Last weekend the Scottish Storytelling Centre held a series of events exploring the history of the ‘glorious half mile to Holyrood’ that is the Canongate. The event was part of the Scottish International Story-Telling Festival Once Upon a Place.
The Palimpsest team went along to talk about the ways in which this ancient and intriguing part of the old town has been immortalised in writing. Our ‘virtual tour’ looked back through historic maps of the area, courtesy of the National Library of Scotland, and traced the ways in which the Canongate has developed from its foundation in the early 12th Century through to the 21st Century.
The maps themselves tell interesting stories of how travellers and inhabitants experienced and thought of the city. You can see in the 1610 prospect by John Speed, for example, that the Canongate seems to be very much a part of Edinburgh, with no division between the neighbouring burghs. In fact, as James Gordon of Rothiemay’s 1647 plan makes clear, Edinburgh and the Burgh of Canongate were distinct at the time and separated by the imposing Netherbow gate. It wasn’t until the middle of the 19th Century in fact, long after the Netherbow gate had disappeared, that the two burghs were officially united.
To illustrate the visual stories of the maps, we read extracts of literary works that are set in or describe this important thoroughfare, its architecture and its inhabitants. Among them Daniel Defoe’s ‘A Tour through the Whole Island of Great Britain’ gave us an image of the Netherbow, while Boswell’s account of his meeting with Samuel Johnson in the Black Bull Inn and their stroll up the mile together gave a visceral sense stench of the overcrowded slums, and Robert Fergusson’s Auld Reekie painted a picture of a ruined Holyrood House, once a great palace but then a squatters sanctuary:
For O, waes me! the Thistle springs
In Domicile of ancient Kings,
Without a Patriot to regrete
Our Palace , and our ancient State .
Blest Place! whare Debtors daily run,
To rid themselves frae Jail and Dun
The picture of the Canongate that emerged from writing about the area is fascinating: from its 17th century grandeur, with its luxurious palaces with lush gardens, it gradually declined through the 18th and 19th centuries, coming to be marked by industrialisation and poverty and associated with the dark deeds of figures like Deacon Brodie and Burke and Hare.
In the 20th century, as its inhabitants were moved out to social housing on the outskirts of Edinburgh, it became something of a backwater, a quiet and rather neglected area.
With the arrival of the Parliament, however, and with active community centres like the Storytelling Centre drawing people and attention to the old town, a new phase in the area’s development is in full swing and it looks like the Canongate’s future will be as glorious as its past. It was certainly great fun to be a part of the celebrations.
– Lisa Otty