The Oldest Buildings on Edinburgh's Royal Mile4th Aug 2022
The Oldest Buildings on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile
By Mark Clement, Mercat Storyteller
We do lots of history tours of Edinburgh’s Royal Mile which stretches from the volcanic Castle Rock, down the gently sloping spine of a glacial crag-and-tail formation, to the Palace of Holyroodhouse. It boasts many beautiful and historic buildings, is at the heart of the world’s biggest arts festival, and draws tourists from every corner of the globe. Here are a handful of the oldest buildings on this unique thoroughfare.
This restored 17th Century merchant’s house is now in the care of the National Trust for Scotland. Filled with antiques from the time, it gives a fascinating insight into tenement life in Edinburgh’s Old Town. It can be combined with a visit to its sister property, the Georgian House Museum, to understand the contrast between the Old and New Towns. The ground floor houses an ice cream parlour.
St. Giles' Cathedral
Sometimes referred to as a Cathedral, Edinburgh’s High Kirk was only briefly the seat of a bishop in the 17th Century. The site has been a place of worship since the 9th Century, though the oldest surviving parts of the structure are a couple of the central pillars which date from the 1100s. The distinctive crown spire dates from the 15th Century, and is modelled on the Scottish Crown which forms part of the crown jewels on display in the castle.
Built in the 1630s to house a breakaway congregation from St. Giles' during a period of religious upheaval, the Tron Kirk takes its name from a weighing beam which once stood nearby. It was badly damaged in the Great Fire of Edinburgh in 1824, during which the original spire was completely destroyed. No longer used as a church, the Tron has been used for various different purposes over the years. It hosted an exhibition by Edinburgh World Heritage and is now in the care of Scottish Historic Buildings Trust.
The oldest occupied residential building in Edinburgh, parts of Moubray House are thought to date back to the 1470s. The English writer Daniel Defoe stayed here in the aftermath of the Treaty of Union in 1707. He was actually a spy, and was reporting back to the English government about the mood in Scotland at that time. He reported that most Scots disliked the union, but were unlikely to rise up in armed rebellion.
John Knox House
Next door to Moubray House, John Knox House dates from 1490. The connection to John Knox, a prominent figure of the Scottish Reformation, is a rather tenuous one. Knox never owned the house, but he is thought to have died there. At the time, the building was owned by James Mosman, a prominent Catholic who was holed up in the castle during the Lang Siege. However, the building’s association with Knox probably saved it from demolition more than once. It is now owned by the Church of Scotland and run alongside the Scottish Storytelling Centre.
The Canongate used to be a separate town from Edinburgh, and as such had its own Tolbooth – a multi-purpose prison, police station, council headquarters and tax office. While Edinburgh’s Tolbooth was demolished in 1817, the Canongate one survives. Built in 1591, its distinctive clock tower makes it one of the most visually striking buildings on the Royal Mile. It is now home to the People’s Story exhibition – one of Edinburgh’s free council-run museums which gives a social history of Edinburgh.
This large mansion house dates back to 1681, and was home to the 2nd Duke of Queensberry who was one of the key figures behind the Treaty of Union in 1707. It was also the site of a very gruesome incident which you’ll hear described on our Doomed, Dead and Buried tour. Later it was used as a hospital for many years, but it has now been incorporated into the Scottish Parliament – ironically the very institution its former owner worked so hard to abolish.
St. Margaret's Chapel
The oldest building in all of Edinburgh is St. Margaret's Chapel - it sits within the grounds of Edinburgh Castle and was built by King David I around the year 1130 making it close to 900 years old! There were once other buildings in the castle grounds built around this time, but they were destroyed during wars and sieges. The chapel itself fell into disrepair during the 17th century, but was restored during the 1800s with stained glass windows added in the 1900s featuring St Andew, St Margaret, St Columba, and William Wallace. You can see and enter the chapel when visiting the castle
Now you've reached the end of the list, why not see them for yourself? We cover some of these on our Secrets of Edinburgh's Royal Mile and Treasures of the Old Town tours, plus as noted, Queenberry house on our Doomed, Dead and Buried ghost tour! There's plenty to see in Edinburgh, don't miss out and be sure to sign up to our newsletter for more blogs, giveaways, and more.