EDINBURGH EXPERT WALKING TOURS - BLOG
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!
As the world's first UNESCO City of Literature, Edinburgh is renowned for its literary influences and connections. Chief among the figures frequently celebrated is Robert Louis Stevenson, who was born in the city on 13 November 1850.
Stevenson is still widely read with works such as Treasure Island, Kidnapped, and one story that has a particular connection to Edinburgh itself, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.
To mark 170 years of Stevenson's influence and legacy in Edinburgh, here are eight locations in the city associated with this literary giant.
17 Heriot Row
The Stevensons moved to this grand address in Edinburgh's New Town when Robert Louis Stevenson was six years old, and he spent the bulk of his childhood at this address.
As a child he was prone to illness, especially problems with his lungs and his breathing, and so was rarely allowed to go out into the damp Scottish climate to play with the other children of the neighbourhood.
Directly across the road from the house is Queen Street Gardens, a private garden space, where Stevenson would watch the other children playing, from the safety of the drawing room on the first floor of the house.
In these gardens is a pond, with a small island in the centre of it. Literary historians have speculated that it was from watching the children playing around this pond and its island that Stevenson came up with the ideas of what became Treasure Island.
During the summers of the late 1870s, Stevenson spent much of his time in this picturesque village on the side of the Pentland Hills, to the south of Edinburgh.
His father had rented one of the properties, and Stevenson used the village as the inspiration for his unfinished novel St Ives, which he wrote in parallel with The Weir of Hermiston, which he did manage to complete.
Today the village of Swanston is still a rural retreat from the city of Edinburgh itself, with access to the hills, and remains popular with dog walkers and ramblers.
Another local setting which Stevenson borrowed for his writing was one of the many hills which make up Edinburgh's landscape. Corstorphine is to the west of the city, towards Edinburgh airport, and features in Kidnapped, Stevenson's adventure story set in the aftermath of the 1745 Jacobite Uprising.
The book ends with the two main characters form the story - David Balfour and Alan Breck Stewart - going their separate ways on Corstorphine Hill. Today a statue of the figures by the artist Alexander Stoddart can be found on Corstorphine Road, near the location where the scene from the book is set.
Princes Street Gardens
Stevenson spent the latter years of his life on an island in Samoa, in the Pacific Ocean. He integrated into the community there, who named him 'Tusitala', meaning 'Teller of tales', and on his death in 1894 he was buried in a spot overlooking the ocean, a reminder of his time as a traveller, journeying in the way many of his characters did in their respective stories.
So he has no formal grave in Edinburgh, his hometown. Instead, in Princes Street Gardens, surrounded by a glade of birch trees, is a simple commemorative headstone bearing his initials, RLS.
The Writers' Museum
One place where Stevenson is celebrated fully is in Edinburgh's Writers' Museum, a small building celebrating the life and work of three of Scotland's greatest literary figures - Sir Walter Scott, Robert Burns, along with Robert Louis Stevenson.
The museum can be found on Lady Stair's Close, off the Lawnmarket on the Royal Mile. It's a free entry museum and is worth exploring for anyone interested in the lives of the writers featured.
Stevenson was known for living the lifestyle of a nineteenth-century writer, which meant (broadly) significant amounts of drink, drugs, and a fondness for prostitutes... One of the bars in which he drank still survives, and is today an Italian restaurant in the Old Town.
The Hispaniola was a bar popular with writers, poets and figures associated with the University of Edinburgh, and Stevenson is known to have spent time here with figures like William Henley, a writer and poet who had a large red beard and only one leg, the other having been amputated after a childhood illness...
The Hispaniola bar helped give Stevenson the name for the ship in Treasure Island, and surely a one-legged bearded man must have inspired that story's notorious pirate, Long John Silver?
Another suburb of the city where Stevenson spent time was Colinton, a small village near to Swanston where he spent time during his childhood. Stevenson's grandfather was minister of the church in Colinton, and the area provided young Robert with plenty of space to roam and explore and develop his interest in the natural world.
Today Colinton remains a peaceful residential suburb of Edinburgh, with the Water of Leith running through the area, and visitors can find a small statue of a boy playing with his dog, near to a heritage and nature trail. The boy in the statue is Robert Louis Stevenson, and his dog is Coolin, Stevenson's own childhood pet.
My final Edinburgh location which has a Stevenson connection is Chessel's Court in the Old Town, just off the Canongate section of the Royal Mile.
It was here in 1787 that a robbery took place, masterminded by Deacon William Brodie, the man whose life would help to inspire Stevenson's most enduring (and influential) character study - that of the duality of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde...
Explore more of Edinburgh's literary associations with my private city walking tours!
On 8 November 1736, Scotland's first theatre formally opened, on Carrubber's Close in Edinburgh's Old Town. It had been established by the poet and librarian Allan Ramsay, at what he described as "great expense", for the purpose of staging entertainments and performances for a local audience.
The life of the theatre was shortlived, as by the following year the venue on Carrubber's Close had closed, forced out of business as a result of campaigning and opposition from religious leaders in the city.
For a long time, the performing arts were closely linked with issues of vice and depravity, had sinful associations with excess and debauchery, and attracted a dubious clientele. Many influential figures decried the harmful, degenerate influence that theatres had on their communities, and it's no surprise that Ramsay's venture was forced out of business so speedily.
Of course, the closure of the theatre on Carrubber's Close wasn't the end of the performing arts in Edinburgh, and today the city boasts the world's largest arts festival every summer - and at a time when many arts venues and artists are experiencing the devastating effects of the pandemic lockdown, here's my celebration of some of Edinburgh other important theatres, past and present.
OLD PLAYHOUSE CLOSE
A decade after Allan Ramsay's theatre closed, another playhouse was established in Edinburgh's Old Town, just a short way further down the Royal Mile.
Crucially, this venue was outside of Edinburgh at the time, in a town called Canongate which lay just beyond the original city walls.
In the 1750s, this was the venue for a famous production by John Home called Douglas, a romantic tragedy set in the Scottish Highlands. At its first performance it was received with such enthusiasm and positivity, a cry of "Whaur's yer Wullie Shakespeare noo?" was heard in the crowd at the curtain call.
Home was a church minister at the time, and the outcry at his association with the dreaded performing arts forced his resignation from the church.
Douglas was restaged in London in 1757, where it was well received by a non-domestic audience, and was followed with several other classical-themed plays. Home later became an MP for Edinburgh, and died in 1808.
The theatre on Playhouse Close closed in 1769.
Another long-gone theatre in Edinburgh was the Theatre Royal, which stood on a square named Shakespeare Square, between 1769 and 1859. Shakespeare Square was at the east end of Princes Street in the New Town, near the junction with North Bridge, where the former General Post Office building stands today.
The foundation stone for the theatre was laid by Prince Albert, Queen Victoria's prince consort in 1863, on the same day he laid the foundation stone for what is today the National Museum of Scotland, on Chambers Street.
When the venue closed after 90 years, the title of Theatre Royal was then passed to a second building, previously known as the Queen's Theatre and Operetta House, on nearby Broughton Street.
This theatre was immediately adjacent to St Mary's Cathedral, where the John Lewis department store stands today, and seemed curiously vulnerable to fire - it was destroyed by fire and rebuilt no fewer than three times, before being demolished after catching fire for the last time in 1946.
ROYAL LYCEUM THEATRE
One of the most popular local theatres in the city is the Royal Lyceum, which opened in 1883.
A classic proscenium arch theatre, the auditorium here is one of the most beautiful of all the theatres across Scotland.
The theatre has a permanent creative company dedicated to producing live theatre created in Edinburgh, attracting actors, designers and directors from all around the world.
Casts here have included performers like Sam Heughan (Outlander), David Tennant (Doctor Who) and Brian Cox (the original Hannibal Lektor in Manhunter), and designers including Olivier and Tony-award winning Bunny Christie.
The Lyceum is especially renowned for its work attracting younger audiences, including an annual Christmas show and its year-round Youth Theatre program.
Another classic proscenium arch theatre, the foundation of the red sandstone building of the King's Theatre was laid in 1906 by Andrew Carnegie, at one time the richest man in America.
The King's was part of the traditional music hall circuit of the early- to mid-twentieth century. This was a key part of the theatre tradition in the UK, where comedians, singers, dancers and novelty acts would travel the country performing at venues. Scottish comedians like Rikki Fulton, Stanley Baxter, and Jimmy Logan all starred at the King's theatre in their careers.
More recently, the King's has become one of the city's receiving houses, hosting touring productions for a week at a time throughout the year. A major renovation in 2013 saw improved access to what had become a challenging building for audiences to get into, and further development is planned for the near future.
A beautiful mural on the decorative ceiling rose was painted by the artist and playwright John Byrne.
EDINBURGH FESTIVAL THEATRE
The Festival Theatre is the second largest auditorium in the city, and the longest established theatre site, having had a venue on it since 1830.
The former Empire Theatre was later turned into a cinema and bingo hall, before returning to use as a theatre in 1994.
In 1911 the Empire Theatre was the site of a devastating stage fire which broke out during a performance by a magician named the Great Lafayette, during which 11 people were killed - including the magician himself, his illusion body double, and a lion featured in his act.
In the aftermath of this fire, a new UK law was introduced which required a fire curtain to be installed in all theatres, and which was required to be proven to be functional at every performance. This resulted in the practice of raising and lowering a fire curtain or safety curtain during every live theatre performance to this day.
Today the Festival Theatre is a venue for large scale touring productions, including international ballet and opera companies, and West End musicals during their UK tours.
The Traverse is one of the city's most important creative spaces, being dedicated to new writing. Originally established in 1963 by a group of people including John Calder - who was Samuel Beckett's publisher in the UK - and Richard Demarco, who remains an important and active artist and writer in Edinburgh.
The original theatre space was located on a lane off the Lawnmarket before moving to a more formal location in the Grassmarket, until it moved to the modern development from which it still operates today in 1992.
The Traverse become a major hub during the annual Edinburgh Festival Fringe, and is well regarded as a venue that nurtures and develops the work of new Scottish writers.
The Edinburgh Playhouse is the largest theatre venue in the UK by number of seats, with room for just over 3,000 audience members at every performance.
The building opened in 1929 as a cinema, and today operates as a receiving house for large scale touring productions of West End musicals, international opera and ballet companies, and stand-up comedy.
Explore more of Edinburgh's theatres and arts venues with my private city walking tours!
Robert Stodart Lorimer was born in Edinburgh on 4 November 1864.
His name isn't as well known as some of the architects like Robert Adam or William Playfair, but Lorimer was active across the UK and further afield during the early twentieth century, and found a reliable supply of work after the First World War as a designer of graves, monuments and war memorials. He also worked extensively in domestic settings, creating not the grand public buildings of better known architects, but contributing to his clients' domestic experience instead.
He was a notoriously frugal figure who never had more than four people working in his architecture practice, and resented having to buy coal to heat the offices during the winter months. He could also be a difficult man to work with, and lost several commissions because of his lack of tact or his insistence on features and elements that his clients didn't like.
One of his chief draughtsmen once commented that Lorimer was "terrible with clients", and remembered that during one argument with a client was heard to say, "'This house will be remembered because I designed it, not because you paid for it"...!
But some of Lorimer's greatest works were public buildings and features in Edinburgh. Here are some highlights.
This octagonal feature on the south-east corner of the building is filled with incredibly ornate decoration, with every surface covered in carved wooden panels with the crests of major Scottish figures around the space. It is in the Thistle Chapel that the Queen awards the chivalric title of Order of the Thistle, a historic royal honour dating back to the seventeenth century.
It's a small space, and not always open to the public (which is why I don't have photos of it!) but is worth visiting if you can get access during a visit - it is in the Thistle Chapel that you'll find the famous carving of an angel playing bagpipes! See if you can spot it amongst all the other decorations and carvings.
King Robert the Bruce and William Wallace stand on either side of the drawbridge entrance into the castle, cast by the sculptor Alexander Carrick.
But it's inside the castle itself that Lorimer's greatest work is visited by thousands of visitors a year...
Lorimer utilised a part of an existing barracks block on the site at the top of Edinburgh Castle for his plans, which today are a quiet and peaceful place of reverence and respect.
Rolls of the names of the dead are kept in books for visitors to trace family and loved ones, and even in the middle of the summer when the castle is at its busiest, the Scottish National War Memorial remains a place of remembrance.
Another of the University of Edinburgh campuses is King's Buildings, a collection of science and technology departments a little way from the city centre. Lorimer's architectural firm, which he ran with John Fraser Matthew, was responsible for several of the buildings on the site, including the building which originally housed the university's zoology department
Lorimer died in 1929, so it's likely that the bulk of the zoology building from 1928 was designed and overseen by Matthew, but it's an intriguing structure that always catches my eye on my frequent trips past it to do my weekly supermarket shop...
Find out more about some of Edinburgh's other architects and designers on my private city walking tours!
With the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic set to become the defining global event of 2020, it is perhaps an apposite time to reflect on previous times when illness and death stalked the streets of Edinburgh.
Between the fourteenth century and the seventeenth century the city was struck by bubonic plague - the Black Death as it became known - at frighteningly regular intervals. On most occasions the disease was eradicated in the city within a matter of months, but there was one period of over 16 years when the illness became endemic and circulated within the community pretty constantly.
And beyond the plague, other illnesses such as smallpox, typhus and tuberculosis circulated fairly freely before the age of effective medical intervention. But here are ten instances of Edinburgh dealing with a pretty persistent pestilence...
The first recorded instance of plague to affect Edinburgh occurred nearly 700 years ago, having spread around the globe via the shipping and trade routes which had begun to link what had previously been disparate continents and countries. Nations bordering the Mediterranean Sea had recorded a wave of deaths occurring very rapidly - often within two or three days after infection - and a year later such deaths were being recorded in Edinburgh itself.
It is thought that around two-thirds of the city's population (of around 10,00 people) died in this first round of illness.
A second wave of plague hits Edinburgh, this time killing around one-third of the population - and unlike the first infection, this time it is predominantly wealthier and higher status figures who are affected, perhaps because of their direct connection to infected imported goods and people bringing the disease into the country from overseas (not yet recognised as the route of transmission).
Throughout the fourteenth century, it's thought the plague killed approximately 20% of the population.
A wet summer and autumn is blamed for the illness, with the prevailing medical view about a balance of 'humours' in the human body - each of them being affected by environmental factors such as excessive heat or damp - still not recognising the presence of physical transmitters of the infection through viruses.
1498 - 1514
The longest period in which plague was rampant through Edinburgh, occasioning Edinburgh's city council to take actions to try to guard against infection, recognising the spread of disease in communities outside of the city and seeking to limit contact between those infected communities and Edinburgh itself.
A series of laws and city ordnances are put in place, including:
Teams of cleansers were employed by the city to clean and decontaminate properties where infection had been detected, using smoke and harsh chemicals. These people were housed separately from the rest of the community at the convent on St Mary Street, and paid as little as sixpence a day.
1529 - 1530
New cases of the plague saw even stronger measures taken to protect the city of Edinburgh.
The Burgh Muir, an extent of common land to the south of the Old Town (where Bruntsfield and Morningside are today) was designated as a kind of quarantine zone, and wooden huts were built to accommodate infected victims who would be taken out of the city and kept apart to prevent the spread of infection. Mass burials of plague victims also took place in this area, at a significant distance from the city centre.
During this time there are several recorded instances of punishments being meted out to residents of the city who had contravened the plague laws. One woman, Isobell Cattall, was both branded and banished from the city for not reporting that her daughter had been sick with the plague.
Patrick Gowanlock and his servant, Janet Cowan, were punished for harbouring outsiders in his property, with Gowanlock being banished from the city and Cowan branded on both cheeks for 'conniving' in the crime. An unnamed man was hanged for attending church whilst his wife was dying with the plague, and a woman named Katryne Heriot was drowned for bringing stolen goods into the city, and thereby bringing plague into the town.
After nearly a quarter of a century without incident, plague arrived back in Edinburgh, and the Burgh Muir was once again commissioned as a quarantine zone. The man in charge of looking after the patients dispatched here to die painful deaths was named John Forrest, and the terms of his contract stipulated that if any of the infected people released into his care should be deemed to have spread the disease to others, Forrest would be executed for dereliction of duty.
Thankfully this episode only lasted a year, and by 1575 the city was again disease-free.
A decade later, John Forrest was back in the Burgh Muir with more patients, and the area of infection was fenced off from the rest of the common moorland to prevent the mixing of infected and uninfected communities.
Beggars were forcibly removed from the city and people were instructed to isolate in their households if infection was suspected. A register was kept of such households, and food and drink was provided for them to prevent them needing to leave their homes. Anyone returning from the Burgh Muir was to remain in their homes for 15 days, on pain of death for anyone found breaking the rules.
At least two people were executed for contravening the regulations.
Another outbreak of the plague, arriving through the port of Leith from London, saw people being confined to their homes again, with 16 pence per person provided for those who were constrained from working.
So many people died during this outbreak - which lasted only four months - that Edinburgh's cemeteries were quickly at capacity, and a regulation was passed banning burials in coffins (which took up extra space in the grave).
1602 - 1607
Plague circulated intermittently through this period, with the Burgh Muir being utilised once again as a quarantine and burial zone.
1644 - 1645
The last, and worst, period of plague affecting Edinburgh came at the height of the English Civil War, and nearly three hundred years after the first recorded wave of infections. At this time the population of Edinburgh was approximately 30,000 people, with as many as 50% of them dying of plague.
This was the first time any dedicated medical and surgical support was provided to the city - prior to this treatment had focused on isolation and decontamination of property and materials after a death had occurred.
The medical treatment administered at this time was almost worse than the illness itself. The bubonic boils which formed on a victim within a day or so of becoming infected would be lanced with a red-hot instrument, allowing the filthy pus to be released, with the wound then cauterised to seal the flesh of the patient.
Generally patients would die anyway.
The doctor appointed to treat plague victims in Edinburgh in 1645 was a man named George Rae. He would go from house to house administering the treatment of lancing and cauterising the boils, and wore a heavy mask filled with sweet smelling herbs as a way of trying to avoid some of the stench of burned and poisoned flesh. He had been promised a hefty salary for his work (and his risk) treating patients, and it seems that the city authorities at that time anticipated that Rae would himself become infected with plague and die, since it transpired that they had no intention of paying the promised fee.
In the decade after the last incidence of plague in Edinburgh, Rae battled the council to get the money he had been promised, but is believed to have eventually died without receiving his dues.
One notable victim of the plague from this period was John Livingston, an apothecary or chemist who worked to treat those diagnosed with plague, and whose home had been built in 1639 at the edge of the Burgh Muir area where many plague victims were sent. He died in 1645, having contracted plague from the people he was treating.
He was buried in a tomb on his property which stands to this day and can be visited just off Chamberlain Road in Bruntsfield.
What is interesting about these events as we read them with a modern eye is the similarity in the attitudes to treatment, protection and prevention of the spread of disease. Social distancing, isolation, 10pm curfews and the closure of businesses are all features of the modern approach to tackling Covid-19, and whilst the comparisons with the plague aren't all entirely accurate (or appropriate) the similarities in our attitudes from those of 400 years ago are curious!
Explore more of Edinburgh's history with death and disease on my private city walking tours!
This article was inspired and informed by THE ELEVEN PLAGUES OF EDINBURGH by W. J. MacLennan.
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...
Search the blog archive...
© COPYRIGHT GARETH DAVIES 2014-21