The historical significance of Edinburgh's Grassmarket
“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.
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.
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.
It is this history that makes the Grassmarket a unique setting for 21st century life while also providing inspiration for further enhancement.