Riddle’s Court

Anyone visiting Edinburgh will automatically be drawn to visiting iconic locations such as Edinburgh Castle. If you want to avoid the crowds, however, take a stroll 400 metres down the Royal Mile to Riddle’s Court. There you will find a true historic jewel in Edinburgh’s crown. 

This short video gives you a little taster of why you should visit Riddle’s Court.

Short Video of Riddle’s Court

Why visit Riddle’s Court

So why would we encourage you to visit Riddle’s Court? Well there are a whole host of reasons but let’s start with the fact that it was built in the 1590s. It’s first owner was Baillie John McMorran who was a wealthy merchant in the city. He purchased it in 1587 but with his considerable wealth he was able to create a stunning courtyard residence. 

Baillie McMorran was only to benefit from the property for five years. Unfortunately for him in 1595 he was called to a riot by schoolboys at the Royal High School. The pupils had effectively gone on strike in protest at not being given enough holiday time. McMorran was called to bring the riot to an end. However, one of the pupils was in possession of a musket and remarkably fired an accurate shot that killed McMorran. The perpetrator, William Sinclair of the highly influential Sinclair family, was cleared and incredibly avoided prison. 

The property in the meantime changed hands and it received a number of visitors over the years. The most notable visitor would have to be King James VI who hosted a banquet there in honour of his wife’s brother who was visiting. 

During the 1600s, whilst in the possession of the Sir Roderick Mackenzie a number of upgrades were carried out. An ornate plaster ceiling was added in 1684 which has survived to this day. 

The property acquired its name when it was purchased by George Riddell in 1726. Again like Mackenzie, thanks to his considerable wealth, he was able to reconstruct much of the people that faces onto the Lawnmarket. 

However, in 1837 the rerouting of the link road between the Grassmarket and the Royal Mile resulted in some very serious remodelling of the south face of Riddle’s Court. By the mid to late 1800s, Riddle’s Court was a shadow of its former self. The 1881 census records that there were 247 people living in the building. But this was far too overcrowded and like many other parts of the Old Town the building had become a slum. 

Patrick Geddes – A Man of Vision

If it were not for one man, Patrick Geddes, like many other buildings that had fallen into disrepair it would have been demolished. Geddes was a man of vision and well ahead of his time. He can truly be described as a conservationist, long before it became fashionable to be one. 

Geddes purchased the property and carried out a “root and branch” restoration of the building. By the time it was completed, it became one of the first Halls of Residence for students at the University of Edinburgh. Some buildings had to be demolished either side of the passageway to form a courtyard. The aim was to provide more light and fresh air into the building and improve the conditions for the inhabitants. 

A new staircase was added to the outside of the building to enable access between the first and second floors. This can be seen more clearly in the video. Geddes held the first University Summer schools here. The entrance to what is now the Geddes Centre has an inscription on the lintel above the gated entrance – ‘Vivendo Discimus.’ This is the Latin for ‘By Living we Learn.’

Further limited restoration was carried out in the twentieth century after it was taken into the care of Edinburgh City Council. However, huge investment was needed to carry out the thorough restoration that it truly required. 

Thanks to the Heritage Lottery Fund grant of £2.4 million and further total funding of £5.8 million, the Scottish Historic Buildings Trust was able to commence a stunning restoration. The restoration commenced in 2016, using only the most skilled tradesmen in their field. The project was finally completed in 2019. 

Riddle’s Court is Open to the Public

It is now open to the public. As well as being able to take a tour, it can also be booked for educational events, weddings, corporate events, parties and fine dining. For further details, visit Riddle’s Court website.

Riddle’s Court can be easily missed as it is set back from the main thoroughfare of the Lawnmarket. It is almost directly opposite the more prominent Gladstone’s Land. So use that as your point of reference. Here is an image of the entrance to Riddle’s Court from the Lawnmarket. 

Riddle’s Court entrance

Victoria Street

If you are not familiar with Edinburgh, one particular street that you must visit is Victoria Street. It is no exaggeration to say that Victoria Street is one of those places that has a charm all of its own. Victoria Street connects the Grassmarket with George VI Bridge which in turn leads to the Royal Mile.

Victoria Street was constructed in the 1820-30s to replace its predecessor the West Bow. The West Bow was a very steep zig-zag lane from the Grassmarket to Castlehill and the top of the Royal Mile. This was not a route for the faint of heart particularly if you were trying to negotiate a heavily laden cart or wagon up the steep hill. But as the population of the Old Town and more importantly, the vehicular traffic grew, so the West Bow became an inconvenient obstacle. Carts, carriages and wagons simply struggled to negotiate this tricky route. 

1827 Improvement Act

It is no wonder as part of the city’s 1827 Improvement Act that Johnston Terrace was constructed as a matter of priority. Johnston Terrace is much further west of the Grassmarket. In fact it originates at the south western edge of the base of the Castle. This road enabled traffic to make its way to the top of the Royal Mile from the west. Carts and wagons were able to avoid the busy Grassmarket and precarious West Bow.  

However, Thomas Hamilton who was responsible for Johnston Terrace was also tasked with replacing the West Bow with a more accessible route. Thus, he created Bow Street which was renamed Victoria Street when Queen Victoria took the throne in 1837. 

Photographic Gem

Presently, it is one of the most visited streets in Edinburgh. Its array of vibrantly coloured shop fronts, arches and cobblestones easily entice the visitor to come and take a look. The street itself is topped off with an additional terrace above with yet more shops and restaurants. For photographers, you can pick your vantage point anywhere on the street and capture that perfect photo.

Take a look at our 1-Minute Snapshot of Victoria Street to see why it is so popular.

For photographs, stand by the novelty/joke shop and you will snap that perfect shot as the street curves round to the right. Alternatively, walk three quarters of the way up the street and stop by the Walker Slater Menswear shop for a view back down the street. And for that aerial shot, walk up the street past the Cuttea Sark shop. Then take the first left up some steps leading onto Victoria Terrace. From here you can take a great photo looking down onto the street from above.

Shopper’s Paradise – Diagon Alley

One of the unique features of Victoria Street is that it arguably has more independent shops per square foot than any other part of the city. For the shopaholic this has to be as good a reason as any to visit Victoria Street. The small independent traders of this street will be grateful for any footfall here after the impact of COVID-19 on trade.

The range of shops include the Old Town Bookshop, a tea shop, a cheese shop, a tweed shop, a novelty and fancy-dress shop and a number of restaurants. However, all of these take second place to one particular shop…..that is, if you are a Harry Potter fan.  

No.40, about a third of the way up the street, was previously a city institution known as Robert Cresser’s Brush Shop. It had been in existence from as far back as 1873. It is only in the last few years that it has changed its role to that of the ‘go-to’ place for all things Harry Potter. The sign on the front says Museum Context but it is more commonly referred to as Diagon House. This is because it is alleged that Victoria Street was J K Rowling’s inspiration for Diagon Alley. 

Pedestrian Friendly

It is normally a busy little street with visitors, workers and cars making their way up from the Grassmarket to George IV Bridge. The great news is that with effect from July 2020, Victoria Street is now completely pedestrianised during the hours of 10.30am – 06.00am. Edinburgh Cab Tours include Victoria Street on both of our vehicle and walking tours. For further information visit our TOURS page.

So, whether you are a “Potterhead,” a shopaholic, or someone who loves to admire the architecture, then you must put Victoria Street on your list of ‘things-to-do.” And if at the end of your shopping, you are in need of liquid refreshment, then make your way to the Bow Bar. This is one of Edinburgh’s few remaining traditional pubs.

Part 2 – The Lawnmarket

In Part 1 of our Virtual video Tour of Edinburgh we took you on a short tour of Castlehill and Edinburgh Castle. Following on from this in Part 2 of our Virtual Tour of Edinburgh, we come next to the Lawnmarket. It is a significantly longer section than Castlehill. Along it are a number of very interesting features including the Highland Tolbooth Kirk, Gladstone’s Land, Deacon Brodies, St Giles Cathedral and the Signet Library.  All of these are worth taking a look at when you visit Edinburgh. If you take one of our tours, we are able to cover so much more for you. But click on our video below for a taster of what we cover.

Highland Tolbooth Kirk

If we begin at the top of the Lawnmarket, we can’t help but come face to face with the Highland Tolbooth Kirk. This gothic style building was built between 1842 and 1844 and was initially built to house the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. It also had a congregation whose church services were carried out in Gaelic before eventually locating to Greyfriars Kirk.  Now the building is home to the headquarters of the Edinburgh Festival, as well as housing the Hub café. 

Gladstone’s Land & Deacon Brodie’s

Only a short distance down from here can be found Gladstone’s Land. This is one of the older buildings on the Royal Mile and was originally built in the mid 1500s. The present building was redeveloped in 1617 by Thomas Gledstanes. In the early 1930s it was at risk of being demolished but was rescued when it was purchase by the National Trust of Scotland.  While restoring the building, incredibly they found the original painted ceilings which had been covered by centuries of wall coverings. 

Only a short walk down from here on the opposite side of the street, you come to Brodie’s Close. If you walk down the Close, you come to Deacon’s House Café, on the original site of Brodie’s workshop. Deacon Brodie was an (in)famous individual in the mid-18th century. Despite being a respected gentleman and town councillor, he hid a much darker side which was to be his downfall. However, his story deserves a post all of its own which we will cover in the future.

Crossing over the traffic junction, on the south east corner, you will find a plaque. This confirms that the last public execution in Edinburgh took place here in 1864. Directly opposite is the entrance to High Court of Edinburgh, scene of many high profile trials.

St Gile’s Cathedral

Finally, on this section of our virtual tour we can see St Giles “Cathedral” in all of its glory. You can’t help but notice it with its splendid crown spire. Although there has always been a church here possibly as far back as the 9th century, much of the church is of a much later construction. What we can say for certain is that it would have once been a Roman Catholic church. However, during the Reformation of the mid-1500s all trace of Catholicism was removed and it thereafter became a Presbyterian church. Very briefly thanks to Charles I, it was elevated to the status of Cathedral together with its own Bishop of Edinburgh. However, riots resulted and eventually it reverted to a Presbyterian church. But to this day it is still referred to as St Giles Cathedral.

This completes the overview of the Lawnmarket. However, there is so much more that we cover on our tours. So if this has whetted your appetite take a look at our tours or follow us on Facebook for further details.