The Cowgate has long been a place for the people of Edinburgh to socialise, and nowhere more so than the Central Hotel. Built in 1621 by the Guild of Tailors, it has stood through centuries of change and upheaval.
On 28th February 1638 over 300 Scottish noblemen, church ministers, gentry and burgesses gathered in Central Hotel to draft the protest of the National Covenant, that provoked independence and simplicity of the Scottish church, reinforcing the identity of the Scots as a nation free from England’s overarching rule.
Following the execution of Charles I in 1649, Central Hotel was employed during the Cromwellian regime as the courthouse of the Scottish Commissioners, appointed by the Lord Protector for the administration of the fortified estates of the Royalists; while after the Revolution, recusant ministers preached in the halls.
By 1733 the Central Hotel had developed into a playhouse attracting great crowds to some of the best entertainment in Edinburgh. It was this reputation that drew the three Mackinnon sisters there in 1741, gracing the stage with their singing, dancing and beauty. Cath, the eldest, had a deep love of tragedy and drama while Kitty, the next sister, was renowned for her beautiful voice and looks: her shining auburn locks and dancing green eyes attracted admiration from far and wide. The youngest sister, Maggie, was barely seventeen but she quickly became skilled in singing and dancing, taking part in any play she could; she too was known as a great beauty.
The exuberance of this time was to end tragically with the closure of the playhouse by the Town Council and although the sisters fought a fierce battle against the authorities, they excited little but hostility. It was the eve of 19th August 1753 that sealed their fate when they were caught unlawfully performing and operating an unlicensed venue in the back quarter of the building. It was revealed that regular customers were given their own key to access this secret section of the building during the late hours. In the months that followed, all three sisters were found guilty of orchestrating these unlawful gatherings and sentenced to death by the local authorities. Fittingly, their execution was by no means standard. It was decided that they would be taken back to the grounds of Central Hotel and permanently sealed into the very room they used for their late night performances – an infamous punishment that was later coined by the local press as “the Lock-in”.
After the excitement and drama of the playhouse, the Central Hotel was eventually sold in the eighteenth century to the old Argyle Brewery, who used it for most of those years as a grain store. In the twentieth century, it was used for storage by Edinburgh University, until it sadly fell into disrepair.
In 1998 Central Hotel was renovated and developed into a hotel and bar. After 200 years, the Central Hotel and the 3 Sisters – names inspired by the buildings history – stand once more as a meeting place for the people of Edinburgh.