Today, the Grassmarket is one of Edinburgh’s most popular retreats, a favourite among residents and visitors who soak up the cosmopolitan atmosphere in an area of the Old Town renowned for its impressive architecture, cobbled streets and outdoor cafes, overlooked by the majestic and dominant castle. However, the history of the Grassmarket is steeped in controversy, with a murky past that would surprise many a visitor to this gregarious part of the city.

Contrary to initial thinking, the Grassmarket’s history stretches back far beyond its medieval tenements: recent archaeological discoveries have revealed that settlers were populating the area as long ago as 1500BC – 3,000 years earlier than academics had previously believed. However, its name didn’t emerge until the 15th century, when the area became popular for the trade of horses and cattle, and the sale of produce attracted sellers from afar – which also resulted in the inns and taverns booming to meet the demands of the traders.

Victoria Street, Edinburgh

In the second half of the 17th century, the Grassmarket ignominiously became the official execution site for the city, most infamously in the 1680s during which over one hundred Covenanters were publicly executed. Regarded by authorities as dangerous rebels, the Covenanters sought to preserve Presbyterianism from religious upheaval, resulting in ‘The Killing Time’ which targeted individuals for sometimes doing little more than listening to a Covenanter preacher. The 1937 memorial to the Covenanters can still be viewed today.

Due to the influx of Italian immigrants, who settled in the Grassmarket in the 19th century, the area became affectionately known as Little Italy, enjoying a reputation for Italian gelato and musica. Later, the area was the site of a rare bombing carried out by a German zeppelin during World War I.

With a dark and violent past, it is perhaps unsurprising that more than a handful of ghosts are said to haunt the Grassmarket, among them Major Weir, the Wizard of the West Bow, and his sister who were executed for practising witchcraft in the 17th century; and the spirit of a medieval girl who is said to linger in the public house, The Last Drop.


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