Edinburgh initially grew as a result of the natural defences of a volcanic outcrop of rock on which Edinburgh Castle was built. On three sides there are sheer cliffs in excess of a hundred feet, so the only approach is via a long sloping hill which lies to the east of the Castle which provided the only possible direction of expansion as the town grew.
King David I of Scotland, while hunting in the forest of Drumsheugh, in the immediate vicinity of Edinburgh in 1128 was attacked by an enraged stag, which unhorsed him and threatened him with certain death. He raised his hands to protect himself but saw a cross between its antlers.
On seeing the cross, the King took courage and he saw the stag off. In gratitude for his miraculous deliverance, the king founded the monastery of the Holy Cross, and richly endowed it. This was the Augustinian Holyrood Abbey, located about one mile east of the castle, and the ruins of the Abbey are still in existence today.
King David I. granted to the canons of Holyroodhouse the privilege of erecting a burgh, between the town of Edinburgh and church of Holyroodhouse. Thereafter, the Stag, with a cross between its antlers, became the Coat of Arms of Canongate and may still be seen on many buildings in the area. It also forms part of the Lodge crest.
name Canongate derives from the time when the canons of Holyrood Abbey would walk to their former residence in Edinburgh Castle, the area closest to Holyrood was known as the Canons’ Gait or Walk. The burgesses had “a power to elect annually at Michaelmas two or three bailiffs, and a treasurer, with a proper number of officers for the administration of justice,” and the said burgesses were likewise empowered to hold courts both civil and criminal.
When the city of Edinburgh was enclosed by walls in the middle ages, the wall only extended as far as St Mary Street, so the Canongate was outside the city of Edinburgh.
The reigning Sovereign often preferred to stay at the Abbey, rather than in the Castle, and in 1501 James IV (1488-1513) built a Palace for himself and his bride, Margaret Tudor (sister of Henry VIII). When the New Town of Edinburgh was built in the eighteenth century, the Canongate became somewhat rundown, as the nobility moved to the more fashionable streets to the north.
This decline continued and in the 1930s, there are reports of six and seven living in one room, each room of the house being the home of a family and twenty- four people sharing one lavatory and one water tap. There were as many as one hundred and fifty nine people living in one house on St John St. (The Kirk in the Canongate by Rev Ronald Selby Wright, Minister of Canongate Kirk from 1937-1977 and a member of Lodge Canongate Kilwinning).
When Scotland voted for a devolved Parliament in 1997, a site bordering the Canongate at Holyrood was chosen to build the award winning Parliament Building which together with a very busy tourist trade has seen the resurgence of the area again.
The picture to the left shows the foot (most easterly point) of the Canongate, with the edge of the New Parliament Building on the right, the Palace of Holyrood House, the official Edinburgh residence of the Reigning Monarch, and the remains of Holyrood Abbey to the left.
There is an atmosphere in the Canongate which is hard to describe. Great events took place in the area; many famous people rode or walked up the Canongate to Edinburgh. Perhaps it is best left to others to describe that mood. Here are a few examples from more famous writers who also felt the strong influence of the Canongate:
“Sic itur ad astra, (This is the path to heaven)” Such is the ancient motto attached to the armorial bearings of the Canongate, and which is inscribed, with greater or less propriety, upon all the public buildings, from the church to the pillory, in the ancient quarter of Edinburgh, which bears, or rather once bore, the same relation to the Good Town that Westminster does to London, being still possessed of the palace of the sovereign, as it formerly was dignified by the residence of the principal nobility and gentry.
Sir Walter Scott
Our claims in behalf of the Canongate are not the slightest or least interesting. We will not match ourselves except with our equals and with our equals in age only, for in dignity we admit of none. We boast being of the Court end of the town, possessing the Palace and the sepulchral remains of ancient Monarchs, and that we have the power to excite, in a degree unknown to the less honoured quarters of the city, the dark and solemn recollections of the ancient grandeur, which occupied the precincts of our venerable Abbey from the time of St David, till her deserted halls were once more glad, and her long silent echoes awakened, by the visit of our present Sovereign.
Sir Walter Scott
The very Canongate has a sort of sacredness in it.
Who could ever hope to tell all its story, or the story of a single wynd in it?
The way (to Holyrood) lies straight down the only great street of the Old Town, a street by far the most impressive in its character of any I have ever seen in Britain.
You did not shape the mountains, nor shape the shores; and the historical houses of your Canongate, and the broad battlements of your Castle, reflect honour upon you only through your ancestors.
The Palace of Holyrood-House stands on your left as you enter the Canongate. This is a street continued hence to the gate called Netherbow, which is now taken away; so that there is no interruption for a long mile, from the bottom to the top of the hill, on which the castle stands in a most imperial situation ….undoubtedly one of the noblest streets in Europe.
The pilgrim strolls away into the Canongate… and still the storied figures of history walk by his side or come to meet him at every close and wynd. John Knox, Robert Burns, Tobias Smollett, David Hume, Dugald Stuart, John Wilson, Hugh Miller-Gray, led onward by the blythe and gracious Duchess of Queensberry, and Dr Johnson, escorted by the affectionate and faithful James Boswell, the best biographer that ever lived,- these and many more, the lettered worthies of long ago, throng into this haunted street and glorify it with the rekindled splendours of other days. You cannot be lonely here. This is it that makes the place so eloquent and so precious.
Down the street, too, often limped a little boy, Walter Scott by name, destined in after years to write its Chronicles. The Canongate once seen is never to be forgotten. The visitor starts a ghost with every step……. On the intellectual man, living or working in Edinburgh, the light comes through the stained window of the past. Today’s event is not raw or brusque; it comes draped in romantic colour, hued with ancient gules and or.
Hopefully, these quotations give a flavour of the magical area of Edinburgh which has been home to Lodge Canongate Kilwinning since before the granting of its Charter in 1677.