EDINBURGH EXPERT WALKING TOURS - BLOG
In the heart of Edinburgh is one of its premier arts venues - the Usher Hall nestles between two of the city's best-known theatres, the Traverse and the Lyceum, and is readily accessible from Princes Street. But you may be surprised to learn that the concert venue very nearly ended up a little further along Lothian Road...
In 1896 Andrew Usher gifted the city a sum of money equivalent to over £10 million today, for the construction of a venue to bear his name, in much the same fashion as William McEwan had done previously. The McEwan Hall, also funded by the profits from the family brewing and distilling business, still stands at the heart of Edinburgh University's city centre operation on Bristo Square. But a similar plot of land was proving difficult for officials to find for the Usher Hall.
Usher's money was specifically for an entertainment venue of at least 3,000 seats that could be accessible by the whole city - the size of building this would need couldn't be readily accommodated in an already over-developed city centre.
Luckily Edinburgh has always had a significant amount of open green space in and around it, and the land on the Meadows had already previously been used for a great exhibition in the 1880s. Although that building had been a temporary one, perhaps space could be set aside for a more permanent structure?
Plans from 1898 show the circular layout of the Usher Hall sited at the west end of the Meadows, near the junction with Brougham Place. Roughly here:
Andrew Usher, then in his seventies, died in 1898, never seeing the plans for his building being confirmed. It was unlikely ever to have been granted planning permission for the Meadows site, however, as the land was protected then (as it still is today) by an act of parliament forbidding any permanent construction on its green expanse.
The Usher Hall project sat in limbo for over a decade, while alternative sites were considered. In 1910, a school building off Lothian Road was closed down, and the demolition of the structure left a large open space in the shadow of the castle rock itself. In 1911 the site was confirmed as the location for the proposed Usher Hall, with the foundation stone being laid by King George V in July of that year.
And so the small accumulation of buildings, sometimes touted as Edinburgh's theatre district, began to take shape. The Lyceum has been open since the 1880s, although the 'new' Traverse theatre wouldn't open until 1992, having previously been housed in spaces off the Lawnmarket and the Grassmarket since the 1960s.
The grand circle frontage of the Usher Hall is today complemented by a glass extension opened a few years ago, combining the classical stone work with a contemporary feel that truly celebrates the building's position in Edinburgh culture for over a century.
It remains a popular venue for concerts and comedy, and even hosted the Eurovision Song Contest in the 1970s! The hall's immense organ remains the centrepiece of its stage, an instrument which cost an impressive £4,000 in cash when it was installed.
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As the world's first UNESCO City of Literature, it's unsurprising that Edinburgh has a variety of literary and poetic associations. But one spot in the city in particular has links to three of Scottish poetry's most important figures.
Located on the Canongate section of the Royal Mile, the Canongate Kirk is a fascinating and historic attraction in itself, and well worth the time to visit. But for poetry lovers in particular, this is an especially important place.
Firstly, visitors will find a statue of a jaunty looking fellow striding away from the kirkyard as they approach the gates. This is a memorial to Robert Fergusson, a poet who is largely credited with inspiring the budding writer Robert Burns in his work, and without whom Burns may never has persisted with the art which has led him to be treasured as Scotland's Bard.
Born in Edinburgh and educated in St Andrews, Fergusson became well known for his verses in the Scots tongue, something which especially inspired Burns. Unfortunately, all was not well in Fergusson's life, and it is thought he suffered from what in modern parlance would be termed depression. Having sustained a head injury falling down stairs in the city's Old Town, he was admitted to the asylum, where he died just a short time later. He was only 24 years old.
Fergusson was buried in the Canongate Kirkyard, where later Robert Burns appended a verse to his tomb, commemorating his friend and inspiration:
No sculptur'd marble here, nor pompous lay,
‘No story'd urn nor animated bust;’
This simple stone directs pale Scotia's way
To pour her sorrows o'er her Poet's dust.
Burns himself is the second poetic association with Canongate Kirkyard, and indeed its link to the third. For another of Burns' inspirations ended up interred in the graveyard here - Agnes Maclehose was known as Nancy to her friends, and to Burns himself as Clarina. She was his muse, as well as an unrequited lover of his, and it is to her that Burns wrote poems like Ae Fond Kiss, probably one of his most famous (and best loved) poems.
As with Fergusson, there is a sense of tragedy over the circumstances of Maclehose's claim to fame. She and Burns had been writing to each other for a number of years, she using the pen-name Clarinda, and he Sylvander. The aliases were necessary as Agnes was married at the time, to an apparently cruel and uncaring husband. Through her otherwise platonic correspondence with Burns she was able to experience something of the affection and love she was unable to enjoy with her estranged husband.
In 1791, Agnes sailed from Edinburgh to Jamaica to attempt a reconciliation with her husband, and Burns captured the sense of lost love her experienced at her departure in Ae Fond Kiss:
Ae fond kiss, and then we sever;
Ae fareweel, alas, for ever!
I'll ne'er blame my partial fancy;
Naething could resist my Nancy;
For to see her was to love her,
Love but her, and love for ever.
Had we never loved sae kindly,
Had we never loved sae blindly,
Never met—or never parted,
We had ne'er been broken-hearted.
Agnes/Nancy/Clarinda later returned to Edinburgh, where she died in 1841, being buried in the Canongate Kirkyard.
And so it is Scotland's Bard himself who links two other significant figures from Scots poetry. Memorials to both Fergusson and Clarinda can be found in the churchyard, where the melancholy sense of a life and love affair cut short can still be felt when the wind blows between the gravestones....
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On 8 January 1697, Thomas Aikenhead became the last person in the UK to be executed for the crime of blasphemy. He had been a student at Edinburgh University, and was just 20 years old when he died at the end of a rope at the Gallowlee, a site of execution between Edinburgh and Leith.
The Blasphemy Act of 1661 first specified that anyone found guilty of being observed to "rail upon or curse or deny God, and obstinately continue therein" should be sentenced to death.
Thirty years later an amendment to the act instituted a (marginally) more compassionate 'three strikes' policy, with sentences of imprisonment for the first two offences proven, followed by death for a third.
During August 1696, Aikenhead had been walking through Edinburgh with a couple of his friends, and had had cause to remark that the Scottish weather was so unforgiving, he "wished he were in Hell, where at least it would be a little bit warmer".
The Scots are sometimes noted for their dry sense of humour, but Aikenhead's remark were not found to be as amusing as he may have hoped. He was charged with denouncing God and Jesus Christ, railing against the holy scriptures, and speaking against all forms of religion. Specific allegations claimed that he had suggested that Jesus had "learned magic in Egypt", and suggested he preferred the teachings of Mohammed to those of Christ.
Just 140 years previously, the religious landscape in Scotland had been massively impacted by the shift away from Catholicism to a Protestant doctrine, and the laws which were enshrined as a result of this change were partly seeking to protect a similar seismic theological shift from happening again. Such was the strength of religious conviction by the Scottish Presbyterian authorities, it had been stipulated that every Scot should have access to a Bible - and, by assumption, be able to read it. (It was partly down to this insistence that, by the 18th century, it's believed an astonishing three-quarters of Scots were literate.)
At his trial in Edinburgh, five fellow students testified against Aikenhead, which suggests little of a sense of student solidarity. Unable to afford to pay for legal representation, Aikenhead defended himself at the trial, but no record survives of the defence that was lodged.
It was unfortunate for Aikenhead that the man prosecuting him, Sir James Stewart, was notorious as a legal authority, the Lord Advocate for Scotland at the time - who lived on Advocate's Close in the Old Town - and an intimidating figure at the bench, making him a public celebrity during his own lifetime. Quirks of the legal system aside, this was a true David and Goliath battle, and on this occasion it was Goliath who was the victor.
In a strangely un-festive spirit, Aikenhead was found guilty and sentenced to death on Christmas Eve 1696.
Appealing the decision, Aikenhead asked for clemency on the grounds of this being his first offence, and also on account of his "tender years". The appeal found little sympathy with the authorities, who seemed determined to make an example of Aikenhead. However, the Privy Council ruled that although they were not minded to be lenient on the boy, on the word of the Church of Scotland itself the sentence would be dropped.
Alas, Christian forgiveness was in short supply and the church made no such intervention. Thus, on January 8 1697 Thomas Aikenhead found himself wearily walking two miles to his death, along the road from town to the gallows near modern day Pilrig.
On the day of his execution, Aikenhead made a written statement which contains echoes of some modern defences of the principle of free speech.
"It is a principle innate and co-natural to every man," Aikenhead wrote, "to have an insatiable inclination to the truth, and to seek for it as for hid treasure."
Perhaps the example made of Aikenhead had the desired effect, as he was the last person to be executed for the crime of blasphemy in the UK.
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Edinburgh has a long involvement in the religious history of Scotland. From St Cuthbert founding a site of worship near today's Princes Street Gardens, and Queen Margaret becoming a saint, to John Knox wrestling the church away from Catholicism, and the Great Disruption which divided the church of Scotland in 1843, the city's cultural history is closely tied to its religious history.
Whilst the city's many churches and cathedrals remain as major testaments to the city's religious life, smaller sites and monuments survive as less ostentatious demonstrations of faith. In particular, a number of holy wells still function and can be observed around the city itself.
Probably the grandest of these surviving wells is one of the last to be discovered. Adjacent to the Water of Leith, between Stockbridge and the Dean Village, you'll find St Bernard's Well, complete with its Grecian temple surrounding, and the goddess Hygieia continuing to watch over those who come to take its waters.
St Bernard's Well was discovered in the eighteenth century, and gave rise to some of the development of this area, as the former Raeburn Estate sprouted houses to accommodate those who had travelled from afar to take the water from this spring. Rich in minerals, the water from St Bernard's well came from a source entirely separate from the Water of Leith, and quickly developed a reputation for having restorative, if not actual healing, powers.
The temple-structure around the well was designed by Alexander Nasmyth, making it a fit attraction for those who could afford to travel and stay in the properties on nearby Mineral Street (now Dean Terrace). The pump mechanism drawing the water up still works, although it is only rarely open to the public.
Near to St Bernard's Well is the lesser-known St George's Well, with a less ostentatious pump house, although the spring is now integrated into the private gardens off the Water of Leith pathway.
Another area which became popular for its holy wells was Holyrood Park. The area had a number of underground water supplies, which partly accounts for the the district developing a number of breweries, who capitalised on the supply of fresh water for their industry.
But Holyrood Park itself had 7 holy wells at one time, although most of them are either lost or have dried up today. Two are still known, and one still functions - that of St Margaret's Well, easily accessible from Queen's Drive, just before St Margaret's Loch.
The well is today housed in an enclosed structure, and viewed up close reveals its distinctive vaulted internal ceiling. (A second well dedicated to St Margaret used to flow from the base of the castle rock. Today a plaque marks the spot, although the well is long since gone.)
It is believed that St Margaret's Well was discovered near to the site of the encounter that David I had with the stag in 1128, which led to the founding of Holyrood Abbey. The water today has slowed to a trickle, but is nonetheless technically still 'functional' as a well after nearly 900 years.
A little further up the slopes of Arthur's Seat, you may be able to discover the second surviving well in the area, just underneath the ruins of St Anthony's Chapel.
Originally the spring was associated with the chapel building, and may have been the reason why this outpost of faith got built in the first place. Although it is not generally flowing, a small stone basin can be found directly adjacent to a large rock, from beneath which the water originally flowed.
Neither of these holy wells would act as a significant draw to the city today, but at one time they would have been a major reason for people travelling to visit Edinburgh, along with the churches and associated reliquaries in the town itself. As such, their heritage as part of the city's tourist culture is important in understanding how and why Edinburgh has been a popular destination for visitors for nearly 1,000 years.
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Edinburgh's Old Town is teeming with tales of death and murder, and the gruesome details of serial killers and grave robbers. Yet the New town had its share of violent deaths and criminals too. On this day in 1889, the Scotsman newspaper reported the execution of a woman tagged as the 'Stockbridge Murderess'.
Jessie King, born Jessie Kean, was in her late 20s and worked as a washerwoman and laundry worker in Stockbridge. As one of the city's burgeoning suburbs, in the 1880s Stockbridge was also where Keane had become involved in a business even more despicable than the cash-for-corpses scandal that linked Edinburgh's medical school with killers Burke and Hare.
In an age when illegitimate children were on the rise, and when the poorest members of society were struggling more than ever to feed and clothe their families, it was not uncommon to see adverts seeking people to adopt unwanted or unmanageable babies. For a small cash payment - £5 was a standard fee - your baby would be taken and given a better life than you could afford to give it. Or so the theory went.
In reality, people like Jessie Kean would take your child, and the cash accompaniment - sometimes as low as £2 - with no intention of raising it. With little effort to track or monitor the wellbeing of the children, it was not unusual for them to vanish without trace. It was a practice known as baby farming, with the children neglected or even killed once the cash had been spent.
Such was the fate of children like Sandy Gunn, Violet Tomlinson, and Walter Campbell, all under a year old at the time of their death.
Jessie Kean was unmarried, but was living on Cheyne Street with Thomas Pearson. He was operating a failed business and it is thought the pair lived off Jessie's immoral income drawn from working as a prostitute. Kean had become pregnant, and given birth to a baby girl, named Grace.
Weeks after moving into Pearson's home, Grace mysteriously vanished. Kean began replying to adoption adverts, and was known to have taken charge of Alexander Gunn, among a number of other young babies.
One afternoon, it is said, two local boys were playing football in the street with an oilskin package they had recovered from rubbish heap in the street. The rough package began to unravel, and as they tried to tie it up more tightly to continue their game, the skin fell open to reveal the badly decomposed remains of a small baby. When the police examined the small body, they concluded that they were remains of Alexander Gunn.
The police visited the home of Jessie Kean and Thomas Pearson, and discovered Kean nursing her own newborn baby, Thomas. On examining the property they discovered the remains of three children.
The pair were arrested, but Pearson denied all knowledge of the fates of the children he had helped to adopt, and Kean persuaded the police that she had acted alone in adopting the children, with Pearson only signing the papers as she was unable to write. That one of the child's bodies had been found on a shelf in Pearson's home that was too high for Keane to have reached it was not considered sufficient to implicate Pearson in the crimes.
Kean would eventually stand trial alone for the deaths of three children, although the police had their suspicions about the fates of several more.
Kean was hanged after being found guilty by a jury after just four minutes of deliberations. On 10 March 1889 she had her own baby, Thomas, taken from her for the last time, and she was hanged early the following morning. She was the first woman to be hanged in Scotland since 1862, and the last until 1923.
Pearson himself left Edinburgh and moved to Glasgow, perhaps to escape the cloud of suspicion that hung over him for his part in these terrible events. As an elderly, alcoholic man, he was perhaps destined to trip and fall and die in a pool of his own blood. But that his body was found with a badly fractured skull suggests someone else may have had a hand in his death, in revenge for the children that he may have been involved in killing.
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On this day in 1566, one of the bloodiest events in the sad life of Mary, Queen of Scots took place in Edinburgh. As she sat eating dinner in her rooms at Holyrood, a mob of men broke into the chamber brandishing their weapons at her dinner companion, her Italian secretary David Rizzio.
Rizzio was a close associate of Mary's, and she would often confide in him, leading to a degree of resentment against Rizzio from other members of the court, including Mary's husband, Henry Darnley. Was the attack on Rizzio motivated by jealousy, rage, or something more politically significant?
Is it possible that Mary herself was the intended victim? It is thought unlikely, but could be a possibility.
Mary was six months pregnant with the would-be heir to the Scottish throne, yet contemporary accounts suggest she jumped to protect Rizzio by placing herself between him and his attackers. Some historians have suggested that the attack on Rizzio was a convenient means by which Mary might be frightened witless and thus induced to miscarry the baby - as the child of Mary and Darnley, the child was more or less certain to ascend to not just the Scottish throne but that of England too, which would have been fatal to the careers of those opposed to union with England.
Except Henry Darnley himself was accused of orchestrating the attack on Rizzio. Would he really have jeopardised the life of his own son in this way? Well, possibly - it has been noted that Darnley himself had a claim on the English throne, and if Elizabeth I died without heir then both Mary and Darnley would have been possible contenders for the role. Darnely was, by many accounts, a vain and selfish man, and it is entirely possible to conclude that he would prefer to take the throne himself instead of allowing it to by-pass him and go to his son...
Others have suggested that far from being Darnley's baby, the child Mary carried was that of Rizzio himself, the product of an overly intimate relationship between queen and courtier. Murdering Rizzio and causing Mary to lose the illegitimate baby was one way of solving two problems with a single, bloody act.
Whatever the motivation, the attack left Rizzio dead from over 50 stab wounds, before his body was flung down the palace stairs and into the street.
According to legend, his body was taken and buried in the churchyard of Canongate Kirk, where a plaque continues to memorialise him. Some historians have contested this as, following the Reformation of the Scottish churches in 1560, Scotland was now a protestant church. It is not likely that the body of Rizzio - a devout Roman Catholic, as Mary herself was - would be interred in a protestant churchyard.
It is possible Rizzio's body was left here to rest before a later burial elsewhere.
Mary was indeed terrified by the events of 9 March 1566, and fled Holyrood to take shelter in nearby Craigmillar castle. Believing her husband to be behind the attack, she would later exact a bloody revenge by having Darnley himself murdered at Kirk o'Field. The child survived, and was safely delivered to Mary in June of that year. On Mary's forced abdication, the infant became James VI of Scotland, and on the death of Elizabeth I in 1603 would take the throne and crown of England, the first monarch to rule the two nations jointly.
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Edinburgh has a strong history of medical pioneering, and among the pantheon of Scottish doctors and surgeons who helped to advance medical science is Sophia Jex-Blake, an English woman who was instrumental in furthering the role of women in medicine across the UK, beginning here in Edinburgh.
Born in 1840, Jex-Blake had undertaken some travels in America during her 20s, where she had spent time working alongside some of the earliest female physicians on that side of the Atlantic. On applying to study medicine at the esteemed Harvard University, she was informed that the school system there had no provision for teaching women in any of its departments, least of all medicine.
After returning to Britain she was determined to continue pursuing her interests in the medical field, and believed that Scotland, with a more enlightened attitude towards education than England at the time, might be receptive to her intentions to train as a doctor.
After applying to join Edinburgh University's medical school, she was informed that although the medical faculty had agreed in principle to allow her to study, the university's lawyers had blocked the application on the grounds that considerable adjustments would have to be made to the teaching. Such 'adjustments' included physical issues like separate bathroom and washing facilities for male and female students, for example, and - crucially - a curriculum that avoided mentioning any bodily matter (blood, reproduction, male anatomy...) which might cause distress to the female student.
Such adjustments were too great to be warranted for 'just one woman', and so Jex-Blake's application was turned down.
Stirred by this form of refusal, Jex-Blake advertised in the Scotsman newspaper for other women who were interested in joining the university, and in 1869 Jex-Blake and six other women - known afterwards as the 'Edinburgh Seven' - submitted applications to study medicine. This time her application, and that of her fellow women, was accepted, and that year Edinburgh became the first university in Britain to accept women as students.
This was not to say that the women were roundly accepted by everyone - in 1870 a mob of 200 men and women (including students and faculty members of the university itself) opposed the women's training by throwing mud, rocks and insults at the students as they arrived for an anatomy exam at Surgeons' Hall.
An appeal against the admission of women was successfully launched, and all of them later had to withdraw from their training in Edinburgh - many transferred to schools in Europe, where women were already permitted to study.
Undaunted, Jex-Blake qualified as a doctor in London in 1874, and returned to Edinburgh in 1878, opening up a medical practice on Manor Place in the New Town. In 1885 the dispensary expanded and moved to premises on the corner of Grove Street and Fountainbridge - the building still stands today, its ornate sandstone decoration making it stand out from its modern neighbours on either side. This building became the city's first pharmacy providing specific medical treatment for women, and particularly women from poorer backgrounds, who would not be able to afford the consultations of a private doctor. It was staffed entirely by women.
In 1887 Jex-Blake established the Edinburgh School of Medicine for Women, a teaching institute which was instrumental in establishing another of the country's great medical pioneers, Elsie Inglis. Inglis and Jex-Blake were not great friends, and Inglis went on to establish a rival training school for women which was more successful, and for which Inglis is more celebrated today.
Both Jex-Blake and Inglis' medical schools closed in 1892, when Edinburgh University formally accepted female students once again. The hospital Jex-Blake established moved from Grove Street to Bruntsfield as it grew and expanded, and although it operated as a medical facility up until 1989, today the building has been converted into modern housing.
Sophia Jex-Blake died in 1912, and is buried in Sussex in England, where she had lived out the final years of her life with her partner, Margaret Todd.
Intriguingly, Jex-Blake is commemorated with a plaque at the former medical school building on Lauriston Place, where she is described as an 'alumnus' of the university, even though she wasn't formally allowed to finish her studies there. In 2019, seven female medical students received symbolic honorary degrees at a University of Edinburgh Medical School graduation ceremony, to belatedly honour and recognise the original 'Edinburgh Seven'.
Today, women and medicine are intrinsically linked, and it is hard to imagine a medical service in the UK without the pioneering work and dedication of women like Sophia Jex-Blake and Elsie Inglis.
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