Grassmarket, Edinburgh

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Notes in italics from Pevsner Architectural Guides, Edinburgh by John Gifford, Colin McWilliam and David Walker (1991), Yale University Press.

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A long rectangle, its E side formed by West Bow. At the E end ... the Covenanters' Memorial, a circular masonry table of 1937, the walls and railings of 1953-4 to designs by the City Engineer.
The inscription on the circular table reads: "On this spot many martyrs and Covenanters died for the Protestant Faith". There is also a list at the memorial of many of the Covenanters executed in the 17th century (middle picture).

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A number of the houses along the north side are decribed here. The Beehive Inn (by John Paterson 1867-8) ... Georgian Survival in shape but dressed up with hammer-dressed snecked rubble and crowsteps. (Snecked rubble is courses of rough stones frequently broken by smaller stones - snecks). See also literary bars.

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Late-C18 harled double tenement at Nos. 30-40. Central pend arch (Scots - open-ended passage through a building on ground level), a broad chimney gablet crowning each half. The White Hart has Robert Burns connections - see Literary Edinburgh. Given the date of the tenement, one wonders whether this was or was not how Burns saw it on his last visit in 1791.
Red sandstone intrudes at the late-C19  No. 42 with an agreeable round-arched shop-front. ... Austere four- and five-storey droved ashlar fronts of c.1800 at Nos. 60-68 ... Droved ashlar continues at the chimney-gableted late C18 Nos. 70-72. Nos. 74-82, rebuilt in 1929-30 to designs by E.J. MacRae (keeping the doorpiece dated 1634), were two tenements, probably C17 in origin ... Late-C19 blocks with crow-stepped gablets, and an oriel at the Grassmarket Mission Hall (by James Lessels, 1890), lead to the corner of West Bow
(at top of page).  

The Grassmarket as a site of public executions was decribed by Sir Walter Scott in his novel "The Heart of Midlothian" (1818):

"In former times, England had her Tyburn, to which the devoted victims of justice were conducted in solemn procession up what is now called Oxford Street. In Edinburgh, a large open street, or rather oblong square, surrounded by high houses, called the Grassmarket, was used for the same melancholy purpose. It was not ill chosen for such a scene, being of considerable extent, and therefore fit to accommodate a great number of spectators, such as are usually assembled by this melancholy spectacle. On the other hand, few of the houses which surround it were, even in early times, inhabited by persons of fashion; so that those likely to be offended or over deeply affected by such unpleasant exhibitions were not in the way of having their quiet disturbed by them. The houses in the Grassmarket are, generally speaking, of a mean description; yet the place is not without some features of grandeur, being overhung by the southern side of the huge rock on which the Castle stands, and by the moss-grown battlements and turreted walls of that ancient fortress.

It was the custom, until within these thirty years, or thereabouts, to use this esplanade for the scene of public executions. The fatal day was announced to the public, by the appearance of a huge black gallows-tree towards the eastern end of the Grassmarket. This ill-omened apparition was of great height, with a scaffold surrounding it, and a double ladder placed against it, for the ascent of the unhappy criminal and executioner. As this apparatus was always arranged before dawn, it seemed as if the gallows had grown out of the earth in the course of one night, like the production of some foul demon; and I well remember the fright with which the schoolboys, when I was one of their number, used to regard these ominous signs of deadly preparation. On the night after the execution the gallows again disappeared, and was conveyed in silence and darkness to the place where it was usually deposited, which was one of the vaults under the Parliament House, or courts of justice. This mode of execution is now exchanged for one similar to that in front of Newgate,--- with what beneficial effect is uncertain. The mental sufferings of the convict are indeed shortened. He no longer stalks between the attendant clergymen, dressed in his grave-clothes, through a considerable part of the city, looking like a moving and walking corpse, while yet an inhabitant of this world; but, as the ultimate purpose of punishment has in view the prevention of crimes, it may at least be doubted, whether, in abridging the melancholy ceremony, we have not in part diminished that appalling effect upon the spectators which is the useful end of all such inflictions, and in consideration of which alone, unless in very particular cases, capital sentences can be altogether justified."

Latest Plans for the Grassmarket.


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