The thread about life in Edinburgh and Leith during occupation by the French and the Protectorate; including the times “Gardyloo”, Christmas and being rude about Frenchmen were banned

From 1548 to 1560, the Port of Leith was occupied by a French garrison in support of Queen Regent, Mary of Guise. They fortified the town in this time and made themselves generally unpopular with the locals. Such was the mutual bad feeling that in 1555 Mary of Guise’ Parliament made it an offence to speak ill of Frenchmen. I am not sure if it has been repealed yet…

The arms of Mary of Guise (Maria de Loraine) in South Leith Kirk. CC-BY-SA 3.0 Kim Traynor
The arms of Mary of Guise (Maria de Loraine) in South Leith Kirk. CC-BY-SA 3.0 Kim Traynor

One of the reasons for the French being so unpopular was their constant requisitioning of ships in a town that relied on the sea for its prosperity. In 1550, the French governor employed two pynours (porters) to remove all the rudders of the ships of Leith and to impound them in a locked storehouse to prevent ships slipping away whenever the French wanted to commandeer them. Twelve days later, all Scottish vessels from Kinghorn to Crail, were ordered by the French to leave for Leith within 3 hours or be forfeited and their masters put to death.

An English general, Randolph, noted in 1560 that “in no other country were ever seen so many particular quarrels, which daily cause many to keep off who mortally hate the French“. Randolph could not understand how the Scots resented the French occupiers so much but would not fight for the English against them. He had money to finance 2-3,000 Scots troops to eject the French but could not get them “for love nor money“.

“Incident in the Siege of Leith”. It is not clear which party is which here and what they are fighting over. But nobody seemed to be getting along.

The English ended up assaulting Leith with an incompetent commander, untrained recruits and ladders that were too short to scale the walls. The attack was repulsed by the stretched, starving but competent and well entrenched French garrison. Further bloodshed was spared when Mary of Guise died shortly thereafter and a short peace was agreed, allowing the French to leave.

Leith would again be occupied less than 100 years later, after the calamitous defeat for the Scottish Covenanter government at the Battle of Dunbar. Relations between occupier and occupied this time were less strained; although English rule was firm, there appeared to be more mutual tolerance on both sides, probably they were just exhausted from near 12 years of constant warfare.

Cromwell at the head of his Army at Dunbar, a 19th century painting by Andrew Carrick Gow. CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 Tate Gallery
Cromwell at the head of his Army at Dunbar, a 19th century painting by Andrew Carrick Gow. CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 Tate Gallery

Cromwell entered Edinburgh on Saturday 7th December, just days after victory at Dunbar. Although the Scottish army fought on, it had abandoned the city to wage a protracted war of retreat. The occupation was initially marked by restraint on the part of the occupiers, and under Cromwell’s direct orders on 27th December three of his army were publicly flogged by the “Provest marschellis men” through the town for the offence of plundering houses without orders to do so. Another was tied to a horse, with a pint jug tied around his neck, his hands bound and muskets tied to his feet, and ridden around the town for 2 hours for the offence of drunkenness. In May 1652, an English officer had his ear nailed to the public gallows and thereafter cut off for toasting the King’s health.

Cromwell enters Edinburgh, from an 1886 souvenir of the Edinburgh International Exhibition telling the history of the city
Cromwell enters Edinburgh, from an 1886 souvenir of the Edinburgh International Exhibition telling the history of the city

Leith was ruled directly by the occupiers, who held courts headed by English officers “without partiality or favour”. In November 1651 they hung on of their own troopers at the Market Cross “a gallant, stout fellow” for robbing a butcher. A solder found drunk and swearing in Leith was bound, hit repeatedly in the mouth and tied to a pillar with “a paper bound to his breast” specifying his crimes.

Relations in Leith with the English seemed to be downright cordial at times, perhaps because they were just pleased to be relieved of the constant interference from Edinburgh. Things became too cordial however as in October 1651 English soldiers had to be forbidden from marrying Leith women without the written permission of their Major. In February 1652 this prohibition was extended to the keeping of female servants

In Edinburgh, although the town had been easily taken, the Castle garrison had held out and was being besieged by the New Model Army. Anyone found treating with the garrison was dealt with severely. A gardener at the West Kirk (St. Cuthbert’s parish church) was accused of giving intelligence to the Castle. He was taken to the city guardhouse and hung from his thumbs with lit slow matches (the sort used in matchlock firearms) between his fingers until they were “burnt to the bone”.

Siege warfare in the time of the New Model Army, from the Siege of Bristol in 1643.
Siege warfare in the time of the New Model Army, from the Siege of Bristol in 1643.

In March 1651, Cromwell’s soldiers in Edinburgh mutinied due to the lack of provisions and pay being sent to them by the English parliament; what had been sent had been turned back in the ships carrying it by unfavourable weather. They put their own commanders in the jail and “ran through the markets of Edinburgh, plundering and robbing the people of the town, so that few would go out on the streets“.

General Lambert arrived in Edinburgh at the end of November that year to restore order and to make arrangements for quartering of his army in the city over winter. Lambert seems to have made a positive impression with the locals; on finding out that there was no magistrate in place to dispense local justice, he reinstated some of the old ones. He also ordered the Incorporated Trades to choose their own Deacons (the principal officers of the Trades, who formed the core of the Town Council). Lambert maintained a right of veto over appointments and would choose the governor himself.

General John Lambert, by Robert Walker, c. 1650

In December, Lambert ordered citizens in both Edinburgh and Leith to hang out lanterns and place candles in their windows or doors from 6PM to 9PM on account of the disorder being committed by the soldiers. This was observed, but cost the inhabitants dearly as candles were expensive. Anybody found not complying was to be fined 4 shillings sterling, with the master or mistress of the house being thrown in the city guardhouse until it was paid.

Lambert also set about the perhaps impossible task of the literal cleaning up of Auld Reekie. Orders were given on the 24th December that the streets, closes and wynds in Edinburgh were be cleansed within 13 days and “no filth or water should be thrown forth from their windows upon pain of paying immediately 4 shillings sterling“, the proceeds of which were to be split equally between the informant and the poor of the town. Clearly it did not have a long lasting effect as 3 years later, the city was ordered to procure carts and horses for the carrying away of the filth.

"The Flowers of Edinburgh", a satirical 18th century print on the traditional manner of "flushing the toilet" in Old Town Edinburgh. © The Trustees of the British Museum
“The Flowers of Edinburgh”, a satirical 18th century print on the traditional manner of “flushing the toilet” in Old Town Edinburgh. © The Trustees of the British Museum

On December 25th the English authorities in Leith ordered that Christmas should be banned. The point being made here was probably moot however given it was not something that would have been openly observed or celebrated in Presbyterian Scotland. Indeed the Kirk had banned the celebration in 1640, however at this time it commanded nothing like its usual authority in Leith, having been evicted from its Church and relieved of its civic duties by the occupiers.

Entry for 2th December 1651 from the Diary of John Nicoll
Entry for 2th December 1651 from the Diary of John Nicoll

In February 1652, the Commissioners of the English Parliament, resident in Dalkeith, ordered that the symbols of the King’s arms, crown and royal unicorns of the city be taken down wherever they were to be found. They were stripped from his pew at St. Giles’ Kirk, the Mercat cross, the Netherbow, Parliament House, Edinburgh Castle and Holyroodhouse. They were then taken to the gallows and publicly hung.

In May 1654, when General Monck came to Edinburgh to proclaim the union of England and Scotland in the Commonwealth, he was received by the Provosts and Baillies of the town council in their finery. Perhaps they were mindful of the rape and pillage of Dundee committed by Monck’s men back in 1651 as the town set out to impress the General. They conveyed him to a “sumptuous dinner and feast, prepared by the Town of Edinburgh for him and his special oficers. This feast was six days in preparing, and the baillies of Edinburgh did stand and serve the whole time of that dinner“. They also laid on a “great preparation” of fireworks, which were set off from the Market Cross between 9PM and midnight, “to the admiration of many people”.

George Monck by Peter Lely, c. 1665
George Monck by Peter Lely, c. 1665

Cromwell also left it to Monck to resolve the interminable squabbles between the City of Edinburgh and Port of Leith. Leith wanted freedom to trade without interference, Edinburgh wanted to assert its rights to “her” port. An English merchant in Leith at the time said that the town had been “under the greatest slavery that I ever knew” and should subject to under Edinburgh no more than “Westminster to London.”

As part of his overall strategy to pacify and control Scotland, Monck proposed enclosing Leith in fortifications as a garrison town – probably reconstructing the 1560 walls and bastions. The prospect of this terrified Edinburgh, as it would make it substantially easier for Leith to act independently. Edinburgh shrewdly counter-offered that it would pay £5,000 instead for a standalone Citadel outside of Leith – or it may be that the it was Monck being shrewd and he had played Edinburgh off against Leith to get them to finance his works

In the end the £5,000 citadel apparently cost 20 times that to build. The city would buy it back for a further £5,000 from Charles II, so ended up paying for it twice and although well engineered, it was soon abandoned as a defensive fortification. The northern walls and bastions would have been impossible to protect from erosion by the sea anyway – and they had collapsed within 30 years.

By May 1660, the Commonwealth was over (assisted in no small part by Monck) and the Houses of Parliament had proclaimed Charles II to be King. Orders were sent to the Governor of Edinburgh castle to fire 3 volleys from the guns, one for each of the Three Kingdoms.

Edinburgh Castle in 1647, from Gordon of Rothiemay's bird's eye map of the city. Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland
Edinburgh Castle in 1647, from Gordon of Rothiemay’s bird’s eye map of the city. The West Kirk is the building in the top left. Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland

The chief gunner at the Castle gave the orders to his men but one refused saying that “The devil [would] blow him in the air that loosed a cannon for that purpose” and “if he loosed any cannon that day sum man should repent it“. The complainant was transferred to a gun overlooking the West Kirk. The first volley was duly fired and when this man went to reload his weapon, he recharged it with powder only for it to spontaneously discharge while he was doing so, there being a smouldering ember in the barrel. He was blown clean over the castle walls and off the Castle Rock itself, falling over 250 feet to his death. He was buried near where he landed in the West Kirk.

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These threads © 2017-2023, Andy Arthur


  1. […] From 1756 to 1866, The Drum was the location of the Edinburgh Mercat Cross after its removal to widen the High Street. An alternative reason for removal was that the Merchants of the city had persisted in meeting around it to do business, rather than using the fine new Royal Exchange built at great public expense only yards away! The cross was subsequently relocated back to a spot near its original in 1885, at the expense of William Ewart Gladstone. It was raised up on a reproduction podium and plinth to the designs of Sydney Mitchell. The head of the cross was replaced with a royal Unicorn, the original having been pulled down by the occupying forces of Oliver Cromwell as symbols of the monarchy when the city was occupied after the Battle of Dunbar. […]


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