28/10/2015
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Edinburgh's Royal Mile - five historic sites you might have missed

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Next time you're exploring Edinburgh's Royal Mile, keep a look out for these quirky historic sites that you might have missed. Read our feature on six Edinburgh dogs to rival Greyfriars Bobby.


The Royal Mile in Edinburgh is one of the city's most historic streets. Once used as a royal route between Edinburgh Castle and Holyrood Palace, the street is home to many famous sites including John Knox House, Canongate Kirk, the Old Tolbooth and the Scottish Parliament.

These five lesser known sites are bypassed by most visitors, but provide a unique and quirky insight into centuries of Royal Mile history.

1. Sanctuary Stone

The area around Holyrood Abbey was once a place of sanctuary for debtors, during the centuries when debt was an imprisonable offence. The sanctuary zone extended to a five mile radius around the palace and those seeking sanctuary could apply to stay in one of the buildings surrounding the Abbey, which became known as Abbey Lairds. The sanctuary inhabitants could safely leave the sanctuary only on Sundays, when their debtors were prevented from pursuing them.

The law which meant that debtors could be imprisoned was repealed in 1880, after which the sanctuary was no longer needed; the 'S' stone on the pavement is a reminder of the area's former use.

2. Witches Well

The west wall of Edinburgh Castle esplanade is the location of Witches Well, an iron fountain which marks the spot where more than 300 women were burned to death for witchcraft in the sixteenth century; more 'witches' were burned here than anywhere else in Scotland. One of the most famous victims was Dame Euphane MacCalzean, who was accused of using a spell to destroy a ship carrying King James VI.

James VI had a great fear of witches and in 1599 wrote the book 'Daemonologie' denouncing witchcraft.

3. Canonball House

At the top of Castle Wynd steps stands Cannonball House, a three-storey stone building which has a cannonball embedded halfway up a wall in the west gable.

Various local legends tell of how the cannonball came to be there - two of the most persistent are that the cannonball was fired from Edinburgh Castle, aiming at Holyrood Palace where Bonnie Prince Charlie was staying (a tale to which gunners give little credence) or that engineers deliberately placed the cannonball in this spot to mark the exact height above sea level of Cormiston Springs, which in 1621, began to provide Edinburgh with water.

Whatever the truth of these tales, you can see the cannonball for yourself if you look carefully...

4. The Well Heads

The Royal Mile's Well Heads, at Canongate, Netherbow, the High Street and Lawnmarket, were the sole means by which the Royal Mile's residents could access water until 1820 and as such, they became a place not only for obtaining water, but for exchanging news and gossip.

The water was collected in 'stoups', narrow-necked buckets, and for those who could afford to pay, a caddie would collect and deliver the water daily.

5. Heave Awa' House

Heave Awa' House marks the location of the rescue of local boy Joseph McIvor who was pulled from the remains of a collapsed building in 1861. Some 35 people had been killed in this collapse and the rescuers had almost given up hope of finding anyone alive when they heard Joseph exclaim 'Heave awa' lads, I'm no' deid yet'. 

A plaque on the building, which stands on the High Street, acts as a reminder of the event, and Joseph's plucky words are carved above his portrait.

Extract adapted from Royal-Mile.com, your online guide to the history and heritage of the Royal Mile. Visit the site for Royal Mile news, photos, history, places to stay and things to do.


(Royal Mile copyright Andrew Bowden; Witches Well copyright Ad Meskens; Sanctuary stone and Heave Awa' House copyright Kim Traynor; Well Heads and Cannonball House copyright Royal-Mile.com)

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