History Walks: The Mercat Cross

Walking up the Royal Mile, in the shadow of St Giles, there is a stone structure. It’s shaped almost like a castle turret, or an oversized, stone goblet with a pole coming out the top. It’s always surrounded by tour groups, either guides in full swing with interested (and not so interested) tourists milling around them, or guests and guides from Mercat Tours, complete with meeting point advisors glaring at all the other tour groups waiting to begin (complicated turf wars). If you look closely enough, there are coats of arms around each of the eight sides, and a wooden door in the side facing those walking up the street.ย Although it may look like just another Victorian installation plonked on the Royal Mile, this stone turret has served as a pretty important landmark in Edinburgh over the centuries.

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Edinburgh’s Mercat Cross (there are actually two in the Old Town, but we’ll focus our attention on big stone one) was first mentioned in 1365, and was probably built some time in the 14th century, made of wood, and placed 45 feet from the eastern side of St. Giles. It was then moved in the 1600s further down the Royal Mile (this spot is marked with cobbles now). It was removed in 1756, possibly because of its use by Bonnie Prince Charlie in his Jacobite uprising of 1745. The cross was restored in the early 1860s, and placed in its current position behind St. Giles. The current, stone version was built during the Victorian era (1885), but still has some of the original wooden ‘cross’ inside it. Each of its eight sides features a different coat of arms: those of Britain, Scotland, England, and Ireland, the burgh arms of Edinburgh, Canongate, and Leith, and the arms of the university. At the very top sits a unicorn finial, though the explanation for why will have to wait for another post.

The Mercat C

ross was an important structure in larger Scottish towns, as it represented that the town had the permission of the monarch and/or bishop/church (depending on the predominate version of Christianity at the time) to hold a market. As a result, it was a physical representation of the wealth (relative, of course, this is medieval Scotland) of the burgh. Mercat, for those who haven’t already cottoned on, is the Scots word for market. They were introduced in Scottish towns right up until Union in 1707, although a whole heap of imitations have popped up since then. Markets would have been set up around them, and as a result they were often central meeting points in Scottish towns.

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The stonework marking the location of the 16th century Mercat Cross

Edinburgh’s Mercat Cross was also used for public proclamations. Local laws and announcements, as well as news impacting the entirety of Scotland, was announced at the Mercat Cross. From 1885, when a balcony and stairs were built into the new Mercat Cross, proclamations were delivered from the balcony, but historically they would have been announced from the slightly raised platform the base of the cross. Despite the fact Edinburgh now has newspapers, internet, and social media sites for the government and city council, very important proclamations (elections, monarchical births/deaths) are still announced from the Mercat Cross (though usually only to a slightly bewildered crowd of tourists). It’s not a very useful tradition, but one that makes me happy nonetheless.

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The door to enter the Mercat Cross

One tradition of the Mercat Cross the people of Edinburgh don’t continue is its role in public punishments and executions. As one of the main social hubs in the city, the cross was the ideal point for carrying out humiliating and painful punishments. In the 16th and 17th centuries, it was common for people to be tied (or in severe cases nailed) to the cross for several hours. Executions, such as hanging or burning, also often took place at the Mercat Cross. The Mercat Cross was also the location of the only two recorded instances of the ‘wheel’ being used as a form of torture/execution in Edinburgh (you can google it – it’s not nice). The current Mercat Cross was never (in recorded knowledge) used for this purpose, as such brutal public punishments had gone out of fashion in Edinburgh by the late 1800s.

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Source: Thomas Francis Dexter,ย The Pagan Origin of Affairs

These days, the Mercat Cross is mostly just a meeting point or stopping point for tours, or a place to have a quick smoke/food break for locals. Many people pass by it without even glancing at it. But it was once incredibly important to the City of Edinburgh, and stands now as a monument to the city’s past, its development, and its progress (or something cheesy like that).

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