An A - Z of Edinburgh: J to L
This is part four of my alphabetic amble through some of Edinburgh's history, brought to you this time by the letters J, K and L!
A - C, D - F, G - I, J - L, M - O, P - R, S - U, V - Z
J is for JK Rowling
It is hard to avoid Edinburgh's associations with the Harry Potter series of children's books, as many enterprising businesses seek to capitalise (one might say exploit...) the city's links with the author and her work.
In deference to the great bulk of genuine history that Edinburgh offers (and in order to keep my cynicism in check!) I tend not to mention JK Rowling or her literary output on tours, unless there are children with a keen interest in the stories walking with me. But there are various sites of Potter pilgrimage around the town for those who insist on pursuing such things!
Rowling does still have a house in Edinburgh, and she did complete a teacher training course at the Moray House campus of Edinburgh University, which is their school for education. Everything else is a cultural confection that has led to the greatest travesty of all - the University of Edinburgh's Quidditch Club, where otherwise rational and (presumably) intelligent students run around the Meadows with broomsticks between their legs. For shame.
K is for Knox
A pair of Knoxes, actually - two of the city's famous historical inhabitants are John Knox and Robert Knox.
John Knox was the minister of St Giles' Cathedral in the sixteenth century, and famously was the man who moved Scotland away from Catholicism and onto the Presbyterian form of Protestantism that still forms the basis of the national Church of Scotland. Knox had been born in Haddington in East Lothian, and become a major figure in the historical record for his associations with Mary, Queen of Scots, a devout Catholic who represented the opposite side of the theological debate.
On the Royal Mile visitors can still visit John Knox's House, a maintained building from the period in which Knox was minister in the city, but not believed to have ever belonged to the man himself. A small plaque in Parliament Square near St Giles' Cathedral marks the reputed spot where Knox was buried, but even this story comes with a healthy dose of doubt...
Robert Knox was head of Edinburgh University's anatomy school in the nineteenth century, a popular figure who inspired his students and brought life to the study of dead bodies... It was Robert Knox who gained a level of infamy by paying cash for corpses and being heavily involved with the serial killers Burke and Hare, who took it upon themselves to ensure the medical school had a healthy supply of cadavers. Whilst Burke and Hare faced the consequences of the law for their criminal acts, Robert Knox avoided legal action but was effectively forced out of his profession and would later leave Edinburgh for good to seek out new life in London.
L is for Lady Stair's Close
One of the narrow lanes leading off the Lawnmarket section of the Royal Mile where visitors can find the city's Writers' Museum dedicated to three of Edinburgh's most famous authors: Robert Louis Stevenson, Walter Scott and Robert Burns.
The building which houses the museum was once owned by the widow of the 1st Earl of Stair. Lord Stair's wife had previously been Lady Primrose, whose first husband had been a violent drunk - one afternoon as she was dressing for dinner she saw her husband in the mirror's reflection, entering the room behind her with a knife in his hand. Fearing he was going to do her harm she leapt from the bedroom window and sought refuge with her mother-in-law. Lord Primrose later left the country and travelled through Europe where his violent reputation hadn't followed him.
One day Lady primrose paid to have her fortune told and had described to her a scene in which a man standing at the altar, about to wed his wife, was killed by a guest at the wedding. Some years later, when Lady Primrose's brother returned from travelling through Holland, he described how he had been invited to the wedding of a mutual friend, a fellow Scotsman, and on arrival at the church recognised the groom-to-be as his sister's violent husband. Drawing his sword he killed the man in revenge for the mistreatment of his sister. The details accorded with the story Lady Primrose had heard from the fortune teller!
Lady Primrose later remarried and became Lady Stair, and bought the building on the lane which still has her name.
Explore more of Edinburgh's history (sans Harry Potter) with my private walking tours!
Edinburgh's Victoria Street and West Bow
One of the most picturesque streets in Edinburgh's Old Town is Victoria Street which often features in my private Edinburgh tours.
It gives a good example of not only the creative ways in which Edinburgh developed and was built on a rather challenging landscape of hills and valleys, but also shows how the city adapted in the nineteenth century to be more accessible and modern.
Victoria Street actually starts at the eastern end of the Grassmarket as West Bow, which was the original name of this historic thoroughfare. This route was originally the main road into Edinburgh for visitors coming from the north, west or south-west of the city. Snaking up the hillside in a zigzag made the road more accessible for horse-drawn vehicles, which wouldn't be able to navigate the much narrower lanes or 'closes' along the Royal Mile.
The top third of the route emerged onto the Royal Mile at the junction of Castlehill and Lawnmarket today, where the city's Butter Tron stood, a market place trading cheese, butter and other dairy products.
The buildings along the road give an indication of how the structures in the city stretched upwards as the city colonised the full stretch of the hillside. One of these buildings (with a cake shop at street level) is an original sixteenth-century building, in the traditional 'rubble built' style, of individual pieces of stones pieced together like a jigsaw.
The majority of the buildings along the road have been rebuilt or developed more recently, but look out for the dates 1616 and 1720 above some of the old doorways near the bottom end of the street.
In the 1830s, the West Bow was developed in order to make the route easier for people to navigate. George IV Bridge had been built across the Cowgate valley, and the middle section of West Bow was extended through the line of buildings which were demolished to create the new roadway, to join up with the northern end of this new bridge.
The top section of the road, Upper Bow, was closed off to traffic, and today a steep staircase connects the original top and middle third of the original route.
This new street was named for Queen Victoria, who came to the throne in 1837. Intriguingly, the bottom end of the street is still West Bow, and the road changes name halfway up the hill at the site of the Bow Bar.
The best way to view this picturesque road is from Victoria Terrace, which is a pedestrian route which runs along the top of the road with views down the street - it may be familiar to users of Windows 10, where it features in a pre-installed desktop wallpaper...!
At the top of Victoria Street are the India Buildings, also named for Victoria (Grand Empress of India during her reign), and at the bottom of the West Bow section is one of the original city wells, dating from 1764 when a fresh water supply was established for the first time.
Victoria Street and the West Bow has recently achieved a degree of notoriety as one of the (slightly spurious) inspirations for the Harry Potter books, being a template for Diagon Alley, the wizards' market.
Join me on an Edinburgh tour to find out more about the real life 'Wizard of West Bow', which is a story not nearly as suitable for children!
An A - Z of Edinburgh: G to I
Part three of my alphabetic trawl through Scotland's capital city - courtesy of the letters G, H and I!
A - C, D - F, G - I, J - L, M - O, P - R, S - U, V - Z
THE LETTER G
G is for George Street, George Square, and George IV Bridge - and it's a different George every time!
The Georgian-era New Town was built from the 1760s onwards, under the reign of George III originally. Much of the New Town was named to honour the monarch - George Street for the king, Princes Street for his sons, Queen Street for his wife, Hanover Street for the royal family line, and Frederick Street for George's father. The newly established union between Scotland and England was also commemorated - St Andrew Square and St George Square for the patron saints, Rose Street and Thistle Street for the national flowers.
By the time they came to build St George Square, another development on the southern side of the city already had the name George Square, with no connection to the royal family - but at the risk of having George Square and St George Square to confuse tourists and postmen, they renamed St George Square as Charlotte Square, also after the wife of George III.
George IV Bridge was built during the 1820s, and named for the monarch who succeeded his father, who visited Edinburgh in 1822.
THE LETTER H
H is for David Hume, one of Edinburgh's most influential residents, and who is still considered by many to be the most significant philosopher who wrote in the English language. Hume was born in a property just off the Lawnmarket on the Royal Mile and attended Edinburgh University at the age of just 12 years old. During his life he travelled widely through France and England, before returning to Edinburgh where he became a popular figure in high society and was for a time the chief librarian in the Advocate's Library, a legal library still on Parliament Square.
Hume's influence in politics, philosophy and economics was profound, with many scholars and philosophers who came later paying great tribute to Hume in their works.
Hume was also widely considered to be an atheist, at a time when such a position was a dangerous one to take. His home in the New Town led to the street being ironically dubbed St David Street, a name which stuck and survives to this day.
After his death in 1776, Hume was buried in the Old Calton Burial Ground. He made two stipulations for his grave - the first was that it should cost no more than £100, a relatively meagre sum in the eighteenth century, and secondly, any grave or memorial to him should bear just his name, his date of birth and his date of death. He wanted no mention of his life or work, reasoning that if he had done anything worthy of being remembered, history and posterity would ensure his reputation survived.
THE LETTER I
I is for the 'Innocent Railway', a 12-mile stretch of railway line which connected the mines of Dalkeith with Edinburgh centre. Built in the 1830s, the Edinburgh and Dalkeith Railway, as it was formally named, was a horse drawn track which brought coal from the outskirts of the city to join with the main transport networks, and later was expanded to run as a passenger service. In the 1840s the line was bought by the North British Railway company, who operated the main line between London and Edinburgh, and part of their acquisition from the Edinburgh and Dalkeith Railway became integral to the route between Edinburgh and Carlisle.
The nickname 'Innocent Railway' was supposedly adopted because no lives were lost during its construction and operation, a rare occurrence during the industrial age of the nineteenth century when labour was cheap and industrial accidents were commonplace.
Today part of the line adjacent to Holyrood Park survives, where the original tunnel which carried the service underground has been transformed into a cycle route. The entrance to the tunnel is difficult to find by accident, requiring a short detour through a housing estate to discover it, but it remains a well-used and popular 'hidden gem' of the south side of the city.
Explore more of Edinburgh with my private walking tours!
A - Z of Edinburgh:
A - C, D - F, G - I, J - L, M - O, P - R, S - U, V - Z
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