One of the most picturesque streets in Edinburgh's Old Town is Victoria Street which often features in my private Edinburgh tours, and is on the Old and New Town tour route. It gives a good example of not only the creative ways in which Edinburgh developed and was built on a rather challenging landscape of hills and valleys, but also shows how the city adapted in the nineteenth century to be more accessible and modern.
Victoria Street actually starts at the eastern end of the Grassmarket as West Bow, which was the original name of this historic thoroughfare. This route was originally the main road into Edinburgh for visitors coming from the north, west or south-west of the city. Snaking up the hillside in a zigzag made the road more accessible for horse-drawn vehicles, which wouldn't be able to navigate the much narrower lanes or 'closes' along the Royal Mile.
The top third of the route emerged onto the Royal Mile at the junction of Castlehill and Lawnmarket today, where the city's Butter Tron stood, a market place trading cheese, butter and other dairy products.
The buildings along the road give an indication of how the structures in the city stretched upwards as the city colonised the full stretch of the hillside. One of these buildings (with a cake shop at street level) is an original sixteenth-century building, in the traditional 'rubble built' style, of individual pieces of stones pieced together like a jigsaw.
The majority of the buildings along the road have been rebuilt or developed more recently, but look out for the dates 1616 and 1720 above some of the old doorways near the bottom end of the street.
In the 1830s, the West Bow was developed in order to make the route easier for people to navigate. George IV Bridge had been built across the Cowgate valley, and the middle section of West Bow was extended through the line of buildings which were demolished to create the new roadway, to join up with the northern end of this new bridge.
The top section of the road, Upper Bow, was closed off to traffic, and today a steep staircase connects the original top and middle third of the original route.
This new street was named for Queen Victoria, who came to the throne in 1837. Intriguingly, the bottom end of the street is still West Bow, and the road changes name halfway up the hill at the site of the Bow Bar.
The best way to view this picturesque road is from Victoria Terrace, which is a pedestrian route which runs along the top of the road with views down the street - it may be familiar to users of Windows 10, where it features in a pre-installed desktop wallpaper...!
At the top of Victoria Street are the India Buildings, also named for Victoria (Grand Empress of India during her reign), and at the bottom of the West Bow section is one of the original city wells, dating from 1764 when a fresh water supply was established for the first time.
Victoria Street and the West Bow has recently achieved a degree of notoriety as one of the (slightly spurious) inspirations for the Harry Potter books, being a template for Diagon Alley, the wizards' market.
Join me on an Edinburgh tour to find out more about the real life 'Wizard of West Bow', which is a story not nearly as suitable for children!
New year is a big deal in Scotland, as anyone who has been in Edinburgh during the city's annual Hogmanay extravaganza will attest - but from 16 February we also celebrate the Chinese New Year, as we move into a whole new phase of the zodiacal calendar!
Welcome to the Year of the Dog, and with 8 being a lucky number in Chinese culture, 2018 is an extra special year!
With plenty of Chinese eateries to choose from in Edinburgh, you may be surprised to learn that the very first Chinese restaurant in the city - serving customers in the 1940s - was above a shop at the end of Chambers Street, where the modern wing of the National Museum of Scotland stands today.
And there are plenty of dogs around Edinburgh too - I've even written about them before!
So to celebrate 2018 being the Chinese Year of the Dog, my canine co-guide Monty and I are offering a lucky 8% discount on all private Tours With Paws booked before the end of February!
Simply book online for any available tour date in 2018,* select the Tours With Paws option, and then enter the code DOG2018 just above the payment box to get the discount!
Monty and I look forward to meeting you and saying 欢迎来到爱丁堡 - although our pronunciation may leave a little to be desired...!
Book your private tour online today!
Terms and Conditions:
Offer applies to any private tour with the Tours With Paws option selected, booked and paid in full online before 23:59 on 28 February 2018, using discount code DOG2018. *The usual caveats apply that Monty may not join your tour if he's unwell, or if the weather is unsuitable - he won't walk in the rain, or if it's unusually hot. He also won't join tours during August - sorry! - as the city gets too crowded and it's not much fun being at ankle height during the chaos of the festival season.
Part three of my alphabetic trawl through Scotland's capital city - read the previous entries here and here! This week comes to you courtesy of the letters G, H and I!
THE LETTER G
G is for George Street, George Square, and George IV Bridge - and it's a different George every time!
The Georgian-era New Town was built from the 1760s onwards, under the reign of George III originally. Much of the New Town was named to honour the monarch - George Street for the king, Princes Street for his sons, Queen Street for his wife, Hanover Street for the royal family line, and Frederick Street for George's father. The newly established union between Scotland and England was also commemorated - St Andrew Square and St George Square for the patron saints, Rose Street and Thistle Street for the national flowers.
By the time they came to build St George Square, another development on the southern side of the city already had the name George Square, with no connection to the royal family - but at the risk of having George Square and St George Square to confuse tourists and postmen, they renamed St George Square as Charlotte Square, also after the wife of George III.
George IV Bridge was built during the 1820s, and named for the monarch who succeeded his father, who visited Edinburgh in 1822.
THE LETTER H
H is for David Hume, one of Edinburgh's most influential residents, and who is still considered by many to be the most significant philosopher who wrote in the English language. Hume was born in a property just off the Lawnmarket on the Royal Mile and attended Edinburgh University at the age of just 12 years old. During his life he travelled widely through France and England, before returning to Edinburgh where he became a popular figure in high society and was for a time the chief librarian in the Advocate's Library, a legal library still on Parliament Square.
Hume's influence in politics, philosophy and economics was profound, with many scholars and philosophers who came later paying great tribute to Hume in their works.
Hume was also widely considered to be an atheist, at a time when such a position was a dangerous one to take. His home in the New Town led to the street being ironically dubbed St David Street, a name which stuck and survives to this day.
After his death in 1776, Hume was buried in the Old Calton Burial Ground. He made two stipulations for his grave - the first was that it should cost no more than £100, a relatively meagre sum in the eighteenth century, and secondly, any grave or memorial to him should bear just his name, his date of birth and his date of death. He wanted to mention of his life or work, reasoning that if he had done anything worthy of being remembered, history and posterity would ensure his reputation survived.
THE LETTER I
I is for the 'Innocent Railway', a 12-mile stretch of railway line which connected the mines of Dalkeith with the city centre. Built in the 1830s, the Edinburgh and Dalkeith Railway, as it was formally named, was a horse drawn track which brought coal from the outskirts of Edinburgh to join with the main transport networks, and later was expanded to run as a passenger service. In the 1840s the line was bought by the North British Railway company, who operated the main line between London and Edinburgh, and part of their acquisition from the Edinburgh and Dalkeith Railway became integral to the route between Edinburgh and Carlisle.
The nickname 'Innocent Railway' was supposedly adopted because no lives were lost during its construction and operation, a rare occurrence during the industrial age of the nineteenth century when labour was cheap and industrial accidents were commonplace.
Today part of the line adjacent to Holyrood Park survives, where the original tunnel which carried the service underground has been transformed into a cycle route. The entrance to the tunnel is difficult to find by accident, requiring a short detour through a housing estate to discover it, but it remains a well used and popular 'hidden gem' of the south side of the city.
Explore more of Edinburgh with my private walking tours!
A grisly commemoration today, as 8 February was the date in 1587 when the woman who would become one of Scotland's most iconic historical figures was executed. After 19 years imprisoned by her cousin, Queen Elizabeth I of England, Mary Stuart, Queen of Scotland, was beheaded at Fotheringhay Castle in an act that would be speculated about and studied by historians for the next half a century.
Mary's life is often told through a veil of doomed romance, casting her as a tragic heroine in a political struggle between nations, but whatever the theories that swirl around the events of her life (and death) it is plain that Edinburgh played a significant role in Mary's world.
Here are five sites in and around Edinburgh associated with Mary, Queen of Scots...
Just a few miles outside the city, between Edinburgh and Glasgow, sits the village of Linlithgow, with the remains of its spectacular red sandstone palace, dating back to the fifteenth century. Started by James I of Scotland, the palace was a major residence for subsequent monarchs, including James III and James IV who both made major additions to its structure. James V was born in the palace in 1512, follows just thirty years later by the birth of his child, a daughter, Mary.
At the time of Mary's birth, James V was recovering was a terrible defeat in battle at Solway Moss in the Highlands, and awaited news of the birth from his sick bed. It is said he was so distraught to learn that his wife had borne him a daughter instead of a son that the shock killed him, and so it was that Mary became Queen of Scots at just six days old...
Mary's birthplace is still a popular place to visit, and easily accessible from Edinburgh.
Tucked away on the Cowgate, in the shadow of George IV Bridge, is a small Catholic chapel, built in the 1540s to commemorate the birth of Mary, Queen of Scots. The chapel was managed by one of the formal guilds in Edinburgh, the hammermen - tradesmen who worked with hammers, such as silversmiths - and it is believed that Mary herself led prayer sessions in the small, wood-lined chapel during her time in Edinburgh.
In 1560, Scotland changed from being a Catholic country to being a Protestant one, and during the Reformation mobs stormed the nation's Catholic churches and destroyed all the iconography. They smashed windows and removed or destroyed statuary. Within the Magdalen Chapel are the only surviving, intact, pre-Reformation stained glass windows in Scotland - was it a miracle they survived the wrath of the mobs?!
THE PALACE OF HOLYROODHOUSE
Still a royal residence, and the official Scottish residence of the Queen, Holyrood Palace is one of Edinburgh's best-known attractions. At the bottom of the Royal Mile, and built adjacent to the Holyrood Abbey, which predates it by several hundred years, the palace dates from the sixteenth century, with additions made right up until the eighteenth century, and has hosted a variety of royal visitors in its history. Visitors today can view the state rooms along with historic quarters such as the bedroom where Mary, Queen of Scots, slept during her visits, and the chamber in which her secretary David Rizzio was brutally murdered in 1566.
In the grounds of the palace is a small structure standing by itself, popularly known as Queen Mary's Bathhouse, where it is alleged Mary would have bathed twice a year (whether she need it or not...!). In fact, archaeologists new believe this structure was once a pavilion, part of a royal tennis court, which may have been on this site in the sixteenth century.
Edinburgh's second visitable castle lies in ruins, just a couple of miles from the city centre. Craigmillar was formerly an impressive fortress, and Mary had made her home here during the period just after her return from France, aged 18. She had spent her childhood abroad, and returned as queen to a Scotland that was politically turbulent, bringing with her a huge number of staff and courtiers from the French court. Housed in the area around Craigmillar Castle, the area got nicknamed Little France, a name it continues to have today.
Mary sought refuge at Craigmillar following the attack on Rizzio at Holyrood in 1566. It was from her rooms in Craigmillar that she plotted revenge against her own husband for his suspected involvement in Rizzio's murder, and she spent three months here before returning to the city itself in June...
EDINBURGH CASTLE BIRTH ROOM
Within Edinburgh Castle is a small suite of chambers that were once Mary's rooms in the royal apartment block. The castle itself was always more of a fortress than a palace, so it tended only to be occupied by the royals in times of conflict, but Mary came here in 1566 in order to safely deliver the baby she was carrying. In June of that year, in a small room, just a few feet wide, with views over towards Arthur's Seat, Mary gave birth to a son, James, who would go on to be on of the most important monarchs in British history.
James succeeded his mother as ruler of Scotland when Mary was forced to abdicate the throne in 1567, becoming James VI of Scotland when he was just one year old.
Years later, in 1603, Elizabeth I of England would die, whereupon the throne of England passed to her nearest living relative. That would have been Mary, except Elizabeth had had Mary executed on 8 February 1587, at the culmination of a feverish period of paranoia and speculation. And so Mary's son took the throne of England, and became the first monarch to rule both England and Scotland jointly, the way our monarchy has done ever since.
Explore more of Edinburgh's history, and find out more about its associations with Mary, Queen of Scots, on my private city walking tours!
On this day, February 1, in 1918, Muriel Camberg was born here in Edinburgh. Coming into the world in the final year of the worst international conflict the world had yet seen, the future may not have looked especially good for young Muriel. But Muriel Spark, as she became, is today rightly hailed as one of the UK's greatest literary icons, with her own place in the pantheon of great writers and artists who made Edinburgh their home.
Spark lived in the Bruntsfield area of the city as a child, and today this popular and bustling suburb is still a favourite for locals looking to escape the city centre. She was at school at James Gillespie's, still an active school with its buildings facing almost directly onto the open expanse of Bruntsfield Links. It was here she would meet one of her great inspirations, who would later lead to the creation of one of the most iconic figures in British literature. Gillespie's School, and a teacher named Christina Kay, would later find themselves represented in what is probably Spark's best known and most loved novella, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.
Shortly before the outbreak of World War II, Muriel married Sidney Spark, and they moved to Zimbabwe. By 1944, at the height of the conflict, Spark was back in London without Sidney, and spent the rest of the war working for the British government in intelligence.
After the war Spark's writing career developed, with her first novel published in 1957. She would become one of the foremost literary voices of her generation, with stories that defy easy categorisation. Spark's wit and humour shines through stories laden with political interest and social commentary, with a cast of characters that remain vivid today.
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie was first published in 1961. Set at a girls' school in Edinburgh, the story follows a collection of schoolgirls under the tutelage of their waspish teacher, Jean Brodie. Seeking to give her girls the widest possible education, to encourage them to broaden their minds and their horizons, her fascism-favouring influence takes a dangerous edge as the girls get to grips with love and politics.
The story is set in and around Edinburgh, and the film of the story, released in 1969, with Maggie Smith winning an Oscar for her performance as the eponymous Miss Brodie, features Edinburgh in many of its location scenes. Bruntsfield, the Meadows, the Vennel, and Cramond all featuring in the film, along with Edinburgh Academy, which stood in for the Marcia Blaine School for Girls.
Spark went on to live in New York and then Rome for a time, and from the 1970s until her death lived in Tuscany. She died in 2006.
Over the course of her career, Spark garnered many awards and recognitions for her work. She was twice nominated for the Booker Prize, was given eight honorary doctorate degrees (including from her alma mater, Edinburgh's Heriot Watt University), was made a dame of the British Empire in 1993, and a Golden PEN award for Lifetime's Distinguished Service to Literature.
On the centenary of her birth, Spark's work remains vivid and startling for its combination of wit and social commentary, and she remains one of the most celebrated British authors of all time. The National Library of Scotland currently has an exhibition in her honour.
Explore the world of Muriel Spark and Miss Jean Brodie with my Edinburgh walking tours!
Part two of my trawl through Edinburgh in an alphabetic fashion (read about A to C here) brought to you by the letters D, E and F!
THE LETTER D
D is for Dumbiedykes, an area of the city between Holyrood Road and Holyrood Park. Today it's a housing area, but historically was the site of the UK's first school for deaf and dumb children. Founded in the 1760s by Thomas Braidwood, the school was unique in tailoring its teaching to the needs of pupils who would ordinarily be excluded from standard schooling. Braidwood developed a form of what became sign language, and also taught children the skill of lip-reading.
In 1783, Braidwood and his family moved to London, and re-established their school there, expanding and developing their services until Braidwood's death in 1806, when the school was taken over by Braidwood's youngest daughter, Isabella. A grandson, John Braidwood, established a school for deaf children in Virginia, US, in 1812.
Today little remains of the original Braidwood Academy, except a few crumbling sections of wall, marked by a commemorative plaque, but the area in which it stood became known as Dumbiedykes (with a silent 'b'), a pejorative nickname acquired because of the large number of deaf and 'dumb' children who would be found there.
THE LETTER E
E is for Enric Miralles, the Catalan architect who designed the new Scottish Parliament building. Built on a regenerated industrial site at Holyrood, the parliament offers a splash of post-modernism amongst the city's predominantly classic architecture, and is a building filled with symbolism and imagery.
Miralles' vision for the parliament was that it should reflect a variety of elements of Scottish culture and heritage, the idea being that the building as a whole symbolised Scotland as a whole.
Unfortunately, Miralles died before the building could be completed. Aged just 45 when he died of a brain tumour in July 2000, Miralles' parliament building had to be completed under the guidance of another lead architect, Benedetta Tagliabue, Miralles' wife.
The parliament was designed as a public building, with free entry to visitors to explore its interior spaces, which are (broadly) more attractive than the exterior of the buildings. In architecture, as in life, it's what's inside that counts!
THE LETTER F
F is for Fleshmarket Close, one of the narrow lanes and alleys - the 'closes' - of Edinburgh's Old Town. These lanes run off the Royal Mile, into the steep gullies on either side of the city, and remain some of the most evocative and atmospheric parts of the Old Town.
Edinburgh's closes were named for significant people who lived on them, or the trades and businesses based there - Fleshmarket Close was a butcher's market, where meat would be hung along the alley, blood dripping down the steep incline of the lane to drain naturally down to the lake in the valley to the north of the city.
Today, Fleshmarket Close is one of the first visions that greets visitors emerging from Waverley Station, it steps stretching up out of sight - a worthy introduction to a city filled with staircases and alleys!
The crime writer Ian Rankin, who lives in Edinburgh, sets his Inspector Rebus stories in the city, and often utilises the real life locations in his stories. One of his novels is entitled Fleshmarket Close after this dark and brooding passageway through the Old Town.
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We're just a couple of days from one of Scotland's biggest annual cultural events - Burns Night commemorates and celebrates the life and work of Robert Burns, Scotland's national bard, or poet.
(In Scotland another word for poet is 'makar', and in 2004 the Scottish Parliament introduced the formal title of Scots Makar for a national poet. The current Scots Makar is Jackie Kay, but the two previous holders have been Liz Lichhead and Edwin Morgan.)
Burns remains one of Scotland's great cultural figures, and on 25th January each year - Burns' date of birth - dinners are held to consume traditional dishes and recite Burns' poetry. The highlight of such occasions is the traditional meal of haggis, neeps and tatties - a veritable Scottish trinity of foodstuffs!
Although these days visitors often seek a 'gourmet' version of haggis, the dish originated as a dish suited to the lifestyle and means of shepherds, combining cheaply available ingredients and a form which allowed it to be transported. The liver, heart and lungs of a sheep - known as the 'pluck' - are minced with suet, oats and spices, and stuffed into a casing to enclose it.
Originally the casing would have been a sheep's stomach or similar, today they are generally stuffed into synthetic casings. The effect was to create a bulbous sausage, something which could be stuffed into the belongings of the shepherd as he trailed his charges across the exposed Highland landscapes, and which could then be taken out, boiled over a fire, and then sliced open to eat the spicy contents.
Today, haggis is often served in different forms, deep fried in small balls as a bar snack, grilled as part of a cooked breakfast, stuffed into chicken to create Chicken Balmoral (after Queen Victoria's Highland estate), or even - purists should avert their gaze now - crumbled onto pizzas...!
Burns himself wrote an 'Address to a Haggis', which is recited at Burns' suppers as the haggis is brought into the dining room - often accompanied by bagpipes! - in which he describes it as "Great chieftain o' the Puddin-race" - the king of pies and puddings!
At such events the haggis is generally served with the other two staples of the dish, neeps and tatties. Neeps are mashed swede - a Swedish form of turnip, 'neeps' a shortening of 'turneeps' - which is much more golden and yellow than ordinary turnip. Boiled and mashed roughly with butter and salt, it's a rich and sweet vegetable dish. Tatties, then, are simply mashed potatoes - together the three elements don't offer a hugely varied palate of textures, but they do accompany each other well in terms of flavour!
A sauce may be added - whisky or pepper sauce is a good match - but for most people a liberal knob of butter is enough, without detracting from the rich flavour of the haggis itself.
In recent years the haggis has achieved a kind of mythical status, partly as a result of its scarcity in some parts of the world - the use of sheep lung as an ingredient put it beyond the limits of American health regulations, making it illegal to import or produce commercially in the United States.
Most surprisingly of all, considering the haggis is uniquely associated with Scottish culture today, some historians and food experts now believe the haggis to have been invented in England originally, before being 'exported' to Scotland!
Whatever its origins, and however it's served, be sure to try to sample this iconic dish sometime during your visit to Scotland...
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Edinburgh Expert Walking Tours is run by Gareth Davies, an adopted native of Edinburgh since 1998...