The History of Leith

February 3, 2012

The Nether Bow

The interesting locality of the Nether Bow takes its name from the city gate, known as the Nether Bow Port, in contradistinction to the Upper Bow Port, which stood near the west end of the High Street. This barrier united the city wall from St.Mary’s Wynd on the south to the steep street known as Leith Wynd on the north, at a time when, perhaps, only open fields lay eastward of the gate,
stretching from the township to the abbey of Holyrood. The last gate was built in the time of James VI.; what was the character of its predecessor we have no means of ascertaining; but to repair it,in 1538, as the city cash had run low, the magistrates were compelled to mortgage its northern vault for 100 merks Scots; and this was the gate which the English, under Lord Hertford, blew open
with cannon stone-shot in 1544, ere advancing against the Castle. ” They hauled their cannons up the High Street by force of men to the Butter Tron, and above,” says Caldenvood, ” and hazarded
a shot against the fore entrie of the Castle (i.e.,the port of the Spur). But the wheel and axle of one of the English cannons was broken, and some of their men slain by shot of ordnance out of the
Castle; so they left that rash enterprise.”
In 1571, during the struggle between Kirkaldy and the Regent Morton, this barrier gate played a prominent part. According to the ” Diurnal of Occurrents,” upon the 22nd of August in that year, the Regent and the lords who adhered against the authority of the Queen, finding that they were totally excluded from the city, marched several bands of soldiers from Leith, their head-quarters, and concealed them under cloud of night in the closes and houses adjoining the Nether Bow Port.
At five on the following morning, when it was supposed that the night watch would be withdrawn, six soldiers, disguised as millers, approached the gates, leading horses laden with sacks of meal, which were to be thrown down as they entered, so as to preclude the rapid closing of them, and while they attacked and cut down the warders, with those weapons which they wore under their disguise, the men in ambush were to rush out to storm the town, aided by a reserve, whom the sound of their trumpets was to summon from Holyrood. ” But the eternal God,” says the quaint old journalist we quote, ” knowing the cruell murther that wold have beene done and committit vponn innocent poor personis of the said burgh, wold not thole this interpryse to tak successe ; but evin quhen the said meill was almaist at thejaort, and the said men of war, stationed in clois headis, in readinesse to enter at the back of the samyne;” it chanced that A burgher of the Canongate, named Thomas Barrie, passed out towards his house in the then separate burgh, and perceiving soldiers concealed on every hand, he returned and gave the alarm, on which the gate was at once barricaded, and the design of the Regent and his adherents baffled.
This gate having become ruinous, the magistrates in 1606, three years after James VI. went to England, built a new one, of which many views are preserved. It was a handsome building, and quite
enclosed the lower end of the High Street. The arch, an ellipse, was in the centre, strengthened by round towers and battlements on the eastern or external front, and in the southern tower there was a wicket for foot passengers. On the inside of the arch were the arms of the city. The whole building was crenelated, and consisted of two lofty storeys, having in the centre a handsome square
tower, terminated by a pointed spire. It was adorned by a statue of James VI., which was thrown down and destroyed by order of Oliver Cromwell, and had on it a Latin inscription, which runs thus in English :—
“Watch towers and thundr’ng walls vain fences prove
No guards to monarchs like their people’s love.
Jacobus VI. Rex, Anna Regina, 1606.”
This gate has been rendered remarkable in history by the extra-judicial bill that passed the House of Lords for razing it to the ground, in consequence of the Porteous mob. For a wonder, the
Scottish members made a stand in the matter, and as the general Bill, when it came to the Commons, was shorn of all its objectionable clauses, the Nether Bow Port escaped.
In June, 1737, when the officials of Edinburgh, who had been taken to London for examination concerning the riot, were returning, to accord them a cordial reception the citizens rode out in great
troops to meet them, while for miles eastward the road was lined by pedestrians. The Lord Provost,’ Alexander Wilson, a modest man, eluded the ovation by taking another route ; but the rest came in
triumph through the city, forming a procession of imposing length, while bonfires blazed, all the bells clanged and clashed as if a victory had been won over England, and the gates of the Nether Bow Port, which had been unhooked, were re-hung and closed amid the wildest acclamation.
In 1760 the Common Council of London having obtained an Act of Parliament to remove their city gates, the magistrates of Edinburgh followed suit without any Act, and in 1764 demolished the
Nether Bow Port, then one of the chief ornaments of the city, and like the unoffending Market Cross, a peculiarly interesting relic of the past. The ancient clock of its spire was afterwards placed
in that old Orphan’s Hospital, near Shakespeare Square, where it remained till the removal of the latter edifice in 1845, when the North British Railway was in progress, and it is now in the pediment between the towers of the beautiful Tuscan edifice built for the orphans near the Dean cemetery.

source-Old and New Edinburgh

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