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Work begins to transform Abbey Strand buildings at Palace of Holyroodhouse into new Learning Centre


The historic Abbey Strand buildings, which at various times housed debtors, weapons and impoverished families between the 17th and 19th centuries, are now under protective cover as work starts on a new Learning Centre.

For centuries these buildings have been closely associated with the dramatic history of the Palace of Holyroodhouse, and some of Edinburgh's most colourful characters have passed through their doors – from medieval monks and royal courtiers, to debtors hiding from the law.

The first part of the works, to remove the harling and dry out the exterior, will be carried out behind a nine metre-high scaffold wrap that tells the story of the close relationship between the Palace, Abbey Strand and the City of Edinburgh.

The Learning Centre, created under the direction of Burd Haward Architects, will occupy the majority of the ground and first floors of the Abbey Strand buildings. Royal Collection Trust will develop the upper floors into holiday apartments, bringing these historic buildings back into full use.

New Learning Centre

The Learning Centre will provide spaces for school groups, families and adults to explore the history of the Palace of Holyroodhouse and the Royal Collection. It is part of Future Programme, a £10 million investment by Royal Collection Trust to enhance the visitor experience at the Palace. Other projects scheduled for completion over the next few years

  • the creation of a public garden behind the Abbey Strand buildings, inspired by the lost 17th-century physic garden at the Palace
  • a new ticketing and welcome space
  • renewed displays of works of art from the Royal Collection

A history of the Abbey Strand buildings

The Abbey Strand buildings have served many purposes over the centuries. In 1541 James V of Scotland (1512–1542) used them to store 3,500 pikes and 500 halberds (two-handed pole weapons) during preparations for his ill-fated campaign against the English, which resulted in the defeat at Solway Moss and the King's death.

His daughter, Mary Queen of Scots, succeeded him when she was just six days old. Mary was one of the Palace's most famous residents, and the Abbey Strand buildings were converted into luxury lodgings for her large court.

A sanctuary for debtors

From the late 17th to the 19th century (when imprisonment for debt was abolished), debtors who stayed within the boundary of Holyrood Abbey were protected from civil law and could not be arrested. More than 6,000 people claimed refuge within the Abbey Sanctuary, which included Abbey Strand, travelling from as far afield as Bohemia, the USA and the West Indies.

They included a Jacobite officer and clan chief, a Professor of Maths at Edinburgh University, a former lady-in-waiting to Queen Caroline, the author Thomas de Quincey, and the Comte d'Artois, younger brother of the French king, Louis XVI. The novelist Walter Scott considered hiding at Abbey Strand when in financial difficulty in 1827.

Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries impoverished families were crowded into 25 tiny apartments in conditions that were damp, poorly lit and lacking in ventilation. The oldest part of the buildings was home to Lucky Spence, the brothel keeper immortalised by the Edinburgh poet Allan Ramsay in his ballad Lucky Spence's Last Advice. Abbey Strand has also housed many businesses, from taverns and breweries in the 18th century to a tourist information centre, tearoom and bakery in the 20th century.

For more on the work of the Royal Collection Trust at Palace of Holyroodhouse, visit their website.

Images copyright Royal Collection Trust /(c) Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2018

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