EDINBURGH EXPERT WALKING TOURS - BLOG
Nestled under the south-eastern slopes of Holyrood Park is the grand former estate property of Prestonfield, which today operates as a boutique hotel and popular venue for weddings, along with a fine dining restaurant, as well as providing atmospheric afternoon teas.
But the house itself has a rather remarkable history, and if you have the chance to peer into some of the grand dining spaces you will get a brief vision of the house's illustrious past.
The area used to have the name Priestfield, after the connection the land had to the Cistercian monks of Harehope in northern England in the twelfth century. Following the Scottish War of Independence in the fourteenth century, Priestfield was taken from the monks and gifted to the son of King Robert II. He in turn sold the land to capitalise upon its financial worth.
Priestfield changed hands several times over the next few centuries, being owned by various families including Walter Chepman, Scotland's first printer. Alas the estate struggled to remain financially fluid, and in the 1670s the property was taken over by Sir James Dick, a former Lord Provost (mayor) of Edinburgh.
His grandfather, Sir William Dick, was such a wealthy figure from the success of his business interests that he had taken to lending money to the Scottish government, and when those loans failed to be repaid William Dick found himself in considerable debt. His financial ruin led to prison in London, where he died in 1655, and his family were unable to afford even to pay for a funeral until six months after his death.
James Dick had inherited some of his grandfather's acute business brain, and in the later years of the seventeenth-century he undertook a project to clear the streets of Edinburgh's Old Town of the immense quantities of filth and waste which flowed through the narrow medieval streets. Dick paid for this waste to be removed from the city, and deposited as fertiliser on the land and fields around the estate at Priestfield. If ever a man could be described as dirty, stinking rich, it was James Dick!
The Dick family had stuck to the old religion of Catholicism after the Reformation in Scotland in 1560, and during a particularly violent bout of anti-Catholic uprisings, Priestfield House was burned to the ground in 1681.
James Dick enlisted the help of Sir William Bruce, at the time official architect to the king and involved in the redevelopment of the Palace of Holyroodhouse, to rebuild Priestfeld, and in doing so changed the name from Priestfield to the less religiously-sensitive Prestonfield. This structure, dating from 1687, is the basis of the building that visitors can experience today.
Later generations of the Dick family made renovations and developments to the property, adding grand staircases, the imposing entrance porch, and filling the rooms with furniture and paintings.
The Dick-Cunyngham family who occupied the property in the eighteenth century had strong Jacobite sympathies, and Alexander Cunyngham had briefly travelled with the exiled Charles Edward Stuart - better known as Bonny Prince Charlie - during his time in Italy.
Alexander Cunyngham was a keen horticulturist and took the Dick surname when he inherited the estate in 1746, and today it is Sir Alexander Dick who is credited with introducing rhubarb to Scotland - hence the name of the restaurant at Prestonfield House today: Rhubarb.
As a popular venue for society figures to entertain (and be entertained), Prestonfield House during Alexander Dick's ownership hosted a variety of luminaries including the philosopher David Hume, the painter Allan Ramsay, Dr Samuel Johnson, and one of the Founding Fathers of the United States of America, Benjamin Franklin.
The grounds of the estate were remodelled to give the property an impressive circular stable block by James Gillespie Graham, and Prestonfield became a popular venue for a variety of sports and outdoor pursuits, including hunting and horse riding.
Today the parkland-style grounds of the property are dotted with peacocks, who roam freely and whose distinctive calls can be heard during the warmer summer months.
Today Prestonfield House is an exquisite boutique hotel and restaurant, from the same management as the popular Witchery restaurant on the Royal Mile. The venue is a short drive from the city centre, but is worth a visit for afternoon tea to experience the utterly unique and stylish surroundings.
Find out more about some of Edinburgh's historic houses and homes with my private city walking tours!
Visitors often remark on the number of church buildings in Edinburgh that no longer serve as churches. Over time, as population changes have seen people come and go, very many buildings have been repurposed, renovated, and given new functions. At least two former churches today house casinos, one is an indoor climbing centre, and several have been turned into bars and restaurants...
Of course many churches, like St Giles' Cathedral or the churches at Greyfriars and Canongate, remain active as churches, but here is a very short list of some of the former church premises that you may still have reason to visit during your time in Edinburgh.
THE HUB (FORMERLY ST JOHN'S HIGHLAND TOLBOOTH CHURCH)
Built on Castlehill on the Royal Mile in the 1840s, St John's Highland Tolbooth Church functioned as a meeting place for the Church of Scotland clergy during their annual general meetings, which today are held just across the road at the New College building.
The 74m spire is still the highest of all the church spires of the Old Town, and the golden cross at the top is the highest point in the city centre, standing taller than the flagpole at Edinburgh Castle. As such it's a useful reference point for navigating the city, visible on the skyline from almost every edge of Edinburgh, but the building itself is also an important venue in the city every summer, as it is home to the administrative offices of the Edinburgh International Festival.
As well as their office space, The Hub (as it is known) has a popular café, a box office for festival events, and a large internal space that is well used for weddings, conferences, and special events throughout the year.
EDINBURGH FILMHOUSE (FORMERLY UNITED ASSOCIATED SYNOD CHURCH)
Dating from the 1830s, this former church building on Lothian Road was converted into a cinema in the late 1970s, and today is home to the annual Edinburgh International Film Festival, as well as hosting a variety of arthouse and blockbuster screenings all year round.
WEST REGISTER HOUSE (FORMERLY ST GEORGE'S CHURCH)
At the west end of the New Town, on Charlotte Square, is the former St George's Church, converted into municipal function in the 1960s and today housing one of Scotland's records and archive offices, for people tracing family history through archive records.
The church took its name from the original square, intended to be St George Square (to mirror St Andrew Square at the east end of the city) and was initially designed by the architect Robert Adam. Adam's plans were modified by Robert Reid, including the installation of a stunning dome modelled on St Paul's Cathedral in London. The church served its community from the 1820s until structural concerns in the middle of the twentieth century saw it repurposed as its current function.
The former congregation weren't left homeless, and they moved in with the congregation at St Andrew's Church on George Street, which became St Andrew's and St George's, as it is today.
BEDLAM THEATRE (FORMERLY NEW NORTH FREE CHURCH)
Utilised today by the theatre society of the University of Edinburgh, the Bedlam Theatre takes its name from the former asylum and poorhouse which used to stand on this site, at the southern end of George IV Bridge in the Old Town.
The original building was designed by Thomas Hamilton, although it was never popular with the congregation it served, who considered the building ugly and ill-suited to its purpose as a church.
The Bedlam stages student theatre through the year, and serves as a popular venue during the annual Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
QUEEN'S GALLERY (FORMERLY HOLYROOD FREE CHURCH)
Between the modern Scottish parliament building and the Palace of Holyroodhouse is a building which is today attached to the panoply of structures associated with the palace. The Holyrood Free Church was a nineteenth-century building serving the community of Holyrood at the time when it was still a densely populated industrial district. The church closed when the industries moved away, and the local population moved with them.
Today the building houses the Queen's Gallery, hosting rotating exhibitions through the year displaying artefacts and pictures from the Queen's private collection.
GLASSHOUSE HOTEL (FORMERLY LADY GLENORCHY'S LOW CALTON CHURCH)
Dating from the 1840s, this former church adjacent to the Playhouse theatre (itself on the site of a long-lost Baptist meeting house) was demolished during the renovation of the whole Greenside area in the 1960s and 70s.
Part of the conditions for its demolition stipulated that the façade of the building be preserved, and for many years (within living memory) it was propped up with steel scaffolding supports while the area around it was completed revitalised.
Today the original church frontage is incorporated into the glass and steel structure that houses the Omni cinema and a whole host of bars and restaurants, and accessed through the façade itself is the Glasshouse hotel, popular for its roof garden and rear views up to Calton Hill.
See more of Edinburgh's changing history with my private city walking tours!
One of the most spectacular buildings in Edinburgh's Old Town is the incredibly ornate and decorative George Heriot's School, a private school on a ridge of rock with views across to Edinburgh Castle.
The school building was paid for with money from the estate of George Heriot, who died on 12 February 1624. Heriot had been a jeweller and a goldsmith in Edinburgh in the sixteenth century, and was known by the nickname 'Jinglin' Geordie' because of the noise made by the coins and jewels rattling in his pockets as he walked through the streets of the Old Town.
Heriot became fantastically wealthy, but was also a great philanthropist and would give money to destitute families, donating coins to beggars on the street, and his generosity would later give the city the school that stands today.
Heriot had served his apprenticeship as a goldsmith, and set up his own shop on the Royal Mile near St Giles' Cathedral in one of the 'luckenbooths', or lockable stall properties, which lined the street in the late sixteenth century.
In the 1590s he began selling jewellery to Queen Anne of Denmark, the wife of King James VI of Scotland, and was later appointed as her official goldsmith.
Both Ann and James had extravagant tastes, and Heriot was able to secure some of the finest and most expensive jewellery from across Europe, which he then sold to the royal couple. They would buy the jewellery in instalments (with Heriot adding a significant mark-up to the market value), and the queen would then often seek to borrow large sums of cash from Heriot, secured against the jewellery which he had sold her.
She would repay these loans - again with a significant percentage of interest - and Heriot became fantastically wealthy from his royal patronage. In just ten years it is believed Heriot may have done over £50,000 worth of business with the queen alone, which is equivalent to multiples of millions of pounds in modern currency.
In 1601 Heriot was appointed jeweller to the king, James VI, and in 1603 when James VI of Scotland became James I of England, he removed the royal court from Edinburgh down to London, and took George Heriot with him. Thus Heriot became an integral figure in the royal court, and profited handsomely from his royal connections.
On his death in 1624, Heriot had no surviving legitimate children, and both of his wives had pre-deceased him. He did leave a provision in his will for two illegitimate daughters that had been born to separate women, as well as a number of nieces, nephews and children elsewhere in his family line. But the bulk of his estate, amounting to something over £23,000, was gifted to the city of Edinburgh, for the establishing of a hospital in his name.
Heriot's Hospital was to be dedicated to the care and support of disadvantaged families and children in the city, the "puir, faitherless bairns" as his will described them. And so in 1628, construction began on the hospital building on land to the south of the city.
The sum of money that Heriot left was so great that a huge hospital could be built with it, but at that time there simply wasn't enough open space in the city on which such a large building could be established. And so the money also paid for land to be bought which, at that time, lay just beyond the Flodden Wall, which was the structure marking the southern boundary of Edinburgh.
That piece of land had to be brought within the provision of Edinburgh itself, and an extension to the boundary wall was also built, known as the Telfer Wall, to enclose the school property. Today the junction of the Flodden and Telfer walls can be seen along the Vennel, to the west of the school building.
Having started life as a hospital, providing general social care, Heriot's later became a dedicated school for orphaned boys, and later still started accepting pupils from non-disadvantaged backgrounds. In the 1880s the school started charging for its education, and today is one of the best known private schools in Scotland. A number of free school places continue to be offered to poorer families today as part of its requirement to fulfil its obligations as a registered charitable organisation.
The school is adjacent to the Greyfriars Kirkyard, and pupils often use a side entrance to get into and out of the school property through the church yard. This side gate is generally the best angle from which to view the school, although it can be difficult to get a good view over the heads of the large Harry Potter tour groups who congregate at the gates to enjoy the view of one of the inspirations for the Hogwarts academy...
Views of the school can also been seen distantly from Victoria Terrace (above right) and the esplanade in front of Edinburgh Castle.
For thirstier visitors to Edinburgh, a pub on Fleshmarket Close is named the Jinglin' Geordie in Heriot's honour.
Explore Edinburgh in more detail with my private city walking tours!
Things may be looking up, but in Edinburgh you need to look down once in a while too! Not just to avoid tripping on the cobbles and the steps, but to seek out some of the smaller hidden gems and details that are set into the pavements and roadways around the city.
Here are a handful of things to look out - and down - for...
In Scots a makar is a poet, and on Lady Stair's Close in the Old Town you'll find numerous paving stones carved with text from a variety of Scottish writers. Appropriately it's the same lane where you'll find the Writers' Museum, celebrating the lives and works of Robert Burns, Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson.
But take your time passing through the street itself, and check out the inspirational quotes at your feet, including this one from Stevenson himself: "There are no stars so lovely as Edinburgh street-lamps".
Keep your eyes peeled for Edinburgh's trams, running into the city centre from the airport. The new tram service opened just a few years ago, but Edinburgh had horse drawn trams from the nineteenth century, and electric ones in the twentieth century.
The original tram service was finally abandoned in the 1950s, and all the original tracks were ripped up and removed. All except one short section, left as a reminder (or possibly a warning!) to future generations... Look into the roadway at the end of Waterloo Place, near the Balmoral Hotel, for the sad reminder of the city's long-lost tram service.
The Holyrood Abbey provided sanctuary to those in debt, who would otherwise be at the mercy of Edinburgh's draconian legal system, which imposed heavily punishments for being unable to repay money that was owed. At one time the sanctuary had over 2,000 people in its care, and they were so well treated they were known as 'abbey lairds', or abbey lords...
The sanctuary itself wasn't a specific building but an entire area, within which the debtors had to stay if they wanted to remain protected from arrest, The boundary ran up to the summit or Arthur's Seat, and across the Royal Mile at Abbey Strand are a series of brass letters S's, marking a part of this original boundary line.
SCOTLAND IN A NUTSHELL
This one is a bit hard to read, both in the photo and in real life!
Look. What can you see?
I see beauty in the lochs.
I see majesty in mountains.
I see legend in rocks.
And it is ours.
These words are in front of the modern Scottish Parliament building, near the exit where visitors to the parliament make their way out, in a single granite paving stone. They are the words of Robert Adam - but not the classical architect who gave Edinburgh its classical style in the eighteenth century, but a 14-year-old school boy who won a competition to mark the official opening of the new parliament in 2005.
History is yet to demonstrate whether Adam becomes a great poet later in his life, but I rather love his short, simple, beautiful poem which seems to capture Scotland in a nutshell!
PHYSICS MADE PHYSICAL
On George Street in the New Town sits a statue of James Clerk Maxwell, a giant of physics whose pioneering investigations into the world around us yielded all kinds of results which continue to have importance today. Maxwell demonstrated that different colours of light travel at different frequencies, and paved the way for Einstein's general theory of relativity...
In the ground in front of his statue are the four equations which he said defined the physical universe. I can tell you nothing more than that - they're just numbers and squiggles to me! - although one group I had told me that in recent times Maxwell's four equations have been combined into one single statement which (apparently) comes pretty close to being a single unifying theory of the universe...
THE NEXT BIG THING
Walk across Bristo Square in the university district and you may not even notice the Old Town's largest piece of public art, commissioned by the university a few years ago.
The piece is called The Next Big Thing... is a Series of Little Things, and it's 1,600 brass dots set into the paving stones of the square, running across from the west to the east side, looking a little as though someone has dripped metallic paint across the space. The artist is Susan Collis, and her intention was that an piece of art which is almost invisible initially will become more visible with the passage of time, as people walking through the square unknowingly buff the brass dots to make them shiny... So if you don't see it now, come back in a few years when it should be more visible!
Look down to see more details of the city with a private Edinburgh walking tour!
Sometimes all we get to see of a building is its front door, especially in a city like Edinburgh where many of the historic properties are still actively used as houses or commercial premises.
I don't take tours inside any of the paid entry attractions (although I may take you into a few choice locations on our tour!) so I'm used to only seeing the outside of a building.
Here are a few of my favourite doorways of the city, with some stories about the history hidden inside...
17 Heriot Row
Heriot Row remains one of the New Town's grandest addresses, and property on the street routinely sells for in excess of £1.5 million... Notable residents of the street include the physicist James Clerk Maxwell, and John Buchan, an author best known for his adventure story The 39 Steps.
Number 17 Heriot Row was the childhood home of Robert Louis Stevenson, and it is reputedly from a drawing room window on the first floor that he would stand looking out at other children of the neighbourhood playing in the private gardens on the other side of the road. In those gardens is a pond with an island, and it may have been those early experiences which fed his later iconic adventure story, Treasure Island.
4 South Charlotte Street
Another New town address, on the corner of Charlotte Square at the west end of the city. Number 4 South Charlotte Street was the birthplace of Alexander Graham Bell, who would later go on to lodge a patent for his invention of the telephone.
It's a useful reminder that before the New Town was the commercial district we see today, this area was built as a residential area for high-status families.
2 Advocate's Close
Just off the Royal Mile near St Giles' Cathedral is one of the most picturesque of the city's closes and wynds. Advocate's Close was formerly home to one of Scotland's Lord Advocates - the highest legal figure in the country - called Sir James Stewart. Stewart's house was actually at the bottom of the lane, but this doorway near the top of the lane is a powerful reminder that some of Edinburgh's Old Town houses have been occupied for over 400 years - look at the date above the doorway to see when this property was first constructed.
As Lord Advocate, Stewart's most notable case was the prosecution of a young student called Thomas Aikenhead for blasphemy, in the 1690s. Aikenhead became the last person in the UK to be executed for blasphemy...
Further down the Royal Mile, off the Canongate, is Acheson House, built in 1633 for Archibald Acheson, a major figure in the royal court of Charles I.
The crest above the doorway features a cockerel on a trumpet, the crest of the Acheson family, and in the middle of the date is a diagram made of the letters AA and MH superimposed on each other - for Archibald Acheson and his wife Margaret Hamilton.
Into the nineteenth century the house wasn't such a grand property, having become a brothel known locally as the 'cock and trumpet'....
Today Acheson House houses Edinburgh World Heritage, the city's premier heritage and preservation body.
The churches of Scotland are often the oldest structures to have survived the passage of time, and at Duddingston is a church reputed to be the oldest on Scotland's east coast.
One former door into the church - long since closed off - has an archway and stonework which dates back to the church's Norman origins in the twelfth century.
The church remains an active centre of worship for the community.
Earl of Morton's House, Blackfriars Street
Blackfriars Street is another fascinating lane in the Old Town, widened in the 1870s from its original layout as a narrow passageway just a few feet wide.
On the west side of the street are some of the original buildings which survived the wholesale renovation of Edinburgh, including a building which was formally home of the Earl of Morton, one of the regents who ruled Scotland during the childhood of Mary, Queen of Scots.
Today the building is a youth hostel, but above its original doorway is a fascinating emblem of two unicorns, standing aside a crown. This was the royal emblem of Scotland before the union of crowns, when Scotland and England came under one monarchy, in 1603.
The later royal emblem - still commonly used today - is of a lion and a unicorn with a crown between them, but this earlier symbol is still visible on a few surviving buildings from the sixteenth-century.
Take a private Edinburgh walking tour to see more doorways with stories from Scottish history!
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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