EDINBURGH EXPERT WALKING TOURS - BLOG
EDINBURGH EXPERT WALKING TOURS - BLOG
Most visitors to Edinburgh come to grasp the notion of its divided identity pretty quickly - the city is split into an Old Town and a New Town area, two contrasting sectors, each with their own history and style. And other visitors become intrigued by the concept of Edinburgh's 'underground' city, a slight misnomer for the above/below divide of the city's development.
But what is less apparent to visitors (and even many locals) is the way that Edinburgh is made up of an accumulation of former towns and settlements across the landscape which have been amalgamated into the city as it grew and expanded. Here's a quick introduction to some of the lost and hidden formerly separate towns which today make up the city of Edinburgh...
First and foremost, probably the most apparent conjunction between an independent town and Edinburgh. Leith grew up around the port on the coast to the north-east of Edinburgh, and although the port was a major feature in Edinburgh's existence it wasn't formerly brought within the city itself until 1920, when nearly 90% of the respondents to a referendum voted in opposition to joining Edinburgh - before the two districts forcibly brought together anyway! Many of those who live and work in Leith still identify as 'Leithers', and the area retains a quite distinct sense of identity and function from the city of Edinburgh itself.
One town which was thoroughly wiped off the map (and the landscape) was the village of Calton, in the valley to the north of the city, nestled between the ridge of the Royal Mile and Calton Hill. This town was on the main route into Edinburgh from the port of Leith, the site of the Trinity College Church, founded in the 1460s, and one of the original locations of the royal botanical gardens.
In the 1840s, Calton was sacrificed to the march of progress as the railways came to Edinburgh, when the village was demolished in order to create land for building the North British Railway Station - today it's Waverley, the city's main railway station.
Up until the sixteenth century, New Bygging was a small settlement just beyond Edinburgh's city wall, but on one of the main routes into the city from the west. It was also a convenient place where Edinburgh held its markets, offering a flat, open patch of land that wasn't available within the city itself.
Following the Battle of Flodden in 1513, as Edinburgh sought to more effectively fortify itself against the prospect of an English invasion, an extension to the existing city wall was planned, which would bring New Bygging within the provision of Edinburgh for the first time. The area today is the Grassmarket, one of the city's most popular social hubs - but for much of its history would have operated as a separate town outwith Edinburgh itself.
Another former town beyond the walls of the city, Canongate was the name for the town on the main road out of Edinburgh to the east, the lower end of the stretch of street known today as the Royal Mile. This section of the Mile is still called Canongate, but the town remained distinct from Edinburgh itself - just a few hundred yards from the city gates - until 1856.
The name, incidentally, doesn't refer to any weaponry or cannons, but describes one of the positions in the church, the canons of Holyrood Abbey, who would have made their way along this route to get up to St Giles' Cathedral. Hence the area became known as the walk - or 'gait' - of the canons. It has long since been corrupted to Canongate.
Another church connection, the 12th-century mill town down the hill to the north of the city was also associated with the abbey at Holyrood. When the city's guild of baxters (bakers, and specifically breadmakers) was established they were compelled to have their flour supplied from these mills, thereby guaranteeing support and maintenance of the church-associated properties.
Only a part of one of the original mill buildings survives in this area, but a small piece of stonework marking the Baxter's Land and dated 1686 was discovered during developments in the 1960s, and is preserved in the buildings of the petrol forecourt at the Canonmills junction.
A bustling and thriving suburb of Edinburgh today was originally a town which grew up around the original wooden bridge - the stock bridge - which provided access over the Water of Leith and up into the city itself.
Today the area is a local haven for shops and cafes, with a regular farmers' market, just a short stroll from the heart of the New Town.
A fascinating contrast with nearby Stockbridge, the Dean Village was another town on a route into the city, on a bridge across the steep valley worn away by the Water of Leith, transformed in this area into a power supply for a string of mills along its banks. The area was another main supplier of flour and milled products for the city, thriving on the through-traffic forced through the area by the access road into Edinburgh.
After the 1830s, developments to the New Town led to the building of a major bridge across the valley, cutting the Dean Village off the main traffic route, and the area went into terminal decline as businesses (and residents) moved away. Today the Dean Village is a remarkable little rural haven almost in the heart of the city, and offers an alternative image of Edinburgh from the tourist heartland that most visitors see.
Take a New Town tour or explore some of these hidden towns of Edinburgh with my private city walking tours!
For a long time the only features to be found on the slopes of Calton Hill were the old Bridewell prison (later the Calton Jail, where St Andrews House stands today) and the Old Calton Burial Ground, a graveyard overlooking the medieval city. But as the New Town project expanded and developed in the late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-centuries, the land on this exposed ridge of rock was bought up for the development of grand private housing; Royal Terrace and Regent Terrace were among the development of properties in the early 1800s.
The developers of these grand houses were aware, however, that there was no ready access from these properties to the centre of the city - the only access was a circuitous route around the northern side of Calton Hill, joining onto the main road into the city from the port of Leith and into the New Town from there. This was not an especially convenient arrangement for the high status families who were being enticed to come and live in these exclusive properties.
So an application was made to construct a major access road across the steep ravine to the west of Calton Hill, to connect straight onto Princes Street and the heart of the New Town. The only obstacle to the development was the Calton Burial Ground, which occupied the hillside on this side of the rock.
Permission was granted to construct a roadway through the land where the graveyard sat, with provision made for the developers to exhume all the bodies in the strip of land where the road would run, leaving the graveyard intact on either side of the new access way. These bodies, exhumed in the name of progress, were to be granted reburial in a new burial ground, to be located on the south-eastern side of Calton Hill.
And thus in 1817 the New Calton Burial Ground was established, a forerunner to the popular Victorian style of graveyards which would later flourish as gardens for people to spend leisure time rather than sombre spaces of mourning and solitude.
Approximately 300 exhumed bodies were reburied a few hundred yards from their original resting place, and for three years no new burials were permitted. In 1821 the burial ground was opened for new burials, and remained in use until closed in the 1870s.
Notable burials in the graveyard include the family plot of the Stevenson family, known as the Lighthouse Stevensons, an dynasty of engineers who constructed lighthouses around the coasts of Scotland, and whose offspring Robert Louis Stevenson is still considered one of Scotland's greatest literary figures.
I am also fond of pointing out the grave of an English doctor who was unfortunately drowned in the Firth of Forth - the body of water to the north of the city - but who even more unfortunately went into eternity with a spelling mistake on his tomb... The stone describes him as being drowned 'in the Frith of Forth'!
In one corner of the graveyard is a watchtower, built in the 1820s, to help guard against the epidemic of bodysnatching which had become a major problem in the city - freshly buried corpses were covertly dug up and sold to the University of Edinburgh's medical school for dissection, and providing armed guards to the burial grounds was just one strategy developed to prevent such things.
In recent years the graveyard has been developed and maintained to attract visitors, and amusingly dubbed 'tombs with a view' because of the graveyard's picturesque views across to Holyrood Palace and Arthur's Seat.
Explore more of Edinburgh's graveyards with my private city walking tours!
In a recent survey of all the major cities in Britain, Edinburgh came out on top with the highest percentage of green space of any other city in the UK - 49% of Edinburgh's city centre is covered by parks and gardens, the majority of them open and accessible to the public.
Here's my top picks of the city's open areas that you may want to visit while you're here!
The largest of the city's parks is also a royal parkland, owned by the monarch and also known as either the King's Park or Queen's Park. Access to Holyrood Park can be gained from a variety of places around its perimeter, but for most visitors the obvious entry point is from the bottom of Royal Mile, across from the Scottish Parliament building and adjacent to Holyrood Palace itself.
The park offers a variety of paths across and through it, and it remains an incredibly popular spot for visitors and locals alike. The eastern side of the park provides a route down to the village of Duddingston, a picturesque village with the oldest church in the east of Scotland, and what is reputed to be the oldest surviving pub in the whole of Scotland, the Sheep Heid.
For those who don't want to climb to the summit of Arthur's Seat, in the centre of the park, the Queen's Drive offers a picturesque route to walk, cycle or drive through the park, with space to stop alongside St Margaret's Loch, a small artificial lake that is home to local ducks, swans and geese.
To the south of the Royal Mile, this low lying area was formerly a swampy marshland, which provided not just a defensive function to the city, but was also a water supply known as the Burgh Loch. In the eighteenth century the land was drained in order to create communal parkland where sheep would graze, and into the Victorian period it became an especially popular piece of land for locals, with its paths lined with cherry trees, and its wide expanses of flat land.
Today the Meadows remains popular with locals, especially during the summer when its proximity to the university district makes it a haven for students gathering to soak up the sunshine, or to enjoy a barbecue. It is also the site of venues during the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, hosting circus events in a number of big tops erected on the grass.
At the eastern end of the park is a children's play area, with tennis courts nearby.
PRINCES STREET GARDENS
Originally built as private gardens for the wealthy citizens living in the grand New Town housing along Princes Street, the gardens here are today public, and remain popular with visitors and locals alike. With glorious views of the castle at the western end, and overlooked by the National Galleries of Scotland towards the east, the gardens are the dividing line between the Old and New Towns, and give a spectacular sense of the city's growth in the eighteenth century, as the city grew from the medieval city on the rock to the luxurious developments to the north.
Look out for the floral clock, planted every summer since 1903, near the entrance into the western gardens from the Mound, and the newly restored Ross Memorial Fountain at the base of the castle rock itself. On the eastern side of the Mound, the iconic Scott Monument gives you a more elevated sense of the city.
The gardens are also home to a significant number of statues and memorials - look out for Wojtek the bear, a memorial to Robert Louis Stevenson, and a statue of the explorer and missionary David Livingstone, among others. During the summer you may be able to enjoy live music from the bandstand in the centre of the park itself.
DUNBAR'S CLOSE GARDEN
A true hidden gem, which even many locals don't know about, is this small public garden space tucked away down one of the Old Town lanes near the Canongate Kirk.
The lanes originally provided access to the luxurious garden spaces built behind the grander housing that lined the bottom end of the Royal Mile, and Dunbar's Close Garden was created in the 1970s as a recreation of what these original garden spaces might have looked like.
A gravel path leads you through exquisitely planted sections with aromatic flowers and bushes - a key tool in the Old Town's battle with filth and unpleasant smells - with benches for visitors to sit and enjoy the peace and quiet. A small lawn at the bottom of the pathway attracts families looking for a picnic site in the heart of the city, and it's possible to forget for a moment or two that you're right in the midst of this bustling town.
Explore more of Edinburgh's parks and gardens with my private city walking tours!
Edinburgh as it is seen today has been shaped over its history by a wide variety of figures and influencers who have left their mark. People like Queen Victoria and Prince Albert made physical changes to the city itself; architects like William Playfair and Robert Adam created the style that can still be seen across the Old and New Towns; and cultural figures like Walter Scott helped to promote the city to start the visitor industry which thrives today.
Another figure to list alongside these local heroes is William Chambers, who was Lord Provost (city mayor) between 1865 and 1869, to whom the city owes a tremendous debt - here are five major effects that Chambers should be remembered for...
Edinburgh's Improvement Acts
Starting in the 1860s, Edinburgh's Old Town underwent a huge program of redevelopment, as the medieval-style structures along the lanes of the Royal Mile were proactively demolished and rebuilt to upgrade and modernise the city's poor quality housing. William Chambers was the man who led the efforts, pushing through a series of laws which made provision for the systematic improvement of the Old Town, widening the narrow closes and improving the standard of living for the thousands of people who lived there.
St Mary's Street, stretching from the World's End junction of the Royal Mile, was formerly a narrower lane called St Mary's Wynd, and the houses at the northern end of the street were the first properties built as part of Chambers's improvements. The majority of the Old Town as it stands today dates back to this period of 1860s - 1880s, and without this wholesale effort to rejuvenate the city it's doubtful that Edinburgh would have survived as well as it has.
As part of this city-wide improvement, one major thoroughfare was created which bears William Chambers's name - Chambers Street runs between George IV Bridge and South Bridge, and was previously a narrow road called College Street.
The road ran alongside the Old College of the University of Edinburgh (as it still does), but under Chambers's improvement program College Street was widened and new buildings commissioned along its length on both sides.
Today most of the buildings on the northern side of the street are associated with the University of Edinburgh (as well as Old College on the southern side) but the biggest development on the street is the National Museum of Scotland, which takes up two-thirds of the whole block.
The foundation stone for the museum was laid in October 1861 by Prince Albert, his last public act before his death in December of that year. The modern wing of the museum opened in 1998. A statue of William Chambers himself stands outside the museum.
St Giles' Cathedral Renovation
William Chambers was also responsible for supporting a major renovation of St Giles' Cathedral in the 1870s. The removal of old buildings earlier in the century had cleared space around the cathedral, and it had become apparent that the building - 700 years old at that point - was in a very poor state of repair.
Internally, too, the church had previously become cluttered, the space having been previously subdivided to house four separate churches under one roof. William Chambers financed a major renovation to create, in his words, a 'Westminster Abbey for Scotland'. The outside walls were cleaned and repaired, and the church tidied up on the inside, to create one major internal space for the first time since the 1630s.
A memorial to William Chambers can still be found inside the church itself.
Chambers English Dictionary
Chambers's profession had been a publisher and bookseller, with a shop on Broughton Street in the New Town. Along with his brother Robert he established a publishing house, and in the 1870s they first published their Chambers English Dictionary - the book remains in print, although modern editions have only been published in digital format. The thirteenth edition of the Chambers Dictionary was published in 2014.
In its early days the dictionary was notable for its accessible and wryly constructed definitions of words, such as describing an eclair as "a cake, long in shape but short in duration"...! Until 2005 Chambers Dictionary was used by the international Scrabble organisation, to provide the words recognised in their Official Scrabble Words dictionary.
Probably the most enduring gift that William Chambers gave to Edinburgh is one of its most popular local myths. In 1867, at a time when stray dogs in the city were liable to find themselves rounded up and drowned in the Water of Leith, Chambers bought a licence for one stray dog who had started to garner attention from visitors to Greyfriars Kirkyard.
The story of a former nightwatchman's dog sleeping on his master's grave was appealing to visitors even at that time, and William Chambers realised that, alongside the improvements to the city, Bobby could offer a valuable boost to the city's visitor profile. The licence he bought had no time limit - it would last in perpetuity - and thus the legend of Greyfriars Bobby was born!
Bobby would reputedly spend 14 years sleeping on his master's grave, and visitors can still view the licence, collar and bowl that William Chambers bought for Bobby in the Museum of Edinburgh, on the Canongate section of the Royal Mile. Bobby's grave and statue remain popular highlights for visitors even today.
Find out more about other local heroes with my private Edinburgh walking tours!
One of the most common enquiries I get from visitors planning a trip to Edinburgh relates to the Old Town's reputation for having an underground or hidden city beneath the surface of the streets.
There is a degree of truth to this, although it's worth noting that, in the spirit of attracting tourists, the 'underground' features of Edinburgh are not always quite what they might seem.
Built on a dense rib of volcanic rock, the practicalities of digging deep into the landscape was a problem for even very early settlers - Edinburgh Castle's great weakness was its lack of water supply, with only a relatively shallow well dug into its rock to hold rainwater. So the imagery of an underground city beneath the streets is somewhat inaccurate - as are the descriptions of catacombs or tunnels beneath the Royal Mile.
But here are three 'underground' features in the city that may be worth exploring.
MARY KING'S CLOSE
Streaming off the Royal Mile down the steep landscape on either side are a series of narrow lanes, the 'closes' or 'wynds' of the medieval city. Mary King's Close was one such lane, that was originally open to the sky with towering blocks of tenement housing rising up on either side of the street. Edinburgh was a vertical city rather than a horizontal one for much of its history, resulting in densely packed structures reaching up to 12 storeys high in places.
During the eighteenth century, plans were drawn up for a Royal Exchange, an area of trade offices and business premises in the heart of the Old Town. Unfortunately, as throughout its history, there was little open land available for development, and so the decision was made to partially demolish the buildings along the line of Mary King's Close, to reduce the structures to the level of the Royal Mile. Having taken the tops off the houses, the Royal Exchange building (today the City Chambers) was built over the structures that survived on the hillside below the level of the High Street.
Mary King's Close thus became 'underground', concealed beneath the newer building, and the street remains there today, cobbled and running down between two lines of structures, where costumed guides will lead you through the buildings to give you an atmospheric sense of Edinburgh's past.
The only genuinely 'underground' attraction in the city is located a little further from the city centre. Beneath the major junction of Gilmerton crossroads is a network of tunnels carved out of the sandstone of the area, and they remain one of the city's genuine mysteries - local historians can't agree on when the tunnels were created, by whom, for what purpose, or even how extensive they are.
Some people suggest they date back to Roman or even pre-historic times, while others suggest they were created much more recently, in the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries. The scale of the network makes it unlikely one single person was responsible for them, but there's no record or evidence of an organised period of construction and development.
Chambers with what seem to be seating or tables surfaces have been carved from the stone, and narrow tunnels connects them together, accessible only through a small flight of stairs taking you beneath the modern building visible at street level.
This is my most highly recommended 'hidden gem' of Edinburgh - take a brief tour with one of the local historians to find out some of the theories and ideas about the tunnels, and then take a torch and a hard hat to explore them further on your own, at your leisure... if you dare!
SOUTH BRIDGE VAULTS
Running over the glacial valley to the south of Royal Mile are two elevated roadways, South Bridge and George IV Bridge, built to improve access into the city in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Both bridges run on a series of arches over the landscape, concealed by the buildings constructed alongside each of them, and these vaulted spaces beneath the roadways are still there, and many remain accessible.
George IV Bridge hosts a major festival venue called Underbelly during the summer, with performance spaces in the old arches of the bridge itself. But it is South Bridge, the older of the two developments, which is accessible year-round by visitors on ghost tours.
The bridge was built in the 1780s, and following the increase in population in the city at that time, many poorer families moved into the enclosed, subterranean arches to make their homes in these dank, dark spaces. The vaults were forgotten about following efforts in the nineteenth century to move people into better quality housing, when the spaces were closed off to prevent people moving back into them. They were only rediscovered by accident in the 1980s, and have since become popular spaces for ghost tours, nurturing a reputation for being prodigiously haunted...
Explore more of Edinburgh's above-ground history and features with my private city walking tours!
In our modern age of information overload, it's easy to forget that for the majority of the world's history we have very few reliable and accurate sources of information. Very often historians and archaeologists piece together a picture of what life was like in former times, drawing on the variety of information available, and using existing knowledge to interpret new pieces of evidence.
In a city as old as Edinburgh, there are several instances where historians are unsure about the precise details of past events, and at the heart of one of those uncertainties is St Anthony's Chapel, a ruined structure on a rocky outcrop in Holyrood Park.
Today only one section of wall and a few surviving stones are visible, but at some time in its history this would have been a fairy substantial three-storey chapel building with a tower approximately 40-feet high, which would have had an intimate ground floor space just 8-feet or so wide.
Little is known about when the chapel itself was built - it's likely that the structure was associated with the major abbey of Holyrood, just a few hundred metres away at the base of Arthur's Seat, and indeed one of the paths through the park today follows the line of a historic track which directly connected the two areas. But in the 1100s large parts of Holyrood Park were under the ownership and control of Kelso Abbey in the Scottish Borders, and it's thought that the piece of land on which St Anthony's chapel sits probably fell under their jurisdiction.
In 1426, there is a record of Pope sending money as part of a grant to support repairs to St Anthony's chapel - suggesting both that it was a significant enough structure that the pope would invest in its maintenance, and that by 1426 it was old enough to be in need of substantial repairs. (It's notable that Anthony himself only died in 1231, so the chapel may have been a very early institution established bearing his name.)
Around this time, a small hospital in the name of St Anthony was operating in Leith, specifically treating patients with skin conditions - it's possible there was some connection between that establishment and the chapel at Holyrood Park.
One theory is that the chapel, as tall as it was long, was designed as a navigation aid for pilgrims heading to Holyrood, which is set lower in what for a long time was a densely wooded valley. Perhaps St Anthony's chapel would even have been visible from as far away as the Firth of Forth, the river to the north of the city, from which direction many travellers would have made their approach to the area.
Holyrood Park itself was a major destination for visitors seeking relief in the holy wells which dotted the landscape. At one time it was thought there were as many as seven wells within the boundary of the park itself, underground springs given the names of saints, along with the reputation for healing properties. One of those wells was St Anthony's, which is one of the only two wells to survive in the park today - alas no water flows to it, but the shallow bowl can still be seen on the path beneath the chapel, and it was well known that locals would trek to this particular well on 1 May each year, to bathe in the dew and drink the water.
Other suggestions are that the chapel was a form of monastic retreat, set well away from the city (and the abbey at Holyrood) where it would be possible for monks to experience a form of solitude and isolation. There are the remains of what may have been a monastic cell or a store cupboard built into the rock just to the south of the chapel itself, and early investigations of the site uncovered a number of shallow graves in the vicinity of the structure.
More than that, nobody seems to know! Written records from before the seventeenth-century are relatively scarce, and the chapel would likely have been ruined by that time.
So for all its history and archaeological interest, Edinburgh as a city is one that still holds secrets, and new discoveries are being made fairly regularly as the city continues to grow and develop. For my part, though, I rather like that we don't know all the answers - I prefer my history to have a touch of mystery about it, too!
Explore more of what we do know about Edinburgh with my private city walking tours!
Edinburgh's city centre (and, indeed, its surrounding areas) are packed with a multitude of churches, their spires and towers rising above the surrounding buildings. But one church rises above (almost) all of them, and can be seen on the skyline from right across the city - I'd go as far as to say it's a more prominent feature than Edinburgh Castle itself!
St Giles' Cathedral is the largest of Edinburgh's Old Town churches, and sits right on the Royal Mile at the heart of the medieval city. The building is named for the patron saint of Edinburgh, St Giles, a Greek hermit who spent much of his life living in solitude in France. The church itself was established in the twelfth century, and the building has been developed and under almost continuous rebuilding until the nineteenth century.
Despite its name, St Giles is actually not technically a cathedral... In 1560, Scotland changed from being a Catholic country to a Protestant one, and part of this major social Reformation was for the church to get rid of the power structures imposed by bishops. Since a cathedral is (by definition) the seat of a bishop, and as the Church of Scotland no longer has bishops, the building at the heart of the Old Town is the High Kirk of St Giles.
It was the minister of St Giles' at that time, John Knox, who led the Reformation in Scotland, and he is commemorated with a statue in the church, as well as being buried in the former graveyard (now Parliament Square) just outside it.
At other times in its history, as the Church of Scotland underwent a number of shifts and changes, St Giles' became sub-divided and hosted no fewer than four separate churches under its roof, each with a separate congregation and preaching different interpretations of the same basic text. Today the building is reunited as a single church, and continues to be a popular venue for weddings, regular services, and live music.
The distinctive crown tower at the top of St Giles' - more properly known as a lantern tower - was added in the 1490s, and is one of only a handful of such structures in Scotland. It is this feature which can be seen above the rooftops of the city from miles around. Access to the tower for small groups is available on tours of the cathedral, giving visitors a unique perspective over the city centre.
Other highlights of the building include the Thistle Chapel, a highly decorative chapel at one corner of the building which was build in 1911. Knights of the Order of the Thistle, a chivalry honour bestowed on a maximum of 16 people at any single time and dating from the seventeenth century are celebrated here. Near the entrance to the Thistle Chapel is an original copy of the National Covenant, a document created and signed at nearby Greyfriars Kirk in 1638, demanding freedom and independence for the Church of Scotland from the monarchy.
The church also has a large stained glass window commemorating Robert Burns, Scotland's national poet, above the main entrance on the west side of the building. A variety of other figures from Edinburgh's history have memorials inside the church, including the author Robert Louis Stevenson, medical pioneers Elsie Inglis and James Young Simpson, and warring nobles Argyll and Montrose.
Access to visit the church is free, but with donations requested.
Explore more of Edinburgh's history with my private walking tours of the city!
Edinburgh Expert Walking Tours is run by Gareth Davies, an adopted native of Edinburgh since 1998...