On the 3rd of February, 1700, a major fire occurred in Edinburgh.
Every day for centuries, lots and lots of people have lit fires in Edinburgh. Whether logs or coal or briquettes or moss peat, folks need some heat. However, once or thrice, at least, fires have raged out of control through Auld Reekie’s streets. On one particular occasion, on the 3rd of Feburary, 1700, just over three years before the formation of Edinburgh’s first ever official Fire Brigade, a severe fire destroyed many buildings around Parliament Close. At that time, the population of Edinburgh was estimated to have been between 50,000 and 60,000 souls – that’s live human beings, not imagined ‘afterlife-lings’. The Lesser Great Fire of 1700 was truly dreadful and, according to ‘Maitland’s History of Edinburgh’, it “broke out at the north eastern corner of the Meal Market, about ten of the clock on Saturday night, on the third of February, all that magnificent pile of buildings (exclusive of the Treasury Room) on the eastern and southern sides of the Parliament Close, with the Exchange, were destroyed.”
Some of the buildings destroyed in the fire of 1700 were fifteen storeys high – Europe’s original skyscrapers. In fact, as reported in Blackwood’s Magazine of December 1824, the later Greater Great Fire of 1824 “broke out in the upper floor of a house on the south side of the Parliament Square remarkable as being the highest building in Edinburgh and further as having been built on the site of a house of no less than fifteen floors which was destroyed along with all the other buildings on the south and east sides in a memorable fire which happened in 1700.” The overcrowding in the limited space of the Old Town was what led to the buildings being expanded skywards. The lower floors were inhabited by merchants and artisans like Deacon Brodie, who had their own shops and, on the upper floors, where you might expect to find the upper class, you’d find instead the poorest of Edinburgh’s residents. In between is where you’d find the likes of advocates and doctors.
Some of the tallest tenements in the City were built on the south side of Parliament Square, because of the steep fall of the ground down to the Cowgate. And originally, George IV Bridge, northwards from today’s Central Library, also consisted of tenements towering over the Grassmarket and West Bow. Quite unbelievable you might think, but Robert Louis Stephenson captured the City’s authentic heights in the latter stages of ‘Kidnapped’, when his character of David Balfour passed in by the West Kirk and the Grassmarket on his way into the City. About noontime, as the novel’s first person hero approaches, he recollects that the height of the buildings ran “up to ten and fifteen storeys.” Young David goes on to describe “narrow arched entries that continually vomited passengers,” and breathes life into a scene where “the wares of the merchants, the hubbub and endless stir, the foul smells and the fine clothes… struck [him] into a kind of stupor of surprise.”
In the 1700s, Parliament Square was the hub of the Old Town. There you could find book sellers, watchmakers and goldsmiths shops, just like you can today, albeit now mixed up with souvenir shops and the like. Back in the 18th Century, merchants met to conduct their business at the Mercat Cross, where incidentally, the Marquess of Montrose was executed, and lawyers could be seen heading for the courts. The famous quadrant was first constructed in 1632 and Parliament House, which ultimately gave its name to the Square, was built in 1641. It was intended not only to accommodate the Parliament, but also the Court of Session and it was erected on the site of the old graveyard of St. Giles’ Kirk. The graveyard was officially closed in 1566, but tradition has it that an exception was made for John Knox, whose last resting place is said to marked by a yellow square, near to the statue of Charles II – where these days, folks can park their cars. Ye maun wonder what the ‘Great Reformer’ would mak o’ that transformation.
Parliament House was threatened by the Lesser Great Fire of 1700. It was used by the Scottish Parliament until the Treaty of Union, in 1707, and has remained largely unchanged since the time when it could be described as “the busiest and most populous nook of the Old Town.” Much of what you can see in the Square today was created in the early 1800s, with Parliament House getting its new classical facade courtesy of Robert Reid. At the time of the fire, in 1700, Parliament House was also home to what are now the National Archives of Scotland; what in those days was known as the Scottish Record Office. The archives date back to at least the 13th Century and its records were, for a time, held in Edinburgh Castle. Between 1662 and 1689, they were removed to the Parliament House on the Royal Mile. Maybe the fire was started by some auld mannie trying to do something about the terrible damp that saw cupboards in the House running with moisture? The damp surely didnae dae the archives much good, but a fire was potentially fatal. As Parliament House was threatened by the fire, the records were removed, temporarily, to St. Giles’ Kirk, for safety’s sake.
One of the buildings destroyed in the Lesser Great Fire of 1700 was a house off Parliament Close, which housed a library. That book repository was the embryonic National Library of Scotland – as envisaged. Finally, in 1925, the National Library formally come into existence; in the distinctive building that now stands opposite the Central Library on George IV Bridge. Amongst the Library’s treasures is Blind Harry’s ‘Wallace’ and it’s a very good thing that survived the fire. The National Library also contains numerous documents, including letters by Mary I, Queen of Scots; one of the copies of the National Covenant of 1638; and the order that brought about the Massacre of Glencoe in 1692.
Every school boy knows that the Bank of England was founded by a Scotsman, William Paterson, in 1694. So, not to be outdone, the very next year of 1695, an Englishman, John Holland it is said, rode north and founded the oldest bank in Scotland, the eponymous Bank of Scotland. The Bank’s first office was in Myln Square, until 1696, when it moved to Parliament Close. A poor decision it proved to be as it too became a victim of the Lesser Great Fire of 1700. After that, the Bank moved its office to Gourley’s Close. And finally, Maitland’s ‘History’ also quotes an Act of Parliament of the time, which enacted that “no building to be erected in the City thereafter, shall exceed five stories in height” and, in addition, even gave directions as to the thickness of the walls. Blackwood’s Magazine, the same of 1824, also noted that latter aspect of the Act had “not been attended to in any building erected within these fifty years.”