The History of Leith

February 16, 2012


Of the plague, which in 1645 nearly depopulated the Canongate as well as the rest of Edinburgh, a singular memorial still remains, a little lower down the street, on the north side, in the form of
a huge square tenement, called the Morocco Land, from the effigy of a turbaned Moor, which projects from a recess above the second floor, and having an alley passing under it, inscribed with the following legend :—
Of the origin of this edifice various romantic stories are told : one by Chambers, to the effect that a young woman belonging to Edinburgh, having been taken upon the sea by an African rover, was sold to the harem of the Emperor of Morocco, whose favourite wife she became, and enabled her brother to raise a fortune by merchandise, and that in building this stately edifice he erected the black nude figure, with turban and necklace of beads, as a memorial of his royal brother-in-law; but the most complete and consistent outline of its history is that given by Wilson in his ” Memorials,” from which it would appear that during one of the tumults which occurred in the city after the accession of Charles I., the house of the Provost, who had rendered himself obnoxious to the rioters, was assaulted and set on fire. Among those arrested as a ringleader was Andrew Gray, a younger son of the Master of Gray, whose descendants inherit the ancient honours of Kinfauns, and who, notwithstanding the influence of his family, was tried, and sentenced to be executed on the second day thereafter.
On the very night that the scaffold was being erected at the Cross he effected his escape from the City Tolbooth by means of a rope conveyed to him by a friend, who had previously given some
drugged liquor to the sentinel at the Puir-folks purses, and provided a boat for him, by which he crossed the North Loch and fled beyond pursuit.
Time passed on, and the days of the great civil war came. ” Gloom and terror now pervaded the streets of the capital. It was the terrible year 1645—the last visitation of the pestilence to Edinburgh—when, as tradition tells us,” says Wilson, “grass grew thickly about the Cross, once as crowded a centre of thoroughfare as Europe could boast of.” The Parliament was compelled to sit at Stirling, and the Town Council, on the 10th of April, agreed with Joannes Paulitius, M.D., that he should visit the infected at a salary of £80 Scot

At this crisis a large armed vessel of peculiar rig and aspect entered the Firth of Forth, and came to anchor in Leith Roads. By experienced seamen she was it once pronounced to be an Algerine rover, and dismay spread over all the city. This soon reached a culminating point when a strong band landed from her, and, entering the Canongate by the Water Gate, advanced to the Netherbow Port and required admittance. The magistrates parleyed with their leader, who demanded an exorbitant ransom, and scoffed at the risk to be run in a plague-stricken city.
The Provost at this time was Sir John Smith, of Groat Hall, a small mansion-house near Craigleith, and he, together with his brother-in-law, Sir William Gray. Bart., of Pittendrum, a staunch Cavalier, and one of the wealthiest among the citizens, to whom we have referred in our account of Lady Stair’s Close, agreed to ransom the city for a large sum, while at the same time his eldest son was demanded by the pirates as a hostage. ” It seems, however,” says Wilson, “that the Provost’s only child was a daughter, who then lay stricken of the plague, of which her cousin, Egidia Gray, had recently died. This information seemed to work an immediate change on the leader of the Moors. After some conference with his men he’ intimated his possession of an elixir of wondrous
potency, and demanded that the Provost’s daughter should be entrusted to his skill, engaging that if he did not cure her immediately to embark with his men, and free the city without ransom. After considerable parley the Provost proposed that the leader should enter the city and take up an abode in his house.”
This was rejected, together with higher offers of ransom, till Sir John Smith yielded to the exhortations of his friends, and the proposal of the Moor was accepted, and the fair sufferer was borne to a house at the head of the Canongate, wherein the corsair had taken up his residence, and from thence she went forth quickly restored, and in health.
The most singular part of this story is its denouement, from which it would appear that the corsair and physician proved to be no other than the condemned fugitive Andrew Gray, who had risen high in the favour and service of the Emperor of Morocco.” He had returned to Scotland,” says Wilson, ” bent on revenging his own early wrongs on the magistrates of Edinburgh, when, to his surprise, he found in the destined object of his special vengeance a relation of his own. He married the Provost’s daughter, and settled down a wealthy citizen in the burgh of Canongate. The house to which his fair patient was borne, and whither he afterwards brought her as his bride, is still adorned with an effigy of his royal patron, the Emperor of Morocco, and the tenement has ever since borne the name of the Morocco Land We have had the curiosity to obtain a sight of the title-deeds of the property, which prove to be of recent date. The earliest, a disposition of 1731, so far confirms the tale that the proprietor at that date is John Gray, merchant, a descendant, it may be, of the Algerine rover and the Provost’s daughter.
The figure of the Moor has ever been a subject of popular admiration and wonder, and a variety of legends are told to account for its existence. Most of them, though differing in almost every other
point, seem to agree in connecting it with the last visitation of the plague.”

source-Old and New Edinburgh

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