When I set out to write a novel set in Edinburgh I realised the first thing to do was find a good map of the city as it was then. There is little point in having your hero dashing along the Georgian streets of the New Town in 1745 only to discover that the very idea of creating these streets was twenty years in the future!
Happily I was able to secure an excellent street plan from that time which listed not only the main streets but more importantly it also gave name to the myriad narrow closes (alleys) which ran off from the Royal Mile so well known to tourists and visitors alike. Even a cursory glance at these closes shows that many are named for obvious reasons such as Fishmarket Close, Fleshmarket Close, Writers Court, Lady Stair’s Close etc but one named jumped out and begged for explanation: Stripping Close!
A little research and a hour or two in the company of an old book began to shed light on the meaning of the name and in turn led to the inspiration for this article…
The Curious Tale of The Three Hangmen
1700, the 20th of June and the people of Edinburgh are in the mood for a celebration. Good news has just reached the city from the Scottish colony of Darien in present day Panama where the settlers have secured some notable success over the Spanish. However the magistrates and Town Council have no money to spend on such frivolities and refuse the crowd’s appeal. Also they know from bitter experience that any street parties in Edinburgh usually leads to public drunkenness, indecency and shameful spectacles on every street corner.
Now in many places this would have been the end of the matter but not in Edinburgh. The party happy crowd quickly becomes an angry mob and sets out to create its own brand of fun!
By the following morning almost every magistrate and town councillor has been visited by the mob and had his windows smashed while the old Tolbooth has been broken into and all its prisoners released.
The Town Council, feeling the bite in their pocket, decide that something must be done and that an example must be made of the ringleaders of the riotous assembly. As no effort had been made to disguise their identity these men were soon apprehended and they were locked into a freshly secured Tolbooth awaiting trial. Despite the evidence of their undoubted guilt the Lord Advocate, the senior legal figure, refused to bring Capital charges against them which carried the death sentence if convicted. He could sense the mood on the streets even if the magistrates and councillors could not. The Lord Advocate convicted them of lesser charges and sentenced them to be publicly flogged and pilloried but when they were taken from their cells by the town hangman and escorted to the Castle Hill area the crowd had gathered once again. The hangman with a strong sense of self preservation thought it wiser to spare the whip and laid not a single stripe upon their bare backs as they were led down the street tied to the tail of cart. When they reached the stocks by the Tron Kirk and were secured within them they were pelted with no more than flowers and supplied with a steady supply of wine and ale. Once their sentence was complete they were released and helped to find their unsteady way home.
The Magistrates and councillors were furious at being mocked so openly and now turned their ire on the unfortunate hangman and demanded that he face the punishment he had so miserably failed to deliver. The hangman from Haddington was now brought in to deliver the whipping but by now the crowd had taken their own hangman to their hearts and the poor man from Haddington found it sensible to be as sparing in the scourging as his victim had been.
That evening two hangmen spent the night in the cells of the Tolbooth and requests were sent to bring in a third hangman to punish the first two. However word had spread quickly and as one town after another refused to share their executioner the Magistrates and Councillors were fast becoming a laughing stock. Finally it was decided that the best thing to do was quietly release both hangmen and pretend that none of it had ever happened. The broken windows were replaced even if the wounded pride of the nobles wasn’t.
Now what does all this have to do with Stripping Close?
The close, sadly long gone now, stood on Castle Hill roughly where the Hub now dominates the upper reaches of the Royal Mile, and earned its name from its role in the flogging of the guilty. The prisoner once marched over the cobbled from the Tolbooth were taken into Stripping Close where their upper garments were stripped from them before they were taken back out into the street to be tied to the back of a cart in order to be whipped down the street to the Netherbow Port at World’s End Close and the stocks.
The Netherbow Port is lost now as well but World’s End Close remains as does the Tron Kirk which is now used for public entertainment during the internationally famous Edinburgh Festival Fringe, much as the stocks and its unfortunate prisoners were in their day.