Edinburgh Past And Present - The Edinburgh Website

Stories of Old Edinburgh


On the night of Monday 15th November 1824, fire broke out at a printers housed in a seven storey building in Old Assembly Close. Less than an hour later, neighbouring buildings were alight and the offices of the local Courant newspaper were destroyed. The fire then swept backwards down to the Cowgate destroying old buildings laden with timber. The whole area was showered by sparks which accelerated the spread of the fire. To the west however, the spread was halted by the fact a building was a storey higher. It was only at about 9am the following morning that the fire began to abate and by midday it seemed to have burnt itself out but then the the Tron Kirk steeple was seen to be alight. Firemen used long ladders to reach the lead covered wooden steeple but to no avail - the steeple came crashing to the ground. The heat was so great that a large two ton bell hung in 1673 was fused but luckily they managed to save the kirk itself. It was still not over as that evening fire broke out in an eleven storey building south of Parliament Square. It burned furiously throughout the night and destroyed large parts of the Square. The fire was finally extinguished for good by 8am the following morning. £200,000 worth of damage was done, nearly 400 families lost their homes and at least 8 people lost their lives. One of the consequences of this fire was the purchase of several new engines and the organisation of a proper fire brigade.

On Saturday 7th December 2002 another great fire hit the headlines when fire broke out in a building in the Cowgate. It spread upwards through the heavily divided building that reached up to South Bridge. Thirteen businesses were lost but luckily no one was killed or injured and it took until Monday before the fire was finally extinguished. The building had to be demolished.

  Old Assembly Close


Captain John Porteous was a soldier and also captain of the town guard, the predecessor of the police force. In April 1736 he was in charge of public order at the hanging of Andrew Wilson, a smuggler who had the public's sympathies. So strong were the crowd's feelings that the hangman had to be given protection. After the execution the onlookers became violent and so Captain Porteous gave the order to fire into the crowd, killing 6 and wounding 12. For this he was imprisoned and sentenced to be executed but at the last minute he was given a royal reprieve. This was not popular and so a mob broke into the city Tolbooth (jail) on 7th September and seized Porteous. He was hanged in the Grassmarket. Political opinion in London was outraged and an inquiry was held in the House of Lords but the perpetrators were never caught. A plaque exists today in the Grassmarket where he was hung.


After 11pm on the night of December 31st 1811, bands of young men armed with bludgeons roamed the streets looking for trouble. A clerk, George Edmonstone, was attacked at Fleshmarket Close by a gang of between 12 and 20 young lads who demanded money from him. Before he could get his money out, he was attacked with sticks and knocked down. The tried to steal his watch but it broke and they made off with only the seal and ribbon. William Robertson, a stoneware merchant, was attacked on South Bridge, being pinned to the wall and robbed of a large amount of cash, watch chain, seal and pocket book. He claimed to have been surrounded by 40 or 50 lads. He too was attacked by sticks.William Jolly was also attacked and robbed of his silk purse.

The leaders of the gang were intent on attacking the police and threw stones and orange boxes at them. Several citizens were knocked down by the gang as well as some police officers.

A policeman, Dugald Campbell and a clerk, James Campbell both died from the injuries received by the gang. Two rewards of 100 guineas each were offered and several youths were arrested but 3 were tried for murder at the High Court on March 20th. Hugh Mcdonald, Hugh Mcintosh and Neil Sutherland were found guilty of robbery and murder and were hanged opposite Stamp Office Close where the policeman had been killed. All three were under 18 years old.

The execution caused a tremendous sensation in the city and was used as a deterrant to others. As a result of this riot, the police were reorganised.

  Greyfriar's Bobby

GREYFRIARS BOBBY - 1858 - 1872

One of Edinburgh's best known stories. Bobby was a watch dog owned by a police constable called John Gray and on his master's death in 1858, Bobby spent the rest of his days lying on his master's grave in Greyfriars Churchyard. The keeper of the graveyard tried on many occasions to evict Bobby but in the end relented and gave him some shelter by the grave. It is said that on hearing the one o'clock gun, Bobby would leave the grave for the nearby coffee house where he had gone with his master and would receive a meal. The local people looked after him but for fourteen years until his death in 1872, he never left his master.


Edinburgh was scandalised in March 1788 to learn of the story of William Brodie, a highly respected former member of the town council and Deacon of the incorporation of wrights (carpenters). He had a secret life and at night became someone altogether different from his public image. To support his two mistresses, several children and gambling habit, he was the leader of a group of burglars who had baffled the authorities and frightened the citizens for 18 months.

Part of Brodie's day job as a carpenter involved him handling people's locks and keys. This enabled him to copy door keys and return with his 3 accomplices at a later date to steal, and he was very successful. His downfall came while robbing the Excise office on 5th March when an officer returned to collect papers. The officer was unaware of what was taking place but this encounter so frightened Brodie and his gang that they fled leaving behind over £600.They escaped unnoticed but one of the gang, John Brown, turned informer. This was partly out of disgust at the cowardice of his colleagues and partly for the reward on offer. When Deacon Brodie heard about this ( Brown initially withheld his name) he fled to Amsterdam.

Brodie made a huge mistake by entrusting a fellow passenger on a ship to Ostend with delivering letters to three friends in Edinburgh. When the man, John Geddes, returned to the city he realised from newspaper reports that it was William Brodie who had given him the letters so he informed the authorities. The information contained in the letters enabled a government agent in Holland to arrest Brodie, on the eve of his departure to America.

Deacon Brodie was put on trial in Edinburgh with one of his accomplices and sentenced to death, despite his efforts to have it changed to transportation. He was hanged at the Tolbooth and bribed the hangman into letting him wear a steel collar. Despite this arrangement he could not be revived.

The life of Deacon Brodie is commonly believed to have inspired Robert Louis Stevenson when he wrote Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.


Maggie Dickson was a fish wife from Musselburgh. She fell pregnant while her husband was working away and when she gave birth to the stillborn baby she hid the evidence. For this crime she was sentenced to by hung in Edinburgh's Grassmarket. She was hung for the required length of time and had her legs pulled to see if there were any signs of life. There was none so she was nailed in her coffin and her relatives began the long journey back to Musselburgh with the coffin in tow. On stopping for refreshments at Inveresk, noises were heard coming from the coffin, it was opened and Maggie Dickson was found to be alive. The official view was that no one could be hanged twice so she was free to continue with her life. She ran an ale house and mothered many children before dying from old age. She was known as Half Hangit Maggie and nowadays a pub bearing her name stands near the site of her failed execution.