Edinburgh's city centre (and, indeed, its surrounding areas) are packed with a multitude of churches, their spires and towers rising above the surrounding buildings. But one church rises above (almost) all of them, and can be seen on the skyline from right across the city - I'd go as far as to say it's a more prominent feature than Edinburgh Castle itself!
St Giles' Cathedral is the largest of Edinburgh's Old Town churches, and sits right on the Royal Mile at the heart of the medieval city. The building is named for the patron saint of Edinburgh, St Giles, a Greek hermit who spent much of his life living in solitude in France. The church itself was established in the twelfth century, and the building has been developed and under almost continuous rebuilding until the nineteenth century.
Despite its name, St Giles is actually not technically a cathedral... In 1560, Scotland changed from being a Catholic country to a Protestant one, and part of this major social Reformation was for the church to get rid of the power structures imposed by bishops. Since a cathedral is (by definition) the seat of a bishop, and as the Church of Scotland no longer has bishops, the building at the heart of the Old Town is the High Kirk of St Giles.
It was the minister of St Giles' at that time, John Knox, who led the Reformation in Scotland, and he is commemorated with a statue in the church, as well as being buried in the former graveyard (now Parliament Square) just outside it.
At other times in its history, as the Church of Scotland underwent a number of shifts and changes, St Giles' became sub-divided and hosted no fewer than four separate churches under its roof, each with a separate congregation and preaching different interpretations of the same basic text. Today the building is reunited as a single church, and continues to be a popular venue for weddings, regular services, and live music.
The distinctive crown tower at the top of St Giles' - more properly known as a lantern tower - was added in the 1490s, and is one of only a handful of such structures in Scotland. It is this feature which can be seen above the rooftops of the city from miles around. Access to the tower for small groups is available on tours of the cathedral, giving visitors a unique perspective over the city centre.
Other highlights of the building include the Thistle Chapel, a highly decorative chapel at one corner of the building which was build in 1911. Knights of the Order of the Thistle, a chivalry honour bestowed on a maximum of 16 people at any single time and dating from the seventeenth century are celebrated here. Near the entrance to the Thistle Chapel is an original copy of the National Covenant, a document created and signed at nearby Greyfriars Kirk in 1638, demanding freedom and independence for the Church of Scotland from the monarchy.
The church also has a large stained glass window commemorating Robert Burns, Scotland's national poet, above the main entrance on the west side of the building. A variety of other figures from Edinburgh's history have memorials inside the church, including the author Robert Louis Stevenson, medical pioneers Elsie Inglis and James Young Simpson, and warring nobles Argyll and Montrose.
Access to visit the church is free, but with donations requested.
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The third in my series showcasing highlights of Edinburgh's history with a numerical theme - check out numbers 1-3 and 4-6. This week we're getting dangerously close to double digits....
The Number 7: The Edinburgh Seven
A fairly magnificent group of women, assembled by Sophia Jex-Blake in response to her application to join Edinburgh's medical school being denied. The changes required to the course, she was told, to allow a woman to train would so great that for one woman it simply wouldn't be feasible - and as women didn't want to train as doctors it wouldn't be worth the university's effort to do so.
Undeterred, Jex-Blake took out an advert seeking other women who had an interest in joining the medical school, and rounded up another six potential students. Becoming known as the Edinburgh Seven, they applied to join the medical school in 1869 and were successful, becoming the first female students of medicine in Britain.
Alas their places at the university were protested by male students, who formed a riot to pelt the women with mud and rocks as they attended their examinations at Surgeons' Hall, and the university rescinded their admission, forcing Jex-Blake and her fellow women students ti complete their training elsewhere.
The University of Edinburgh finally allowed women to join its medical school in the 1890s.
The Number 8: Town Centres
Besides the main city centre areas of Old and New Town, Edinburgh has eight distinctly defined town centre spaces, many of which have developed from the amalgamation of outlying towns and villages into the city itself as Edinburgh grew and expanded.
The eight town centres are:
This collection of towns happened gradually over a number of years, and was happening until relatively recently - Leith only became formally part of Edinburgh during the 1920s.
Today these suburbs of the city are popular and bustling spaces that are popular with locals. Visitors are encouraged to travel a little further beyond the confines of the city centre itself, to see more of the areas that locals inhabit.
The Number 9: Henry IX
In St Andrew Square stands one of the largest personal monuments in the city, a Grecian column topped with a statue of Henry Dundas. Dundas was a powerful politician in Scotland during the eighteenth century, representing a majority of Scottish constituencies in the Houses of Parliament. He served as Minister for War under William Pitt the Younger, and later as First Lord of the Admiralty, a senior post in the Royal Navy.
Dundas wielded sufficient power across Scotland to gain the nicknames 'King Harry the Ninth', 'the Uncrowned King of Scotland', and 'The Great Tyrant'...
In 1806 Dundas became the last member of the British Houses of Parliament to be impeached, as a result of mismanagement of military funds during his time as political head of the Navy. It was later a matter of some controversy that the 150ft monument to Dundas in St Andrew Square was formally paid for "by contributions from officers and men of the Royal Navy"..!
Today Dundas's reputation as a politician hinges on actions he took to prevent the abolition of the slave trade in the UK - without his interventions, Britain may have abolished slavery around a quarter of a century before it was eventually outlawed.
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Part two of my Edinburgh by Numbers series brings you digits 4, 5 and 6! You can catch up on the numbers 1-3 here.
The Number 4: Edinburgh's Universities
Although the University of Edinburgh is the largest of the city's academic institutions, there are a total of four universities within Edinburgh.
The University of Edinburgh was founded in 1582, and is one of the oldest universities in the English-speaking world (although there are older institutions even within Scotland - the University of St Andrews was founded in the early fifteenth century). There are several collections of university buildings around the city, most centrally around Bristo Square, but with major campus collections elsewhere too.
Napier University was formerly a technical college founded in the 1960s. Named for mathematician John Napier, the university has one of its campuses in the old Napier family home at Merchiston Castle in the Bruntsfield area of the city.
Queen Margaret University was named for the wife of King Malcolm III of Scotland (known as Malcolm Big Head') and has its campus just outside the city centre at Musselburgh.
Heriot-Watt University is another former mechanical and engineering college, named for two major figures: goldsmith George Heriot, and inventor of the steam engine, James Watt. Heriot-Watt has campus far beyond Scotland, in Malaysia and the UAE, and was named International University of the year in 2018.
These four institutions attract students from all around the globe, resulting in about 12% of Edinburgh's population being students.
The Number 5: The Royal Mile
Although the whole backbone of Edinburgh's Old Town is collectively known as the Royal Mile - linking the two royal residences of the castle and the palace of Holyroodhouse - in fact the route is made up of five separate streets. The use of the name 'Royal Mile' only dates back to around 1901, and so addresses for properties along the route are still given by the individual street name:
The Number 6: Number 6 Charlotte Square
At the west end of George Street is still one of the grandest addresses in the city centre. Built as the grand finale to the first phase of New Town development, Charlotte Square is totally almost exclusively commercially owned, with the exception of number 6 Charlotte Square.
This is Bute House, designed by Robert Adam (along with the rest of the square) and today serves as the official residence of the First Minister of Scotland. The First Minister is head of the Scottish Government, following the establishment of a devolved parliament system in the late 1990s. This unassuming building has little security at the front of the building, as the main entrance is around at the back - the front generally is only used for VIP guests and public occasions.
The building has been home to other notable residents, too. Catherine Sinclair, who was a friend of Walter Scott and a children's novelist and is commemorated with a monument nearby, lived in the property with her family, and Queen Victoria would stay at Bute House during her visits to Edinburgh, as an alternative to the Palace of Holyroodhouse, which she found rather cold and damp
To find out what life would have been like for the grand families who originally lived in properties like Bute House, pop next door to number 7 Charlotte Square, the Georgian House, which has been fully restored by the National Trust for Scotland, to give a sense of high society living around the end of the eighteenth- and early nineteenth century.
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The new Mary Queen of Scots film hits UK cinemas today (although it's been out elsewhere for a month already) so here's my review, with an eye on the historical details that it gets right (and wrong!).
There seems no better time for cinematic visions of history which put women to the fore, and one period which lends itself to being viewed through a prism of womanhood is Britain in the sixteenth century, when both Scotland and England were ruled by queens. Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots were cousins, nearly a decade apart in age, whose lives and personal circumstances could hardly have been more different.
Mary Stuart (Saoirse Ronan) had spent her childhood in France, become queen of France (by marriage) aged just 16, and returned to Scotland after being widowed at 18. Elizabeth Tudor (Margot Robbie) was the daughter of Henry VIII, having ascended to the throne on the death of her sister Mary, was unmarried and held the line of royal succession in her hand. If she were to die without producing an heir, the throne would pass to her cousin in Scotland, who would become queen of both the Scots and the English.
On one level, Josie Rourke's film is a story of two women managing the trials and tribulations of romantic life, and part of its weakness is in trying to put a new spin on the balancing act between finding love, holding down a job and managing the challenges of motherhood. For all that she is a traditional romantic heroine, Mary's struggle lacks much originality – in this sense, it is Elizabeth's story which is the more interesting, and Margot Robbie's portrayal of a conflicted monarch at war with her body, her heart, her mind and her advisors which has the more dramatic interest.
But, it is Mary's film, and as such all the key ingredients of the historic tragedy are woven into the drama, including several true elements from the historical record:
The film works best when not trying to juggle so many historical details, and much of the intrigue and discussion around the English queen's attempts to influence Mary's choice of husband, and for what political ends, is a little unclear. The fickle political landscape as a whole makes for unsatisfying viewing – it's not clear how (and why) Mary's half-brother James switches sides to lead the English army against her, and the film's weakest scenes are the conflicts between Scots and English armies, which lack both the scale and sense of importance. This story is not an epic clash of swords and armour, and whilst there were significant battles during Mary's reign, they sit awkwardly in a version of the story which is otherwise much more emotional and cerebral in its focus.
The greatest liberty that the film takes – common to all dramatic versions of the Mary v. Elizabeth story – is the face to face meeting of the two queens. In reality, although attempts were made by Mary to meet her cousin throughout her life, the two women never met. It is a fitting climax to their struggle, though, that the two of them meet here shortly before the end of the film, when Mary flees Scotland to seek sanctuary from Elizabeth in England.
This scene is probably the film's strongest moment, being able to shed all need to cleave to a historical reality, and taking place purely in the space of dramatic invention. It is here, in a humble laundry shack in rural England, that the two women exchange words, and it is astonishing how much drama screenwriter Beau Willimon is able to pack into such a short scene. Both women bare their souls to each other, both are moved to tears, and both bring to bear threats upon the other. That it feels like such a genuine moment of interaction is testament to the skill of the two performers. The film is worth watching for these brief exchanges of dialogue, as the two women work to find a balance with each other. Having apparently found resolution, it is all the more shocking that Elizabeth moves immediately to have her cousin imprisoned.
Mary remained a prisoner of Elizabeth, at various houses and prisons across England, for the next 19 years, and the film finishes as it starts, in the moments leading up to her execution.
The line commonly attributed to Mary - “In my end is my beginning” - shows well her sense of place and perspective, recognising and understanding that her death was just the start of a mythologising of her life, and is the reason why her story remains compelling nearly five-hundred years after her death. This latest film is a worthy and watchable revisiting of a familiar tale, fitting the doomed romantic heroine's story into a narrative for the twenty-first century.
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One of the great joys of living in Edinburgh (and of this job) is the constant stream of surprises that the city holds. After more than 20 years, I'm still finding out new things about the city and the people who have lived here!
This short blog celebrates just one example of Edinburgh's diverse history. On George Square in the Old Town - an area occupied by the University of Edinburgh - I have walked past the surviving buildings on the east side of the square hundreds (if not thousands) of times, and I've noticed three buildings in a row that all have a commemorative plaque celebrating people who have lived there or been associated with the buildings.
Across the square, on the west side, are plaques to authors Walter Scott and Arthur Conan Doyle, both of whom lived in the neighbourhood at different times. But it's the diversity of the figures celebrated by the three plaques on the east that that I find fascinating - between these three houses we find a giant of literature, a signatory to the American Declaration of Independence, and an Olympic gold medallist!
Here they are, in reverse chronological order...
Liddell was born in China, to Scots missionary parents, before returning to the UK as a young child. He studied Pure Science at the University of Edinburgh, where he also developed a reputation as an athlete, gaining the nickname 'the Flying Scotsman' for his speed on the running track.
Among his sporting achievements was a place on the Scottish national rugby team in international tournaments in the early 1920s, and in 1924 Liddell was part of the British squad of athletes competing in the Paris Olympics.
He had hoped to compete in the 100 metres event, but after learning that the qualification heats would be held on a Sunday, he withdrew - as a devout Christian, his faith precluded him from competing on the Sabbath.
Instead Liddell set his sights on the 400 metres race, and spent the months building up to the Olympics training for this longer, more gruelling event. On the day of the final, he broke not just the Olympic record but the world record, completing the race in 47.6 seconds, and gaining a gold medal for his efforts. His story is told in the 1984 Oscar-winning film, Chariots of Fire.
Liddell later returned to China to continue his parents' work as Christian missionaries, and was imprisoned in a Japanese labour camp, where he died shortly before its liberation in 1945.
PETER MARK ROGET
Born in London, Roget studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh in the 1790s, but his life was marred by great tragedy, with several figures in his close family (including his father, his wife) dying young. Experiences of depression persisted, and as a means of alleviating his emotional distress he turned to obsessive list making, a habit he had fallen into even as a young child as a means of distraction from the world around him.
In 1805 he began compiling the list that would forever be associated with him, a thesaurus of words arranged by their definition and meaning. He spent nearly 50 nearly assembling and compiling his lists, with the first edition being published in 1848, containing over 15,000 entries linked by concept or theme.
Roget's Thesaurus was reprinted 27 times during its author's lifetime, and following Roget's death in 1869 the book was expanded by first Roget's son, and later his grandson. This definitive literary aid remains in print today, over 150 years later.
Rush was born just outside Philadelphia in America during the period when it was still a colony of the British Empire, in 1745. After graduating from what is now Princeton university aged just 14, Rush was encouraged to undertake further studies, and travelled to Edinburgh to study at the university here in the late 1760s - as such he would have had one of the earliest associations with George Square, which was only being constructed around that time.
In 1769, Rush returned to the colonies where he proceeded to have contact with (and influence on) a great many figures from American history. Thomas Paine consulted Rush for his pamphlet Common Sense, which advocated for American independence from British rule, and later Rush would provide medical training to Meriwether Lewis ahead of the famed Lewis and Clark expedition across the western extent of the North American continent, to reach the Pacific Ocean.
As the representative for Pennsylvania, Rush was one of the signatories to the American Declaration of Independence from British rule in 1776, helping to create the United States of America. It is known that that document was itself inspired by the Scottish Declaration of Arbroath - a similarly-worded statement against English governance dating from 1320, and Rush may even have seen copies of that original declaration during his time in Edinburgh, and drawn on its wording and statement of intent in helping to craft the American document.
In all, this one brief example is an astonishing reflection of Edinburgh's status that such diverse figures of world history were living in the same short section of street at different times...
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Last year I amused myself by compiling an A-Z of Edinburgh, and for 2019 my new blog series will explore Edinburgh by numbers! I'm not sure how high I'll go, and I may start skipping digits, but it's my blog and I can make my own rules...!
So here's Edinburgh in numbers, 1 to 3.
The Number 1: No.1 High Street
To begin at the beginning - 1 High Street is an address on the Royal Mile, at the point where the city originally started (and finished, depending which way you were walking!). The junction itself also boasts the World's End, a marker point for the gateway into and out of the city, beyond which many of Edinburgh's residents never would have travelled.
No. 1 High Street is today a pub called No. 1 High Street (for the avoidance of doubt). Above the entrance to the bar you'll find a figure carved in wood, dressed in green and holding a bow in his right hand. He represents the Royal Company of Archers, who have been the official bodyguards of the monarch in Scotland since 1822. It was a largely ceremonial body of men assembled for George IV's historic state visit of that year, but they retain a sense of place and can frequently be seen in the city during the summer, especially during royal visits.
When not 'on duty' the Royal Company of Archers can be seen practising their marksmanship either in the gardens at the Palace of Holyroodhouse, or on the Meadows (near to the path named Archers' Walk which runs across the parkland).
The Number 2: Charles II
Another royal connection for no. 2 - King Charles II, who was a major figure in the development of Holyroodhouse in the seventeenth century, and is represented in a statue on Parliament Square, near St Giles' cathedral.
The statue of Charles was produced by one of the king's favourite artists, Grinling Gibbons. He was known primarily for wood carvings, but the statue of Charles was cast from lead in the 1680s. It commemorates Charles's coronation as king of Scotland in 1649, after the execution of his father, Charles I. It was only after the restoration of the monarchy in England, following the interregnum and brief period of England as Commonwealth, under Oliver Cromwell, that Charles II was formally recognised a king of England too.
Gibbons' statue represents Charles as a Roman general, a very different image from the classic portraits of Charles II in wigs and heavy jackets. The statue was restored in 2011, to remedy a number of misshapen elements from the lead having buckled and twisted over the preceding three-hundred years...
The Number 3: Three Volcanoes
Although the city was traditionally said (like Rome) to have been built on seven hills, there are three major peaks in Edinburgh's city centre - three vents of an ancient volcano which created the dramatic landscape of the city today.
Arthur's Seat is the highest of the three peaks, reaching to 250m above sea level, and is a popular ascent for walkers. Calton Hill is an easier climb, just ten minutes' walk from Princes Street, offering fantastic views over the city, and Castle Rock is the third peak, winding up within the site of Edinburgh Castle itself to a summit near St Margaret's Chapel. The volcanic eruptions which created these features took place around 350,000,000 years ago, when the landscape itself was deep under water.
Between these three summits run a series of deep valleys, created by glacial activity during the last Ice Age, approximately 15,000 years ago.
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