John Knox House dates back to 1470 and can be found on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile. Although it is named after the Presbyterian preacher John Knox it was actually the home of James Mossman, a goldsmith who was loyal to Mary Queen of Scots.
The building is now a public museum that depicts the story of the Scottish enlightenment and the battles between Knox, Mossman, and Queen Mary through a series of displays and artefacts.
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Review of John Knox House in Edinburgh
One of the periods in Auld Reekie’s history (Auld Reekie is the historic nickname for Edinburgh) that’s particularly interesting is the 16th-century Reformation, the tumultuous events that split the Church into two religious factions – Catholic and Protestant – and which ushered in the Age of Enlightenment in Scotland.
There were many influential people that took part in this religious upheaval but one of the leading figures was John Knox, a firebrand preacher who is perhaps best known for his battles against Mary Queen of Scots.
If you went to school in Scotland you might remember learning about Knox and the Scots queen but if you’ve forgotten most of it (like I have) you’ll find a superb tourist attraction that explains this important time in Scotland’s history at the John Knox House in the middle of Edinburgh’s Royal Mile.
This is an impossibly atmospheric building that was reputedly lived in by the infamous Protestant reformer but it’s now a museum devoted to the man and the events that surrounded him.
Although John Knox only lived there for a short time his legendary status meant the medieval building ended up being known as ‘Knox’s House’. In fact, it’s his association with it that prevented it being demolished in 1840 when many others were being pulled down as part of the city’s attempt to drag itself into the modern era.
It’s amazing to think that this house was built in the 1470s considering it’s in such good condition and its age makes both it and the adjoining Moubray House the only surviving medieval buildings on The Royal Mile.
Today it is highly regarded for its museum exhibits that include time capsules from the 1840s describing how the house was saved from destruction, and it’s now a firm favourite with visiting tourists due to the elaborate displays that explain the events of Scotland 500 years ago.
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The theme of storytelling continues round the back of John Knox House as that’s where you’ll find the Scottish Storytelling Centre – an arts venue that features a seasonal programme of live theatre, music, exhibitions and workshops (there’s also a really good café that makes a nice tourist-free diversion from the hubbub of The Royal Mile).
Whether or not Knox actually spent much time in the house is a matter of debate but it’s known that during the time he was alive the house was owned by a wealthy Catholic, so it’s unlikely the Protestant Knox would have chosen to set up home there.
But even so, the building would have been well known to Knox while he was alive mainly because it sits so close to St. Giles Cathedral where he spent his later years preaching sermons.
You might be interested to know that while John Knox’s House is a great place to learn about Edinburgh and the Reformation, his real-life home lies further up the Royal Mile in Warriston Close which is today owned by the New Free Church. A plaque on the wall of the building says that it was once the residence of Knox and it’s worth exploring the close to get a feel for how Edinburgh’s residents lived back then.
Close your eyes and imagine you can hear shouting and screaming with the foul stench of raw sewage floating around your feet and I reckon you’ll be halfway there. Either that or visit Edinburgh’s city centre streets at pub kicking-out time for exactly the same effect.
Things to do at John Knox House
Although the main event is actually exploring the house you’ll only really get a feel for Edinburgh at the time Knox was alive by exploring the Royal Mile (so-called because it’s a mile from Holyrood Palace at the bottom to Edinburgh Castle at the top).
Most of the buildings in this part of the city are hundreds of years old and there’s no better way to experience the Old Town than to get lost in its maze of wynds and closes.
After you’ve soaked up all that history you should return to John Knox’s House, but not before stopping at the old stone water fountain that sits abandoned on the pavement a few yards up the street.
This fountain was in use for many years as one of the few clean drinking water fountains in the city, a fact that can be seen in the worn-away step where the people of Edinburgh used to rest their feet as they filled their buckets.
Take a closer look at the step and you’ll notice one side of it is more worn than the other. The reason is that Edinburgh’s women were under constant scrutiny by church authorities and it was well known that witches always preferred using their left hand over their right.
In response, any woman using the fountain made sure they operated it with their right hand so they put their left foot on the fountain step for balance. Hence it’s much more worn away on that side.
Back at the house you can see that it has many features that were popular amongst the wealthy residents of Edinburgh in the 15th and 16th centuries, with a beautiful wooden gallery and ornate hand-painted ceilings (now faded but with colourful recreations dotted about the museum).
Thankfully you can walk around the house at your own pace without having to join a tour and you’ll see lots of information panels, original furniture, first-copy books and detailed paintings as you explore the whitewashed and wood-panelled rooms that are joined together by a narrow winding staircase.
From the entrance you pass through the souvenir shop into a small area that explains the backstory to Knox and Mossman, before heading up a winding staircase to two restored rooms that contain a collection of manuscripts, artefacts and artworks from the time.
There are information panels in each area but it isn’t quite up o the standard of most Historic Environment Scotland sites but it’s interesting nonetheless. I will say though that young children are going to find it a bit of a bore-fest so after zipping around the house you might consider heading back to the gift shop which sells a good assortment of books for both adults and children.
Adults will find something of interest in each room and there are more paintings and period-piece household decorations than you might expect for a 550-year-old building, but they’re unlikely to have been commissioned by a religious man like Knox.
Instead, it’s more likely they were installed by the 16th-century goldsmith James Mossman who was a loyal supporter of Mary Queen of Scots and who owned the building from 1556. You’ll find as much information about Mossman during your tour as you will about John Knox – possibly because he lived an equally (if not even more) interesting life.
Although he was a successful and very wealthy man he got caught up in the religious turmoil of the reformation and eventually lost his job as master of the Royal Mint before losing all his possessions and being charged with treason in 1571 (that’s a very brief overview).
Things didn’t really improve for him after that and in 1573 he was hanged at the Mercat Cross near St. Giles Cathedral and then drawn and quartered as punishment for creating counterfeit coins during the ‘Lang Siege’ at Edinburgh Castle in 1573.
After Mossman’s death the house was handed over to James VI of Scotland and was subsequently inhabited by a succession of wealthy residents until it gradually became derelict.
Thankfully though, Knox’s association with it led to the Church of Scotland taking ownership and a program of restoration began in the mid-19th-century till it finally began a new life as a museum in 1853.
There’s a lot to like about this attraction, not just because it’s so atmospheric but because you’ll discover so much history inside.
I have got a small negative to point out though, which is that as it’s such a small museum you’ll struggle to make your visit last much more than an hour, but on the other hand the admission price is reasonable for a city centre attraction so even though your visit will be short it’s still good value for money.
Although young children might struggle to stay interested adults will appreciate the museum for what it is, and along with a visit to the Royal Mile’s People’s Museum, Museum of Childhood, and Police Museum you’re not going to come away from Edinburgh’s Old Town without having learnt something new about the events and people that made Scotland the amazing country that it is today.
If you would like to take a walk around the house before you visit have a look at the virtual tour further down this page.
- The museum is focussed on education and you’ll learn a lot during your visit. It’s also remarkably well preserved for such an old building.
- It’s an interesting way to while away an hour in Edinburgh and as John Knox House is so centrally located you can easily combine it with all the other Royal Mile attractions.
- This attraction is genuinely interesting and the operators have crammed a lot into such a small space. The shop is also excellent and has one of the best collections of books that I’ve seen in a tourist attraction.
- Get reasonably priced food at the Scottish Storytelling Centre café where you’ll be able to hide from the majority of Edinburgh’s noisy tourists. Who needs Starbucks anyway?
- It won’t take more than an hour to view this attraction so plan other activities if you’re visiting, such as Mary King’s Close located a short distance up The Royal Mile. Check out my Edinburgh guides for more ideas.
- Want a cheap ticket for John Knox House? Take a look at Groupon as they often have discounts.
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Things to do near John Knox House
- The Royal Mile. 197 High St, Edinburgh EH1 1PT. A famous medieval high street that joins Holyrood Palace to Edinburgh Castle. Known for its closes and wynds that join the road along its length. It features a variety of shops, bars and restaurants.
- St. Giles Cathedral. High St, Edinburgh EH1 1RE. 6-minute walk. A grand Gothic-style medieval cathedral also known as ‘The High Kirk’, it was the place of worship where John Knox preached. Free to visit and guided tours are available. Shop and café on site.
- Edinburgh Vaults. South Bridge, Edinburgh EH1 1QR. 4-minute walk. Underground chambers with a ghostly history. Guided tours take visitors through the subterranean rooms while explaining the story of Edinburgh.
- The Museum of Childhood. 42 High St, Edinburgh EH1 1TG. 1-minute walk. A free to visit museum which celebrates childhood through displays of toys from recent memory to the 1800s. Set in an 18th-century building on The Royal Mile with five galleries inside.
- The Museum of Edinburgh. 142-146 Canongate, Edinburgh EH8 8DD. 4-minute walk. A museum that serves to inform and educate visitors about the history of Edinburgh, from its industrial heritage to the people that made the city into what it is today. Free entry.
More places to visit in Edinburgh
- Cramond Island – Edinburgh: Complete Visitor GuideSituated just over 3/4 of a mile into the Firth of Forth, Cramond Island is a tidal landmass located close the village of Cramond near Edinburgh.
- Edinburgh Butterfly and Insect World: Complete Visitor GuideEdinburgh Butterfly World is a fascinating tourist attraction on the southern outskirts of Edinburgh that showcases some rather incredible, beautiful, and very creepy-crawly insects and reptiles from across the globe.
- The Scotch Whisky Experience – Edinburgh: Complete Visitor GuideIf you’re embarking on a visit to Edinburgh then your trip won’t be complete without a visit to The Scotch Whisky Experience, located just a short walk from Edinburgh Castle Esplanade on the Royal Mile.
- The Royal Yacht Britannia – Edinburgh: Complete Visitor GuideThe Royal Yacht Britannia is the former royal yacht of HM Queen Elizabeth II which now takes pride of place at the Ocean Terminal shopping centre at Leith in Edinburgh. Over the course of her working life Britannia was the official residence of the Royal Family and sailed over one million miles around the world.