It might be just off the tourists’ radar, but from royalty to bloody murder, Edinburgh’s West Port has seen it all
It paved the way for royalty and rebels, oversaw bloody murders, frightening uprisings and – despite its name – is nowhere near a port. Experts on everything Edinburgh, Double Tree Hilton provided us with a brief history of a remarkable corner of the city.
While Edinburgh’s West Port may not be top of the list for tourists – the Castle takes that honour – it has a surprisingly rich history and fascinating past that puts it on a par with some of the city’s far more familiar haunts.
Tucked between the bustle of Lothian Road and the cobbled Grassmarket’s niche shops, centuries old pubs and, of course, its notorious place in Edinburgh history as the place for public executions, West Port definitely earns its place in the city’s register of fascinating places.
And yet many who pass through on their way to the heart of the Old Town are blissfully unaware that they are treading in the footsteps of regal visitors, rebels, rioters and murderers.
In the beginning…
Originally Wester Portsburgh, West Port was the main street through the western part of the burgh of Portsburgh, located just outside the city’s walls. The name West Port and Portsburgh are believed to be linked to the gate leading through the ancient Flodden Wall.
As one of the key routes into the heart of the Old Town, West Port – which stretches from the corner of Bread Street, Lauriston Street and East Fountainbridge to the Grassmarket – was a familiar route for everyone from well-heeled royals to market traders.
The royal connection
In 1633, crowds turned out to witness the arrival of flamboyant royal King Charles 1, who travelled along West Port on his way to his Scottish coronation.
The Edinburgh Parliament had warned that if he wanted to rule Scotland, he had to be crowned in the capital city. So in 1633, eight years after being crowned monarch in London, the city fountains flowed with red wine and royal portraits were unfurled in the Royal Mile in his honour.
Unfortunately, the King’s spectacular Scottish tour ended in despair when the royal ferry, Blessing of Burntisland, sank in the Forth, taking with her vast riches which remain undiscovered.
Riots and rebels
In 1736, West Port was at the centre of one of Edinburgh’s most notorious and blood soaked episodes – the Porteous riots. A mob, outraged following the hanging of a convicted smuggler, turned on the hangman and later the city guard, led by Captain John Porteous. His order to shoot at the mob left six dead.
Porteous was convicted of murder only for his execution to be overturned – leading to 4000 outraged locals gathering in West Port. From there they marched to his cell in Lawnmarket, dragged him out, beat and lynched him.
Murder most foul
But perhaps the most gruesome element of West Port’s history is the infamous tale of Burke and Hare. The murderers took the lives of 16 people in just ten months of 1828, in what became known as the West Port Murders.
The pair lured their victims back to Hare’s lodgings in Tanner’s Close, just off West Port, where they were murdered and their bodies sold to Dr Robert Knox at the local medical school. Tanner’s Close, scene of the depravity, is now the site of 1960s office block, Argyle House.
These days West Port and its neighbouring streets are known for quirky bookstores and independent shops, vintage outlets, traditional pubs and cafes.
One of its most striking buildings is the A-listed, New York-inspired facade of the DoubleTree by Hilton hotel. Dating from 1892, it echoes the distinctive Flat Iron building in the Big Apple, while its 1930 glass curtain wall was the first of its kind in Scotland.
Fill up on a traditional Scottish afternoon tea or bistro-style dishes at the bar, or tuck into locally sourced ingredients at the hotel’s Bread Street Brasserie.
For an ideal base from which to explore the fascinating streets of Edinburgh, stay at the DoubleTree Hotel by Hilton, Bread Street, West Port. Visit the Bread Street Brasserie here