Standing on the corner of Princes Street and the Mound in the New town, a rather dapper looking figure stands looking down on the shoppers and passersby. This is Allan Ramsay, an Edinburgh man notable for establishing the world's first circulating library, and today remembered for his former home in the buildings which bear his name adjacent to Edinburgh Castle itself, Ramsay Garden.
Ramsay had been born in Lanarkshire in 1686, and by 1701 had settled in Edinburgh as an apprentice wig-maker. At the turn of the eighteenth century wigs were worn by men as a form of status symbol, elaborate constructions of human, goat or horse hair that often fell in ringlets below a man's shoulders, or were elevated to a significant height as a means of increasing their wearer's sense of physical stature. They were expensive products and were created by skilled craftsmen whose reputations rested on their ability to create ever newer and greater objects for their customers to display in public.
By 1712 Ramsay had become a well-known wig-maker of excellent reputation with premises on the High Street (today's Royal Mile) for the richest and most high status customers to buy.
His love of reading and literature saw Ramsay join the Easy Club, a cultural group established to celebrate traditional Scots writing just after the union with England in 1707, when many features of Scots culture were threatened with extinction. From this association Ramsay began writing, and by 1718 was a successful enough poet to turn his wig shop into a bookshop. Some people have credited Ramsay's early writing with being a major influence on the careers of Robert Fergusson, and later Robert Burns.
In time Ramsay's bookshop mutated into the world's first organised circulating library, a cultural hub for readers to borrow books, magazines and periodicals and take them away in order to peruse them at leisure, and then return them for other readers to enjoy.
The modern notion of a library providing such access free of charge is quite different from the original circulating library system, where members where charged an annual subscription fee in order to have access to the collections of materials available. The early function of such organisations was not primarily an educational one, as might be expected, but a capitalist one - to profit from those who had money to spend on such memberships.
In Edinburgh, the rise of the Enlightenment ideals and the city's relative affluence made Ramsay's library a roaring success, and he was able to spend time focusing on his own writing, penning not just poems but also dramas, his 1725 pastoral play The Gentle Shepherd being performed and celebrated as a work of theatre in his own lifetime.
Ramsay opened a theatre on Carubbers Close, off the High Street, which was opposed by the religious fervour of the Calvinists, and later forced to close. Ramsay railed against the dour principles of the Presbyterian church in some of his poems of this time.
In 1740 Ramsay retired to the house he had built for himself, still seen on the land immediately east of Edinburgh Castle - the cream and orange coloured building at the top of the Royal Mile is called Ramsay Garden, and the central structure - Ramsay's original home - was popularly known during his own lifetime as 'Goose Pie House' because of its octagonal shape.
Ramsay died in 1743 and in buried in the Greyfriars Kirkyard, where a memorial on the side of the church building celebrates his life. The statue of Ramsay on Princes Street was carved by John Steell, and ensures that Ramsay is still visibly commemorated in the city where he made most impact during his lifetime.
Explore more of Edinburgh's literary influences with my private city walking tours!
On 18 May 1650, the Marquess of Argyle was hosting a wedding party on the occasion of his son's marriage to the daughter of the Earl of Moray - the venue was Moray House, a grand townhouse on the Canongate, which had been built in 1625 and had been described as the most handsome house in the whole of Edinburgh.
Just as today you might hire a country house hotel for your family wedding, Moray House was a sumptuous setting for the nuptials, with spectacular gardens to the rear with views that overlooked Arthur's Seat, and on the front of the building a stone balcony which allowed those inside the building to look out onto the bustling Canongate.
Later that same year the house would be requisitioned by Oliver Cromwell as he brought the English army to Edinburgh, en route to take Edinburgh Castle, but in the late spring May sunshine an almost equally dramatic event was about to unfold on the balcony which can still be seen from the Royal Mile today.
The date of the Argyll family wedding coincided with the date of the execution of the Marquess of Montrose, a long-time enemy of the Argylls. The two families had fought on opposite sides of the Civil War, with Montrose supporting the English forces whilst Argyll defended the integrity and culture of Scotland. Montrose had been captured some weeks prior to the Argyll wedding, had been put on trial for treason, and having been found guilty as a traitor to Scotland was sentenced to be executed at St Giles' Cathedral, in the heart of the city.
There are differing versions of what may have transpired that day, but the more dramatic telling of the story which I favour has it that Argyll saw the opportunity to make a bold statement of vengeance against his enemy, and had arranged with the prison authorities for the prisoner Montrose to be brought down to Moray House before the execution, and to have him dropped in the roadway beneath the balcony, where tour buses and visitors pass by today.
All the guests at the wedding were then invited out onto the balcony, to spit onto Montrose, to show their contempt for him, and their commitment to the Argyll family. And then, having been roundly spat on, Montrose was dragged back up the Royal Mile to St Giles where his execution took place.
So, not a good day for Montrose, but everyone at the Argyll wedding said it was the best one they'd ever been to!
Montrose's head was removed and his limbs distributed to Glasgow, Stirling, Perth and Aberdeen as a warning to other would-be traitors. His head was placed on the highest spike above the Tolbooth prison of Edinburgh.
Unfortunately for Argyll, the political tables in Scotland were ever turning, and almost ten years to the day later, in 1661, Montrose's corpse was being dug up from its grave - and his limbs returned from the four cities - to be given a commemorative funeral procession through the city, followed by burial inside St Giles (where his tomb can still be seen today).
It was Argyll's turn to face execution for treason! On 27 May 1661, Argyll was executed on the Maiden, the guillotine that can still be seen in the National Museum of Scotland on Chambers Street, with his head being placed on the same spike that had held the head of his enemy Montrose for the previous decade. A memorial to Argyll can also be found within St Giles' Cathedral today.
Explore more of Edinburgh's history with my private city walking tours!
On 1 May 1707, the formal Acts of Union which brought Scotland and England together under one government for the first time in their respective histories came into effect.
The two nations had been under one monarch for nearly a century, after the so-called Union of Crowns in 1603.
But separate governments had managed the power in the separate countries, with England ruled from London whilst Scotland was governed from the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh, which at that time sat in the buildings adjacent to St Giles' Cathedral on the Royal Mile. The area today is still named Parliament Square.
A number of efforts had been made to bring the two countries under one government during the seventeenth century, although Oliver Cromwell had separated out the three nations (Scotland, England and Ireland) under his so-called Commonwealth during the interregnum between Charles I and the restoration of the monarchy with Charles II. But it was really only after the ill-fated Darien expedition, which had sought to settle a new colony of Scots on the narrow strip of land between North and South America which made the political union between the countries an economic necessity.
The company behind the risky recolonisation was funded with almost a fifth of all of the money circulating in Scotland at the time (equivalent to about £48m today), which was lost when the venture failed catastrophically. The English government was persuaded to bail out the financial losses that threatened to cripple Scotland, leading to the stabilising of currency rates between the Scots and English pounds, and ultimately to the establishment of the Royal Bank of Scotland.
In order to save Scotland from financial ruin, a union between the two countries would allow England to provide support to the nation under a favourable funding arrangement, and it was this need for stability which helped to further the cause for those seeking a political union in Scotland.
In 1707, the Scottish parliament in Edinburgh acted to make itself obsolete as it voted in favour of the union with England, and on the day the final treaties between the two countries were signed the bells of St Giles' Cathedral rang out the tune Why Should I Be So Sad on My Wedding Day? - a sign of the lack of public support for the union itself!
The novelist Daniel Defoe, at that time a spy in Edinburgh on behalf of the English government, reported that for every Scot in favour of the union, there were 99 against it - not an auspicious level of support for a momentous political union.
The second Duke of Queensberry, resident at Queensberry House on the Royal Mile, was considered instrumental in securing the union, with his dedication to bribing the lords and landowners of Scotland for their assent to the union. Many families were gifted tracts of land in England - helping to expand their power and their economic potential - in exchange for support to the union. (It is pleasingly ironic that the home of a man who helped to secure the union with England is now incorporated into the modern Scottish parliament building...)
Signatures to the act of union were allegedly added in the modest summerhouse in the gardens of Moray House, today part of the University of Edinburgh. A structure believed to be part of the original summerhouse survives, and is visible in the university car park from Holyrood Road.
On 1 May 1707, Scotland and England formally entered joint rule under a single government, and remained that way until 1997, when in recognition of a majority level of support for self-governance among the Scottish people, permission was given for Scotland to establish a devolved parliament.
When the new Scottish parliament sat for the first time, at the Assembly Hall off the Lawnmarket, on 12 May 1999, the session was opened by the oldest elected MSP, Dr Winnie Ewing, with the words: "I want to start with the words that I have always wanted either to say or to hear someone else say - the Scottish Parliament, which adjourned on March 25, 1707, is hereby reconvened."
After nearly 300 years, the control of Scottish politics was back in the hands of the Scots.
Explore more of Edinburgh's political history with my private city walking tours!
Visitors to Edinburgh often see little of the city beyond the overcrowded tourist hotspots of the Royal Mile and the Old Town - frequently not even venturing as far as the historic New Town!
I'm always keen to encourage a wider exploration of Edinburgh's features, hence this occasional series highlighting areas further from the city centre that are worth exploring - previously I've written about Bruntsfield and Stockbridge.
Duddingston village is less a suburb of the city and more a historic outpost of Edinburgh, nestled at the base of the eastern side of Holyrood Park, behind Arthur's Seat. Sheep were grazed on the slopes of the park until the 1970s, and traditionally would have been slaughtered at Duddingston before being taken for sale in Edinburgh itself.
The area's chief 'claim to fame' is as the home of Scotland's oldest pub, the Sheep Heid, where a tavern or inn has been sited since 1360. The village of Duddingston was on the historic route between the Palace of Holyroodhouse and Craigmillar Castle, and it marked a convenient stopping point for travellers between the two. It is reputed that Mary, Queen of Scots may have played skittles (a form of ten pin bowling) in the Sheep Heid's courtyard.
Bonnie Prince Charlie - the Young Pretender - lodged his forces at Duddingston in advance of the Battle of Prestonpans in 1745, a key moment in the Jacobite Uprisings of the 18th century.
At the centre of the village is Duddingston Kirk, a church with its origins traced back as far as 1124. This picturesque church is entered through a gateway at which visitors can still see the guard house built to dissuade bodysnatchers from digging up graves in the early nineteenth-century, along with a mounting block for horse riders to use to mount their steeds, and a set of 'jougs', a steel collar attached to a chain cemented into the wall of the graveyard, where those accused of petty offences would be subjected to a period of public humiliation for their crimes.
Famous residents of Duddingston include John Thomson, a former reverend of the church, who gave rise to a popular folk saying in Scotland - 'We're a' Jock Tamson's Bairns' - we're all equal in the eyes of God.
Jean Carfrae Pinkerton, wife of Allan Pinkerton who founded the Pinkerton's National Detective Agency in America in the 1850s (now part of Securitas), was born in Duddingston. Pinkerton played a major role in foiling the attempted assassination of Abraham Lincoln in 1861.
The nearby Duddingston Loch was the setting for Henry Raeburn's iconic portrait of the Reverend Robert Walker, Skating on Duddingston Loch - better known as the Skating Minister - which can be seen in the National Gallery of Scotland.
The village is worth a visit to escape the city centre briefly, with access to Holyrood Park and the main cycle path along the the nearby Innocent Railway line.
Explore more of Edinburgh's hidden gems with my private city walking tours!
Here's the final instalment of my alphabetical exploration of Edinburgh, featuring the letters V, W, and Y, with a couple of cheaty entries for X and Z! Links to the previous posts can be found at the bottom of the article.
THE LETTER V
V is for the Vennel, a narrow lane running off the Grassmarket. The Scots word 'vennel' described any such lane, similar to the 'ginnel' of northern England, but whereas Edinburgh has many of the 'closes' and 'wynds' that were the local names for the alleys, the city today has just one vennel.
From the Grassmarket, the steep steps leading up the Vennel doubtless put off many from exploring it, but climbing the steps is rewarded with an unparalleled view across to Edinburgh Castle. (If the steps look familiar, it may be from the film version of Muriel Spark's Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, in which the lane featured in 1969...)
At the top of the steps, you can also see not one but two of the defensive walls which enclosed the southern side of Edinburgh, the Flodden Wall (built after 1513) and the Telfer Wall (c.1620s). The junction of these two walls offers a chance to contrast the building style and materials of each wall, and give a sense of how imposing the walls would have been to visitors approaching from the south.
THE LETTER W
W is for White Horse Close, one of the picturesque lanes off the Royal Mile near Holyrood. The building at the head of the lane was formerly the White Horse Inn, which was the coaching inn where visitors would have arrived into Edinburgh during the seventeenth century.
Stage coaches ran regularly along the Great North Road, connecting London and Edinburgh, roughly along the line of the A1 and M1 motorway today. In the early days of the service, it could take anywhere from ten to fourteen days to travel between the two cities, and on arrival in Edinburgh visitors would have been accommodated in this lane at the foot of the Royal Mile.
Although the lane is an attractive example of Edinburgh's old lanes, it's not entirely authentic, as the building of the White Horse Inn itself was rebuilt from scratch in the 1960s, preserving the external appearance of the original building, but refitting its interior for a more modern function...
THE LETTER X
X is the shape formed by the St Andrew's Cross, which forms the primary figure on the flag of Scotland, known as the Saltire. You'll find the Saltire in various forms and on numerous flags around the city, taken from the particular crucifix on which St Andrew (Scotland's patron saint) was martyred.
THE LETTER Y
Y is for James Young Simpson, one of the city's most important sons - although the middle name 'Young' was acquired at university, which he attended at the age of just 14. He was later appointed president of the Royal Medical Society of Edinburgh at the age of just 24.
Simpson is best known as a pioneer of anaesthetics, which he specifically developed as an aid to childbirth. He lived at 52 Queen Street in the New town, and is rumoured to have discovered the properties of chloroform after a dinner party, at which he invited his guests to inhale from various liquids he'd brought from his laboratory at the medical school.
Queen Victoria was one of the first women for whom chloroform made the process of childbirth less painful (and less dangerous), in 1853, and was so pleased by its effects that she made Simpson her private physician in Scotland. He became the first man to be knighted for services to medicine, and was offered a prestigious burial within Westminster Abbey in London, but elected to be buried closer to home at Warriston Cemetery in Edinburgh, when 100,000 people lined the route of his funeral procession to pay tribute to him.
THE LETTER Z
Z is for the shape of the original route into Edinburgh from the west. Stretching from the Grassmarket to the Lawnmarket was the West Bow, a snaking, almost switch-back incline that saved visitors an almost two-mile detour to the bottom of the Royal Mile itself.
In the 1830s, as Edinburgh was experiencing efforts to improve its accessibility, Johnston Terrace and George IV Bridge were constructed to save travellers the treacherous climb of West Bow, and the road was extended and partly renamed Victoria Street.
The lane today claims some of the dreaded Harry Potter connections, being a (speculative) inspiration for Diagon Alley - although at least two other streets in the city claim the same influence!
Explore more of Edinburgh with my private city walking tours!
Canongate is one of the sections of Edinburgh's historic Royal Mile, and is bursting with features of interest that are sometimes overlooked by visitors more focused on the major attractions at either end of the Royal Mile itself. But the Canongate area is well worth taking some time to explore - here are my top five features worth finding time to check out during your visit...
One of the five old graveyards in the city of Edinburgh, the Canongate Kirkyard has a number of burials of interest, as well as offering stunning views up to Calton Hill.
The most significant figure interred in the grounds of the church is Adam Smith, popularly known as the father of modern economics, who lived in the nearby Panmure House whilst writing the book for which he is best known, The Wealth of Nations. This treatise on international trade laid the foundations for the modern global economy, and visitors to his grave often leave small coins of overseas currencies as a fitting tribute to his influence.
Two FREE Museums
On either side of the road near the Canongate Kirkyard are two small council-run museums which offer fascinating insights into Edinburgh's history and culture.
The Museum of Edinburgh occupies buildings dating back to the 1560s, and features a range of exhibits including Greyfriars Bobby's dog collar and bowl, and some of the original wooden water pipes which brought fresh water into the city in the 17th century.
The People's Story is in the old Canongate tolbooth, the former town hall of this settlement, and relates the history of the city through testimony from the people who have lived here over the centuries.
The best preserved of Edinburgh's old lanes and alleys, Bakehouse Close was an old industrial lane which exported bread and cakes into the city of Edinburgh, and was recently used as a filming site for the third season of Outlander, including the location for Jamie's print shop in the series.
Acheson House on the eastern side of the close dates back to 1633 and today houses Edinburgh World Heritage, the body which works with UNESCO to preserve and protect the city' historic features. Look out for the emblem of the Acheson family, carved into the stone above the original main doorway, which also gave a later brothel which occupied the buildings its quirky nickname, the Cock and Trumpet...
Dunbar's Close Garden
Tucked away down a lane just past the Canongate Kirk (as you head down the Royal Mile) is one of Edinburgh's finest hidden gems. The garden here is laid out in the style of the 17th century gardens which would have been found behind the grander houses of Canongate at the height of its popularity.
Dunbar's Close Garden was transformed in the 1970s with funding from a charity called the Mushroom Trust, and today offers a welcome oasis of calm and tranquility just a short step from the chaos of the Royal Mile itself.
Cranachan & Crowdie
One of the finest shops in the whole of Edinburgh, and regularly featuring in 'best of' lists of the city, Cranachan & Crowdie is unique in that all their products are crafted in Scotland. They have a wide range of food and gifts, many from local and artisan producers, and featuring products you won't find in the brashier, more touristy souvenir shops.
From cheese and meat to tea towels and books, they also have a fine range of Scottish gins and a resident shortbread quality control expert in the form of Caley the Australian labradoodle! You can book a short food samples tasting session at Cranachan & Crowdie on my private Edinburgh walking tours.
Explore more of the Canongate's highlights with my private Edinburgh walking tours!
The suburb of Cramond on the north west edge of Edinburgh is an area rich in history. I wrote recently about the Roman settlement at Cramond, and here's another story with some royal connections.
James V of Scotland, father of Mary, Queen of Scots, had his palace at Linlithgow and would travel through the Cramond area regularly to get from Linlithgow into Edinburgh. Crossing the River Almond at Cramond is the old Cramond Brig, a bridge that provided access for traffic across the steep valley, and in 1532 James V was travelling through the area without his entourage when he was attacked by five robbers as he crossed the bridge.
A local man named Jock Howieson saw the fight and ran to help the stranger who was outnumbered by his assailants. Having successfully seen off the robbers, Jock Howieson escorted the man - who he didn't know to be the king - back to his home, where he provided a basin of water and a towel for him to clean his face and recover himself.
The king introduced himself to Howieson as a courtier in the palace at Holyrood, serving James V of Scotland. He told Howieson that he'd like to reward him for his help and kindness, and invited him to visit Holyrood where he would show him around the palace.
Howieson was pleased to accept the man's invitation, and was told that he should make his way to Holyrood the following weekend, and at the palace gates to ask for him by name, the Goodman of Ballengeich.
The following week Jock Howieson travelled to Edinburgh, and presented himself at the palace gates, asking to be met by the Goodman of Ballengeich. Presently the man emerged from the palace and greeted Howieson warmly. They began to tour the palace, and Howieson was asked if he would like to meet the king himself. He accepted the invitation warmly, and at the doorway into the grand gallery where the king was assembled with his court Howieson was told, "You'll know the king immediately you enter the room, as he will be the only person wearing a hat".
As they entered the room, filled with people, Howieson looked around in vain for the king, but all he saw were courtiers without their hats - turning to his guide he saw that the Goodman was still wearing his cap. Howieson reflected, "You said the king would be the only man wearing his hat, and as you and I are the only two people wearing caps - and as I know that I am not the king - then you must be him".
Howieson removed his cap and knelt at King James's feet. The king asked Jock if there was anything he wanted, in recognition and thanks for saving his life at Cramond Brig, and Howieson replied that all he desired was to own the farm on which he worked as a labourer.
The king duly rewarded Howieson with a gift of the lands and occupation of Braehead Farm, on condition that Howieson and his family always be ready with a basin of water and a cloth for the king to refresh himself anytime he passed through Cramond.
Braehead remains in the ownership of the Howieson family, and in 1822, when George IV visited Scotland on his royal tour, descendants of the Howieson family attended the king with a basin of water, as James V had requested three hundred years previously.
It's a pleasing story - and the bridge at Cramond is still worth visiting if you are walking through the area - but alas the details seem to have no historical basis and are probably simply a creation of Walter Scott, who wrote a version of the tale in his book, Tales of a Grandfather. My thanks to Millar Haxton Laing who first told me the story.
Explore of Edinburgh's history (real and fictional!) with my private city walking tours!
Edinburgh Expert Walking Tours is run by Gareth Davies, an adopted native of Edinburgh since 1998...