EDINBURGH EXPERT WALKING TOURS - BLOG
Unlike many ancient cities, Edinburgh was built without many of the essential features which help to sustain substantial populations. The city lies too far inland to have a natural port of its own, on too mountainous a landscape to provide land for grazing animals or planting crops, and wasn't on any major waterway to provide access for industry or shipping.
But many of these features lay just beyond the bounds of the original city. The port of Leith, at one time the busiest port in Scotland, developed as a separate town, and was only formally incorporated into Edinburgh in the 20th century. Farmland to the south, east and west sustained agricultural communities who came to Edinburgh to trade their goods and produce. And the Water of Leith, a modest stream running from the Pentland Hills into the North Sea at Leith, was a lifeline for many small outlying towns and settlements who used the power the stream provided for industrial operations.
Today the Water of Leith continues to flow through Edinburgh's outskirts and central suburbs, offering a sliver of pastoral idyll to those seeking to escape the city itself. The various former industrial towns are now predominantly quiet residential areas with their own peaceful atmospheres, and a pathway along the length of the river provides a tranquil and accessible route for those looking to walk, jog, cycle or just wander aimlessly through the meandering and sometimes dramatic landscape that the water has carved out over countless millennia.
Here is my guide to some of the highlights found along the Water of Leith, with tips for areas to explore that can take you well beyond the tourist trails of the Old Town. The route as a whole will take you from the high, exposed wilderness of the Pentland Hills, to the former industrial heartland of Leith.
Our journey begins in the hills to the south of the city, where natural gullies gather water from the exposed landscape, and channel it into reservoirs. Some of these provided the original freshwater supplied to Edinburgh, when a network of wooden pipes was established to pipe it into the city in the 17th century.
Other reservoirs provide some of the accumulated supply of water which becomes the Water of Leith itself. There are various areas to explore in the Pentlands, maintained as nature reserves and kept as public spaces, just a short step away from the city centre. Two of the reservoirs which feeds into the Water of Leith are Thriepmuir and Harlaw, themselves offering a short circular walking route around the perimeter of these bodies of water, which are often used by anglers.
Downstream from these reservoirs, the Water of Leith walkway begins at Balerno, a village which was one of the places which utilised the free flowing waters as a power source for its industry.
Paper mills sprang up around this stretch of Water of Leith in the 18th century with the rise of printed books and newspapers. At one time the river powered in excess of 70 industrial plants along its 24-mile length, producing a variety of materials from paper to flour, all of which could be sold locally or transported into cities like Edinburgh, or even further afield from the port of Leith itself.
Wanderers along the river here may spot a variety of wildlife, from herons and otters occupying the water, to a rich variety of plants growing along the banks of the stream. Wild garlic is a copious natural foodstuff which thrives in these areas, and in recent years has become a favoured product from those who have turned to foraging for natural ingredients. Look out for brambles and wild berries, as well as orchids, bluebells and a variety of wildflowers among the trees.
A little further downstream, Colinton is another popular suburb which developed around one of the original points where the Water of Leith could be crossed without the need to navigate the treacherous sides of the glen through which the stream ran. Today a high bridge across the water provides a view down to one of the local parks, which remains popular with locals and dog walkers, and onto the Water of Leith walkway which passes through it.
Colinton has several associations with the writer Robert Louis Stevenson, who often stayed with his grandparents in the village and spent time playing along the banks of the river, later taking inspiration for his poetry from these idyllic childhood times.
From Colinton walkers have a choice of following the path along the banks of the water, or traversing a higher path which runs along the route of a former railway.
Along the railway route is a tunnel cut through the rocky sides of the valley. Today the tunnel has become a popular public work of art, with the walls painted with a variety of popular Scottish icons and imagery, including Harry Potter figures, Highland cows, a bagpiper and military memorial plaques, and a graffiti-style rendering of one of Robert Louis Stevenson's poems, From a Railway Carriage, describing the features glimpsed from a speeding train!
The Colinton tunnel is a real highlight of this route, and makes it worth leaving the water briefly to climb a little higher - and from here you have another choice, to return to the valley and follow the bank of the river, or to stay above it where you'll join with the Caledonian Canal, another of the waterways which cuts through this landscape.
From the canal route you'll be rewarded eventually with an elevated view across towards Arthur's Seat in the distance, as the canal is carried over an aqueduct which crosses the Water of Leith itself.
From here you can descend a steep staircase to get back to the river, and take advantage of the Water of Leith Visitor Centre, where you can find out more about the work done by the Water of Leith Conservation trust to protect and preserve this historic waterway, and recharge your batteries with a coffee from their cafe.
The visitor centre, where the canal crosses the river, is at Slateford, which was historically another town with important transport links - at one time, the road, railway and canal were all viable routes through this area, and the railway bridge and aqueduct which rise high above the level of the road and the Water of Leith are a reminder of this area's former industrial heritage.
At this point we're only about 3 miles from the centre of Edinburgh, yet walking along the Water of Leith feels as though we're in a remote countryside setting. The landscaping and foliage muffles any noise of traffic and industry, and on a warm day the noise of birdsong is easily the loudest sound you'll hear.
From Slateford, the Water of Leith continues through the suburbs of Saughton, Roseburn and Murraryfield (home to Scotland's international rugby stadium), a relatively flat plain of Edinburgh developments that are occasionally vulnerable to flooding when the river is in full spate.
But continuing our walk along it, it's not long before the landscape changes again and becomes a steeper ravine, as the Water of Leith enters another former industrial area, at the Dean Village.
This was once a busy mill town on one of the only major routes into Edinburgh. Farmers from all around the city could bring their grain here to be turned into flour which was then exported into Edinburgh itself. As well as the original arched bridge crossing the river, Dean Village has several reminders of its original status, including the hall of the guild of baxters (bread bakers). Today it's a peaceful residential area with access directly to the Modern Art Gallery from the Water of Leith walkway itself.
Dean Village is a popular area for visitors to explore, just a short walk from Princes Street, and featuring in my extended New Town fixed-route tour.
Between the Dean Village and Stockbridge, another of Edinburgh's popular and bustling suburbs, the Water of Leith path runs in a steep valley whose sides are laid out with New Town private gardens. This was at one time an extremely wealthy, high-status residential district, developed as Edinburgh grew in the 18th century.
Although the industrial usage of the stream had left the water badly polluted and filthy - granting it the evocative local nickname 'Tumbleturd' - this remains one of the most picturesque and popular sections of the river. Look out for the neo-classical Grecian temple of St Bernard's Well, a former mineral spring which attracted visitors in the early days of Edinburgh's tourism trade.
From Stockbridge the Water of Leith runs near to the Royal Botanic Gardens, a pleasant haven of green space just a short walk from the city centre. The area nearby is known as Canonmills, after the historic location of mills (powered by the Water of Leith) which were managed by the canons of Holyrood Abbey, and from which the church derived a significant income.
Little evidence of these industrial features survive, but as the stream continues through Bonnington - once a settlement straddling the boundaries of Leith and Edinburgh - you may still see heavier industrial occupation of an area which capitalised on both the power supply of the stream and the proximity to the port for overseas trade and export.
The river widens as it enters its final stretch, taking us into the original port area of Leith.
The atmosphere as you walk along the banks here is distinctly post-industrial, with many of the old riverside buildings replaced with modern accommodation blocks, or converted into commercial spaces.
Reminders of the heavily industrial history of Leith are not hard to find, from large anchors set into the pathways to fish-based sculptures around the network of small streets immediately adjacent to the water. And it's not hard to miss the evidence of a huge amount of financial support invested in the area to regenerate Leith over the last two decades.
What was once a rundown port district, which had gone into decline with the loss of shipping and associated industries in the last half-century or so, is now a vibrant town with a fantastic array of local shops, cafes, bars and restaurants which has earned it recognition as a haven for hipsters.
But there is history in these streets and buildings, too. Look for the former St Ninian's church, one of the oldest surviving buildings in Leith, which stands almost directly on the bank of the Water of Leith. Originally founded in the 1490s, the structure today features stonework erected during a post-Reformation renovation at the turn of the 17th century, as well as later additions like the Dutch-style bell tower.
What was once the port area itself is now known as the Shore, and more history can be found amongst the modern businesses which occupy some of the older buildings.
The Malmaison boutique hotel occupies the former Sailor's Home, a seamen's mission built to accommodate sailors whose ships were moored in the port in front of it, and in front of it is a memorial to merchant navy men whose lives were lost in a variety of conflicts and incidents.
Nearby is the remains of a windmill built in the 17th century by the architect Robert Milne, which was converted into a signal tower during the Napoleonic Wars, and a whaling harpoon is mounted at the side of the port as a reminder of the commercial trading which once took place in the water here.
The whole area oozes atmosphere, and it's perhaps strange to think that was was once a noisy, dangerous, busy industrial town is today a destination for brunch!
For anyone undertaking a walk along the length of the Water of Leith, arriving here - a little over 12 miles since starting along the pathway inland back at Balerno - offers plenty of choice for rest, relaxation, and refuelling.
Beyond a renovated swing bridge which would once have opened to allow large ships into the port, a tangle of ironwork and shipping cranes acts as a reminder that the North Sea - still a busy shipping lane and fishing territory - is just a short paddle away.
But how different the landscape is here, compared with the high, isolated mountain moorland where the Water of Leith began! In a relatively short distance we have traversed a variety of Edinburgh's suburbs and historical features.
From the sailors and fishermen of Leith to the well-heeled society folk of the New Town, and from the paper mills of Balerno to the baxters of Dean Village, over time the Water of Leith has provided a focus to a varied cross-section of people and industries. Today it's the domain of dog walkers and joggers, cyclists and casual strollers.
And still the water flows on, oblivious to the changing fashions, functions and tides of human occupation...
Explore more of Edinburgh's varied history with my private city walking tours!
Edinburgh is boundaried to the north by the Firth of Forth, the tidal estuary of the River Forth, which flows into the North Sea. This coast has served as a natural limit to the growth of the city, and for a long time was a major hurdle to travellers - especially pilgrims who made the long trek to the reliquary of St Andrew at the town which bears his name, on the eastern neuk - or 'corner' - of Fife.
Those making their way to St Andrews were faced with a considerable challenge in their efforts to cross the River Forth, necessitating a significant diversion inland to the west to cross at Kincardine, where the river was narrower, before venturing back eastwards to the coast, adding a distance of some forty miles to their already arduous route.
Towns along the northern bank of the Forth created a Pilgrim's Trail, featuring a number of holy sites and shrines to attract such travellers, and villages like Culross - famous today for its use as a setting for the Outlander TV series - capitalised on their saintly connections.
In the eleventh century, Queen Margaret of Scotland - wife of Malcolm III - established a ferry service across the River Forth, to provide pilgrims with a shortcut, and bypassing some of the inland diversion. A ferryman would row travellers across the choppy waters of the Firth of Forth, between two points which today still have names deriving from this transport facility - North and South Queensferry.
But with the growth of Scotland's population and the increase in demands for travel and transport, leading to the rise of mass transit in the 19th century and with the coming of the railways, the Firth of Forth remained a major obstacle for anyone seeking to travel north from Edinburgh or south from Fife.
In 1882 construction began on a cantilevered bridge to span the Forth and carry a railway line which would link Fife directly to Edinburgh. The Forth Bridge was designed by Sir John Fowler and Sir Benjamin Baker, and would become one of Scotland's major landmarks, as well as earning a UNESCO World Heritage Site designation in 2015.
Shortly after its construction was finished in 1889 the bridge was dubbed the 'Eighth Wonder of the World' due to its striking and iconic design of intersecting iron struts, creating a cross-hatching effect that - coupled with its distinctive red colour - made it a visual spectacle.
This style was an accidental consequence of a tragedy which occurred in 1879, when the Tay Bridge - a railway bridge crossing the River Tay at the northern end of Fife - collapsed during a severe winter storm. Seeking to reassure the public of the safety of such large pieces of infrastructure, the Forth Bridge was deliberately over-engineered in order to provide a visual sense of security and strength, adding in the multiple struts and supports to provide more stability than was structurally necessary.
The Forth Bridge opened in 1890, and has since become a feature of Scottish culture as well as an icon of Scottish travel. When Alan Turing, the inventor of the precursor to the modern computer, compiled a series of conditions that would have to be met for a computer to be considered as 'intelligent' as a human being - known as the Turing Test - one of the tasks he described was: 'Write me a sonnet on the subject of the Forth Bridge'. Only if a machine were able to complete all of those tasks laid out by Turing, including the poetry assignment, could it accurately be described as being able to think.
The painting of the bridge also came to be popularly used to describe a Sisyphean task - one that never ends - when it was believed that the job of painting the steel structure in its entirety took so long that by the time a team of workmen had painted from end of it to the other, it was already in need of repainting!
Today the Forth Bridge remains an iconic landmark, as well as providing an invaluable rail link between Fife and Edinburgh which serves thousands of commuters travelling into and out of the city on a daily basis.
Queen Margaret's ferry service continued running for eight centuries (although the boats had been upgraded several times over this period, eventually allowing for cars to be carried!). Even through the end of the 19th century, as trains rumbled across the Forth Bridge high above them, ferries continued shuttling passengers over the waters below. (For a brief time a hovercraft also carried passengers over the Forth a little further to the east.)
In the early 20th century, as car ownership and road travel boomed, a road bridge was planned as a means of providing another means of access across the Forth. Early discussions were held in the 1920s and 1930s, and construction eventually began in 1958.
When it opened in 1964, the Forth Road Bridge was the longest suspension bridge in the world, outside of the United States of America. At just over 2,500m in length, the dual-lane roadway with adjacent footpath is supported between two towers 156m high.
This second bridge to Fife was opened by HRH the Queen in September 1964. As well as improving transport links, for the first time the original Forth Bridge could be viewed from the west, giving travellers an opportunity to appreciate its length and style as it stretched between the banks of the Forth.
At the same time, the original ferry service was discontinued, meaning pilgrims could no longer take a ferry across the Forth for the first time since the eleventh century.
At its peak, the Forth Road Bridge carried 65,000 vehicles across the Forth every day, but by the turn of the 21st century it was reaching its safe capacity, and concerns were raised over the future viability of the bridge as vehicle numbers continued to rise.
Plans for a new road bridge had been discussed in the 1990s, but it wasn't until 2004 that solid arrangements were put in place to commit to upgrading the infrastructure. A third bridge, now known as the Queensferry Crossing, began construction in 2011, and was formally opened by HRH the Queen on 4 September 2017, 53 years to the day since she had opened the Forth Road Bridge.
Today the Queensferry Crossing carries domestic vehicle traffic over the Firth of Forth, while the Forth Road Bridge is limited to commercial vehicles.
These three bridges offer three contrasting styles and functions, and belong to three separate, consecutive centuries - the Forth Bridge from the 19th century; the Forth Road Bridge from the 20th century; and now the Queensferry Crossing from the 21st century. It's a neat way of demonstrating the continued importance of transport links across the Firth of Forth over those centuries, and a visually arresting demonstration of the evolution of technology and design.
Visitors to Scotland today who take a trip out of Edinburgh will often have reason to pass over one of these three bridges. Anyone travelling to St Andrews for a game of golf, or further north to the Highlands, or even just over to pay a visit to Culross and other Outlander locations in Fife, will pass over the Forth and be able to appreciate the visual effect of three crossings over the same body of water.
They say the best trilogies come in threes, and with our bridge(s) to Fife we have one such trilogy to celebrate!
Explore more of Edinburgh's visual architecture and design with my private city walking tours...
Exciting news today from the organisers of Edinburgh's annual festival events, which attract visitors from all around the globe each summer.
Following the cancellation of the Edinburgh International Festival, Edinburgh Festival Fringe, and Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo in 2020 due to Covid-19, organisers have confirmed that festival events will go ahead in this summer - and for the first time ever the Edinburgh festivals will be held in Glasgow!
The idea to take the festival out of its host city stemmed from recent ventures to take the Edinburgh Military Tattoo on tour: a travelling production of the iconic military spectacular - held annually in Edinburgh since the 1950s - has visited countries around the globe, including Australia and China, staged in a specially constructed arena against a recreation of the iconic backdrop of Edinburgh Castle.
Proving that the event can exist without being formally tethered to the city has liberated Festivals Edinburgh to think more broadly about the future of the Edinburgh summer festivals season.
So this year, organisers of the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo will erect a purpose-built arena in Glasgow's George Square, and the show will feature a smaller-than-usual cast drawn from military personnel of the UK's home nations emerging triumphantly from the entrance to Queen Street railway station instead of across the drawbridge of Edinburgh Castle.
But it isn't just the tattoo which is to be reinvented for audience in 2021. The Edinburgh Festival Fringe - by itself the world's largest arts festival - will also make the journey from Edinburgh to Glasgow this summer.
In contrast to its usual occupation of small, dingy and airless venues in Edinburgh's historic Old Town, the Edinburgh Fringe will be held in the cavernous space of the Clyde Auditorium, where booths will be erected in the style of a trade fair. Acts will be able to stage 15-minute performances of stand-up comedy, drama or dance for audiences of up to four people at a time. This represents a substantial increase on average audience size for most Edinburgh Fringe performances.
The street performers which bring such vibrancy and spectacle to the Royal Mile during the fringe will also be present, but in specially constructed performance spaces behind the glass of shopfronts on some of Glasgow's most famous shopping streets, including Buchanan Street and Sauchiehall Street.
This way passers-by can still enjoy spectacular displays of juggling, fire eating and interminable 'magic' acts, but in a protected way that avoids them being exposed to the performers' breath, spittle or filthy fingers.
Instead of passing a hat for donations at the end of their set, street performers will be able to take donations via contactless card reader held against the glass of the shop window.
Organisers made the decision to remove the festivals from Edinburgh after concerns were raised over the city's capacity to accommodate large numbers of visitors in a socially distanced manner. As Glasgow is by far the larger city, it was considered to be a logical decision to stage the festivals in a location where the covid safety restriction of 2m distance between visitors could be more comfortably accommodated.
In a gesture of solidarity between the two cities - usually great rivals, especially when it comes to sporting fixtures - Glasgow will temporarily be renamed 'New Reekie' for the duration of August 2021.
The logistical challenges of relocating the Edinburgh festivals to Glasgow have taken shape behind closed doors over the last seven months, and the move is expected to prove popular with residents of Edinburgh, many of whom bemoan the annual takeover over of the city by artistic types.
If the festivals' relocation to Glasgow is well received, a more permanent decision could be made to move the summer events away from Scotland's capital, along with other events in Edinburgh's annual calendar.
Dundee has already indicated willingness to host a Hogmanay street party to rival that held in the capital, and Aberdeen is being considered as an alternative location for the 2022 Edinburgh International Film Festival.
Explore a festival-free Edinburgh this summer, with my private and customised city walking tours!
This blog was originally published on 1 April 2021. ;)
Whilst much is often made of the people who were executed - justly or otherwise - in Edinburgh throughout history, there's relatively little attention given to those who bore the responsibility for dispatching those poor souls.
In order to have an execution, an executioner had to be present to swing the axe, tighten the noose or light the tinder (depending on whether your fate was to be beheaded, hung or burned at the stake). They also carried out corporal punishments, such as public whippings. These people occupied a strange place in the society of their times - no one really wanted to do the job, but everyone agreed on the necessity of justice being meted out as laid down by the laws of the land.
So executioners often existed in a strange half-life among Edinburgh's citizens, by turns feared, respected, despised and admired. Here's my trip through the lives, deaths, and working arrangements of some of Edinburgh's executioners.
In Scots, an executioner was sometimes called a 'lokman', or in popular slang was known as 'the doomster', the man who sent you to your doom....
The origin of the word 'lokman; is slightly hazy, with some people making the connection between an executioner and a jailer, or one who controlled the locks - although these two roles were never knowingly linked in Scotland.
More likely is the use of 'lok' as a term to describe a quantity of a product - generally about a handful, but also a tuft (of wool or cloth - from which a 'lock' of hair gets its origin). The connection with the executioner is that part of the reward or payment which was given for performing this unpleasant work was taken from a tax levied on every portion of goods which were imported into the city for sale at the market, calculated as a lok or handful of each. Thus the commercial activity of Edinburgh helped to pay for maintaining the law and the administration of justice in the city.
This amounted to a significant quantity of cash - in 1590, the lokman employed to coordinate the execution at the front of Edinburgh Castle of a group of men and women convicted of witchcraft was paid £5 18s 6d, equivalent to over £1,250 in modern currency!
As a municipal appointment the official executioner would later be granted a dedicated accommodation in the Old Town, furnished and paid for from city funds. This house was on Fishmarket Close, conveniently located near to the law courts and ideally placed for access to some of the city's designated sites of execution, on the Royal Mile and in the Grassmarket.
So for those who had the stomach for the work, being a lokman could be a richly rewarded occupation...
Cockburn was a hangman during the reign of Charles II, and was on duty in the Grassmarket during the execution of around 100 Covenant martyrs, killed for adhering to a statement of religious faith which was at odds with the monarchy during the late seventeenth century.
In accordance with the various traditions of the time, Cockburn wasn't only a hangman, but was also known to have wielded an axe at beheadings of various higher status figures (for whom the faster death than a lingering demise by hanging was considered something of a judicial mercy) and of being involved in the torture of various suspected criminals in order to secure guilty confessions.
He was known to have conducted himself in his role as executioner with a certain gusto, and cannot have been considered a reluctant administrator of the sentences imposed on criminals. But Cockburn was also notable for having his own life ended at the end of a rope, after he was found guilty of murdering a beggar in the city.
It was alleged that Cockburn had enticed the beggar, called John Adamson, into his home on Fishmarket Close, whereupon he had struck him with a number of violent blows in order to take from him the small amount of cash Adamson had collected that day. He denied causing Adamson's death - denied him even having been in his home - but blood-soaked clothes were found concealed in Cockburn's rooms, and he was arraigned and held in chains to secure a confession. When none was forthcoming, local magistrates pronounced Cockburn guilty of the murder, and sentenced him to be hanged.
The situation thusly presented authorities with a conundrum - who was to execute the city's executioner?! And so a man named Mackenzie - the executioner in Stirling, who had previously served in Edinburgh - was sent for, and Cockburn might have been darkly amused had he ever known that the man who sent him to his death had been his own predecessor, whom he had replaced!
Alexander Cockburn was hanged in Edinburgh on (or around) 16 January 1682.
HANG OR BE HANGED
It's fair to say that few people ever set out to become executioners, and the role could be a tricky one to fill anytime it fell vacant. Although the perks and benefits of the job could be substantial, the level of public profile and the gruesome nature of the job description itself made it a hard role to recruit.
One of the last executioners to take the job in Edinburgh was a man named Jock Heich, who was appointed in 1784. His path to employment was a curious one, as he had been arrested on charges of stealing poultry - although he was also a notorious wife beater, and it may have been that the authorities were induced to arrest him for some minor offence as a substitute for crimes they may not have been able to prove in an open court.
His sentence - for what amounted to petty theft - was to be hanged. But the authorities offered him an alternative, and offered him instead the role of hangman, which at that time was carried out by an elderly man who was unlikely to be remaining in post for long. Heich could avoid an unpleasant death for himself by taking on the job of executioner to others.
It's not known how long Heich deliberated over the decision - suffice it to say he served as the city's doomster until his death in 1817.
MEN OF CONSCIENCE
If Alexander Cockburn had been a violent brute who took rather too much pleasure in the carrying out of his role, other executioners in Edinburgh took a more considered approach to the job.
John Dalgleish was the hangman during the early eighteenth century, and was the figure who saw the smuggler Andrew Wilson to his death ahead of the Porteous Riots in 1736. He was also responsible for administering corporal punishments, including the public whippings of less violent offenders. Asked on one occasion how he judged the force and weight of the blows he administered with the whip, Dalgleish replied, "I lay on the lash according to my conscience". This was perhaps his way of acknowledging a degree of latitude in the degree of trauma involved in the punishments he administered.
A little earlier, in 1700, a similar issue of conscience had led to a curious circumstance in the city. In the aftermath of the Darien Expedition to settle a Scottish colony in South America, there was a great sense of public outrage at the way in which the English government had acted in the affair, which had seen the expedition fail disastrously, with the needless deaths of thousands of would-be resettlers who had risked their lives and livelihoods in the spirit of colonisation.
Such was the strength of public opinion that a riot had been orchestrated in the city of Edinburgh, for which a number of organisers and agitators had been arrested and sentenced to a severe public whipping at the Mercat Cross.
Despite the riot having been a breach of city regulations, many sympathised with the position of the rioters, and agreed with their cause, and the hangman experienced a prick of conscience at punishing men with whose political feeling he strenuously agreed. And so it was that at their punishment, Dalgleish enacted the whipping with a degree of theatricality, and didn't let the whip make contact with the backs of the rioters, avoiding causing them pain or suffering.
The city authorities were outraged by what they saw as a partisan avoidance of judicial instruction, and had the executioner arrested and sentenced to a public whipping for his insubordination!
The council sent to Haddington to secure the services of a hangman to come and administer the punishment, but on arrival the replacement hangman found himself threatened and intimidated by the general public whose feeling had been shared by their conscientious objector.... Accordingly he refused the job and fled the city, forcing some to joke that Edinburgh council would have to secure the services of a third executioner to punish the second who had refused to punish the first...!
Instead, Edinburgh council admitted defeat at the hands of public opinion and dropped the issue.
SHAMED AND ASHAMED
One of the city's executioners had been a young man in a wealthy family from Melrose in the Scottish Borders. Having inherited a significant fortune, he squandered the cash and lost it through a profligate lifestyle, before being declared bankrupt. He left Melrose in shame, and set out to start a new life in Edinburgh, where nobody knew him or his story.
Having changed his name, he found the only job which was open was that of hangman, and with no other option available to him he gratefully accepted the role.
Having begun to save up some cash, he had aspirations of returning to his former lifestyle, and bought some fine clothes in which he would walk out to Bruntsfield Links, one of the world's oldest golf courses. Here he would socialise with some of the city's elite, playing golf and enjoying something of the former lifestyle he had lost through his own extravagance.
One evening, having played a round of golf, he was enjoying a drink with his new high society friends, when one of the ladies in the company happened to recognise him, and exposed him as the city's hangman.
He was roundly ridiculed and humiliated for having the nerve to seek to associate with high status figures when his position in life was so low, and having been chased away from the group he walked to Holyrood Park where, feeling ashamed at having been exposed so viciously, he took his own life by jumping from the top of the Salisbury Crags.
The point from from he leapt to his death is still known today as Hangman's Crag.
THE LAST PUBLIC HANGING
Edinburgh's last public hanging took place on the High Street in 1864 - and it was precisely because of the events which transpired that day that no further public executions were to take place.
Because so few executions were occurring at that time, the city had retired the post of executioner and no longer had a resident doomster to call upon for the purpose of administering justice. And so, to execute George Bryce, convicted of murder in June 1864, Edinburgh brought a hangman from York to perform the necessary deed.
It had long been considered that the role of executioner was not just to be trusted to violent thugs (like Alexander Cockburn) but that a degree of skill was required to perform the task in as brisk, efficient and painless way as possible. Sought-after executioners - like Albert Pierrepoint, Britain's last hangman - plied their trade with a methodical rigour that made the process smooth and efficient, and were rewarded highly for their diligent approach to the task at hand.
One primary calculation which was required from hangmen concerned the length of rope from which a prisoner would be hung - adjusting the length as needed to ensure the necessary fall and force of a drop, in order to efficiently break the neck and render death instantaneously, was considered the minimum degree of care to be taken over a prisoner's final moments.
In 1864, the executioner brought to Edinburgh from York - named Thomas Askern - seemed to possess none of these necessary skills and considerations. It may be that he had overstated his experience or qualifications to secure the job, or (according to rumour) he had over-exerted himself at one of Edinburgh's pubs the evening before, and arrived for the execution in a state of hangover. Regardless of the reason, what is known is that Askern took little care in assessing the length of rope needed to hang George Bryce, and when the trap door opened, the prisoner dropped barely two feet and was left to dangle in mid-air in front of the assembled crowd.
Instead of disappearing out of sight beneath the scaffold and dying with a swift break to his neck, as was expected, Bryce slowly suffocated in full view of the men, women and children who had gathered to witness the execution. Reports of the event differ on how long it took Bryce to die. The shortest estimate put it at 12 long minutes of slow, agonising suffocation. One witness recorded it took Bryce nearer forty minutes to finally expire.
Public response to the botched death was heated and angry, and a mob chased the officials and hangman from the scaffold with a barrage of stones. Thomas Askern became immediately so hated he had to be smuggled out of the city on a coach back to York first thing the next morning.
Appalled at the trauma meted out in place of a swift and efficient execution, Edinburgh held no more public executions - although hangings still took place in the privacy of the city's prison until the last execution in Edinburgh, within living memory for some, in June 1954...
Find out more about the lives of previous residents of the city on my private walking tours!
Distract yourself from the horrors of the festive season with this fun quiz with 10 seasonal-themed questions to test your knowledge of Scotland's capital city!
Wishing you all the best for a safe, peaceful and relaxing Christmas, and I hope to see you for a tour of Edinburgh in 2021!
Edinburgh is full of historic properties and buildings that have seen their fair share of history. In terms of its heritage status, Edinburgh has more buildings listed for their historical value than any other city in the UK (apart from London).
This occasional blog series highlights specific buildings and explores their historic associations - previously I've featured Moray House and Prestonfield House, and in this article I'll be looking at Acheson House, located just off Edinburgh's historic Royal Mile.
Acheson House was built in 1633, as evidenced by the date carved above what was the original main entrance to the building. Today internal renovations have divided up some of the interior space, and this doorway today gives emergency access into the Museum of Edinburgh, housed primarily in an adjacent building.
The building was originally constructed as a home for Archibald Acheson. In 1627 Acheson had been appointed Secretary of State for Scotland in the court of Charles I, and so was a major figure in the royal court as well as in his native Scotland. Acheson's second wife was Margaret Hamilton, and the couple's initials appear on the pediments over the windows on the upper floor.
Scotland and England had only been united under one monarch for barely thirty years at the time when Acheson House was built, and wouldn't be united politically for another seventy years - so it's curious to note the emblem of the thistle and the rose carved into the window pediments. These national emblems of both Scotland and England would suggest the building's owner boasted unionist sympathies.
However, a fleur-de-lys emblem over a third window may suggest a sense of respect for the 'Auld Alliance', signed between Scotland and France in 1292, making a common enemy of England...
The original doorway also features the Acheson family crest, a cockerel on a trumpet, along with the Acheson family motto, 'Vigilantibus', meaning 'Stay watchful'. The cross-hatched emblem in the date are the initials AA and MH intertwined, for Archibald Acheson and Margaret Hamilton.
In 1633 the building which is, today, clustered amongst a variety of other Old Town buildings would have been relative open, especially to the rear - away from the Royal Mile - where it would have had a grand garden as many Canongate properties would have had.
By the eighteenth century the building had fallen in status somewhat. Acheson had died in 1634, barely a year after the house was built, and later the property would come into use as one of the many brothels and houses of ill repute that would have been found all across the Old Town. Prostitution was one of the most common means of earning money for the poorest citizens, and Acheson House had become one venue for soliciting the services of such 'ladies of pleasure'.
Thanks to the emblem above its door, it was known locally as 'the cock and trumpet'....! It is thought that Acheson House may have been a favoured haunt of young Robert Louis Stevenson.
In 1775, an enterprising son of a church minister compiled and published An Impartial List of the Ladies of Pleasure in Edinburgh, detailing some of the women who could be found in the city's brothels, and the particular services (or character) they offered to their paying guests. James Tytler (who is alleged to be the otherwise pseudonymous author of the book) would later help compile the second edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, a decidedly more wholesome publication!
Acheson House was also at one time occupied by Edinburgh's Incorporation of Bakers, and the names of the adjacent lanes - Bakehouse Close and Sugarhouse Close - are a reminder that this area at one time was a relatively industrial part of the city.
As with many of Edinburgh's Old Town buildings in the nineteenth century, Acheson House fell into disrepair, and may have been demolished altogether if it hadn't been for the pioneering vision of the Marquess of Bute, one of the figures who led efforts to restore and preserve many of the city's historic buildings.
In 1939 the building was acquired by the Canongate Kirk, who installed the minister of the church in the property as his official manse. Rev. Ronald Selby-Wright spent forty years ministering to the community in the Canongate area, and lived at Acheson House during the early years of his tenure.
In his autobiography, Another Home, Selby-Wright describes one evening hearing footsteps crossing the wooden floor of Acheson House, opening the heavy wooden door, and passing out across the courtyard and into Bakehouse Close. When he went to investigate, to see who had been leaving the property, he found the front door firmly bolted closed, and no evidence of anyone having been in the hallway.
He experienced this same phenomenon several times during his occupation of the building, and a colleague who stayed in the property described a similar experience - footsteps, the door opening and closing, but then discovering the door firmly locked...
From 1951 to the early 1990s Acheson House was a craft centre, hosting a variety of Scottish craftsmen and women, before the building fell into disuse and lay empty for twenty years. Again it seemed as though the building might fall victim to neglect and disuse until a major renovation was funded in 2011.
Acheson House once again had occupants! Today the building remains the offices of Edinburgh World Heritage, the charitable body who work alongside UNESCO to help preserve and protect the city's historic structures.
Still occupied after nearly 400 years, Acheson House has survived some of the most disruptive, damaging and difficult periods of Edinburgh's history, and today stands as a monument to the value of preserving the city's built heritage.
As we crawl ever closer to Christmas, check out my virtual Edinburgh advent calendar - each day I will 'open' another doorway that can be found around the city, and share some of the secrets of the Old and New Towns!
You can view the interactive map - with links to the FB posts for each of the daily doors - below...
And of course you can join me on an actual tour of the city to explore some of these doorways in much more detail!
Edinburgh Expert Walking Tours is run by Gareth, an adopted native of Edinburgh, with over 20 years experience of living and working in the city...
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