At the foot of Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, near the entrance to Holyrood Palace, there’s a row of three brass letter “S”s lying among the cobblestones. These shiny letters mark the boundary of a five-mile area once known to those in need as Abbey Sanctuary.
Within the sanctuary, those who were in debt could seek refuge from their creditors. Here, food and housing were provided, though at a substantially higher rate than could be found in the walled city of Old Town. But more importantly, the sanctuary prevented creditors from being able to harass and haul these poor souls off to the Tollbooth Gael (Jail).
An individual who was claiming protection and who could afford to stay within the confines of the Abbey was allowed to do so for an unlimited amount of time. On Sundays, they could even leave the sanctuary without fear of reprisal.
One such person was Thomas De Quincey (1785 - 1859), author and essayist of “Confessions of an English Opium Eater” fame. Much like the protagonist of this tale, he was addicted to the narcotic, as well as being terrible at handling money. He took refuge within the confines of Abbey Strand only to go further into debt. He ended up dying penniless and being buried in St. Cuthbert’s Kirkyard, Edinburgh.
In 1880, the law changed, and debtors could no longer be tossed in jail. This put an end to the need for a sanctuary. Queen Victoria later had many of the old sanctuary buildings demolished to make way for Parade Grounds for Military Demonstrations, though one still stands and is now used as a gift shop.
Know Before You Go
The stones form a line, with two on either side and one in the middle of Horse Wynd, outside the Palace and to the left of The Queen's Gallery. They are available to view 24/7. At the foot of the Royal Mile, crossing the roundabout, it is on the ground between the juncture of Horse Wynd and Abbey Strand.