Edinburgh as it is seen today has been shaped over its history by a wide variety of figures and influencers who have left their mark. People like Queen Victoria and Prince Albert made physical changes to the city itself; architects like William Playfair and Robert Adam created the style that can still be seen across the Old and New Towns; and cultural figures like Walter Scott helped to promote the city to start the visitor industry which thrives today.
Another figure to list alongside these local heroes is William Chambers, who was Lord Provost (city mayor) between 1865 and 1869, to whom the city owes a tremendous debt - here are five major effects that Chambers should be remembered for...
Edinburgh's Improvement Acts
Starting in the 1860s, Edinburgh's Old Town underwent a huge program of redevelopment, as the medieval-style structures along the lanes of the Royal Mile were proactively demolished and rebuilt to upgrade and modernise the city's poor quality housing. William Chambers was the man who led the efforts, pushing through a series of laws which made provision for the systematic improvement of the Old Town, widening the narrow closes and improving the standard of living for the thousands of people who lived there.
St Mary's Street, stretching from the World's End junction of the Royal Mile, was formerly a narrower lane called St Mary's Wynd, and the houses at the northern end of the street were the first properties built as part of Chambers's improvements. The majority of the Old Town as it stands today dates back to this period of 1860s - 1880s, and without this wholesale effort to rejuvenate the city it's doubtful that Edinburgh would have survived as well as it has.
As part of this city-wide improvement, one major thoroughfare was created which bears William Chambers's name - Chambers Street runs between George IV Bridge and South Bridge, and was previously a narrow road called College Street.
The road ran alongside the Old College of the University of Edinburgh (as it still does), but under Chambers's improvement program College Street was widened and new buildings commissioned along its length on both sides.
Today most of the buildings on the northern side of the street are associated with the University of Edinburgh (as well as Old College on the southern side) but the biggest development on the street is the National Museum of Scotland, which takes up two-thirds of the whole block.
The foundation stone for the museum was laid in October 1861 by Prince Albert, his last public act before his death in December of that year. The modern wing of the museum opened in 1998. A statue of William Chambers himself stands outside the museum.
St Giles' Cathedral Renovation
William Chambers was also responsible for supporting a major renovation of St Giles' Cathedral in the 1870s. The removal of old buildings earlier in the century had cleared space around the cathedral, and it had become apparent that the building - 700 years old at that point - was in a very poor state of repair.
Internally, too, the church had previously become cluttered, the space having been previously subdivided to house four separate churches under one roof. William Chambers financed a major renovation to create, in his words, a 'Westminster Abbey for Scotland'. The outside walls were cleaned and repaired, and the church tidied up on the inside, to create one major internal space for the first time since the 1630s.
A memorial to William Chambers can still be found inside the church itself.
Chambers English Dictionary
Chambers's profession had been a publisher and bookseller, with a shop on Broughton Street in the New Town. Along with his brother Robert he established a publishing house, and in the 1870s they first published their Chambers English Dictionary - the book remains in print, although modern editions have only been published in digital format. The thirteenth edition of the Chambers Dictionary was published in 2014.
In its early days the dictionary was notable for its accessible and wryly constructed definitions of words, such as describing an eclair as "a cake, long in shape but short in duration"...! Until 2005 Chambers Dictionary was used by the international Scrabble organisation, to provide the words recognised in their Official Scrabble Words dictionary.
Probably the most enduring gift that William Chambers gave to Edinburgh is one of its most popular local myths. In 1867, at a time when stray dogs in the city were liable to find themselves rounded up and drowned in the Water of Leith, Chambers bought a licence for one stray dog who had started to garner attention from visitors to Greyfriars Kirkyard.
The story of a former nightwatchman's dog sleeping on his master's grave was appealing to visitors even at that time, and William Chambers realised that, alongside the improvements to the city, Bobby could offer a valuable boost to the city's visitor profile. The licence he bought had no time limit - it would last in perpetuity - and thus the legend of Greyfriars Bobby was born!
Bobby would reputedly spend 14 years sleeping on his master's grave, and visitors can still view the licence, collar and bowl that William Chambers bought for Bobby in the Museum of Edinburgh, on the Canongate section of the Royal Mile. Bobby's grave and statue remain popular highlights for visitors even today.
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One of the most common enquiries I get from visitors planning a trip to Edinburgh relates to the Old Town's reputation for having an underground or hidden city beneath the surface of the streets.
There is a degree of truth to this, although it's worth noting that, in the spirit of attracting tourists, the 'underground' features of Edinburgh are not always quite what they might seem.
Built on a dense rib of volcanic rock, the practicalities of digging deep into the landscape was a problem for even very early settlers - Edinburgh Castle's great weakness was its lack of water supply, with only a relatively shallow well dug into its rock to hold rainwater. So the imagery of an underground city beneath the streets is somewhat inaccurate - as are the descriptions of catacombs or tunnels beneath the Royal Mile.
But here are three 'underground' features in the city that may be worth exploring.
MARY KING'S CLOSE
Streaming off the Royal Mile down the steep landscape on either side are a series of narrow lanes, the 'closes' or 'wynds' of the medieval city. Mary King's Close was one such lane, that was originally open to the sky with towering blocks of tenement housing rising up on either side of the street. Edinburgh was a vertical city rather than a horizontal one for much of its history, resulting in densely packed structures reaching up to 12 storeys high in places.
During the eighteenth century, plans were drawn up for a Royal Exchange, an area of trade offices and business premises in the heart of the Old Town. Unfortunately, as throughout its history, there was little open land available for development, and so the decision was made to partially demolish the buildings along the line of Mary King's Close, to reduce the structures to the level of the Royal Mile. Having taken the tops off the houses, the Royal Exchange building (today the City Chambers) was built over the structures that survived on the hillside below the level of the High Street.
Mary King's Close thus became 'underground', concealed beneath the newer building, and the street remains there today, cobbled and running down between two lines of structures, where costumed guides will lead you through the buildings to give you an atmospheric sense of Edinburgh's past.
The only genuinely 'underground' attraction in the city is located a little further from the city centre. Beneath the major junction of Gilmerton crossroads is a network of tunnels carved out of the sandstone of the area, and they remain one of the city's genuine mysteries - local historians can't agree on when the tunnels were created, by whom, for what purpose, or even how extensive they are.
Some people suggest they date back to Roman or even pre-historic times, while others suggest they were created much more recently, in the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries. The scale of the network makes it unlikely one single person was responsible for them, but there's no record or evidence of an organised period of construction and development.
Chambers with what seem to be seating or tables surfaces have been carved from the stone, and narrow tunnels connects them together, accessible only through a small flight of stairs taking you beneath the modern building visible at street level.
This is my most highly recommended 'hidden gem' of Edinburgh - take a brief tour with one of the local historians to find out some of the theories and ideas about the tunnels, and then take a torch and a hard hat to explore them further on your own, at your leisure... if you dare!
SOUTH BRIDGE VAULTS
Running over the glacial valley to the south of Royal Mile are two elevated roadways, South Bridge and George IV Bridge, built to improve access into the city in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Both bridges run on a series of arches over the landscape, concealed by the buildings constructed alongside each of them, and these vaulted spaces beneath the roadways are still there, and many remain accessible.
George IV Bridge hosts a major festival venue called Underbelly during the summer, with performance spaces in the old arches of the bridge itself. But it is South Bridge, the older of the two developments, which is accessible year-round by visitors on ghost tours.
The bridge was built in the 1780s, and following the increase in population in the city at that time, many poorer families moved into the enclosed, subterranean arches to make their homes in these dank, dark spaces. The vaults were forgotten about following efforts in the nineteenth century to move people into better quality housing, when the spaces were closed off to prevent people moving back into them. They were only rediscovered by accident in the 1980s, and have since become popular spaces for ghost tours, nurturing a reputation for being prodigiously haunted...
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In our modern age of information overload, it's easy to forget that for the majority of the world's history we have very few reliable and accurate sources of information. Very often historians and archaeologists piece together a picture of what life was like in former times, drawing on the variety of information available, and using existing knowledge to interpret new pieces of evidence.
In a city as old as Edinburgh, there are several instances where historians are unsure about the precise details of past events, and at the heart of one of those uncertainties is St Anthony's Chapel, a ruined structure on a rocky outcrop in Holyrood Park.
Today only one section of wall and a few surviving stones are visible, but at some time in its history this would have been a fairy substantial three-storey chapel building with a tower approximately 40-feet high, which would have had an intimate ground floor space just 8-feet or so wide.
Little is known about when the chapel itself was built - it's likely that the structure was associated with the major abbey of Holyrood, just a few hundred metres away at the base of Arthur's Seat, and indeed one of the paths through the park today follows the line of a historic track which directly connected the two areas. But in the 1100s large parts of Holyrood Park were under the ownership and control of Kelso Abbey in the Scottish Borders, and it's thought that the piece of land on which St Anthony's chapel sits probably fell under their jurisdiction.
In 1426, there is a record of Pope sending money as part of a grant to support repairs to St Anthony's chapel - suggesting both that it was a significant enough structure that the pope would invest in its maintenance, and that by 1426 it was old enough to be in need of substantial repairs. (It's notable that Anthony himself only died in 1231, so the chapel may have been a very early institution established bearing his name.)
Around this time, a small hospital in the name of St Anthony was operating in Leith, specifically treating patients with skin conditions - it's possible there was some connection between that establishment and the chapel at Holyrood Park.
One theory is that the chapel, as tall as it was long, was designed as a navigation aid for pilgrims heading to Holyrood, which is set lower in what for a long time was a densely wooded valley. Perhaps St Anthony's chapel would even have been visible from as far away as the Firth of Forth, the river to the north of the city, from which direction many travellers would have made their approach to the area.
Holyrood Park itself was a major destination for visitors seeking relief in the holy wells which dotted the landscape. At one time it was thought there were as many as seven wells within the boundary of the park itself, underground springs given the names of saints, along with the reputation for healing properties. One of those wells was St Anthony's, which is one of the only two wells to survive in the park today - alas no water flows to it, but the shallow bowl can still be seen on the path beneath the chapel, and it was well known that locals would trek to this particular well on 1 May each year, to bathe in the dew and drink the water.
Other suggestions are that the chapel was a form of monastic retreat, set well away from the city (and the abbey at Holyrood) where it would be possible for monks to experience a form of solitude and isolation. There are the remains of what may have been a monastic cell or a store cupboard built into the rock just to the south of the chapel itself, and early investigations of the site uncovered a number of shallow graves in the vicinity of the structure.
More than that, nobody seems to know! Written records from before the seventeenth-century are relatively scarce, and the chapel would likely have been ruined by that time.
So for all its history and archaeological interest, Edinburgh as a city is one that still holds secrets, and new discoveries are being made fairly regularly as the city continues to grow and develop. For my part, though, I rather like that we don't know all the answers - I prefer my history to have a touch of mystery about it, too!
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