Holyrood and Canongate in Edinburgh

By a not unnatural transition we pass from Dryburgh, so connected with Scott’s personal and poetical history, to Holyrood and the Canongate in Edinburgh, which he has rendered scarcely less interesting memorials of himself, by making the neighbourhood the locality of some of the most stirring and admirable scenes of his prose fictions. “This is the path to Heaven,” saith the motto attached to the armorial bearings of the Canongate: alas! too many have found that if it was so, it was in anything but the sense originally intended by the words: it is to be hoped they did find Heaven, but it was Death that, lurking in the palace, opened the door. We have not here, however, to deal with the palace of Holyrood, but the ancient abbey of the same name, founded by David I., and under circumstances truly miraculous, if we may believe Hector Brece, whose account we here abridge and modernize. David, who was crowned king of Scotland at Scone, in 1124, came to visit the Castle of Edinburgh three or four years after. At this time there was about the castle a great forest full of harts and hinds. “Now was the Rood-day coming, called the Exaltation of the Cross, and, because the same was a high solemn dav, the king passed to his contemplation. After the masses were done with vast solemnity and reverence, appeared before him many young and insolent barons of Scotland, right desirous to have some pleasure and solace by chace of hounds in the said forest. At this time was with the king a man of singular and devout life, named Alkwine, Canon of the order of St. Augustine, who was long time confessor afore to King David in England, the time that he was Earl of Huntingdon and Northumberland.” Alkwine used many arguments to dissuade the king from going to the hunt. “Nevertheless, his dissuasion little availed, for the king was finally so provoked, by inopportune solicitation of his barons, that he passed, notwithstanding the solemnity of the day, to his hounds.” As the king was coming through the vale that lay to the east from the castle, subsequently named the Canongate, the stag passed through the wood with such din of bugles and horses, and braying of dogs, that “all the beasts were raised from their dens. Now was the king coming to the foot of the crag, and all his nobles severed, here and there, from him, at their game and solace, when suddenly appeared to his sight the fairest hart that ever was seen before with living creature.” There seems to have been something awful and mysterious about the appearance and movements of this hart which frightened King David’s horse past control, and it ran away over mire and moss, followed by the strange hart, “so fast that he threw both the king and his horse to the ground. Then the king cast back his hands between the horns of this hart, to have saved him from the stroke thereof,” when a miraculous Holy Cross slid into the king’s hands, and remained, while the hart fled away with great violence. This occurred “in the same place where now springs the Rood Well.” The hunters, affrighted by the accident, gathered about the king from all parts of the wood, to comfort him, and fell on their knees, devoutly adoring the holy cross, which was not a common, but a heavenly piece of workmanship, “for there is no man can show of what matter it is of, metal or tree.” Soon after the king returned to his castle, and, in the night following, he was admonished, by a vision in his sleep, to build an abbey of canons regular in the same place where he had been saved by the cross. Alkwine, his confessor, by no means “suspended his good mind,” and the king sent his trusty servants to France and Flanders, who “brought right crafty masons to build this abbey,” dedicated “in the honour of this holy cross.” The cross remained for more than two centuries in the monastery, but when David II., son of Robert Bruce, set out on his expedition against the English, he took the cross with him; and when he was taken prisoner at the battle of Neville’s Cross, the cross shared the monarch’s fate. It subsequently became an appendage of Durham Cathedral. The abbey to which the cross had belonged received still more direct injury at the hands of the English in later times. When the Earl of Hertford (afterwards Protector Somerset) was in Scotland in 1544, he gratified his fanaticism by the ruin of the stately abbey, leaving nothing of all its numerous and beautiful buildings but the body of the church, which became the parish church. This was subsequently made the Chapel Royal: and royally and elegantly it appears to have been fitted up, with its organ, and its stalls for the Knights of the Thistle; but the Presbyterians, scandalized not only at the organ, but at the mass that was performed in the chapel during the reign of the second James, once more destroyed it, at the Revolution. During the excitement the very graves were stripped of their contents; among the rest Darnley’s remains were exposed and his skull purloined. His thigh-bones were of such gigantic size as to confirm the truth of the statements as to his stature, seven feet.

Of the monument in the belfry, of Richard, Lord Belhaven, who died in 1639, Burnet relates the following anecdote in his ‘History of his own Time:’—Charles I., in the third year of his reign, sent the Earl of Nithsdale into Scotland with a power to take the surrender of all church lands, and to assure those who readily surrendered that the king would take it kindly and use them well, but that he would proceed with all rigour against those who would not submit their rights to his disposal. “Upon his coming down,” continues Burnet, “those who were most concerned in such grants met at Edinburgh, and agreed that when they were called together, if no other argument did prevail to make the Earl of Nithsdale desist, they would fall upon him and all his party in the old Scottish manner and knock them on the head. Primrose told me one of these lords, Belhaven, of the house of Douglas, who was blind, bid them set him by one of the party, and he would make sure of one. So he was set next to the Earl of Dumfries: he was all the while holding him fast; and when the other asked him what he meant by that, he said, ever since the blindness was come on him he was in such fear of falling, that he could not help holding fast to those who were next to him. He had all the while a poignard in his other hand, with which he had certainly stabbed Dumfries if any disorder had happened.” Of the once magnificent abbey there now only remains the exquisitely beautiful architectural relic shown in Fig. 732; those clustered columns and arches, and windows and walls, are now the only memorial of that wealthy and potential community, whom King David made the owners of so many priories, and churches, and lands, the enjoyers of privileges of market and borough, the lords of courts of regality, the dispensers of those curious modes of determining guilt or innocence—trial by duel, or by the fire and water ordeal. These ruins alone survive to remind us of the greater ruin of which they form the symbol.