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Lost Edinburgh: The Luckenbooths

An engraving showing Creech's Land and St Giles. Picture: RCAHMS

An engraving showing Creech's Land and St Giles. Picture: RCAHMS

  • by DAVID McLEAN
 

UP UNTIL the early 19th century the flow of traffic on Edinburgh’s busy High Street was restricted to just a few metres thanks to a group of medieval buildings known as the Luckenbooths.

The Luckenbooths were a row of irregular-sized tenements and shops stretching along the north face of St Giles’ Kirk on the High Street. They sprang up in the mid-15th century primarily to appease the rising number of skilled artisans and speciality traders such as silversmiths and goldsmiths who demanded a more formal, permanent base to hawk their wares than the usual market stall method.

‘Buith-Raw’

The first building was constructed in 1440, and was a two-storey timber fronted house with an open merchant area at ground level. This initial house and the seven or eight others which followed it soon came to be known as the ‘Buith-Raw’ (Booth Row) and they varied greatly in height and character. Their later name, the Luckenbooths, was derived from the fact that the shops featured lockable booths.

The Luckenbooth stretch of residential tenements with shops below qualifies as a distant ancestor of the modern retail and housing block and represents perhaps the earliest example of such premises in Scotland.

The picturesque row of buildings was joined at the western end by the Old Tolbooth, the infamous district jail and scene of many a public execution. The main array of shops faced the north side of the High Street, leaving a gap of just 15 feet for the earthen roadway between – woefully unsuitable for the major thoroughfare that it was.

Famous traders

There were a number of notable entrepreneurs and businesses located at the Luckenbooths over the centuries dealing in a wide range of goods and services.

Peter Williamson, a hugely interesting character known locally as ‘Indian Peter’ due to his rather eccentric penchant for dressing as a native Red Indian, (he had been taken prisoner by a tribe many years ago following a stint as a child slave on a North American plantation) ran a successful publishing business from the Luckenbooths as well as the world’s first ‘Penny’ postal service.

Another Luckenbooths’ trader worth a mention was the esteemed poet Allan Ramsay who operated Scotland’s first circulating library and went on to expand his business as a bookseller. Publisher William Creech later inherited Ramsay’s bookshop on the row which became the ‘natural resource of lawyers, authors and all sorts of literary idlers who were always buzzing about this convenient hive’. Creech is credited with publishing early works by Robert Burns. The 17th century tenement housing the famous bookshop was referred to as Creech’s Land up until its demolition.

The ‘Stinking Styles’

On the opposite side of the Luckenbooths between St Giles’, was situated a narrow lane filled with bazaar-style market stalls known as the Krames. These stalls were home to a number of small independent traders, travelling pedlars and toymakers who utilised every nook and cranny of the tenements and kirk that was available to them. Official town orders to prevent the emptying of chamber pots and dumping of refuse from the upper residences of the Luckenbooths on to the Krames below were notoriously unsuccessful. As a result, the restricted passageway of the Krames was often referred to as the Stinking Style.

Demolition

In 1817 all traces of the Luckenbooths and the Krames were swept away from the High Street in order to finally cure the awful congestion which they had caused ever since their inception. Despite the problems they had caused, the loss of the medieval tenements was mourned for a number of years after.

Today, modern interpretations of traditional ‘Luckenbooth brooches’, once designed and sold by traders from the ancient booths, can be purchased from tourist shops dotted around Edinburgh’s historic city centre. Two centuries on, a small fragment of the Luckenbooths’ legacy endures.

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