Look Closer - Edinburgh 2020 (part 7)
Here it is, the final part of my blog series highlighting 20 hidden gems and small details of Edinburgh, things that you are only likely to find by actively seeking them out!
All my tours try to steer you away from some of the more crowded, busy tourist trails, to give you an experience of the city that is different from the thousands of people who only hit the highlights. Especially in the height of summer, escaping the crowds and finding your own path in Edinburgh crucial, so whether you take a tour with me or just go exploring by yourselves, I hope you've been inspired to look beyond the Royal Mile and the queue to get tickets for Edinburgh Castle.
Previous entries in the series can be viewed here: part 1 | part 2 | part 3 | part 4 | part 5 | part 6
19. A place of healing
In the eighteenth century, a group of children playing alongside the stream between Stockbridge and the Dean Village, discovered a spring bursting from the ground. Unlike the notoriously polluted Water of Leith itself, this spring was clean and fresh and pure, and when local people investigated they discovered it was coming from an underground aquifer. This supply of water was intensely mineral rich, and so a well house was built around it with a pump to bring the water up from deep under ground.
St Bernard's Well, as it was named, became a popular attraction for the wealthy citizens of the eighteenth century. At a time when only those with money had the means to travel, visiting mineral wells became a popular way of spending leisure time, and like the holy wells in Holyrood Park before it, St Bernard's Well is conceivably Edinburgh's earliest purpose-built visitor attraction.
A nearby street was originally named Mineral Street, and provided accommodation to travellers coming to take the water, and although the pathway past the well is relatively quiet today - although popular with local people walking their dogs or cycling - this quiet suburb of the city would have been busy with visitors back in the 1780s.
The well house that is visible today was designed by the classical landscape artist Alexander Nasmyth, and draws on the classical Grecian style. At the centre of the rotunda is a statue of the Greek goddess Hygeia, known as the goddess of hygiene and cleanliness, at the the very top of the structure look out for the golden pineapple, a popular symbol of wealth and status in the Georgian era.
20. An American icon
My final detail of Edinburgh is one which is always popular with visitors, and can be found in the Old Calton Burial Ground. Standing just in front of the grave of the philosopher David Hume is a statue of Abraham Lincoln - and it may seem a rather unusual place to find a statue of an American president!
In fact, it was not only the first statue of an American president outside of the US when it was erected in the 1890s, but to this day it is the only American Civil War memorial outside of North America.
Five Edinburgh men were among the many Scots who fought alongside Lincoln in the American Civil War - like the Irish, the Scots not only had a sense of connection to America, but were also often employed as mercenary forces in conflicts across the globe. After their deaths the bodies of these men were returned to Edinburgh for burial, and one of their wives made an application to the US ambassador to Scotland at the time to request a memorial to commemorate their sacrifice.
Legend has it that the ambassador was resistant to the idea until his wife took up the cause on behalf of the widows of the men who had died in battle, and it was with her support that a memorial to the men was erected over the grave. By extension it commemorates all the Scots-American casualties of that conflict.
Although it was the figure of Lincoln who attracted attention at the time the memorial was unveiled, in recent years it has been the figure at the base of the monument, representing the emancipated slaves, who has become the feature of interest: the figure is represented holding a book in his left hand, a subtle (and ingenious) way of indicating that slaves were not just objects of property, but educated and literate people with their own internal worlds and lives - a pretty forward-thinking representation for the late nineteenth-century...
Both of these features can be seen on a three-hour New Town tour, or can be incorporated into a customised Edinburgh walking tour!
I try to celebrate some of Edinburgh's notable and significant figures on my tours of the city, but sometimes it's hard to put a positive spin on historical events... The story of Burke and Hare is a popular one with many of the companies who specialise in tales of death and suffering, and I occasionally tell it too - even if these men were not exactly heroes, they left their mark on the city and ought to be noted if not exactly celebrated!
First of all, Williams Burke and Hare are often described as grave robbers, and whilst it's not for me to try to paint them in a more positive light, in their defence they never robbed a grave in their lives. What they ought be described as is serial killers, who sought to profit from a curious set of circumstances in which, as Walter Scott put it:
"a wretch who is not worth
The context to the story is that Edinburgh's medical school was one of Europe's foremost centres of investigation for the study of the human body, study done chiefly through anatomical dissections of bodies of people who had died in the workhouses, in the prisons and hospitals, or at the end of the executioner's rope. Such was the reputation of the university that by the nineteenth century their demand for cadavers outpaced the supply, and the university had started offering cash for the provision of corpses for their medical students.
Donating the body of a loved one saved on the cost of a burial (which could be prohibitively expensive) and could earn the family donating it up to £10 in cash. At a time when £14 per year was considered a good salary for a domestic servant, and with many of Edinburgh's residents living in destitution, this cash incentive had led to the rise of body snatchers stealing corpses from the graveyards in order to turn a profit. In places like Greyfriars Kirkyard you can find the mortsafes developed to help protect bodies from being dug up.
Hence Burke and Hare's inaccurate reputation as grave robbers. In reality, having both worked as labourers on the Union Canal, built to connect Glasgow and Edinburgh between 1817 and 1822, neither of these men wanted to do any more digging. Instead they went straight to source for their supply of fresh meat.
Their first victim was a resident at William Hare's lodging house on Tanner's Close, a lane long since lost which ran off the West Port, at the western end of the Grassmarket. An old soldier who had been staying with Hare and his wife died in his sleep in November 1827, owing the couple £3 in rent. Instead of allowing the body to be given a burial, Hare suggested they take it to the medical school, and see if they could claw back the money owed to them. To their delight, the university paid £7 for the old soldier's corpse, and suddenly William Hare was £4 up on the deal...
Over the next year Burke and Hare would go on to murder 16 people, in order to sell their bodies to the medical school. The victims were quite diverse in profile, a combination of men and women, both visitors to the city and local people, at least one child, and ranging in age from 12 years to old age.
The typical method of killing that they utilised was to lure their victims with the offer of alcohol, get them drunk enough to subdue them, and then suffocate them using a method which became known as 'Burking' - one of the men would kneel astride the victim's chest, restricting their movement and pinning their arms to their sides, while the other put a hand over the nose and mouth to cut off the air supply. The bodies would then be transported in a barrel or a chest to the medical school, where they would exchange the body for cash.
Their last victim was killed on 31 October 1828, and following a brief police investigation, both Burke and Hare and their respective wives were arrested four days later.
William Hare agreed to turn kings evidence against his friend William Burke, providing testimony that would convict him in exchange for leniency in his own case. He could not be compelled to provide evidence against his own wife, so instead it was William Burke and his wife Helen who stood trial for one single murder - the only death for which it was felt they had sufficient evidence available to secure a conviction - and the case came to trial at the Parliament Hall on Christmas Eve 1828.
The Scottish legal system at that time held that once a case was started, it should continue without interruption until a verdict is given, and so the Burke murder trial ran through Christmas Eve, and into the early hours of Christmas Day. Witnesses - including James Braidwood, who had established the world's first fire service - provided little in the way of what we would think of as forensic evidence, but nevertheless at 8.30am on Christmas Day the jury retired to consider its verdict, returning less than an hour later to pronounce William Burke guilty, but find his wife not proven of any involvement in the murder.
Burke's sentence was to be publicly hanged, and thereafter for his body to be donated to the medical school for dissection - a peculiarly apt form of poetic justice, perhaps!
And so it was that on 28 January 1829, William Burke was hanged on the square outside St Giles' Cathedral, attracting a crowd in excess of 25,000 people. Thereafter his corpse was taken to the medical school at the Old College, where it was dissected by the head of the university's anatomy school, Professor Alexander Monro. Burke's skeleton was kept and preserved as an anatomical teaching aid, and can be viewed today at the University of Edinburgh's anatomical museum.
Barely three years later the passing of the Anatomy Act of 1832 formalised the process by which bodies could be provided for anatomical dissection, and made it illegal for cash payments to be made for medical donations.
As the incentive to dig up bodies had now been removed, the epidemic of grave robbings came to an end, and Edinburgh's graveyards once again became places where loved ones could rest in peace.
Find out more about Edinburgh heroes (and anti-heroes...) with my private city walking tours!
Look Closer - Edinburgh 2020 (part 6)
I always say that there is more to Edinburgh than a guide book could show you, and most of it is hiding in plain view, just waiting for you to find it! There's no secret to it really, you just have to go looking, and be a bit more adventurous than just walking down the Royal Mile...
Going beyond the beaten track of the tourist trail rewards visitors, and that's what I try to do with my tours. This series highlights some of the smaller details of Edinburgh beyond the headline attractions.
Other parts can be found here: part 1 | part 2 | part 3 | part 4 | part 5 | part 6 | part 7
16. Cannonball House
Standing at the top of the Royal Mile, the last building on the left as you walk to Edinburgh Castle is called Cannonball House, and today houses a bar and restaurant offering unparalleled views of the castle esplanade. But the building gets its name from the two cannonballs stuck into its western-facing wall - look for them on the side on the building facing the castle.
Some guides will tell you these were fired from the castle on an invading Jacobite army in the eighteenth century - in fact they have a more interesting (if less romantic) origin.
In 1624 Edinburgh was granted an act of parliament to commission the supply of fresh water into the city for the first time. The water was brought from the hills to the south, via network of wooden pipes - hollowed tree trunks - across the landscape into the city.
The building across from Cannonball House was a water tank, and the cannonballs were put into the wall as level markers, indicating the height of the springs in the south, from which the engineers could calculate how high to construct their water tank to get maximum benefit of the water pressure.
17. Birthplace of a revolutionary
Scotland and Ireland have a long history of shared Celtic traditions and origins, and in the nineteenth century many Irish migrants settled in Edinburgh in pursuit of a better life than they had experienced in rural Ireland - the area of the Cowgate in particular became known as 'Little Ireland' due to the large number of immigrant families who settled there.
By the 1860s the Cowgate was an overcrowded slum, and it was in the shadow of George IV Bridge that a young boy named James Connolly was born to an Irish family, in June 1868.
Seeking a life beyond the slums of Edinburgh, Connolly enlisted with the British Army at the age of 14 (having lied about his age) and was deployed with the troops to Ireland, before deserting to avoid being sent over to India.
Back in Scotland, Connolly became involved in politics, campaigning for the Scottish Socialist Party, which in turn became restyled as the Irish Socialist Republican Party, and he returned to Ireland to spread the socialist cause in 1910. He later established himself as leader of a republican paramilitary troop called the Irish Citizen Army and was involved in leading those opposing British rule of Ireland in the Easter Rising on the streets of Dublin in 1916.
Connolly was injured in the conflict with the combined forces of the British Army and the Royal Irish Constabulary, and in the aftermath of the uprising - in which over 480 people were killed and many more injured - many of the rebel Irish leaders were executed by firing squad. Because of the injuries he sustained, Connolly was unable to stand to face the firing squad, so instead was tied to a chair and shot where he sat on 12 May 1916.
Connolly is commemorated in memorials and statues across Ireland (and the US) and has a railway station in Dublin named for him. A small plaque high up on the Cowgate in Edinburgh marks the approximate site of his birth.
18. The next big thing...
Walk through Bristo Square, at the heart of the university of Edinburgh's city centre collection of buildings, and you'd be forgiven for not spotting the largest public art commission to be installed in the Old Town.
Running across the square, and set into the stones at your feet, are a series of 1600 small bronze dots, looking a little as though somebody has dripped paint across the square. This is a work by artist Susan Collis, entitled 'The Next Big Thing... is a Series of Little Things', and it leads right up to the doors of the McEwan Hall, where university celebrates its graduating students.
Collis's work typically toys with people's expectations of art, and with this commission she subverts the typical experience of a statue becoming invisible in its setting because of its familiarity - something that is seen every day eventually stops being visible because it becomes part of the background of the city.
Her bronze dots in the ground, in contrast, will become more visible over time, as the movement of people walking through the square and scuffing and buffing the metal with their feet means that over time they will become shinier, and so more noticeable...
So remember to look up and look down as you explore the city of Edinburgh - there are details and secrets to be found at every level!
Explore more of the city's hidden gems with my private walking tours!
Edinburgh's Local Heroes - William Dick
I have recently had cause to engage directly with the legacy of one of Edinburgh's local heroes, a man born in the Old Town, buried in the New Town, and standing as one of the great pioneers of his age. William Dick established Scotland's first veterinary school in Edinburgh, which continues to operate today as part of the University of Edinburgh.
Dick was born on White Horse Close, a picturesque alley just off the Royal Mile near Holyrood Palace. I often bring groups into this lane because of its instagram-friendly appeal, but in 1793 when young William was born it would have been less pretty and more a run-down slum area - but it was an area that had long held a connection with horses, with legends of Mary Queen of Scots' horse being stabled here, as well as being the site of a major inn serving visitors arriving into Edinburgh from the horse drawn coaches in the seventeenth century.
Dick's father was a farrier - horse shoe making - and so horses would have been a significant presence in the boy's life, and growing up in an environment where animals were such a feature was certainly an influence on William's later veterinary pursuits.
In 1815 the Dick family moved to accommodation in the New Town, just off St Andrew Square, and he was schooled in Shakespeare Square, which no longer survives but was near where the northern end of North Bridge is today. He began to take anatomy lessons, and would later fuse his interest in horses with his medical studies, travelling to London to study as a veterinary surgeon.
Returning to Edinburgh, Dick set up his own veterinary college, training others in treatment of disease in farm animals and livestock, horses and dogs. Having provided students with a certified qualification in "the veterinary art", Dick's reputation grew and his college gradually expanded, until Queen Victoria appointed him as her royal veterinarian in 1842.
Dick died in 1866, and was buried in Edinburgh's Old Calton Burial Ground, just a short distance away from White Horse Close where he was born, and overlooking the bottom end of the Old Town.
William Dick's veterinary college was officially renamed the Royal (Dick) Veterinary College in 1902, and moved into purpose-built buildings near the Meadows on the south side of the city in 1916. Those buildings today are the Summerhall complex of art studios, performance spaces, bars and brewery, and in recent years have become a haven for a variety of cultural interests in the city.
The door still has an original brass plate noting the buildings as the premises of the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies.
In 1951 the Dick Vet became part of the University of Edinburgh, who still operate their veterinary training and medical hospital for animals under the Royal Dick banner. Their main campus is a little distance from the city centre, where they have a variety of world-class and state of the art facilities for treating and caring for sick and injured animals.
It was here that I brought my co-guide Monty on Hogmanay 2019 for an emergency spinal operation after he lost the use of his back legs. At the time of writing, Monty is well on the way to making a full recovery, and that is in large part to the care, professionalism and dedication of the Royal Dick staff.
Explore more of Edinburgh's local heroes on my private city walking tours!
Look Closer - Edinburgh 2020 (part 5)
On my walking tours of Edinburgh I try to show visitors some of the less familiar sights of the city, to explore areas away from the beaten track of the tourist trail - for every castle and palace there are a hundred smaller details that many people never take the time to look at.
This blog series is my way of introducing visitors to some of the hidden gems and city secrets of Edinburgh that we might encounter on a tour, alongside the popular features that every tourist takes photos of!
You can find other parts of this series here: part 1 | part 2 | part 3 | part 4 | part 5 | part 6 | part 7
13. A military muster point
On the road out of Edinburgh to the south, between the suburbs of Bruntsfield and Morningside, stands a small sandstone monument erected on the wall outside a former church building.
This is the bore stone, reputed to have stood at the point nearby where James IV of Scotland mustered his troops before marching south to invade northern England in 1513. This was a momentous battle in Scottish history. As well as being a historic defeat for the Scots - James IV became the last British monarch to die on a battlefield - it led to the city of Edinburgh constructing its second defensive wall to protect itself from any potential reprisals by the English.
The Battle of Flodden remains the worst defeat that the Scots ever suffered at the hands of the English, and a big part of that statistic was simply down to the incredible numbers of men that James IV recruited to fight. Thousands of soldiers - many of them just boys - were enlisted from all across Scotland, and they all amassed on the southern outskirts of Edinburgh ahead of their march south.
The bore stone on Morningside Road has a small hole running through it in which, it is alleged, a flag would have been mounted. From this point many thousands of men were walked to their death at Flodden, and today the stone serves as a sombre reminder of the cost of such conflicts.
14. The Magdalen Chapel
Standing on the Cowgate, between the Grassmarket and George IV Bridge, is a small building that has survived over 450 years of city development, religious uprisings and political turmoils.
The Magdalen Chapel was built as a small Catholic chapel in the 1540s, around the time of the birth of Mary Queen of Scots. It is believed that Mary's mother, Mary of Guise, led prayer sessions at the chapel during her time in the city in the sixteenth century, and the building survived one of the greatest periods of social change at the time of the Reformation in Scotland, in 1560.
When Scotland changed from being a Catholic to a Protestant country, many churches and chapels were attacked by mobs seeking to destroy the Catholic iconography and the elements of worship which were now against the beliefs of the Protestant church - in particular the high decorations, the paintings, statues and stained glass of the Catholic churches, which stood in opposition to the new Protestant church's more earthy form of religious celebration.
It is amazing the Magdalen Chapel survived at all, having been built by a man called Michael MacQueen as a form of Catholic indulgence, a way of helping atone for sins in order to secure his place in heaven. These indulgences, seen by the Protestant church as buying favour with God, were specifically abolished during the Reformation.
Today the Magdalen Chapel has the only surviving, intact, pre-Reformation stained glass windows in the whole of Scotland. They are on the back wall of the building and are each about the size of a large dinner plate. They're not visible from the street, but the chapel is open regularly for visitors to explore its small interior.
15. Birthplace of a great communicator
Visitors often spend little time in the New Town of Edinburgh - the name, perhaps, is a little off-putting. But this whole side of the city has origins going back to the 1760s, and before it became the commercial area that is apparent today, the New Town was an extremely high-status, wealthy residential district.
Look above and behind the shop fronts today and you can still see many of the original house structures, and a number of the buildings were formerly home to significant figures from history - my New Town fixed-route tour can showcase some of this area's fascinating and often overlooked history.
On Charlotte Square are a number of houses with lofty associations, and number 14 South Charlotte Street in particular was the birthplace of Alexander Graham Bell, the Scottish inventor credited with inventing the telephone.
Scotland has long been recognised as the home of a great many inventors, innovators and technological visionaries, and Bell stands among them as a figure who helped to revolutionise communication between people in a way that continues to affect and influence society today.
It is a little strange to think of the father of the modern telephone walking the streets of the New Town as a young boy, seeing the same views and buildings that visitors can see today...
Find more of Edinburgh's less familiar historical features with my private city walking tours!
Probably the most visited grave in Edinburgh's graveyards - aside from those ordinary folk, like Thomas Riddell, whose graves have been co-opted by Harry Potter Inc. - is that of Greyfriars Bobby, one the city's best-known local heroes.
Bobby, of course, wasn't a person, but a dog. (Edinburgh notoriously has more statues of dogs than women...) And 14 January every year is commemorated as the date in 1872 when he died and was buried in the graveyard of the Greyfriars kirk.
The legend of Bobby has it that he belonged to a man called John Gray, a night watchman in Edinburgh, who patrolled the Old Town every night with his dog for company. When John Gray died, he was buried in the Greyfriars kirkyard, and the story then goes that his dog Bobby spent every night for the next 14 years sleeping on his master's grave...
It's a lovely romantic story, and one which was made into a film by Walt Disney in the 1960s. The story has also become a staple of children's stories, with many book versions reprinted over the years. But, as with most things in Edinburgh, the reality behind the myth is rather less romantic!
After John Gray's death in 1858, Bobby effectively became a stray dog - without an owner to pay for a licence for him, he was liable to being rounded up along with the other stray beasts of the city, and drowned in the Water of Leith river.
However, he had started loitering the graveyard, territory which would have been familiar to him from his nighttime patrols. But it may not have been his affection for his master so much as his appetite that led him to stay here - all the bars and inns at the boundary of the graveyard would empty waste out of their windows, providing Bobby (and other strays) with a regular, and plentiful, supply of food to scavenge from.
The Victorians were as obsessed with animals as we are - if they could have shared photos on social media, of dogs in top hats or cats on bicycles, the way we do today, they would have been doing it! And so the story of Bobby started to spread, and visitors began travelling into Edinburgh just to look for the dog in the graveyard.
The lord mayor - or provost - of Edinburgh around that time was William Chambers, who realised the appeal of Bobby, and sought to capitalise upon it. If people were coming to Edinburgh specifically to find the dog, they would be likely to spend money in the city's markets and bars. So he bought a licence for Bobby 'in perpetuity', which meant it would last forever, along with a collar and bowl for him to drink from.
Of course, dogs don't live forever, and the natural lifespan of the Skye terrier is between 8 and 10 years. If we assume Bobby was two years old when his master died, after 14 years of sleeping on his master's grave he would be 16 - twice the natural lifespan of the breed, and as a virtual stray!
It is now considered that there may actually have been as many as four dogs throughout that period, making sure there was always one in the graveyard for visitors to meet - and realising they couldn't keep the story going forever, when one of the dogs died he was given the honour of being buried at the very front of the church.
But visitors continue to seek out Bobby, and often there's a crowd gathered at his grave and around the statue of him mounted on the street just outside the graveyard. (In recent years visitors have started rubbing the nose of the statue for luck, causing huge amounts of damage to the figure. So please don't. It's not lucky. Especially not for the council who pays thousands of pounds each year repairing the damage done by visitors...)
As well as the grave and the statue, look out for Bobby's bowl, collar and licence, which are on display at the Museum of Edinburgh on the Canongate.
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Look Closer - Edinburgh 2020 (part 4)
Continuing my efforts to showcase some of the smaller details and hidden features of Edinburgh, to encourage visitors to look beyond the tourist trail attractions of the city and get a wider overview of its history and culture.
As all the features of the last entry could be found in the New Town, this time I'm choosing three Old Town gems to highlight - and these can all be found in the Canongate area of the city...
You can find other parts of this series here: part 1 | part 2 | part 3 | part 4 | part 5 | part 6 | part 7
10. A town centre
Traditionally, Scottish towns which were granted royal permission to hold a market - requiring payments of tax - would mark their right to do so with a structure called a mercat cross. These devices stood in the centre of the towns and would effectively act as gathering points for traders and visitors to the market.
Mercat crosses can be found right across Scotland, typically eight-sided structures with a central pillar, at the top of which can often be found a cross or an emblem of a unicorn - Scotland's national animal.
Edinburgh's mercat cross is a major landmark on the Royal Mile, outside St Giles' Cathedral, and gives its name to one of the city's biggest tour companies.
A smaller cross can be found just a short distance away, in the graveyard of the Canongate Kirk. This is Canongate's mercat cross, dating back to the twelfth century, when King David I of Scotland granted Holyrood abbey the right to establish a settlement on the land between the abbey and Edinburgh. Canongate, as the town was originally called, remained under separate governance and jurisdiction from Edinburgh right up until it was formally integrated with the city in the 1850s.
And so Canongate's mercat cross, less spectacular than Edinburgh's, is an authentic reminder of this area's independence and historic separation.
11. A secret garden
The burgh of Canongate was, for a long time, a more high status, wealthier town than Edinburgh. The people living on this section of the Royal Mile would have been more likely to have associations with the royal court, and being outside of Edinburgh necessity would have to pay to enter the city through the Netherbow Port. By necessity, the people living here could easily afford that charge, unlike the majority of the citizens of Edinburgh who were effectively trapped within the city walls.
One of the indicators of status and wealth was not just a larger house, but a private garden attached to it. This space would often be divided into distinct sections with their own purposes - fruits would be grown in orchard areas, herbs and fragrant flowers in another section, with perhaps a stretch of pathways with attractive borders and a separate small lawn for relaxing on. In some of the early maps of the city, these separate functions of the garden areas are indicated by different designs and imagery, and one place where the original style of gardens can still be experienced is on Dunbar's Close.
This narrow lane leads off the busy main street to a well-maintained public space that recreates the style of eighteenth-century gardens. From gravel paths and boxed hedges to a small herbaceous border with seating, and a small lawn, this is the closest visitors today can get to what would have been an exceptionally high-status feature of the historic city.
The garden is signposted off the Royal Mile, just past the Canongate Kirk.
12. A place of safety
One of the social functions of the Holyrood Abbey was as a debtors' sanctuary. Being in debt was a criminal offence for a long time, with severe punishments for failing to repay monies owed. For people who couldn't meet their obligations, a declaration of bankruptcy and the seeking of refuge with the monks at Holyrood was one way out of trouble.
At the Abbey Sanctuary, debtors were given bed and lodgings, and some meagre employment to help them earn a few pennies to be able to start paying back what they owed. The care of the abbey was so good for these people that they were known colloquially as 'abbey lairds', or abbey lords! At one time the abbey had in excess of 2,000 people under its care, and Robert Burns's father was one such person who spent time in the care of the Holyrood Abbey.
Whilst staying at the sanctuary debtors were protected from the legal authorities (and their less pleasant enforcers) of the city of Edinburgh. However, to stay protected debtors had to keep within the boundaries of the sanctuary - beyond the boundary line the abbey had no jurisdiction, and so the protection was effectively a form of house arrest. The sanctuary was a fairly significant area, however, reaching up as far as the summit of Arthur's Seat.
Part of the boundary line is still visible today, running across the Royal Mile at the Abbey Strand junction, just in front of the Palace of Holyroodhouse. Look into the roadway here and you'll see some brass letter S's set into the cobbles. These stand for 'sanctuary', and to the east of the line debtors were protected, to the west of it they were vulnerable to arrest...
Look out for these features as you explore Edinburgh, and find more with my private city walking tours!
Continuing my blog series highlighting hidden gems and smaller details of Edinburgh's historic city centre - to entice visitors to look beyond the headline attractions...
Each of the features below can be found on the New Town side of the city - there is so much more to Edinburgh than the Royal Mile!
You can find other parts of this series here: part 1 | part 2 | part 3 | part 4 | part 5 | part 6 | part 7
7. The Royal Bank of Scotland HQ
A true city secret, hiding in plain sight on St Andrew Square in the New Town. This 1760s building was initially built as a private villa for Laurence Dundas, one of the early directors of the Royal Bank of Scotland. Years later, after his death, the bank acquired the building it and it remains the world headquarters of RBS.
As a bank branch it's open for public access, and remains active for account holders and those seeking mortgage advice and general banking services, but its rather grand style - and the fact it's set back from the main road - means it's a building that not even locals realise they can walk right into.
But if you get the chance, pop in to this building for a glimpse of the grandeur of the original New Town lifestyle. The front part of the building is the original Dundas residence, full of gilt and grandeur, and to the rear is a purpose-built banking hall constructed in the 1850s. It's worth looking into for the sheer 'wow' moment you get on entering.
The immense domed ceiling was both practical - maximising light into the banking hall - but also was intended as a grand and imposing space. The bank was so proud of its building that it actually used the dome image as a security watermark onto each piece of currency it issued, until the recent change of banknotes from paper into plastic polymer.
8. The Original Botanic Gardens
Visitors arriving into Edinburgh by train are likely to alight at Waverley Station, the city's central railway station. Today the accumulation of tracks and platforms and the associated booking offices and other administrative spaces fill the valley between Princes Street and Market Street, but for a long time there was another feature in this valley - an entirely separate town, outside of Edinburgh, called Calton.
Calton was the site of the Trinity College Church, a church established by the wife of James II in 1460, but the village and church were both affected by the coming of the railways in the middle of the 19th century.
Also in the village of Calton was an early iteration of the Royal Botanic Garden, which had originally been sited at Holyrood in 1670, and then moved to Calton as the garden expanded. In the 1760s, as the New Town of Edinburgh was being planned, the the botanic garden was moved once more, and relocated out of the city centre to land at Inverleith, where it remains today.
Nothing of this would be apparent to a casual passerby, except for a modest plaque on one of the walls of Waverley Station.
9. A Masonic Lodge
The notoriously secret society of Freemasons today has members all around the world, and Edinburgh is a city with numerous masonic connections.
There are many masonic lodges in the city, and some of Scotland's best-known figures were also associated with the masonic traditions. Robert Burns, for example, was known to attend the lodge on St John Street, just off the Royal Mile, and there are another two active lodges that I frequently walk past on tours.
On Hill Street in the New Town, however, is the Lodge of Edinburgh (Mary's Chapel) No.1, known to have the oldest continually maintained set of records of meetings and memberships of all the world's masonic lodges.
The written minutes of Mary's Chapel Lodge no. 1 go back to 1598, but the lodge was established much earlier. Notably the lodge is only number 1 - there is a lodge at Kilwinning in western Scotland numbered 0, known as the Mother Lodge, which is reputed to be the oldest masonic lodge in the world.
Stroll along this unexceptional looking New Town street and spot the entrance to the Lodge of Edinburgh (Mary's Chapel) No.1 on the northern side of the road.
Explore more of Edinburgh's secret and not-so-secret history with my private city walking tours!
Continuing my series focusing on a few of the small details of Edinburgh that visitors might overlook, here are some more features that will help you give you the perfect vision of Edinburgh in 2020...
You can find other parts of this series here: part 1 | part 2 | part 3 | part 4 | part 5 | part 6 | part 7
4. St Anthony's Well
At one time the lower landscapes of Holyrood Park were densely wooded and formed part of a royal hunting ground. But Bronze Age settlements have been discovered on the higher slopes, and it's thought that people have been occupying the site for around 3,000 years.
This was also one of the first destinations to attract visitors to Edinburgh - pilgrims would have been drawn to seek the benefits of the holy wells which dotted the landscape, believed to have been as many as seven at one point. Each well had its own healing properties, and was dedicated to a particular named saint.
Today only two of those wells survives, only one has water in it, and many visitors climbing to the summit of Arthur's Seat will walk right by the second surviving well head, without even noticing it.
Nestled on the pathway beneath the bluff on which the ruins of St Anthony's Chapel sit is a small boulder which marked the point where the spring broke the surface of the ground, and in front of it a roughly carved bowl or spout from which water could be collected.
Holyrood Park continues to hold a mystical appeal for many, and an ancient ritual of bathing in the dew of Arthur's Seat at sunrise on 1 May each year is still re-enacted by a few hardy souls who brave the dawn elements of a Scottish spring!
5. Bear With Me
One of the more recent additions to Edinburgh's statuary is a figure of a soldier and a bear in Princes Street Gardens. They commemorate the Polish community in Edinburgh, and the historic links between Scotland and Poland.
It is the bear in particular who is being celebrated. He is called Wojtek and he was adopted by a Polish military unit on manoeuvres through Europe during the Second World War. Although he had been a cub when the soldiers found him, Wojtek grew up as a key figure of the unit. The soldiers tamed him by giving him cigarettes, and in return he would carry their pack, shells for their weapons, and was far more than just a mascot.
At the end of the war, many Polish military units and their families were resettled in Scotland, and Wojtek's unit was brought to Edinburgh, where the bear was given to Edinburgh Zoo while his men were rehoused across the city.
In the 1950s, visitors to Edinburgh Zoo would light cigarettes and push them through the bars of Wojtek's cage, and (sadly) he died in 1963 of lung cancer...
But the Polish community continues to have a presence in cities right across Scotland, and Edinburgh in particular, and the statue of Wojtek has become a focal point for commemorations and tributes throughout the year.
6. West Bow
For visitors used to a more modern, systematic street layout, Edinburgh's Old Town can be particularly challenging to navigate. As well as the streets running at different levels they can also have names that can cause confusion. West Bow is a good example of this.
West Bow is the street which starts in the Grassmarket, and runs in a gentle curve up the slope to join (originally) with the Lawnmarket on the Royal Mile. In the 1830s, during one of the periods of improvement of Edinburgh's Old Town, West Bow was redeveloped to join up to the level of George IV Bridge, and this new top end of the street was given its own name - Victoria Street, after the monarch who came to the throne in 1837.
So about halfway up West Bow, the street miraculously changes name! The exact point at which it changes isn't indicated by any kind of junction or break in the buildings, but look above the Bow Bar, and you'll find two street signs on the stonework. The Bow Bar is on West Bow, while the shop next to it is on Victoria Street.
For visitors who already struggle with maps (and Google Maps isn't a great guide in this city!) this sudden change in street name can be both confusing and disorientating - and West Bow/Victoria Street is by no means the only example of where this type of thing occurs!
Explore more of the details of Edinburgh's cityscape with my private walking tours!
Welcome to 2020, the year of perfect vision! To mark the start of this new decade, I'm choosing 20 features of Edinburgh that tell interesting, unusual or entertaining stories.
Most of all they encourage you to look a little more closely at the city as you explore it - which is exactly what I try to do with my private walking tours of Edinburgh! There is so much history and so many fascinating, small details in the areas beyond the major city highlights, you just have to look a bit harder to find it...
So here are my first three choices - you can find other parts of this series here: part 1 | part 2 | part 3 | part 4 | part 5 | part 6 | part 7
1: A STATUESQUE PIG'S EAR
Standing in the courtyard of the City Chambers (Edinburgh council offices) just off the Royal Mile is a statue of Alexander and Bucephalus, produced by an Edinburgh artist called John Steell.
In legend, Bucephalus was the horse that was frightened of his own shadow, and Alexander the Great tamed him by getting him to stare straight at the sun - the story epitomises the need to approach problems from a different perspective, to use guile and wit to solve a problem (ie. tame a horse) rather than brute force and domination.
When Edinburgh council approached John Steell to produce their statue in the 1830s, Steell was just a young man starting his career as an artist. Having carved the statue in stone and presented it for approval before casting it in bronze, the council admitted they didn't have the full budget to pay for the final commission, but they would keep the stone version, thank-you-very-much...
Over the next half-century Steell rose through the ranks of British artistry, and became official sculptor to Queen Victoria, who knighted him. In the 1880s, fifty years after the original commission, Edinburgh council contacted Steell to confirm the final casting of their statue in bronze - they now had the rest of the money they had offered, but hadn't increased the sum to allow for half a century of inflation.
Steell was pretty insulted, but agreed to produce the final bronze statue. Before casting it, however, he recarved the horse's ears as pigs' ears - disproportionately small to the rest of its body - perhaps as a symbolic reflection of the 'pig's ear' the city council made of the original commission!
2: ONE FINAL HITCH
At the east end of Princes Street in the New Town is the former General Post Office building, the central sorting office for the city's mail deliveries for a long time (and, incidentally, the point that all distances to and from Edinburgh are calculated from).
The building was recently converted into modern offices, but the building retains its original external stylings and stone facade.
On the street at the front of the building, however, is a single iron bollard, standing slightly incongruously apart from the modern railings which separate the pavement from the road. This is the last of the original hitching posts that used to line the city streets, for the purposes of tying up horses who drew the carriages and carts through the city.
Horses were the main form of power for vehicles in the city before the mechanical age. As well as pulling carts, horses drew delivery vehicles, public trams and the stage coaches which traversed the length of the UK from the 17th century onwards.
This is just one simple reminder that the 'New' Town of Edinburgh actually is not as new as people expect, and has over 250 years of its own history - and you can explore it in much more detail with my New Town Walking Tour...
3: The Baxters of Edinburgh
At one time there were fourteen licensed and regulated trades in Edinburgh, each of which was overseen and managed by a dedicated guild. Among these guilds were cordiners (shoemakers), hammermen (tinsmiths and metalworkers), candlemakers (or chandlers) and tailors, and many of the guildhalls where these trades were based can still be found in the city today.
One of the guilds was the guild of baxters, or bakers - specifically bread bakers - who fed the city, and one of the areas in which they operated premises was the Dean Village, a former industrial town just outside Edinburgh, now part of the New Town.
Evidence of the milling and baking industries of the Dean Village can still be seen around the area, including old mill stones from the mills themselves, the guildhall for the guild of baxters, dated 1675, and stone emblems of the baxters - crossed paddles, studded with circular dots.
These emblems represent the large wooden paddles which were used for putting loaves of bread into the big industrial ovens, and the blobs on the paddles are the loaves of bread themselves.
These small details help to give a sense of what life in Edinburgh was like for the people who lived and worked here, and show that there was so much more happening in Edinburgh than the activity around the castle or the palace, which is where most visitors' attention gets focused today.
Get away from the Royal Mile, explore the less touristy areas of the city, and look closer to find out more about Edinburgh's historical secrets, hidden in plain sight around the town!
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