Scotland’s oldest Pharmacy


November 5, 1955

For centuries the life of Edinburgh flowed along the Royal Mile, of which the Lawnmarket forms a part. Today the ancient thoroughfare comes to life only during the tourist season, and the pharmacy can no longer exist.

The pharmacy at 463 Lawnmarket claims to have been established in the year 1700, and there appear to be good grounds for accepting that date. Even earlier there was in the Lawnmarket a druggist called James Hair, whose widow, Mary Erskine, left money to found the school of that name which continues to this day in Queen Street. In 1699 Thomas Fisher erected a “land” or tenement in the Lawnmarket and it would seem, from an old newspaper advertisement of 1705, and from an inscription on an early prescription, that the first druggist occupant of part of the building was one Mowbray. In 1680 a James Mowtray or Multray (variants of the name Mowbray), Druggist, was admitted a Burgess and Guild-brother. Between 1733 and 1739, most of the prescriptions are directed to “Mr. Drummond,” about whom the avail-able information is equivocal. A John Drummond, son to Thomas Drummond in Ochterarder, was ” prenteis ” to David Scot, Apothecar, 27 Oct. 1675, but his date seems too early. George Drummond, merchant, was enrolled as a Burgess and Guildbrother ” be right of his wife Anna, daughter to David Scot, Apothecar, 14 Jan. 1680.” A more likely choice is Thomas Drummond, son to Adam Drummond of Meginch, prenteis to Thomas Edgar, Surgeon- Apothecary, July 23, 1701. Or perhaps Adam Drummond, chirurgeon-apothecary, Burgess and Guildbrother, as prenteis to Robert Swintoun, chir. apoth, Dec. 24, 1707.

The Drummond prescriptions lay concealed for over 200 years and are a potted history in themselves. Drummond’s connection may have gone on until the 1760’s. By 1773 there were three druggists in the Lawnmarket: William Veevers, Mrs. Duncan and Mrs. McDonald, the last-named in business at the present site at the head of Lady Stair’s Close. Mrs. McDonald employed William Wilson (” Mortar Willie ” of Kay’s Edinburgh Portraits). Dr. Robert Burt, Mrs. McDonald’s successor, continued to employ Wilson until he was over 100 years old, despite the old man protest that he “hadn’t got very much work out of him today, Doctor.” By 1794 Dr. Burt is described as “Apothecary, Paterson’s Court,” evidencing a change of address to a few doors down from Mrs. McDonald’s place of business. Directories of the period state variously “Paterson’s Court,” No. 443 or merely “Lawnmarket, north side.” Burt, who is sometimes called apothecary and sometimes  druggist, later left the Lawnmarket and set up a laboratory in a newer part of the town.

Next on the stage came McDougal Forrest, Surgeon and Druggist, who succeeded to the business in 1826. Forrest had earlier practised from a laboratory in the Cowgate. Beyond a distinguished name he leaves no memory. His tenure lasted six years, and it would be he who saw the dispatch of Burke, purveyor to Dr. Knox, the anatomist. Forrest was followed by Thomas Cochrane, M.D., who first appeared in 1832 as a surgeon and druggist, and remained on the stage until 1880. By 1833 he would seem to have acquired a reliable assistant, as he is described as “surgeon and accoucheur,” the latter function of necessity involving absence from the shop for varying periods. By 1840 Cochrane appears to have found the pharmacy sufficient for his energies, as for the next forty years he is described as druggist.

Alexander Mackenzie in 1880 was druggist only, and the medical connection ceased. During Mackenzie’s tenure the business removed to its final site, and Mackenzie remained until 1911. His successor, Scott, had a brief ownership, terminated by the 1914 war, and the business passed to John Lochran, who, some years later, graduated M.A. (Hons.) at Edinburgh University at the age of forty-six, and entered the Church, retiring from a successful ministry in Glasgow in 1953. In 1938 the business came into the possession of Mr. C. G. Drummond, proprietor of the pharmacy of H. B. Wyllie, Grassmarket.

A large iron mortar and pestle, and a marble mortar, exactly like that depicted in the Kay portrait of Mortar Willie, are almost the only surviving historical properties of the business, which, alas, is no more. A sense of history is a fine thing, but no compensation for too few customers. The stir and bustle in the ancient thoroughfare have recently prevailed for only a month or two in the summer, when the tourist passes along it on his way to visit the City’s historic castle. The teeming population of the neighbourhood has departed, leaving empty buildings that are being slowly reconstructed for a library, municipal offices, and cultural societies. So departs also the oldest pharmacy in Scotland.

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