EDINBURGH EXPERT WALKING TOURS - BLOG
EDINBURGH EXPERT WALKING TOURS - BLOG
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 previous instalments here, here, here and here...
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.
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. 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.
Explore more of the realities behind the myths of Edinburgh with my fact-based Edinburgh history walking tours!
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. (Parts one, two and three can be found here.)
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...
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 - you can also check out part 1 and part 2 - 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!
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 (part 1 is here), here are some more features that will help you give you the perfect vision of Edinburgh in 2020...
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 - check back soon for further instalments of this series!
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!
See more of Edinburgh's hidden gems up-close and personal with my private walking tours!
Edinburgh Expert Walking Tours is run by Gareth Davies, an adopted native of Edinburgh since 1998...