This week we were out with a group, not of visitors, but residents; folk who have lived in and around Edinburgh for decades. Walks of this kind are always interesting because we can be certain that at some point, someone will say, “I must have walked past that hundreds of times and never noticed it.”
On this occasion, we were going along the Canongate and stopped briefly opposite 267, at present the home of the splendid Wedgewood restaurant. The building was originally a seventeenth century tenement but was reconstructed in 1956 by Robert Hurd, the architect to whom the Canongate owes so much of its present appearance. Among the features of the original building that Hurd preserved was a statue, the figure of a man, wearing a turban and bedecked with earrings, necklace, armlets and bracelets. The figure is holding a cloth, upon which is a blank heraldic shield. With time pressing, we could only give the briefest of explanation as to why it should be there. Now, with a little more leisure, we can expand upon that short tale, both for our walkers that day and others.
The story starts in 1633, following the coronation of Charles I as King of Scotland. As so often in that period, politics and religion were closely bound together in a sometimes volatile mix. The obvious venue for the ceremony seemed to be St Giles Cathedral but Charles had already expressed his intention that the coronation to be carried out with full Anglican rites, rather than the Scottish ceremony that had seen his father, James VI, made king. This put him in conflict with the church and the people here in Edinburgh. In the end, the king got his way about the ceremony but the venue was switched to Holyrood palace.
As was always the way when the populace of the city felt that their rights and customs were being trampled on, they rioted. The Lord Provost, Sir Alexander Clerk of Pittencrieff, was assaulted, his house broken into and set ablaze. The authorities moved quickly to identify and punish the ringleaders of the mob. One man who came to their notice was Andrew Gray.
Gray was the young son of a family of good repute, well known within the city but such was the anger of the Provost and the magistrates that these connections could not help him. Witnesses came forward who said that he was at the head of the mob that had fired the Provost’s house. He was swiftly found guilty and sentenced to death.
His friends had been unable to save him at the trial but they acted at once when he was imprisoned in the Tolbooth. A file and a rope were smuggled in to him and drugged drink was sent to the guards. Once they were asleep, he cut through the bars, climbed down the rope and escaped into the night. The city gates were manned and impassable so he slipped down a darkened close to the Nor’ Loch, where a servant was waiting in a row boat. He then rode north and boarded a ship waiting for him in the Firth of Forth. Even as the alarm was being raised in the city, it hauled anchor, set sail on the morning tide and Andrew Gray said farewell to Scotland.
Twelve years passed in the unhappy reign of Charles I. War and pestilence ravaged the land. By 1645, the city of Edinburgh was in a poor state. Parliament had fled to Stirling, plague had cut the population in half and most of the fit and able-bodied were away fighting in the civil wars. It was then that an additional misfortune seemed to fall on the city. One morning, a strange sail appeared in the Forth. Some of the old sailors recognised the cut of the ship and the news was swiftly sent to Edinburgh, to the home of the current Provost, Sir John Smith of Groat Hall. The ship, heading for Leith, was a Barbary Corsair, and no doubt manned by North African pirates who would burn, pillage, rob and take slaves.
A heavily armed group from the ship came ashore and after terrorising Leith, made their way to the Netherbow Gate where they demanded entry to the city. The Provost arrived and spoke with their leader. He begged them to spare Edinburgh and promised that, in return, they would be given a large amount of treasure, gathered from among the rich citizens. Besides, he pointed out, there was plague in the city and it would be dangerous for the sailors to remain.
The pirate leader agreed to this but with one additional item. He also wanted the son of the Lord Provost. The Provost wrung his hands and said that such a condition was impossible to meet – for he had no son! He had only a daughter and, alas, she was already dying of the plague.
The pirate leader went to consult with his men and when he returned said, “Very well, then bring me your daughter for I have an elixir of wondrous potency and I will cure her of this malady.”
The Provost had no choice but to agree and the young woman was brought to a house in the Canongate, where the pirate took up residence. Remarkably, after a few days she recovered, was restored to health and allowed to go.
It was now revealed that the chief of these Barbary pirates, and the man the Provost had been speaking with, was none other than the fugitive Andrew Gray. The ship. in which he had made his escape twelve years before, had been captured by pirates and he had been sold into slavery in Morocco. He ended up in the court of the Emperor who, recognising his skill and intelligence, had promoted him. His work for the Emperor was so outstanding that he had been favoured with with riches and rewards. Finally, he sought permission to leave and was gifted a ship and crew. He had then returned to his native city intending to seek his revenge in blood but it seems that his fair captive changed his mind.
He married Sir John’s daughter and settled down in the Canongate, living the life of a wealthy citizen, his earlier crimes forgotten in return for his saving the life of the young girl and the small matter of his men not burning Edinburgh and Leith to the ground. And above his door, he erected a statue of his royal patron, the Emperor of Morocco. Look out for him when you’re next passing.
After all this time it’s impossible to prove how much of this tale is true and how much fancy – the good folk of Edinburgh have always had an ear for an entertaining story – but that particular piece of Canongate has been known as Morocco Land for a very long time. There is also a deed for the property dated 1731 that shows that the resident at that time was one, John Gray. Coincidence – or might he be a descendant of the Canongate Corsair?
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L Brockie says
Fascinating. I knew the brief story before and was familiar with the statue. Just read the book, White Gold by Giles Milton, a fascinating account of white/Christian slavery on the Barbary Coast, 16th,17th century. Andrew Gray’s story fits in so well.