EDINBURGH EXPERT WALKING TOURS - BLOG
EDINBURGH EXPERT WALKING TOURS - BLOG
One of the paradoxes of Edinburgh's historic Old and New Towns is that neither is as old or as new as their name suggests... The 'New' Town dates from the 1760s, whilst the bulk of the 'Old' Town was redeveloped and rebuilt by the Victorians from the 1860s onwards.
The major inciting incident that led to the wholesale reconstruction (or destruction) of the original medieval city took place on 24 November 1861. At that time many of the structures in the city had grown to heights of eight or ten storeys on average, with some of the taller structures reaching twelve or fourteen storeys above street level. They had not been well built, having been adapted over time to accommodate increasing numbers of people, and by the nineteenth century were both dangerously overcrowded and in terrible states of repair.
A property sandwiched between Baillie Fyfe's Close and adjacent Paisley Close was one such property, reaching to seven storeys at the level of the Royal Mile itself. Local legend has it that a baker on the ground floor of the property had made efforts to install a larger oven, for which he had removed part of an internal supporting wall, and in the early weeks of November 1861 residents had reported alarming noises coming from the building as timbers and floors began to shift and twist.
Finally, in the early hours of 24 November 1861, the building lost all structural integrity, and was reduced to rubble, crushing many of its residents to death in their beds as they slept.
As rescuers rushed to the site on that freezing cold night, they managed to pull a number of survivors from the rubble and debris, along with 35 bodies of people who hadn't been lucky enough to survive the destruction. They were about to call off the search for further survivors, when they heard a young voice shouting from under the rubble:
"Heave awa' lads, ah'm no' deid yet!"
The voice belonged to a twelve-year-old boy named Joseph McIvor, and thanks to his cries he was pulled alive from the mangled rubble of Paisley Close.
Following this incident, Edinburgh's authorities realised that they couldn't allow the population to continue living in such poor quality housing that presented such a danger to their lives (and livelihoods). And so began the redevelopment of Edinburgh's Old Town.
A series of laws were passed called the Edinburgh Improvement Acts, and they made specific provisions for the city to systematically and proactively replace the old, medieval-style houses with better quality, modern tenements. The replacement building on the site of the Paisley Close on the High Street collapse features the face of Joseph McIvor above the entrance to the lane, along with the words he shouted carved in the stone above his head. The building later became known locally as Heave Awa' House.
(Actually the text on the carving is a slightly anglicised version of the Scots words McIvor would have shouted - no young boy in nineteenth century Scotland would have used a word like 'chaps'....!)
These are the majority of the buildings that you'll find across the Old Town today - a small number of the original buildings survive, but the vast majority of the city's structures along the Royal Mile date from the 1860s onwards (and most of them have handy dates to confirm their year of construction!).
As these buildings are a full century newer than the original New Town houses, those labels of 'Old' and 'New' Town seem curiously inaccurate...
Explore more of the contrasting Old and New Town architecture and history with my private Edinburgh walking tours!
The Scots are anecdotally a very thirsty nation, with a reputation for drinking (to excess, on occasion) - and one of the greatest cultural exports from Scotland is, of course, Scotch whisky, although Scottish gins have come very much to the fore in recent years, too.
One of the greatest honours that can be bestowed in Scotland is having a pub named after you, and so it's handy that the city remembers many of its former inhabitants with drinking holes, allowing me to link two popular pastimes - history and alcohol!
Here are five establishments named for former inhabitants of the city....
Notable for being the highest pub in Edinburgh (geographically speaking), the Ensign Ewart is situated near the top of the Royal Mile on the Lawnmarket.
It is named for a former solider with the Royal North British Dragoon Guards, Charles Ewart, who played a crucial role in the British victory over Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo, in 1815. Ewart seized the ceremonial eagle standard of one of the French regiments, helping to break up the cavalry forces and leading to the final defeat of Napoleon's armies.
After his death, Ewart's body was buried outside Manchester before later being exhumed and reburied on the esplanade at the front of Edinburgh Castle. The eagle standard that Ewart captured is still on display in the regimental museum of the Royal Scots inside Edinburgh Castle.
ALEXANDER GRAHAM BELL
Born on Charlotte Square in the New Town in 1847, Bell is today best known for his work inventing the telephone, for which he was granted a US patent in 1876.
Both his mother and his wife were deaf, and so his initial intention was to create a device that would enable better communication for people who were hearing impaired. He would later establish the American Telegraph and Telephone Company (which survives today as AT&T), although he is less well-known for his views on compulsory sterilisation and his membership of several high-profile eugenics organisations...
Today Bell has a branch of a Wetherspoon's pub named for him at the west end of George Street, just around the corner from the building in which he was born.
ARTHUR CONAN DOYLE
Another figure celebrated not far from his birthplace is the writer Arthur Conan Doyle, born in a building on Picardy Place in Edinburgh's New Town, which has since been demolished.
Doyle trained as a medic at the University of Edinburgh, and after relocating to London he became famed for writing the Sherlock Holmes stories, featuring the world's greatest consulting detective. Holmes was based on one of Doyle's tutors at university, although none of the stories are set in Scotland.
Edinburgh famously has more statues of dogs than it has of historical women, but one particular woman has been given a pub instead - Maggie Dickson was one of the last people to survive an execution in the city, and her pub on the Grassmarket overlooks the site where she nearly met her death in the 1720s.
Accused of murdering her newborn child, Dickson was sentenced to be hanged, and after the execution took place her body was being transported out of the city for burial in the village where she came from. Part way along that journey, the coach driver bearing her coffin had cause to stop, and in doing so discovered that Dickson wasn't 100% dead - despite having been hanged, she was able to be revived, causing a significant legal discussion to take place in the city: should the authorities seek to hang her again, to complete the botched job? Or would that be in breach of the law, since she had - technically - already been hanged, as per her sentence...?
In the end Dickson was allowed to live, but the law changed with the sentence being amended to "be hanged until dead" for subsequent executions.
Dickson allegedly lived until her early 80s, and bore another six children in the latter half of her ife.
Another convicted criminal who was not so lucky as to survive the gallows was Deacon William Brodie, a locksmith and cabinet maker with premises on the Lawnmarket.
Brodie was discovered to have been living a double life, and went on to inspire the creation of one of literature's most influential creations as the prototype for Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde...
Just in time for Halloween - or 'Samhuinn' as it was traditionally known in Scotland - here's a sequel to my earlier blog celebrating five famous burials in Edinburgh... This time I'm looking at five features common to Edinburgh graveyards...
A common device found on many old graves from the 18th- and 19th-centuries is the skull and cross bones emblem, familiar from pirate flags and tattoos. (I often lie to children and tell them these are the graves of pirate kings, which is not entirely true...!)
These decorations - of skulls, bones and skeletons, along with hourglasses and sometimes scythes - are known as memento mori, meaning 'remember you need to die'. Not 'remember you're going to die' (which is not, generally, a happy thought) but a reminder that we needed to pass from this life to move into the afterlife, and all the joys and benefits that came with it.
So contrary to some people's assumption that they are faintly sinister or intimidating - the skulls are often grinning in quite an enticing way - I think the idea is simply a recognition that these people are having a better time than we are... Some of the more elaborate figures, such as the dancing skeleton at the front of the Greyfriars Kirk, seem to be having a full-on party, and appear to suggest the afterlife may be spent in a state of inebriation!
And there is actually a connection between the skull and cross bones on these graves and those on pirate flags - as a pirate you were expected to be in service to your ship or your pirate captain until death, and so they took the same emblems to mean much the same thing - remember you need to die...
A rather unusual feature that is generally only found in Edinburgh's grave yards are these cage structures, sometimes low to the ground as in Greyfriars, but also full-height enclosures such as this one, which you'll find in the Old Calton Burial Ground.
These date from a period when the university of Edinburgh's medical school was leading the world in terms of medical research. The original arrangement of giving the bodies of hanged criminals to the medical school had become problematic when we began hanging far fewer people, and the university experienced a shortage of cadavers for their students to dissect.
Instead the university began offering cash payments for the donation of corpses, and a black market grew up with people trying to sell bodies that weren't theirs to donate - commonly acquired by digging up recently buried corpses from the grave yards.
In order to combat the bodysnatching epidemic, Edinburgh began developing strategic ways to prevent the robberies, and these mort safes - steel cages built into, under and around the grave sites - were very effective at protecting the bodies of the recently deceased. They weren't always terrible attractive, however, and so a second method devised to help protect freshly buried corpses was -
These circular, turreted structures were built into the corners of graveyards in the city, and would be manned overnight by armed guards, who would patrol the burial grounds and help to keep the recently deceased six feet under.
(Only the recently buried were at risk of being stolen, as after a week or so the bodies began to decompose to such an extent that the university wouldn't buy them - they really were only interested in what might be termed 'fresh meat'...)
The issue of protecting bodies came to an end in the 1830s, with the passing of the Anatomy Act, which made it illegal to receive a cash payment for a medical donation - bodies could still be donated, but not for a reward, and so the incentive to dig up corpses was removed, and later graves didn't get such dramatic protection.
Probably the most famous burial in the whole of Edinburgh is that of Greyfriars Bobby, the Skye terrier who became a model of duty and devotion after spending 14 years sleeping on the grave of his former owner. The reality of that story may not be as romantic as the popular versions told, but certainly there is a history of well-loved dogs in Edinburgh - notoriously the city has more statues of dogs than it has of historical women...
Nowhere is this more powerfully demonstrated, perhaps, than at Edinburgh Castle, where a specific dog cemetery was established to accommodate the bodies of military mascots.
It's not possible for visitors to get into the little cemetery area, built into the ruins of an old tower, but you can look down onto it from the top of the castle near St Margaret's Chapel. (There's also a taxidermied mascot who wasn't lucky enough to be buried here in the National War Museum within the castle itself.)
WORDS FROM THE AFTERLIFE
One of the most fantastic features of Edinburgh's burial grounds are the individual stories that can be found on many of the graves. Into the 19th century the rise of what became known as garden graveyards meant that people came to these places not just to mourn, but for more of a social purpose. Picnics would be had amongst the tombstones, and people would spend time reading the stories inscribed on the graves themselves.
Look closely at the graves and you'll find all manner of interesting elements, such as:
My favourite instruction is the postscript on one grave (in the New Calton Burial Ground) instructing:
Explore Edinburgh's graveyards in more detail with my private city walking tours!
One of the most poplar stories from my tours - and guides across the city will all tell their own version - is that of a man named William Brodie, who was a local figure who went on to inspire one of the world's most enduring and recognisable literary works.
Brodie's family had been a respectable one, living in property on the Lawnmarket section of the Royal Mile, where the lane they occupied still has their name - Brodie's Close. (Across the road from Brodie's Close you'll find a popular pub named for Brodie himself.)
Brodie's father was a carpenter and undertaker, and William Brodie himself was a deacon, and became a locksmith and cabinet maker of some renown, producing furniture for high society families - the writer Robert Louis Stevenson inherited a desk from his father which had been made by William Brodie.
But for all that his reputation was as a fine, upstanding member of society, by night Brodie had an alternative life. Having recruited three unsavoury figures from Edinburgh's underworld, Brodie embarked on a life of crime. Using his access to wealthy properties as a legitimate businessman, Brodie would take the opportunity to see what might have been worth stealing, and then make a duplicate of the key to provide his men with easy access.
Under cover of darkness his men would slip into these high-status houses, and steal the specific pieces of jewellery or property that Brodie had identified as being of particular value. If those homeowners later contracted William Brodie to come and replace their locks, it could prove a very lucrative way of doing business!
There are various explanations for why the gang attempted a much larger job than usual - gambling debts, 'one last job' and simple over-ambition are all speculated upon - but whatever the reason, this final job would end up being Brodie's downfall.
The target of the job was Edinburgh's customs house, on the Royal Mile just past the World's End. This building on Chessel's Court was where market traders making their way into the city would stop off to pay and the tax and the duty on the goods they planned to sell. Having broken in the gang escaped with just £16 in cash, and the next day two of the gang were arrested.
Brodie feared the law would catch up with him, and he fled Scotland, seeking refuge in Amsterdam in the Netherlands. Through a somewhat circuitous series of events - again the subject of speculation - the Scots police intercepted a letter that Brodie had sent back to Edinburgh, and now that they had an address for him they secured the right to go over and arrest him in Amsterdam.
After his return to Edinburgh in August 1788, Brodie faced trial for masterminding this series of robberies, and was found guilty and sentenced to be hanged. An estimated 40,000 spectators turned out to witness his execution, on 1 October 1788, at the Old Tolbooth on the Royal Mile, outside St Giles' Cathedral. He was buried in an unmarked grave at the Buccleuch Church on Guse Dub.
A number of local legends grew up from that incident:
A century later, Robert Louis Stevenson would pen one of his best known stories, drawing on the case of Deacon William Brodie, called The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. And so Brodie is often cited as the original Jekyll-and-Hyde figure, the man with two sides to his personality...
And Stevenson may have sat to write his story at a desk that Brodie himself had built!
Find out more about Brodie and other notorious figures from Edinburgh's history on my private city walking tours!
On 19 August 1561, Mary, Queen of Scots, stepped ashore from the boat that had brought her from France. She was arriving into the port of Leith, on Scotland's eastern coast, today one of the suburbs of Edinburgh. It was nine months since the death of her husband, King Francis II of France, and Mary was still just 18 years old.
Mary had been in France since the age of five, and was now returning to Scotland as its queen for the first time as an adult. During her childhood the country had been governed by a succession of men who had ruled as regents in her place, but now she was of an age to take responsibility for her country, and she was returning home under a veil of grief for both her dead husband and her mother who had died the previous summer.
Arriving back in Edinburgh as a virtual stranger - there are still many who believe she didn't even have a grasp of the language, having been raised speaking French at court in France - Mary must have been acutely aware of the challenges she faced as a young woman governing a country that was in the midst of social and religious upheaval. Mary was a devout Catholic, but in 1560 Scotland had undergone its religious Reformation, shifting to a Protestant church and making the practice of Catholic mass as criminal offence.
Mary had brought with her a substantial retinue of court staff, including four ladies-in-waiting who had been raised with her as girls from childhood. These women, Mary Seaton, Mary Beaton, Mary Carmichael and Mary Hamilton - the Four Marys, as they are known - were probably the closest link the queen had to her own country, and remained an important part of her throughout her reign. Mary had also brought a significant number of servants, courtiers, cooks, musicians, dressmakers, and other figures who had populated her life in France, and she established them in the settlement just outside Craigmillar Castle, near the modern Edinburgh Royal Infirmary. There were so many of them that the are became known - as it still is today - as Little France.
Mary's journey to Leith had taken less time than she had anticipated, and she was not as prepared for this momentous arrival as she would have liked to have been. Moreover, the coast was shrouded in haar, the thick see mist that Edinburghers are familiar with, and so Mary's first glimpse of her homeland would have been murky and obscured.
In the first week of September 1561, a grand homecoming parade was held to celebrate Mary's return, and as she processed along the length of the Royal Mile - travelling down from the castle to the palace - Mary was greeted by thousands of people who had turned out to see their queen for the first time in thirteen years.
The procession was led by the lords and nobles of Scotland, followed by 50 young men in yellow costumes and masks. Triumphal arches and ornate decorations were strung almost the length of the city, with choirs and small groups of performers creating a magnificent pageant spectacle.
Outside St Giles' Cathedral, wine was poured down the spouts of the mercat cross, a free fountain of celebratory alcohol for the people to drink, and the only small act of rebellion was the burning of a papier maché dragon outside the Netherbow Port, considered by some to be symbolic of the Pope, a mortal enemy now to the Protestant Scots.
Whilst the celebrations of that period masked deeper instability across Scotland, it's fair to say that Mary was given a truly spectacular welcoming back to her homeland. What she couldn't have foreseen, perhaps, were the many years of turbulence, bloodshed and unhappiness which would come to be the hallmark of the later years of reign.
Explore more of Edinburgh's royal history with my private city walking tours!
I don't offer Harry Potter tours of Edinburgh. Plenty of other people do. I've never even read the books or seen the films, but as my focus on Edinburgh history must also include the influence the city had on JK Rowling (who still lives in Edinburgh) I offer this brief introduction to some of the sites in the city that Potterheads may like to seek out.
As the world's first UNESCO City of Literature, Harry Potter is just one of the literary influences with connections to Edinburgh.
Just don't ask me for a Harry Potter tour as refusal often offends...!
There are four big private schools in the city, and if you stacked their buildings on top of each other, you'd probably end up with a reasonable template for what became the Hogwarts Academy in the Harry Potter books.
The most central of the schools, which a lot of visitors seek out, is George Heriot's, which can be seen on Lauriston Place or from Greyfriars Kirkyard.
This school - established as a hospital in the 1620s - not only has a Hogwarts style, it also features four houses named for various figures from Edinburgh's history, similar to the four houses of Hogwarts School.
TOM RIDDLE'S GRAVE
Actually the family grave of a man called Thomas Riddell, but why let a little misspelling get in the way of cultural exploitation...!
Along with some of the other inspirations for characters in the Harry Potter universe, Riddell's grave can be found in Greyfriar's Kirkyard - look for the muddy track, worn away by the thousands of people who trek to find it.
I can't help but wonder what Riddell and his family would make of people leaving tributes to a fictional character at their graveside.
Perhaps an inspiration for the eponymous hero of the stories, Potterrow was originally the street where Edinburgh's potteries were based, just beyond the city walls (where it was safe to have industrial premises, with the risk of fire spreading). Today the Potterrow area is heavily linked to the University of Edinburgh, which has some of its main student buildings in the city centre clustered around the area.
Another historical figure whose name was co-opted by JK Rowling, McGonagall is widely considered the world's worst poet. He famously walked to Balmoral in the Scottish Highlands, to present Queen Victoria with a poem he had written for her, only to be told the queen wouldn't see him and he should walk home again. Which he did.
Born in Dundee (where the subject of one of his best known poems, the Tay Bridge disaster, also took place) McGonagall's work remains in print, as terrible as it is. Alas he never got to enjoy the reputation he gained, and he died in poverty as an alcoholic in his rooms above the Captain's Bar on South College Street (where a plaque commemorates his death), and was buried in an unmarked grave in the Greyfriars Kirkyard. A small memorial stone for him can be found near the gateway to George Heriot's School.
This historic building on the Canongate section of the Royal Mile was formerly home to the Moray family, and today houses the Univerity of Edinburgh's teaching school. It was here that JK Rowling trained as a primary school teacher, before writing the books and saving herself the hassle of actually teaching kids.
This unremarkable-looking row of tenement houses is where JK Rowling lived when she was writing some of the early Harry Potter books. There's no formal marker of the property she lived in, but it's to the west of the city centre, towards Fountainbridge.
THE EDINBURGH AWARD
An award given annually to a local figure who has helped to boost Edinburgh's profile on the international stage, JK Rowling was given the Edinburgh Award in 2008.
You can find the gilded handprints of Rowling and other winners, including fellow writer Ian Rankin, physicist Peter Higgs, and sportsman Chris Hoy, just off the Royal Mile outside the City Chambers near St Giles' Cathedral.
THE ELEPHANT HOUSE
Self-proclaimed 'birthplace' of Harry Potter, this cafe on George IV Bridge has become a mecca for Potterheads, and you often have to step into the road to get around the crowd that gathers outside the cafe to take photographs. The cafe charges £1 for visitors to take photographs inside, assuming you aren't buying coffee or cake.
JK Rowling has endorsed a different cafe - nearby Spoon, formerly Nicolson's - as being where she spent more time scribbling the early drafts of the stories.
Friends who know such things tell me that Diagon Alley is a wizard's market (ie. not a real thing) in the Harry Potter books - and that Victoria Street in Edinburgh's Old Town was the inspiration for it.
Candlemaker Row and Cockburn Street also claim the influence, and Victoria Street is far from the only place where you'll find Harry Potter shops taking your money for branded plastic goods - but it is one of the more colourful streets of the Old Town (and quite interesting in terms of its real history too!).
Explore more of Edinburgh's other literary and cultural history with my private city walking tours!
One of the great appeals of Edinburgh's city centre is its wealth of architectural heritage. From modern wonders such as the new Scottish Parliament building, to the original high-rise structures of the Old Town, the city's shape and style varies almost from street to street.
One of the most important figures in the city's architectural history is Robert Adam, born in Kirkcaldy on 3 July 1728, to a family of designers and architects - along with his father William and brothers John and James, the Adam family would collectively produce some of the most important buildings in the UK during the eighteenth century.
Adam is best known in Edinburgh for his New Town houses, creating a visual style replicated throughout the New Town as it grew and developed, but there are structures designed by Adam right across Edinburgh.
Here are some highlights for visitors to explore...
In 1788 the University of Edinburgh planned to replace some of its older, dilapidated school buildings with a new purpose-built structure, that would better reflect its status and ambition as a university. Robert Adam was commissioned to produce an impressive double quadrangle structure to be built on a site adjacent to what was then the new South Bridge in the Old Town, and he duly produced plans for the 'New College' building.
Construction came to a halt as funding dried up, and in 1792 Adam died. Work only recommenced in 1815, when Adam's plans were passed to William Playfair, who modified the grand scheme Adam had imagined to create just one single courtyard, and was virtually completed by the early 1830s. It was only in the 1880s that the grand dome above the eastern entrance was added.
Today the building - now known as Old College, after the 1840s development of a newer New College - houses the university's law school and associated administrative offices, as well as the Talbot Rice Gallery.
The buildings around this exclusive and high-status housing area were designed by Robert Adam and Robert Reid. Collectively they are considered some of the finest surviving Georgian architecture anywhere in Europe, and the range of buildings on the northern side of the square are the most visibly interesting.
Number six Charlotte Square is the official residence of the First Minister of Scotland, and is adjacent to the Georgian House museum, a period recreation of what these extraordinary buildings would have been like as residential properties.
North Bridge was the construction built to provide access between the Old and New Towns in the 1760s, and where the bridge joined to Princes Street Adam built a substantial building that acted as a grand example of the style that New Town would become recognised for.
Register House was built as a records office to house the national archive and records of Scotland, and Adam worked on the buildings jointly with his brother James. The building was paid for with £12,000 recovered from accounts of Highland estates owned by those who had been involved in the Jacobite uprising of 1745.
After five years of construction, building work came to a halt, and the structure was left unfinished for nearly a decade until Adam modified the plans to finally have it finished in 1788.
The building continues to function as a public records office today.
DAVID HUME MAUSOLEUM
As well as grand houses and civic buildings, Adam also designed a number of monuments and memorials in Edinburgh, including the grave of his own father, in Greyfriars Kirkyard in the Old Town.
Most notable is the circular mausoleum to the philosopher David Hume, who died in 1776. Adam had been a friend of Hume's, and was commissioned after Hume's death to produce the mausoleum to house his grave.
Hume's grave stands in the Old Calton burial ground - a non-denominational graveyard for a man who was noted as an atheist in the eighteenth century.
ROYAL COLLEGE OF PHYSICIANS
Built originally as a private residence for Baron Ord, this property on Queen Street in the New Town today houses the Royal College of Physicians, and is replete with stone decorations of a staff surrounded by a curled serpent, a motif widely recognised as an emblem of the medical profession.
Other Robert Adam buildings in the city have been lost or destroyed, including the Bridewell Prison which stood on the site of St Andrew's House on the side of Calton Hill today (part of the original prison walls do survive) but many other major works by Adam survive around the rest of the UK. After his death Adam was buried at Westminster Abbey in London.
But his vision was one which influenced Edinburgh majorly during its development in the eighteenth- and early nineteenth-centuries, and he remains a significant figure in the city's history.
Explore more of Adam's architectural gems with my private Edinburgh walking tours!
Edinburgh Expert Walking Tours is run by Gareth Davies, an adopted native of Edinburgh since 1998...