Thursday, 21 December 2017

Exploring Fact & Fiction - Bonnie Prince Charlie's Sojourn in Slateford, 1745


Prince Charles Edward Stuart being feted in Edinburgh,
a painting by William Brassey Hole.
[Source : Internet]

As the generations pass the story of Prince Charles Edward Stuart, commonly known as Bonnie Prince Charlie, has become enveloped in folklore, romanticism and legend but not always, it appears, adhering strictly to the facts! My own 19th century ancestral family home of 'Gray's Mill' in the village of Slateford, being located about two miles south west of Edinburgh, served as accommodation for the Prince on the night of the 16th September 1745 while awaiting a response to his demand for the surrender of the City. You can read my earlier Blog on his short visit and subsequent entry into Edinburgh HERE.

But what I found surprising were the stories that built up around his very brief sojourn in Slateford, including his short residence in the old circa 1600 farmhouse, these stories still being passed on and recounted as late as the mid 20th century. So, let us explore these 'stories' as fact or fiction based on evidence or simply on plausibility. Unfortunately there is evidently more fiction that fact but such is often the basis of 'legends'.

Slateford Village and Lanark Road, circa 1900
The "Cross Keys Inn" is down the right side of the street.
The left side of the street would be swept away in 1967.
[From my own collection]

In the late 1700's the poet Robert Pollock, and while recuperating in the local manse from an illness, wrote in his diary of Slateford; "The village is an earthly paradise. Everything here looks as if the world had never fallen." But the Prince would naturally have been rather less interested in the scenic delights afforded by Slateford as to planning his entry into a recalcitrant Edinburgh (by force if necessary), a tremendous psychological blow to those in Scotland who opposed the Stuart's restoration to the throne.

Our first story relates specifically to the village of Slateford and is in fact still immortalized today in the naming of the local public house, being the "Cross Keys Inn", and the 1936 built "Prince Charlie Bridge" which carries the Union Canal over the busy Lanark Road. Both are significant as the bridge allegedly spans the place where Charles Edward Stuart had been handed the keys for the City of Edinburgh prior to his entry into Edinburgh, hence the "Cross Keys" reference in the naming of the local public house. But was it?

The Old Bridge Carrying the Union Canal
Aqueduct over the Lanark Road (Pre 1936)
[Source : Edinburgh City Libraries]

We know beyond any doubt that representatives of the City made two visits to Slateford that evening to meet with the Prince, the latter having sent a "summons" to the Magistrates demanding that Edinburgh surrender to him or be taken by force by his army. Four Deputies were first sent to wait on the Prince to ask him for a little more time while the Magistrates discussed more fully the terms of their surrender. The four "City Baillies" left Edinburgh by carriage for Gray's Mill at 8pm, departing Slateford at 10pm with a letter from the Prince demanding that his original terms of surrender be adhered to. There is no mention of "surrender" at Slateford let alone the handing over of keys.

As late as 2am, after great debate, and considering that the Magistrates could not easily consult the citizens at that hour with the majority having retired to their beds, the Deputies were hastily sent back to Gray's Mill to specifically request that any "action" be delayed by seven hours.

Charles quickly concluded that the sole object of the Magistrates was to gain time in which to further plan and advance their means of defence. The Prince would also no doubt have been aware that English relief troops were expected although he may not have received the intelligence that the troop transports, being under the command of General Sir John Cope, had in fact now arrived in the Firth of Forth.

The 1842 Caledonian Railway Viaduct and the 1822 
Union Canal Aqueduct which pass through Slateford.
The Bowling Club and Gardens in foreground
Taken circa 1900
[From my own collection]

Naturally annoyed at being trifled with the Prince ordered the Deputies away at 3am. In the face of such prevarication and obstinacy the Highlanders therefore proposed to take possession of the City by stealth. "A body of Camerons" 900 strong and under the command of "the gentle Lochiel" marched in darkness by Merchiston and Hope Park to the Netherbow Port [City gate] where they "lay in ambush". The "accident" of the opening of the gate to permit the passing through of the carriage conveying the City Deputies, and against orders, allowed Lochiel's troops to rush in and easily overpower the City Guard. This took place "In the early early morning in broad daylight" on the 17th September 1745. The defence in place to guard the City sounds quite farcical but without Cope's troops they were in any case outnumbered.

The regular troops retreated to the safety of the Castle under the command of the aged General Guest, being "old and in feeble health"; the weary and exhausted Dragoons, being badly in need of supplies and "worse than useless a terror to their friends rather than to the enemy" fled to the relative safety of Haddington; and "when they scented danger... a good many of the volunteers decamped" with many surrendering their arms at the Castle lest they be caught bearing arms in the face of perceived defeat. With General Cope's relief arriving too late to be of any practical assistance, Edinburgh - but not the Castle - capitulated to the Prince and his victorious Highland Army. Edinburgh had, according to the pro Hanoverian "Edinburgh Evening Courant", underestimated the "pitiful" and "good for nothing" Highlanders to its cost. Their audacious bid to take the Scottish capital had succeeded after no more than a bun fight.

All these events were not only well related in no less than three period newspapers but were also comprehensively researched by the noted Historian, the late Dr. Walter Biggar Blaikie FRSE, DL, LLD. (1847-1928), being the leading scholar and author in his day of the Jacobite period and particularly of the life of Bonnie Prince Charlie.

But what this all tells us is that there is therefore no evidence whatsoever that any handing over of the "keys to the City" took place at Slateford. While one writer in 1936 advances the possibility that the Deputies may have had the keys to the City with them at Slateford he accepts that they were certainly not handed over. We know that on both visits the Deputies had no intention, or even the delegated authority, to hand over any keys, having only been sent by the Magistrates to ask for more time and definitely not to negotiate a surrender. The Magistrates would surely be the ones to officially hand over any such keys and would have only have done so after formally agreeing themselves to a surrender. Why would they even appoint Deputies to carry out this official task? As to commemorating the supposed place where the Deputies handed over the said keys, all evidence confirms their waiting on the Prince at Gray's Mill although they would almost certainly have been met and given safe passage of entry from the outskirts of Slateford.

Upon the new Union Canal bridge being constructed in 1936, it was generally accepted that "the fact that no support for this legend can be found in any records is being dismissed as being beside the point". And thus Slateford would have its "Prince Charlie Bridge". Rather than perpetuating such a myth the commemorative bronze plaque affixed to the bridge at an unknown date merely states, "Near this spot at Gray's Mill, Prince Charlie's Army halted in 1745 prior to the occupation of Edinburgh".

The Window of "The Little Bedroom",
Gray's Mill farmhouse, Slateford
[Source : University of St Andrew's]

The second story relates to the farmhouse of Gray's Mill where the Prince spent the night, being originally located only a short distance from the village of Slateford. The tenant at this time was one David Wright who held the tack [lease] for the Lands of Cauldhame, also known as "Gray’s Mill". An article from 1936 recounts a story told by the then resident, Mrs Jessie Jamieson;

"The little bedroom in which the Prince slept remains unchanged although the rest of the house has been altered. In the old days this house had a thatched roof which has long since been replaced. The tethering ring at the side of the door is the ring to which the Prince's horse was tied, and there is a story that when a company of English soldiers attempted to capture him here he leapt out of his bedroom window to his horse below. All the tenants of this farm have left the window untouched because of the story surrounding it." 

We know that "the Prince lay in his cloaths [clothes] two hours that night at Slateford". Dr Blaikie's history of 1896 then describes this same bedroom; "His room, a very small one, is still pointed out".  A long letter I hold written by my Gt. Gt. Uncle, Dr Cornelius Cunningham V.S. of Slateford and dated 1897 notes that the old house was then tenanted by the Thorburn family and had recently been re-roofed but does not mention any other changes to the exterior.

While the Prince's residence in the house that evening is certainly not in dispute, more than a few questions now spring to mind. Beyond dispute is that there was certainly an iron tethering ring at the side of the door, having been specifically sighted in 1936. But why would it be considered a matter of 'safety' to the Prince to tether his horse below his bedroom window but directly beside the front door where any intruder would naturally enter the premises? And in any case, notwithstanding the small window itself indicating a small room, Blaikie in fact confirms it as being a very small room in his 1896 history.

Assuming the Prince, and with his troops nearby, to have felt perfectly secure in the house and to able to be given adequate warning of any advancing hostile force, why would he even choose what appears to be a very small box room as his bedroom? The two larger upper windows would indicate these were also much larger bedrooms, even if the windows were enlarged at a later date. With the cost of glass and even an 18th century "Window Tax", all the upper windows may once have been of a similar size. My feeling is that it was overall a rather more entertaining - and romantic - story that the Prince could in fact simply jump out his bedroom window onto his waiting steed and high tail it to safety.

Gray's Mill farmhouse, Slateford.
The image resolution is too low
to show the tethering hook by the door.
[Source : University of St Andrew's]

As to the fate of the tethering hook, a helpful correspondent who has actively researched the history of Slateford advises that after the demolition of Gray's Mill in the early 1960's the iron ring "allegedly" found its way to the Railway Inn in the village (a Public House, I might add, once owned by my Gt. Gt. Grandfather who resided at Gray's Mill). But the Inn, along with the rest of the west side of the street would be wholly demolished in 1967 and the whereabouts of the ring after this date is unknown so even if it were retained its provenance may by now be lost.

As for "a company of English soldiers" attempting to capture him, the Prince was well protected, no English soldiers were known to be that close to Slateford, and I doubt even a modern trained company of commandos forced to travel on horseback would have considered it prudent to carry out such a brazen action without being discovered by the Highland forces well before their entry to Slateford. Then to manage a safe escape from a no doubt well guarded farmhouse with their unwilling royal prisoner in tow? And simply for the Prince to leap out a rather narrow upper story window onto a horse that just happens to be conveniently standing in the correct position directly under the window but therefore inconveniently blocking entry to the front door stretches the imagination even further. One could lower oneself down from the window but quite frankly, I perceive it would be quicker to have raced down the internal stairway and out the front door. Need we say more? 

We know of course that the Prince's troops were in fact bivouacked in an adjoining field, that being confirmed from an amusing anecdote which also illustrates some considerable bravado on the part of the exasperated farm tenant.

"Gray's Mill' Farmhouse as Viewed
from the Water of Leith, taken circa 1900
[From my own collection]

A "disenchanted" and obviously less than enamoured Laird of Woodhouselee  (a staunch Presbyterian and a committed Whig supporter) had earlier described the passing of "the pretender Prince, his retinue and guards" through Midlothian,“....with their bagpipes and plaids, rusty rapiers, matchlocks and firelocks.....” The said Laird also related accounts of "pressing" of horses and carriages, of plundering, and of destruction of personal property. It was this same "rag tag and bob tail" band of troops at Slateford who camped on a field [Gray’s Park] of nearly ripe ‘pease’ belonging to the Gray's Mill tenant farmer, David Wright.

Wright, no doubt feeling that he now had little to lose with his home appropriated by the Prince and his retinue, a large 'rabble' of Highland troops additionally occupying his precious farmland and flattening his crop, called at the farmhouse, being of course his own residence, and demanded compensation for his ruined crop. Clearly, confronting the Prince was clearly less intimidating than the thought of being summarily evicted from his tenancy by an unsympathetic Factor for unpaid rent.

The Prince then offered Wright a promissory note in the name of the ‘Prince Regent’ (which would have been his Royal title when the Stuart’s regained the throne), but this was not found acceptable to the said farmer. The name of the ‘Duke of Perth’, was then offered by an amused Prince as being a more credit worthy guarantor, which was then accepted. I wonder if Wright was in fact ever paid?   

I do wonder at my family, including my own Grandfather, who were farm tenants and resident in the said farmhouse from 1824 to 1879 recounting these well known 'tales'. Judging by the tall tales enthusiastically related by the then tenant in 1936 it would appear that my family must certainly have continued to romanticize and keep alive these 'legends' through much of the 19th century. I like to think that they delighted in recounting such tales, but no doubt with a twinkle in their eyes. But my Grandfather died as early as 1925 and my Father, although by then in adulthood, certainly knew nothing of these stories other than holding a few old photographs and knowing that his Father had lived for some years together with his then aged Grandfather at "Gray's Mill".


The "New" Crenelated and Gated Entrance to the old Slateford
Secession Church adjoining the "Cross Keys Inn" at left.
Taken circa 1900. This entrance is still extant today
[From my own collection]

But the Slateford of today would be virtually unrecognizable to the 18th century village witnessed by both the Prince and by Robert Pollock. Even by the mid 19th century, with convenient access to Edinburgh by canal, road and railway, extensive industrialization was evident in the area. A large quarry even now also served as a convenient tip for Edinburgh's 'night carts'. Without any listed status, the demolition of the circa 360 year old 'Gray's Mill' farmhouse, and which my paternal family had tenanted from 1824 to 1879, took place in the early 1960's. During the same period the remaining adjoining farmland was appropriated for a sprawling housing development. Thus the 'legends' surrounding the Prince and his residence at "Gray's Mill" have largely been forgotten

The actual site where the house stood is now part of a soul-less carpark immediately behind and on the north side of a Sainsbury's convenience store and petrol station for the large adjoining Sainsbury's Edinburgh Longstone Superstore. The latter is actually quite an attractive modern building and a definite improvement on the previous ugly 'tin shed' (a compliment to the unknown architect) . But who would honestly now know when they park their car or purchase their petrol that Bonnie Prince Charlie plotted and received the news of the surrender of Edinburgh for the Stuart cause from this very site? Would Sainsbury's care to commemorate this fact with a plaque???

I wandered around what was then just a warehouse car park in 2004 and could only ascertain the approximate site of the farmhouse from the location of the still extant 1913 Masonic Lodge Hall (now the Waterside Social Club) nearby at 26A Inglis Green Road. Inglis Green Road has itself also been widened which included part of the original farmhouse walled garden. I could simply feel no sense of connection or of times past, the changes over the last 50 odd years having been so complete.

Changes to the village of Slateford itself have been pretty dramatic as well with the western side of the old town being completely demolished in 1967 in an unbridled act of modern vandalism to enable an admittedly narrow and by now very congested road to be widened. But this action destroyed the heart of the old village which up till then had at least retained something of the look and feel of former times. Such were the decisions of the then city planners who were tasked with looking to the future and not to the past.

The "Cross Keys Inn" and former Church Entrance today.
[Source : Wikipedia Commonds]

The afore-mentioned 18th century Cross Keys Inn still survives alongside the entrance to the former 1785 Slateford Secession Church. The Church building itself survives and is used for storage while the crenelated entrance, being described as "new" around 1900, is just next door.

Two imposing 19th century landmarks also remain in situ at Slateford, being the brick arches of both the 1818-22 Union Canal aqueduct linking Edinburgh with Falkirk, and the 1840-42 Caledonian Railway viaduct which still links Edinburgh with Carstairs and the main West Coast Line South.

I suppose that even in name only, and admittedly with some inaccuracies, we must at least be thankful that Slateford still commemorates their royal visitor with two well known landmarks, a bridge and a Public House. But the name "Gray's Mill" has, apart from the name of a Public House some distance away on the A70 into Edinburgh, now unfortunately passed into history.


Sources :

- "The People's Journal", 21 Nov 1936 (courtesy of G. Watson)
- "Itinerary of Prince Charles Edward", 1896, by Dr Walter Biggar Blaikie (Internet Archive)
- "Prince Charles Edward Stuart, His Life, Time, and Fight for the Crown", 1913, by J. Cuthbert Haddon (Internet Archive)
- "Villages of Edinburgh" Vol 2, 1987, by Malcolm Cant (from my own collection)
- "The Colinton Story", 1994 by Lynne Gladstone-Millar, (from my own collection)
- Personal family papers and photographs in my possession
- With thanks to Gordon Watson, Penicuick, Midlothian

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