Lost Edinburgh: The Netherbow Port

The Netherbow Port, pictured as an engraving in 1764. Picture: Complimentary

The Netherbow Port, pictured as an engraving in 1764. Picture: Complimentary

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FOR centuries the Netherbow Port was the main entrance into the medieval city of Edinburgh and acted as one of the key gateways for its trade.

The impressive Netherbow Port acted as the principal gateway into the old city of Edinburgh. It is mentioned as early as 1369 but a more elaborate version was conceived along with the Flodden Wall in 1513. This followed the disastrous Battle of Flodden Field where the Scots suffered a resounding defeat at the hands of the English. The port became an integral part of the city’s medieval defences from this point onwards.

The large gateway with its commanding array of turreted towers was situated on a prominent spot roughly half the way down the Royal Mile close to where present-day Jeffrey Street meets St. Mary’s Street. It was one of five other gateways dotted along the Flodden Wall but its location at the end of the High Street marked it out as the most important. The gates and wall enclosed the city in its entirety and were designed to provide Edinburgh with a formidable outer fortification in order to deter invading armies. Unfortunately the defences seldom offered the desired protection and were breached on a number of occasions. Despite their defensive limitations, the gateways and walls still served the city well by efficiently controlling trade in and out of the city. All visitors and inhabitants wishing to enter the city were required to pay a toll. Interestingly, this left many poorer residents effectively trapped within the compact burgh for most of their lives due to the high cost of regularly regaining entry. Except for merchants and traders, most of those who lived in the nearby Canongate area on the other side of the Netherbow Port would have rarely visited Edinburgh as it was a separate burgh during this time and would not be officially absorbed into the city until 1856. The gateway soon became known as ‘the World’s End’ as to many of the confined residents of Edinburgh this was precisely the end of their known world. The name ‘World’s End’ survives in the popular pub located on the corner of St. Mary’s Street and the High Street today.

The Netherbow Port was badly damaged during an invasion in 1544. The gateway was subsequently rebuilt and remodelled 50 yards further down the High Street in 1606. Its distinctive two-storey spired tower above its main arched gateway featured an elegantly crafted clock. The new design was infinitely more decorative and elaborate than what had gone before. The Netherbow Port was now truly one of the finest structures in Edinburgh and certainly the most attractive of all its gates. However, this did not stop the city’s lawmakers from using the Netherbow Port as a distinctly medieval crime-deterrent. The heads of those found guilty of committing serious crimes were often exhibited above the gate of the Netherbow. Whether or not the practice was effective remains a mystery but it would surely have created quite an impression on first time visitors to the city.

The demolition of the Netherbow Port was undertaken in 1764 by order of the city magistrates. In the post-Culloden era it was no longer required as a defensive structure and was widely regarded as an obstruction to the flow of traffic and as an out-dated restriction on free trade. The Netherbow Port was swept away along with much of the city walls. The loss of the gateway was lamented by many in the years after its removal. It had been a landmark feature of the city for hundreds of years and was not easily forgotten. During the grand 1886 International Exhibition, a stunning replica of the Netherbow Port was created within a reconstruction of a typical medieval Edinburgh street. Today the old gateway has long since disappeared from living memory but brass cobbles at the junction of the High Street, St. Mary’s Street and Jeffery Street mark the location where it once proudly stood. Relic-wise the Netherbow Port has left behind little evidence. The clock that once adorned its two-storey tower was salvaged and can be found atop the main pediment of the Dean Gallery. The old port bell dating from 1621 and a plaque from 1606 are to be found within the Storytelling Centre on the High Street. The preservation of these fascinating artifacts has thankfully ensured that part of the essence of the ancient Netherbow Port is still alive today within Scotland’s capital.

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