EDINBURGH EXPERT WALKING TOURS - BLOG
To be in Edinburgh on this day, 17th February, 1598 would have been memorable for two reasons. Firstly, King James VI was present at the High Kirk of St Giles, on Edinburgh's High Street, hearing about plans for the division of the city into quarters, each section being allotted its own church .
St Giles' would have been packed to the rafters that morning, not primarily for the presence of the king, but for another, astronomical reason...
The event is recounted in Fragments of Scottish History, a historical record (of sorts) dating from 1798. In it, "ane grate darknes" is described - the darkness being caused by the transit of the Moon between the Earth and the Sun. Today we know these as eclipses, relatively common (or at least relatively understood) events that can still arouse great interest. At the end of the sixteenth century, however, the common 'man in the street' would not have had such astronomical knowledge - a translation from the archaic Scots text suggests that the people of Edinburgh that day considered that they were facing the end of the world, their 'Doomsday'....
It is a scene that wouldn't be out of place in a Hollywood disaster movie, imagining the merchants and traders of the Royal Mile hurrying people out of their premises, and closing up their doors in panic. Perhaps they gathered their belongings (or at least their valuables!) and "ran to the kirke to pray, as [g]if it had bene the last day".
We have no record or way of knowing what sense the king made of this planetary occurrence - as a man who is famed for his robust treatment of those suspected of witchcraft, it is likely he may have shared the fears of his subjects, and perhaps would have joined them in prayer to ward off the dark omen of nighttime coming during the day!
The eclipse lasted a little under an hour, and shortly after ten o'clock the sun was shining again. As you wander past St Giles' today, perhaps crossing Parliament Square with your camera in hand, take a moment to imagine what the people streaming back out of the kirk might have been feeling as they returned to their shops and businesses.
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Don't worry, this is not your four-minute warning of the end of days - just a brief reflection on one of Edinburgh's most characterful street names...
You'll find World's End on the High Street section of the Royal Mile, and as well as the above pictured close, you'll also find the World's End pub on the corner of the Royal Mile and St Mary's Street.
So how did Edinburgh come to have such an apocalyptically-named thoroughfare, you might ask?!
It dates back to a time when the entire city, or burgh, of Edinburgh was contained within the stretch of road between the castle and the junction at which the World's End pub stands today. In the 1750s, before the city expanded to the New Town areas to the north of the city centre, this half-mile long city had a population of around 50,000 people. It was this density of occupation had led to the city becoming so notoriously dirty and run-down.
From the 15th century onwards, the city had been formally contained within a series of defensive walls, with a number of gates in these walls to allow access to (and egress from) the city. The main gate used by visitors to the city was the Netherbow Port, which stood on the site of the World's End junction - it was a heavily fortified entrance way, with a gate that could be closed over the road, bordered on either side with stout towers.
Although the Netherbow Port was dismantled in the 1760s, the outline of the old gateway can still be seen, marked out with brass plaques in the cobbled roadway of the Royal Mile. (Be wary of traffic if you're going to step into the road to examine them!) Further, the original bell which was housed in the Netherbow Port, which was rung every evening to warn people that the gates were soon to be closed for the night, still survives at the top of a grey concrete tower adjoining the Scottish Storytelling Centre, which stands on the north side of the street.
The clock that used to be mounted on the Netherbow Port was kept when the gate was demolished, and today can be found at the top of the portico leading in to one of the Modern Art Galleries at the west of the city.
Access into Edinburgh through the Netherbow Port required payment of a fee or a toll, and this applied whoever you were, even if you were a resident of Edinburgh - but for many of the city's impoverished occupants this fee was simply too much for them to afford, and consequently they were literally trapped within the city walls. This junction, with its enormous gate, was as far as they could travel from their homes on the Royal Mile. It was, figuratively, the edge of their world - for the city's residents, this was the World's End.
It is somewhat astonishing to think that for such a long time, Edinburgh's residents may have known little of the world beyond the city walls - even once-independent towns of Leith and Holyrood, along with many other smaller villages beyond the city walls, would have been foreign places that they could only rarely, if ever, afford to visit. Today you can easily walk to Holyrood (and take a 22 bus to Leith if you wish to!).
So, take advantage of the modern luxury of being able to enter and leave the city at will, and tell your friends that you whilst you were in Edinburgh, you enjoyed a drink at the World's End.
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Edinburgh Expert Walking Tours is run by Gareth, an adopted native of Edinburgh, with over 20 years experience of living and working in the city...
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