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The many lives of Abbey Strand

Release date: Friday, 4 November 2016

For hundreds of years some of Edinburgh's most colourful characters have passed through the doors of the Abbey Strand buildings - from medieval monks and royal courtiers to brewers, brothel-keepers and debtors hiding from the law. Today this modest tenement is being restored and converted into a Learning Centre, providing spaces for school groups, families and adults to learn about and engage with the Palace and the Royal Collection.

The Abbey Strand buildings at the Palace of Holyroodhouse. The oldest section dates from around 1490.

The Abbey Strand buildings at the Palace of Holyroodhouse. The oldest section dates from around 1490. ©

Abbey Strand has had all manner of uses throughout its colourful history. The oldest section was built as part of a group of buildings connected with Holyrood Abbey around 1490 and may have been the Abbot's Mansion. Throughout the medieval period its main purpose was to provide welfare for the local community, as an almshouse, offering accommodation for poor or elderly people, and later as part of the hospital of St Leonard.

In 1541, while still owned by the hospital, the building was used by James V as a weapons store during preparations for the ill-fated campaign against the English that would result in defeat at Solway Moss. Two walls had to be removed to accommodate 3,500 pikes and 500 halberds (two-handed pole weapons). Just three years later, Abbey Strand was badly damaged during an English invasion, the first major action of the war of the 'Rough Wooing', in which Henry VIII attempted to force the Scots to agree to a marriage between his son Edward and the infant Mary, Queen of Scots.

James V of Scotland (1512-1542), who used Abbey Strand as a weapons store in 1541.

James V of Scotland (1512-1542), who used Abbey Strand as a weapons store in 1541. ©

When Mary, Queen of Scots moved into the Palace in 1561, Abbey Strand was extended to provide lodgings for her large court. By the time James VI took the throne, the royal court numbered up to 600 people, and Abbey Strand was in regular use by courtiers and ambassadors. The upper floors of the building were reached from a garden to the north, directly adjacent to the royal privy garden. After the Union of the Crowns in 1603, the court moved to London. Although royal visits to Edinburgh became rare,  Abbey Strand remained a high-status dwelling.

By the 1700s the area around the Palace of Holyroodhouse had become a place to escape the crowded city High Street and to walk, eat and, most importantly, drink. The ground floor of Abbey Strand was occupied by a brewery and a row of taverns – the Crown Inn, the Abbey Tavern and the Queen's Arms. The end of the building nearest the Palace was the home of a well-known brothel-keeper, Lucky Spence, who was immortalised by Edinburgh poet Allan Ramsay. 

A view of Abbey Strand in 1870, when Canongate locals used the area as a place of leisure.

A view of Abbey Strand in 1870, when Canongate locals used the area as a place of leisure. © Courtesy of HES (Jane Stewart Smith Collection).

In the late 18th century, fashionable society had moved to the New Town, and much of the Canongate became an industrial slum. The apartments in Abbey Strand were sub-divided further at the beginning of the 19th century, and another floor was added, providing homes for up to 25 families.

Abbey Strand was also well known as a sanctuary for debtors. Until imprisonment for debt was abolished in 1880, debtors who stayed within a five-mile circumference of Holyrood Abbey were protected from civil law and could not be arrested. They could even venture out into the town every Sunday, when legal proceedings were not allowed in Scotland. The Register of Protections for the Sanctuary of Holyrood in the National Records of Scotland names 6,502 people who claimed sanctuary within the Palace precincts between 1686 and 1880. In 1827 the novelist Sir Walter Scott considered taking refuge at Abbey Strand when in financial difficulty, and the author Thomas de Quincey is thought to have taken refuge at lodgings in the nearby Palace Yards between 1835 and 1840. 

In 1890, the eastern end of Abbey Strand housed a restaurant, a confectioner's, a tavern and a spirits merchant, which also offered curious visitors a view of 'Lord Darnley's waistcoat'.

In 1890, the eastern end of Abbey Strand housed a restaurant, a confectioner's, a tavern and a spirits merchant, which also offered curious visitors a view of 'Lord Darnley's waistcoat'. © Courtesy of Historic Environment Scotland (William Notman).

With its unsavoury reputation, it is unsurprising that Abbey Strand made the headlines several times in the 19th century. In 1848, newspapers reported how a resident painter stabbed himself in a fit of insanity and  'threw a quantity of gunpowder into the fire', badly burning his wife and two sons. In the 1850s a shoemaker, when making an opening in a wall to create a new window, discovered a cavity containing the skeleton of a child. In 1876 The Scotsman reported that a ten-year-old child survived with only minor injuries when she fell from the fourth floor of the building. In 1873 Abbey Strand was chosen as the location to demonstrate Edinburgh's latest fire engine, as it was, according to The Scotsman, 'the highest tenements in the neighbourhood'.

By 1903 the Abbey Strand tenements were very overcrowded, housing up to 25 families.

By 1903 the Abbey Strand tenements were very overcrowded, housing up to 25 families. ©

During the early 20th century the taverns on the ground floor closed down and several major restoration projects followed, attempting to improve living conditions in the tenements. In the 1960s the floors and ceilings were strengthened, and painted beams salvaged from Midhope Castle, which was derelict at the time, were installed. In recent years Abbey Strand has housed staff rooms, a shop and workshops.

With the creation of the new Learning Centre, the story of Abbey Strand begins a new chapter.  Find out more about learning activities at the Palace.

An artist's impression of one of the rooms in the new Learning Centre. The ceiling in this room is made from 17th-century painted beams salvaged from Midhope Castle in the 1960s.

An artist's impression of one of the rooms in the new Learning Centre. The ceiling in this room is made from 17th-century painted beams salvaged from Midhope Castle in the 1960s. ©