Archaeologists solve the Royal Mile riddle of James VI’s feast

Riddle's Court between Victoria Terrace and the Royal Mile which is undergoing a major restoration. Picture: Greg Macvean
Riddle's Court between Victoria Terrace and the Royal Mile which is undergoing a major restoration. Picture: Greg Macvean
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REMAINS of a kitchen used to prepare a lavish 16th century royal banquet have been uncovered hidden by the wall of a former ladies’ toilet in one of the oldest buildings on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile.

Archaeologists have made the remarkable discovery inside one of the city’s least-known historic treasures, which thousands of tourists traipse past each day.

Riddle's Court between Victoria Terrace and the Royal Mile, which is undergoing a major restoration and is thought to be one of the oldest buildings on the Royal Mile. Picture: Greg Macvvean

Riddle's Court between Victoria Terrace and the Royal Mile, which is undergoing a major restoration and is thought to be one of the oldest buildings on the Royal Mile. Picture: Greg Macvvean

The vast fireplace and an oven where bread and cakes would have been made have been found during an extensive survey of Riddle’s Court, a rare courtyard house with links to the town planner Patrick Geddes, philosopher David Hume, comic Stephen Fry, actress Dame Maggie Smith and Sir John Clerk, one of the key architects of the 1707 Act of Union.

The new evidence of the feast prepared in honour of Scottish monarch James VI, his Danish wife Anne and her visiting brother-in-law, the Duke of Holstein, was found ahead of work to transform the building into a new seat of 21st century learning.

They have also uncovered a series of painted roof beams dating back to the late 16th century, when the building was built by John MacMorran, one of the city’s wealthiest merchant burgesses, who was later shot dead by a schoolboy.

The new evidence appears to show that the dinner was held in two different chambers, rather than one as had been previously thought.

Riddle's Court

Riddle's Court

It was held there as the town council did not then have a grand enough venue for such occasions. Records show that five gallons of wine were ordered for the event.

It is hoped the ongoing archaeological survey will shed new light on more than 400 years of history since the earliest parts of Riddle’s Court, which was to become home to many members of the aristocracy and merchant class in Edinburgh, were created in 1590.

The building is named after George Riddell, a wealthy tradesman, who reconstructed part of the building facing into the Lawnmarket in the early 18th century, before David Hume moved in.

It was acquired by Patrick Geddes, one of the key figures involved in the late-19th century revival of the Old Town, and became part of University Hall, the city’s first halls of residence for students.

King James VI, who visited Scotland in 1598 for a feast

King James VI, who visited Scotland in 1598 for a feast

Dr Mike Cressey, from CFA Archaeology, which has been leading the ongoing survey of Riddle’s Court, said: “We found the fireplace behind the back wall of a couple of cubicles in the ladies’ toilets.

“There was actually a fireplace marked on a very early plan on the building, but we really didn’t expect to find anything like we did.

“We have effectively found a big kitchen range from the 16th century, including the oven, which would have been lined with fire bricks and would have been heated up before the main fire was lit. There’s also a cupboard on the other side of the kitchen where salt would have been stored to ensure it was kept dry.”

Audrey Dakin, senior project officer at the Scottish Historic Buildings Trust (SHBT), said the hidden kitchen had been buried beneath tonnes of rubble which was gradually removed to reveal the 16th century remains.

She said: “We moved into the building in 2011 and have done a lot of research to learn about the building and how it has functioned over the years.

“We are coming to understand a lot more about the development of Riddle’s Court, which has changed a lot over time and it has also changed its purpose quite a lot.

“The great and the good of Edinburgh lived in this courtyard right through from when it was built until they started to move away when the New Town began to be built.”

Riddle’s Court was taken over by the city council in 1947 and was latterly used for adult education classes and as offices, until it was declared surplus to requirements eight years ago, by which time it was lying virtually unused.

However, the prospect of it falling into private hands was averted after the council agreed to lease it to the SHBT, which hopes to open it to the public next year after a £6 million overhaul to turn it into a learning centre, cultural venue and visitor attraction.

Modern spaces for courses, workshops and events will be created, along with offices, ­exhibition galleries, a cafe-bar, a Patrick Geddes Library and a residential flat for visiting scholars and academics.

Part of Riddle’s Court will also be available for productions at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, where both Fry performed as an unknown and is said to have been introduced to Hugh Laurie in the building by fellow Cambridge University student Emma Thompson in 1979. Maggie Smith also performed there in 1953 with the Oxford University Dramatics Society.

Una Richards, director of the SHBT, added: “Riddle’s Court is one of the most exciting projects we have undertaken in our 35-year history of finding new uses for derelict and redundant buildings in the heart of communities throughout Scotland.

“To succeed takes a lot of hard work, determination and funding which we raise from public bodies, private trusts and individuals who care about our heritage and the built environment.”