delighted when ‘Our search for Ethel’ resulted in a eureka moment and we managed to trace her family to share her wartime story and they in turn were able to tell us more about her life before and after the war.

Thomson Family scrapbooks
The Thomson Family of Glengyle Terrace in Edinburgh compiled two scrapbooks spanning the war years. Most of the items pasted into the scrapbooks are press cuttings, leaflets and adverts but there are personal ephemera too which give an indication of the impact of war on the family. Many of the letters are sent to Thomas Thomson, who was only 3 years old at the outbreak of war.
We knew nothing of how the scrapbooks had been given to the library and the scrapbooks gave few clues about the family themselves but with some dogged determination and a little luck, we managed to contact Thomas’ son in the Netherlands!
Read about the Thomson family history search on the blog.

Private Colin Rice (1880-1918)
Another exhibition on Capital Collections brings together a bundle of correspondence relating to Colin Rice, a soldier from Leith who served in World War One. The letters were kept by his family and donated to the library.
The collection tells a story of love and loss that was repeated in thousands of households across the country. You can read the official military correspondence but are left to imagine the missing side of the story, telling of the family’s enduring hope and resilience in the pursuit of answers of their missing son and brother.

Sheila Macbeth Mitchell – WW1 nurse
Sheila Macbeth was a WW1 nurse on the hospital ship Britannic, which sank in the Aegean on 21st November 1916. Her family kindly got in touch with us and offered to allow us to digitise the images and mementoes from her scrapbook so that we could share the story of this remarkable woman and her extraordinary and adventurous life.

Scars on the city: Edinburgh in World War One
Explore how Edinburgh was affected by WW1 through objects from our Museum and Galleries’ collections. Through these wartime relics, you can experience Edinburgh as a city engulfed by war. Excitement and patriotism mingle with fear and sorrow as the war touches everyone, from school children to soldiers, munitions workers to objectors.

To explore our full collection of World War One themed resources including war artist drawings, material from the Illustrated London News and images of the German raid on Scarborough in 1914, visit our dedicated page on the Your Library website: www.edinburgh.gov.uk/ww1


My Edinburgh – Photography Competition Winners

Two of our competition winners visited us in Central Library last week to collect prizes, canvas prints of their winning entries in the My Edinburgh Photography Competition.  Prizes were kindly donated by Jessops Edinburgh who sponsored the competition.

Photograph of Edinburgh Collected Competition Winners

Paddy and Helen collect canvas prints of their winning entries Botanic Gardens and Human Dovecote

Winning entries were selected from the dozens of pictures submitted to our photography competition on Edinburgh Collected for their combination of image and text describing favourite places in Edinburgh.

You can see all the fantastic entries to the My Edinburgh competition in a scrapbook on Edinburgh Collected.