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Famous Streets of Scotland: A History of the Canongate in Edinburgh

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A History of the Canongate in Edinburgh

The Canongate is the lower section of the famous Royal Mile in Edinburgh, the capital city of Scotland. It was once a separate burgh from the city itself before becoming incorporated in 1865 as a district of the capital.

Therefore it developed a history and culture of its own quite distinct from Edinburgh before the forces of population growth and economic prosperity dictated its future.

Here is a short account of the story of one of the oldest and most historic streets in Scotland.

The Canongate slopes down into the Holyrood area of Edinburgh where you will find the majestic Palace of Holyroodhouse of 1501 and the modern Scottish Parliament building opened in 2004.

Going back in time there is evidence of Iron Age occupation upon the nearby hills of Arthur's Seat and Bronze Age tools have also been discovered in the Holyrood area.

King David and the holy cross

The word 'Holyrood' derives from the legend of King David I of Scotland who one day went hunting on the Sabbath in 1128. The legend says that he encountered an aggressive stag which startled his horse causing him to be thrown to the ground. He was about to be gored by the antlers of the stag when a bright shining cross suddenly appeared. This frightened the wild animal and therefore saved King David's life

Holyrood Abbey

Holyrood Abbey

The medieval word for a cross was 'rood', hence the name 'Holyrood' meaning the 'Holy Cross'.

However this story may have been a medieval adaptation of the legends of Saint Hupertus and St Eustace who were Patron Saints of hunters. The legends live on today as the stag and antlers logo of the Jagermeister alcohol drink from Germany.

Nonetheless it is a fact that King David ordered that an abbey be built in the area and by 1133 Holyrood Abbey was completed by craftsmen from France.

The Abbey was inhabited by an order of Augustinian monks who had previously resided in Edinburgh Castle. From the abbey they would walk along a rough track up the hill. This was how the street obtained its name. The monks were known as 'canons' and the word 'gate' actually derives from 'gait' based on a Danish word imported into the Scots language and which means a 'walk' or a 'way'. Therefore 'Canongate' simply means 'walk of the monks'

The Abbey Strand

The Abbey Strand

The Abbey Strand

Leading to the abbey is the Abbey Strand which is a small street of only 30 metres and is the last of five sections of the Royal Mile thoroughfare. It runs right up to the western entrance gates of the Palace of Holyroodhouse.

The word 'strand' indicates a proximity to water as there was certainly a stream in this area. A further clue to the origins is the adjacent Watergate area which was a large pond for horses to drink. It now measures approximately 14 feet as it only comprises the length of a gable-end wall.

Trade and markets

The Canongate was granted burgh status by King David I and it was initially established for mercantile reasons. Trade was the lifeblood of the merchants who came to live there and a Burgh town was a specific legal entity. The Scottish version was inspired by the prototype of the Norman town of Breteuil.

In fact the monks of Holyrood gained income from the local tolls which were a tax on traded goods and livestock. The Abott was imbursed with either cash or payment in kind but also from rental payments.

The 'Ports' were introduced into the capital to better control the flow of trade and ensure that tradesmen did not avoid the tolls. These regulated entrances helped the authorities to collect the local tax. One of these, the impressive Netherbow Port, marked the boundary between the Canongate and the Old Town of Edinburgh.

The name is deceptive as these 'Ports' were nothing to do with harbours or sea-fronts as the Canongate was miles inland. The word actually derived from the French 'La Porte' meaning a door or a gate.

The Netherbow Port

The Netherbow Port

On market day in order to ensure a supply of fresh meat animals were brought to the area on the hoof. They were then slaughtered onsite and butchered for the sale of their meat. But nothing was wasted on the carcasses of the animals.

Aside from the selling of the meat itself, skins were also sold to the local cordiners to be tanned and made into leather products. Fat deposits were used for making candles and soap plus intestines and stomach linings were processed into sausage-meat and that traditional Scottish staple of haggis. Jaw-bones were the ideal shape and size for use as ice-skates in the freezing winter.

John Johnston the Butcher

Incidentally this tradition of good husbandry and improvisation continued for centuries in the area. A celebrated example much later in the 19th century came from a local butcher named John Johnston. He came up with the idea of using spare meat and gelatine to make something he called 'Liquid Beef' which became very popular among the poor. It was cheap and ready but also filling as well as being quite tasty.

Johnston left Scotland in 1871 and emigrated to Canada and over there he went into business. He marketed his beef drink but under a new name.

The name he chose was an amalgam of the word 'bovis', the Latin genitive for a cow or an ox, with the word 'Vril'.

The latter word came from a science-fiction novel of 1870 called 'The Coming Race' by the writer Bulwer-Lytton. In the book there was mentioned an electro-magnetic substance called 'Vril' which could imbue the drinker with great energy and vitality. The combination of the two words created 'Bovril' which became hugely successful and is still sold today from the producers at Burton-upon-Trent in England. But it all began in the Canongate.

The local craft guilds

Throughout the centuries, based on the local mercantile activity, a slowly evolving manufacturing and industrial centre was also developing in the area. The craft guilds were an important factor of both the economic and social fabric of life in the Canongate. The cordiners worked at Shoemakers Close and there was also a bakers guild and a fleshers guild.

Such was their importance that they could even rent their own pews in the local church. And not without rivalry and humour. The craft of bakers had inscribed above their pews "Bread is the staff of life" and not to be outdone the fleshers alongside them retorted with their inscription of "Man can not live by bread alone"

Local turf wars

Unsurprisingly given the dynamics of trading and economic competition problems arose from local rivalries. But not just from the craftsman. The merchant classes operated cheek by jowl in both burghs and therefore a fault-line developed. This led to friction between the two trading groups.

Tensions and harassment gradually began to sour the relationship between the merchants and businessmen of Edinburgh with their counterparts in the Canongate. This was primarily over access to markets and undercutting of prices

Statuette of the Emperor of Morocco

Statuette of the Emperor of Morocco

Years of conflict

Religious conflict blighted the Canongate in the 17th century. Near the top of the street you will see this carving of the Emperor of Morocco.

A strange sight but it relates to the story of Andrew Gray who fled to North Africa in the 1620's to escape persecution and the hangman's noose. He had been an agitator against the interference by King Charles I in the Scottish Presbyterian Church. Therefore he was a precursor to the Covenanters.

He returned 20 years later and settled in the street after his sentence was commuted by the Lord Provost of Edinburgh.

Much more serious conflict occurred between outside forces over Edinburgh Castle. But this had an effect on the Canongate area.

When English forces could not break into the strongly protected fortifications of the castle they would take out their vengeance on the Canongate instead. They had done this over many ages such as in 1380 when King Richard II burned the town and again in 1544 by the Earl of Hertford.

However from 1658 the Scottish Civil War raged and the Canongate was actually bombarded from the castle. It was Scots versus Scots in a religious war with the Canongate sympathetic to the Catholic forces of the recently deposed Mary Queen of Scots. The inhabitants of Edinburgh supported the Protestant side of the 1650 Reformation.

Huntly House

Huntly House

The drift of the gentry

Nevertheless the status of the Canongate was ever growing through the years. In the 16th and 17th centuries it had gradually become the favoured home of the new gentry. The Old Town of Edinburgh further up the Royal Mile was becoming overcrowded and squalid. There was a major outbreak of plague in 1645 among the narrow confines of the tall storeys of the tenement buildings in the older quarter of the city.

Back in those days of the 16th and 17th centuries the Canongate and Holyrood offered more space for the higher classes to build fine houses They could also have gardens and even orchards in which to grow fruit and vegetables. The upwardly mobile snob appeal of being neighbours with royalty was not an insignificant factor.

Huntly House is a living relic of those days. It was built in the 16th century and named after George, the First Marquis of Huntly who lived there in that era.

It is now the Museum of Edinburgh which contains local artefacts from the history of the city. These range from the National Covenant and the regalia of Field Marshall Earl Haig to a dog bowl and leash used by the famous dog Greyfriars Bobby

The construction of Moray House took place in 1621 for Mary, Dowager Countess of Home. It is said that Oliver Cromwell lodged there after the Battle of Dunbar in 1650 and stood on the balcony gloating on the vanquished Scots below him. The building stands today fully restored and it now forms part of the larger teacher training college of the University of Edinburgh.

The Tollbooth building

As part of the political and financial administration a Tollbooth building was constructed to oversee life in the Canongate. The current building dates from 1591 and now houses a Social History museum called 'The People's Story' which details the life and times of ordinary people in Edinburgh's history.


However back in the late 16th century the building was used for various other activities. As well as providing income for the burgh the Tollbooth building was also used as the council chambers and as a jailhouse.

Interestingly, given the high security of modern penal establishments, the prisoners back then were actually given the key to let themselves into the jail. This was not as absurd as it sounds as the town was so small that if anyone left the building then all the neighbourhood would soon know.

There would be no point in fleeing the town because there was nothing out there for the offender. They would likely struggle to live and eat in peaceful times or be imperilled during the many wars and civil and religious strife that Scotland suffered. So they took the key, accepted the punishment and served their time.

As an added humiliation they had to pay for their own upkeep which is another facet of prison life you are unlikely to see in modern times.

Neither will you witness a pillory where wrongdoers would be mocked by their neighbours as a sentence of social disapproval. This would take place at the Mercat Cross and preferably on a busy market day. This ensured there was the maximum number of people present and a readily supply of ammunition from discarded fruit and vegetables.

The Palace of Holyroodhouse

On the other end of the social scale the reigning monarchs came to prefer the Palace of Holyroodhouse to the Royal Apartments of Edinburgh Castle. Construction of the new royal residence began in the early 1500's under the auspices of King James IV.

Holyrood afforded more space than the castle as well as having gardens and orchards which could be enjoyed in fine weather. It also had a water supply and was more reasonably sheltered from the wind than the castle. The latter often bore the full brunt of the frequent gales that assailed the city especially during the cold winter months.


The current shape of the palace, however, owes itself to King Charles II in the 18th century. After years of turmoil the building was badly damaged and Charles ordered the restoration of the palace in a Renaissance style. It is no coincidence that it now resembles a typical châteaux of the Loire Valley considering his years of exile in France.

The Canongate Kirk

The Canongate Kirk

The Canongate Kirk

The small church halfway up the street is the Canongate Kirk an example of 'dignified simplicity' from 1691. It is the place of worship for the Royal Family when they reside in the Palace of Holyroodhouse.

Buried in its graveyard is the famous Adam Smith the 18th century pioneer of free market economics. Outside the Kirk is a statue to the great Edinburgh poet Robert Fergusson who is also buried within the graveyard.

The Scottish Parliament and regeneration

The political and social prestige of the Canongate was diminished in 1603 with the Union of the Crowns between England and Scotland. King James VI of Scotland was now also King James I of England and he migrated south to the Royal Court in London. He rarely returned thereafter to the Palace of Holyroodhouse.

Then in 1707 came the Union of the Parliaments when Scotland and England united politically. This led to the dissolution of the Scottish legislature which had sat in a building on the High Street on the Royal Mile of Edinburgh. Most of the political powers now resided in House of Commons in London.

Further decline befell the area from the 1760's onwards with the massive building programme of the Edinburgh New Town. After initial reluctance this began to attract the higher classes away from the deteriorating conditions of the Royal Mile to the grandeur of the new Georgian Mansion terraces over on the north side.

In 1817 the Regent Road was developed alongside Calton Hill over on the north. Therefore the Canongate lost its previously held position of the main route into Edinburgh from the ports on the east coast and the road from London. By the 1880's the area was a 'nursery of disease and haunt of vagrants' and even the nuns of the Sisters of Charity came from France in 1893 to help the poor.

Depiction of the Canongate in 1886

Depiction of the Canongate in 1886

The decline of the Canongate continued throughout the 20th century. An especially difficult time was from the 1980s when the breweries moved out which caused a serious depopulation. Industry was moving further out from the centre of the city and residents followed suit.

However, after almost 300 hundred years the Scottish people voted to institute a new parliament. A 1997 referendum successfully ushered an era of Devolution for the country. Many powers were once again in the hands of Scottish politicians and in 2004 a new purpose-built Scottish Parliament opened at the foot of the Canongate opposite the Palace.

The inscribed wall of the Scottish Parliament

The inscribed wall of the Scottish Parliament

The building was highly controversial because of its cost and unusual architecture. It more than doubled the original estimate of £190 million based on Enrique MIralles vision and reached an eventual figure of £430 million.

However it is a unique construction in shape, materials and design and also steeped in the history and culture of the Scottish nation. Along its northern wall there are engraved many quotations of famous Scots throughout the ages.

Scots Baronial style of the tenement building

Scots Baronial style of the tenement building

The old in with the new

Today in the 21st century the Canongate exhibits a harmonious interplay of the old and the new, the historic and the modern. The old buildings of the 16th and 17th centuries sit side by side with their Victorian and 20th century counterparts. The Scots baronial style is prevalent.

The 1769 building that houses ex-service personnel in Whitefoord House sits opposite the 1686 Queensbury House. But nearby are the 1960s apartments designed by Robert Hurd.

The futuristic Scottish Parliament continues that long tradition and has breathed even more life into the old streets.

Therefore you will find that the Canongate is no moribund relic of yesteryear but a living and breathing entity. The playground of the Victorian Royal Mile School thrives with midweek activity while the bars and cafes become popular haunts on a Saturday night. The summer months see the narrow pavements crammed with tourists and the museums full while a conveyor belt of sightseeing buses pass by on the road.

For almost 900 years the Canongate has been an important part of the Edinburgh area and since the 19th century of the city itself. A place rich in intrigue and colour that has included all sections of society from the commoner to Kings and Queens. It may be steeped in history but it has never stood still.



Kevin Beath on July 03, 2018:

Need to know where was Tabaco Street Edinburgh. I have an old letter dated in 1840

Shinkicker (author) from Scotland on October 22, 2012:

Hi ingenira, the history of the Canongate is certainly unusual even for Edinburgh :-)

I don't think modern criminals would be so honest to give them the keys LOL

Thanks for reading

Ingenira on October 21, 2012:

I have been to Scotland too and find it such an interesting place.

The Tollbooth Building story is interesting - a jail in this world that allowed the prisoners to keep the key to let themselves into the jail.

Ginger Ruffles on June 21, 2012:

Enjoyed my jaunt through the ages, you made it very enjoyable!

Shinkicker (author) from Scotland on March 29, 2012:

Thanks amillar

That's interesting facts and there's a lot of history associated with the Borders. Often neglected in the history books I reckon. Glasgow and Edinburgh dominate

Cheers for reading.

amillar from Scotland, UK on March 28, 2012:

We’ve a Canongate in Jedbugh, in the Borders, where I grew up. My Mum told me it was, as you say, where the monks stretched their legs. I used to think it was to do with a gate which was guarded by cannon. (I'm not often right but I was wrong again.) The medieval town boundaries are close by - still called the Boundaries. Jedburgh Abbey was Augustinian too. (According to Wikipedia Melrose was Cistercian, Kelso was Tironesian and I couldn't work out what it was saying about Dryburgh Abbey.)

David I brought a lot of great architecture to the Borders too. The borders were at one time where it all happened. David I had his capital at Roxburgh Castle near Kelso. Then the Anglo/Scottish wars started at the end of the 13th Century and the Borders became a battleground. The halcyon days of Scotland were over.

You're starting to rekindle my interest in Scottish history. More power to your elbow/fingertips.

Shinkicker (author) from Scotland on March 26, 2012:

'Marmite' very good Bob. If only it were true. Problem with hittin the ton is I can't stay there for long. The only way is down.

Cheers for reading and commenting on the Hub. It's a bit long I know but try to cram 900 years into one Hub :-)

All the best

diogenes from UK and Mexico on March 26, 2012:

Another of your magisterial hubs on Scotland's fairest large city.

Congratulations on reaching the glass ceiling of 100, your hubs deserve this accolade.

I was very interested to see how Bovril began and got its name. Now explain Marmite! ("Mother might like some?").

These article take me a couple of reads to digest because I am so busy at the moment.

Great stuff


Shinkicker (author) from Scotland on March 25, 2012:

Thanks for reading and voting freecampingaussie

Beware though that the centre of Edinburgh is one huge building site due to the tramline construction as well as other works :-) They won't be finished until 2014.


freecampingaussie from Southern Spain on March 25, 2012:

I enjoyed your hub as I have been to Scotland a couple of times ( was born in Wales ) & hope to visit again either later this year or next year .Voted you up & shared it !