Edinburgh’s first Theatre

A short film that shares some of the history of Edinburgh’s first theatre.

Music credit: ‘Alice’ a score for the Ballet.

198 High Street, Canongate: A house that was built in the time of Charles I.

The alley to Parliament Close passes through the middle of SOUTER’s hardware shop. The shop was based in one of the oldest surviving properties in Edinburgh’s High Street: 198 High Street, Canongate. This was built in the time of Charles I.

198 High Street belonged to Richard Cooper (1701-1764) who was a significant figure in the Scottish Enlightenment. Shortly after 1725, he arrived in Edinburgh where he had an enormous impact on Scottish culture. One of Richard Copper’s closest friends was the poet and writer, Allan Ramsay (1886-1758)

In the narrow and gloomy alley of Playhouse Close we find the ‘cradle of the legitimate drama’ in Edinburgh. This had been the first attempt to establish a public theatre in Scotland.

But the venture met with stiff opposition from the church and the Edinburgh Town Council.

On Monday 16 November 1747, the new Concert Hall in the Canongate opened with a concert of music, followed by a performance of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark.

The theatre ran performances of all the important plays and in December, 1756, the ground breaking tragedy Douglas, written by the Presbyterian minister, John Home.

The theatre/concert hall was remarkably small, measuring 30 by 15 feet at its widest end. It had two floors, with access to the upper by an outside stair on the north, although the upper floor may have been a gallery on three sides.] Scenery in this small space could not be elaborate.

On the anniversary of the battle of Culloden, in 1749, some of the English officers who were In the theatre commanded the orchestra, in an insolent and unruly manner, to strike up an obnoxious air known as “Culloden,” but in a spirit of opposition and to please the people the musicians played “Your Welcome, Charlie Stuart.”

Between 1747 to 1786 many performances by famous actors and singers were enjoyed here.

Scottish author, surgeon and poet Tobias Smollet (1721-1771) lived here while writing his last novel ‘The Expedition of Humphry Clinker ‘ from this close. This a work in which fact and fiction are curiously blended.

Maut Ha’ was a quiet, cozy public-house, kept by a Mr Pringle in Playhouse Close, Canongate, where what was canal “the better sort” went to enjoy themselves of an evening. It is said that Edinburgh ale gained its world-wide reputation in Maut Ha’, and that the citizens used to take strangers there to treat them to a draught of Youngers ale, which at that time was considered the richest beverage within the city.


8th Oct 1946
Letter to the SCOTSMAN

In my young ‘medical student days, I had occasion, in connection with a dispensary, to visit “slum” dwellings in the Canongate. May I mention also the perfectly lovely house over Playhouse Close, with dormer windows and finials of thistle, rose, and fleur-de-lis, etc the style of architecture in the time of Charles I, about 1630-50. At present it is occupied with a shop and store. The front is plastered with cement and yellow paint.

W. G. JOHNSTON.

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