Edinburgh's Royal Lyceum Theatre is about to present the world premiere of a new play with its roots in the very heart of the city's Old Town. Glory on Earth is Linda McLean's dramatic vision of August 1561, when Mary, Queen of Scots returned to Edinburgh for the first time since Scotland had moved away from Catholicism to Protestantism, under the eye of John Knox, the fiery minister of St Giles cathedral.
The story examines not just the personal conflicts between these two iconic figures of Scottish history, but also the political, religious and social turmoil which engulfed Edinburgh in the sixteenth century.
The Reformation of the Scottish church transformed Scotland, and laid the foundations for a whole new relationship between the people and their church, with ministers now preaching in the language of their congregation, and dismantling the power structures that the Catholic church had established.
The impact of the schism in the religious fabric of Scotland can still be felt in the country today, and one of the most enduring consequences of the rise of Knox's vision of faith is still embodied by Scotland's focus on the importance of education for all - it became a matter of law in Scotland for people to be able to read the Bible, now that it was available in Scots/English, which necessitated a requirement for all social classes to be literate.
Thus the emphasis on the education system in Scotland became a matter of priority, and one which continues to be an important feature of Scottish society - it is unlikely to be a coincidence that Scotland became a seat of learning for great thinkers, academics, philosophers, and scientists into the eighteenth century, the period known as the Scottish Enlightenment.
Visitors to the city can still walk in the footsteps of Mary, Queen of Scots, and John Knox today. St Giles cathedral has a bronze statue of Knox, and in Parliament Square outside the church parking space number 23 is noted as 'the approximate site of the burial' of the Protestant reformer.
Meanwhile, visitors to the Palace of Holyroodhouse can still visit the private chambers and bedroom of Mary, as well as the birth room in Edinburgh Castle where she gave birth to her son James, a future monarch of Scotland and England.
The Lyceum's production - directed by artistic director David Greig, is a world premiere, and may shed a little more light on the tempestuous times in which it is set, putting the city of Edinburgh back at the front and centre of the world's stage.
Glory on Earth runs at the Royal Lyceum Theatre from 20 May - 10 June 2017.
Explore Edinburgh in more detail with my private city walking tours!
Plenty of folkloric rituals surround the turning of the year and traditional May Day celebrations - often associated with pagan rites, the May Day itself probably started with the Romans as a way of marking the start of the summer season.
In Edinburgh, the most popular way of marking the turning of the season survives in the tradition of the Beltane fire festival, held on the slopes and summit of Calton Hill at the east of the New Town. This annual parade of dancers and acrobats wielding flaming torches is a modern interpretation of ancient Celtic festivities, but it is far from being the only such way of marking the May Day itself.
Arthur's Seat, in Holyrood Park, has been a focus for some other traditions which blend pagan mythology with Christian sites of worship. The peak of the hill is considered by some to be a focal point for mysterious ley lines channelling energy, and one famous tradition has taken place in the area for centuries.
It is said that a visit to St Anthony's Well in Holyrood Park at dawn on the morning of May Day, to wash in its water or the dew from the grass around it (and, some suggest, returning another eight times to repeat the cleansing ritual during the month of May) has healing or health-giving properties.
The poet Robert Fergusson described the ritual in his 18th-century poem Caller Water:
On May-day in a fairy ring,
We’ve seen them round St. Anthon’s spring,
Frae grass the caller dew draps wring,
To weet their ein,
And water clear as chrystal spring,
To synd them clean.
St. Anthony's well was one of seven Holy Wells that used to be found in Holyrood Park, but it no longer has running water. It is still observable on the path up to the summit of Arthur's Seat - look for the boulder with the ancient collecting bowl sitting at the front of it, from which its water used to be drawn - beneath the ruins of St Anthony's Chapel, a structure dating back at least as far as the 13th-century, but with no clear evidence for its date or purpose of construction.
The well itself has a long history of being a site of pilgrimage for those seeking miracles, and in the 19th-century it was said the slopes leading to St Anthony's Well would be well populated by locals trekking to secure the benefit of its powers first thing in the morning of 1 May, but would be nearly deserted later in the morning.
Today the reverse is more likely to be true, with Arthur's Seat proving a popular spot for visitors throughout the year, with a steady stream of walkers ascending throughout the day - if you're heading up this morning, keep an eye out for the historic well on your way (or down)!
Explore Edinburgh in more detail with my private walking tours!
Probably the most famous of Edinburgh's old graveyards, Greyfriars Kirkyard boasts views across the Old Town to Edinburgh Castle, as well as one of the most popular graves for visitors to seek out.
The graveyard is home to one of the city's best known residents, a dog called Greyfriars Bobby, whose legend which was immortalised in the 1960s when Disney made a film of Bobby's story. The popular tale tells how Bobby spent 14 years sleeping every night on the grave of his master, night watchman John Gray, earning him the reputation as man's most faithful friend. The reality of the situation is less romantic, but arguably more interesting! Join me for a tour to hear the alternative/real history of Greyfriars Bobby...
The graveyard also draws pilgrims seeking out inspirations for the Harry Potter stories, and within the graveyard you will find the grave of Professor McGonagall's namesake, Scotland's 'worst poet' William McGonagall, as well as the grave of 'Tom Riddle'... You'll also enjoy views to George Heriot's School, a building which is believed to have partially inspired the Hogwart's Academy from the Potter universe.
Other features of the area include the Covenanter's Prison, where scores of men, woman and children were held during the 'Killing Time' of the late seventeenth century, when religious martyrs protested against the new king Charles I, many of whom lost their lives along with many more who suffered for their beliefs. The tomb of George Mackenzie - known as 'Bluidy Mackenzie' for his persecution of these Covenanters - is reputed to be haunted by a lively poltergeist, and is accessible to the brave on some of the city's ghost tours...
The existing Greyfriars Kirk dates back to 1602, and burials have taken place here since shortly before that time, with some of those including James Craig, the famed designer of Edinburgh's New Town (who died a pauper), James Hutton, the 'father of modern geology', and John Porteous, who gave his name to the riots in 1736 which led to an overhaul of the system of public executions in the city.
You may also find the curious 'mort safes', devices designed to prevent body snatching from recent burials during the late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-centuries...
Take a tour with me to explore the city's graveyards (and more!) in greater detail...
Some of Edinburgh's most popular and peaceful areas are its historic graveyards, of which there are five in the city centre. They all have public access and offer some wonderful insights into the city's history, the people who have lived here and shaped Edinburgh as we see it today, as well as delivering some the best views and perspectives on the city itself.
On the side of Calton Hill, above Waverley Station, is the Old Calton Burial Ground. Originally relatively inaccessible from the Old Town, the route up to this gaveyard followed a set of steps which still exist today, leading from Calton Road right up the side of Calton Hill to Regent Road. The steps, called Jacob's Ladder, still offer some of the best angles from which to see St Andrew House, the site of the old Calton Jail, but no longer lead directly to the graveyard itself.
In the nineteenth century, the main thoroughfare of Waterloo Place was planned to connect the grand houses of Regent Terrace to Princes Street, and was run straight through the site of the old burial ground, requiring the transposition of several hundred bodies to the New Calton Burial Ground, a little further along the hillside.
One of the highlights of the Old Calton Burial Ground is the mausoleum of philosopher David Hume, which cost (by his own stipulation) no more than £100, and bearing just his name, date of birth, and date of death. A modest tomb to a great figure of the Scottish Enlightenment.
The most prominent structure in the graveyard is the Martyrs' Monument, a needle-like structure built to commemorate five men who dreamed of a democratic political system at the end of the eighteenth century. Fearing that what had happened in France, with the overthrow of the monarchy and the government, sometime earlier, the men were arrested and put on trial for sedition, and punished with transportation and 14 years labour in a penal colony in Australia. Only one of them survived long enough to return to his homeland after his sentence, and in the 1840s the monument was erected in their honour.
Most intriguing of all is the statue of former American president, Abraham Lincoln, in the graveyard. He stands atop a memorial to the Scottish soldiers who fought alongside him in the American Civil War, and it remains the only Civil War memorial outside of North America. The statue of Lincoln was the first statue of an American president to be built outside the US when it was erected in 1893.
Other burials in the graveyard include Sir John Steell, who produced several of the iconic statues in the city, and Robert Burn, who designed the nearby Nelson Monument on top of Calton Hill.
Explore the city's graveyards in more detail with my private Edinburgh walking tours!
It has long been known as 'Auld Reekie' - or 'Old Smokey' - the city of Edinburgh cloaked in the smoke from the wood and coal fires which provided heat and power to the households in the Old and New Towns. And in addition to my existing tour and tasting packages, the city can now once again be viewed as residents would have experienced it back in medieval times, with my new tours of the city exclusively for smokers!
Join me for a casual amble through the city, stopping regularly for a cigarette break or the opportunity to refill your pipe, and see the city through a haze of black smoke, the way it was built to be seen. And just as my whisky and beer tour and tasting packages finish with a tutored tasting experience at Jeffrey St. Whisky & Tobacco, so these smokers' routes will end with a few minutes exclusive use of the shop's inbuilt humidor.
Routes will minimise the amount of physical effort required, ensuring that visitors don't get too tired by the challenge of climbing stairs or walking up the long hills of the New Town, and each walk will be tailored to come past as many corner shops and off licences as possible, in case you need to stock up on filters, rolling tobacco or accessories like lighters and matches on the way.
As we walk, gain an insight into the impact of smoke on the city over the centuries, and understand how the city centre was (dis)coloured by the presence of coal fires, industrial premises, and high levels of consumption of cigarettes, pipes and cigars during the medieval times, and well into the more recent industrial ages too.
These tours will be offered for a limited time only, so get in touch to confirm pricing and availability, or with any questions you may have.
Smokers' Tours of Auld Reekie - showing you the the city as it should be seen, through a haze of black smoke!
I'm pleased and excited to announce a new working relationship with Snow Paw, a fantastic local company producing a great range of footwear featuring genuine Harris Tweed, a true symbol of Scottish culture and industry!
Established in 2010, Snow Paw originally sought to bring Scottish sheepskin shoes and boots to your feet, and now specialise in producing shoes featuring the iconic patterns of Harris Tweed, woven exclusively on the Scottish Outer Hebridean islands since the nineteenth century.
The orb trademark of Harris Tweed has become the symbol of a truly international brand, and Snow Paw feature the colours and styles of Harris Tweed in their range of contemporary footwear and accessories. From slippers to gloves, brogues to boots you can now wear this classic cloth in a whole new way!
I'm occasionally asked by visitors why I don't wear a kilt to lead my tours of Edinburgh. There are various reasons, but primary among them the fact that I'm not a Highland Scot, the people for whom the kilt and clan tartan is traditional dress. In an effort to present and promote an authentic image of contemporary Scotland, it would seem uncomfortably opportunistic for me to don a garb that is alien to me simply to satisfy the curiosity of tourists.
However, thanks to Snow Paw I am now proud to be able to display an authentic symbol of Scottish history and culture in my footwear, without compromising the values that I feel make up modern Scotland!
In January this year Snow Paw won the Best Product award for clothing at the 2017 Scotland's Trade Fair, promoting products that showcase the best of Scottish design and produce. Designed locally and crafted from quality materials - including, of course, the iconic Harris Tweed! - the men's brogue is the latest addition to their product line.
You can currently purchase Snow Paw shoes and boots from their online store or from the local stockists on Edinburgh's Royal Mile. Later this year it is hoped a Snow Paw shop will open in the city's Grassmarket area, offering visitors the chance to take home a pair of these exclusive, stylish and contemporary footwear as an extra special souvenir of their trip to Scotland!
Take a guided tour of Edinburgh with me to see these shoes in action, or check out the Snow Paw website for their full range of Harris Tweed footwear and accessories!
In these trying time of 'alternative facts' and 'fake news', works of non-fiction might be considered an increasingly precious and valuable resource, and so to celebrate World Book Day 2017 here are a few of fiction's less familiar cousins, all with origins in the city of Edinburgh...
In December 1768 the first instalment of the Encyclopaedia Britannica was published in Edinburgh, costing sixpence, and followed at weekly intervals with subsequent instalments until the full volume was completed in 1771. Divided into three hardback collections of letters A-B, C-L and M-Z, the encyclopaedia gathered essays on associated subjects, arranged by type rather than alphabetically.
The publication had been the project of two Edinburgh men, Colin Macfarquhar and Andrew Bell, who worked as booksellers, printers and engravers in the city, inspired by the boom in new ideas, discoveries and thinking taking place in Edinburgh at the time. This period, now known as the 'Scottish Enlightenment', gave the world many of its major philosophical and intellectual figures, including David Hume, Adam Smith and James Hutton.
The Encyclopaedia Britannica changed shape, format and style overs its lifetime, until ceasing to be published in a physical form in 2012 - by the twenty-first century the collected edition had expanded to around 40 million words, over 18,251 pages, a huge increase on the 2,391 of the original edition!
Prior to giving the world the King James Bible, James VI of Scotland also gave the world another popular book, itself with dubious claims to being 'non-fiction'. First printed in 1597, his Daemonologie became a standard text on the classification of demons, the signs and symbols of witchcraft, the techniques for tracking and identifying witches, and the legal bases on which they should be tried and executed.
James had been a keen believer in the evils of black magic, and had been heavily involved in several witch hunts and trials around the Edinburgh area, particularly the infamous Berwick witch trials of 1590. His book became a reliable compendium by which men, women, children and animals could be brought to account for their nefarious practices, and is thought to have been one of the primary sources drawn on by Shakespeare in writing Macbeth in 1606.
THE WEALTH OF NATIONS
A textbook of international trade, Adam Smith's vision of global capitalism, was first printed in 1776 and has the status of being the first work detailing principles of modern economics.
An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, to give it its full title, had been intended by Smith as just one volume in a series of works detailing the moral and scientific basis for a wider range of disciplines, including the sciences, law, astronomy and the arts. The writer himself considered his earlier volume, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, a superior work, but it is The Wealth of Nations which remains one of the most influential works of non-fiction around the world today.
Smith was born in Kirkcaldy, in Fife, to the north of Edinburgh, but lived and worked in Panmure House on the Canongate, on Edinburgh's Royal Mile. He is buried in the Canongate Kirkyard, and his grave has accumulated coins from many countries around the world, thrown there by visitors in tribute to Smith's global impact.
CHAMBERS ENGLISH DICTIONARY
Published in 1872, the Chambers's English Dictionary, as it was originally called, was the work of two brothers, William and Robert Chambers. William Chambers had been lord provost, or mayor, of Edinburgh, and was responsible for much of the redevelopment of the city during the 1860s and 1870s, under what were known as the 'improvements' of Edinburgh. The Chambers dictionary remains a standard version of the English dictionary, and for a long time was the official dictionary recognised globally by the organisation who promoted and distributed the word game Scrabble.
The volume become a must-have for lexicographers, crossword addicts and puzzlers due to its keen inclusion of archaic, less familiar and unusual words and phrases. Its definitions were also traditionally more characteristic than other dictionaries - the entry for éclair, for example, read: "a cake, long in shape but short in duration"!
William Chambers is commemorated in Edinburgh with a statue on the street named for him, Chambers Street in the Old Town.
Find out more about Edinburgh's literary influences with my private walking tours!
Edinburgh Expert is run by Gareth Davies, an adopted native of Edinburgh with 18 years of experience living and working in the city.