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Famous Streets in Scotland : The Cowgate in Edinburgh

I'm a graduate in Economic and Social History from the University of Strathclyde and have worked as a Tour Guide in Edinburgh.


Edinburgh has much to offer the visitor in way of culture, history and spectacle. It also has a lively social scene.

The Cowgate area in the Old Town of the city can offer all of these. It is a site of historical interest where many famous people have lived and worked.

Here is a brief history of significant events and notable characters associated with the street through the centuries.

The old cattle trail

The name 'Cowgate' derives from its use as an old Drovers' route when farmers led their cattle to the nearby Grassmarket for sale. Therefore the original spelling would have been 'Cow Gait' as the latter word means a walk or a way and originates from Scandinavian languages.

In that era it was a simple narrow country path bordered by hedgerows.

But eventually the Cowgate became fashionable with the gentry in the 15th century. However the first recorded leasing of land was by a monk called Richard Lundy in 1428.

Nevertheless the street soon consisted of lavish mansions, gardens and also the private water-wells of an aristocratic neighbourhood. The homes were of a charming timber-fronted design influenced by towns such as Chester in England and Nuremberg in Germany.

The splendour of the area was exemplified by a contemporary writer speaking in the early 16th century. The Cowgate was described as "where nothing is cheap or mean but all things are magnificent" said Alexander Alesse.

However slum conditions developed from the mid-18th century onwards as the higher classes began to drift over to the New Town on the north end of the city. As writer James Grant observed:

"For generations it has been the most densely peopled and poorest district in the metropolis, the most picturesque and squalid"

Events came to a head in the winter of 1763 when there was a scarcity of oatmeal in the city. This led to a riot when locals attacked the Mealmarket and looted its produce.

The Lord Provost George Drummond called out the infantry from Edinburgh Castle and order was imposed with the threat of the bayonet. In the aftermath troops of the Scots Greys maintained a military presence on the Cowgate to ensure no further disturbances.

Perhaps nothing new as there also had been unrest in previous times. An Act of the Privy Council in 1616 had mentioned the vagrants and beggars who "pass their time in all kind of riot and filthy lechery" around the Cowgate.

On a lighter level, perhaps, back in 1533 there was a 'bicker' between pupils of the College and the High School with the usual sticks and stones being thrown. On witnessing this from his window the Earl of Melrose, Thomas Hamilton, ran outside onto the street. Being an old High School alumni himself he eagerly urged on those kids against the College boys and helped marshall their forces in the battle.

In praise of Mary Magdalene

The famous Magdalene Chapel was built in that century as it dates from 1544. It has the only intact stained-glass to have survived the destruction wrought from the 1560's by the Scottish Reformation. However there have been additions with the entrance being rebuilt in 1613 and the spire added in 1620.

It was originally an almshouse chapel and hospital dedicated to Mary Magdalene of the Biblical tale and was funded by a bequeath from Michael McQueen upon his death in 1537. His widow Janet Rynd controlled the affairs of the Chapel. Subsequently on her eventual death in 1553 it passed to the Incorporation of Hammermen who used the hall for meetings.

The windows outside represent the Royal Coat of Arms encircled with a wreath of thistles. It also has the coat of arms of Mary of Guise who was the French mother of Mary Queen of Scots. Nowadays the Magdalene Chapel belongs to Heriot-Watt University in the city.

Tailors, sisters and beer drinkers

Tailors Hall was founded in 1621 and as the name suggests, it was built for the Guild of Tailors. However it has been used for various different purposes throughout the centuries.

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It has survived today due to a massive restoration which took place in 1998. It now houses the 'Three Sisters' complex which comprises 3 bars and a large cobbled courtyard with a beer garden.

The Three Sisters Bar

The Three Sisters Bar

In addition there is invariably a huge outdoor plasma screen and barbecues in the summer months. With each bar licensed to hold 300 revellers and the courtyard able to accommodate 1,100 then on a really busy night there could be 2,000 people in the Three Sisters

The name is derived literally from three sisters said to have stayed there and performed at the Tailor's Hall when it was formerly used as a theatre. This was frowned upon in high quarters at the time but it survived "notwithstanding the bitter and incessant denunciation of the clergy" according to James Grant.

Literature, arts and sciences

St Cecilia's Hall was built for the Musical Society of Edinburgh in 1761. It houses a small Georgian space and a museum owned by the University of Edinburgh.

Inside are over 50 of the world's most important and best preserved keyboard instruments. Included are harpsichords, spinets and organs. There are also string instruments such as harps, lutes and guitars.

Sir Walter Scott

Sir Walter Scott

The world renowned author Sir Walter Scott was born in 1771 in Guthrie Street a small side-street just off the Cowgate. As a two year old baby he would perhaps have been none the wiser about two famous visitors to his family home.

The legendary Samuel Johnson and his associate James Boswell were in the College Wynd in 1773 during a stay in Edinburgh and visited Scott's parents.

His family was typical of the middle-class residents of the area and he became a lawyer before his writing fame with books like 'Rob Roy' and 'Ivanhoe'.

Another resident of College Wynd was a young Joseph Black who completed his studies at the university in 1851 before embarking on a scientific career.

He made history by discovering 'fixed air' or carbon dioxide as we now know it. He also first posited the theory of latent heat of substances which was the beginning of the study of Thermodynamics.

Dirty Old Town

The 19th century was remarkable for the mass Irish immigration in the 1840s after the blight of the potato famine in that country.

The descent of the Cowgate into the misery and squalor of disease and poor housing was encapsulated by the harsh words of Alexander Smith in 1865;

"The inhabitants are morally and geographically of the lower orders and seldom come up to the light of day"

"The condition of the inhabitants is as little known to respectable Edinburgh as are the habits of moles, earthworms and the mining population"

With the Cowgate becoming known as 'Little Ireland' the local Episcopalian church dating from 1774 was purchased by the Papacy in 1856 to service the needs of the new Catholic parishioners. Appropriately it was re-christened St Patricks, the patron saint of Ireland and it still conducts a Latin mass today.

The original design was based on St Martins-in-the-Field in London with pillars lining the front. However after tenements in front of the chapel were demolished a triumphal arch was added in 1929 by Reginald Fairlie

A local football team Hibernian F.C. was founded by the congregation in 1875 and the club was based from the chapel until the 1890's.

The poet and the rebel

But prior to the great wave of Irish incomers some of their country-folk had already settled in the area.

Once such family produced William Topaz McGonagall in 1825 who became recognised by admirers as Scotland's worst poet. Although his verse was truly dreadful he is fondly remembered as a great Scottish eccentric.

William Topaz McGonagall

William Topaz McGonagall

His most quoted poem was the 'Tay Bridge Disaster' written in 1880 about a terrible train crash in his new home of Dundee the previous year.

Consider these words in the conclusion to his woeful tale:

"I must now conclude my lay
By telling the world fearlessly without the least dismay,
That your central girders would not have given way,
At least many sensible men do say,
Had they been supported on each side with buttresses,
At least many sensible men confesses,
For the stronger we our houses do build,
The less chance we have of being killed."

Memorial to James Connolly in the Cowgate

Memorial to James Connolly in the Cowgate

Another Scot in the street who came from an Irish family was James Connolly. His parents lived at 107 Cowgate and he was born there in 1868.

At the age of only 14 he joined the British Army but left after 7 years service to get married and settle back in Edinburgh. His service in Ireland left an impression on him regarding the treatment of the people there.

He became involved in politics and the unions and campaigned for Socialism in Britain, Ireland and America. He also lived in America for a spell as well as in Ireland.

He moved to Dublin in 1911 and eventually became a military commander in the Irish Republican Movement as preparations were underway for a revolt against British rule.

The Easter Rising of 1916 took place and Connolly was in charge of the rebels headquarters at the General Post Office in Dublin. He was severely wounded and after the surrender he was hospitalised. After a Military Court-Martial he and 14 others were executed in front of firing squads.

The years of improvement

In order to tackle the slum conditions the authorities in Victorian Edinburgh followed suit with their contemporaries around the country. The 1867 Improvement Act aimed at introducing better quality housing as well as proper sanitation.

Nevertheless the Cowgate was still considered a deprived area until after the post war period. Certainly conditions were vastly improved from the 19th century but poverty and sub-standard housing still blighted the area.

Attempts were made to remedy the situation. For example in 1929 extensive re-modelling of the street took place following demolition of tenements along the north side.

Today the Cowgate is noteworthy as a place of entertainment by day and by night. There are plenty of bars and clubs for revellers to enjoy.

During the Edinburgh Festival every August the Cowgate and adjoining streets are a focal point for music and comedy with late night openings. Vehicles are banned after 10pm and the street becomes pedestrianised so it's a lively spot. You can even see the back end of a cow outside one of the bars too.


Chance of a ghost

There are also ghost tours for those so inclined. The famous Edinburgh Vaults are the scene of walking tours for visitors. These are the enclosed arches of the South Bridge which looms over the Cowgate.

George IV Bridge

George IV Bridge

The vaults were completed in 1788 and contained taverns, brothels, workshops and storage space. However they were damp and had poor quality of air. The walls were built of igneous basalt rock from the nearby Salisbury Crags.

Tough material indeed but unexpectedly porous to the wet Scottish weather which caused flooding. Therefore they were abandoned to the poorest of the poor of the town who lived there well into the 19th century it seems.

Eventually they were finally closed and filled with rubble until a tunnel was discovered in the 1980s.

Their discoverer was a rugby player called Norrie Rowan who decided with his son to have the rubble extracted and the vaults opened up again. In a remarkable story from 1989 Rowan used the tunnel to help a Romanian rugby player Cristian Raducanu escape from the Secret Police just a few weeks before the fall of the Cauecescu regime.

During the clearance operation another startling discovery was thousands of oyster shells. Apparently this was a staple diet of the poor people in Edinburgh unlike the choice of today's luxury menus.

Of course there is naturally cynicism over the existence of actual ghosts under the South Bridge. However in 2009 a BBC television crew picked up a strange sound on their microphones during a paranormal investigation.

It sounded like a priest reciting the last rites followed by children yelling. Being objective the production crew tried to find a rational explanation. However after discounting various possibilities it remained a mystery.

At the end of the Cowgate was once the city limits of Edinburgh. In the 1550's a wall was completed around the Old Town.

It was called the Flodden Wall as its construction was a direct result of a disastrous Scottish defeat in 1513 against the English on Flodden Field in north-west England. Parts of the wall remain and there is a large segment in the Pleasance area just off the eastern end of the Cowgate.

The Cowgate is full of history and nowadays contains a lively social scene. Admittedly some parts of it have become run down and derelict. In 2002 the Gilded Balloon entertainment venue was one of 11 buildings that suffered a fire. It had to be demolished leaving a wasteland gap until a new hotel development was built.

Also some of the buildings would benefit from a clean-up after years of exhaust fumes have blackened their walls. Nevertheless it remains a fascinating part of the capital city.

The Flodden Wall in the Pleasance area

The Flodden Wall in the Pleasance area

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.


Shinkicker (author) from Scotland on June 02, 2013:

Thanks island bites. Glad you liked it

IslandBites from Puerto Rico on May 28, 2013:

Nice hub!

By Lori from USA on December 07, 2012:

Do you know how lucky you are to be living there in Scotland ! I think you do. I about died laughing over the"Shinkicker" , that's a good one,


amillar from Scotland, UK on April 03, 2012:

Blow the trumpets make them blast,

McGonagall's met his match at last,

Shinkicker (author) from Scotland on April 02, 2012:

Hi amillar

I really have to say,

To my great dismay,

That cow has lost its way,

When smoke fired from its lum

It was called the 1 o'clock bum,

I think it ate too much hay,

And had a very, very bad day


Thanks for stopping by :-)

amillar from Scotland, UK on April 01, 2012:

I'll have a glass of whatever that cow-in-the-wall's had Mr Shinkicker. (Maybe it's been reading McGonnagall's poetry.)

Another very interesting article about my capital city BTW. Up, useful and tweeted.

Shinkicker (author) from Scotland on March 30, 2012:

Thanks diogenes for reading and your comment.

I answered your original question about Fairlies in the Edinburgh Rock Bar Hub.

So!!! I ain't telling here :-)

diogenes from UK and Mexico on March 30, 2012:

Another great hub on this great city.

Not to belabour the point, but is Fairlies still there and what was its history? It was once the most favoured forces bar in the north.


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

Thanks Brian.

I've been up the Three Sisters in Glencoe :-) Climbed Bidean Nam Bian last year on a clear summers day. Amazing. A Drovers route Hub might be interesting. They came through Glasgow too.


BRIAN SLATER on March 29, 2012:

I really love this series you have written on Edinburgh, I came across Cow Gate in one of Rankins books, always good for a murder, fight or sub plot. I don't know the three sisters pub but I do know the five sisters of Kintail lol. Also when you mentioned the old drovers roads which I have come across quite a few times on my travels, I thought this might be a good hub for you to think about for the future. Voted up awesome.

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