Jonson’s entry into Edinburgh, seventy-one days after leaving London, was a theatrical performance, the Royal Mile running from Holyrood upto the castle, his stage. The city’s gentlemen and officials dramatically sank to their knees at the Mercat Cross to testify that Jonson had truly completed his journey. His mobile audience mobbed him in the street, offered aquavitae and sugar, and popped their heads out of round holes in the wooden shutters of tall stone tenement buildings. The staging of Jonson’s welcome recalled another grander one on the entry of the king the year before.
The water poet, John Taylor’s arrival had been rather different: into the
‘Ancient famous City of Edinburgh, which I entered like pierce penniless, altogether moneyless, but I thank God not friendless… Walking thus down the street [melancholically], presently fixing mine eyes upon a Gentleman-like object, I looked on him [until] at last he crossed the way and made toward me.’
Taylor had struck lucky, and this gentleman found him lodgings.
Like Jonson however, no sooner had Taylor arrived but he was whisked up the Royal Mile to view the fortifications of Edinburgh castle.
‘The Castle on a lofty Rock is so strong, grounded, bounded, and founded, that by force of man it can never be confounded; The Foundation and Walls are impenetrable, the Ramparts Impregnable, the Bulwarks Invincible. In a word I have seen many Fortresses but they must all give place to this unconquered Castle.’
Both travellers too were shown one of the castle’s most notable sights, then and now, the massive iron cannon Mons Meg, Philip of Burgundy’s present to James II on his marriage to Mary of Gueldres: ‘a great piece of Ordinance, it will serve to defend a breach, or to toss balls of wild fire against any’. And like today’s tourists will soon be told (as a result of our project), Taylor relates that his guide said that
‘so great [was the cannon] that a Child was once gotten there, but I to make trial crept into it, lying on my back, and I am sure there was Room enough and spare for a greater than myself.’
Or in Jonson’s companion’s words, ‘the bore was so big that one got a woman with child in it’.
Taylor thought Edinburgh a fine place:
‘the fairest and goodliest street that ever mine eyes beheld… The buildings on each side being all of squared stone, five, six, and seven storeys high, and many by Lanes and Closes on each side of the way, wherein are Gentlemen’s houses … wherein I found entertainment beyond my expectation or merit.’
His was a view not shared by a subsequent snootier traveller, Sir William Brereton in 1635. Whilst he agreed that the Royal Mile was
‘the glory and beauty of this city, … if the houses were not lined to the outside and faced with boards; but this face of boards doth much blemish it, and derogate from glory and beauty; as also the want of fair glass windows.’
But worse… despite it being that
‘This city is placed in a dainty, healthful, pure air, and doubtless were a most healthful place to live, were not the inhabitants most sluttish, nasty, and slothful people. The sluttishness and nastiness of this people is such, that I cannot omit the particularizing thereof: their houses, and halls, and kitchens, have such a noisome taste, a savour and that so strong, as it doth offend you so soon as you come within their walls.’
This is not the impression that we get from Jonson who was subsequently to describe Edinburgh as ‘Britain’s other eye’.
Read more about the ceremony at the Mercat Cross, and other literary stories associated with Edinburgh at A Secret Golden Age: Walks through early literary Edinburgh.