The Cowgate’s name is recorded from 1428, in various spellings, as Cowgate and in 1498 as Via Vaccarum. It is derived from the medieval practice of herding cattle down the street on market days; a number of other streets in the old town of Edinburgh (such as Grassmarket and Lawnmarket) also reflect their market roots.

Gate is a Scots language word for “way” or “road”, a cognate of similar words in other Germanic languages (compare with gait).

Describing the street in the 1581 edition of their atlas of major cities Civitates orbis terrarum, Georg Braun and Frans Hogenberg said the Cow Gate was where “…the noble families and city councillors have their residences, together with other princely houses and palaces most handsome to behold.”