In honour of it being St Andrew's Day in Scotland today, here's a brief introduction to St Andrew Square, one of Edinburgh's iconic Georgian squares in the New Town area.
The square was created during the first phase of building of the New Town from the 1760s, and was an integral part of James Craig's design to have George Street flanked at each end with an impressive garden square. Named for the patron saint of Scotland, the large monument in the centre of the square isn't in fact dedicated to the eponymous saint.
The statue is of Henry Dundas, first Viscount Melville, and a man of considerable influence in Scotland in the latter half of the eighteenth century, his power gaining him the nicknames 'King Henry the Ninth' and 'the Great Tyrant'. He was the United Kingdom's first Secretary of State for War, and is (to date) the last member of British Parliament to be impeached, for misappropriation of public money - some say the money he 'misappropriated' was used to construct the monument, costing £8,000, on which his statue stands today.
The Dundas family seemed to have a predilection for behaving badly - Henry's cousin, Lawrence Dundas bought a plot of land on the east side of the square, land which had been intended for the construction of St Andrew's church, as laid out in James Craig's original designs for the New Town. Instead of constructing the church, however, Dundas had a large mansion house built for his family to live in. In 1825 the mansion passed into ownership of the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS), becoming its head office. The building still operates as a branch of RBS today. (The church which was supposed to have been sited here moved a short way down George Street.)
After its completion the square was an incredibly desirable place to live, with many well-off family and landowners purchasing properties here. Famous residents include Sir Henry Brougham, whose name lives on in the design of the four-wheeled horse-drawn carriage that he had built to his specifications. The philosopher David Hume not only lived on the square, but who unwittingly gave his name to one of the streets running off it. A dedicated atheist, the previously unnamed street between St Andrew's Square and Princes Street was (ironically) dubbed 'Saint David Street' in honour of its famous occupant. The name stuck, and today is still known as St David Street.
Today the square is open as a public garden, as well as a useful thoroughfare to cross between George Street and the east side of the square. At the north east corner of the square is access to Edinburgh Bus Station, adjacent to the Harvey Nichols department store. Recent efforts are underway to redevelop the south sie of the square, removing unsightly architectural constructions from the 1960s and replacing them with building which work to retain and show off the square architectural heritage.
St Andrew Square features on some routes of Edinburgh Expert's Up-Close and Personal Tours of the city centre.
With its characteristic hills and valleys, ploughed into ridges and troughs, Edinburgh is a city very much shaped by geological influences. Although much of the ground beneath your feet in Edinburgh was shaped primarily by the effects of the last ice age, the most visible influences on the cityscape are the three extinct volcanoes whose outcrops still dominate the city today.
The rock on which Edinburgh Castle is built is the plug of a volcano, believed to be around 350 million years old. The summit of the rock is 130 metre above sea level, and it was on this exposed by defensively significant site that human occupation in the city began approximately 3,000 years ago.
At the other end of Princes Street, graced by the columns of Playfair's unfinished National Monument, is Calton Hill. A second volcano site, the hill here is only 103 metres high but is easily climbed and affords a fantastic 360-degree panoramic outlook across the city and further afield to Fife, over the Firth of Forth (the estuary of the river Forth) to the north.
The most dramatic of the volcanoes, however, is Arthur's Seat. Situated at the centre of Holyrood Park to the east of the city centre, it rises to a height of just over 250 metres, and is a worthy attraction to visitors wishing to stretch their legs and gain a new perspective on the city. The lower slopes of the hill are easily climbed, whilst the final stretch is a little more challenging, so solid footwear and a willingness to scramble as required are advised.
The name Arthur's Seat has no solid derivation. Some people attach it to the Arthurian legends of Camelot, but a more grounded explanation is likely to be a corruption of the Gaelic phrase Àrd-na-Said, meaning 'the height of the arrows', indicating the highest altitude that an archer could attain with an arrow fired from his bow. (If you're fortunate you may still witness the Royal Company of Archers, the Queen's official bodyguards in Scotland, who still practice in the grounds of Holyroodhouse at the base of Arthur's Seat.)
Viewed from the city centre, in front of Arthur's Seat is a ridge of imposing cliffs, called Salisbury Crags. If scaling the full height of Arthur's Seat feels too much for you, there are paths which run along the base of the crags - called the Radical Road - and also along the top, both providing picturesque outlooks over the city. The creation of the crags came about when the volcano collapsed in on itself, and as the surface crust fell into the crater the land broke off and pivoted upwards. On the smoother side of the crags, between the ridge of clifftop and Arthur's Seat itself, is further evidence of prehistoric human occupation, dating back several thousand years.
It was whilst excavating sites around Holyrood Park and Arthur's Seat in the latter part of the eighteenth-century that a student by the name of James Hutton discovered what he considered to be evidence for dating the Earth's mass. Prior to this time it was widely accepted that Earth had been created according to the terms laid out in the Christian creation myth - that is, within seven days, and probably only about 6,000 years previously. Hutton uncovered layers in the rock which seemed not to make sense, as the lower layers of rock - those which had been deepest underground - bore evidence of being younger than the rocks at the surface. This observation gave rise to his theories about the way in which the Earth shifts and recreates itself, a process of ongoing change and difference, which in turn led to our current understanding of structures such as the tectonic plates which support Earth's massive landmasses. These insights coincided with the so-called Scottish Enlightenment, and earned Hutton the moniker the Father of Modern Geology. You can still visit the site of Hutton's excavations in Holyrood Park, where the exposed layers of his work bear the name Hutton's Unconformity.
Within Holyrood Park are a number of natural and man-made lakes, and the ruins of St Anthony's Chapel, dating to the fifteenth century. Along with a plethora of plants and wildlife - Historic Scotland run the ranger service responsible for maintaining the park itself - Arthur's Seat and Holyrood Park are an integral part of Edinburgh's scenery. And, what is more, access to the park and to Arthur's Seat is completely free of charge, making it an economical choice for visitors too!
Edinburgh is a city bursting with independent retailers. In recent times the city centre may have given way to many chains and branded stores - and many locals still lament the relatively recent sale of the iconic Princes Street department store Jenners (which for a time was the oldest family-owned department store in the UK) to its new ownership by the House of Fraser group - but local, independent merchants are likely to be hands-down favourites with locals.
One such local store has attained a reputation and a customer base which has seen fit to rank it among the best delicatessens not only in Scotland but in the UK as well. Near the top of Leith Walk, five minutes' walk past the eastern end of Princes Street, is the deceptively small shopfront of Valvona and Crolla, an Italian food and wine merchant that was established here in 1934. As they celebrate their 80th year in business, and still in the same building for all of those years, Valvona and Crolla (or V&C as locals sometimes call it) is well worth taking a stroll to visit whilst you're in the city.
Founded by two Italian immigrant families, the shop today trades internationally and is still family-run. Philip Contini is grandson of original co-proprietor Alfonso Crolla, and together with his wife Mary they manage the daily business of selling imported Italian meats, cheese, pasta, fruit and vegetables, as well as wine and a whole range of home and kitchen gifts and accessories. They bake their own bread in their local bakery premises, and at the back of the narrow, Aladdin's cave of a shop there is a restaurant and cafe serving high-quality meals, snacks and drinks. Snap up a copy of Mary's latest recipe book, or catch Philip performing with his Be Happy Band during the festival or on special occasions!
Combining the very best of Italian and Scottish produce, heritage and tradition, V&C makes for a tasty stop-off on a stroll around the city, or a convenient place to meet friends for a coffee.
The Scots-Italian tradition has become well established in Edinburgh, following the arrival of many immigrant families to Scotland during the early twentieth-century. Although introducing Scots to an eye-opening (and mouthwatering) selection of pasta, 'proper' ice cream and coffee, it wasn't always easy for such families and businesses, especially during the Second World War. Many Italian men were detained by the British authorities in response to Mussolini's involvement in the European conflict. Whilst some - such as Philip Contini's father Victor - were detained locally, his grandfather Alfonso Crolla was boarded on a ship destined for an internment camp in Canada. On the 2nd July 1940, that ship, the SS Andorra Star, was torpedoed by a German u-boat in the north Atlantic, and Alfonso Crolla was killed, along with an estimated 700 others.
Back in Edinburgh, the family business managed to recover from such tragedies and today is a thriving and forward-looking local business which trades all over Europe. V&C continues trading with their Scots-Italian heritage proudly to the fore, and can look forward to at least another eighty years as an independent family business.
Find Valvona and Crolla at 4 Elm Row, near the top of Leith Walk, or at www.ValvonaCrolla.co.uk
St Andrew has been recognised as the patron saint of Scotland (as well as Greece, Russia, Poland and a few other places...) ever since the declaration of Arbroath in 1320. Several relics of the martyred apostle (a fisherman by trade) were brought to a small coastal village in Fife in the middle of the 10th century, and the town on the site today is named St Andrews after him. The cross of St Andrew - deriving from the form of the crucifixion by which he died - is also a national symbol of Scotland, and is represented in our national flag, the Saltire (which in turn forms the basis of the Edinburgh Expert logo!).
In the 11th century, Queen Margaret (later canonised and made Saint Margaret) established a ferry crossing to carry pilgrims journeying northwards to the reliquary in St Andrews. The site of this crossing is still marked today by the villages of Queensferry and North Queensferry on the banks of the Firth of Forth, some distance to the north of Edinburgh. The world-famous Forth Rail Bridge was constructed to carry a rail line across the Forth in the same area, opening in 1890.
The national shrine to St Andrew is located in St Mary's Metropolitan Cathedral at the eastern end of Edinburgh city centre, where two relics of St Andrew (one described as a 'large portion of the shoulder of the Apostle Andrew') are kept, presented to the cathedral in 1879 and 1969. St Andrew's body is today housed in Amalfi, in southern Italy.
St Andrew's Day is celebrated on 30th November each year, and following the Scottish Parliament's introduction of the St. Andrew's Day Bank Holiday (Scotland) Act 2007 the day is officially a bank holiday across Scotland. Perhaps confusingly, banks are not required to close and employers are not required to grant the day as holiday to employees! Nevertheless, the day is usually marked in a variety of ways across the country, as much in a celebration of Scotland and Scottish culture and identity as for St Andrew himself.
The weekend nearest to 30th November is usually the most prodigious period of celebration, and visitors are likely to be able to enjoy a variety of experiences during this weekend and the surrounding days, including ceilidhs, dinners, concerts or dramatic performances, or special menus or deals in restaurants across the country.
For more information about what's on in the city, my private walking tours include a personalised information service to help you plan your visit!
At the bottom of the Esplanade, in front of Edinburgh Castle, you will find a small monument known as the Witches' Well. No longer a functioning well, it was constructed as a small memorial fountain to commemorate the women (and men) burned as witches, a spectacle which traditionally took place here at the top of Castlehill.
The process of trying, torturing and executing people accused as witches is an unpleasant one, but according to the official Records of the Burgh of Edinburgh show it could also be a pretty costly one, too. The following details are taken from a report into the death of John Fian, a schoolteacher from Prestonpans outside of Edinburgh, executed along with "a number of others" on the 16th December 1590.
In order to be executed at the stake (after having been first strangled into unconsciousness, if a degree of clemency had been allowed), a carpenter would have dug a hole and erected the wooden post into the ground, "for which he was paid ten shillings". This sum is equivalent to just over £100 in today's money - a small fortune in 1590.
Then there is the material required for the actual burning. We're told that "ten cart-loads of coal" were heaped around the post, at a cost of 64 shillings (nearly £700 today), over which two bundles of heather (not so lucky for those accused of witchcraft...) and two bundles of yellow broom were spread. As if this material weren't flammable enough, "six barrels of tar" were poured on top.
But most expensive of all was the cost of the executioner himself. According to a dictionary of the Scots language dating from 1818, a public executioner was called "the lokman", and for the execution of John Fian (and others) in 1590 he was paid £5, 18s and 2d - or a whopping £1,250 in modern money!
Not bad for a day's work. It's true what they say - there's a good living to be made from death, especially in the sixteenth century!
Check out the Witches' Well as you approach Edinburgh Castle. It's on the end wall of the last building on the right hand side as you head up Castlehill, and it is engraved with a brief history explaining its commemoration of those executed at this site.
Explore the darker side of Edinburgh with my Up-Close and Personal private walking tours!
I originally wrote this review for The Public Reviews. If you're visiting Edinburgh between now and January, it is will worth booking a ticket for, if they haven't sold out!
L. Frank Baum’s fictitious otherland has provided rich creative inspiration for a variety of work since the first of the Oz stories were published over a century ago, but when Gregory Maguire reimagined the whole history of the witches of Oz, with his 1995 novel Wicked, he could scarcely have anticipated the global musical sensation that his work would spawn.
In revising the stories of Glinda the Good (Emily Tierney) and the Wicked Witch of the West, named for the first time as Elphaba (Ashleigh Gray), Maguire gives us a rich and thematically complex story that questions the social functions of creating villains, expounds a treaty on the exploitation of power, and provides an allegory for the recent war on terror, among other things. What defines Stephen Schwartz and Winnie Holzman’s ‘songification’ of the story, however, is a sense of fun – the entire production is riddled with humour and pathos, as well as some truly catchy musical numbers. It’s not exactly child-friendly, but there’s visual spectacle and energy aplenty to hold the attention of older children, as well as those audience members not otherwise musically enamoured.
Goodness knows it isn’t a perfect production. Aside from some structural issues with the material, Samuel Edwards as happily shallow love-interest Fiyero can’t match the vocal range of the other leads, and his borderline dad-dancing undermines some of the charismatic seduction of the “Dancing Through Life” song and dance sequence; and there’s a tendency for the staging to be over-choreographed, especially during numbers like “Wonderful” where the Wizard (Steven Pinder) flaps and steps his way through a song that bears its true potency through its lyrics. But what makes up for any such shortcomings is the sheer sense of verve and ensemble energy that carries this nearly three-hour production.
Gray’s vocal range and strength as Elphaba are truly world-class. These are not easy songs to sing (however much we might like to think, as we karaoke them on iTunes) and Gray’s performance is not just note- but pitch- and tone-perfect too. Her barnstorming act-one finale “Defying Gravity” is thrilling, whilst the quiet emotion of “I’m Not That Girl” and “As Long As You’re Mine” is tender and heartfelt. Dramatically too there’s a genuine tingle of goosebumps as Gray’s Elphaba erupts into a momentary embodiment of Margaret Hamilton’s portrayal of the Wicked Witch.
She is matched on every level by Tierney’s Glinda, whose verbal and physical comic timing is impeccable, especially in the makeover sequence “Popular” and the anti-lovesong “What Is This Feeling?”. These two leads share a dynamic connection and make for a great double act that gives a sense of authenticity to their relationship, which resolutely avoids becoming a black and white, good and evil dichotomy of characterisation.
Part of the joy of this production is watching the familiar pieces of the Oz-shaped jigsaw puzzle fall into place. We catch echoes of iconic elements from the definitive 1939 MGM film, and there’s a thrill in noting the references that Maguire, Shwartz and Holzman variously embed into the story, even as we trace an entirely different narrative path with its own twists and turns. When the Wicked storyline begins to overlap with the Dorothy-based action from The Wizard of Oz, the latter is kept resolutely off-stage (or, more resonantly, behind a curtain).
You may need to hear some of the songs again before you find yourself humming them, but altogether Wicked is full of visual treats, laugh out loud humour and heart-rending drama. You won’t follow a yellow brick road in quite the same way ever again.
As the city of Edinburgh grew and expanded its boundaries, outlying areas and settlements that were originally external to the city became integrated into the city itself. Many of these smaller areas still survive as districts or suburbs of Edinburgh, and some still retain a sense of distinct character and identity. Any visitor to Edinburgh would be heartily encouraged to explore and investigate these outlying areas for a richly varied experience of shops, cafes, restaurants and accommodation.
Bruntsfield is one such area, lying to the south of the main east-west city axis. It takes its name from a corruption of 'Brown's Fields', after a previous landowner, and originally fell within the Burgh Muir, an expansive area of outlying land no longer formally recognised, although the name survives in a couple of street names and that of the local secondary school, Boroughmuir High.
Originally woodland, the area was cleared during the reign of James IV in 1508, and much of the wood from the trees felled here was used in the construction of timber-framed properties on what is today the Royal Mile and West Bow. A small quarry was established in Bruntsfield, taking stone to build local city properties, and the spaces between the excavated areas became a popular area for playing a form of golf, a pastime which survives today on the Bruntsfield Links, a public pitch-and-putt short-hole golf course. Bring your own clubs and balls to play an idle round or hire them from the nearby Golf Tavern for a small fee.
The area was developed into characteristic Edinburgh tenements, streets of large terraces subdivided into flats, with the main streets having shops in the ground floor properties at street level. Bruntsfield today is a thriving hub that is known for its local and independent shopping opportunities. Aside from a few small chain stores, there are plenty of independent cafes and restaurants and boutique shops.
For eating out, Montpeliers is a local bar and restaurant with some great deals on lunchtime and evening menus; Cafe Grande similarly does a good trade in food and drink. There are also two Italian restaurants in the area, Osteria del Tempo Perso is the most recent addition, but Papilio is also a local favourite, or for contemporary Scottish cuisine try Threebirds Restaurant at the top of Viewforth. There are cafes aplenty, including a branch of the local coffee roastery Artisan Roast, Project Coffee, and La Barantine. There are also an established butcher and fishmonger's shops, as well as a community grocery Dig In which specialises in locally grown vegetable produce.
On top of all these, there are not one but two ice cream parlours nearby - a branch of Nardini's in Bruntsfield itself, and Luca's just over the parish boundary into Morningside. Plus you'll find boutique clothing and jewellery stores, a number of delicatessens, two chocolate shops, a sweet shop, cards and gifts, and a hairdresser or two.
Bruntsfield remains an excellent local community with thriving businesses, and as well as being popular choice for locals is also worth a look by those visiting the city. Stretch your legs, break away from the city centre environs, and discover a whole other side to Edinburgh just a few minutes off the beaten tourist track.
Edinburgh Expert Walking Tours is run by Gareth Davies, an adopted native of Edinburgh since 1998...