Edinburgh is well-known for its tales of supernatural occurrences and not-of-this-world presences - whether you believe in ghosts or not, there have certainly been some pretty spooky goings on in the city over the last few hundred years!
I was intrigued to come across this story of a pretty low-profile kind of a ghost, one that hasn't yet made it into the tales told at Edinburgh Dungeon. Recounted in the Caledonian Mercury, a now defunct local newspaper, the story is dated this day, March 30, 1815.
In the story, a local man has appeared in court charged with circulating a story about a ghost that he has seen haunting a property in Jamaica Street, in the New Town. The effect (and alleged purpose) of him propagating such a story was that the proprietor of the premises was having difficulty letting them out, and this was having a negative and damaging effect upon his business and income.
Certainly many properties in the city today pride themselves on their ghostly inhabitants, and indeed trade upon the fact that they are haunted for the benefits of publicity and atmosphere! How different the spiritual climate must have been two centuries ago, that a reputed haunting could have such a detrimental effect upon a person's business that they are moved to take the teller of the ghostly tale to court!
The gentleman in question, in 1815, defended himself at the trial, insisting that he had not only seen the ghost but had spoken to it and engaged it in conversation "on several occasions". He declined to disclose the content of these conversations, however, on the grounds that the ghost had sworn him to secrecy... It certainly sounds like one of the strangest defences ever mounted in a Scottish court of law!
The magistrate hearing the case issued a curious judgement - the defendant was bound over to keep the peace (ie. not to tell any further ghost stories) for a year, under threat of a £5 fine. At this juncture the defendant asked a special permission from the magistrate - since the ghost had previously agreed that it would speak with him again on a future occasion ("to partake of his hospitality," as the article puts it...), could he have formal legal permission to engage the ghost in further conversation, if he agreed to simply not to speak of it to anyone?
The Caledonian Mercury states that in this highly unusual matter of ghost vs. commercial interest, "We, for our part, are of the opinion, that the ghost ought to have been called into Court for its interest".
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Inspired by an entry in Michael TRB Turnbull's Edinburgh Book of Days.
"The Queen is dead; long live the King!"
That's the cry that would have gone up across Britain on 24 March, in 1603. At the age of 69, Queen Elizabeth I, daughter of Henry VIII and the last of the Tudor monarchs, died in Richmond Palace in London. As she had never married nor borne children, the throne passed to the son of her cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots.
That son was already a king. James VI of Scotland had been born at Edinburgh Castle in 1566, and had been reigning sovereign of Scotland since 1567, following the abdication of his mother, who was later imprisoned and executed by Elizabeth I.
But in 1603, James' power as a monarch was multiplied exponentially, and the status of Britain as a whole changed historically, when he acceded to the throne of England, Wales and Ireland - the first monarch in history to rule these 'united' islands, and paving the way for the formal political union, creating the United Kingdom as we know it today, a century later in 1707.
One of the more visible changes this union brought about can be seen in the coat of arms for the United Kingdom. It's a familiar symbol today, with a lion and a unicorn - the national animals of England and Scotland - either side of a crown. Prior to the Union of Crowns the emblem of Scotland was two unicorns, and after the union one of the unicorns was replaced with a lion.
Both versions of this crest can still be found in Edinburgh. One double unicorn can be seen on Crown Square in Edinburgh Castle, near to where James VI was born.
This Union of Crowns was an historic moment for the nation as a whole, although it changed the relationship James had with his native Scotland. On 3 April 1603, he made a speech at the High Kirk of St Giles, on the Royal Mile, vowing to maintain and defend his (Protestant) faith, and to return to visit Edinburgh at least every three years - he wasn't going to let being king of England go to his head, as his heart would remain forever Scottish.
Alas this turned out to be an empty promise. On 5 April 1603, James VI (and now I of England) left Edinburgh to travel south for his coronation in London. He would not return to Scotland for another 14 years, and that visit - in 1617 - would be his last. That year marked his fiftieth year as king of Scotland, and he made an emotional return to the room in Edinburgh Castle in which he had been born. The room was ceremonially redecorated for the occasion, and visitors today can still see the painted panelling put in place for this historic visit.
For good or ill, Scotland and England were now formally 'united'.
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On this day in 1566, David Rizzio, secretary and (possibly) lover of Mary, Queen of Scots, was brutally murdered in the queen's bedchamber at the Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh. She was heavily pregnant at the time, with the child who would later be crowned James VI and I, and it has been speculated by some that the brutal attack on Rizzio was carefully designed to induce a miscarriage in Mary.
The event was a dramatic moment in Mary's life, and is (arguably) the moment at which her fate as a doomed queen was sealed. The murder of Rizzio kick-started a sequence of events, allegations and accusations which would lead inexorably to Mary's execution after 19 years as a prisoner of the English queen, and Mary's cousin, Elizabeth I.
Here's how the events of that night, and the years afterwards, began to unravel...
Darnley, Mary Queen of Scots' second husband, was jealous of the close relationship between Mary and Rizzio. He may even have believed that the child Mary carried was Rizzio's - he certainly had a hand in plotting the attack, designed to rid Holyrood of Rizzio and frighten Mary, in what was just one of a number of efforts to destabilise her reign.
On the evening of 9 March, a posse of men, led by Lord Ruthven, stormed into Mary's chamber where she was dining with Rizzio. The men demanded that Mary give Rizzio up, but she refused, and (it is said) stood between Rizzio and his attackers. The men threatened her with a pistol, and threw her aside to get to Rizzio.
Rizzio struggled against ensuing assault and fought back, but in the end was overpowered by them. He was stabbed a total of 56 times, before his body was kicked down a staircase, and stripped of his jewellery. He was buried the same night, his body interred in an (unmarked) grave in the grounds of Holyrood Abbey - although a grave in the Canongate Kirkyard is today reputed to be Rizzio's final resting place.
The murder of Rizzio was certainly as politically motivated as much as it was personally motivated, yet Mary resisted the attempt on her life, and that of her unborn child, and stood steadfast in her position as queen. Just over a year later, in April 1567, her husband Darnley would himself be unceremoniously murdered, possibly with Mary's assistance, in retaliation for his involvement in the assassination of Rizzio.
Mary's alleged involvement in the murder of her husband - also the king, and so, technically, an accessory to the act of regicide - was the crime which led to her seeking safe haven with her cousin Elizabeth. Whether or not Mary's involvement could ever be proven, machinations and manipulations behind the scenes meant she became seem as guilty in the eyes of many - and, eventually, it was for her alleged role in the conspiracy that Elizabeth I had Mary Queen of Scots executed in February 1587.
And as to whether the child she carried - who was later crowned joint king of both England and Scotland - was truly Darnley's or that of the Italian Rizzio, perhaps we'll never know! Certainly Rizzio was variously described in contemporary sources as being 'ugly' and 'hunchbacked' - on that basis it may be best thought of as unlikely that the queen of Scotland would risk her reputation (and her marriage) by engaging him in an illicit relationship, never mind putting herself in the position of getting pregnant by him...
Visitors to the Palace of Holyroodhouse can still visit the chamber in which Rizzio was murdered, and until relatively recently red ink would be sprinkled on the floor of the room from time to time, so that visitors could see for themselves the stains of Rizzio's blood on the floorboards...
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Being International Women’s Day, this would be a worthy time to introduce you to Catherine Sinclair, notable for being (I believe) one of only two women commemorated with a monument or statue in Edinburgh’s city centre. We have plenty of busts of men - and quite a few dogs and animals - but only Sinclair and Queen Victoria have Edinburgh monuments in their honour.
Located off Charlotte Square (named for another woman, Queen Charlotte, the wife of George III) in the New Town, the monument at the bottom of North Charlotte Street at the junction with St Colme Street, is modelled in a similar style to that of the Scott Monument on Princes Street.
Sinclair was, like Scott, a writer, as well as being a social philanthropist. Working in the 1830s and 40s, Sinclair produced a number of popular books for children, as well as range of titles for adults, with inspiring titles such as The Journey of Life and Anecdotes of the Caesars.
Her association with Walter Scott is well-known, and it is believed that it was Sinclair who discovered that Scott was the author of the Waverley novels, which had originally been published anonymously. Recognising their quality and value, Sinclair urged Scott to go public as their author, and in doing so helped secure his reputation as one of Scotland’s great literary heroes.
Her kindness was well-known, as well as her charitable spirit of support and care for animals and those less well-off in society. She introduced public benches into Edinburgh’s busy streets, to help provide respite to pedestrians, as well as introducing public water fountains, to provide clean drinking water to the public.
Today she may seem a minor figure in the pantheon of great Edinburgh citizens past, but the monument to her is a significant indicator of her standing and reputation, and a valuable reminder that great cities like Edinburgh were not (and are not) only shaped by the men who live and work in them.
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Edinburgh was named UNESCO’s first City of Literature in 2004, thanks to its rich and varied literary history. To mark World Book Day, here’s a rundown of some of the city’s most important writerly figures and influences…
Sir Walter Scott
Commemorated by the world’s tallest monument to a writer, standing adjacent to Waverley station (the world’s only railway station named after a literary work) on Princes Street, Scott was not only born and raised in the city but was also responsible for shaping Edinburgh’s profile as a destination for tourists.
Robert Louis Stevenson
Born locally and living for a time at 17 Heriot Row in the New Town, Stevenson wrote classic adventure titles like Treasure Island and Kidnapped, as well as the short novel The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, a template for gothic horror, as well as the book which best characterises the dual nature of Edinburgh itself.
Creator of the iconic Edinburgh girls’ teacher Jean Brodie, immortalised in the novel The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie – played on screen by Maggie Smith, who won an Oscar for the role. Showcasing locations from across the city, this book superbly represents the world of genteel Edinburgh society, as well as being a treatise on the nature of education and childhood.
The famed author of the Harry Potter books was an unemployed single parent when she first drafted the books which would go on to make her one of the world’s richest women. Various locations across the city are said to have inspired her, including Fettes College and George Heriot’s School as influences on the spectacularly gothic Hogwarts Academy.
Trainspotting raised the profile of modern Edinburgh in a way that no other recent novel could. Set in the seedy world of drug addicts and violent criminals of the Edinburgh underworld, the 1994 film, directed by Danny Boyle, also helped launch the careers of Ewan McGregor and a host of other Scottish acting talent.
These represent just a handful of the literary heritage that can be found across Edinburgh – find out more with a customised walking tour of the city.
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