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Greater Grassmarket
Historic Trail Historic Trail
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Welcome to the Greater Grassmarket Historic Trail!

Step back in time with a walk around some of Edinburgh’s most historic and infamous landmarks. This free, self-guided trail takes around an hour to complete and you can start and finish wherever you like! Pick up a free Greater Grassmarket Historic Trail map in local shops, pubs and cafes, or read and listen online here - see map below- to the audio sections which reveal the true extent of the Grassmarket’s interesting and sometimes gruesome past... enjoy!  

Get your bearings Time Traveller!


The Hidden Bridge

Named after King George IV this 300 metre 'elevated' street is in fact a multi-arched bridge, linking the junction of Chambers Street and Candlemaker Row. It offers unique '3D' views down into the Grassmarket. Completed by architect Thomas Hamilton in 1832 to provide more effective access to the Old Town from the expanding southern suburbs, the bridge was part of Hamilton's plan for the new Southern Approach which was first proposed in the Scots Magazine in 1817.

Construction of the bridge meant the demolition of John Dowie's tavern, a popular establishment in Georgian Edinburgh frequented by Scottish poet Robert Burns and philosopher and historian David Hume. Two of the arches supporting the bridge are visible in the Cowgate and Merchant Street, with the others providing cellars and basements for the various towering buildings, such as the 1890 Edinburgh Central Library which rises up from the Cowgate and soars well above street level. To hear more about the construction of King George IV Bridge and John Dowie's Tavern tune into the audio guide.

Named after King George IV, this 300 meter long 'elevated' street is in fact an impressive multi-arched bridge. It was completed by architect Thomas Hamilton in 1832 to provide more effective access to the Old Town from the south. The bridge provides unique '3D' views down into the Grassmarket. To hear more about the construction of King George IV Bridge and John Dowie's Tavern tune into the audio guide.

The Noisy Neighbours of the West Bow

The steep incline of the old West Bow was originally the only access to the Lawnmarket and Edinburgh Castle from the west. Its path is preserved today by steps leading up from Victoria Street towards the Upper Bow. Originally home to tinsmiths and copper and pewter workers in the 1600s this would have been an incredibly noisy place to live. The area was transformed by the creation of Victoria Street (1829-1834) which curves downhill from George IV Bridge into the Grassmarket.

This street is a visual feast and features a plethora of unique and colourful, individually designed Georgian shop fronts on the lower level. Above are restaurants and cafes nestling along the mezzanine terrace overlooking the street below. The Scots Baronial India Buildings at the top of Victoria Street were constructed by architect David Cousins in 1864. It was designed for businesses to store items ready for shipment to trading contacts in India. To hear more about the development of this area and self-proclaimed 'tinklarian' William Mitchell, tune into the audio guide.

Home to tinsmiths in the 1600s the West Bow would have been a noisy place to live with constant clanking and banging sounds. The street curves downhill into the Grassmarket and was completed in 1834. Featuring individually designed 17th – 19th century shop fronts on the lower level with a mezzanine terrace overlooking the street below, it's a visual feast. As one of Edinburgh's most photographed streets it offers fantastic views of the Grassmarket and George Heriot's School beyond.To hear more about the development of this area and self-proclaimed 'tinklarian' William Mitchell, tune into the audio guide.

The Wizard of West Bow

Born in Lanarkshire in 1599 The Wizard of West Bow, Major Thomas Weir, began his adult life in the Covenanter Army. This force was formed to maintain the independence of the Scottish Presbyterian church from royal influence. He fought in Cromwell's Puritan army to suppress Catholicism in Ireland and, after retiring from army life, he moved to Edinburgh with his sister Jean and took up the position of captain of the town guard - a law enforcement and security force of the time. He had a reputation of being a fiery preacher and at one event confessed to being a witch. He claimed to have made a pact with the devil in return for the authority and adoration he enjoyed from the local people. He and Jean were both arrested and sentenced to death. Neighbours confirmed sightings of his ghost and strange lights from within his former home with sounds of laughter and revelry. To hear more about The Wizard of West Bow tune into the audio guide.

Major Thomas Weir known as The Wizard of the West Bow was burned at the stake in 1670 and his sister Jean was hanged in the Grassmarket. People have claimed to see the major and Jean riding down the street in a fiery coach driven by the devil. To hear more about The Wizard of West Bow tune into the audio guide.

The Most Wretched Close in Edinburgh

Much of this area was demolished in the 19th century as the medieval buildings were in ruins. Nearby Warden's Close was home to Hatter's Land, described in the 1850s as 'perhaps the most wretched close in Edinburgh'. Up to 70 people lived in unimaginably cramped conditions, in just one room.

Magdalen Chapel (1541-44), located at the start of the Cowgate is one of the few buildings to have survived. Somewhat gruesomely, after the Glorious Revolution of 1688 the heads and hands of martyred Covenanters, which had previously been exhibited at Edinburgh's ports (gates) were gathered together at the chapel prior to interment in Greyfriars churchyard. The middle window in the south wall has the only pre-Reformation stained glass in Scotland still intact. You can arrange to visit Magdalen Chapel on selected days of the week. To hear more description of this area tune into the audio guide.

Described as 'perhaps the most wretched close in Edinburgh', Warden's Close and the surrounding area was rife with killer diseases such as cholera. Often, up to 70 people were living in one room.

Magdalen Chapel (1541-44) is located at the start of The Cowgate and is one of the few buildings to have survived. It has the only pre-Reformation stained glass in Scotland still intact.To hear more description of this area tune into the audio guide.

The Candle Makers

The stench caused by the city's candle makers in the 16th and 17th centuries was so unbearable and risk of fire breaking out so high, that city authorities decreed all candle makers must carry on their trade outside the main city boundary. So Candlemaker Row was born. Next to Greyfriars Bobby's Bar is Candlemakers Hall, built in 1722 by James Watson. Above the door are the remnants of the candle makers' coat of arms with the motto of 'Omnia manifesta luce', meaning 'Everything clearly seen'. However, the advent of gas lighting meant the end of the candle makers and by 1847 there were only three members remaining in the guild. The street then became more associated with accommodating 'carriers' (transporters of goods) in local inns. Paterson's Inn, in particular, was well known as the place to board a horse-drawn carriage (coach) bound for Hawick and the Borders. To hear more about candle making and this area tune into the audio guide.

The stink caused by the city's candle making industry was so unbearable and the risk of fire was so high the candle makers were banished outside the old city boundary to Candlemaker Row. Next to Greyfriars Bobby's Bar is Candlemakers Hall, built in 1722. At the other end of the street lies the graveyard of Greyfriars Kirk, the final resting place of many prominent Edinburgh citizens.To hear more about candle making and this area tune into the audio guide.

The Highest Point in Edinburgh

Prior to the construction of Victoria Street, access from the Grassmarket to the Lawnmarket was via the West Bow, a steeply sloped and narrow lane. The construction of Victoria Street demolished much of the old West Bow and provided links to the Royal Mile via the steep steps leading up to Victoria Terrace and the newly built George IV Bridge. On the main corner stands The Hub, constructed between 1842 and 1844. One of the city's iconic Gothic landmarks The Hub boasts the highest spire in central Edinburgh, standing at 241 feet. A combination of award-winning contemporary design and classic Victorian architecture, it was designed by architects James Gillespie Graham and Augustus Welby Pugin. In 1999 the building was transformed and now provides performance space and a ticket office for the Edinburgh International Festival. To hear the story of Dr Robert Guthrie, a local preacher who built 'Ragged Schools' to educate and care for local children, tune into the audio guide.

The construction of Victoria Street provided a new link to the Royal Mile and Johnston Terrace via steps from Victoria Terrace. The Hub was constructed originally as a church and offices for the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. Built between 1842 and 1844 it is one of the city's iconic landmarks and boasts the highest Gothic spire in central Edinburgh, standing at 241 feet.To hear the story of Dr Robert Guthrie, a local preacher, who built 'Ragged Schools' to educate and care for local children, tune into the audio guide.

Cattle, Crowds and Hangings

The Grassmarket was originally home to cattle and horse markets but from around 1660 it was also the site of many public hangings. In the 1680s over a hundred Covenanters were hanged in the market because of their religious beliefs during a period which became known as 'The Killing Time'.

From the 1800s onwards the area became known for the All Hallows Horse Fair, an annual gathering of cattle and horse dealers which attracted a colourful mix of fortune tellers, street performers and acrobats. The Mission Hall was founded by James Fairbairn in 1886 to help the poor and the engraving is still visible on the sign above 'The Smallest Pub in Scotland'.

Maggie Dickson's pub next door is named after a local fish hawker who became known as 'Half-Hangit' Maggie. She was hanged in the Grassmarket in 1724 but came back to life in her coffin.To hear the story of Maggie Dickson tune into the audio guide.

The Grassmarket was originally home to the central livestock market but from around 1660 it was also the site of hundreds of public hangings. Over a hundred Covenanters were hanged here during a period which became known as ‘The Killing Time’. From the 1800s onwards the area became known for the All Hallows Horse Fair, an annual gathering of cattle and horse dealers which attracted a colourful mix of street performers. To hear the story of Maggie Dickson and how she came to be hanged in the Grassmarket tune into the audio guide.

The White Hart Inn and The West Port Murders

The White Hart Inn is central Edinburgh's oldest pub and the cellar is said to date as far back as 1516 with the building above dated at 1740. Scottish bard Robert Burns stayed here on his last visit to the city in 1791. It is believed to be the most haunted pub in Edinburgh with many reports of strange happenings over the years. Two of its most infamous patrons were known as the 'West Port Murderers', William Burke and William Hare, whose grinning faces can still be seen on the pub's beams. In 1828 they enticed several of their fellow patrons back to their nearby lodgings in the West Port before murdering them and selling their corpses to Dr Robert Knox for his local Anatomy School. Public executions were held at the site of the gallows just a few hundred steps east of the pub and the bloodthirsty crowds would have kept the innkeeper extremely busy. Hanging is thirsty work, after all! To hear more about Burke and Hare tune into the audio guide.

The White Hart Inn is central Edinburgh's oldest pub with the cellar dating as far back as 1516. It is said to be the city's most haunted pub. Two of its infamous patrons were the notorious West Port murderers William Burke and William Hare. Scottish bard Robert Burns is believed to have stayed at the Inn in 1791. To hear more about Burke and Hare tune into the audio guide.

Markets, Fairs and The Flodden Wall

The Grassmarket has remained virtually unchanged since medieval times. It has hosted regular cattle fairs and markets for several centuries. Stables and yards were built behind the houses in the Grassmarket for cattle to be fattened before being taken to market. The Corn Exchange was situated here from 1716 until 1852, located at the rear of the Flodden Wall. Sizeable remains of the wall are still visible at both the Vennel and in Greyfriars Kirkyard. In 2008 archaeologists discovered further remains during a Grassmarket redevelopment. At the King's Stables Road end of the Grassmarket the line of the Flodden Wall is now marked out in granite paving stones. The new Corn Exchange was built in 1849 and occupied the site at 31-35 Grassmarket which is now a hotel. To hear more about The Flodden Wall tune into the audio guide.

The historic Grassmarket has remained virtually unchanged since medieval times being used for cattle fairs and markets for centuries. Stables and yards were built nearby for the cattle to be fattened before being taken to market. As the King's Stables Road name suggests the King's horses were housed here close to the castle. To hear more about The Flodden Wall which you can still see at The Vennel and in Greyfriars Kirkyard, tune into the audio guide.

Jousting, Stables and Slaughter Houses

King’s Stables Road was named after the royal stables located here including the ‘great stable’ which dated as far back as 1335. The area was used during medieval times by Scottish Kings for jousting tournaments which were hugely popular.

A chapel was set up nearby, commemorated today with the names of Chapel Wynd and Lady Wynd. It was used to take oaths before combat and for taking care of the resulting wounded and dead. The area was still being used to fight duels as late as 1602.

During the Victorian period the area’s connection with animals continued, including stabling for ‘John Croall’s Horse Bazaar’. Slaughter houses and tanneries would process animal hides and were all connected to the Grassmarket’s cattle markets. King’s Stables Road provides the shortest and easiest route around Edinburgh Castle rock through to Princes Street Gardens and Princes Street which connects the Grassmarket to the West End and city centre. To hear more about jousting tournaments in this area tune into the audio guide.

King’s Stables Road is named after the former royal stables dating as far back as 1335. The area was used over the centuries for elaborate jousting tournaments. It later housed stabling, slaughter houses and tanneries all linked to the Grassmarket’s cattle markets. The street provides the easiest route around Edinburgh Castle rock through to Princes Street Gardens. To hear more about jousting tournaments in this area tune into the audio guide.

Monarchs and Murderers

Once one of the main entrances to the city, West Port was often the route taken by grand royal ceremonial processions. These included Mary of Guise in 1538, King James VI in 1579 and his wife Anne of Denmark in 1590. The last was the most spectacular entrance, with the Queen transported in an ornate silver coach drawn by eight horses and covered by a huge purple canopy. Scottish and Danish noblemen led the procession along with 24 youths dressed in silver, with gold chains around their necks, legs and arms, and visors covering their faces.

West Port was also the site of Log's Lodging House run by infamous murderers William Hare and his partner, Helen McDougall. He and William Burke murdered up to 17 victims between 1827 and 1829 in what became known as the 'West Port Murders'. They sold the bodies to Dr Knox who owned a nearby anatomy school for medical research. When Burke and Hare were eventually caught, Hare agreed to give evidence and escaped punishment. Burke was declared guilty and executed on 28 January 1829. To hear more about the royal processions and Burke and Hare tune into the audio guide.

West Port was one of the main entrances to the city and often the route taken by royal ceremonial processions. It was also home to the lodging house run by notorious murderer William Hare and his wife Margaret. Burke and Hare murdered up to 17 victims between 1827 and 1829 in what became known as the infamous 'West Port Murders'. To hear more about the royal processions and Burke and Hare tune into the audio guide.

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