EDINBURGH EXPERT WALKING TOURS - BLOG
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, which he wrote 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.
In the 1750s, this was the venue for a famous production by John Home called Douglas, a romantic tragedy set in the Scottish Highlands. At its first performance it was received with such enthusiasm and positivity, a cry of "Whaur's yer Wullie Shakespeare noo?" was heard in the crowd at the curtain call.
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 1863, 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.
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.
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...
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.
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...
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.
With ongoing restrictions on public gatherings and social contact in Scotland (and all around the world) there has never been a better time to explore Edinburgh's outdoor spaces. A survey of British cities a few years ago ranked Edinburgh top for green spaces in the UK - 49% of the city centre is covered by parks!
Most visitors can find Princes Street Gardens, the Meadows or Holyrood Park and Arthur's Seat by themselves, so here's a quick rundown of some of the city's less familiar spaces to escape the crowds and enjoy a breath of socially distanced fresh air...
The proximity of Edinburgh to the coast means that there are plenty of beach walks, especially out to the east of the city. But tucked away on the edge of the Firth of Forth is the former Roman settlement of Cramond, with an expanse of walking space along the shore - either along the beach or a paved pathway, or venture inland along the River Almond as it flows into the firth and walk along to the Dalmeny Estate.
Brave souls (who check the tides!) may also venture across to Cramond Island, just a short distance from the shore but cut off at high tide. The island itself is great to explore, with its former military structures built to provide protection in the Forth during WWII.
A popular destination for families and dog walkers, Cramond village has a couple of nice cafes for refreshments before or after a walk.
At the bottom of the New Town, and adjacent to the city's Botanic Gardens, another amazing destination for those looking to ditch the crowds, Inverleith is one of Edinburgh's brilliant multi-purpose public spaces.
A children's playground attract families while tennis courts, rugby and footbal pitches attract more sporty visitors, but there's also plenty of wide open space for dog walkers. The pond - usually generously populated with ducks and swans - gives views across to the city itself, and being south-facing is a recommended spot for a lazy picnic or simply a relaxing afternoon to sit and chill.
Another former estate property, and another site popular with dog walkers, is Cammo, on the western edge of Edinburgh, near the airport. The ruins of this old house can still be found in the middle of expansive grounds which feature a variety of landscape features, from a wooded glade to wide open fields and former lawns, as well as an ornamental canal and a walled orangery, now overgrown and derelict.
Take any number of paths through the estate, and discover its original driveway (now overgrown) and its carriage houses and stable blocks, today just tumbledown ruins. It's an atmospheric space with plenty of nooks and crannies to explore.
Another of the city's volcanic outcrops, Blackford Hill to the south of the Old Town is a popular destination for dog walkers, as well as being the location of the city's Royal Observatory, moved here from Calton Hill in the nineteenth century.
Enjoy panoramic views over Edinburgh from the top of the hill, or take the kids for an exploration of the pond at the base of the park, which is also a designated wildlife reserve. The sense of space here is immense, and down in the valley behind the hill is the next local gem...
THE HERMITAGE OF BRAID
A former estate property set in a tranquil wooded valley behind Blackford Hill, through which the Braid Burn (stream) runs, the Hermitage gets its name for the peace and isolation it offered visitors before the city environs grew out to surround it.
Another popular walk for locals with dogs, the stream is also often a destination for school groups and nature clubs exploring the wildlife found along its banks. The Hermitage property itself is now a community centre, but features like the old ice house is a reminder of its function as a grand residence.
Networks of paths run through the trees and criss-cross the stream on a series of bridges, giving a genuine sense of exploring off the beaten track, but you're never more than ten minutes from civilisation!
Explore more of Edinburgh's vibrant green spaces with my city walking tours!
Of all the figures who have shaped or influenced Edinburgh's development through the ages, one man probably deserves ultimate recognition for creating not just the visual appeal of the city as we know, but for developing the very principles which underpin Edinburgh's heritage sector.
Patrick Geddes had a major influence in a variety of different fields and subjects during his life, and Edinburgh was the focus of several of his major ideas for city planning and heritage preservation. He was born on 2 October 1854, in Aberdeenshire, and his journeys would take him not just across Scotland but around the globe.
Geddes's primary interest was in the natural world, and his career incorporated work as a zoology professor (in Edinburgh), botany (in Dundee), sociology (at the University of Bombay, now Mumbai), and town planning (in Jerusalem, and Tel Aviv - which became the only modern city fully laid out to Geddes's plans).
His diversity of interest led him to criticise the tendency for scientists to specialise in a particular field to the exclusion of others - the interconnectedness of the natural world and human civilisation was key to his multi-faceted approach to life.
The emblem of the three doves (seen on the sign of the steps which bear Geddes's name in Edinburgh's Old Town today) was a motif he used throughout his work, symbolising the three factors which he considered important in any work of human endeavour - hand, heart and head (in that order of priority).
In Geddes's Edinburgh, at the end of the nineteenth- and turn of the twentieth centuries, the crumbling structures of the medieval Old Town were being ritually demolished and replaced with 'modern' Victorian buildings. This improved their function, but lost the history and heritage of the older structures. Dismayed by this sacrificing of the old in favour of the new, Geddes experimented with a new way of thinking about urban development, which combined modernisation with historical preservation.
In 1886 Geddes and his wife purchased a block of eighteenth-century buildings on James Court, just off the Lawnmarket, which at that time had become a dense, dirty and overcrowded slum district.
Instead of demolishing the buildings, Geddes oversaw a project which he described as "conservative surgery" - he had the worst buildings removed, in order to improve the situation for the surviving structures. Creating more space, with more light, and a better flow of fresh air through the site, Geddes then renovated the surviving buildings to improve conditions. The site became a halls of residence for Edinburgh University students.
Geddes's next major project in the city was to take over the Outlook Tower on Castlehill, which had been built in the 1850s as Maria Short's Observatory and Museum of Science. Today the building survives as the city's Camera Obscura.
Geddes arranged the exhibitions in the building in order of focus, beginning on the ground floor with an overview of world geography, on the next floor was Europe, then the United Kingdom, then Scotland, and finally a feature dedicated to Edinburgh itself. The camera obscura on the very top of the building provided a real-time demonstration of Geddes's vision of Edinburgh as a living, breathing, developing city.
This sociological laboratory, as he described it, put the emphasis on observation and study as a means of understanding the world, and from that his ethos of 'diagnosis before treatment' - to understand a thing before an attempt to improve or renovate it. He disagreed with a trend at that time to build or develop a city with a pre-ordained sense of how its users would interact with it - better, Geddes thought, to understand how a historic population had grown to use their space, how a city had been shaped by its inhabitants, and to develop from that.
Across the Royal Mile from James Court was Riddle's Court, another run-down and poorly maintained building, this time a survivor from the sixteenth century. Riddle's Court had previously been associated with high status figures like the Enlightenment philosopher David Hume, as well as having hosted James VI of Scotland his new wife for a banquet in their honour in 1598. By the 1890s the building was overcrowded, with terrible sanitation, and was ripe for demolition.
Instead, Geddes brought to bear his 'conservative surgery' method, stripping away the parts of the development which couldn't be saved, and transforming the remainder of the building into another student accommodation block, in which he also implemented the outrageous idea (for the time) of letting the student living here govern themselves! They set their own in-house policies, and were responsible for maintaining the building to suit their needs.
Riddle's Court was recently renovated by the Scottish Historic Buildings Trust, and today houses the Patrick Geddes Centre, a conservation and community organisation founded on Geddes's principles.
As well as the large buildings and gardens which survive as monuments to Geddes's vision, smaller details of the city also reflect his influence on the city. Notably on Wardrop's Court, another lane leading off the Royal Mile. At the entrance to the lane are two colourful dragon sculptures, commissioned by Geddes during his extensive renovations of the nearby structures.
Most poignantly, the pair of dragons on the inner court were carved not by a master craftsman, but by Geddes's youngest son, Arthur, with guidance from the sculptor Alec Miller.
They may not be as refined and expertly finished as the outer dragons, but they stand as a direct connection to Geddes family itself.
Past the dragons is the small courtyard of Lady Stair's Close, home to the Writers' Museum and sometimes known as Makars' Court. Lady Stair's House itself is another of Geddes's renovations, though not one he undertook himself. Rather he convinced the Earl of Rosebery, a distant relation of the original owner of the building, to buy the property back from Edinburgh Council in order to repair and restore the structure. Today the building has a decorative plaque bearign both the date of its original construction (1622) and the date of its restoration (1897)
One of Geddes's perennial concerns was the amount of green space in the Old Town of Edinburgh - or rather the lack of it. Geddes recognised the need for people to have access to open space, to have contact with the natural world in the heart of the densely crowded city.
As such, he introduced a number of urban gardens into spaces hwich had been left vacant by buildings which had been removed, or created green space with the intention of having them with public access for local people to enjoy as they saw fit. Examples of Geddes's gardens can be found around the Grassmarket, tucked away behind buildings or up narrow alleys, and further down the Royal Mile, off Canongate, is one of his original spaces which was renovated in the 1970s.
Dunbar's Close Garden is a recreation of an eighteenth century private garden, on land that was acquired by Geddes in the nineteenth century. It continues to offer a peaceful escape from the busyness of the city, and a secret oasis of tranquility just off the Royal Mile.
There are significant numbers of other buildings and lanes which bear the mark of Geddes's interventions to preserve and maintain them, but the one which most visitors notice at some point during their visit stands right in front of Edinburgh Castle.
Ramsay Garden was where Geddes himself lived for a time, in a development which began in the 1740s by the poet and librarian Allan Ramsay. This distinctive pink and white coloured building was built as a collection of private apartments designed for each individual family who lived in them, and as such the building has no fixed floor plan over its levels, but is instead a series of properties all constructed and laid out according to the the needs of each separate family.
Today flats in this building are some of the most sought after and highly valued properties in Edinburgh, with commanding views over the New Town to the north, or across to the mighty fortress of Edinburgh Castle itself.
And to think that without Geddes's vision and commitment to preserving the city's ancient structures and fitting them to the needs of the contemporary society, so many of these historic features may have been (as so many others were) lost to the merciless swing of the demolition ball in the nineteenth century development boom.
Truly, it is Sir Patrick Geddes to whom we owe a debt of gratitude of gifting us the modern Old Town of Edinburgh.
Discover more of Patrick Geddes's influences on Edinburgh with my private city walking tours!
Edinburgh has long embraced its status as a university town, and like similar perceptions of cities like Oxford and Cambridge in England, and St Andrews elsewhere in Scotland, it is often thought of as one of the classical hubs of learning for students in the UK.
Around 12% of Edinburgh's population is made up of students, and in recent years the city has attracted increasing numbers of students coming from overseas to study here.
Today there are four universities in the city, each with their own character, history and traditions. Here's your brief introduction to these four great centres of learning.
THE UNIVERSITY OF EDINBURGH
The oldest, largest and best-known of the universities is the one which takes its name from the city itself. Established in 1582, the University of Edinburgh is one of the oldest universities in the world - although it's only the fourth oldest in Scotland, with St Andrews, Glasgow and Aberdeen having established their universities earlier (in 1410, 1451, and 1495 respectively).
Today the University of Edinburgh isn't purely campus based, but occupies a series of collections of buildings around the city, with five major campus areas and numerous other small buildings and offices around the Old Town.
The Old College is the grandest of their structures, designed by the architects Robert Adam (who gave the New Town its distinctive style in the eighteenth century) and William Playfair. Today the building houses the law school, but previously was used for medical teaching, and would have been where students such as Charles Darwin and Arthur Conan Doyle attended classes.
Other collections of offices and teaching spaces include King's Buildings, from the 1920s, New College from the 1840s (housing the school of divinity), and Moray House, the university's teaching school.
One of the busiest university areas is around Bristo Square and George Square, where the university has some of its social spaces - Potterrow and Teviot - as well as a new infomatics building, the David Hume tower, the university's main library, and the McEwan Hall, their grand graduation venue. During the spring months in particular this area is busy with students, and in the summer becomes home to a number of festival venues.
Edinburgh didn't acquire any new universities between the sixteenth century and 1966, when the former School of Arts of Edinburgh (dating back to the 1820s) was designated its new status as a university, and a new name.
Heriot-Watt references two major figures of Edinburgh's history. George Heriot was a jeweller and a goldsmith in the sixteenth century, and James Watt was an engineer and inventor whose improvements to the steam engine brought about the Industrial Revolution.
Today Heriot-Watt has a campus to the west of Edinburgh city centre, as well as a campus in Galashiels in the Scottish Borders, and (since 2005) campuses in Dubai, Malaysia and the Orkney islands. A significant part of the courses taught at Heriot-Watt remain based in technology, including chemical engineering, renewable technologies, structural engineering, computing, physics, mathematics, finance, and textile design.
Heriot-Watt was named the Sunday Times International University of the Year in 2018, and frequently scores highly in national and international rankings for its academic teaching.
Another Edinburgh figure gives his name to Edinburgh's third university. The mathematician John Napier was born at his family's estate property at Merchiston near Bruntsfield in 1550. He is best known as the discoverer of lotharithms, and for creating an early computational device known as 'Napier's Bones' which allowed for quick calculation of large numbers. On his death his was buried at St Cuthbert's church in Edinburgh's West End.
The surviving portion of Merchiston Castle, in which Napier was born, now forms the heart of the main campus of the university named for him.
Courses available at Napier include health and social care, biomechanics, business, computing and engineering, and the university has around 20,000 students, including those on overseas placements and exchange programmes.
QUEEN MARGARET UNIVERSITY
The newest of Edinburgh's universities acquired its status in 2007, having previously been a college and university college. Queen Margaret University is named for Queen Margaret of Scotland, who was also a saint (not just figuratively but actually!). She has long held an association with education in Scotland, featuring in the emblem placed on schools across Edinburgh from the nineteenth century onwards.
The university was originally set up as a cooking and domestic science academy in 1875. As a women-only establishment - founded by two women, Louisa Stevenson and Christian Guthrie Wright - its purpose was twofold: to improve the education and working status of women, and to improve the diets of poor and working class families in Edinburgh.
Over time the university incorporated other organisations and schools, including the Edinburgh College of Speech and Drama, the Edinburgh School of Speech Therapy, and the Edinburgh Foot Clinic and School of Chiropody.
Having previously occupied premises in Edinburgh and at Clermiston, in 2010 the university moved to a brand new campus location at Musselburgh, to the east of the city.
Explore more of Edinburgh's academic history and figures associated with its universities on my private city walking tours!
Edinburgh Expert Walking Tours is run by Gareth, an adopted native of Edinburgh, with over 20 years experience of living and working in the city...
Search the blog archive...