Old Edinburgh Worthies 4: The loveless Register Rachel

Georgian and Victorian Edinburgh​ boasted a considerable population of street characters. The Victorian artist Ned Holt made it his business to record the doings of these ‘street worthies’, shedding much-needed light on the dark underbelly of the Capital of the time.

Wednesday, 20th January 2021, 7:00 am
Edinburgh worthies, Register Rachel

On and on, poor Rachel waited.Whatever else was she to do?Their lovers’ wows invalidated,All her plans had fallen through

Thus Donald Campbell begins his poem about yet another curious Edinburgh character of olden​ ​times, Register Rachel who is said to have kept vigil near the Register House for many years after​ ​being deserted by her lover.

An unflattering drawing by Ned Holt shows a sturdy, elderly-looking​ ​Rachel wearing archaic attire, carrying an umbrella and a basket. Rachel is recorded to have begun her vigil​ ​in the 1860s and soon became one of Edinburgh’s quaint worthies, very familiar to those who strolled​ ​along Princes Street.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

Register Rachel

Whatever else was she to do?Discard the dream her love created?All her plans had fallen through;Her heart’s desire had been frustrated

Having kept vigil outside the Reg​i​ster House for upwards of 30 years, Rachel was gone from her old​ ​haunt in late February 1896.

A newspaper article provides an explanation:​ ​'​One of the most remarkable of Edinburgh’s human oddities, Register Rachel, has just died.​ ​Exempted by long privilege from the policeman’s move on, Rachel lived round the Register House​ ​day and night, and her witch-like appearance was as familiar as the Wellington statue. But very few​ ​knew her strange story. A barmaid in a hotel adjoining her haunt, Rachel, more than 30 years ago, was​ ​betrayed and abandoned by her lover. She swore on oath she would never again sleep in a bed.​'​

Discard the dream her love created?Her heart was like to break in two.The problem can be simply stated;The man she loved had been untrue

The main question i​s​​​​​​, of course​,​ whether this remarkable story is true. It does not make sense for a​ ​young and healthy female to take on life as a tramp on the unforgiving streets of Edinburgh, and never​ ​again sleep in a bed. It is also a fact that other remarkable tales exist about young women losing their​ ​minds after some dire catastrophe, like the Bank Nun Sarah Whitehead in London, who kept vigil at​ ​the Bank of England for many years after her brother had been fired out of that establishment, for​ ​dishonesty.

Still there is a strong case that Rachel really existed, as evidenced by Ned Holt’s drawing​ ​of her and Donald Campbell’s poem, and the quaint newspaper obituary quoted above. There is also​ ​an article in the Edinburgh Evening News of 1923, urging that ​'​the old lady who sat in front of the Register House, known as Register Rachel​​ should be featured in the Infirmary Day pageant, since​ ​she died at the Royal Infirmary’.

With regard to her true identity, we are hampered by a lack of​ ​knowledge of her second name, nor is it 100% certain that her first name was really Rachel.

Rachel might have been an unconscious impostor:​ ​an old tramp settling down by the Register House, and having the idle throng inventing a tale about​ ​her origins.

On dark winter evenings, the spectre of Register Rachel may still be seen at the Register​ ​House, a shabby-looking wraith in archaic attire. It is to her credit that she kept her secret to the last,​ ​as befitting a woman of mystery in a city full of legends and traditions.Her heart was like to break in two.Her dearest dream had been frustrated.Whatever else was she to do?On and on, poor Rachel waited

Jan Bondeson is author of Phillimore's Edinburgh, published by Amberley Books and Murder Houses of Edinburgh

A message from the Editor:

Thank you for reading this article. We're more reliant on your support than ever as the shift in consumer habits brought about by coronavirus impacts our advertisers.

If you haven't already, please consider supporting our trusted, fact-checked journalism by taking out a digital subscription