An A - Z of Edinburgh: V to Z
Here's the final instalment of my alphabetical exploration of Edinburgh, featuring the letters V, W, and Y, with a couple of cheaty entries for X and Z!
A - C, D - F, G - I, J - L, M - O, P - R, S - U, V - Z
THE LETTER V
V is for the Vennel, a narrow lane running off the Grassmarket. The Scots word 'vennel' described any such lane, similar to the 'ginnel' of northern England, but whereas Edinburgh has many of the 'closes' and 'wynds' that were the local names for the alleys, the city today has just one vennel.
From the Grassmarket, the steep steps leading up the Vennel doubtless put off many from exploring it, but climbing the steps is rewarded with an unparalleled view across to Edinburgh Castle. (If the steps look familiar, it may be from the film version of Muriel Spark's Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, in which the lane featured in 1969...)
At the top of the steps, you can also see not one but two of the defensive walls which enclosed the southern side of Edinburgh, the Flodden Wall (built after 1513) and the Telfer Wall (c.1620s). The junction of these two walls offers a chance to contrast the building style and materials of each wall, and give a sense of how imposing the walls would have been to visitors approaching from the south.
THE LETTER W
W is for White Horse Close, one of the picturesque lanes off the Royal Mile near Holyrood. The building at the head of the lane was formerly the White Horse Inn, which was the coaching inn where visitors would have arrived into Edinburgh during the seventeenth century.
Stage coaches ran regularly along the Great North Road, connecting London and Edinburgh, roughly along the line of the A1 and M1 motorway today. In the early days of the service, it could take anywhere from ten to fourteen days to travel between the two cities, and on arrival in Edinburgh visitors would have been accommodated in this lane at the foot of the Royal Mile.
Although the lane is an attractive example of Edinburgh's old lanes, it's not entirely authentic, as the building of the White Horse Inn itself was rebuilt from scratch in the 1960s, preserving the external appearance of the original building, but refitting its interior for a more modern function...
THE LETTER X
X is the shape formed by the St Andrew's Cross, which forms the primary figure on the flag of Scotland, known as the Saltire. You'll find the Saltire in various forms and on numerous flags around the city, taken from the particular crucifix on which St Andrew (Scotland's patron saint) was martyred.
THE LETTER Y
Y is for James Young Simpson, one of the city's most important sons - although the middle name 'Young' was acquired at university, which he attended at the age of just 14. He was later appointed president of the Royal Medical Society of Edinburgh at the age of just 24.
Simpson is best known as a pioneer of anaesthetics, which he specifically developed as an aid to childbirth. He lived at 52 Queen Street in the New Town, and is rumoured to have discovered the properties of chloroform after a dinner party, at which he invited his guests to inhale from various liquids he'd brought from his laboratory at the medical school.
Queen Victoria was one of the first women for whom chloroform made the process of childbirth less painful (and less dangerous), in 1853, and was so pleased by its effects that she made Simpson her private physician in Scotland. He became the first man to be knighted for services to medicine, and was offered a prestigious burial within Westminster Abbey in London, but elected to be buried closer to home at Warriston Cemetery in Edinburgh, when 100,000 people lined the route of his funeral procession to pay tribute to him.
THE LETTER Z
Z is for the shape of the original route into Edinburgh from the west. Stretching from the Grassmarket to the Lawnmarket was the West Bow, a snaking, almost switch-back incline that saved visitors an almost two-mile detour to the bottom of the Royal Mile itself.
In the 1830s, as Edinburgh was experiencing efforts to improve its accessibility, Johnston Terrace and George IV Bridge were constructed to save travellers the treacherous climb of West Bow, and the road was extended and partly renamed Victoria Street.
The lane today claims some of the dreaded Harry Potter connections, being a (speculative) inspiration for Diagon Alley - although at least two other streets in the city claim the same influence!
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