One of the most spectacular buildings in Edinburgh's Old Town is the incredibly ornate and decorative George Heriot's School, a private school on a ridge of rock with views across to Edinburgh Castle.
The school building was paid for with money from the estate of George Heriot, who died on 12 February 1624. Heriot had been a jeweller and a goldsmith in Edinburgh in the sixteenth century, and was known by the nickname 'Jinglin' Geordie' because of the noise made by the coins and jewels rattling in his pockets as he walked through the streets of the Old Town.
Heriot became fantastically wealthy, but was also a great philanthropist and would give money to destitute families, donating coins to beggars on the street, and his generosity would later give the city the school that stands today.
Heriot had served his apprenticeship as a goldsmith, and set up his own shop on the Royal Mile near St Giles' Cathedral in one of the 'luckenbooths', or lockable stall properties, which lined the street in the late sixteenth century.
In the 1590s he began selling jewellery to Queen Anne of Denmark, the wife of King James VI of Scotland, and was later appointed as her official goldsmith.
Both Ann and James had extravagant tastes, and Heriot was able to secure some of the finest and most expensive jewellery from across Europe, which he then sold to the royal couple. They would buy the jewellery in instalments (with Heriot adding a significant mark-up to the market value), and the queen would then often seek to borrow large sums of cash from Heriot, secured against the jewellery which he had sold her.
She would repay these loans - again with a significant percentage of interest - and Heriot became fantastically wealthy from his royal patronage. In just ten years it is believed Heriot may have done over £50,000 worth of business with the queen alone, which is equivalent to multiples of millions of pounds in modern currency.
In 1601 Heriot was appointed jeweller to the king, James VI, and in 1603 when James VI of Scotland became James I of England, he removed the royal court from Edinburgh down to London, and took George Heriot with him. Thus Heriot became an integral figure in the royal court, and profited handsomely from his royal connections.
On his death in 1624, Heriot had no surviving legitimate children, and both of his wives had pre-deceased him. He did leave a provision in his will for two illegitimate daughters that had been born to separate women, as well as a number of nieces, nephews and children elsewhere in his family line. But the bulk of his estate, amounting to something over £23,000, was gifted to the city of Edinburgh, for the establishing of a hospital in his name.
Heriot's Hospital was to be dedicated to the care and support of disadvantaged families and children in the city, the "puir, faitherless bairns" as his will described them. And so in 1628, construction began on the hospital building on land to the south of the city.
The sum of money that Heriot left was so great that a huge hospital could be built with it, but at that time there simply wasn't enough open space in the city on which such a large building could be established. And so the money also paid for land to be bought which, at that time, lay just beyond the Flodden Wall, which was the structure marking the southern boundary of Edinburgh.
That piece of land had to be brought within the provision of Edinburgh itself, and an extension to the boundary wall was also built, known as the Telfer Wall, to enclose the school property. Today the junction of the Flodden and Telfer walls can be seen along the Vennel, to the west of the school building.
Having started life as a hospital, providing general social care, Heriot's later became a dedicated school for orphaned boys, and later still started accepting pupils from non-disadvantaged backgrounds. In the 1880s the school started charging for its education, and today is one of the best known private schools in Scotland. A number of free school places continue to be offered to poorer families today as part of its requirement to fulfil its obligations as a registered charitable organisation.
The school is adjacent to the Greyfriars Kirkyard, and pupils often use a side entrance to get into and out of the school property through the church yard. This side gate is generally the best angle from which to view the school, although it can be difficult to get a good view over the heads of the large Harry Potter tour groups who congregate at the gates to enjoy the view of one of the inspirations for the Hogwarts academy...
Views of the school can also been seen from Victoria Terrace (above right) and the esplanade in front of Edinburgh Castle.
For thirstier visitors to Edinburgh, a pub on Fleshmarket Close is named the Jinglin' Geordie in Heriot's honour.
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Things may be looking up, but in Edinburgh you need to look down once in a while too! Not just to avoid tripping on the cobbles and the steps, but to seek out some of the smaller hidden gems and details that are set into the pavements and roadways around the city.
Here are a handful of things to look out - and down - for...
In Scots a makar is a poet, and on Lady Stair's Close in the Old Town you'll find numerous paving stones carved with text from a variety of Scottish writers. Appropriately it's the same lane where you'll find the Writers' Museum, celebrating the lives and works of Robert Burns, Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson.
But take your time passing through the street itself, and check out the inspirational quotes at your feet, including this one from Stevenson himself: "There are no stars so lovely as Edinburgh street-lamps".
Keep your eyes peeled for Edinburgh's trams, running into the city centre from the airport. The new tram service opened just a few years ago, but Edinburgh had horse drawn trams from the nineteenth century, and electric ones in the twentieth century.
The original tram service was finally abandoned in the 1950s, and all the original tracks were ripped up and removed. All except one short section, left as a reminder (or possibly a warning!) to future generations... Look into the roadway at the end of Waterloo Place, near the Balmoral Hotel, for the sad reminder of the city's long-lost tram service.
The Holyrood Abbey provided sanctuary to those in debt, who would otherwise be at the mercy of Edinburgh's draconian legal system, which imposed heavily punishments for being unable to repay money that was owed. At one time the sanctuary had over 2,000 people in its care, and they were so well treated they were known as 'abbey lairds', or abbey lords...
The sanctuary itself wasn't a specific building but an entire area, within which the debtors had to stay if they wanted to remain protected from arrest, The boundary ran up to the summit or Arthur's Seat, and across the Royal Mile at Abbey Strand are a series of brass letters S's, marking a part of this original boundary line.
SCOTLAND IN A NUTSHELL
This one is a bit hard to read, both in the photo and in real life!
Look. What can you see?
I see beauty in the lochs.
I see majesty in mountains.
I see legend in rocks.
And it is ours.
These words are in front of the modern Scottish Parliament building, near the exit where visitors to the parliament make their way out, in a single granite paving stone. They are the words of Robert Adam - but not the classical architect who gave Edinburgh its classical style in the eighteenth century, but a 14-year-old school boy who won a competition to mark the official opening of the new parliament in 2005.
History is yet to demonstrate whether Adam becomes a great poet later in his life, but I rather love his short, simple, beautiful poem which seems to capture Scotland in a nutshell!
PHYSICS MADE PHYSICAL
On George Street in the New Town sits a statue of James Clerk Maxwell, a giant of physics whose pioneering investigations into the world around us yielded all kinds of results which continue to have importance today. Maxwell demonstrated that different colours of light travel at different frequencies, and paved the way for Einstein's general theory of relativity...
In the ground in front of his statue are the four equations which he said defined the physical universe. I can tell you nothing more than that - they're just numbers and squiggles to me! - although one group I had told me that in recent times Maxwell's four equations have been combined into one single statement which (apparently) comes pretty close to being a single unifying theory of the universe...
THE NEXT BIG THING
Walk across Bristo Square in the university district and you may not even notice the Old Town's largest piece of public art, commissioned by the university a few years ago.
The piece is called The Next Big Thing... is a Series of Little Things, and it's 1,600 brass dots set into the paving stones of the square, running across from the west to the east side, looking a little as though someone has dripped metallic paint across the space. The artist is Susan Collis, and her intention was that an piece of art which is almost invisible initially will become more visible with the passage of time, as people walking through the square unknowingly buff the brass dots to make them shiny... So if you don't see it now, come back in a few years when it should be more visible!
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Sometimes all we get to see of a building is its front door, especially in a city like Edinburgh where many of the historic properties are still actively used as houses or commercial premises.
I don't take tours inside any of the paid entry attractions (although I may take you into a few choice locations on our tour!) so I'm used to only seeing the outside of a building.
Here are a few of my favourite doorways of the city, with some stories about the history hidden inside...
17 Heriot Row
Heriot Row remains one of the New Town's grandest addresses, and property on the street routinely sells for in excess of £1.5 million... Notable residents of the street include the physicist James Clerk Maxwell, and John Buchan, an author best known for his adventure story The 39 Steps.
Number 17 Heriot Row was the childhood home of Robert Louis Stevenson, and it is reputedly from a drawing room window on the first floor that he would stand looking out at other children of the neighbourhood playing in the private gardens on the other side of the road. In those gardens is a pond with an island, and it may have been those early experiences which fed his later iconic adventure story, Treasure Island.
4 South Charlotte Street
Another New town address, on the corner of Charlotte Square at the west end of the city. Number 4 South Charlotte Street was the birthplace of Alexander Graham Bell, who would later go on to lodge a patent for his invention of the telephone.
It's a useful reminder that before the New Town was the commercial district we see today, this area was built as a residential area for high-status families.
2 Advocate's Close
Just off the Royal Mile near St Giles' Cathedral is one of the most picturesque of the city's closes and wynds. Advocate's Close was formerly home to one of Scotland's Lord Advocates - the highest legal figure in the country - called Sir James Stewart. Stewart's house was actually at the bottom of the lane, but this doorway near the top of the lane is a powerful reminder that some of Edinburgh's Old Town houses have been occupied for over 400 years - look at the date above the doorway to see when this property was first constructed.
As Lord Advocate, Stewart's most notable case was the prosecution of a young student called Thomas Aikenhead for blasphemy, in the 1690s. Aikenhead became the last person in the UK to be executed for blasphemy...
Further down the Royal Mile, off the Canongate, is Acheson House, built in 1633 for Archibald Acheson, a major figure in the royal court of Charles I.
The crest above the doorway features a cockerel on a trumpet, the crest of the Acheson family, and in the middle of the date is a diagram made of the letters AA and MH superimposed on each other - for Archibald Acheson and his wife Margaret Hamilton.
Into the nineteenth century the house wasn't such a grand property, having become a brothel known locally as the 'cock and trumpet'....
Today Acheson House houses Edinburgh World Heritage, the city's premier heritage and preservation body.
The churches of Scotland are often the oldest structures to have survived the passage of time, and at Duddingston is a church reputed to be the oldest on Scotland's east coast.
One former door into the church - long since closed off - has an archway and stonework which dates back to the church's Norman origins in the twelfth century.
The church remains an active centre of worship for the community.
Earl of Morton's House, Blackfriars Street
Blackfriars Street is another fascinating lane in the Old Town, widened in the 1870s from its original layout as a narrow passageway just a few feet wide.
On the west side of the street are some of the original buildings which survived the wholesale renovation of Edinburgh, including a building which was formally home of the Earl of Morton, one of the regents who ruled Scotland during the childhood of Mary, Queen of Scots.
Today the building is a youth hostel, but above its original doorway is a fascinating emblem of two unicorns, standing aside a crown. This was the royal emblem of Scotland before the union of crowns, when Scotland and England came under one monarchy, in 1603.
The later royal emblem - still commonly used today - is of a lion and a unicorn with a crown between them, but this earlier symbol is still visible on a few surviving buildings from the sixteenth-century.
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Here it is, the final part of my blog series highlighting 20 hidden gems and small details of Edinburgh, things that you are only likely to find by actively seeking them out!
All my tours try to steer you away from some of the more crowded, busy tourist trails, to give you an experience of the city that is different from the thousands of people who only hit the highlights. Especially in the height of summer, escaping the crowds and finding your own path in Edinburgh crucial, so whether you take a tour with me or just go exploring by yourselves, I hope you've been inspired to look beyond the Royal Mile and the queue to get tickets for Edinburgh Castle.
Previous entries in the series can be viewed here: part 1 | part 2 | part 3 | part 4 | part 5 | part 6
19. A place of healing
In the eighteenth century, a group of children playing alongside the stream between Stockbridge and the Dean Village, discovered a spring bursting from the ground. Unlike the notoriously polluted Water of Leith itself, this spring was clean and fresh and pure, and when local people investigated they discovered it was coming from an underground aquifer. This supply of water was intensely mineral rich, and so a well house was built around it with a pump to bring the water up from deep under ground.
St Bernard's Well, as it was named, became a popular attraction for the wealthy citizens of the eighteenth century. At a time when only those with money had the means to travel, visiting mineral wells became a popular way of spending leisure time, and like the holy wells in Holyrood Park before it, St Bernard's Well is conceivably Edinburgh's earliest purpose-built visitor attraction.
A nearby street was originally named Mineral Street, and provided accommodation to travellers coming to take the water, and although the pathway past the well is relatively quiet today - although popular with local people walking their dogs or cycling - this quiet suburb of the city would have been busy with visitors back in the 1780s.
The well house that is visible today was designed by the classical landscape artist Alexander Nasmyth, and draws on the classical Grecian style. At the centre of the rotunda is a statue of the Greek goddess Hygeia, known as the goddess of hygiene and cleanliness, at the the very top of the structure look out for the golden pineapple, a popular symbol of wealth and status in the Georgian era.
20. An American icon
My final detail of Edinburgh is one which is always popular with visitors, and can be found in the Old Calton Burial Ground. Standing just in front of the grave of the philosopher David Hume is a statue of Abraham Lincoln - and it may seem a rather unusual place to find a statue of an American president!
In fact, it was not only the first statue of an American president outside of the US when it was erected in the 1890s, but to this day it is the only American Civil War memorial outside of North America.
Five Edinburgh men were among the many Scots who fought alongside Lincoln in the American Civil War - like the Irish, the Scots not only had a sense of connection to America, but were also often employed as mercenary forces in conflicts across the globe. After their deaths the bodies of these men were returned to Edinburgh for burial, and one of their wives made an application to the US ambassador to Scotland at the time to request a memorial to commemorate their sacrifice.
Legend has it that the ambassador was resistant to the idea until his wife took up the cause on behalf of the widows of the men who had died in battle, and it was with her support that a memorial to the men was erected over the grave. By extension it commemorates all the Scots-American casualties of that conflict.
Although it was the figure of Lincoln who attracted attention at the time the memorial was unveiled, in recent years it has been the figure at the base of the monument, representing the emancipated slaves, who has become the feature of interest: the figure is represented holding a book in his left hand, a subtle (and ingenious) way of indicating that slaves were not just objects of property, but educated and literate people with their own internal worlds and lives - a pretty forward-thinking representation for the late nineteenth-century...
I try to celebrate some of Edinburgh's notable and significant figures on my tours of the city, but sometimes it's hard to put a positive spin on historical events... The story of Burke and Hare is a popular one with many of the companies who specialise in tales of death and suffering, and I occasionally tell it too - even if these men were not exactly heroes, they left their mark on the city and ought to be noted if not exactly celebrated!
First of all, Williams Burke and Hare often described as grave robbers, and whilst it's not for me to try to paint them in a more positive light, in their defence they never robbed a grave in their lives. What they ought be described as is serial killers, who sought to profit from a curious set of circumstances in which, as Walter Scott put it:
"a wretch who is not worth
The context to the story is that Edinburgh's medical school was one of Europe's foremost centres of investigation for the study of the human body, study done chiefly through anatomical dissections of bodies of people who had died in the workhouses, in the prisons and hospitals, or at the end of the executioner's rope. Such was the reputation of the university that by the nineteenth century their demand for cadavers outpaced the supply, and the university had started offering cash for the provision of corpses for their medical students.
Donating the body of a loved one saved on the cost of a burial (which could be prohibitively expensive) and could earn the family donating it up to £10 in cash. At a time when £14 per year was considered a good salary for a domestic servant, and with many of Edinburgh's residents were living in destitution, this cash incentive had led to the rise of body snatchers stealing corpses from the graveyards in order to turn a profit. In places like Greyfriars Kirkyard you can find the mortsafes developed to help protect bodies from being dug up.
Hence Burke and Hare's inaccurate reputation as grave robbers. In reality, having both worked as labourers on the Union Canal, built to connect Glasgow and Edinburgh between 1817 and 1822, neither of these men wanted to do any more digging. Instead they went straight to source for their supply of fresh meat.
Their first victim was a resident at William Hare's lodging house on Tanner's Close, a lane long since lost which ran off the West Port, at the western end of the Grassmarket. An old soldier who had been staying with Hare and his wife died in his sleep in November 1827, owing the couple £3 in rent. Instead of allowing the body to be given a burial, Hare suggested they take it to the medical school, and see if they could claw back the money owed to them. To their delight, the university paid £7 for the old soldier's corpse, and suddenly William Hare was £4 up on the deal...
Over the next year Burke and Hare would go on to murder 16 people, in order to sell their bodies to the medical school. The victims were quite diverse in profile, a combination of men and women, both visitors to the city and local people, at least one child, and ranging in age from 12 years to old age.
The typical method of killing that they utilised was to lure their victims with the offer of alcohol, get them drunk enough to subdue them, and then suffocate them using a method which became known as 'Burking' - one of the men would kneel astride the victim's chest, restricting their movement and pinning their arms to their sides, while the other put a hand over the nose and mouth to cut off the air supply. The bodies would then be transported in a barrel or a chest to the medical school, where they would exchange the body for cash.
Their last victim was killed on 31 October 1828, and following a brief police investigation, both Burke and Hare and their respective wives were arrested four days later.
William Hare agreed to turn kings evidence against his friend William Burke, providing testimony that would convict him in exchange for leniency in his own case. He could not be compelled to provide evidence against his own wife, so instead it was William Burke and his wife Helen who stood trial for one single murder - the only death for which it was felt they had sufficient evidence available to secure a conviction - and the case came to trial at the Parliament House on Christmas Eve 1828.
The Scottish legal system at that time held that once a case was started, it should continue without interruption until a verdict is given, and so the Burke murder trial ran through Christmas Eve, and into the early hours of Christmas Day. Witnesses - including James Braidwood, who had established the world's first fire service, provided little in the way of what we would think of as forensic evidence, but nevertheless at 8.30am on Christmas Day the jury retired to consider its verdict, returning less than an hour later to pronounce William Burke guilty, but find his wife not proven of any involvement in the murder.
Burke's sentence was to be publicly hanged, and thereafter for his body to be donated to the medical school for dissection - a peculiarly apt form of poetic justice, perhaps!
And so it was that on 28 January 1829, William Burke was hanged on the square outside St Giles' Cathedral, attracting a crowd in excess of 25,000 people. Thereafter his corpse was taken to the medical school at the Old College, where it was dissected by the head of the university's anatomy school, Professor Alexander Monro. Burke's skeleton was kept and preserved as an anatomical teaching aid, and can be viewed today at the Surgeons' Hall Museum.
Barely three years later the passing of the Anatomy Act of 1832 formalised the process by which bodies could be provided for anatomical dissection, and made it illegal for cash payments to be made for medical donations.
As the incentive to dig up bodies had now been removed, the epidemic of grave robbings came to an end, and Edinburgh's graveyards once again became places where loved ones could rest in peace.
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I always say that there is more to Edinburgh than a guide book could show you, and most of it is hiding in plain view, just waiting for you to find it! There's no secret to it really, you just have to go looking, and be a bit more adventurous than just walking down the Royal Mile...
Going beyond the beaten track of the tourist trail rewards visitors, and that's what I try to do with my tours. This series highlights some of the smaller details of Edinburgh beyond the headline attractions.
Other parts can be found here: part 1 | part 2 | part 3 | part 4 | part 5 | part 6 | part 7
16. Cannonball House
Standing at the top of the Royal Mile, the last building on the left as you walk to Edinburgh castle is called Cannonball House, and today houses a bar and restaurant offering unparalleled views of the castle esplanade. But the building gets its name from the two cannonballs stuck into its western-facing wall - look for them on the side on the building facing the castle.
Some guides will tell you these were fired from the castle on an invading Jacobite army in the eighteenth century - in fact they have a more interesting (if less romantic) origin.
In 1624 Edinburgh was granted an act of parliament to commission the supply of fresh water into the city for the first time. The water was brought from the hills to the south, via network of wooden pipes - hollowed tree trunks - across the landscape into the city.
The building across from Cannonball House was a water tank, and the cannonballs were put into the wall as level markers, indicating the height of the springs in the south, from which the engineers could calculate how high to construct their water tank to get maximum benefit of the water pressure.
17. Birthplace of a revolutionary
Scotland and Ireland have a long history of shared Celtic traditions and origins, and in the nineteenth century many Irish migrants settled in Edinburgh in pursuit of a better life than they had experienced in rural Ireland - the area of the Cowgate in particular became known as 'Little Ireland' due to the large number of immigrant families who settled there.
By the 1860s the Cowgate was an overcrowded slum, and it was in the shadow of George IV Bridge that a young boy named James Connolly was born to an Irish family, in June 1868.
Seeking a life beyond the slums of Edinburgh, Connolly enlisted with the British Army at the age of 14 (having lied about his age) and was deployed with the troops to Ireland, before deserting to avoid being sent over to India.
Back in Scotland, Connolly became involved in politics, campaigning for the Scottish Socialist Party, which in turn became restyled as the Irish Socialist Republican Party, and he returned to Ireland to spread the socialist cause in 1910. He later established himself as leader of a republican paramilitary troop called the Irish Citizen Army and was involved in leading those opposing British rule of Ireland in the Easter Rising on the streets of Dublin in 1916.
Connolly was injured in the conflict with the combined forces of the British Army and the Royal Irish Constabulary, and in the aftermath of the uprising - in which over 480 people were killed and many more injured - many of the rebel Irish leaders were executed by firing squad. Because of the injuries he sustained, Connolly was unable to stand to face the firing squad, so instead was tied to a chair and shot where he sat on 12 May 1916.
Connolly is commemorated in memorials and statues across Ireland (and the US) and has a railway station in Dublin named for him. A small plaque high up on the Cowgate in Edinburgh marks the approximate site of his birth.
18. The next big thing...
Walk through Bristo Square, at the heart of the university of Edinburgh's city centre collection of buildings, and you'd be forgiven for not spotting the largest public art commission to be installed in the Old Town.
Running across the square, and set into the stones at your feet, are a series of 1600 small bronze dots, looking a little as though somebody has dripped paint across the square. This is a work by artist Susan Collis, entitled 'The Next Big Thing... is a Series of Little Things', and it leads right up to the doors of the McEwan Hall, where university celebrates its graduating students.
Collis's work typically toys with people's expectations of art, and with this commission she subverts the typical experience of a statue becoming invisible in its setting because of its familiarity - something that is seen every day eventually stops being visible because it becomes part of the background of the city.
Her bronze dots in the ground, in contrast, will become more visible over time, as the movement of people walking through the square and scuffing and buffing the metal with their feet means that over time they will become shinier, and so more noticeable...
So remember to look up and look down as you explore the city of Edinburgh - there are details and secrets to be found at every level!
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I have recently had cause to engage directly with the legacy of one of Edinburgh's local heroes, a man born in the Old Town, buried in the New Town, and standing as one of the great pioneers of his age. William Dick established Scotland's first veterinary school in Edinburgh, which continues to operate today as part of the University of Edinburgh.
Dick was born on White Horse Close, a picturesque alley just off the Royal Mile near Holyrood Palace. I often bring groups into this lane because of its instagram-friendly appeal, but in 1793 when young William was born it would have been less pretty and more a run-down slum area - but it was an area that had long held a connection with horses, with legends of Mary Queen of Scots' horse being stabled here, as well as being the site of a major inn serving visitors arriving into Edinburgh from the horse drawn coaches in the seventeenth century.
Dick's father was a farrier - horse shoe making - and so horses would have been a significant presence in the boy's life, and growing up in an environment where animals were such a feature was certainly an influence on William's later veterinary pursuits.
In 1815 the Dick family moved to accommodation in the New Town, just off St Andrew Square, and he was schooled in Shakespeare Square, which no longer survives but was near where the northern end of North Bridge is today. He began to take anatomy lessons, and would later fuse his interest in horses with his medical studies, travelling to London to study as a veterinary surgeon.
Returning to Edinburgh, Dick set up his own veterinary college, training others in treatment of disease in farm animals and livestock, horses and dogs. Having provided students with a certified qualification in "the veterinary art", Dick's reputation grew and his college gradually expanded, until Queen Victoria appointed him as her royal veterinarian in 1842.
Dick died in 1866, and was buried in Edinburgh's Old Calton Burial Ground, just a short distance away from White Horse Close where he was born, and overlooking the bottom end of the Old Town.
William Dick's veterinary college was officially renamed the Royal (Dick) Veterinary College in 1902, and moved into purpose-built buildings near the Meadows on the south side of the city in 1916. Those buildings today are the Summerhall complex of art studios, performance spaces, bars and brewery, and in recent years have become a haven for a variety of cultural interests in the city.
The door still has an original brass plate noting the buildings as the premises of the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies.
In 1951 the Dick Vet became part of the University of Edinburgh, who still operate their veterinary training and medical hospital for animals under the Royal Dick banner. Their main campus is a little distance from the city centre, where they have a variety of world-class and state of the art facilities for treating and caring for sick and injured animals.
It was here that I brought my co-guide Monty on Hogmanay 2019 for an emergency spinal operation after he lost the use of his back legs. At the time of writing, Monty is well on the way to making a full recovery, and that is in large part to the care, professionalism and dedication of the Royal Dick staff.
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