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Edinburgh, High Street, Netherbow Port

Gateway (16th Century)

Site Name Edinburgh, High Street, Netherbow Port

Classification Gateway (16th Century)

Alternative Name(s) Nether Bow

Canmore ID 52153

Site Number NT27SE 14.06

NGR NT 2614 7370

Datum OSGB36 - NGR


Ordnance Survey licence number 100057073. All rights reserved.
Canmore Disclaimer. © Copyright and database right 2020.

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Administrative Areas

  • Council Edinburgh, City Of
  • Parish Edinburgh (Edinburgh, City Of)
  • Former Region Lothian
  • Former District City Of Edinburgh
  • Former County Midlothian

Archaeology Notes

NT27SE 14.6 2614 7370

The Netherbow Port possibly dates back to the mid-twelfth century. It has been suggested that the earliest Netherbow Port might have stood in the neighbourhood of 'John Knox's House', where there is a 'suggestive break in the house fronts', but a plan of the city in 1544 clearly shows the port in line with St Mary's Wynd. The port, rebuilt in 1571, was said to have been in a semi-ruinous condition in 1762 and was demolished in 1764. Its position is marked in the roadway. Carved stones taken from it are within the enclosure railing of Moray-Knox Church.

R S Mylne 1912; H F Kerr 1933; RCAHMS 1951; A A M Duncan 1975; A S Simpson, S Stevenson and N Holmes 1951.

The line of the Flodden Wall is defined on the road surface by metal plates; the Port outline bears the date '? 1514'.

Visited by OS (JLD) 25 December 1953.

Architecture Notes


When this was demolished in 1764, the clock was removed and placed on the Orphans' Hospital, then situated near the Western end of Trinity College Church. When the Hospital was removed in 1845 to make way for the Railway, the clock was preserved and placed in the pediment between the towers of the present Orphans' Hospital in the Dean.


Scots Magazine 1764 p.432


Publication Account (1951)

64. Carved Stones from the Nether Bow Port.

The only remains of the Nether Bow Port that still survive are two pilaster-capitals or bases, two side-scrolls, two sections of modelled cornice and one broken pediment, which were rescued some years ago by the Rev. R. S. Mylne and placed within the railing that encloses the Moray-Knox Church. The Port, which canalized traffic from the E., was the principal entry to the City and as such was singled out for special treatment. In the words of Sir Daniel Wilson (1) “It was by far the most conspicuous and important of the six gates which gave access to the ancient capital, and was regarded as an object in the maintenance and protection of which the honour of the city was so deeply involved that…its demolition was one of the penalties by which the government sought to revenge the slight put upon the royal prerogative by the Porteous mob (1736)…When the destruction of this, the main port of the city, was averted by the strenuous patriotic exertions of the Scottish peers and members of Parliament, it wasr egarded as a national triumph.” By 1764, however, the Port had been allowed to fall into such disrepair that the superstructure had become dangerous and the whole was accordingly demolished.

In the 16th century and later the Nether Bow Port stood on the site now marked in the roadway at the lower end of the High Street, that is to say, with its E. face on the frontage of St. Mary's and Leith Wynds. This appears clearly from the drawing of 1544, which is reproduced in [RCAHMS 1951] Fig. 59. Arnot, however, states (2) that the "original" Nether Bow Port stood some 50 yds. W. of this position, and thet ruth of his statement is proved by an entry in a list of rents compiled in 1369, which shows that at that date there was room for at least two tenements between the Port and the W. side of Leith Wynd (3). This fact suggests that the original Nether Bow Port stood somewhere in the neighbourhood of “John Knox's House”, where there is also a suggestive break in the line of the house-fronts. The gate was moved in 1571 (4).

The general appearance of the Port is known from early drawings. It was symmetrical on plan and included on the lower floor a central “pend”, or passage, on each side of which was a vaulted room, known as a “lodge”, which was lit and entered from the back. Both "lodges" opened into circular towers projecting to the front, and also gave access to circular newel-stairs projecting from the sides. Although the arrangement of the upper floor is uncertain, the gatehouse as a whole seems to have been of a usual type. But it was low-set in comparison with the great Continental gatehouses, and consequently a central steeple and spire were provided for greater dignity.

The illustration of Edinburgh published in Braun's Civitates Orbis Terrarum (1572), which is apparently based upon an earlier print of about 1550, shows the Port as a simple archway flanked by towers without a gatehouse or other superstructure. It has been suggested, and with some probability, that the frontal towers, which were demolished with the rest of the fabric, were survivals of the earlier entry shown in the illustration of 1544 (Fig. 59). The back and front elevations as they appeared in the 18th century are shown in P.S.A.S, vol. lxvii (6). Apart from certain openings that were formed or enlarged in the 17th century, the fabric is typical of the later 16th century; and it has been ascribed to the year 1571, when some reconstruction with material taken from Restalrig Church (No. 220) is known to have occurred and a counter-port, or inner extension of the gate, was also built. The City arms were exhibited on the front, which was also adorned with a statue of James VI; this statue, which was subsequently destroyed by Cromwell, was accompanied by a panel containing an anagram upon the title Jacobus Rex, given as ARIS EXCUBO ("I keep watch over my altars"), as well as the incomplete couplet NON SIC EXCUBIAE, NEC CIRCUMSTANTIA PILA, / UT TUTATUR AMOR ("Not guards nor javelins protect as love protects"). In the spire was a clock, which has finally come to rest in the Orphan Hospital in Belford Road (5). The history of the structure has been discussed by the Rev. R. S. Mylne and Mr. H. F. Kerr (6) and free use of their conclusions has been made in the foregoing account.

The Nether Bow Port seems to have figured in all the important attacks made on the city walls. Hertford attacked and took it in 1544, and between 1571 and 1573, when Kirkcaldy of Grange was holding Edinburgh for the Queen, it withstood numerous assaults by the troops of the Government. Once it almost fell to a ruse, and this caused Kirkcaldy to strengthen its defences by building the counter-port which has been mentioned above (7). In 1650, when Cromwell's invasion was expected, the magistrates mounted cannon on the Nether Bow Port, and demolished houses in St. Mary's Wynd and its vicinity which might have sheltered attackers; but no fighting took place at the Port either then or in 1715, when it was again fortified and manned. The last occasion on which war came to the Port was in 1745; this time it was taken by a ruse, being rushed by a party of Jacobites when opened to admit the coach in which two of the bailies had gone out to hold a parley with the Young Pretender.


(1) Memorials, i, p. 114. (2) History, p. 23 6. (3) Reg. Cart. St. Egid., p. 278. Item de terra Henrici de Cramownd jacente extra Arcum Inferiorem ex parte boreali inter terram Galdfridi Tinctoris capellani exparte occidentali ex parte una et terram Alexandri Coci ex parte orientali tres solidi ("Also from the land of Henry Cramond lying outside the Nether Bow Port on the N. side [of the street] between the land of Geoffrey Litster, chaplain, on the W. on one side and the land of Alexander Cook on the E., three shillings"). This entry occurs as one of a series relating to a number of properties, all within the burgh, situated in sequence from W. to E. along the N. side of the High Street. (4) Calendar of Scottish Papers, iii, p. 707. (5) O.E.C., xv, p. 127. (6) P.S.A.S., xlvi (1911-2), pp. 379 ff.; lxvii (1932-3), pp. 297 ff. (7) Historie and Life of King James the Sext, (Bannatyne Club), p. 87.


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