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Press release

Work to transform the historic Abbey Strand buildings gets underway at the Palace of Holyroodhouse

Release date: Thursday, 1 March 2018

Work has begun on the restoration of the historic Abbey Strand buildings in the Canongate and the creation of a Learning Centre within them at the Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh. For centuries these buildings have been closely associated with the Palace's dramatic history, and some of Edinburgh's most colourful characters have passed through their doors – from medieval monks and royal courtiers to debtors hiding from the law. The first part of the works, to remove the harling and dry out the exterior, will be carried out behind a nine metre-high scaffold wrap that tells the story of the close relationship between the Palace, Abbey Strand and the City of Edinburgh.

The Learning Centre, created under the direction of Burd Haward Architects, will occupy the majority of the ground and first floors of the Abbey Strand buildings.  Royal Collection Trust will develop the upper floors into holiday apartments, bringing these historic buildings back into full use.

The Learning Centre will provide spaces for school groups, families and adults to explore the history of the Palace of Holyroodhouse and the Royal Collection.  It is part of Future Programme, a £10 million investment by Royal Collection Trust to enhance the visitor experience at the Palace.  Other projects scheduled for completion over the next few years include the creation of a public garden behind the Abbey Strand buildings, inspired by the lost 17th-century physic garden at the Palace; a new ticketing and welcome space; and renewed displays of works of art from the Royal Collection.  

The Abbey Strand buildings have served many purposes over the centuries.  In 1541 James V of Scotland (1512–1542) used them to store 3,500 pikes and 500 halberds (two-handed pole weapons) during preparations for his ill-fated campaign against the English, which resulted in the defeat at Solway Moss and the King's death.  His daughter, Mary, Queen of Scots, succeeded him when she was just six days old.  Mary was one of the Palace's most famous residents, and the Abbey Strand buildings were converted into luxury lodgings for her large court.

From the late 17th to the 19th century (when imprisonment for debt was abolished), debtors who stayed within the boundary of Holyrood Abbey were protected from civil law and could not be arrested.  More than 6,000 people claimed refuge within the Abbey Sanctuary, which included Abbey Strand, travelling from as far afield as Bohemia, the USA and the West Indies.  They included a Jacobite officer and clan chief, a Professor of Maths at Edinburgh University, a former lady-in-waiting to Queen Caroline, the author Thomas de Quincey, and the Comte d'Artois, younger brother of the French king, Louis XVI. The novelist Walter Scott considered hiding at Abbey Strand when in financial difficulty in 1827.

Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries impoverished families were crowded into 25 tiny apartments in conditions that were damp, poorly lit and lacking in ventilation.  The oldest part of the buildings was home to Lucky Spence, the brothel keeper immortalised by the Edinburgh poet Allan Ramsay in his ballad Lucky Spence's Last Advice.  Abbey Strand has also housed many businesses, from taverns and breweries in the 18th century to a tourist information centre, tearoom and bakery in the 20th century. 

Images on the Abbey Strand scaffold wrap

  • Facing up the Royal Mile, on the gable end: Symbols from James V's Royal Arms, which once decorated the Palace's gatehouse and today can be seen on the wall by the Palace gates.  They include a unicorn (adopted by Scottish kings as a symbol of purity and strength), a thistle (the floral badge of Scotland, used in Scottish heraldry for over 500 years) and St Andrew's Cross or Saltire. 

  • On the Abbey Strand façade: A watercolour by James Skene of Abbey Strand and the Palace of Holyroodhouse in 1820.  

  • On the north side, facing Abbeyhill: An early 19th-century watercolour by James Duffield Harding showing the Palace against the dramatic backdrop of Arthur's Seat, with the Abbey Strand buildings and Victorian tenements in the foreground.  

Royal Collection Trust would like people to share their own stories of the Abbey Strand buildings and those who have lived and worked there: Twitter @RCT #AbbeyStrand.

For further information and images, please contact the Royal Collection Trust Press Office: +44 (0)20 7839 1377, [email protected].



Notes to Editors

Royal Collection Trust, a department of the Royal Household, is responsible for the care and display of the Royal Collection, and manages the public opening of the official residences of The Queen.  Its work is undertaken without public funding of any kind. Income generated from admissions and from associated commercial activities contributes directly to The Royal Collection Trust, a registered charity. The aims of The Trust are the care and conservation of the Royal Collection, and the promotion of access and enjoyment through exhibitions, publications, loans and educational programmes. 

The Royal Collection is among the largest and most important art collections in the world, and one of the last great European royal collections to remain intact.  It comprises almost all aspects of the fine and decorative arts, and is spread among some 15 royal residences and former residences across the UK, most of which are regularly open to the public.  The Royal Collection is held in trust by the Sovereign for her successors and the nation, and is not owned by The Queen as a private individual.

Set up by Catherine Burd & Buddy Haward in 1998, Burd Haward Architects has a reputation for making award-winning, carefully crafted, authentic, sustainable buildings.  The practice works across a diverse range of building types and has led projects at a number of high-profile architecturally sensitive historic sites, including Chastleton House, Red House and Chartwell. Their ‘Welcome Centre’ for the National Trust at Mottisfont Abbey in Hampshire won a 2016 RIBA Award.

Admission to the Palace of Holyroodhouse is managed by The Royal Collection Trust, a registered charity in England and Wales (1016972) and in Scotland (SCO39772).