There's a matryoshka doll quality to some of Edinburgh's historic buildings, with spaces to be discovered within other spaces, and history found within other historical features. Old College of the University of Edinburgh is one such building, being worth visiting by itself (and featuring on a number of my Edinburgh walking tours) but also boasting one of the city's great art galleries within its walls.
The Talbot Rice Gallery, named for the university's professor of fine art between 1934 and 1972, occupies the upper levels of the quad building, designed originally by Robert Adam and William Henry Playfair. It's a free entry gallery hosting contemporary exhibitions of paintings and sculpture, and offering a glimpse of the interior style of Old College itself.
Located in what was previously an exhibition hall within Old College, the Talbot Rice Gallery opened in 1975. It offers a classical space under a vaulted ceiling supported by Playfair's Grecian ionic columns, as well as a 'white box' contemporary-feeling exhibition space, and feels a million miles from the busy city streets just a few metres away outside.
Both spaces have a lower and upper viewing area, creating a tremendous sense of space and light, with skylights allowing natural light to flood the spaces as needed.
Accessing the upper levels of the classical space also allows visitors to appreciate the style and decoration of the space, with ornate plasterwork on the arches and architraves and cast iron balustrades in typical 19th-century designs.
William Playfair's Greek-influenced interior spaces contrast with the order and symmetry of the classical exterior of the building, which was Robert Adam's vision when he designed the original structure at the end of the 18th century. Taken together the inside and outside offer visions of two contrasting architectural styles, not just from different designers but from different centuries - and visiting the Talbot Rice Gallery is one way of visitors being able to appreciate those contrasts and differences.
The gallery is open to the public year round, although dates of exhibitions may mean it is closed for installation on occasion, so do check their website for details before planning a visit. Special events and public lectures from visiting artists and critics bring an added dimension to the gallery's stated goal of "exploring how the University of Edinburgh can contribute to contemporary art production today and into the future".
Discover more of Edinburgh's art galleries and museums, as well as some of its hidden historic spaces, on my private walking tours.
Edinburgh is a city that isn't entirely short on green space, with areas like Holyrood Park, the Meadows and Princes Street Gardens providing valuable parkland for locals and visitors to enjoy.
But as well as these, and plenty of smaller local park spaces across the Old and New Towns - in part an innovation of Patrick Geddes, a nineteenth century planner and heritage figure who championed the creation of public green spaces in overcrowded cities - is the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE), an expanse of space which offers the opportunity to get lost amongst trees and plants and reconnect with nature.
The gardens themselves were initially created in 1670 as part of Holyrood Park itself, adjacent to the royal palace (hence its royal connections). Just a few years later the gardens had grown and were moved to a new site in the valley where Waverley railway station is today - a plaque inside the station commemorates that the gardens were on this site for a time, before being moved again to the bottom of Leith Walk a century later, in the 1760s. Shortly after, in the 1820s, the garden was moved again - uprooted and replanted - to its current location at Inverleith, at the bottom of the New Town and providing views across towards the city skyline.
There are two entrances into 'the botanics', as they're known - the west gate has a modern complex housing a cafe, giftshop and (yes!) a garden centre, for visitors to purchase their own plants and botanical-themed gifts. The east gate is marked with a huge stainless steel gateway cast in the shape of hundreds of flowers.
The gardens themselves are laid out over 70 acres, with ponds, lawns, and themed garden spaces made up of more them 13,000 species of plants. Each specimen is noted and identified with labels, and information panels throughout the space highlight particular features or specific plants and trees of scientific or cultural interest.
This field elm, for example, is one of only four known trees of this species in the entire world - and Edinburgh has three of them!
As well as valuable collections of rare and special plants, the gardens include a glasshouse of tropical and temperate plants species, and collections of national plants from China and Japan, you can feel small as you stand beneath towering sequoias or just relax beside babbling water features that cascade through rocky alpine landscapes.
In the botanics it's very easy to forget you're in the heart of a major capital city - yet it's only a short walk or a bus ride away!
Discover more of Edinburgh's green (and blue) spaces with my private city walking tours...
First thing to clear up, there are only two cathedrals in Edinburgh, and they're both called St Mary's. (St Giles' Cathedral, on the Royal Mile, isn't technically a cathedral but a high kirk...) One of the St Mary's is a Catholic cathedral, to be found at the east end of the New Town, but this post is about the episcopal St Mary's cathedral, which can be found at the west end of the New Town.
It's notable because the building has three tall spires which reach up over the city skyline, meaning that the cathedral can be seen from a variety of viewpoints and outlooks in the city. But the building itself is often overlooked by visitors, perhaps because it's a little further from the traditional tourism area of the Old Town, but perhaps also because of its reputation.
One of my favourite guidebooks to Edinburgh, written with a dry sense of humour, describes St Mary's cathedral as: "worth seeing, but not worth going to see"...!
Despite that phrasing, I think the building is rather interesting, so here is my short appraisal of it.
St Mary's is not actually as old as might be assumed from looking at it. Construction on the spires, which were a later phase of development from the body of the kirk, so to speak, was only completed in 1917. The land on which it was built was an estate owned by the Walker family, stretching from the Dean Village to the north all the way up to Charlotte Square, having been purchased by William Walker in the early 19th century.
On William's death, the land passed to his wife and three children. The eldest son, Sir Patrick Walker, oversaw the development of Walker Street, Manor Place, William Street, Coates Places - all survive today, with their grand late-Georgian terraces now serving as a mix of offices, residential and commercial properties.
After the death of Patrick, sisters Barbara and Mary Walker took over managing and developing the family estate. In 1850 the sisters drew up the first plans to create a church large enough to accommodate a congregation of 1,500 people, between Manor Place and Palmerston Place. They stipulated that the church should be named in honour of their mother, and so the plans to build St Mary's cathedral began taking shape.
From an original budget of £30,000 - equivalent to just over £5m today - the cost of the church eventually topped off at £110,000. Barbara died at the end of the 1850s, and it wasn't until shortly before Mary's death that a competition was launched to source an architect to handle the building's design. The final structure was the work of Sir George Gilbert Scott, a notable designer from the Gothic Revival tradition who also designed the Albert Memorial in London for Queen Victoria, the Midland Grand hotel at St Pancras Station in London, the main building of the University of Glasgow, and parts of the Whitehall collection of offices which house functions of the British Government today.
The central spire of Scott's church is 90m tall, making it the tallest structure in Edinburgh city centre, and the two shorter spires added to the western end of the building later became known locally as Barbara and Mary, after the Walker sisters themselves.
The church remains active and functional, and is known for its acoustic qualities which has led to it being used for a variety of musical events - choirs, chamber orchestra recitals and so on - for which its rather impressive organ is often deployed.
One of the stained glass windows in the cathedral was designed by Eduardo Paolozzi, the father of pop art, whilst one of the buildings in the cathedral's grounds dates back to around 1610. The large cross which hangs above the nave inside the church was created by Robert Lorimer as part of his war memorial, one of many which he designed and built cross Scotland in the years after the First World War.
Otherwise the interior design is also considered to be a curious mixture of architectural styles which borrow from a variety of other iconic churches across Europe, perhaps leading to its rather unfortunate reputation for not being worth visiting.
Explore more of Edinburgh's historic buildings on my private city walking tours...
With Edinburgh being a city steeped in banking - the New Town was the first place in the world where people advertised themselves as accountants, paid to manage other people's money - it's perhaps no surprise to find a museum within the headquarters of a global bank!
The Museum on the Mound is perhaps a slightly coy name for what is essentially a history of banking and finance. It resides in the lower storey of the Bank of Scotland building at the top of the Mound, on what is actually named Bank Street. As with the majority of Edinburgh's museums and galleries, entry is free - and although it's a relatively small attraction it is crammed with fascinating and intriguing information about the cash we carry in our pockets.
The Bank of Scotland was established (by an Englishman) in 1695, a year after the Bank of England was established (by a Scotsman). A year later it became the first commercial bank in Europe to release banknotes into general circulation, promising to pay the bearers of the paper notes 'on demand' the cash equivalent of the value they represented. Since the 17th century the bank has evolved and is now part of the Lloyds banking group, and part of the Museum on the Mound charts the growth and change of the bank and its functions over the last three hundred years.
From issuing early banknotes to the modern technology which allowed cash to be taken out from ATMs, banking and finance has been an industry which has grown and changed as society has developed.
And just as our relationship with money has changed, so issues like forgery, fraud and theft have been problems that the bank has had to find solutions to across the years. You can even try your hand at safe cracking! Solve the riddles and spin the wheel of a specially designed safe - succeed and getting it open and you can 'steal' a golden voucher which can be exchanged for a reward at the museum's giftshop.
And if you've ever wondered what a million pounds in cash looks like, there's a cool £1,000,000 on display in a glass case! (No truth to the rumour that it is the Bank of Scotland's last million pounds, which they're very keen to show off....!) Sadly the notes have been invalidated, so even if you could find a way of sneaking them off the premises, they wouldn't be worth very much if you tried to spend them....
The displays are well laid out with plenty of interesting detail to explore. See a facsimile of the story that was printed in the local newspaper following the murder in Edinburgh's Old Town of William Begbie in 1806, along with the original cape worn in the iconic Scottish Widows insurance adverts. From the plates used for printing banknotes - then and now - to the emblems of the different iterations of the bank and its subsidiaries, there's all manner of historical artefacts on display.
The Bank of Scotland building itself is David Bryce's renovation of the original structure, dating from the late 1860s. It is an impressive sandstone edifice, offering views from the museum space across towards the New Town of Edinburgh, and topped with a statue of the goddess Fame, sculpted by John Rhind.
It's an iconic building, and perfectly placed to act as a major landmark of Edinburgh's city centre. The Museum on the Mound is accessed by an entrance directly from the Mound on the western side of the building.
All-in-all you'll discover there's much more to your money than you might have realised...
Discover more of Edinburgh's history with my private city walking tours!
Edinburgh has a fantastic array of architecture from a wide variety of styles and forms. A close examination of the city's structures reveals all manner of intriguing details and features, and each of the major periods of growth that Edinburgh experienced brought with it a new and distinct style of architecture. Today these different styles sit side by side to create a glorious patchwork of historic features.
Across the city, however, one architectural style seems more common than others. The Scots Baronial form was developed in the mid-nineteenth century and came to dominate the city structures thanks to the sheer volume of development that took place at this time. And most intriguingly, this form - which is most easily identifiable in the Old Town - was itself creating a sense of history by reflecting older styles of architecture. It's for this reason that I often tell visitors that the Old Town isn't always as old as it seems - the Victorians were consciously reflecting and recreating older styles of architecture in the modern buildings!
So here's my introduction to the Scottish Baronial architectural style, with some key features and elements to look out for during your exploration of the city.
Scots Baronial evolved from a returning interest in Gothic architecture, which drew on the ornate levels of building decor from the Renaissance period of the sixteenth century. This vision of highly decorative and intricately carved elements in a building was a reaction to the more formal and organised neo-classical architecture, typified with symmetrical designs, columns and pediments, and a formality of style (which can also be found across Edinburgh in the work of William Playfair, for example).
This Gothic revival - which in Scotland branched into the particular Scots Baronial form - tapped into a renewed interest in medieval architecture, most commonly found in churches and cathedrals, and in the traditional skills of stonemasonry which had begun to be supplanted by the rise of industrialisation and mechanical process in the building trade. Buildings like the Scott Monument are almost pure distillations of the neo-Gothic (ie. 'new' Gothic) style.
Achitects like William Burn and David Bryce incorporated these ideas into their architectural vision, and what we recognise as Scots Baronial becomes a recognisable architectural style around the middle of the 19th century.
One of the most easily identifiable features of a Scots Baronial building is the witches' hat tower, a conical roof structure over a corner turret. Sometimes these tower structures don't reach all the way to the ground, and they're called bartizans. These features help give the style its name - taken from the large country houses or baronial properties of the Scottish Highlands, which had evolved as fortified mini-castles, these towers and their distinctive rooftops were incorporated into what were ordinary quality properties, creating the illusion that they were a little grander than they really were - more like castles or baronial villas!
Another easily recognised feature of Scots Baronial style is the zigzag gable or roofline over windows - it's known as a crow step. Flat lines are called cat slides, and the zigzags are crow steps...
These were often a feature of an earlier architectural style, when a gable wall would be stepped in order to provide support to roof beams and support the timber covering of a building. When the Victorians replaced those original buildings they copied the crow step but featured it as a decorative element rather than a structural support.
The crow stepping is particular noticeable when you look out over the roofs of the Old Town from an elevated level, or see it contrasted against a blue sky from street level. Look out for them in the Grassmarket, along the tops of buildings on Victoria Street and Cockburn Street, and find original versions of crowstepping on Bakehouse Close, just off the Royal Mile at Canongate.
You'll also find crowstepping on the tenement terraces of Edinburgh;'s suburbs, such as around Marchmont and Bruntsfield, which were being developed to accommodate the city's growth in the late nineteenth-century.
But because the crowstepping was a deliberate reference to older buildings, it's understandable that people often took at Edinburgh's Old Town buildings and assume that they're older than they really - in fact, because of the wholesale 'improvement' of the city instigated by the Lord Provost William Chambers in the 1860s, many of the 'old' buildings are actually a whole lot younger than they look.
If you're ever in any doubt, cast about to find a date on the building, and the chances are it'll be somewhere around the 1860s or 1880s, which was the pinnacle of the Scots Baronial period.
Explore more of Edinburgh's architectural features and styles with my private city walking tours!
Another entry in this occasional series, highlighting some of Edinburgh's amazing museums and galleries, all with FREE entry and worth checking out during your visit! See also The Museum of Edinburgh and the National Museum of Scotland.
The Writers' Museum can be found on Lady Stair's Close, a narrow lane leading off the Royal Mile at Lawnmarket, just a short stroll from Edinburgh Castle.
With such a wealth of literary history to celebrate - Edinburgh became the world's first UNESCO City of Literature in 2005 - this compact museum focuses on three of the most significant literary figures associated with the city: Sir Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Robert Burns.
Inside the museum are collections celebrating the life and work of the three writers often thought of as the holy trinity of Scottish literature.
Sir Walter Scott was the father of the historical novel, as well as being a major influence on the way Scotland was perceived and represented in the early 19th century. Today much of the traditional imagery used to promote Scotland is based on Scott's writing.
One of the most poignant pieces in the Scott exhibition space is the small wooden rocking horse which belonged to Scott when he was child, living on George Square in the Old Town. Having suffered from polio, Scott's legs were at slightly different heights, and on the rocking horse the stirrups for his feet are at different levels to compensate for this minor disability.
At the top of the building is one of the original hand presses used for printing books, and it is believed the press on display here was the one on which Scott's Heart of Midlothian was originally printed. Scott became the most widely read British author of the 19th century, with books like Rob Roy and Ivanhoe selling in their thousands to readers all around the globe.
In the centre of the building is a double-height atrium space with a balustraded walk with its wooden decorations, plaster work, and original fire place giving a sense of the style of the original property.
Lady Stair, who lived in the building at one time, was also associated with a local legend relating to her husband and a strange dream that she had. The story was adapted by Walter Scott into his short story, My Aunt Margaret's Mirror. It's rather nice that Lady Stair herself helped inspire the writing of one of the authors who is celebrated in her former home today!
Also in this large open area is a contemporary tapestry weaving which represents all three of the writers, although Scott is most prominent because the piece was created in 1971 to mark the 200th anniversary of his birth.
In the room celebrating Robert Louis Stevenson you can find a large wooden cabinet, which is one of only a handful of pieces of furniture surviving today that is known to have been made by the master craftsman William Brodie. Brodie had his offices and workshop just a short walk from Lady Stair's Close, and is best regarded today as one of the original inspirations behind the creation of Stevenson's character(s) of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.
Edinburgh also influenced characters and settings found in many of Stevenson's other works, including Treasure Island and Kidnapped.
Stevenson ended his life living on an island in Samoa in the western Pacific Ocean ,and the exhibition at the Writers' Museum includes several artefacts and objects relating to this later stage of his life.
All in all the museum is a small but intriguing venue that provides a fascinating glimpse of the life and times of some of Edinburgh's literary heroes.
Entry to the museum is free - check the museum's website for updated opening times and details of restricted access.
If you're visiting the Writers' Museum it's also worth checking out the stones along the lane on which it is located. Known as Makar's Court, after the Scots' word for a poet or a bard, the paving stones feature a variety of quotes from Scottish writers and poets, celebrating the country and the city in which they lived.
You can also see a Celtic cross monument celebrating the First World War poets Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, who have links to Edinburgh, at the former Craiglockhart military hospital where they were treated for shellshock.
To explore literary Edinburgh in more detail, contact me to arrange a customised walking tour of the city!
One surprising thing I learned about Edinburgh this week is that it is formally twinned with the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv - an arrangement that dates back to 1989, just before the collapse of the former Soviet Union.
Historically these twinning associations between British cities and global counterparts goes back to the years after the Second World War, and was intended as a way of showing a sense of international cooperation, a sense of the shared cultural and social values, and to promote a sense of community between separate nations.
In the current international climate, such values are more important than ever, and the connection between Edinburgh and Kyiv has led to a significant outpouring of support for those living through the current conflict in Ukraine.
Dating back to 1954, Edinburgh linked to the Bavarian capital perhaps because of the shared love of beer which has been a feature of both cities for centuries... Edinburgh's main heavy industry at one time was beer, a commercial enterprise dating back to the 12th century, and it's perhaps no surprise that the city continues to host a traditional 'Oktoberfest' celebration of all things beer every autumn.
DUNEDIN, NEW ZEALAND
The geographically most distant sister city to Edinburgh is also the one with the most direct connection. Founded by nineteenth century Scottish migrants, Dunedin takes its name from Dùn Èideann, the Gaelic name for Edinburgh - and the original settlers sought to recreate several elements of their homeland, including Princes Street, George Street, Hanover Street, and their very own Water of Leith! Dunedin has been a sister city to Edinburgh since 1974.
Like New Zealand, Canada also has strong links with the Scots diaspora, including several former governors general who hailed from Scotland. So Vanvouver, on Canada's west coast, was twinned with the Scottish capital in 1977. Like Edinburgh, Vancouver frequently ranks highly in global surveys of quality of life and happiness among its residents. The city also hosts an annual festival of Gaelic music and culture.
Edinburgh twinned with Florence in 1964, and just as Edinburgh is protected by UNESCO World Heritage Site status, so the centre of Florence is another UNESCO site. Thanks to its historic association with Rennaissance art and culture, Florence became known as the Athens of the Middle Ages - Edinburgh, similarly, was described as the Athens of the North, thanks in part to its connection to the Scottish Enlightenment!
SAN DIEGO, USA
A second city that Edinburgh was twinned with in 1977, San Diego on the shimmering west coast of California would appear at first glance not to have much in common with cold, dreich Scotland... The twinning association found one connection though - our love of dogs! Just as Edinburgh has Greyfriars Bobby, San Diego had their own vagrant dog, called Bum. Statues were exchanged, and today you can find the statue of Bum tucked away in the churchyard of St Cuthbert's church in the New Town.
So Edinburgh continues to be proud of its international connections, and in particular the cities with whom it has forged such cultural connections.
Explore more of Edinburgh's international connections and influences with my private city walking tours!
In exploring the built heritage of Edinburgh's Old and New Towns, there are several architects whose names crop up regularly.
William Playfair, Robert Adam, and Thomas Hamilton are just three of the figures whose buildings and grand designs help to give the city its sense of style.
But there are other architects whose buildings were never finished, or have long since been demolished - and then there's James Craig, whose influence on the city was extensive but in a more subtle way.
There are no public memorials to James Craig. Only one structure that he designed still stands in the city, and at the time of his death he was buried in an unmarked grave. But Craig's influence was integral to the city as it stands today, over two centuries after his death - because his was the vision which gave the Georgian-era New Town its distinctive grid system of intersecting straight lines.
Born in Edinburgh in 1739, Craig's father was a city merchant, and his mother was the sister of the poet who wrote the lyrics to Rule, Britannia!. James was the only one of the six children to survive infancy, and was educated at George Watson's Hospital, a school founded to educate the sons of city merchants.
Craig left school in 1755, at the age of 16, and in 1759 began six years of training as an apprentice mason and architect. Despite his work, he appears never to have formally sat his exams, and was never officially a member of the incorporated trades register of architects in the city.
In 1765, the city of Edinburgh launched a public competition to design a layout for the proposed New Town expansion to allow the city to grow across the valley to the north of the mouldering Old Town. Seven architects entered the contest, among them was an idea for a plan drawn up by James Craig.
There is a degree of uncertainty over what Craig's plan looked like at this stage. If you look at the protrait of Craig at the top of this page, you'll see the plans on which he's working resemble the New Town but with a circular element which never manifested in the development of 1767....
There is a suggestion that Craig's original vision took inspiration from the design of the Union Flag which had been drawn up following the union with England in 1707, featuring an element of diagonal streets linking to a central 'circus' - there's even a hand-annotated map which can be viewed at the National Library of Scotland archive of maps which shows what this version of the New Town might have been expected to resemble.
If this was Craig's vision, it would account for him being chosen as the winner of the competition - celebrating the new union was one key intention with Edinburgh's New Town project - but was fundamentally a problematic design. The landscape on which the New Town was developed is a high ridge of rock with steep valleys to its north and south, and constructing a circular intersection at the summit of this ridge would have been architecturally challenging at the time.
So although Craig was picked as there winner, he is believed to have then worked with the council authorities to develop his plan and his vision into a form that would be architecturally practical. And the grid system of the New Town as we know it today was that improved form.
Craig's original drawings for the New Town can be seen today in the Museum of Edinburgh on the Royal Mile. In a case nearby are Craig's pencil case and pens which he used in his work as a draughtsman.
But the layout of the city streets of the New Town are the best celebration of his vision for a modern city - the first example of comprehensive town planning in the UK, and the first time a British city had been built from scratch to a specific plan.
Craig was set for a career as a master architect and town planner - at a time when Edinburgh was growing and building at a faster rate than ever before.
Except Craig was, in the eyes of some of the city's master masons and architectural practitioners, an unqualified amateur - and having been given the opportunity and prestige of laying out the New Town over some of the era's best-known builders and designers, he was considered an unwelcome upstart. So he never fully developed the career he might have anticipated, and although he was associated with a number of major projects in the city, relatively few developed into paid employment for him.
He did build the original headquarters for the Royal College of Physicians, on George Street - the grandest street of his iconic development. The building was constructed in the 1770s, directly opposite St Andrew's Church (now St Andrew's and St George's) on the site of The Dome bar and restaurant today.
As that notation indicates, Craig's building no longer stands - it was never finished to his (or the College's) satisfaction during to rising costs, and in 1843 the building was demolished in order for David Rhind's banking hall for the Commercial Bank of Scotland.
In 1790 Craig was employed to redesign the stable block of Newhailes House, James Smith's Palladian estate property in East Lothian, and was employed to produce engineering plans and drawings for a variety of grand country properties across Scotland.
The only project in Edinburgh which James Craig built and which remains visible to visitors today can be found at the top of Calton Hill at the eastern end of the New Town.
Designed and built in the late 1770s, the City Observatory was a public installation which provided access to the latest astronomical and scientific instruments - when the money ran out in 1777, the building had only been part finished, and would later be completed in 1792.
Although the bulk of the observatory complex was redeveloped by Playfair in the 19th century, the western elevation with its gothic tower still stands today.
Towards the end of his life, Craig had been living his uncle at a house at the bottom of the West Bow in the Grassmarket. His financial situation was precarious because of the lack of work, and any income from cash-in-hands jobs he was able to secure went straight to paying off his creditors.
He had only ever had one paid employment south of the border in England, and Craig lamented in one letter to a friend that he received few offers of work which deviated from what he described as "the monotony of the straight line", a reference to his iconic work designing the grid system New Town.
Craig died of tuberculosis on 23 June 1795. He was buried in an unmarked family plot in the Greyfriars Kirkyard, just a stone's throw from the house in which he died. His grave today is marked with a stone noting his influence on the New Town.
I think it's a shame Craig remains overlooked and broadly uncelebrated, despite the impact his vision had on the Scottish capital. But despite never having achieved his full potential as a grand designer, Craig's influence on Edinburgh was unmistakable and iconic - and still there for visitors to see!
Explore Craig's New Town in more detail with my private city walking tours!
In the days when Scotland was occupied by grand families who operated estate properties which employed local people from nearby villages and towns to work on their estate properties, the 'big hoose' became a focus for community life. While some of these estates remain active and operational (and, often, still family owned) others have passed into the care of heritage bodies like the National Trust for Scotland and Historic Environment Scotland. Many remain publicly accessible, or have grounds and parks that can be visited either for free or for a small charge.
Here's my brief guide to a handful of these 'big hooses' that can be visited from Edinburgh...
Built as Whitehill House in the 1680s by the architect James Smith as his own private residence, Newhailes is an early example of the Palladian style which became so popular in Britain in the late 17th- and early 18th-centuries, a style pioneered by Smith who 'imported' it from Italy where he had studied under Andrea Palladio himself.
Smith had to sell the house barely a decade after it was built to ease financial troubles he had acquired by investing in failed mining operations, and the property and its estate passed into ownership of the Dalrymple family, baronets of Hailes.
The brother of Newhailes' first owner notoriously gave the order which let to the infamous Massacre of Glencoe in 1692, while later members of the family would entertain figures such as Adam Smith, David Hume, Samuel Johnson and James Boswell at Newhailes.
When Sir Mark Dalrymple, the 3rd Baronet of Hailes, died without having produced children in 1971 the house began to fall into disrepair, before being finally vacated in 1980. Dalrymple's widow lived in a cottage on the estate until 2011, and her death in 2017 represented the end of the Dalrymple family line.
The National Trust for Scotland has overseen the maintenance and care for Newhailes House since 1997, and today the estate remains popular with local walkers and with a cafe in the property's former stable block - partly designed by James Craig, who created the plans for Edinburgh's New Town - providing lunches and snacks to those who stop by to explore the grounds.
Another James Smith property, Cockenzie House is at the heart of the village of Cockenzie and Port Seton in East Lothian.
Operated now as a community centre with a variety of studios for local artists, therapists and jewellers, the building is set in its original gardens and has a popular cafe and studio shop, as well as hosting antiques fairs and a variety of community events all year round.
Following the Battle of Prestonpans in 1745 - the first skirmish of the '45 Jacobite Uprising - Bonnie Prince Charlie and his troops retired victorious to Cockenzie House, where they fed from fruit trees in the grounds. Later the house hosted artists such as JMW Turner and Sir Walter Scott as guests of the Caddell family who owned the property.
In the gardens of Cockenzie House, look out for the fruit trees which fed those early Jacobites, as well as a characteristic grotto built from pumice, the stone used as ballast which was discarded by ships sailing into and out of the nearby port on early trade excursions to northern Europe and Iceland.
The hecla grotto - its name is spelled out in stone at the front of the structure - was a 19th-century folly with whale bones forming its doorway. Remains of its original ornate decorations, using shells and stones from the local beaches, can still be seen inside the building.
A rare example of an estate which has fallen entirely to ruin, Cammo is a suburb to the north-west of Edinburgh with grounds accessible to local people and visitors. The house itself, another late 17th-century family home, fell victim to vandals in the 1970s, and the area today is maintained by the City of Edinburgh Council.
Only a few collections of stonework and the original doorway of Cammo House survive, although the grounds continue to show evidence of the former status of the property, with an ornamental canal, a pinetum (a collection of rare trees), a walled orangery and a derelict carriage house all suggesting the grandeur the property would have had at its height.
The writer Robert Louis Stevenson visited the area frequently, and is believed to have used Cammo House as the model for the House of Shaws in his novel Kidnapped.
Another local property easily accessible from the city centre is Prestonfield House, dating from 1687 and operating today as a boutique hotel, restaurant and wedding venue.
Set within its own grounds to the south-east of Arthur's Seat, Prestonfield was originally site of a 12th century monastery and later a house named Priestfield, which was destroyed by fire in the 1680s. The new building built to replace Priestfield changed its name to distance itself from its Catholic connections.
As the home of the wealthy Dick family in the 18th and 19th centuries, the estate at Prestonfield becamea high society venue which attracted guests such as David Hume, Benjamin Franklin and (a recurring name on Scotland's visitor records) Samuel Johnson.
The house was also the first place in the UK to cultivate rhubarb, and that vegetable gives its name to the restaurant in the house today.
The interior of Presonfield is a reason in itself to visit for dinner or afternoon tea, with rooms styled in a variety of ornate styles creating a unique and sumptuous setting.
In the grounds, look out for the estate's peacocks who roam freely, and the circular stable block which has been adapted to hosted lavish weddings and other special events.
A short distance from Edinburgh is Vogrie House, a 19th century estate property built in the typical Scots Baronial architectural style, which originally accommodated the Dewar family.
A cafe provides refreshments, and a play park and indoor soft play area for children can help keep younger members of the family engaged.
Although the building is not accessible to the public, the grounds of Vogrie Country Park are spacious and spectacular, with a number of pieces of art dotted through the woods and lawns of the former estate. Look out for two huge, brightly coloured chairs, and a giant's tricyle!
Sometimes known as Dalkeith Palace, today the Dalkeith Country Park provides access to the grounds of this grand estate property. There had been a castle or fortified house on this site since medieval times, but the current house was another of James Smith's constructions from the early years of the 18th century.
The house has several royal connections, having provided accommodation a number of monarchs over the years, including Bonnie Prince Charlie, George IV during his historic visit to Scotland in 1822, Queen Victoria, Edward VII and George V.
During the Second World War the property accommodated Polish soldiers who used the grounds for military training and practice.
Today, although the estate remains active as farmland, much of its grounds are accessible for walkers, with a cafe and artisan gift shops in the former stable block and with an extensive children's play area.
Look out for a huge folly which is currently undergoing renovation.
Another estate property which retains its family ownership is Gosford House in East Lothian. Built at the end of the 18th century to plans by Robert Adam, who also styled Edinburgh's New Town, the property has a distinctive neoclassical style and sprawling grounds which continue to provide space for visitors to explore.
The estate's ponds and woodlands offer a real sense of escape from the routines of daily life.
Used as a filming location for the Outlander television series, Gosford stood in for the Palace of Versailles - an indication of its sense of status and style!
The original owner of the property, the 7th Earl of Wemyss, was Grand Master Mason of the Grand Lodge of Scotland, and after his death he was buried in the grounds of Gosford House in a huge mausoleum styled as a pyramid, referencing several ancient masonic traditions.
The estate also has a rare example of a curling house, effectively a pavilion for the popular Scottish sport of curling, which would have been played on the estate's frozen lakes during the winter months.
Gosford House is open to visitors in the summer, with grounds accessible through the rest of the year (subject to the family's permitting access).
Explore more of Edinburgh's high status history with a tour exploring the Georgian-era New Town!
In the first of a new collection of blogs highlighting Edinburgh's amazing art galleries and museums, I'm introducing you to a museum dedicated to all things Edinburgh - it's the Museum of Edinburgh!
This amazing building on the Canongate in the Old Town is easily overlooked. Many visitors will see the outside of the building (or the lane behind it, which has some Outlander connections) without actually taking time to explore the museum itself.
Formerly known as the Huntly House Museum, the building which houses the exhibition dates back to the late 16th century, and was known locally as 'the speaking house' because of the panels of Latin text on the front of the building. As well as its exhibition features, the museum provides a fascinating glimpse into what these historic buildings were like on the inside, offering a chance to imagine what life would have been like for people who lived in them.
Entering through a small courtyard to the left of the building on the Royal Mile, you access the first of the museum's rooms via a narrow wooden staircase. (In common with many Edinburgh attractions, and the city itself, accessibility can be problematic....) The first wood panelled room introduces a few key features of the city, including one of the original sedan chairs which formed Edinburgh's first taxi service in the late 7th century.
Nearby is an original copy of the National Covenant, signed in the 1630s as a statement against interference by the monarchy in the religious operations of the Church of Scotland.
The collection of objects on display is quite remarkable, and all of them have direct connection to Edinburgh and its inhabitants. The diversity of the exhibits is itself a reason to go exploring the museum!
In cases in the next room you can find a strange assortment of pieces which all belonged for former occupants of the city, including a spectacles case which once belonged to Protestant reformer John Knox (his spectacles are long gone), a golf ball belonging to Robert Louis Stevenson, and a wicker basket made by Adam Smith's mother!
Look out also for a piece of the tree which held the rope by which witches were 'ducked' in the Nor' Loch to assess their guilt or innocence, some sections of the old city water pipes, and what could be the original bore stone which held the flag of James IV as he assembled his troops ahead of the Battle of Flodden, in 1513...
As you explore the museum you'll move between several original buildings, and many features of the original structures survive intact, from the original windows and doorways, to primitive security features, and from fireplaces to roof beams. I often wonder what the people who lived in these properties over the last five hundred years would make of visitors strolling through today!
Special collections of artefacts are linked to Field Marshall Sir Douglas Haig, who was born on Charlotte Square in Edinburgh's New Town and became a major military leader of British troops in the First World War, and Edinburgh's extensive glass and pottery factories which operated in the Canongate area into the twentieth century.
You'll also find objects which are intrinsically linked to Edinburgh's history, including the original New Town plans drawn up by James Craig in the 1760s, and the collar, bowl and licence provided for Greyfriars Bobby by the lord provost of the city, William Chambers, in the 1860s.
The museum as a whole is charming and intriguing, and gives a rare opportunity to find out not just the facts about Edinburgh's history, but to see some of its historic Old Town buildings up-close and from the inside. Despite the museum being fairly small you could easily spend an hour or more browsing the exhibits, and I guarantee you'll find something to intrigue, surprise or amuse you!
The Museum of Edinburgh is well worth taking the time to explore during your visit, and like all the publicly owned museums and galleries in the city, entry is free! Check the city council's website for updated opening times, and details of any special exhibitions or events.
Explore Edinburgh's history in more detail with my customised city walking tours!
Edinburgh's New Town is an often unfairly overlooked side of the city, especially by visitors who (perhaps understandably) imagine from its name that it may be a 1980s shopping district.
In fact the New Town has over 250 years of its own history, style and culture, dating back to its origins as a residential expansion for wealthy citizens of Edinburgh when it was first constructed in the 1760s.
As well as offering a dedicated New Town tour, I always try to encourage visitors to explore areas of Edinburgh's New Town for themselves, and at the start of a whole new year, now is as good a time as any to highlight features that the New Town has to offer!
So here's my must-see guide to New Town highlights... but to explore them in more detail, join me for a walking tour!
Much of the original New Town has been converted for commercial use, and it's hard to get a sense of the style and grandeur that the city originally offered when confronted with Starbucks and Hard Rock Cafe...
But Dundas House on St Andrew Square is one of the finest original buildings that remains publicly accessible, and it offers an astonishing glimpse into life for the uber-rich in the early years of the New Town project.
Laurence Dundas had been a self-made businessman. His father had owned a luckenbooth (a small stall or shop) on the Royal Mile, and Laurence Dundas had built his fortune from canny investments and business enterprises.
In the 1760s he bought what he considered to be the prime location for his family's residence, on St Andrew Square. The space had originally been intended to be occupied by a church, but such was Dundas's influence in the city he was able to commandeer the site for his own property instead. The original villa property was designed by iconic architect William Chambers, who also designed Somerset House in London.
Dundas was later an early director of the Royal Bank of Scotland, and following his death the Royal Bank acquired the building Dundas had lived in. It remains the world headquarters of the Royal Bank of Scotland group, and is maintained as a public bank branch... which means it's open for visitors to check out during their visit!
The banking hall itself is not actually part of the original house, but it is one of the grandest commercial spaces in the city even today, and gives a great sense of how much wealth and affluence could be found in eighteenth century Edinburgh. As a major banking city, it was finance which helped create the grand style of the New Town, and Dundas House is a great example of the style that such wealth could buy.
The huge domed ceiling is cut with star-shaped skylights, which not only create a very dramatic visual effect, they also allowed huge amounts of natural light into the banking hall, which helped to give the Royal Bank a commercial advantage over some of its competitors, by allowing it to stay open later into the evening!
Today the building still serves as a bank, but even if you aren't going in to make use of its cash machines or banking facilities, take a few minutes to check out its iconic bank hall designed by architects Peddie and Kinnear.
One of the Insta-friendly highlights of the New Town is this historic former mill town which originally lay well beyond the city limits of Edinburgh. When I first started taking tours around the area it was a guaranteed visitor-free zone, but with the rise of tourism and the takeover of Instagrammers, it's rare to explore this area is such solitude and peace today. (I blame the internet and tour guides. :) )
Dean Village provided one of the only original access routes into Edinburgh, crossing the steep valley cut by the Water of Leith via a narrow stone bridge. The river itself provided power to a series of industries along its length, and Dean Village - meaning 'the village in the valley' - was a mill town, where farmers brought grain to have it turned into flour to be exported into Edinburgh.
One of the most notable buildings in the village is the former guild of baxters (bread bakers) who built the building in 1675. You can find their emblem - representing paddles bearing loves of bread - around the area, along with sheaves of corn cut into some of the original warehouse structures.
Another significant structure is Well Court, an 1880s housing development built by John Ritchie Findlay (proprietor of the Scotsman newspaper) as affordable housing in order to attract people back to the Dean Village after the industries had moved away in the 1830s.
Built around a central courtyard, Well Court is a distinctive tenement style that had community spirit built into its structure, with a dedicated space for community events and activities. The well-used communal washing lines shows that the community is still alive and well in the Dean Village, and the area remains a popular residential suburb for people to enjoy the benefits of living in the city without being stuck right in the centre of town.
Another of the highlights of the New Town of Edinburgh is Calton Hill, one of the three volcanic peaks to be found in the city centre.
Developed as the city's first public park in the 1720s, Calton Hill continues to offer visitors (and locals) a space to escape, with views across to the Old Town, Arthur's Seat, out to Leith, and over to the county of Fife, across the water to the north of Edinburgh.
The hill also boasts one of the most iconic structures in Edinburgh, the National Monument. This unfinished memorial for the dead soldiers of the Napoleonic Wars was intedned to be a full recreation of the Parthenon in Athens, but was left incomplete when funding dried up. The memorial was designed by William Henry Playfair, who also built several other structures and monuments on the top of Calton Hill.
The Nelson Monument is a telescope-shaped memorial to Admiral Nelson, a British naval hero, and you'll also find the original City Observatory building, now an art gallery with a restaurant space within its precincts, as well as a memorial cairn celebrating the campaign to re-establish an independent Scottish parliament.
THE SCOTT MONUMENT
Probably my favourite structure in the city, the Scott Monument celebrates the author Sir Walter Scott, best known for novels like Rob Roy and Ivanhoe. When Scott died in 1832, he was the most widely read British author of the age, and his memorial was paid for with nearly £17,000 of money donated by the readers of his books.
Designed by an architect named George Meikle Kemp, the monument remains the world's tallest monument to a writer, with a staircase up to four viewing platforms, the highest nearly 200ft above Princes Street Gardens.
Nicknamed the Gothic Rocket, for its style and shape, the there are over 60 statues on the monument representing Scottish historic figures as well as fictional characters from Scott's writing. The statue of Walter Scott at street level was carved by the sculptor John Steell.
PRINCES STREET GARDENS
Originally private gardens for the wealth residents who lived on Princes Street, Princes Street Gardens are some of the most popular public spaces in the city today.
At the western end of the gardens is the Ross Memorial Fountain, recently restored and renovated, with views up to Edinburgh Castle on top of its volcanic outcrop.
The valley in which the gardens sit today was at one time an artificial lake, and today the mainline railway runs along the bottom of the gardens, with a large outdoor stage area occasionally used for concerts (weather permitting!).
Look out for a statue of Wojtek the bear, a Polish folk hero with an Edinburgh connection, a First World War memorial given as a gift from the people of America to Scotland, the world's oldest floral clock, and a small memorial to the writer Robert Louis Stevenson, who was born in Edinburgh but died on an island in Samoa in the western Pacific Ocean...
Taken altogether, the New Town of Edinburgh represents a distinct contrast from the 'historic' Old Town side of the city, and is well worth exploring! (It's also arguably better for bars and restaurants than the Royal Mile area, too...)
Explore the New Town in more detail with my private city walking tours!
Just a short drive from Edinburgh are two of the most popular - and impressive - landmarks that visitors often have on their list of sites to see. Although I don't take tours out of Edinburgh, I can heartily recommend a visit to both the Kelpies and the Falkirk Wheel, and can help you find a great local guide who can show them to you, if needed!
The Kelpies were unveiled in 2014, and have fast become one of Scotland's most iconic pieces of amazing public art. Visible from the M9 motorway between Edinburgh and Stirling, the best way to appreciate the scale and style of Andy Scott's artwork is to visit them up-close. They form part of the Helix park, an expanse of reclaimed land that has been turned into recreational space - great for walking the dogs or letting the kids run free!
The Forth and Clyde canal runs through the area, connecting (as its name suggests) the estuaries of the rivers Forth (on the east coast) and the Clyde (to the west). This cross-country transport link was a key feature of nineteenth-century Scottish trade and industry, although the network was superceded by the railways just a few decades later.
On either side of the canal at this point, the Kelpies are two horses' heads, created from steel and lit from the inside at night. Each of them stands 100ft or 30m high, and are the world's largest equine sculptures.
In Scottish mythology, kelpies were water spirits who could change their shape and appearance, and lived in the country's waterways. The notorious Loch Ness Monster would be an example of a kelpie - mysterious, rarely seen... and probably completely mythological!
The beasts seek out human company and contact, sometimes appearing as horses to entice riders to jump onto their backs, before being dragged to a watery grave... Similar creatures occur in other world mythologies, and it's not hard to see a parallel between kelpies and mermaids, luring the unwary traveller to a mysterious end.
Today the Kelpies attract visitors from all over the world, and the canal here has a small visitor centre and a number of little food outlets and coffee huts to encourage you to linger a while and take in the full scale and majesty of the sculptures.
You can also view the maquettes or models of the Kelpies that were created to demonstrate the final artwork.
A few miles further up the canal you'll find the Falkirk Wheel, the world's only 360-degree revolving boat lift. (It's much more impressive than that makes it sound!)
Originally the landscape here would have required boats to navigate a punishing series of 11 separate locks to raise or lower themselves between the levels of the canal. The link fell into disuse in the 1930s, and in was only in 2002 that the Falkirk Wheel provided a modern means of connection.
As you'll see from that timelapse video, the wheel's movement is incredibly smooth and astonishingly impressive to see in real life. It takes about 10 minutes to make a 180-degree rotation, lifting a laden boat in a section of canal between the top and bottom sections.
Redevelopment of the whole site cost in excess of £80m, and visitors today can take a short boat ride to experience the wheel in action, or just observe it from the viewing area near the visitor centre at the bottom. Water sports aficionados can take part in a variety of water-based activities in the marina nearby.
Explore more of Edinburgh's city centre public artworks - and its canal! - with my private city walking tours!
I've written before about the numerous castles which can be found in and around Edinburgh - the one which gets all the visitors is the best-known and most recognisable, but several of the others deserve a little more attention and focus too.
One which is especially worth visiting is Lauriston Castle, on the northern edge of the city, near to the suburb of Cramond. This sixteenth century building has been adapted and expanded over the centuries, and now offers a pleasant escape from the city to explore its gardens with views across the Firth of Forth. Through the year the house itself serves as a venue for a variety of events and activities, although the castle is currently closed for general visitors.
The existing structure dates from just before 1600, built for Sir Archibald Napier - father of John Napier, the mathematician, who was born in another of Edinburgh's castles which survives in Bruntsfield.
This original building would have been L-shaped, as was typical of many grand houses of the time. The wing which created the current T-shape of the house was added in the 19th century by William Burn.
Previous owners and occupants of building have left their marks on thje property in some surprising ways.
John Napier - he of the logarithms and mathematical genius - was also a fan of astrology, and apparently had the horoscope of his brother Archibald (born 18 October 1572) carved on a stone panel and installed above the door of the family home at Lauriston. The carving is a little worn and difficult to make out, but can still be seen on the front of the building today.
However, the building later passed into the hands of Robert Dalglish - a lawyer to King Charles I in the 1640s - and his wife Jean Douglass. And they, it seems, set little store by astrological nonsense! They had the horoscope stone removed, and installed instead a panel of their own, reading (in Latin) 'I do not acknowledge the stars as either the rulers of life or the causes of my good fortune. The things which I possess I ascribe to the goodness of God'...
No stronger rejection of faux-scientific superstition could a person ask for! And as a further bit of linguistic interest, they also had the phrase GOD'S GREAT AND HE IS ALL OUR BLIS [sic] inscribed - which is (almost) an anagram of their names written above it.
In 1683 Lauriston Castle was bought by William Law, a banker and a goldsmith. His son, John Law, became a notable figure in the field of economics, establishing the world's first bank to issue paper money - banknotes - as an alternative to metal coinage. Law had already had a dramatic life, having escaped execution for murder in his 20s for killing another man in a duel for the hand of a woman, before escaping prison to start a new life in Amsterdam....!
Intriguingly the emblem over the entrance today features a mermaid combing her hair while looking into a mirror, and the motto PER MARE PER TERRAS - this is the motto of the MacDonald family and means 'By sea and by land', but is also the emblem of the Rutherfurds who owned Lauriston Castle in the middle of the 19th century.
The Right Hon. Andrew Rutherfurd, Lord Rutherfurd, was Lord Advocate for Scotland and served on the privy council advising Queen Victoria, and he owned (and lived at) Lauriston Castle between the 1790s and the 1850s.
The porches at the front and side of the building are believed to have been built by William Henry Playfair, who may also have laid out the gardens in the 1840s.
The gardens have been significantly altered over the years, but the recent addition of a Japanese garden evokes some of the sense of style and grandeur that these formal gardens would originally have had.
Lauriston Castle passed into the ownership of Edinburgh Council in the 1920s, and it has been maintained for the public since then. In the 1950s the lawns to the rear of the property were laid out with croquet lawns, and it's still possible to watch Edinburgh Croquet Club playing games on the flat greens during the summer months.
Otherwise a casual visitor is rewarded with some fine views across the Firth of Forth, and an interesting selection of architectural features on the building itself.
Here the old and original style of stone-built architecture is complemented by the later additions which sought to reinvent some of those features in a style that became known as Scots Baronial.
Look for the zig-zag rooflines and pediments known as 'crowsteps' which took a structural feature of medieval-era buildings and made them into a decorative style. And check out the circular towers - the decorative turrets which don't reach as far as the ground - called bartisans. Lauriston Castle offers a fine opportunity to see both original and the Victorian era reinvention of some of these architectural features, giving a rare chance to contrast the 17th- and 19th-century 'mock gothic' versions side by side!
Explore more of Edinburgh's diverse social and architectural history with a private city walking tour!
Modern developments in Edinburgh tend to be received hesitantly at best by locals in the city - the desire to protect the style and heritage of the Old and New Towns sometimes feels like a reluctance to countenance any modernisation or improvement, and it's not unusual for 'new' buildings to be greeted with widespread outrage.
But Edinburgh has always been a city of development and growth, from the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century 'high rise' houses which rose in the Old Town, to the major 'New' Town of the eighteenth century. The Victorians systematically 'improved' the Old Town in the nineteenth century, and as Edinburgh became a major European capital of the twentieth century there have been waves of development that have either removed or built onto existing structures.
So here's my potted history of Edinburgh's ever-changing cityscape, starting with those original efforts to modify the city properties to accommodate more people as the population steadily rose.
Demolishing the existing houses in order to build bigger ones was impractical and expensive, and the challenging physical geography of the city made horizontal growth almost impossible, so instead Edinburgh developed as a vertical city.
Buildings would be modified by adding an extra level to the top of the structure, creating a new floor of accommodation space. These would be added through the years as needed, as the city drew communities from outlying towns and became the focus of an exodus of people from further afield with the dawn of industry and mechanisation.
A great visual example of this can be found on Bakehouse Close, just off the Royal Mile at Canongate. At the back of the building here, the different 'layers' of the building can be identified like strata in natural stone.
My coloured scribblings on this photo show the various different phases of construction on this building, from the original late sixteenth century structure to the late eighteenth century.
It's not always easy to parse one period of development from another, as the building increased in size as needed, and later phases of development consumed earlier sections of the structure.
Here the building has four or five visible storeys, but towards the top end of the Royal Mile, near Castlehill, where the landscape is more dramatic, the steep hills meant up to 12 or 14 storeys were possible.
Within these phases of development, doorways and windows were frequently bricked up or knocked through, as the function, layout and structure of the properties changed. Doubtless the residents at the time bemoaned the level of construction and development to their city, the way locals do today!
By the 1740s, Edinburgh's population was swelling beyond manageable proportions. The city had an area of just half a square mile, with in excess of 50,000 souls crammed within its walls. Overcrowding, filth, deprivation and squalor were to be found on every corner and in every property, and so the city authorities planned an expansion off the ridge of volcanic rock that marked the first major expansion to the city in its history.
Building the New Town from the 1760s onwards became a feat of engineering, as well as a major commerical enterprise. Land was bought and sold, property developers converted pastures and grazing land into residential streets, and for the better part of a full century the city's growth and development seemed unstoppable.
James Craig had laid out the city's formal grid system of streets, with the intention of creating grand, broad streets of high status residences. However, his vision was nearly derailed in the early stages by two deviations from his structured layout...
A property developer by the name of John Young had taken the council's incentive of £20 cash to purchase the first plot of New Town land, and promptly built two sets of semi-detached/duplex accommodation facing each other across a fine courtyard. Thistle Court, as it was called, was typical of the Old Town style of rubble-built housing, and the courtyard offered the familiar layout of space that grander Old Town residents would have expected.
The trouble was, it wasn't the terraced street that James Craig had planned for! So tucked away behind George Street, near St Andrew Square, this small development remains the oldest surviving development of the Georgian New Town, even though it completely failed to conform to the expected standards and layout.
A second deviation from Craig's plan would also be the kind of incident to leave modern residents frothing and foaming at the mouth, and it can be found on St Andrew Square itself.
Craig's vision for the city was a symmetrical layout of straight lines and garden spaces, 'bookended' with a large church building at both the eastern and western ends of the city. On Charlotte Square today you'll still find the former St George's Church, which was the major feature of visual impact at the western end of the city. However, at the parallel space on St Andrew Square, the space where Craig had drawn his church is occupied by the headquarters of the Royal Bank of Scotland.
That was as a result of a wealthy businessman named Laurence Dundas convincing the council to allow him to occupy the land instead of giving it over for the church to use, because it represented the grandest and most high-status location in the city. St Andrew's Church was bumped onto George Street itself, and Dundas lived with his family in the grand villa which passed into the ownership of the bank in the nineteenth century.
The first phase of New Town took nearly 50 years to complete, meaning that for many people in the city, the area to the north of the Royal Mile would have been a building site for almost their entire lifetimes. And not everyone who could embrace the opportunity of the New Town did so - stories survive of at least one aged celebrity figure of the Old Town boasting that he had never even seen the New Town, never mind taken the trouble to visit it!
By the middle of the nineteenth century, the Old Town was crumbling and collapsing, with incidents like the tragedy of Paisley Close becoming dangerously close to common occurrences. Edinburgh Council was forced to develop a vision to improve and modernise the medieval city streets, and from the 1860s onwards a significant proportion of the original city was demolished in order to widen the streets, rebuild the houses, and improve the quality of life for the thousands of poor wretches who were unfortunate enough to call Edinburgh's Old Town 'home'.
St Mary's Street at the World's End was the first street to experience this modernisation, giving birth to the Scots Baronial style of architecture which filled standard homes and shops and functional buildings with the kind of decorations and architectural features more commonly found on more high status buildings.
This period of the Victorian 'improvement' deliberately sought to recreate some of the historic stylings of the original buildings, which is why today visitors are often surprised (and dismayed) to learn that buildings which look not unreasonably like ancient structures are often barely more than 140 years old, and are. in fact a full century newer than the surviving 'New' Town buildings...
During the twentieth century, whole swathes of Edinburgh's historic buildings were lost to the wrecking ball.
Princes Street remains one of the most badly developed of the city's streets, as decades of commercialisation have built successive generations of shopping structures on the site of what previously had been grand housing.
The 1950s and '60s were especially traumatic for the city, as concrete edifices were built where Georgian style had once existed, and there were even plans to run a motorway along the route of Princes Street, demolishing the city structures entirely in an effort to provide improved transport routes across the from east coast. We must be grateful such wanton cultural vandalism never came to pass, and Princes Street retains a few vestiges of its original style despite the efforts of high street stores to claim the territory for their own.
Edinburgh only got its UNESCO World Heritage Site status in 1995 - far more recently than many people realise - and the protection afforded by this status extends to all the structures standing at the time... which is why many of those remarkably awful developments of the 1950s and '60s not only survive today, but are protected from demolition alongside the more 'historic' buildings that people tend to associate with heritage protection!
And the UNESCO protection has actually led to developers being forced to work collaboratively with the old structures in their development, creating interesting contrasts of style and structure that I think can show off the very best of Edinburgh as a modern historic city.
On Advocate's Close, the development of the Old Town Chambers in 2014 was designated as Scotland's best new building, despite some of the foundations and internal structures of the property dating back, in parts, to around 1500...
Similarly at Holyrood where the modern Scottish Parliament building won handfuls of prestigious architecture awards, despite many locals being both appalled and outraged by its visual styling.
But the wholesale renovation of this former industrial area saw buildings such as this pizza restaurant occupying a renovated brewery building, and a modern glass structure to its right enhancing the original brick warehouse, bringing life and style back to buildings that could easily have been lost. Forcing developers to utilise structures like this invites a creative engagement with the city's heritage, and results in intriguing combinations of old and new.
One of the very best examples of this combination of Old and New, I think, can be found at Quartermile, a development in the Old Town of the 1870s Royal Infirmary buildings. When the hospital moved out to modern premises in 2005, the former buildings were sold for development and are continuing to be updated into a combination of residential and commercial spaces, the mix of old and new styles creating a stunning visual effect that I think serves as a fantastic metaphor for Edinburgh as a whole.
Many buildings - including a lot of churches which passed out of function - have been reinvented as other structures with different purposes, and the combination of styles can be quite visually arresting when done well.
This city has presented to developers for centuries, and the contemporary drive to convert and renovate and expand and improve is not significantly different from the efforts to modify and develop the city over the past four centuries or so.
Without efforts to maintain Edinburgh as a functioning, contemporary city, we would risk turning into a museum city that is preserved in aspic or trapped behind glass, lifeless and ill-suited to the needs of the modern world. Successful development demonstrates that history and heritage need not be sacrificed for the sake of commercial enterprise.
Whilst not every attempt to modify and develop is necessarily successful, being open to the possibilities that exist - and the efforts made to preserve, protect whilst in the process of development - is essential in order to prevent Edinburgh becoming a city only of the past, and not of the future.
Explore historic Edinburgh - both ancient and modern! - with my private city walking tours...
Unlike many ancient cities, Edinburgh was built without many of the essential features which help to sustain substantial populations. The city lies too far inland to have a natural port of its own, on too mountainous a landscape to provide land for grazing animals or planting crops, and wasn't on any major waterway to provide access for industry or shipping.
But many of these features lay just beyond the bounds of the original city. The port of Leith, at one time the busiest port in Scotland, developed as a separate town, and was only formally incorporated into Edinburgh in the 20th century. Farmland to the south, east and west sustained agricultural communities who came to Edinburgh to trade their goods and produce.
And the Water of Leith, a modest stream running from the Pentland Hills into the North Sea at Leith, was a lifeline for many small outlying towns and settlements who used the power the stream provided for industrial operations.
Today the Water of Leith continues to flow through Edinburgh's outskirts and central suburbs, offering a sliver of pastoral idyll to those seeking to escape the city itself. The various former industrial towns are now predominantly quiet residential areas with their own peaceful atmospheres, and a pathway along the length of the river provides a tranquil and accessible route for those looking to walk, jog, cycle or just wander aimlessly through the meandering and sometimes dramatic landscape that the water has carved out over countless millennia.
Here is my guide to some of the highlights found along the Water of Leith, with tips for areas to explore that can take you well beyond the tourist trails of the Old Town. The route as a whole will take you from the high, exposed wilderness of the Pentland Hills, to the former industrial heartland of Leith.
Our journey begins in the hills to the south of the city, where natural gullies gather water from the exposed landscape, and channel it into reservoirs. Some of these provided the original freshwater supplied to Edinburgh, when a network of wooden pipes was established to pipe it into the city in the 17th century.
Other reservoirs provide some of the accumulated supply of water which becomes the Water of Leith itself. There are various areas to explore in the Pentlands, maintained as nature reserves and kept as public spaces, just a short step away from the city centre. Two of the reservoirs which feeds into the Water of Leith are Threipmuir and Harlaw, themselves offering a short circular walking route around the perimeter of these bodies of water, which are often used by anglers.
Downstream from these reservoirs, the Water of Leith walkway begins at Balerno, a village which was one of the places which utilised the free flowing waters as a power source for its industry.
Paper mills sprang up around this stretch of Water of Leith in the 18th century with the rise of printed books and newspapers. At one time the river powered in excess of 70 industrial plants along its 24-mile length, producing a variety of materials from paper to flour, all of which could be sold locally or transported into cities like Edinburgh, or even further afield from the port of Leith itself.
Wanderers along the river here may spot a variety of wildlife, from herons and otters occupying the water, to a rich variety of plants growing along the banks of the stream.
Wild garlic is a copious natural foodstuff which thrives in these areas, and in recent years has become a favoured product from those who have turned to foraging for natural ingredients. Look out for brambles and wild berries, as well as orchids, bluebells and a variety of wildflowers among the trees.
A little further downstream, Colinton is another popular suburb which developed around one of the original points where the Water of Leith could be crossed without the need to navigate the treacherous sides of the glen through which the stream ran. Today a high bridge across the water provides a view down to one of the local parks, which remains popular with locals and dog walkers, and onto the Water of Leith walkway which passes through it.
Colinton has several associations with the writer Robert Louis Stevenson, who often stayed with his grandparents in the village and spent time playing along the banks of the river, later taking inspiration for his poetry from these idyllic childhood times.
From Colinton walkers have a choice of following the path along the banks of the water, or traversing a higher path which runs along the route of a former railway.
Along the railway route is a tunnel cut through the rocky sides of the valley. Today the tunnel has become a popular public work of art, with the walls painted with a variety of popular Scottish icons and imagery, including Harry Potter figures, Highland cows, a bagpiper and military memorial plaques, and a graffiti-style rendering of one of Robert Louis Stevenson's poems, From a Railway Carriage, describing the features glimpsed from a speeding train!
The Colinton tunnel is a real highlight of this route, and makes it worth leaving the water briefly to climb a little higher - and from here you have another choice, to return to the valley and follow the bank of the river, or to stay above it where you'll join with the Caledonian Canal, another of the waterways which cuts through this landscape.
From the canal route you'll be rewarded eventually with an elevated view across towards Arthur's Seat in the distance, as the canal is carried over an aqueduct which crosses the Water of Leith itself.
From here you can descend a steep staircase to get back to the river, and take advantage of the Water of Leith Visitor Centre, where you can find out more about the work done by the Water of Leith Conservation trust to protect and preserve this historic waterway, and recharge your batteries with a coffee from their cafe.
The visitor centre, where the canal crosses the river, is at Slateford, which was historically another town with important transport links - at one time, the road, railway and canal were all viable routes through this area, and the railway bridge and aqueduct which rise high above the level of the road and the Water of Leith are a reminder of this area's former industrial heritage.
At this point we're only about 3 miles from the centre of Edinburgh, yet walking along the Water of Leith feels as though we're in a remote countryside setting. The landscaping and foliage muffles any noise of traffic and industry, and on a warm day the noise of birdsong is easily the loudest sound you'll hear.
From Slateford, the Water of Leith continues through the suburbs of Saughton, Roseburn and Murraryfield (home to Scotland's international rugby stadium), a relatively flat plain of Edinburgh developments that are occasionally vulnerable to flooding when the river is in full spate.
But continuing our walk along it, it's not long before the landscape changes again and becomes a steeper ravine, as the Water of Leith enters another former industrial area, at the Dean Village.
This was once a busy mill town on one of the only major routes into Edinburgh. Farmers from all around the city could bring their grain here to be turned into flour which was then exported into Edinburgh itself. As well as the original arched bridge crossing the river, Dean Village has several reminders of its original status, including the hall of the guild of baxters (bread bakers). Today it's a peaceful residential area with access directly to the Modern Art Gallery from the Water of Leith walkway itself.
Dean Village is a popular area for visitors to explore, just a short walk from Princes Street, and featuring in my extended New Town fixed-route tour.
Between the Dean Village and Stockbridge, another of Edinburgh's popular and bustling suburbs, the Water of Leith path runs in a steep valley whose sides are laid out with New Town private gardens. This was at one time an extremely wealthy, high-status residential district, developed as Edinburgh grew in the 18th century.
Although the industrial usage of the stream had left the water badly polluted and filthy - granting it the evocative local nickname 'Tumbleturd' - this remains one of the most picturesque and popular sections of the river. Look out for the neo-classical Grecian temple of St Bernard's Well, a former mineral spring which attracted visitors in the early days of Edinburgh's tourism trade.
From Stockbridge the Water of Leith runs near to the Royal Botanic Gardens, a pleasant haven of green space just a short walk from the city centre. The area nearby is known as Canonmills, after the historic location of mills (powered by the Water of Leith) which were managed by the canons of Holyrood Abbey, and from which the church derived a significant income.
Little evidence of these industrial features survive, but as the stream continues through Bonnington - once a settlement straddling the boundaries of Leith and Edinburgh - you may still see heavier industrial occupation of an area which capitalised on both the power supply of the stream and the proximity to the port for overseas trade and export.
The river widens as it enters its final stretch, taking us into the original port area of Leith.
The atmosphere as you walk along the banks here is distinctly post-industrial, with many of the old riverside buildings replaced with modern accommodation blocks, or converted into commercial spaces.
Reminders of the heavily industrial history of Leith are not hard to find, from large anchors set into the pathways to fish-based sculptures around the network of small streets immediately adjacent to the water. And it's not hard to miss the evidence of a huge amount of financial support invested in the area to regenerate Leith over the last two decades.
What was once a rundown port district, which had gone into decline with the loss of shipping and associated industries in the last half-century or so, is now a vibrant town with a fantastic array of local shops, cafes, bars and restaurants which has earned it recognition as a haven for hipsters.
But there is history in these streets and buildings, too. Look for the former St Ninian's church, one of the oldest surviving buildings in Leith, which stands almost directly on the bank of the Water of Leith.
Originally founded in the 1490s, the structure today features stonework erected during a post-Reformation renovation at the turn of the 17th century, as well as later additions like the Dutch-style bell tower.
What was once the port area itself is now known as the Shore, and more history can be found amongst the modern businesses which occupy some of the older buildings.
The Malmaison boutique hotel occupies the former Sailor's Home, a seamen's mission built to accommodate sailors whose ships were moored in the port in front of it, and in front of it is a memorial to merchant navy men whose lives were lost in a variety of conflicts and incidents.
Nearby is the remains of a windmill built in the 17th century by the architect Robert Milne, which was converted into a signal tower during the Napoleonic Wars, and a whaling harpoon is mounted at the side of the port as a reminder of the commercial trading which once took place in the water here.
The whole area oozes atmosphere, and it's perhaps strange to think that was was once a noisy, dangerous, busy industrial town is today a destination for brunch!
For anyone undertaking a walk along the length of the Water of Leith, arriving here - a little over 12 miles since starting along the pathway inland back at Balerno - offers plenty of choice for rest, relaxation, and refuelling.
Beyond a renovated swing bridge which would once have opened to allow large ships into the port, a tangle of ironwork and shipping cranes acts as a reminder that the North Sea - still a busy shipping lane and fishing territory - is just a short paddle away.
But how different the landscape is here, compared with the high, isolated mountain moorland where the Water of Leith began! In a relatively short distance we have traversed a variety of Edinburgh's suburbs and historical features.
From the sailors and fishermen of Leith to the well-heeled society folk of the New Town, and from the paper mills of Balerno to the baxters of Dean Village, over time the Water of Leith has provided a focus to a varied cross-section of people and industries. Today it's the domain of dog walkers and joggers, cyclists and casual strollers.
And still the water flows on, oblivious to the changing fashions, functions and tides of human occupation...
Explore more of Edinburgh's varied history with my private city walking tours!
Edinburgh is boundaried to the north by the Firth of Forth, the tidal estuary of the River Forth, which flows into the North Sea. This coast has served as a natural limit to the growth of the city, and for a long time was a major hurdle to travellers - especially pilgrims who made the long trek to the reliquary of St Andrew at the town which bears his name, on the eastern neuk - or 'corner' - of Fife.
Those making their way to St Andrews were faced with a considerable challenge in their efforts to cross the River Forth, necessitating a significant diversion inland to the west to cross at Kincardine, where the river was narrower, before venturing back eastwards to the coast, adding a distance of some forty miles to their already arduous route.
Towns along the northern bank of the Forth created a Pilgrim's Trail, featuring a number of holy sites and shrines to attract such travellers, and villages like Culross - famous today for its use as a setting for the Outlander TV series - capitalised on their saintly connections.
In the eleventh century, Queen Margaret of Scotland - wife of Malcolm III - established a ferry service across the River Forth, to provide pilgrims with a shortcut, and bypassing some of the inland diversion. A ferryman would row travellers across the choppy waters of the Firth of Forth, between two points which today still have names deriving from this transport facility - North and South Queensferry.
But with the growth of Scotland's population and the increase in demands for travel and transport, leading to the rise of mass transit in the 19th century and with the coming of the railways, the Firth of Forth remained a major obstacle for anyone seeking to travel north from Edinburgh or south from Fife.
In 1882 construction began on a cantilevered bridge to span the Forth and carry a railway line which would link Fife directly to Edinburgh. The Forth Bridge was designed by Sir John Fowler and Sir Benjamin Baker, and would become one of Scotland's major landmarks, as well as earning a UNESCO World Heritage Site designation in 2015.
Shortly after its construction was finished in 1889 the bridge was dubbed the 'Eighth Wonder of the World' due to its striking and iconic design of intersecting iron struts, creating a cross-hatching effect that - coupled with its distinctive red colour - made it a visual spectacle.
This style was an accidental consequence of a tragedy which occurred in 1879, when the Tay Bridge - a railway bridge crossing the River Tay at the northern end of Fife - collapsed during a severe winter storm. Seeking to reassure the public of the safety of such large pieces of infrastructure, the Forth Bridge was deliberately over-engineered in order to provide a visual sense of security and strength, adding in the multiple struts and supports to provide more stability than was structurally necessary.
The Forth Bridge opened in 1890, and has since become a feature of Scottish culture as well as an icon of Scottish travel. When Alan Turing, the inventor of the precursor to the modern computer, compiled a series of conditions that would have to be met for a computer to be considered as 'intelligent' as a human being - known as the Turing Test - one of the tasks he described was: 'Write me a sonnet on the subject of the Forth Bridge'. Only if a machine were able to complete all of those tasks laid out by Turing, including the poetry assignment, could it accurately be described as being able to think.
The painting of the bridge also came to be popularly used to describe a Sisyphean task - one that never ends - when it was believed that the job of painting the steel structure in its entirety took so long that by the time a team of workmen had painted from end of it to the other, it was already in need of repainting!
Today the Forth Bridge remains an iconic landmark, as well as providing an invaluable rail link between Fife and Edinburgh which serves thousands of commuters travelling into and out of the city on a daily basis.
Queen Margaret's ferry service continued running for eight centuries (although the boats had been upgraded several times over this period, eventually allowing for cars to be carried!). Even through the end of the 19th century, as trains rumbled across the Forth Bridge high above them, ferries continued shuttling passengers over the waters below. (For a brief time a hovercraft also carried passengers over the Forth a little further to the east.)
In the early 20th century, as car ownership and road travel boomed, a road bridge was planned as a means of providing another means of access across the Forth. Early discussions were held in the 1920s and 1930s, and construction eventually began in 1958.
When it opened in 1964, the Forth Road Bridge was the longest suspension bridge in the world, outside of the United States of America. At just over 2,500m in length, the dual-lane roadway with adjacent footpath is supported between two towers 156m high.
This second bridge to Fife was opened by HRH the Queen in September 1964. As well as improving transport links, for the first time the original Forth Bridge could be viewed from the west, giving travellers an opportunity to appreciate its length and style as it stretched between the banks of the Forth.
At the same time, the original ferry service was discontinued, meaning pilgrims could no longer take a ferry across the Forth for the first time since the eleventh century.
At its peak, the Forth Road Bridge carried 65,000 vehicles across the Forth every day, but by the turn of the 21st century it was reaching the limits of safe capacity, and concerns were raised over the future viability of the bridge as vehicle numbers continued to rise.
Plans for a new road bridge had been discussed in the 1990s, but it wasn't until 2004 that solid arrangements were put in place to commit to upgrading the infrastructure. A third bridge, now known as the Queensferry Crossing, began construction in 2011, and was formally opened by HRH the Queen on 4 September 2017, 53 years to the day since she had opened the Forth Road Bridge.
Today the Queensferry Crossing carries domestic vehicle traffic over the Firth of Forth, while the Forth Road Bridge is limited to commercial vehicles.
These three bridges offer three contrasting styles and functions, and belong to three separate, consecutive centuries - the Forth Bridge from the 19th century; the Forth Road Bridge from the 20th century; and now the Queensferry Crossing from the 21st century. It's a neat way of demonstrating the continued importance of transport links across the Firth of Forth over those centuries, and a visually arresting demonstration of the evolution of technology and design.
Visitors to Scotland today who take a trip out of Edinburgh will often have reason to pass over one of these three bridges. Anyone travelling to St Andrews for a game of golf, or further north to the Highlands, or even just over to pay a visit to Culross and other Outlander locations in Fife, will pass over the Forth and be able to appreciate the visual effect of three crossings over the same body of water.
They say the best trilogies come in threes, and with our bridge(s) to Fife we have one such trilogy to celebrate!
Explore more of Edinburgh's visual architecture and design with my private city walking tours...
Exciting news today from the organisers of Edinburgh's annual festival events, which attract visitors from all around the globe each summer.
Following the cancellation of the Edinburgh International Festival, Edinburgh Festival Fringe, and Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo in 2020 due to Covid-19, organisers have confirmed that festival events will go ahead in this summer - and for the first time ever the Edinburgh festivals will be held in Glasgow!
The idea to take the festival out of its host city stemmed from recent ventures to take the Edinburgh Military Tattoo on tour: a travelling production of the iconic military spectacular - held annually in Edinburgh since the 1950s - has visited countries around the globe, including Australia and China, staged in a specially constructed arena against a recreation of the iconic backdrop of Edinburgh Castle.
Proving that the event can exist without being formally tethered to the city has liberated Festivals Edinburgh to think more broadly about the future of the Edinburgh summer festivals season.
So this year, organisers of the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo will erect a purpose-built arena in Glasgow's George Square, and the show will feature a smaller-than-usual cast drawn from military personnel of the UK's home nations emerging triumphantly from the entrance to Queen Street railway station instead of across the drawbridge of Edinburgh Castle.
But it isn't just the tattoo which is to be reinvented for audience in 2021. The Edinburgh Festival Fringe - by itself the world's largest arts festival - will also make the journey from Edinburgh to Glasgow this summer.
In contrast to its usual occupation of small, dingy and airless venues in Edinburgh's historic Old Town, the Edinburgh Fringe will be held in the cavernous space of the Clyde Auditorium, where booths will be erected in the style of a trade fair. Acts will be able to stage 15-minute performances of stand-up comedy, drama or dance for audiences of up to four people at a time. This represents a substantial increase on average audience size for most Edinburgh Fringe performances.
The street performers which bring such vibrancy and spectacle to the Royal Mile during the fringe will also be present, but in specially constructed performance spaces behind the glass of shopfronts on some of Glasgow's most famous shopping streets, including Buchanan Street and Sauchiehall Street.
This way passers-by can still enjoy spectacular displays of juggling, fire eating and interminable 'magic' acts, but in a protected way that avoids them being exposed to the performers' breath, spittle or filthy fingers.
Instead of passing a hat for donations at the end of their set, street performers will be able to take donations via contactless card reader held against the glass of the shop window.
Organisers made the decision to remove the festivals from Edinburgh after concerns were raised over the city's capacity to accommodate large numbers of visitors in a socially distanced manner. As Glasgow is by far the larger city, it was considered to be a logical decision to stage the festivals in a location where the covid safety restriction of 2m distance between visitors could be more comfortably accommodated.
In a gesture of solidarity between the two cities - usually great rivals, especially when it comes to sporting fixtures - Glasgow will temporarily be renamed 'New Reekie' for the duration of August 2021.
The logistical challenges of relocating the Edinburgh festivals to Glasgow have taken shape behind closed doors over the last seven months, and the move is expected to prove popular with residents of Edinburgh, many of whom bemoan the annual takeover over of the city by artistic types.
If the festivals' relocation to Glasgow is well received, a more permanent decision could be made to move the summer events away from Scotland's capital, along with other events in Edinburgh's annual calendar.
Dundee has already indicated willingness to host a Hogmanay street party to rival that held in the capital, and Aberdeen is being considered as an alternative location for the 2022 Edinburgh International Film Festival.
Explore a festival-free Edinburgh this summer, with my private and customised city walking tours!
This blog was originally published on 1 April 2021. ;)
Whilst much is often made of the people who were executed - justly or otherwise - in Edinburgh throughout history, there's relatively little attention given to those who bore the responsibility for dispatching those poor souls.
In order to have an execution, an executioner had to be present to swing the axe, tighten the noose or light the tinder (depending on whether your fate was to be beheaded, hung or burned at the stake). They also carried out corporal punishments, such as public whippings. These people occupied a strange place in the society of their times - no one really wanted to do the job, but everyone agreed on the necessity of justice being meted out as laid down by the laws of the land.
So executioners often existed in a strange half-life among Edinburgh's citizens, by turns feared, respected, despised and admired. Here's my trip through the lives, deaths, and working arrangements of some of Edinburgh's executioners.
In Scots, an executioner was sometimes called a 'lokman', or in popular slang was known as 'the doomster', the man who sent you to your doom....
The origin of the word 'lokman' is slightly hazy, with some people making the connection between an executioner and a jailer, or one who controlled the locks - although these two roles were never knowingly linked in Scotland.
More likely is the use of 'lok' as a term to describe a quantity of a product - generally about a handful, but also a tuft (of wool or cloth - from which a 'lock' of hair gets its origin). The connection with the executioner is that part of the reward or payment which was given for performing this unpleasant work was taken from a tax levied on every portion of goods which were imported into the city for sale at the market, calculated as a lok or handful of each. Thus the commercial activity of Edinburgh helped to pay for maintaining the law and the administration of justice in the city.
This amounted to a significant quantity of cash - in 1590, the lokman employed to coordinate the execution at the front of Edinburgh Castle of a group of men and women convicted of witchcraft was paid £5 18s 6d, equivalent to over £1,250 in modern currency!
As a municipal appointment the official executioner would later be granted a dedicated accommodation in the Old Town, furnished and paid for from city funds. This house was on Fishmarket Close, conveniently located near to the law courts and ideally placed for access to some of the city's designated sites of execution, on the Royal Mile and in the Grassmarket.
So for those who had the stomach for the work, being a lokman could be a richly rewarded occupation...
Cockburn was a hangman during the reign of Charles II, and was on duty in the Grassmarket during the execution of around 100 Covenant martyrs, killed for adhering to a statement of religious faith which was at odds with the monarchy during the late seventeenth century.
In accordance with the various traditions of the time, Cockburn wasn't only a hangman, but was also known to have wielded an axe at beheadings of various higher status figures (for whom the faster death than a lingering demise by hanging was considered something of a judicial mercy) and of being involved in the torture of various suspected criminals in order to secure guilty confessions.
He was known to have conducted himself in his role as executioner with a certain gusto, and cannot have been considered a reluctant administrator of the sentences imposed on criminals. But Cockburn was also notable for having his own life ended at the end of a rope, after he was found guilty of murdering a beggar in the city.
It was alleged that Cockburn had enticed the beggar, called John Adamson, into his home on Fishmarket Close, whereupon he had struck him with a number of violent blows in order to take from him the small amount of cash Adamson had collected that day. He denied causing Adamson's death - denied him even having been in his home - but blood-soaked clothes were found concealed in Cockburn's rooms, and he was arraigned and held in chains to secure a confession. When none was forthcoming, local magistrates pronounced Cockburn guilty of the murder, and sentenced him to be hanged.
The situation thusly presented authorities with a conundrum - who was to execute the city's executioner?! And so a man named Mackenzie - the executioner in Stirling, who had previously served in Edinburgh - was sent for, and Cockburn might have been darkly amused had he ever known that the man who sent him to his death had been his own predecessor, whom he had replaced!
Alexander Cockburn was hanged in Edinburgh on (or around) 16 January 1682.
HANG OR BE HANGED
It's fair to say that few people ever set out to become executioners, and the role could be a tricky one to fill anytime it fell vacant. Although the perks and benefits of the job could be substantial, the level of public profile and the gruesome nature of the job description itself made it a hard role to recruit.
One of the last executioners to take the job in Edinburgh was a man named Jock Heich, who was appointed in 1784. His path to employment was a curious one, as he had been arrested on charges of stealing poultry - although he was also a notorious wife beater, and it may have been that the authorities were induced to arrest him for some minor offence as a substitute for crimes they may not have been able to prove in an open court.
His sentence - for what amounted to petty theft - was to be hanged. But the authorities offered him an alternative, and offered him instead the role of hangman, which at that time was carried out by an elderly man who was unlikely to be remaining in post for long. Heich could avoid an unpleasant death for himself by taking on the job of executioner to others.
It's not known how long Heich deliberated over the decision - suffice it to say he served as the city's doomster until his death in 1817.
MEN OF CONSCIENCE
If Alexander Cockburn had been a violent brute who took rather too much pleasure in the carrying out of his role, other executioners in Edinburgh took a more considered approach to the job.
John Dalgleish was the hangman during the early eighteenth century, and was the figure who saw the smuggler Andrew Wilson to his death ahead of the Porteous Riots in 1736. He was also responsible for administering corporal punishments, including the public whippings of less violent offenders. Asked on one occasion how he judged the force and weight of the blows he administered with the whip, Dalgleish replied, "I lay on the lash according to my conscience". This was perhaps his way of acknowledging a degree of latitude in the degree of trauma involved in the punishments he administered.
A little earlier, in 1700, a similar issue of conscience had led to a curious circumstance in the city. In the aftermath of the Darien Expedition to settle a Scottish colony in South America, there was a great sense of public outrage at the way in which the English government had acted in the affair, which had seen the expedition fail disastrously, with the needless deaths of thousands of would-be resettlers who had risked their lives and livelihoods in the spirit of colonisation.
Such was the strength of public opinion that a riot had been orchestrated in the city of Edinburgh, for which a number of organisers and agitators had been arrested and sentenced to a severe public whipping at the Mercat Cross.
Despite the riot having been a breach of city regulations, many sympathised with the position of the rioters, and agreed with their cause, and the hangman experienced a prick of conscience at punishing men with whose political feeling he strenuously agreed. And so it was that at their punishment, Dalgleish enacted the whipping with a degree of theatricality, and didn't let the whip make contact with the backs of the rioters, avoiding causing them pain or suffering.
The city authorities were outraged by what they saw as a partisan avoidance of judicial instruction, and had the executioner arrested and sentenced to a public whipping for his insubordination!
The council sent to Haddington to secure the services of a hangman to come and administer the punishment, but on arrival the replacement hangman found himself threatened and intimidated by the general public whose feeling had been shared by their conscientious objector.... Accordingly he refused the job and fled the city, forcing some to joke that Edinburgh council would have to secure the services of a third executioner to punish the second who had refused to punish the first...!
Instead, Edinburgh council admitted defeat at the hands of public opinion and dropped the issue.
SHAMED AND ASHAMED
One of the city's executioners had been a young man in a wealthy family from Melrose in the Scottish Borders. Having inherited a significant fortune, he squandered the cash and lost it through a profligate lifestyle, before being declared bankrupt. He left Melrose in shame, and set out to start a new life in Edinburgh, where nobody knew him or his story.
Having changed his name, he found the only job which was open was that of hangman, and with no other option available to him he gratefully accepted the role.
Having begun to save up some cash, he had aspirations of returning to his former lifestyle, and bought some fine clothes in which he would walk out to Bruntsfield Links, one of the world's oldest golf courses. Here he would socialise with some of the city's elite, playing golf and enjoying something of the former lifestyle he had lost through his own extravagance.
One evening, having played a round of golf, he was enjoying a drink with his new high society friends, when one of the ladies in the company happened to recognise him, and exposed him as the city's hangman.
He was roundly ridiculed and humiliated for having the nerve to seek to associate with high status figures when his position in life was so low, and having been chased away from the group he walked to Holyrood Park where, feeling ashamed at having been exposed so viciously, he took his own life by jumping from the top of the Salisbury Crags.
The point from from he leapt to his death is still known today as Hangman's Crag.
THE LAST PUBLIC HANGING
Edinburgh's last public hanging took place on the High Street in 1864 - and it was precisely because of the events which transpired that day that no further public executions were to take place.
Because so few executions were occurring at that time, the city had retired the post of executioner and no longer had a resident doomster to call upon for the purpose of administering justice. And so, to execute George Bryce, convicted of murder in June 1864, Edinburgh brought a hangman from York to perform the necessary deed.
It had long been considered that the role of executioner was not just to be trusted to violent thugs (like Alexander Cockburn) but that a degree of skill was required to perform the task in as brisk, efficient and painless way as possible. Sought-after executioners - like Albert Pierrepoint, Britain's last hangman - plied their trade with a methodical rigour that made the process smooth and efficient, and were rewarded highly for their diligent approach to the task at hand.
One primary calculation which was required from hangmen concerned the length of rope from which a prisoner would be hung - adjusting the length as needed to ensure the necessary fall and force of a drop, in order to efficiently break the neck and render death instantaneously, was considered the minimum degree of care to be taken over a prisoner's final moments.
In 1864, the executioner brought to Edinburgh from York - named Thomas Askern - seemed to possess none of these necessary skills and considerations. It may be that he had overstated his experience or qualifications to secure the job, or (according to rumour) he had over-exerted himself at one of Edinburgh's pubs the evening before, and arrived for the execution in a state of hangover. Regardless of the reason, what is known is that Askern took little care in assessing the length of rope needed to hang George Bryce, and when the trap door opened, the prisoner dropped barely two feet and was left to dangle in mid-air in front of the assembled crowd.
Instead of disappearing out of sight beneath the scaffold and dying with a swift break to his neck, as was expected, Bryce slowly suffocated in full view of the men, women and children who had gathered to witness the execution. Reports of the event differ on how long it took Bryce to die. The shortest estimate put it at 12 long minutes of slow, agonising suffocation. One witness recorded it took Bryce nearer forty minutes to finally expire.
Public response to the botched death was heated and angry, and a mob chased the officials and hangman from the scaffold with a barrage of stones. Thomas Askern became immediately so hated he had to be smuggled out of the city on a coach back to York first thing the next morning.
Appalled at the trauma meted out in place of a swift and efficient execution, Edinburgh held no more public executions - although hangings still took place in the privacy of the city's prison until the last execution in Edinburgh, within living memory for some, in June 1954...
Find out more about the lives of previous residents of the city on my private walking tours!
Distract yourself from the horrors of the festive season with this fun quiz with 10 seasonal-themed questions to test your knowledge of Scotland's capital city!
Wishing you all the best for a safe, peaceful and relaxing Christmas, and I hope to see you for a tour of Edinburgh in 2021!
Edinburgh is full of historic properties and buildings that have seen their fair share of history. In terms of its heritage status, Edinburgh has more buildings listed for their historical value than any other city in the UK (apart from London).
This occasional blog series highlights specific buildings and explores their historic associations - previously I've featured Moray House and Prestonfield House, and in this article I'll be looking at Acheson House, located just off Edinburgh's historic Royal Mile.
Acheson House was built in 1633, as evidenced by the date carved above what was the original main entrance to the building. Today internal renovations have divided up some of the interior space, and this doorway today gives emergency access into the Museum of Edinburgh, housed primarily in an adjacent building.
The building was originally constructed as a home for Archibald Acheson. In 1627 Acheson had been appointed Secretary of State for Scotland in the court of Charles I, and so was a major figure in the royal court as well as in his native Scotland. Acheson's second wife was Margaret Hamilton, and the couple's initials appear on the pediments over the windows on the upper floor.
Scotland and England had only been united under one monarch for barely thirty years at the time when Acheson House was built, and wouldn't be united politically for another seventy years - so it's curious to note the emblem of the thistle and the rose carved into the window pediments. These national emblems of both Scotland and England would suggest the building's owner boasted unionist sympathies.
However, a fleur-de-lys emblem over a third window may suggest a sense of respect for the 'Auld Alliance', signed between Scotland and France in 1292, making a common enemy of England...
The original doorway also features the Acheson family crest, a cockerel on a trumpet, along with the Acheson family motto, 'Vigilantibus', meaning 'Stay watchful'. The cross-hatched emblem in the date are the initials AA and MH intertwined, for Archibald Acheson and Margaret Hamilton.
In 1633 the building which is, today, clustered amongst a variety of other Old Town buildings would have been relative open, especially to the rear - away from the Royal Mile - where it would have had a grand garden as many Canongate properties would have had.
By the eighteenth century the building had fallen in status somewhat. Acheson had died in 1634, barely a year after the house was built, and later the property would come into use as one of the many brothels and houses of ill repute that would have been found all across the Old Town.
Prostitution was one of the most common means of earning money for the poorest citizens, and Acheson House had become one venue for soliciting the services of such 'ladies of pleasure'.
Thanks to the emblem above its door, it was known locally as 'the cock and trumpet'....! It is thought that Acheson House may have been a favoured haunt of young Robert Louis Stevenson.
In 1775, an enterprising son of a church minister compiled and published An Impartial List of the Ladies of Pleasure in Edinburgh, detailing some of the women who could be found in the city's brothels, and the particular services (or character) they offered to their paying guests.
James Tytler (who is alleged to be the otherwise pseudonymous author of the book) would later help compile the second edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, a decidedly more wholesome publication!
Acheson House was also at one time occupied by Edinburgh's Incorporation of Bakers, and the names of the adjacent lanes - Bakehouse Close and Sugarhouse Close - are a reminder that this area at one time was a relatively industrial part of the city.
As with many of Edinburgh's Old Town buildings in the nineteenth century, Acheson House fell into disrepair, and may have been demolished altogether if it hadn't been for the pioneering vision of the Marquess of Bute, one of the figures who led efforts to restore and preserve many of the city's historic buildings.
In 1939 the building was acquired by the Canongate Kirk, who installed the minister of the church in the property as his official manse. Rev. Ronald Selby-Wright spent forty years ministering to the community in the Canongate area, and lived at Acheson House during the early years of his tenure.
In his autobiography, Another Home, Selby-Wright describes one evening hearing footsteps crossing the wooden floor of Acheson House, opening the heavy wooden door, and passing out across the courtyard and into Bakehouse Close. When he went to investigate, to see who had been leaving the property, he found the front door firmly bolted closed, and no evidence of anyone having been in the hallway.
He experienced this same phenomenon several times during his occupation of the building, and a colleague who stayed in the property described a similar experience - footsteps, the door opening and closing, but then discovering the door firmly locked...
From 1951 to the early 1990s Acheson House was a craft centre, hosting a variety of Scottish craftsmen and women, before the building fell into disuse and lay empty for twenty years. Again it seemed as though the building might fall victim to neglect and disuse until a major renovation was funded in 2011.
Acheson House once again had occupants! Today the building remains the offices of Edinburgh World Heritage, the charitable body who work alongside UNESCO to help preserve and protect the city's historic structures. Still occupied after nearly 400 years, Acheson House has survived some of the most disruptive, damaging and difficult periods of Edinburgh's history, and today stands as a monument to the value of preserving the city's built heritage.
As we crawl ever closer to Christmas, check out my virtual Edinburgh advent calendar - each day I will 'open' another doorway that can be found around the city, and share some of the secrets of the Old and New Towns!
You can view the interactive map - with links to the FB posts for each of the daily doors - below...
And of course you can join me on an actual tour of the city to explore some of these doorways in much more detail!
As the world's first UNESCO City of Literature, Edinburgh is renowned for its literary influences and connections. Chief among the figures frequently celebrated is Robert Louis Stevenson, who was born in the city on 13 November 1850.
Stevenson is still widely read with works such as Treasure Island, Kidnapped, and one story that has a particular connection to Edinburgh itself, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.
To mark 170 years of Stevenson's influence and legacy in Edinburgh, here are eight locations in the city associated with this literary giant.
17 Heriot Row
The Stevensons moved to this grand address in Edinburgh's New Town when Robert Louis Stevenson was six years old, and he spent the bulk of his childhood at this address.
As a child he was prone to illness, especially problems with his lungs and his breathing, and so was rarely allowed to go out into the damp Scottish climate to play with the other children of the neighbourhood.
Directly across the road from the house is Queen Street Gardens, a private garden space, where Stevenson would watch the other children playing, from the safety of the drawing room on the first floor of the house.
In these gardens is a pond, with a small island in the centre of it. Literary historians have speculated that it was from watching the children playing around this pond and its island that Stevenson came up with the ideas of what became Treasure Island.
During the summers of the late 1870s, Stevenson spent much of his time in this picturesque village on the side of the Pentland Hills, to the south of Edinburgh.
His father had rented one of the properties, and Stevenson used the village as the inspiration for his unfinished novel St Ives, written in parallel with The Weir of Hermiston, which he did manage to complete.
Today the village of Swanston is still a rural retreat from the city of Edinburgh itself, with access to the hills, and remains popular with dog walkers and ramblers.
Another local setting which Stevenson borrowed for his writing was one of the many hills which make up Edinburgh's landscape. Corstorphine is to the west of the city, towards Edinburgh airport, and features in Kidnapped, Stevenson's adventure story set in the aftermath of the 1745 Jacobite Uprising.
The book ends with the two main characters form the story - David Balfour and Alan Breck Stewart - going their separate ways on Corstorphine Hill. Today a statue of the figures by the artist Alexander Stoddart can be found on Corstorphine Road, near the location where the scene from the book is set.
Princes Street Gardens
Stevenson spent the latter years of his life on an island in Samoa, in the Pacific Ocean. He integrated into the community there, who named him 'Tusitala', meaning 'Teller of tales', and on his death in 1894 he was buried in a spot overlooking the ocean, a reminder of his time as a traveller, journeying in the way many of his characters did in their respective stories.
So he has no formal grave in Edinburgh, his hometown. Instead, in Princes Street Gardens, surrounded by a glade of birch trees, is a simple commemorative headstone bearing his initials, RLS.
The Writers' Museum
One place where Stevenson is celebrated fully is in Edinburgh's Writers' Museum, a small building celebrating the life and work of three of Scotland's greatest literary figures - Sir Walter Scott, Robert Burns, along with Robert Louis Stevenson.
The museum can be found on Lady Stair's Close, off the Lawnmarket on the Royal Mile. It's a free entry museum and is worth exploring for anyone interested in the lives of the writers featured.
Stevenson was known for living the lifestyle of a nineteenth-century writer, which meant (broadly) significant amounts of drink, drugs, and a fondness for prostitutes... One of the bars in which he drank still survives, and is today an Italian restaurant in the Old Town.
The Hispaniola was a bar popular with writers, poets and figures associated with the University of Edinburgh, and Stevenson is known to have spent time here with figures like William Henley, a writer and poet who had a large red beard and only one leg, the other having been amputated after a childhood illness...
The Hispaniola bar helped give Stevenson the name for the ship in Treasure Island, and surely a one-legged bearded man must have inspired that story's notorious pirate, Long John Silver?
Another suburb of the city where Stevenson spent time was Colinton, a small village near to Swanston where he spent time during his childhood. Stevenson's grandfather was minister of the church in Colinton, and the area provided young Robert with plenty of space to roam and explore and develop his interest in the natural world.
Today Colinton remains a peaceful residential suburb of Edinburgh, with the Water of Leith running through the area, and visitors can find a small statue of a boy playing with his dog, near to a heritage and nature trail. The boy in the statue is Robert Louis Stevenson, and his dog is Coolin, Stevenson's own childhood pet.
My final Edinburgh location which has a Stevenson connection is Chessel's Court in the Old Town, just off the Canongate section of the Royal Mile.
It was here in 1787 that a robbery took place, masterminded by Deacon William Brodie, the man whose life would help to inspire Stevenson's most enduring (and influential) character study - that of the duality of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde...
Explore more of Edinburgh's literary associations with my private city walking tours!
On 8 November 1736, Scotland's first theatre formally opened, on Carrubber's Close in Edinburgh's Old Town. It had been established by the poet and librarian Allan Ramsay, at what he described as "great expense", for the purpose of staging entertainments and performances for a local audience.
The life of the theatre was shortlived, as by the following year the venue on Carrubber's Close had closed, forced out of business as a result of campaigning and opposition from religious leaders in the city.
For a long time, the performing arts were closely linked with issues of vice and depravity, had sinful associations with excess and debauchery, and attracted a dubious clientele. Many influential figures decried the harmful, degenerate influence that theatres had on their communities, and it's no surprise that Ramsay's venture was forced out of business so speedily.
Of course, the closure of the theatre on Carrubber's Close wasn't the end of the performing arts in Edinburgh, and today the city boasts the world's largest arts festival every summer - and at a time when many arts venues and artists are experiencing the devastating effects of the pandemic lockdown, here's my celebration of some of Edinburgh other important theatres, past and present.
OLD PLAYHOUSE CLOSE
A decade after Allan Ramsay's theatre closed, another playhouse was established in Edinburgh's Old Town, just a short way further down the Royal Mile. Crucially, this venue was outside of Edinburgh at the time, in a town called Canongate which lay just beyond the original city walls.
Home was a church minister at the time, and the outcry at his association with the dreaded performing arts forced his resignation from the church.
Douglas was restaged in London in 1757, where it was well received by a non-domestic audience, and was followed with several other classical-themed plays. Home later became an MP for Edinburgh, and died in 1808. The theatre on Playhouse Close closed in 1769.
Another long-gone theatre in Edinburgh was the Theatre Royal, which stood on a square named Shakespeare Square, between 1769 and 1859. Shakespeare Square was at the east end of Princes Street in the New Town, near the junction with North Bridge, where the former General Post Office building stands today.
The foundation stone for the theatre was laid by Prince Albert, Queen Victoria's prince consort in 1861, on the same day he laid the foundation stone for what is today the National Museum of Scotland, on Chambers Street.
When the venue closed after 90 years, the title of Theatre Royal was then passed to a second building, previously known as the Queen's Theatre and Operetta House, on nearby Broughton Street.
This theatre was immediately adjacent to St Mary's Cathedral, where the John Lewis department store stands today, and seemed curiously vulnerable to fire - it was destroyed by fire and rebuilt no fewer than three times, before being demolished after catching fire for the last time in 1946.
ROYAL LYCEUM THEATRE
One of the most popular local theatres in the city is the Royal Lyceum, which opened in 1883. A classic proscenium arch theatre, the auditorium here is one of the most beautiful of all the theatres across Scotland. The theatre has a permanent creative company dedicated to producing live theatre created in Edinburgh, attracting actors, designers and directors from all around the world.
Casts here have included performers like Sam Heughan (Outlander), David Tennant (Doctor Who) and Brian Cox (the original Hannibal Lektor in Manhunter), and designers including Olivier and Tony-award winning Bunny Christie.
The Lyceum is especially renowned for its work attracting younger audiences, including an annual Christmas show and its year-round Youth Theatre program.
Another classic proscenium arch theatre, the foundation of the red sandstone building of the King's Theatre was laid in 1906 by Andrew Carnegie, at one time the richest man in America.
The King's was part of the traditional music hall circuit of the early- to mid-twentieth century. This was a key part of the theatre tradition in the UK, where comedians, singers, dancers and novelty acts would travel the country performing at venues. Scottish comedians like Rikki Fulton, Stanley Baxter, and Jimmy Logan all starred at the King's theatre in their careers.
More recently, the King's has become one of the city's receiving houses, hosting touring productions for a week at a time throughout the year. A major renovation in 2013 saw improved access to what had become a challenging building for audiences to get into, and further development is planned for the near future.
A beautiful mural on the decorative ceiling rose was painted by the artist and playwright John Byrne.
EDINBURGH FESTIVAL THEATRE
The Festival Theatre is the second largest auditorium in the city, and the longest established theatre site, having had a venue on it since 1830. The former Empire Theatre was later turned into a cinema and bingo hall, before returning to use as a theatre in 1994.
In 1911 the Empire Theatre was the site of a devastating stage fire which broke out during a performance by a magician named the Great Lafayette, during which 11 people were killed - including the magician himself, his illusion body double, and a lion featured in his act.
In the aftermath of this fire, a new UK law was introduced which required a fire curtain to be installed in all theatres, and which was required to be proven to be functional at every performance. This resulted in the practice of raising and lowering a fire curtain or safety curtain during every live theatre performance to this day.
Today the Festival Theatre is a venue for large scale touring productions, including international ballet and opera companies, and West End musicals during their UK tours.
The Traverse is one of the city's most important creative spaces, being dedicated to new writing. Originally established in 1963 by a group of people including John Calder - who was Samuel Beckett's publisher in the UK - and Richard Demarco, who remains an important and active artist and writer in Edinburgh.
The original theatre space was located on a lane off the Lawnmarket before moving to a more formal location in the Grassmarket, until it moved to the modern development from which it still operates today in 1992.
The Traverse become a major hub during the annual Edinburgh Festival Fringe, and is well regarded as a venue that nurtures and develops the work of new Scottish writers.
The Edinburgh Playhouse is the largest theatre venue in the UK by number of seats, with room for just over 3,000 audience members at every performance.
The building opened in 1929 as a cinema, and today operates as a receiving house for large scale touring productions of West End musicals, international opera and ballet companies, and stand-up comedy.
Explore more of Edinburgh's theatres and arts venues with my private city walking tours!
Robert Stodart Lorimer was born in Edinburgh on 4 November 1864.
His name isn't as well known as some of the architects like Robert Adam or William Playfair, but Lorimer was active across the UK and further afield during the early twentieth century, and found a reliable supply of work after the First World War as a designer of graves, monuments and war memorials. He also worked extensively in domestic settings, creating not the grand public buildings of better known architects, but contributing to his clients' domestic experience instead.
He was a notoriously frugal figure who never had more than four people working in his architecture practice, and resented having to buy coal to heat the offices during the winter months. He could also be a difficult man to work with, and lost several commissions because of his lack of tact or his insistence on features and elements that his clients didn't like.
One of his chief draughtsmen once commented that Lorimer was "terrible with clients", and remembered that during one argument with a client was heard to say, "'This house will be remembered because I designed it, not because you paid for it"...!
But some of Lorimer's greatest works were public buildings and features in Edinburgh. Here are some highlights.
THISTLE CHAPEL, ST GILES' CATHEDRAL
Lorimer produced several memorials and commemorative features in St Giles' Cathedral, but his most significant early contribution to the church building was the Thistle Chapel, designed in 1909.
This octagonal feature on the south-east corner of the building is filled with incredibly ornate decoration, with every surface covered in carved wooden panels with the crests of major Scottish figures around the space. It is in the Thistle Chapel that the Queen awards the chivalric title of Order of the Thistle, a historic royal honour dating back to the seventeenth century.
It's a small space, and not always open to the public (which is why I don't have photos of it!) but is worth visiting if you can get access during a visit - it is in the Thistle Chapel that you'll find the famous carving of an angel playing bagpipes! See if you can spot it amongst all the other decorations and carvings.
WALLACE AND BRUCE MONUMENTS, EDINBURGH CASTLE
The gatehouse of Edinburgh Castle was (only) built in the 1870s, but modifications were made in 1929 by Lorimer, for this grand entranceway to accommodate two statues of two of Scotland's historic heroes.
King Robert the Bruce and William Wallace stand on either side of the drawbridge entrance into the castle, cast by the sculptor Alexander Carrick.
But it's inside the castle itself that Lorimer's greatest work is visited by thousands of visitors a year...
Scottish National War Memorial, Edinburgh Castle
Designed and planned in the aftermath of World War One, Lorimer's building honouring the Scottish soldiers who lost their lives during that war was opened in 1927 and today honours all those Scots who have lost their lives in conflict since 1914.
Lorimer utilised a part of an existing barracks block on the site at the top of Edinburgh Castle for his plans, which today are a quiet and peaceful place of reverence and respect.
Rolls of the names of the dead are kept in books for visitors to trace family and loved ones, and even in the middle of the summer when the castle is at its busiest, the Scottish National War Memorial remains a place of remembrance.
A number of other war memorial from Lorimer can be found in the city. Look for the memorial inside Old College, part of the University of Edinburgh, along with the memorial outside the City Chambers on the Royal Mile.
Another of the University of Edinburgh campuses is King's Buildings, a collection of science and technology departments a little way from the city centre. Lorimer's architectural firm, which he ran with John Fraser Matthew, was responsible for several of the buildings on the site, including the building which originally housed the university's zoology department
Lorimer died in 1929, so it's likely that the bulk of the zoology building from 1928 was designed and overseen by Matthew, but it's an intriguing structure that always catches my eye on my frequent trips past it to do my weekly supermarket shop...
The building features reliefs of a variety of animals, a fun and creative addition to what could otherwise have been a very sombre and imposing 1920s structure!
Here's an aardvark, but you might also see crocodiles, an elephant, a kangaroo and many more cast in the building's stone...
Find out more about some of Edinburgh's other architects and designers on my private city walking tours!
With the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic set to become the defining global event of 2020, it is perhaps an apposite time to reflect on previous times when illness and death stalked the streets of Edinburgh.
Between the fourteenth century and the seventeenth century the city was struck by bubonic plague - the Black Death as it became known - at frighteningly regular intervals. On most occasions the disease was eradicated in the city within a matter of months, but there was one period of over 16 years when the illness became endemic and circulated within the community pretty constantly.
And beyond the plague, other illnesses such as smallpox, typhus and tuberculosis circulated fairly freely before the age of effective medical intervention. But here are ten instances of Edinburgh dealing with a pretty persistent pestilence...
The first recorded instance of plague to affect Edinburgh occurred nearly 700 years ago, having spread around the globe via the shipping and trade routes which had begun to link what had previously been disparate continents and countries. Nations bordering the Mediterranean Sea had recorded a wave of deaths occurring very rapidly - often within two or three days after infection - and a year later such deaths were being recorded in Edinburgh itself.
It is thought that around two-thirds of the city's population (of around 10,00 people) died in this first round of illness.
A second wave of plague hits Edinburgh, this time killing around one-third of the population - and unlike the first infection, this time it is predominantly wealthier and higher status figures who are affected, perhaps because of their direct connection to infected imported goods and people bringing the disease into the country from overseas (not yet recognised as the route of transmission).
Throughout the fourteenth century, it's thought the plague killed approximately 20% of the population.
A wet summer and autumn is blamed for the illness, with the prevailing medical view about a balance of 'humours' in the human body - each of them being affected by environmental factors such as excessive heat or damp - still not recognising the presence of physical transmitters of the infection through viruses.
1498 - 1514
The longest period in which plague was rampant through Edinburgh, occasioning Edinburgh's city council to take actions to try to guard against infection, recognising the spread of disease in communities outside of the city and seeking to limit contact between those infected communities and Edinburgh itself.
A series of laws and city ordnances are put in place, including:
Teams of cleansers were employed by the city to clean and decontaminate properties where infection had been detected, using smoke and harsh chemicals. These people were housed separately from the rest of the community at the convent on St Mary Street, and paid as little as sixpence a day.
1529 - 1530
New cases of the plague saw even stronger measures taken to protect the city of Edinburgh.
The Burgh Muir, an extent of common land to the south of the Old Town (where Bruntsfield and Morningside are today) was designated as a kind of quarantine zone, and wooden huts were built to accommodate infected victims who would be taken out of the city and kept apart to prevent the spread of infection. Mass burials of plague victims also took place in this area, at a significant distance from the city centre.
During this time there are several recorded instances of punishments being meted out to residents of the city who had contravened the plague laws. One woman, Isobell Cattall, was both branded and banished from the city for not reporting that her daughter had been sick with the plague.
Patrick Gowanlock and his servant, Janet Cowan, were punished for harbouring outsiders in his property, with Gowanlock being banished from the city and Cowan branded on both cheeks for 'conniving' in the crime. An unnamed man was hanged for attending church whilst his wife was dying with the plague, and a woman named Katryne Heriot was drowned for bringing stolen goods into the city, and thereby bringing plague into the town.
After nearly a quarter of a century without incident, plague arrived back in Edinburgh, and the Burgh Muir was once again commissioned as a quarantine zone. The man in charge of looking after the patients dispatched here to die painful deaths was named John Forrest, and the terms of his contract stipulated that if any of the infected people released into his care should be deemed to have spread the disease to others, Forrest would be executed for dereliction of duty.
Thankfully this episode only lasted a year, and by 1575 the city was again disease-free.
A decade later, John Forrest was back in the Burgh Muir with more patients, and the area of infection was fenced off from the rest of the common moorland to prevent the mixing of infected and uninfected communities.
Beggars were forcibly removed from the city and people were instructed to isolate in their households if infection was suspected. A register was kept of such households, and food and drink was provided for them to prevent them needing to leave their homes. Anyone returning from the Burgh Muir was to remain in their homes for 15 days, on pain of death for anyone found breaking the rules.
At least two people were executed for contravening the regulations.
Another outbreak of the plague, arriving through the port of Leith from London, saw people being confined to their homes again, with 16 pence per person provided for those who were constrained from working.
So many people died during this outbreak - which lasted only four months - that Edinburgh's cemeteries were quickly at capacity, and a regulation was passed banning burials in coffins (which took up extra space in the grave).
1602 - 1607
Plague circulated intermittently through this period, with the Burgh Muir being utilised once again as a quarantine and burial zone.
1644 - 1645
The last, and worst, period of plague affecting Edinburgh came at the height of the English Civil War, and nearly three hundred years after the first recorded wave of infections. At this time the population of Edinburgh was approximately 30,000 people, with as many as 50% of them dying of plague.
This was the first time any dedicated medical and surgical support was provided to the city - prior to this treatment had focused on isolation and decontamination of property and materials after a death had occurred.
The medical treatment administered at this time was almost worse than the illness itself. The bubonic boils which formed on a victim within a day or so of becoming infected would be lanced with a red-hot instrument, allowing the filthy pus to be released, with the wound then cauterised to seal the flesh of the patient.
Generally patients would die anyway.
The doctor appointed to treat plague victims in Edinburgh in 1645 was a man named George Rae. He would go from house to house administering the treatment of lancing and cauterising the boils, and wore a heavy mask filled with sweet smelling herbs as a way of trying to avoid some of the stench of burned and poisoned flesh. He had been promised a hefty salary for his work (and his risk) treating patients, and it seems that the city authorities at that time anticipated that Rae would himself become infected with plague and die, since it transpired that they had no intention of paying the promised fee.
In the decade after the last incidence of plague in Edinburgh, Rae battled the council to get the money he had been promised, but is believed to have eventually died without receiving his dues.
One notable victim of the plague from this period was John Livingston, an apothecary or chemist who worked to treat those diagnosed with plague, and whose home had been built in 1639 at the edge of the Burgh Muir area where many plague victims were sent. He died in 1645, having contracted plague from the people he was treating.
He was buried in a tomb on his property which stands to this day and can be visited just off Chamberlain Road in Bruntsfield.
What is interesting about these events as we read them with a modern eye is the similarity in the attitudes to treatment, protection and prevention of the spread of disease. Social distancing, isolation, 10pm curfews and the closure of businesses are all features of the modern approach to tackling Covid-19, and whilst the comparisons with the plague aren't all entirely accurate (or appropriate) the similarities in our attitudes from those of 400 years ago are curious!
Explore more of Edinburgh's history with death and disease on my private city walking tours!
This article was inspired and informed by THE ELEVEN PLAGUES OF EDINBURGH by W. J. MacLennan.
Search the blog archive...