Of the five major graveyards in the centre of Edinburgh, there is one which regularly gets visited on my tours as a shortcut or thoroughfare between other parts of the city, but rarely features as a site or location in its own right.
St Cuthbert's kirkyard in the New Town is on the oldest continually used site of worship in the whole city - St Cuthbert himself is believed to have settled a small chapel on this site back in the seventh century - and has a number of features and graves that are worth examining.
The church itself is where the crime writer Agatha Christie married her second husband, in 1930. Having been divorced from her first husband, Christie's second marriage was a runaway affair, with the couple eloping northwards from England to Edinburgh, where the service was conducted without friends or family, and just two strangers brought off the street to act as witnesses to the ceremony.
Christie at that time was 40, and the man she was marrying, Max Mallowan, was 26, a fourteen-year age gap which was considered scandalous by some at that time - there is some speculation that they both lied about their ages on the marriage licence in order to reduce the age difference to a more socially acceptable level. (Mallowan was an archaeologist, which led some to suggest - rather unkindly - that the reason he'd married Christie was that the older she got, the more interesting he would find her...!)
Burials at the graveyard include John Napier, the mathematician who discovered logarithms and invented a device for easily calculating large sums - and a precursor to the pocket calculator - which became known as 'Napier's Bones' because the instruments were originally carved from bone or ivory.
Napier's family home was at Merchiston, near Bruntsfield to the south of the city centre, and the estate property is today one of the campuses of Napier University, one of Edinburgh's four universities.
You can also find the grave of Jessie MacDonald, granddaughter of Flora MacDonald who helped Bonnie Prince Charlie - the Young Pretender of the Jacobite Uprisings - escape Scotland after his defeat at the Battle of Culloden in 1746.
Buried on the eastern wall of the graveyard is Henry Raeburn, one of Scotland's foremost portrait painters in the eighteenth century, whose estate property at Stockbridge gives that suburb the name of its main street, Raeburn Place.
During the late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-centuries graverobbing became a significant issue in Edinburgh's burial grounds, thanks in part to the efforts of people like William Burke and William Hare, who become notorious for selling illegally acquired corpses to the University of Edinburgh's medical school.
As part of the efforts to stem the bodysnatching epidemic, watch towers were built in several of the city's graveyards, including at St Cuthbert's. The cream-coloured sandstone structure stands adjacent to Lothian Road at the western side of the graveyard, and from here armed guards would have been able to patrol the grounds to ward off would-be grave robbers.
Today the watch tower serves as a quirky office space which is rented out to local businesses.
Also buried in the graveyards is George Meikle Kemp, the self-taught architect whose major gift to the city fo Edinburgh was the 'gothic rocket' of the Scott Monument, in Princes Street Gardens. Kemp died before the monument was completed - his body was discovered floating in the canal to the west of the city - and his son oversaw the completion of the monument. Kemp's grave can be found in the central portion of St Cuthbert's kirkyard.
You'll also find a small memorial mounted on the western side of the church building itself, bearing the initials RTM. Robert Tait Mackenzie was a Canadian doctor and artist who created the memorial known as The Call - 1914, which commemorates the Scots soldiers who were killed or injured during the First World War.
The monument itself can be found nearby in Princes Street Gardens, and Mackenzie originally wanted to be buried in front of the memorial after his death. Unfortunately, Edinburgh Council's restrictions on the use of public spaces for the disposal or interment of human remains made such a request impossible, so instead Mackenzie's heart was buried in St Cuthbert's kirkyard, with a small decorative plaque commemorating his life.
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The architecture of Edinburgh is one of the constant delights of the city - no matter how many times I walk these streets (and I've walked them A LOT!) I'm always seeing new details or new features that I never noticed before.
But there are several instances in the city of architects dying before their buildings could be finished, and even (in one notable example) of a building being abandoned before it could be completed.
So here's a brief introduction to some of Edinburgh's unfinished architectural business...
GEORGE MEIKLE KEMP
Not an especially well known name amongst Edinburgh's architectural luminaries, Kemp was a joiner and carpenter by trade, but was also a self-taught architect who created one of the city's most significant structures.
In 1836, shortly after the death of the writer Sir Walter Scott, a public competition was launched to design a monument which would adequately celebrate this incredibly popular and influential figure. The top three designs would each win a prize of 50 guineas, and one of the designs would be built.
Kemp had no formal architectural training, and although he was a gifted draughtsman and had an eye for the detail of gothic structures of the Borders abbeys and Rosslyn Chapel, which he'd seen as a child, he'd never actually attained a design qualification. He submitted an entry to the competition under a pseudonym, and was thrilled when his design was chosen as one of the three winning entries.
Edinburgh was a city full of master builders and designers at that time, and his success (despite his lack of qualification) made him an unpopular figure in the architecture community. Nevertheless his design for a monument to Walter Scott commenced construction in 1840, and quickly took the 'gothic rocket' shape by which it is popularly known today.
In 1844, as the construction was nearing completion, tragedy struck. Kemp never made it home one evening, and his body was discovered floating in the canal near Fountainbridge a few days later. Suicide was ruled out, but whether it was foul play or accident which led to his drowning was never proven.
Kemp was buried in the St Cuthbert's kirkyard, and his ten-year-old son laid the final top stone of the monument to complete its construction six months after his father's death. Kemp never saw the finished monument which stands on Princes Street today.
Remembered as the architect who created the classical style of Edinburgh's New Town, Robert Adam came from a family of architects, and was such a notable figure in the late eighteenth century that on his death in 1792 he was afforded a burial plot within Westminster Abbey in London, lying alongside historical luminaries such as Mary Queen of Scots, Isaac Newton, Charles Drawin and (more recently) Stephen Hawking.
Adam's work across Scotland and the rest of the UK was extensive, but there were two major projects in Edinburgh which were left unfinished at the time of his death.
Most notably, perhaps, was the development of the University of Edinburgh's Old College, which Adam had designed as a double quad structure housing some of the university's prime teaching spaces. Construction began in 1788, but came to a halt four years later at the time of Adam's death.
Funding at this time was also a challenge, and so the building was left unfinished for nearly thirty years, until Adam's plans were passed to a luminary of the next generation of Edinburgh architects, William Playfair. Playfair made several major modifications to the plans - reducing the double quad to a single open space, for example, which reduced the cost of the construction significantly - and oversaw the development to its completion.
Adam would never see the finished Old College building, one of the most beautiful features in the Old Town, but neither would he see the completion of the site which would perhaps have the greatest impact and influence on the city as a whole.
The New Town of Edinburgh had been growing and developing steadily since 1767, with structures built westwards along George Street in sequence. The initial houses were all designed by different architects and developers, and the patchwork effect of styles and designs came to be considered unattractive, and ill-fitting with the highly stylised plans for the city.
Adam was commissioned to design all of the buildings around Charlotte Square, the western extent of the original New Town development, to create a harmonised sense of architectural style, and his plans started development in 1791, a year before his death.
Today, the style of Adam's Charlotte Square properties is reflected and reproduced right through the New Town, being taken on by later architects and developers and creating a unified sense of classicism which marks Edinburgh's New Town as a gem of Georgian style. Alas, Adam would never see Charlotte Square completed, nor would he know how influential his style and vision would be.
Another figure associated with the New Town would also never see the finished product. James Craig was the young architect whose grid-system plan for the New Town was revolutionary in the 1760s when he proposed it - three broad streets running east-west, bisected by smaller streets running north-south. It was a vision that was clean, classical, and in complete contrast to the narrow, winding lanes of the Old Town, and created an entirely different sense of space for the city's new era of expansion.
Although he died before the New Town with finished, Craig did perhaps have some sense of its impact and importance, as he came to resent the demands upon him for commissions that replicated his early grid system, and wrote to a friend complaining of the "monotony of the straight line" that developers sought from him.
Craig died in 1795, a quarter of a century before the first phase of the New Town was completed, and was buried in what was, for a long time, an unmarked grave in the Greyfriars Kirkyard.
Playfair was the neo-classical architect of the nineteenth century who followed Robert Adam's lead in creating distinctive styles of work which continue to populate Edinburgh's city centre. Almost any building with Grecian-style columns can reliably be claimed as either built or inspired by Playfair, but there is one specific structure which remained unfinished not just during Playfair's lifetime, but right up to the modern day.
On the top of Calton Hill, overlooking both the Old and New Town areas of Edinburgh, stands a distinctive range of columns that helped to give Edinburgh one of its nicknames, 'the Athens of the north'. This structure was original intended as a full scale recreation of the Parthenon in Athens, a Grecian temple structure that would serve as a war memorial to the dead and wounded Scottish soldiers of the Napoleonic Wars.
The foundation stone for Playfair's design was laid in 1822 during the historic visit of King George IV, and fundraising efforts began to raise the estimated £42,000 that would be needed to complete the monument.
The first round of public subscriptions raised £16,000, and construction work began on the columns.
Then, the fundraising dried up, the public stopped donating, and money for the project became scarce. Various suggestions have been made for why the public lost interest in the project - partly the Napoleonic Wars were considered a dim and distant series of conflicts that the people of Scotland didn't have an immediate or visible connection to, and so their interest in commemorating them waned steadily. One other factor was the death of Walter Scott, and the subsequent fundraising for George Meikle Kemp's monument in his honour - as an immensely popular writer and social figure, it's plausible that where people had money spare to donate to a public monument, they favoured the celebration of Scott over the commemoration of the Napoleonic Wars.
Either way, a decision was made that Playfair's monument would remain unfinished, and construction stopped after the range of twelve columns which adorn the top of Calton Hill today. What was originally to be known as the National Monument is today better known as Edinburgh's Shame or Edinburgh's Disgrace, becase of the decision to leave it unfinished.
The last notable architect who never saw his work completed was the Catalan architect Enric Miralles. He was just 45 years old when he died of a brain tumor in July 2000.
The project that Miralles was working on at that time was considered to be the greatest of the buildings he designed during his career, and it can be found at the bottom end of Edinburgh's Royal Mile, opposite the Palace of Holryoodhouse.
The modern Scottish Parliament Building is a controversial structure for several reasons, but the style and vision which Miralles brought to this previously neglected area of the city is the factor which visitors continue to find challenging. The building resists easy definition or understanding, and instead is a whole collection of symbolic references to Scottish culture, history, landscape and people - it's a truly eye-opening structure which was awarded the UK's highest architectural honour, the Stirling Prize, on its completion in 2004.
The building itself evolved over its construction, which may help to account for its variety of styles and features, but the most significant influence on its development was Miralles' death, which occurred just a year into the build and before the final vision of the parliament complex had been completed on the drawing board.
The project, suddenly without its lead architect, had to be taken over by another figure - and it was to be Miralles' wife, an Italian architect named Benedetta Tagliabue. She brought her own vision to Miralles' magnum opus, and saw it through to its completion.
Today the parliament is a highlight of the city, and deserves to be seen even if its style is considered to be challenging or ugly. The inside of the building is an incredible feat of light, space and style, and is worth exploring. Whilst he avoided much of the later controversy that came with the parliament, it's a shame Miralles didn't live long enough to see his intriguing building completed.
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History as we know it is made up of seemingly small moments of drama and action which have unintentionally massive consequences.
One such example occurred in Edinburgh on 23 July 1637, when an Edinburgh woman accidentally started a war between Scotland, England and Ireland, and set in motion a chain of events which wouldn't be fully settled until nearly thirty years later...
'Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned,' as the somewhat sexist proverb has it, and Jenny Geddes was one such woman. We can't know what was going on her head as she took her seat in St Giles' Cathedral that Sunday morning in July 1637 - doubtless she couldn't possibly have known that she was on the brink of almost single-handedly bringing the British Isles to civil war, in a conflict which would shape the political and military landscape of the nation for generations to come.
In one surging moment of outrage during the service, as the historical record has it, Geddes got to her feet and picked up the small three-legged stool upon which she had been sitting. "Daur ye say Mass in ma lug?" she shouted, as she hurled the stool at the head of the minister.
It was an explosive moment of rebellion which would have wide-ranging consequences for the whole of the British Isles.
In modern English, Geddes's accusation - 'dare you say Mass in my ear?' - had its roots in events from a number of years earlier, at the Scottish coronation of King Charles I at St Giles' Cathedral in 1633. Suffering from his adherence to the belief that as monarch he was directly appointed by God, known as the 'divine right of kings', Charles had insisted on an Anglican service for his coronation.
But since the Reformation in Scotland over sixty years previously, the Church of Scotland had taken a different path from the Anglican church, and saw its role in the joining of its congregants to God in a different way. Services had been overhauled and changed from the traditional Catholic-style Mass, and a new structure had been set up within the Scottish church that removed many of the power hierarchies that that the Church of England retained.
Regardless of these major differences which had evolved, Charles I sought to impose the Anglican book of Common Prayer on the Scottish church, against the wishes of many in the Scottish church who saw this as an attempt by an English king to impose his will on a church he didn't belong to.
The first time his authorised book of Common Prayer was to be read publicly at a service in Scotland was in St Giles', on 23 July 1637, and Jenny Geddes was one of many among the congregants that morning who resented the interference of the king in their experience of religious worship. Her outcry (accompanied by a deftly aimed wooden stool) was a passionate rejection of a liturgical form that she didn't recognise or adhere to.
Certainly the scene in St Giles' that morning would have been one of startling violence as a riot broke out amongst the congregation, and Jenny and a number of other protesters were thrown out of the church, taking their cause onto the streets of Edinburgh.
News of the uprising in Edinburgh led to similar riots breaking out in towns and cities across Scotland, and when the king refused to allow the Scottish church to maintain its own form of worship (distinct from the Anglican service) the people of Scotland sought to protect their interests by drawing up the National Covenant, a document that sought to enshrine the rights of Scotland to its own church, and one that operated distinct from the control of the king.
The National Convenant was signed at Greyfriars Kirkyard in Edinburgh in 1638, and copies of the document were circulated across Scotland, as a powerful and passionate declaration of the Scottish church's independence from the English monarch.
Charles I resorted to military force to impose his will on the Scottish church, leading to the so-called Bishops' Wars of 1639 and 1640, establishing a conflict between the authorities of Scotland, England and (by association) Ireland, known as the War of the Three Kingdoms. The following years led to the turbulence and trauma of the English Civil War, which would have a major impact on the nation - in 1649 Charles I executed for treason and the Puritan leader Oliver Cromwell installed himself as Lord Protector (king in all but name) of Great Britain.
So it may be a stretch to suggest Jenny Geddes bore responsibility for all of the historical events which followed her outburst in St Giles', but certainly by speaking out against what she saw as an injustice she helped to foment Scotland's reputation for standing up for itself. And she became a minor celebrity in her own time - and the poet Robert Burns was so enamoured with her that he named his horse Jenny Geddes in her honour!
On such small moments great history turns, and often we forget (perhaps) that it can still be individuals whose actions or presence can lead to major historical changes. And whilst the story of the English Civil War is often told through the kings and military leaders who were involved, it's worthwhile remembering the disaffected Scotswoman whose outrage started it all.
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Visitors to Edinburgh today typically arrive either by plane or train – and, for the record, bringing a car to Edinburgh is generally to be considered a terrible idea! - but these means of mass transit are historically very new, and for a long time the vast majority of people simply wouldn't have had the time or means to be able to undertake travel beyond the locality in which they lived.
Add to this that many towns and cities were protected by defensive walls, and often charged a fee for people to enter – the poorest people of these places simply wouldn't have been able to afford to leave, as was the case in Edinburgh. It's remarkable to think that before the rise of railways in the 1830s and 40s, a majority of Edinburgh people would have spent their entire lives within the confines of the city walls.
But for those who could afford to travel – and had the need to do so – the seventeenth century saw the rise of stagecoach services across the UK.
The first public coach service in Britain launched in 1610, and connected Edinburgh to Leith, at that time an entirely separate town just a few miles to the north-east.
By 1658 there was a regular coach service connection London and Edinburgh. It ran fortnightly, and cost £4 to make the journey - equivalent to over £400 in modern currency. (Mail coaches ran more frequently to carry goods and messages between the cities.)
At that time, travelling between the two cities could take anywhere from 10 to 14 days on average, with overnight stops along the route – hence the 'stage coach', travelling in stages to change or rest the horses.
In 1712 an Edinburgh to London service was advertised as being able to "perform the whole journey in thirteen days without any stoppages [ie. unscheduled interruptions] (if God permits), having eighty able horses to perform the whole journey". This service left Edinburgh on Mondays in winter and Tuesdays in summer (to allow an extra day/night for bad weather), rested for the whole day of Sunday, and reached London the following Friday. It cost £4.10s.
It wasn't until 1734 that a weekly passenger connection between London and Edinburgh was announced, but either it suffered from lack of demand or simply couldn't make the journey in good enough time because by 1760 the service was back to just once a month.
Wealthier people might have paid for a private coach to make their journey, but a monthly service gives an indication of how many people had need of (and could pay for) a public service at that time.
Glasgow, with its shipping interests, had developed a service which connected the city to London in just 10 days by the 1770s, and Edinburgh could be reached from London within the same amount of time towards the end of that decade.
Once arrived in Edinburgh, visitors would be accommodated in coaching inns which existed primarily to serve this purpose. Some would be found in the Grassmarket, but a popular one on the other side of the city was the White Horse Inn, which stood just off the Royal Mile at Holyrood and had historic connections as a royal stable house – it was named for one of Mary, Queen of Scots's favoured horses.
The street nearby at that time was known as Watergate, as it afforded access to a supply of water from which the horses would be refreshed, and not far away was the start of the Great North Road, the main route which connected Edinburgh to London along the length of the east coast, itself based on the line of the old Roman route. Today that road is London Road, and it joins almost directly to the A1, which is turn becomes the M1 motorway, which leads straight to the heart of London – the historic route is still the most direct road connection between these two national capitals.
The White Horse Inn stood on what is today White Horse Close.
With the rise of railways in the 1830s the boom in faster transport options meant that travelling by horse drawn vehicle was no longer the optimal method of making journeys, especially between distant locations. Sending goods, mail and passengers by train was a faster and more efficient option, and the effect was immense – suddenly the means of travel was more available (and affordable) to ordinary, working people, and with the age of steam came the rise in the notion of holidays. For the first time people could travel for pleasure, and coastal destinations in particular became popular with families who otherwise spent their lives in dark, industrial cities.
The last mail coach from Edinburgh to London ran on 5 July 1847, and thereafter mail was sent by rail instead, and passenger travel by stage coach decreased rapidly around the same time.
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James VI of Scotland (later to also be James I of England) was born in Edinburgh on 19 June 1566.
His mother, Mary, Queen of Scots, gave birth to him in the relative safety of the royal apartments at Edinburgh Castle, but within a year his father would be dead and the 10-month old James would be separated from his mother, who would never see him again.
James VI remains one of the most important and best-known of Scotland's monarchs, and he left his mark on Britain in a variety of ways. Here are just a handful of the legacies that James VI & I left behind him.
THE UNITED KINGDOMS
James would become king of Scotland after his mother's forced abdication in 1567, when James was a little over a year old. A series of regents reigned Scotland in place of the infant king, until James was in his late teens, but the biggest event of his reign occurred in 1603, when Elizabeth I of England died without having married or produced an heir to the throne.
Mary, Queen of Scots had been Elizabeth's cousin, with a rightful claim to the English throne - and it was partly through a process of historical manipulation and deeply-rooted paranoia over this claim that Elizabeth had seen fit to execute Mary in 1587, to remove the threat to her reign that she perceived in Mary.
But on Elizabeth's death, it mean that the next rightful heir would be Mary's son, and thus it was that James, already king of Scotland, now acceded to the throne of England as well. This single circumstance of genealogy united Scotland and England under one monarch for the first time, and (to an extent) the years of turbulence and animosity that had existed between the two separate kingdoms as each fought for power, control and resources was resolved.
The Union of Crowns, as it was known, eventually paved the way for the political Act of Union just over a century later, when the two nations would be brought under the governance of one united parliament, creating the United Kingdom as the single, multifaceted entity that we know today.
THE KING JAMES BIBLE
James was a devoutly religious man, raised in the protestant church (despite his mother's Catholicism) and inherited the Scottish church in the throes of its Reformation, which had brought new schisms into focus. What he found in England, after becoming king in 1603, was a more united form of protestantism that still viewed the monarch as the ultimate head of the church, something the Church of Scotland was less supportive on.
So James began to fully embrace his role as de facto head of the Church of England, and in 1604 convened a conference of senior figures from the church to discuss (among other concerns) commissioning a new edition of the Bible that would unite the centrist voices in the church and create a definitive version of the text in vernacular English (as opposed to Latin).
The King James Bible, originally published simply as the Authorised Version, or King James Version as it's sometimes known, was published in 1611, and became the only version of the Biblical texts authorised for use in English churches. (Scottish churches didn't adopt their own Authorised Version until 1633, when James's son, Charles I, was crowned king.)
By the early nineteenth century it became the most widely printed book in history, and despite minor changes to spelling and format it remained the standard version of Bibles referenced around the world until the growth of newer versions in the twentieth century. Today the standard text is still often referred to as the King James Bible.
An earlier book - one written by James himself - would have an equally significant impact on Scotland, and the wider world.
It grew from James's deeply held paranoia and distrust of the world around him, understandable perhaps when considering the traumatic experiences of his early life: he had been separated from his mother, and was subject to the machinations of a court who didn't always act in his interests (as his mother had been before him); his father had been killed in a explosive plot carried out by unknown assassins (and which his mother was reputed to have masterminded); and, most significantly, in 1589 he married Princess Anne of Denmark, whose life was threatened by a major storm at sea during their journey back to Scotland.
Suspicion grew in James's mind that this storm had been conjured by those who wished harm to him and his new wife. A trial took place in Denmark which resulted in two women being executed for witchcraft, after admitting to causing the storm which had been such a threat to the young couple.
Determined to pursue justice on those who had plotted against him nearer to home, James initiated a witch hunting effort that would have long-lasting effects on the people and the king himself.
It's an annual festival that is unique to Britain, but every winter the old rhyme is recited as citizens prepare for an explosive celebration:
The fifth of November -
Gunpowder, treason and plot!
In 1605 a plot was foiled that would have struck right at the heart of the British political and royal establishments, when a stockpile of gunpowder was discovered in the chambers beneath the Houses of Parliament in London.
A cohort of conspirators, of whom Guy Fawkes is the most familiar and best-known name, were just hours from assassinating King James VI & I, along with much of the government who led the country - and James's paranoid fears of history repeating itself were made real. His father had been killed at an explosion in his home in Edinburgh, and now his own life was narrowly saved from a band of rebels who sought to end his reign in a blaze of smoke and flames.
Every winter on Bonfire Night, the fifth of November, British children create (or used to) effigies of Guy Fawkes and parade them through the street collecting pennies, before burning them on a bonfire and turning their eyes skywards to the displays of fireworks which erupt overhead.
In recent years Guy Fawkes has experienced something of a resurgence, as his likeness has been co-opted by protestors and rioters around the globe, in particular the Anonymous collective (itself taking inspiration from the graphic novel V for Vendetta).
In 1590 he oversaw the series of events known as the North Berwick Witch Trials, which lasted over two years and saw in excess of 100 people from this small town just outside of Edinburgh accused of involvement in supernatural conspiracy against the king. It's not known precisely how many met their deaths, but many were convicted of treason on the evidence of torture administered in the Old Tolbooth which stood on the Royal Mile, near St Giles' Cathedral.
Between 4,000 and 6,000 people - mostly women - are believed to have been executed as witches in Scotland between the 1590s and 1660s. Many of them were burned on the esplanade in front of Edinburgh Castle, where a small memorial fountain today commemorates their deaths.
In 1597, James would consolidate his knowledge and learning from the North Berwick events in his book Daemonologie, with its extensive subtitle: In Forme of a Dialogue, Divided into three Books: By the High and Mighty Prince, James.
His text is a series of conversations between allegorical figures, and covers everything from the Devil's relationship with Man, the distinctions between Necromancy, witchcraft, astrology and other magic arts, the path of 'apprenticeship' that witches follow in their pact with the Devil, and the various forms and styles that witchcraft can take.
It is, in short, a handbook for the identification, persecution and punishment of witches, and it was received with enthusiasm by a society who were ready to embrace this thesis for understanding their world, and its reach was extensive - James's ideas on witchcraft are likely to have influenced the notorious witch trials at Salem in Massachusetts in the early 1690s.
One figure who was especially influenced by the book was William Shakespeare, and it's easy to see how in 1606 he came to produce a tale of a power-hungry Scottish king riven with paranoia and working in league with sinister forces: Macbeth.
So James VI and I has left his mark not just on Scotland or even Britain, but has influenced the whole globe with his writings and his reign. Few monarchs can claim to have left such lasting legacies to the world.
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It's a street in Edinburgh that is often (literally) overlooked, but the Cowgate is one of the oldest thoroughfares of the city and the extent of modern development along it disguises centuries of history.
So here's a trip along Cowgate, from east to west, highlighting some of the historical features you might miss (or which have long since been demolished). The Cowgate is more than just a shortcut through the Old Town, and deserves a closer examination!
The line of Cowgate is shown on early maps of Edinburgh, where from the 1490s it was marked as Via Vaccarum, meaning 'the way of the cows'. It was a road which lay outside of the city boundaries for much of its history, and at a time when it was illegal to drive cattle through the city streets the Cowgate provided a route to bring cattle from the fields and pastures to the south and east of Edinburgh to the cattle market near the Grassmarket.
It was a practical road, running along the valley to the south of the Royal Mile and parallel with it, starting at the junction with St Mary's Wynd (or St Mary Street as it is today) and finishing at the east end of the Grassmarket at the junction with West Bow.
In the sixteenth century, when the Flodden Wall was built, expanding the area contained within the city, Cowgate was brought inside the perimeter and at its eastern end had one of the six gates into to the town, called the Cowgate Port.
The area just inside the wall at this eastern end has changed considerably, but one of the major structures here today is St Patrick's Church, which was built in the 1770s. St Patrick's became a Catholic church in the nineteenth century, at a time when Edinburgh was receiving considerable numbers of migrant families moving here from Ireland.
The notorious potato famine of the 1840s in particular forced many to uproot their lives, and many Irish workers travelled to Scotland to find jobs, bringing their families with them when they came. They would often find themselves living in rundown lodgings, and Cowgate at that time was a notorious slum district - the area around St Patrick's became known as 'Little Ireland' due to the large number of Irish families settling here.
In 1875, the parish priest at St Patrick's had the idea to create a football team from the boys' social club which operated out of the church. They would travel to other churches and districts of Edinburgh to play other local teams, and they took the name 'Hibernian', which was from Hibernia, the Latin name for Ireland.
Today Hibernian - or Hibs - is one of the top-ranking football teams in Scotland, and play their home games at the nearby Easter Road stadium.
The next junction along Cowgate has the St Ann's community hall, which has had various uses over the years. But the site here was originally the grand sixteenth-century home of Cardinal David Beaton, a major figure at the time of Mary, Queen of Scots.
Beaton had put himself forward to rule Scotland in Mary's place during her infancy. His home on Cowgate was often described as a palace, which seems remarkable given that the area was a slum 300 years later.
In fact for a long time Cowgate had been a higher status housing district, attracting wealthy figures and families who could afford to live outside of the city, and could enjoy a more comfortable and spacious property than those poor souls crowded into the narrow lanes of the Old Town.
That all changed once the New Town was built, when wealthy families moved to the grand surrounds of George Street and Princes Street, and the housing on Cowgatewas left empty. Much of it was later taken over by the slum landlords.
Cardinal Beaton's house stood until the 1870s, when the area was undergoing a wholesale redevelopment as part of the Improvement Acts to renovate the Old Town. The by-then derelict property was removed and the buildings you see today erected in its place.
Further along Cowgate you'll find the characteristic cow figures pictured above, mounted on the side of the building, a fun reminder of the street's origins. On the opposite side of the street you'll find a former Freemason's Hall, now St Cecilia's Music Hall, and Bannerman's bar, a popular live music venue.
But the major feature just here is the arch of South Bridge, a late eighteenth century development built to try to improve access into Edinburgh.
There are 19 arches in total, but 18 of them are concealed by the buildings built alongside to enclose the structure in the 1780s.
The bridge itself was built as high-status housing and business space, at the time that the area below it was transitioning into a slum district. Later, Robert Louis Stevenson would describe standing on South Bridge and wrote:
Edinburgh's Old Town had officially become a split-level society, not just geographically but also economically.
Continue under South Bridge and the modern hotel on the left hand side of the street was built to replace the former Gilded Balloon venue and arts spaces, which were destroyed by fire in 2002. A little further ahead is another modern development, with a set of blue gates closing access to a lane marked College Wynd.
Although the building here is new, the lane itself is not, and it was here, at the junction of College Wynd and Cowgate, that that author Walter Scott was born in 1771. Scott's family would move from the area shortly after - part of the exodus of wealthy residents away from Cowgate at that time - but the lane continues to be marked as a reminder of Scott's Old Town origins.
The New Town development also led to the Cowgate achieving another notable feature - it became the first underground sewer line in Edinburgh! The artificial loch which had filled the valley to the north of the Royal Mile (where Princes Street Gardens are today) was drained, and the stream which fed it was re-routed around the other side of the castle rock, and was enclosed beneath the level of the roadway to wash away filth and waste flushing down the steep Old Town lanes.
But the oldest surviving buildings of the Cowgate lie ahead of us. Firstly, on the right hand side, the Three Sisters pub and sports bar occupies the former Tailors' Hall, the original guildhall of the tailors of Edinburgh, one of the fourteen recognised guilds or trades of the medieval city.
Tailors' Hall dates from the 1620s, and was originally a quad with a range of buildings along the front of the street and an archway leading into the open square that is visible today, on the inside of the structure. The building was occupied as military offices in the nineteenth century,and the front range of the structure was demolished to make the building more functional.
On either side of Cowgate there are now the rear entrances to the Sheriff Court (on the left) and the National Library of Scotland (on the right).
The second of the two bridges over Cowgate is George IV Bridge, built in the 1820s, and a higher structure than South Bridge previously.
In 1868, a young boy named James Connolly was born in one of the buildings on the left of George IV Bridge. His parents, like many others, had settled here after leaving Ireland, and young James would go on to be one of the major figures in the rise of the Irish republicans uprising of 1916, when he led a faction of rebels opposing British rule in Ireland.
Connolly was executed for his role in the rebellion, but remains a controversial figurehead for many.
Through George IV Bridge, the last feature to note before arriving at Grassmarket is the Magdalen Chapel, on the left hand side of the street.
Built in the 1540s, this remains the oldest surviving structure on the Cowgate. It was built by Michael Macqueen, who left the money in his will to build the chapel in his will as a form of indulgence, a Catholic tradition to help ease the passage into the afterlife by offsetting some of the sins committed during life.
The mother of Mary, Queen of Scots led prayer sessions in this chapel during her time in Edinburgh, and the building was given to the care of the guild of Hammermen, who were silversmiths and jewellers.
Shortly after it was constructed, in 1560 the Scottish Reformation saw the nation converted from Catholicism to Protestanism, and with it the destruction of many Catholic churches and chapels. The buildings were desecrated, relics destroyed, silver candlestick melted down for other uses, and the decorative stained glass windows smashed.
Today the Magdalen Chapel has the only surviving, intact, pre-Reformation stained glass windows in the whole of Scotland. The building is open to visitors to see the inside of this small historic space, with its (rather small) stained glass windows.
And so we arrive in the Grassmarket, the original destination for the drovers and farmers who brought their cattle along this roadway.
Today, locals (and visitors) often see the Cowgate as a bit of a shortcut, providing access across the city without being troubled by the Royal Mile itself. Hopefully you may now look a little closer at some of the buildings along the way, and have a better sense of the history of this ancient thoroughfare!
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