Edinburgh's Hidden Courtyard

Stones that Speak

· hidden courtyard,architecture,society,Canongate museum,Edinburgh History

In the heart of Edinburgh's Canongate lies a hidden courtyard with much to say. It’s now July and Scotland is slowly coming out of the Covid-19 Lock-down. It’ll be good to get back to my guided tours but there’s a particular place I’m itching to visit – the hidden courtyard at the Museum of Edinburgh.

Usually accessed through the Museum in the summer months you may sometimes find the side-gate in Bakehouse Close open where the bright oranges and greens of an intricate sundial catch the eye through the dark, arched pend.

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The Museum of Edinburgh's hidden courtyard contains almost 100 architectural fragments from all over the city and the surrounding area. Most date from between the late 15th century to the late 18th century. Although it is rather a random collection of carved stones, and in many cases little is known about the individual fragments themselves, they can still tell us much about society in Edinburgh’s past. We can see aspects of daily-life (the courtyard holds many quern-stones used to ground flour) and gain an insight into the everyday concerns and considerations of the city's citizens; that's why I like to think of them as 'stones that speak'...

~ Stones that Speak ~

The Museum of Edinburgh's Courtyard Collection

Punishment and Death

One of the most obvious things you notice is that death, pain and punishment were part of everyday life. The grimacing face (below) is practically screaming it at us. He's probably being hung, a common form of punishment in times gone by, for anything from stealing to murder. Meanwhile, the figure from Trinity College Kirk (below) founded in 1460, seems to be undergoing a form of punishment. The wrists have been bound together and attached to a pole, this passes under their knees and over their elbows, making it virtually impossible to move. The head is missing but it no doubt would have worn an expression of pain.

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The courtyard also contains a stone from the Netherbow Port, one of Edinburgh’s ancient city gates, where the heads of executed criminals were displayed as they rotted away for all to see. These public reminders of painful punishments had a purpose, to scare you into behaving – don’t steal, slander, commit treason, practice witchcraft or blaspheme against God, or else!

Death was very familiar to people and they were constanly reminded that their time on the earth was fleeting. Corn sprouts from a pile of human bones symbolising the Resurrection on one stone, while the sundial reminds you to "TAK TENT O TIME ERE TIME BE TINT", meaning make the most of your time on earth while it lasts. Often having religious overtones, stones like these not only reminded you of your own mortality but also encouraged you to live a good life so your soul would be rewarded with eternal salvation in the after-life, a very real place to people in the past.


If this all sounds a little grim, the stones also tell us that people in the past still found time for humour in their everyday lives. The carved stone-basin (below) is the bottom section of a medieval pot-quern, a type of hand-mill used for grinding flour and dried plants. As you can see the opening where the flour comes out has been made into the mouth of a face. This was not just decorative but also funny as the medieval mind found humour in many simple things such as the inversion of roles. On our pot-quern the joke is simply that ground flour pours out of the mouth where normally food goes in!

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Folk back then also loved a bit of ‘toilet-humour’ and, although this next example isn’t actually in the courtyard, I couldn’t resist adding it in here. The bound figure that we saw above was once a water-spout on the roof of Trinity College Kirk. Part of this building survives today in Chalmer’s Close where you can still see some of its remaining water-spouts in-situ (above). I don’t have a very powerful camera, and its difficult to get it in good light, but I’m sure one of them is a person ‘mooning’. Their hands seem to grab their buttocks and presumably the rain-water spouts out of their bottom giving endless amusement. Call me immature but I have to admit it gave me a wee chuckle.


Back then people were far more closely linked to the natural world than we are today and we can see this in their choice of decoration and symbols throughout the collection. Animals, stars and crescent moons are common as is foliage; not simply a generic leaf but recognisable species – acanthus, thistle, olive, oak and holly. Wheat sheaf’s and hunting horns on the armorial stone of the Burnetts of Craigmyle (below) reflect seasonal activities showing how closely people were tied to the land. They also represented more than that however, for example, the hunting horn was a high-status symbol and denoted a ‘horn of office’ meaning the family were powerfully connected and held considerable lands. In this way familiar and easily understood symbols conveyed more complex information, useful in a society that was largely illiterate.

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Decoration and symbols were not restricted to the immediate world around them though, they were aware of many plants and animals they would never have actually seen. The courtyard contains what is supposed to be a small stylised leopard head (above), strangely it has striped markings making me wonder if the stone-mason was told they looked like tabby cats. There's also a pelican plucking feathers from its breast. It's far more recognisable than the leopard as, although few stone-masons would ever have seen a real one, it was a common symbol of religious piety at the time.

Although often lost on us, when the stones were made, people would have been very familiar with the ‘message’ that went along with the symbols. The stones contain far more information than we see today. Crescent moons often indicated a familys link to the Crusades and individual plants were associated with specific characteristics; the olive (above) represented fertility for example, perfect for including on a marriage stone. People at the time would have been aware of these meanings in much the same way as we associate red roses with romantic love today.

Identity and Status

The courtyard collection shows that identity and status were important to people. There are many examples of armorial stones, such as the Burnetts of Craigmyle and Edinburgh's own coats of arms (below), but identity was also important to people below the noble ranks.

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Edinburgh was a city built on trade and merchant’s marks can be seen on many of the courtyard fragments. A merchant’s mark was his individual symbol and was often displayed above the door or windows of his house; the one shown above seems to be a saltire cross and a Christian cross combined. Displaying his mark was both practical, so that people wishing to trade with him could find him, and showed off his social status.

To be a merchant in a medieval Scottish burgh you first had to be a burgess of the city but only about 30% of Edinburgh’s population actually held burgess status. By displaying you were a merchant you told the world you belonged to this elite social group. Additionally, as only burgesses could sit on the town council, it also displayed your place in the ranks of the burgh’s governing class. To be a merchant burgess was to be a somebody.


Marriage was also important to status and identity. This was both true for higher ranking families, such as the local Napier family who used marriage to forge alliances and gain land (the ornately decorated triangular pediment below celebrates the marriage of William Napier and Margaret Bannatyne), as well as merchants and craftsmen.


Wives were vitally important for men engaged in business and not just because they looked after the family and managed the house-hold. Marriage gave these men a certain level of respectability and crucially burgesses wives often supported their husbands in the running of the family business, including keeping the business accounts.

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The carved window dormer with a trio of heads (above) contains the same merchants mark that we saw earlier. To me the top face looks slightly more feminine and appears to have styled hair. They aren't immediately recognisable as religious or royal figures so I like to think they might represent the merchant’s valued wife and beloved children.


Not everybody could afford such ornate detail and often couples utilised the simple door lintel at the entrance to their property to proclaim their union. The example above displays the initials of brewer/malt-man Robert Hardie and his wife Jean Hunter (you'll notice the ‘J’ looks like an ‘I’, this was quite common as curved Js were harder to carve). While many door lintels contain just the initials of the two parties and a date, this couple has gone one further with the inscription, “O MAGNIFIE THE LORD WITH ME AND LET US EXALT HIS NAME TOGETHER”. Marriage might have been more about pragmatic partnerships than romantic love but these examples show that wives were important and valued companions.


One of my favourite stones in the courtyard is the ‘stang-mens’ stone (below) because it shows us ordinary people at work. Stang-men were porters who specialised in carrying wine. To stop the wine being jolted on its journey and spoiling they suspended it from a pole, or stang, which they support on their shoulders. Its an expensive carrying method as it requires two porters but it was worth it for such a valuable and desirable commodity. The stone also gives us a glimpse of what clothing working-men might typically have worn in 16th and 17th century Edinburgh.

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Like today, much of a persons identity was tied up in their occupation and in old time Edinburgh this gave many people a sense of collective identity. What appears to be a gravestone with a pair of scissors on it (above) is in fact a trade-stone with a pair of tailors’ shears.

Trade-stones were symbols of the Craft Incorporations who placed them on the external walls of their meeting-houses, copying the earlier practice of merchants with their marks. The Incorporations dominated Edinburgh’s skilled artisans from the 15th to the 17th centuries and were the craftsmen’s equivalent to the merchant’s Guild. While there was only one merchant guild there were up to 14 Craft Incorporations in Edinburgh including the wrights and masons, candlemakers, baxters (bakers), fleshers (butchers), websters (weavers), the hammermen (all metalworkers from blacksmiths to goldsmiths) and many more.

The Incorporations protected their members interests and monopolised craft manufacturing within the burgh. As with merchants you had be a burgess to be a member of an Incorporation so belonging to the group marked you as a person of some social standing. Incorporations promoted this group mentality - members were often refered to as brethren and each Incorporation had its own meeting-house, patron saint and held an annual procession through the town; all things which actively encouraged a collective identity.

Changing Fashions

Because the courtyard's architectural fragments cover hundreds of years they tell us of changes over time. Symbols are joined by text in the 1600s with inscriptions appearing in Latin, Scots and English. Ornate sundials, once the centrepiece of a gentlemen’s 17th century garden, would give way to classical statues during the 18th century as fashions changed. Although our fragments are quite small another change we can see is the arrival of classical architecture.

The tailors stone we saw earlier was dated from 1644 while another dates from 1673 (below). The later one has a triangular pediment supported by two columns, a typically classical feature often called a ‘temple front’. Classical architecture is based on the buildings of ancient Greece and Rome, the two powerhouses of European culture. It had been known in Scotland for a long time but it became more fashionable among ordinary people from the later 1600s. This classically inspired trade-stone is thought to have come from the area of Potterow, then just outside Edinburgh’s city walls, so perhaps the tailors there were trying to say that they were just as cultured as the tailors of the royal burgh!

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Where many of the stones came from remains unknown and that’s because people often kept them when buildings where demolished or renovated and used them somewhere else. Usually they were incorporated into other buildings but the Monk’s Seat above is a great example of the fashion for antiquarianism in the 19th century when I suspect it was constructed. As you can see it re-uses straight and curved door lintels for the back and seat, as well as scrolls for arms – depending on your view you could either call this wanton destruction of historical artefacts or a rather extreme Victorian up-cycling project!

I hope the few examples in this blog-post have shown how the courtyard stones can tell us much about life in the past; and that the past is not always as inaccessible to us as we sometimes think. Even touching on just a few aspects, as we did here, helps to build a broad picture of what life was like for people in Edinburgh's past and what some of their concerns and considerations were. In many ways people from the past will always remain elusive but the stones do help bring them closer to us. From their medieval humour to the tiny details of the stang-men’s shoes, the cute curl of hair on the grimacing man's forehead or the way the poor woman carries her baby on her back, they help us to relate to them and they become real people who can still speak to us across the years.

I’m very fond of the hidden courtyard and feel lucky to know it so intimately, the result of volunteering there when I was a student. I still volunteer at the courtyard once a week during the summer months and that’s why I’m itching to get back there as soon as it opens. One of the volunteer jobs is to maintain the flower beds and plants in the courtyard. Unfortunately, the Covid-19 lock-down started before we were able to do a spring tidy so nothing's been pruned or weeded since last October…with the wonderful lock-down weather we experienced I imagine the plants will have gotten quite rampant!!

Hopefully, the Museum will be back open soon and the courtyard can get its long overdue tidy-up. If you’re down in the Canongate some day why not pop in to see how it’s getting along, there’s plenty to keep you amused: spot animals and plants; try to find all 27 faces; count all the stars; tell the time from the sundial; practice your grimacing; enjoy our small garden; or simply relax on the Monk’s Seat...

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All images author's own unless otherwise stated.

Key sources:

Archaeological Record of the Museum of Edinburgh Courtyard Stones, City of Edinburgh Council.

The Incorporated Trades of Edinburgh by Charles Kinder Bradbury and Henry Steuart Fothringham (Braykc: 2018)

'The symbolism of querns and millstones' by Sue Watts, in: Seen Through a Millstone, AmS-krifter 24, ed. L. Selsing (2014)

The Museum of Edinburgh is free to visit and (normally) open 7 days a week.

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