This is part four of my alphabetic amble through some of Edinburgh's history (links to previous parts at the bottom of the blog), brought to you this time by the letters J, K and L!
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!
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!
Part three of my alphabetic trawl through Scotland's capital city - read the previous entries here and here! This week comes to you courtesy of the letters G, H and I!
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 the city 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 Edinburgh 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
A grisly commemoration today, as 8 February was the date in 1587 when the woman who would become one of Scotland's most iconic historical figures was executed. After 19 years imprisoned by her cousin, Queen Elizabeth I of England, Mary Stuart, Queen of Scotland, was beheaded at Fotheringhay Castle in an act that would be speculated about and studied by historians for the next half a century.
Mary's life is often told through a veil of doomed romance, casting her as a tragic heroine in a political struggle between nations, but whatever the theories that swirl around the events of her life (and death) it is plain that Edinburgh played a significant role in Mary's world.
Here are five sites in and around Edinburgh associated with Mary, Queen of Scots...
Just a few miles outside the city, between Edinburgh and Glasgow, sits the village of Linlithgow, with the remains of its spectacular red sandstone palace, dating back to the fifteenth century. Started by James I of Scotland, the palace was a major residence for subsequent monarchs, including James III and James IV who both made major additions to its structure. James V was born in the palace in 1512, follows just thirty years later by the birth of his child, a daughter, Mary.
At the time of Mary's birth, James V was recovering was a terrible defeat in battle at Solway Moss in the Highlands, and awaited news of the birth from his sick bed. It is said he was so distraught to learn that his wife had borne him a daughter instead of a son that the shock killed him, and so it was that Mary became Queen of Scots at just six days old...
Mary's birthplace is still a popular place to visit, and easily accessible from Edinburgh.
Tucked away on the Cowgate, in the shadow of George IV Bridge, is a small Catholic chapel, built in the 1540s to commemorate the birth of Mary, Queen of Scots. The chapel was managed by one of the formal guilds in Edinburgh, the hammermen - tradesmen who worked with hammers, such as silversmiths - and it is believed that Mary's mother, Mary of Guise, led prayer sessions in the small, wood-lined chapel during her time in Edinburgh.
In 1560, Scotland changed from being a Catholic country to being a Protestant one, and during the Reformation mobs stormed the nation's Catholic churches and destroyed all the iconography. They smashed windows and removed or destroyed statuary. Within the Magdalen Chapel are the only surviving, intact, pre-Reformation stained glass windows in Scotland - was it a miracle they survived the wrath of the mobs?!
THE PALACE OF HOLYROODHOUSE
Still a royal residence, and the official Scottish residence of the Queen, Holyrood Palace is one of Edinburgh's best-known attractions. At the bottom of the Royal Mile, and built adjacent to the Holyrood Abbey, which predates it by several hundred years, the palace dates from the sixteenth century, with additions made right up until the eighteenth century, and has hosted a variety of royal visitors in its history. Visitors today can view the state rooms along with historic quarters such as the bedroom where Mary, Queen of Scots, slept during her visits, and the chamber in which her secretary David Rizzio was brutally murdered in 1566.
In the grounds of the palace is a small structure standing by itself, popularly known as Queen Mary's Bathhouse, where it is alleged Mary would have bathed twice a year (whether she need it or not...!). In fact, archaeologists new believe this structure was once a pavilion, part of a royal tennis court, which may have been on this site in the sixteenth century.
Edinburgh's second visitable castle lies in ruins, just a couple of miles from the city centre. Craigmillar was formerly an impressive fortress, and Mary had made her home here during the period just after her return from France, aged 18. She had spent her childhood abroad, and returned as queen to a Scotland that was politically turbulent, bringing with her a huge number of staff and courtiers from the French court. Housed in the area around Craigmillar Castle, the area got nicknamed Little France, a name it continues to have today.
Mary sought refuge at Craigmillar following the attack on Rizzio at Holyrood in 1566. It was from her rooms in Craigmillar that she plotted revenge against her own husband for his suspected involvement in Rizzio's murder, and she spent three months here before returning to the city itself in June...
EDINBURGH CASTLE BIRTH ROOM
Within Edinburgh Castle is a small suite of chambers that were once Mary's rooms in the royal apartment block. The castle itself was always more of a fortress than a palace, so it tended only to be occupied by the royals in times of conflict, but Mary came here in 1566 in order to safely deliver the baby she was carrying. In June of that year, in a small room, just a few feet wide, with views over towards Arthur's Seat, Mary gave birth to a son, James, who would go on to be on of the most important monarchs in British history.
James succeeded his mother as ruler of Scotland when Mary was forced to abdicate the throne in 1567, becoming James VI of Scotland when he was just one year old.
Years later, in 1603, Elizabeth I of England would die, whereupon the throne of England passed to her nearest living relative. That would have been Mary, except Elizabeth had had Mary executed on 8 February 1587, at the culmination of a feverish period of paranoia and speculation. And so Mary's son took the throne of England, and became the first monarch to rule both England and Scotland jointly, the way our monarchy has done ever since.
Explore more of Edinburgh's history, and find out more about its associations with Mary, Queen of Scots, on my private city walking tours!
On February 1 1918 Muriel Camberg was born here in Edinburgh. Coming into the world in the final year of the worst international conflict the world had yet seen, the future may not have looked especially good for young Muriel.
But Muriel Spark, as she became, is today rightly hailed as one of the UK's greatest literary icons, with her own place in the pantheon of great writers and artists who made Edinburgh their home.
Spark lived in the Bruntsfield area of the city as a child, and today this popular and bustling suburb is still a favourite for locals looking to escape the city centre. She was at school at James Gillespie's, still an active school with its buildings facing almost directly onto the open expanse of Bruntsfield Links. It was here she would meet one of her great inspirations, who would later lead to the creation of one of the most iconic figures in British literature. Gillespie's School, and a teacher named Christina Kay, would later find themselves represented in what is probably Spark's best known and most loved novella, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.
Shortly before the outbreak of World War II, Muriel married Sidney Spark, and they moved to Zimbabwe. By 1944, at the height of the conflict, Spark was back in London without Sidney, and spent the rest of the war working for the British government in intelligence.
After the war Spark's writing career developed, with her first novel published in 1957. She would become one of the foremost literary voices of her generation, with stories that defy easy categorisation. Spark's wit and humour shines through stories laden with political interest and social commentary, with a cast of characters that remain vivid today.
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie was first published in 1961. Set at a girls' school in Edinburgh, the story follows a collection of schoolgirls under the tutelage of their waspish teacher, Jean Brodie. Seeking to give her girls the widest possible education, to encourage them to broaden their minds and their horizons, her fascism-favouring influence takes a dangerous edge as the girls get to grips with love and politics.
The story is set in and around Edinburgh, and the film of the story, released in 1969, with Maggie Smith winning an Oscar for her performance as the eponymous Miss Brodie, features Edinburgh in many of its location scenes. Bruntsfield, the Meadows, the Vennel, and Cramond all featuring in the film, along with Edinburgh Academy, which stood in for the Marcia Blaine School for Girls.
Spark went on to live in New York and then Rome for a time, and from the 1970s until her death lived in Tuscany. She died in 2006.
Over the course of her career, Spark garnered many awards and much recognition for her work. She was twice nominated for the Booker Prize, was given eight honorary doctorate degrees (including from her alma mater, Edinburgh's Heriot Watt University), was made a dame of the British Empire in 1993, and a Golden PEN award for Lifetime's Distinguished Service to Literature.
On the centenary of her birth, Spark's work remains vivid and startling for its combination of wit and social commentary, and she remains one of the most celebrated British authors of all time.
Explore the world of Muriel Spark and Miss Jean Brodie with my Edinburgh walking tours!
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