This guest post comes from Sally Chalmers, the HES Learning Officer at Edinburgh Castle who has used Scran records to tell the story “From Castle to Palace”.
Mary, Queen of Scots, finally returned home to Scotland in August 1561. After years of living in France she was used to elaborate celebrations, so the arrival back to a haar and the bustle of Leith docks may have been disappointing. Her unusually fast crossing resulted in a lacklustre welcome. A few weeks later however, Mary was ready to make her real entrance to Scotland. In September 1561, she led a magnificent procession down the Royal Mile, beginning at Edinburgh Castle she proceeded to her residence at the Palace of Holyroodhouse.
Today, school visitors to Edinburgh Castle can walk in Mary’s footsteps using a trail developed by HES in partnership with Royal Collections Trust. The trail follows the length of the Royal Mile highlighting sites and landmarks which would have been there in 1561.
We are invited to cast our minds back and imagine walking the route by Mary’s side as she took in her old home and her new country.
Witches Well at the Royal Mile end of the Esplanade marks the site where over 300 witches and warlocks, mostly women, were victims of burnings from 1479 to 1722. Though it wasn’t there in Mary’s time, her son James took particular interest in witches, even questioning suspects of witchcraft himself during the infamous North Berwick witch trials.
The plaque inscription reads “This fountain, designed by John Duncan, RSA is near the site on which many witches were burned at the stake. The wicked head and the serene head signify that some used their exceptional knowledge for evil purposes, while others were misunderstood and wished their kind nothing but good. The serpent has the dual significance of evil and wisdom. The foxglove spray further emphasise the dual purpose of common objects.”
Gladstone’s Land now cared for by the National Trust, in Mary’s time this building would have belonged to a wealthy merchant. The merchant and other wealthy tenants would have lived in grand apartments on the upper floors, while the lower floors would be used as a shop and to house smellier residents, pigs! Today, you can still visit a shop but there are no longer any pigs.
Riddle’s Court was built in the 1590s by merchant, Bailie John McMorran, reputedly the richest merchant of his time. It sits just off the main street away from the noise and smells of the crowded tenements of the Royal Mile. Aristocratic people would rent rooms here and use it as a meeting space. Mary’s son, James VI, attended a lavish banquet here.
It is named after George Riddell, who rebuilt it in 1726.
Outside St.Giles’ Cathedral you can find a heart shape on the cobbles. In Mary’s time this was the site of the tollbooth – a court & prison. The heart marks the spot of the cell where prisoners would await execution.
Walking around the right side of the cathedral to the car park you’ll see a plaque in parking spot 23. This marks the grave of John Knox, a famous Scottish minister and one of Mary’s most vocal opponents.
The Mercat Cross showed that Edinburgh had the right to hold a regular market. It was also a site of public executions and formal proclamations (like the announcement of a new Queen). In Mary’s time, the Cross stood a little further down the street. You may be able to spot the cobbles that mark its previous position.
Site of the Luckenbooths In Mary’s time, tall tenement buildings stood beside St Giles. They were known as luckenbooths because on the ground level they had locked booths which housed shops. Imagine what sights and smells Mary must have experienced as she travelled past the bustling Luckenbooths.
John Knox House is now home to the Scottish Storytelling Centre, the building known as John Knox’s house is one of the oldest houses in Edinburgh. It is believed that John Knox did live there for a while but it was also home to James Mossman, Mary’s goldsmith and keeper of the royal mint. Mary, Knox and Mossman feature on the wooden panels on the front of the house.
The World’s End Walking along the mile you may spot a pub called the World’s End. This area was known as World’s End as it separated the Canongate (the lower Royal Mile) from the original city of Edinburgh. In Mary’s time, there would have been a gatehouse here. Sometime the gate here was used to display the heads of executed prisoners, perhaps there were some on display when Mary passed by, not knowing they foreshadowed her own eventual fate…
Today Huntly House is home the Museum of Edinburgh, it is typical of the type of housing in Mary’s time. It would have originally been made of wood but had to be rebuilt after being damaged during the Rough Wooing.
Canongate Kirk & David Rizzio’s Grave To the right of Canongate Kirk, you will find the plaque said to mark David Rizzio’s grave. Rizzio had been secretary to Mary and close confidant but he was brutally murdered in front of Mary, by a band of nobles including Mary’s own husband in 1566.
White Horse Close was the site of the royal mews or stable, where Mary kept her prized white horse, hence its name. Mary loved sports like riding and hunting, so her horses were important to her. The close became rather decayed and it was restored as modern housing in the 1960s.
Finally, we arrive at Mary’s destination The Royal Palace of holy rood hous.
This view shows Holyrood as it would have appeared at the time of Mary, Queen of Scots and before the fire during Cromwell’s occupation in 1650 when much of the building was destroyed.
Here we conclude the Castle to Palace trail.
Images © The British Library, Historic Environment Scotland, National Museums Scotland, National Galleries of Scotland, City of Edinburgh Libraries & Alan Daiches | Licensor Scran