Notes on Old Edinburgh

The following is from Notes on Old Edinburgh by Isabella L. Bird:

Chapter III

This rickety "land" is not by any means in one of the worst closes in Edinburgh. It is not a haunt of the criminal classes. Vice and virtue live side by side, though the virtuous are in a miserable minority, and their children are in grievous peril of vice. I was given to understand, by those well acquainted with the city, that it was a good representative specimen of an average "land" in a High Street close. On that and another occasion we visited thirty-two families, going by room-row. I propose to give the circumstances of a few families, taken after this fashion. All the rooms were in themselves wretched, few more than half-lighted, scarcely any capable of ventilation, some on the second-floor requiring candles at mid-day, floors and partitions in a shameful condition, the former in many instances containing holes as big as a man's head, stuffed with stones; the latter very thin and dilapidated, mended with rags, bits of canvas, tin, and paper. The doors were usually made of odds and ends of old boards, so rudely put together that in some rooms the people had nailed canvas over them to prevent strangers from looking in. The windows were nearly all bad, and patched with brown paper; no gas or water. The landlord had never repaired anything within the memory of the "oldest inhabitant." Among all the people visited the complaints were the same--rapacious landlords charging from 2, 10s. to 5; no repairs executed; borrowed light, involving an addition to the rent in the shape of 1s. per week for candles; want of privacy; distance of water supply; dark stairs; increasing subdivision of rooms, involving, in some cases, the intense hardship of a right of way through the outer room. It is due to all these people to say, that while they readily answered all our questions, they never begged of us, or even hinted that charity would be acceptable. It is due to some of them also to say, that their attempts to keep their wretched dwellings clean were most praiseworthy.

First room, 11 feet by 5 feet. A box-bed took up a third of it. No grate; fire burning on a stone. The furniture consisted of the bed, a table with three legs, and a "creepie." The room had direct light from a small patched window, which was not made to open. The walls were broken, and almost to pieces. There was a hole in the floor filled up with a large stone. The occupier, a mason's labourer, was out seeking work, and his wife was at the well. These two adults and five children between three and fourteen years old slept on the floor, the eldest child said. "But don't your father and mother sleep on the bed?" we asked. "No, they can't for the bugs; we just lies on the floor, all of a heap." "In your clothes?" "No; we takes them off." "Do you put anything on?" "No; we's just naked." Truly, they had nothing to put on if they did succeed in getting out of the wonderful aggregation of rags which hung on to them. For there were no blankets, or any covering but an old piece of carpet. The rent was 3, 10s. a year. The girl who made this frank revelation was extremely pretty and intelligent. Her young brother and sisters were beautiful, but absolutely filthy; their arms and legs were covered with sores, and their matted hair alive with vermin. The father was the only one of the family who could read. The girl said that her father's leg had gone through the floor up to the knee, and then they put the stone in the hole. From this account it appears that, after deducting the space occupied by the bed, seven individuals huddle together all of a heap in an area 6 feet by 5 feet. The room was damp and draughty.

The next room was 18 feet by 10 feet; shamefully out of repair, the wooden partition falling to pieces. Some of the holes in it were carefully patched with paper, but the neighbours constantly tear this off to look in. One of the so-called panels of the door had been kicked in by a drunken man; the landlord would not repair it, so the occupant had nailed a piece of canvas over it. The window-glass was mostly gone, and though the window had originally been made to open, the sash was too rotten to be touched. The floor was in holes in several places. The rain came in along one wall. The rent is 4. The family consisted of an elderly father and mother, and two sons, plumbers. The father and eldest son had been out of work for some time, and the youngest was only getting better from a fever. They were very reticent about their circumstances, but we gathered that two daughters in service were supporting them. Both father and mother were rheumatic from the damp of the house, they said. There were two beds, but they "can't sleep on either,--alive with bugs from the walls," so take refuge on the floor. The woman pulled aside a patch of canvas, and showed the wall swarming with these pests. They had taken every means of destroying them, but in vain. The room was scrupulously clean. The next measured 11 feet by 5, and 6 feet at the highest part. A single pane of glass in a corner under the roof let in as much light as made objects discernible. The plenishings consisted of a filthy straw bed, a bit of carpet, and an iron pot. The floor was almost covered with cinders, and mended in three places with stones. The room was loathsome, the smell overpowering, the look of abject and uncared-for misery sickening. The occupants were a widow, a cinder-picker, and her two children, very poor. The children were "learning the devil's lessons" in the close below. A neighbour told us that the mother often locks them into the room from five o'clock in the morning till ten or eleven at night. The rent is 2, 12s.

The next room was a house of ill-fame, with seven occupants, very disorderly, and much complained of by the neighbours on each side, who were separated from it only by a wretched partition.

The next room was almost dark; 11 feet by 5 feet; rent, 1s. per week. Its sole occupant was a frightful-looking hag, apparently more than seventy years old, a mass of rags and filth, with an uncovered hoary head, whose long locks were tangled with neglect and dirt. She was sleeping off the effects of a drunken debauch on some old straw, but woke up sufficiently to mutter a curse, and glower upon us a moment with her bloodshot eyes. She had received the parish allowance the day before, and this was the result--a whisky-bottle, without a cork, but not quite empty, was lying beside her. There was no other sign of human habitation, and in the wretched object lying on the straw we could hardly recognise humanity.

Our next visit was of a different kind. Reaching the topmost floor, we came upon a passage, very dilapidated, but lighted by a large projecting window. A very respectable artisan was lime-washing the passage, the roof, and the top of the stair. He said it was the best he could do, and he did it once a fortnight. He had two rooms, only one of which had direct light. They were like all the rest, in utter disrepair. He leant against the outer partition, which swerved considerably from the perpendicular as he did so, and said, "The weight of two men would bring it down." He came to a situation in Edinburgh, has good wages, and could meet with nothing better than this at the term. The rent is 9 a year. He gave a revolting account of the immorality of the stair. He had three young children, he said; if he couldn't get into a decent neighbourhood he'd rather see them in their graves than grow up there. "What can I hope for my bairns," he added, "when they can't get a breath of fresh air without seeing such as yon?" Looking out, we saw in a window, not a pistol-shot off, three debased women, sitting in the broad daylight, absolutely nude, as far as we could see of them. The worthy citizens who were with me blushed for the city called so fair, in which an honest artisan, with money in his pocket, was compelled to shelter his family where all sights and sounds were polluting, feeling, as he did, the abhorrent shame. The top of the stair was much broken, and destitute of any protection. A fall would have been into about forty feet of darkness. On our alluding to this as a great peril for the young children, the man said, with a bitter smile, "Bairns reared in such places are like lambs born among precipices--they early learn to take care of themselves." This is true, or the juvenile population of these closes would be decimated. Of the sad sights we saw that morning, that was about the saddest--the honest man and his shame, and the helplessness of his circumstances. It was enough to make even "polite indifference" put forth some redeeming effort.

First room on fifth floor, 12 by 14 feet. Rent 2, 10s. Very cold; roof out of repair, and admitting rain; the partitions much broken. The occupiers were a very decent-looking man, seventy-six years old, by trade a shoemaker, his wife, aged seventy-three, and a dumb grandson, who was mending a shoe on the stool on which his grandfather "had sat for sixty-two years." They had parish relief. The woman had been in bed twelve months with paralysis, and suffered much from being removed. The dirt and vermin were perfectly awful. She was a miserable object; apparently she had no bed-gown, and her skeleton chest and ribs, which were exposed to view, might have served as a model for death. Both she and her husband had the speech and air of having seen better days. They had lived in this attic for twenty years, and had had typhus fever twice during the last ten. The rent had been raised 1 during the same period. They had five children, scattered in Australia and America, but letters addressed to them were returned with the notice "Not found." They seemed very poor, but made no complaint of anything but the wretched condition of the room, the cold and damp, the want of privacy, and the distance from which the old man had to bring the water up the long dark stair. The room was clean, with the exception of the bed, but the cracks in the partitions there, as everywhere else, were "alive with bugs." The old man said he was a church-member, and paid 2s. 6d. a year for a seat at a U.P. church. This was their own account of themselves, and the general appearance of things bore it out. Such are the cases in which much may be done, by systematic visitation, in the way of arresting a downward course. These people are now in the Poor-house, the dram-shop having proved too much for the old man.

Next room, 8 feet by 9 feet. A most wretched place, only fit to be pulled down; borrowed light. A joiner, in very bad health, and consequently out of work for two years, with his wife and four children, and a daughter by a former marriage, with an illegitimate child, were the occupants. The wife and grown-up daughter earn 7s. 6d. per week by washing. The rent is 2 a year. A most miserable family, utterly gone to wreck.

Next room.--A blind labourer, very frail, with a wife, who supports the family and four children. After an illness, were ordered into the Poor-house, then out again, and were quite broken up by it. This room was wretched in every respect--9 feet by 10 feet, very low, and rented at 2. In the next room there was a very sad case--a compositor, with a wife and two children, living in a room, requiring a candle at mid-day, 12 feet by 8 feet; roof mended with tin, letting in the rain; floor broken and mended with stones, so rotten that a walking-stick went through it in two places. The man's joints were stiff with rheumatism, caught in the damp cold of the room. Work had slackened, and after having had a good room in Carrubbers Close, they had come here. The man had had no work for a long time, and they had pledged everything, till they had only "the clothes they stood in." They had had good furniture, but it "was all gone to keep life in them." They spoke of their poverty very reluctantly, and very warmly of the kindness of the missionary. Both man and wife were steady. Her earnings supported them; but she was expecting her confinement shortly.

The next room was 14 feet by 8 feet, and the remains of a cornice held on to the outer wall. The side walls were skeleton partitions, dilapidated and swarming with bugs. There were three doors. The occupant was a fish-hawker, an Irishwoman--cheery and self-asserting, voluble as to herself and her neighbours. Had she been of smaller size and milder tongue the hardship of which she complained would have had more pathos about it; but even as it is, a more infamous injustice could scarcely be perpetrated by the proprietors of these ruinous fabrics: her room had been subdivided since she came; she continued to pay the old rent--4. The occupants of the inner room were a man and woman, with two lodgers, apparently of most irregular habits, who came through her room with a passkey, drunk and sober, at all hours of day and night. This is one of eleven instances of passage-rooms that I have seen in Edinburgh. In the Cowgate this infamous system flourishes, and occasionally to such an extent that the outer room is the only mode of ingress and egress for three or four others. The insult and hardship this plan entails upon the virtuous, and the facilities for immorality that it affords to the vicious cannot be recited here.

Outside this woman's room there was a perfect labyrinth of passages, all dark, but on opening a door we entered a room 12 feet square, with direct light, but with rotten partitions, like all the rest, and so pervious to sound that we heard every word of a narrative of our visit which the "decent widder" before mentioned was giving to an incomer. This room was miserable. Ashes, the accumulation of days, heaped the floor round the fire. There was no other furniture than a bedstead with a straw mattress upon it, a table, and a stool; but it was the occupants, rather than the apparent poverty, who claimed our attention. A girl about eighteen, very poorly dressed, was sitting on the stool; two others, older and very much undressed, were sitting on the floor, and the three were eating, in most swinish fashion, out of a large black pot containing fish. I have shared a similar meal, in a similar primitive fashion, in an Indian wigwam in the Hudson's Bay Territory, but there the women who worshipped the Great Spirit were modest in their dress and manner, and looked human, which these "Christian" young women did not. An infant of about a month old, perfect in its beauty, and smiling in its sleep, "as though heaven lay about it," was on the bed, not dressed, but partly covered with a rug. What better could be desired for it than that the angels might take it speedily away from that shameful birth-chamber to behold its Father's face in heaven? Easier by far to trust it in death to His mercy, than in life to the zeal of the Christianity of Edinburgh. Death for these is better than life; and, in many cases, drugs and neglect soon bring it about. "Where are you from?" one of my philanthropic companions asked of the girl of eighteen, the mother. "Dundee; mother and I came here five weeks ago. I was a mill-worker." "Will the father of your child marry you?" "No, sir." "Have you got work here?" "No, sir; I can't get any." "What are you going to do, then?" "I suppose I must do as the others." She gave this answer without shame, and without effrontery. An upbringing in a Dundee "pend" had not acquainted her with shame as an attendant upon sin. Alas for the hundreds of girl-children growing up among the debasing circumstances of the crowded "lands" of our wynds and closes, without even the instincts of virtue!

The next room, though miserable in itself, was clean and well furnished, with pictures hanging upon the partitions. A mother and daughter, both widows, but earning a good living by needlework, were the occupants. They complained bitterly of the gross viciousness of the stair, and of the "awful riot" kept up all night by those newcomers. They told us that the wretched old hag who had come from Dundee had five female lodgers, with only two gowns among them all, and that they were of the poorest and most degraded class. These respectable widows, both elderly women, had lived in that room for seven years, and in the main had had quiet neighbours. They now found themselves in this close proximity to a den of vice, unable to exclude the sounds which came through the thin partition, and too terrified at night by the drinking and uproar to be able to sleep. The term was lately passed, so they were compelled to bear it.

A few sentences more will take us through the remaining rooms on the two floors we are investigating. There follow a widow, who binds shoes, with two children, sleeping in a large bed in a room 11 feet by 9 feet, with a small window, letting in air too impure to breathe; rent, 2, 12s. A widow, with a brother seventy-two years old, poor, but clean, chiefly dependent on a daughter in service. A mason's labourer, who once farmed six acres of land, now earns 12s. per week; wife with bad eyes, and health too delicate for work, having fretted herself into decline for two children who had died of the cholera; room, 12 feet by 8 feet, rented at 1s. 2d. per week. Three adults and six children in a room 12 feet by 10 feet, without direct light. Drunken labourer, earning 15s. per week--twosons in prison; two daughters living with him, with three illegitimate children; room, 14 feet by 15 feet; rent, 3, 18s. a year. Pauper widow, with one child and two unregistered lodgers. Married labourer, with two children, earning 15s. per week; three lodgers (prostitutes) in the same room, 14 feet by 12 feet; rent, 3, 18s.; borrowed light; no furniture; all drunken together. Then follow five families, all wretched; and we have completed our room-to-room visitation of two floors in an average land in an average close in the High Street.

As seen thus, in broad daylight, except for the filth, dilapidation, vermin, darkness, and poverty, combined with the suggestions of immoral conduct on the part of most of the people, there was nothing peculiarly startling to any one at all acquainted with the Old Town of Edinburgh. I have taken this particular close, for the especial reason that what is said of it and its inhabitants applies to dwellings and circumstances in which possibly 40,000 people pass their days. I have given the impression made by it upon a stranger, in preference to depicting entries in a part of the town with which I am well acquainted, and which, in many of their aspects, are far worse. There are cellar-dwellings, damp and dark, old byres with open drains still running through them, let for human beings; garrets, damp and draughty, in which a man can scarcely stand upright; and cabins, of which stairs, roofs, and walls are mainly of wood. There are rooms as small as any I have mentioned, occupied by one, two, and three families, only reached by passage-rooms as small and crowded as themselves; and in these dens the whole round of human life goes on--agonies of birth and death, miseries of sickness and sorrow, marriage jollifications, funeral revels, the cold remains of mortality lying on the same straw with the living; the miserable meal on the table, the unshrouded corpse on the floor. Are such woes as these, such absolute savage degradation, the inevitable deposit of the highest Christian civilisation? Is there, indeed, no balm in Gilead--is there no physician there? Is it the curse of God's indignation, or the curse of man's selfishness, avarice, and neglect, under which those thousands are lying? Is this the "good ground" on which the gospel seed is to spring up and bear fruit one hundredfold? Are the rich and godly to send missionaries and Bible-women among these masses, and save their own souls by giving the necessary funds? Shall they not rather go down themselves among the lost, as Christ went, and learn their needs, and find from themselves that foremost among these are decent dwellings in which it might be possible to live and die otherwise than as swine. We might then hear less of money lying at two per cent. in the banks, or lost in insolvent railroads, and more of 8, 10, and 12 per cent. as a certain return. Talk of the risk of house property! Is it greater than the risks people have contentedly run for years in railroads, mines, and cotton? Possibly every 100 spent on improving the dwellings of the poor might do something towards accumulating a treasure in the heavens that faileth not, where no thief approacheth, or moth corrupteth.

The walls of the Old Town houses are generally strong. Such a "land" as that which I have described, gutted from cellar to roof, and supplied with water, gas, and a temporary receptacle for rubbish, would make a good substantial house at a comparatively small cost, with a certain return of from 8 to 10 per cent. The removal of the subdividing partitions, new floors, doors, and windows would be a necessity. The good result of such an undertaking in every close and wynd would not be only the placing of sixteen or eighteen families in a position in which, if they were so minded, they could be moral and religious, but the insertion of a wedge into this hardened stratum of viciousness and poverty. The bad could not be so bad in close proximity to the virtuous. The filthy would aspire to be something better. The landlords, the hardest class of all to deal with, would be compelled, by competition and opinion, to amend their property and their ways. Decent houses in St. Bernard's or St. Leonard's have no more influence over the manners and morals of Hume's Close or Todrick's Wynd than decent houses in Moray Place or Chester Street; but decent lands put down in Cant's Close or Skinner's Close, with rooms rented from 2, 10s. to 4, would do a better work of reformation around them than all the agencies which are at work.

It is only necessary to refer to the complete renovation of Warden's Close, Grassmarket, by Dr. Foulis, as a proof of what is to be done by energetic individual action. The restored fabric, as arranged for human beings, pays 14 per cent. Of course, the still greater overcrowding of other dens during the renovation of even one "land" requires to be carefully provided against.

It has been frequently stated that a third of the inhabitants of Edinburgh are not in connexion with any Christian Church. In the thirty-two families visited in ---- Close, two women were the only persons who professed to attend any place of worship. In another small close which we visited none but a Catholic family professed to attend any church. Eight years ago, in two populous stairs in another part of the town with which I was well acquainted, there was a total of nine persons attending church out of an adult population of forty. At the present time this number is reduced to one woman, who, "when she goes anywhere, goes to Lady Yester's." Of the thirty-two families before spoken of, most of the women and some of the men had formerly been church-goers. Where is this "lapsing" to end?

Chapter IV


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