Last updated on February 25th, 2020
The Out About Scotland complete guide to the John Knox House on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile
Category: Historic building
Suitable for ages: 11 to 18 years, 18+ years, 65+ years (if climbing stairs isn’t an issue)
Ideal for: Couples, Families, Groups, Solo travellers
I rate it: 7 out of 10
About John Knox House on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh
Before moving to Scotland I have to admit I couldn’t really care less about history, and it’s fair to say it was my most hated subject at school. It seems strange to me then that I’ve developed a bit of a fascination with Scotland’s past now that I’m older, especially in my new home city of Edinburgh.
One of the events in Auld Reekie’s history that I love to read about is the 16th-century Reformation, the tumultuous events that split the Church into two religious factions – Catholic and Protestant – and which ushered in a new age of enlightenment in Europe.
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’d no doubt be labelled a religious nutcase in modern times.
You might remember reading about Knox as a youngster and if you’re anything like me you quickly forget all about him as soon as you finished your exams. But I think everyone owes it to themselves to learn the events of the past, and especially those that shaped the country they live in.
So if you want a quick recap on Scotland’s history you’ll find most of the answers you’re looking for 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 in the 16th century, but it’s now a museum devoted to the man and the events that surround 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’s highly regarded for its museum exhibits that include time capsules from the 1840s describing how the house was saved from destruction, as well as retelling the story of Scotland from 500 years ago.
The theme of storytelling continues round the back 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. And it’s also got a really good cafe 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.
By the way, you should 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 declares 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 a cacophony of 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 back 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. Spoiler alert – geek history fact coming up…
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.
But take a closer look at the step and you’ll notice one side of it is worn away much more than the other. The reason for that 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. Geek history fact over.
Anyway, back at the house you can see that it’s got 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).
These embellishments start in the gift shop/ticket kiosk that you’ll find yourself in as you enter and continue all the way around each room, 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.
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 lead to the Church of Scotland taking ownership and a program of concerted 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 as it’s such a small museum you’ll struggle to make your visit last much more than an hour. And not only that but young kids are going to find it a total yawn-fest, even if there is a basket of old clothes for them to dress up in.
Still, adults will appreciate the museum for what it is, and along with a visit to the Royal Mile People’s Museum, Museum of Childhood, and Police Museum (all free), you’re not going to come away from Edinburgh’s Old Town without having learnt a whole lot about the events and people that made Scotland the amazing country that it is today.
What I liked about this attraction
- It’s educational. You’ll learn a lot during your visit
- It’s an interesting way to while away an hour in Edinburgh
- Fans of Edinburgh’s history will enjoy this attraction
My top tips
- Get reasonably priced food at the Scottish Storytelling Centre cafe
- It won’t take more than an hour to view this attraction so plan other activities. Check out my Edinburgh guides for ideas
- Want a cheap ticket? Take a look at Groupon as they often have discounts
Photos and video
Address and map
Click the map for directions
Tickets and opening times
- Monday to Saturday: 10 am-6 pm
- Sundays: 10 am – 6 pm (July & August only)
- Telephone: 0131 556 9579
- email: NA
- Website: Scottish Storytelling Centre
Getting there: Bus stop nearby, Train station nearby
Getting around: Stairs, Flat paths
On-site conveniences: Gift shop, Hot drinks, Restaurant/cafe, Snacks, Toilets