St John Street
The origin of the use of the St John name in this neighbourhood is obscure but it has certainly been in use since 1540 when it described a triangular plot of land to the south of the Canongate.
This included the site of Moray House's current St John's Land building. It is widely believed that the name derives from the Knights of St John of Jerusalem who held property in the area, but the case has not been proved. What is certain is that before the Reformation St John's Land was held in feu from the monks of Holyrood Abbey who had no obvious connection with the Knights of St John.
St John's Cross
St John's Cross stood at the west boundary of the Burgh of Canongate. This corner of the burgh was marked, probably as early as the thirteenth century, by the Lappet Stane. Edinburgh claimed jurisdiction over this part of the Canongate as far east as St John's Cross, although at this time Canongate was a separate burgh. Traditionally, visiting royalty were greeted here by the Provosts of the two burghs of Edinburgh and Canongate. In 1617 James VI knighted William Nisbet, Provost of Edinburgh, beside it. Charles I, on his ceremonial entry into Edinburgh, conferred a Knighthood on the then Provost in 1633.
The steps of the Cross were the meeting place for magistrates, constables and incorporated traders and for the reading out of proclamations. The site of the original Cross was marked in 1987 by a St John's Cross in the Canongate roadway just outside the modern St John's Land. The original Cross now stands in the grounds of Canongate Kirk.
The Lodge in St John Street has sometimes been called St John's Lodge because of its proximity to St John's Street but its correct name is Canongate Kilwinning No 2. It was built in 1672, with major additions in 1735. It is often shown on local maps as the St John's Chapel. The Lodge has associations with, amongst others, James Boswell, one of its Masters, and Robert Burns, its Poet Laureate. Both were regular visitors during their stays in Edinburgh.
Next door to the Lodge was Anderson's house and adjoining this was a residence of the Earl of Wemyss (1780), with gardens to the south. The Earl thoughtfully donated an adjoining field to serve as a drying green for his St John's Street neighbours.
St John Street
This was established in 1767 when the terrace of tenements on the eastern side of this street was begun. St John's Land was also built during the period 1766-68. Except for No. 1 the whole of this terrace has now been lost. The southern tenements were demolished when Paterson's Land was built; the central ones when the Moray House Nursery School was constructed, and the remainder when Dalhousie Land was developed
This eighteenth century development by the Earl of Hopetoun was a prestigious one since it was unusual in the Edinburgh at that time to build three or four storey tenements each with its own front door. These houses were particularly privileged since residents had views of the Moray House Garden from their rear windows and from their front windows they would have seen Kilwinning Lodge, the side of the Playhouse Theatre and a small field belonging to the Earl of Wemyss. Such homes could only be for the very wealthy.
In 1780 aristocratic tenants on the east side included:
- No. 1 Porter to the Street
- No. 2 The Earl of Aboyne
- No. 3 Lord Blantyre
- No. 4 The Earl of Dalhousie, after whom Dalhousie Land was named
- No. 5 Dr Gregory
- No. 8 The Earl of Hynford
- No. 11 Elizabeth Wemyss
- No. 12 .Colonel Tod
- No. 13 The daughter of the celebrated judge Lord Monboddo
In the early nineteenth century James Ballantyne, in No 10, was the confidant and printer of Sir Walter Scott arranging feasts to his friends when a new work was about to be issued.
At first the street could maintain its exclusivity because it was a close reached through the pend from the Canongate. However, the street was soon extended to join with the South Back of the Canongate, now Holyrood Road. Once it became a thoroughfare it was the solemn duty of the porter at No 1 to deny passage to any vehicle save the surgeon's carriage - and even he had to pay half a guinea a year for his right of access. The same porter, forerunner of many an Edinburgh jobsworth, had also to prevent any carpet beating in the close outside restricted hours. His other duties were:
" That he shall sweep the street at least once every day and when not so employed he shall generally be walking up and down in it to prevent children and idlers from lounging on the stairs, destroying the fence or in any other way annoying the inhabitants."
He was on duty from 6am to 9pm in summer and 8am to 4pm in the winter for a wage of 8 shillings per week.
Inevitably the temptation to move to the superior environment of the rapidly developing New Town became irresistible and in due course St John Street lost its aristocratic tenants. It then became prosperous middle class in character. The 'proprietors' formed a committee, meeting on the third Monday of June each year. Tenants and fuers paid a guinea subscription and those living on a common stair, 5 shillings. At this time the Street was occupied by ministers of the Canongate, a baronet, a novelist, and Alex Cowan. Lady Betty Charteris lived in the house furthest south on the west side. After a disappointment in love she retired to her bed for 26 years.
As the Victorian era came to a close St John Street went into decline as the prosperous families moved out and poorer families moved in. The surrounding area became industrial with the development of breweries, foundries, glass works and gas works. Following the Great Depression and two world wars the area became increasingly run down in the twentieth century. Photographs of the post-war period show many of the Canongate's buildings windowless and deserted. In 1948 houses on the site of the present Dalhousie Land were occupied by over a hundred squatters. Forcibly evicted by Edinburgh Council they sat down in the street and cooked their meals on open fires while their furniture was carried away into store by Council lorries..
Material compiled and edited in 2002 by Hugh Perfect (Dupute Head of Moray House School of Education) and David Starsmeare (Senior Lecturer at Moray House School of Education)