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Sic Itur Ad Astra: Welcome To The Canongate

The Canongate wasn’t even part of Edinburgh until 1636. It used to be a burgh in its own right, seperated from Edinburgh by a structure called the Netherbow, one of the city gates. It went across the High Street where St. Mary’s Street and Jeffrey Street meet today. The gate was a small opening compared to the rest of the structure, which featured two round towers at either side, and a large tower reaching high above the centre,, complete with clock and weather vane. It looked like something out of a fairy tale, until it was demolished in 1764.

The Canongate is about a third of a mile long, sloping downhill into Holyrood. When it was a separate burgh, the burgh motto was “Sic Itur Ad Astra”, which literally means “Thus we go to the stars”- implying their small burgh was the pathway to Heaven. In these days, the Canongate was a very fashionable area to live in, populated by dukes, earls and the like.

One of the most recognisable features of Old Edinburgh is the Canongate Tolbooth. It has distinctive turrets and a large clock projecting from high on the wall. Built in 1591, it served as a jail, courthouse and home to the City Chambers for about a hundred years. In the late 1600s it was found to be inadequate as the main jail and turned into a debtor’s prison, a much nicer class of place to be imprisoned than the Grassmarket Tolbooth. It remained a debtor’s prison until 1817. Then, the prison buildings on Calton Hill were built, and became the all-purpose city jail. The Canongate Tolbooth’s torture instruments, plus its lock and key, were donated to a museum. (Today, the lock and key are now in the Museum of Edinburgh, which is in Huntly House, right across the road from the Tolbooth itself. Huntly House has many Latin phrases carved into stones on its wall, earning it the nickname “The Speaking House”.)

The Canongate Tolbooth was converted into a Registrar’s Office, a library, and apartments for the caretaker to live in. The interior of the building was renovated in 1875. By the 1920s, it was a fire station and sub-police office. Then, in the 1950s, it was finally converted into a museum. Today, it’s still a museum, the People’s Story, dedicated to the lives of ordinary people in Edinburgh from the late 1790s to the late 1990s (and is home to some distinctly spooky museum models).

The Canongate Tolbooth backs onto a graveyard, belonging to the Canongate Parish Church. Gravestones there date from the late 1600s,as the building of the church began in 1688. The Canongate graveyard is the last resting place of poet Robert Fergusson, 150-1774, who you probably haven’t heard of. The monument to him was put there by Robert Burns, who you probably have heard of. His epitaph for Fergusson reads:
“No sculptured marble here, nor pompous lay
No storied Urn, nor animated Bust;
This simple stone directs pale Scotia’s way
To pour her Sorrows o’er her Poet’s Dust.”

Fergusson died in Bedlam asylum, near Greyfriars Graveyard, at the age of 24.

In the late 1500s, the Canongate had a small outbreak of witch-burning. Among the accused were Janet Stewart, Lady Bothwell (“ane auld indytit witch of the finest stamp”) and Richie Graham (“a noture and knawin necromancer”). He was burnt in 1592 at the Mercat Cross (by St. Giles church.)

Janet Stewart and three others, whose names are unknown, were charged and convicted of witchery, sorcery and using incantations, by a complaint dated 12th November 1597, made by Andro Pennycuik. She was also accused of “wytching” Bessie Inglis in the Cowgate. Apparently she learned her craft from an Italian named Johnne Damiet (“ane notorious knawin enchanter and sorcerer lykwyse dane under pretex o’ wytchcraft.”) Janet, and the three others, were sentenced to death. The three unnamed people were burnt, but Janet pleaded pregnancy. After giving birth, she was banished.
Almost a century later, on 26 September 1679, Janet Hill committed suicide while in prison under trial for witchcraft. She was buried under the gallows, which were across the road from the Tolbooth.