EDINBURGH EXPERT WALKING TOURS - BLOG
This instalment of my alphabetic introduction to Edinburgh features the letter P, Q and R. Previous instalments are linked at the bottom of the page!
THE LETTER P
P is for Princes Street, one of the original three main streets of the New Town. Today the street is a rather depressing line of mobile phone shops and department stores, but originally this would have been a long residential street with fantastically wealthy families living in the three- and four-storey townhouses which stretched from end to end.
In the initial plans for the New Town in the 1760s, the street was designated simply South Street, being the southern most one of the planned development. A little later its planned name was to be St Giles Street, named for the patron saint of Edinburgh, but the name was blocked by George III.
At that time St Giles in London was a run-down, slum district, and the king perhas felt that the associations were unbecoming for what was intended as a desirable residential district in this new development. As the streets began to take their names from the new union with England (just six decades old when they began building), Princes Street was named for the sons of George III. (George Street and Queen Street were named for the king and his wife.)
One original plan had been to have houses on both sides of the street, maximising the amount of properties that would be built, but the New town's designer, James Craig, argued that blocking the view between the Old and the New Town would be detrimental to the city's character, and that keeping the space open would help unify the two sides of the city. And so an Act of Parliament was secured to prevent development on the south side of Princes Street, ensuring that this line between the two halves of Edinburgh is kept open and clear, a key moment in the development of the New Town project.
THE LETTER Q
Q is for Quartermile, a major development taking shape to the south of the Royal Mile. The site at the heart of Quartermile was Edinburgh's old Royal Infirmary from the 1870s up until 2005, when the site was sold for development and the hospital moved out of town. Over the last decade the former hospital buildings and grounds have been turned into contemporary accommodation, shops and office spaces, with the final phase of development - the main infirmary building itself - still to be completed.
The buildings on this site now represent a collision of styles and textures, with the original sandstone and red brick hospital buildings interspersed (and extended into) glass and steel structures which offer panoramic views across the city (to the north) and over the green space of the Meadows (to the south). Some will find the combination of contemporary architecture with nineteenth-century buildings too much of a clash of cultures, but the site is fast becoming a popular and well recognised feature in the city's landscape.
Edinburgh, as with any old city, must continue to develop and grow as a living centre for people, and Quartermile represents one of the key transformations in the town in the twenty-first century.
THE LETTER R
R is for Robert Louis Stevenson, born in Edinburgh in 1850, whose work as a poet and author helped to shape the city's great literary legacy to the world. The family home at 17 Heriot Row is where Stevenson spent much of his childhood, with the popular story that he first span the early working of the story that became Treasure Island as he played around a pond in the gardens directly across the road from his home.
The city has many other Stevenson connections - Cramond and Corstorphine both featured in Kidnapped, the Old and New Towns (along with one of the city's famous residents) inspired The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and the Hispaniola restaurant is named for the ship from Treasure Island, being a place where Stevenson spent plenty of time drinking - but, at his own request, lacks a major memorial to the man. Stevenson spent the latter years of his life on an island in Samoa, in the Western Pacific, and was buried out there when he died.
Edinburgh' Princes Street Gardens has a modest - often overlooked - memorial tucked away in a grove of birch trees, but artefacts from his life and career can be viewed at the city's Writers' Museum, on Lady Stairs Close, just off the Lawnmarket.
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For many years Edinburgh lacked a safe, clean and reliable fresh water supply. Beginning with its early settlement on the castle rock, the people who lived here were reliant on rain water for drinking, washing, and for raising and cultivating crops. And whilst Scotland is known for its precipitation, Edinburgh gets less rain than the rest of the country, on average!
Even into the medieval period this left the great fortification of Edinburgh Castle at a significant disadvantage - whilst it was militarily safe from attack, its great weakness was its limited space for raising food, and its limited supplies of fresh water.
Of the many times that Edinburgh Castle changed hands between the Scots and the English, it was most common for the handover to happen as a result of the castle surrendering due to its lack of resources. The relatively small well, just a few metres deep, and serving as a cistern for storing water rather than accessing an underground aquifer, is still visible at the top of Edinburgh Castle today.
In the fifteenth century, the valley to the north of the castle rock was dammed, and the stream which ran into it created an artificial lake called the Nor Loch. This valley is today Edinburgh's Princes Street Gardens. This artificial lake served a number of purposes, both defensive and practical - not only was the lake effectively a large castle moat, preventing access to the city from the north, it also provided the city with a regular supply of water.
This was not a particularly effective solution to the city's water issue, however. The valleys on either side of the Royal Mile were also sewerage outlets, where all the waste drained off the streets. Long before the consequences of drinking contaminated and dirty water were understood, the citizens of Edinburgh would have been drinking water which would have been heavy with human and animal waste that had washed down from the city. As the population of the city rose, this supply of water became increasingly insufficient.
In 1624, the city was granted an act of parliament which allowed them to bring fresh water into Edinburgh for the first time. Springs in the Pentland Hills to the south of Edinburgh were connected to the city via a network of wooden pipes - basically hollowed out tree trunks - across the landscape and up to the top of the Royal Mile, where a reservoir had been built to store the water.
The reservoir is still there on Castlehill - today it's the city's only surviving tartan weaving mill - five storeys deep into the ground.
In 1674, after fifty years of engineering work to connect the supply, fresh water flowed to Edinburgh's residents for the first time, from the reservoir on the Castlehill to twelve wells around the Old Town. Some of those wells still survive, with two of them in their original locations, on the Grassmarket and outside John Knox's House.
This revolutionary system improved Edinburgh's health and hygiene immeasurably into the eighteenth century, paving the way for the city to become the seat of learning and innovation during the period known as the Scottish Enlightenment.
Today there are several Victorian-era reservoirs in the hills to the south of Edinburgh, from where fresh water was piped into the city during the nineteenth century.
These reservoirs today are a peaceful retreat from the hustle and bustle of the city, and offer visitors the chance to take advantage of Edinburgh's proximity to the countryside. They no longer supply water to the city, but remain as evidence of the remarkable and industrial efforts made to transform Edinburgh's public health and wellbeing in the recent past.
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Britain has long been recognised as the northernmost reach of the Roman Empire, with Hadrian's Wall across the north of England considered the final frontier of their global occupation. But the Romans also came into Scotland briefly, and evidence remains of their occupation of the area around Edinburgh, especially at Cramond. The area is a sleepy coastal suburb today but in the second century AD the fort here was the Romans' largest military settlement in Scotland.
At this time, around 140AD, the site of Edinburgh Castle today was occupied by a tribe called the Goddodin, known to the Romans as the Votadini. The Goddodin were known to be a fearsome and war-hungry group, with records suggesting they spent a full year feasting on the castle rock before heading south to fight the Angles - it's also considered that the Romans actively feared the Goddodin and so avoided engaging them directly in the territory of Edinburgh itself, instead establishing a settlement on the coast to the north.
Some historians suggest that Edinburgh's Dalkeith Road is a remaining section of Dere Street, the road built by the Romans to connect their settlements north of the border with York (Jorvik). Running through the south side of the city, the road then branched westwards along the edge of an ancient lake (where the Meadows are today) along the line of modern-day Melville Drive. It then ran out to the fort at Cramond, built on the edge of a natural harbour on the shores of the Firth of Forth.
Few, if any, physical structures of the Roman fort at Cramond survive today, but the foundations of a huge network of buildings are marked out in the area adjacent to the medieval Cramond Kirk, a later church built on the site of the Roman encampment. Concealed beneath thick foliage lie the remnants of an immense Roman bathhouse, a major feature of Roman settlements.
The fort at Cramond was active during the period of construction of the Antonine Wall, the defence built between Scotland's east and west coasts as a defence against the Picts (another tribe of which the Romans seemed to live in fear!). The infamous story of the 'Eagle of Ninth', a mythical, ill-fated mission by a legion of 5,000 soldiers who ventured into the misty Highlands of Scotland, never to be seen or heard of ever again, provides some context for their fear of the tribes occupying the highlands of mainland Britain, and the Antonine Wall was constructed to keep the Roman forts safe from attacks from the north.
The size of the encampment here, and the importance of the site as a militarily strategic river port, is reflected in some of the finds and archaeology which has been uncovered here. Beyond the traces of the buildings themselves, in 1997 the ferryman who ran a passenger service across the River Almond had to steer around what he thought was merely a rock jutting above the surface of the water. At low tide, however, the stone was examined and found be the tip of an immense carving of a lioness, a huge creative feature that archaeologists think may have been created as a grave marker or decorative tombstone for a significant general or military figure stationed at Cramond.
The Cramond Lioness, as she is now known, has since taken pride of place in Edinburgh's National Museum of Scotland on Chambers Street. Carvings like the lioness indicate that Cramond was established as a major, and permanent, settlement for the Romans. But records suggest that Cramond was only actively occupied for about thirty years, between 140 and 170AD, and then briefly again from 205 to 214AD
Ultimately the Romans retreated south from Cramond, taking up residence around the English boundary defence of Hadrian's Wall which was a more effective (and better established) site. Some have suggested that Scotland's unforgiving (and unpredictable) climate may have proven too much for the Romans, for whom the warm and sunny shores of the Mediterranean could hardly have seemed further away!
Whether they were defeated by the Scottish weather or the fearsome people, the Romans left their mark on Scotland, and Cramond offers just one accessible site for historians to explore.
Perhaps the most intriguing feature of Roman Cramond is located not in the village itself, but about a half mile further along the coastline (accessible only via a longer path which runs inland to cross the River Almond over the old Cramond Brig) on the Dalmeny Estate. Walking along the beach here brings you to a small outcrop of rock, in which is carved the outline of an eagle, a symbol beloved of the Romans whose legions each had their own eagle emblem behind which they marched.
The Cramond Eagle - if that's what it is, the carving is too weathered to say for sure - is a firm marker of the occupation of this area by the Romans, and it's quite remarkable to think about the young men who may have carved this design in between their patrols of the Antonine Wall, standing on this rocky shore and looking out over a landscape that can only have changed rudimentally in the nearly two-thousand years since.
Perhaps the carving was only a form of graffiti, the way modern cities are 'tagged' with spray paint, but nonetheless it gives a truly human shape to the Roman presence here.
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We're crossing the halfway point of this alphabetic exploration of Edinburgh, brought to you this time by the letters M, N and O! Previous blogs are linked at the bottom of the post...
THE LETTER M
M is for the McEwan Hall, one of the grandest buildings in the Old Town, which can be found in the university quarter of the city centre on Bristo Square. The hall is owned by the University of Edinburgh, and serves as their graduation hall where students celebrate completing their studies.
William McEwan founded the Fountain Brewery in Edinburgh in the 1860s, later to become one of the largest family brewing businesses in Scotland. Brewing and distillation had been Edinburgh's predominant heavy industry for centuries, with areas around Holyrood and around the canal at the west side of the city becoming industrial hubs where thousands of litres of beer was made on a daily basis.
Into the late nineteenth century, alcohol (or the steady provision of cheap alcohol) was held responsible for many of the social ills which afflicted Britain's cities - poverty, drunkenness, unemployment, were all attributed to the output of people like William McEwan and his business, and consequently many brewing families were moved to give gifts to the cities they operated in as a way of being seen to give something back to their societies.
McEwan gave Edinburgh University £113,000 to build a concert hall in his name, and the hall remains a key property in the university's portfolio, recently receiving investment for a renovation of many times the original cost of the building.
THE LETTER N
N is for the New Calton Burial Ground, a replacement graveyard built in 1818 to house bodies displaced from the Old Calton Burial Ground when Waterloo Place was built through the middle of it.
Around 350 bodies (estimates vary) were reburied in this new location, on the side of Calton Hill overlooking Arthur's Seat and the bottom of the Old Town. For three years no new burials were permitted here, until the graveyard opened formally in 1821.
The graveyard is overlooked by the grand New Town developments of Regent Terrace, and in order that the sensibilities of those able to afford such grand properties not be offended, the graveyard had to be concealed by the trees and landscaping.
The graveyard today has approximately 2,000 grave stones still standing, but there are believed to be over 14,000 people buried here, including communal graves for those who died in the city's hospital and poor houses. Famous burials here include the so-called Lighthouse Stevensons, who have a family plot in the graveyard, and William Dick, veterinary pioneer.
Today the graveyard has been rebranded 'Tombs with a View' for its picturesque outlook and is well worth passing through during your time in the city.
THE LETTER O
O is for Old Fishmarket Close. Leading off the south side of the Royal Mile near St Giles' Cathedral, as its name suggests this was formerly the site of one of the city's fish markets. Fish would be sold at the top end of the lane, where they would be gutted, allowing all the blood and guts to wash naturally down the incline to the Cowgate valley. It was a very primitive way of keeping the streets clean! In contemporary accounts the street was described as being a 'stinking morass'...
Fishmarket Close was also where the city's executioner would have had his home. Not a particularly illustrious or desirable job, the executioner had his accommodation provided and paid for as part of his pay and benefits package. Whether having such a house on the 'stinking morass' of Fishmarket Close was punishment or reward is not entirely clear.
On Hogmanay 1571, two of the ceremonial cannonballs fired from the castle to celebrate the new year fell short and landed in Fishmarket Close. They hit the stacks of unsold fish left at the sides of the lane, and the fish were thrown into the air. For the first week of January 1572, people travelled from all across the city to collect free fish from the roofs of the houses which were still standing...
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An oft-quoted statistic claims that people in major cities are never more than 6 feet away from a rat. Whilst this may or may not be an accurate figure in Edinburgh, a comparable claim is that you're never too far from a historic crime scene in Auld Reekie. Bloodshed and death may be the stock in trade for some of Edinburgh's ghost tour companies, I tend to focus my tours on the city's history and its cultural attractions rather than exploiting events from its darker side.
Nevertheless, it's unavoidable that the streets and alleys of the Old and New Towns of Edinburgh have seen their fair share of death, so here are just a handful of sites where you may feel that you are walking in the footprints of murderers (and their victims)...
Holyrood Park, with Arthur's Seat at its centre, is a popular space for visitors to stretch their legs and escape the bustle of the city streets during their visit, and beside the road which leads through the park towards Meadowbank is a rough collection of rocks and stones which was once a memorial cairn.
Known as Muschat's Cairn, the monument was established near to where Nicol Muschat, a surgeon, brutally murdered his wife by stabbing her to death in October 1720. At his trial (where he was found guilty of her murder) he gave as justification for his actions that fact that he had simply grown tired of her. Appropriately enough Muschat was hanged for the crime, and in the years that followed local people followed the tradition of placing stones at the spot in memorial of the young woman who died.
The original cairn was removed sometime around 1789, and the current collection of stones is a Victorian reconstruction built in the 1830s.
Tucked away behind the Apple store near the east end of Princes Street is a narrow lane with the sign Gabriel's Road. It sounds like a rather charming name for an atmospheric alleyway through the area, but in 1717 - when the area was still open land, before the construction of the New Town - the lane was the site of a brutal double murder.
Robert Irvine was a tutor to two young boys in the Old Town, who was left jealous and angry when the master of the house in which he worked dismissed the maid with whom Irvine was having a relationship. In revenge on the family, he planned a picnic for the boys, bringing them out of town to what would have been an idyllic rural spot, where he slit their throats and left them for dead...
The story had a remarkable ending when Irvine was arrested, having been observed carrying out his bloody project by a witness in Edinburgh Castle, who had watched the events take place through a telescope. Irvine was hanged for his crime, his hands also being removed before death with the knife he'd used to slaughter the two boys...
One murder without a happy ending is that of William Begbie, a banking courier who was collecting cash to transfer between branches of the British Linen Bank in 1806. Making his way back along Tweeddale Court in the Old Town with £4,000 in cash, he was attacked by an unknown assailant, his body being found by a local girl who was collecting water from the nearby well. The money was gone, and until 1820 the police didn't even have a suspect in the case until a resident of the street claimed to have identified the man he'd seen in the lane fourteen years previously...
The man, James Moffat, was arrested and pleaded his innocence - he hadn't even been in Edinburgh for years, he protested: he'd been serving overseas as a merchant seaman for a decade or more. He was nevertheless held pending trial, until one morning Moffat was discovered dead in his cell. Without a formal guilty verdict, the death of William Begbie remains one of Edinburgh's unsolved murders.
Leading off the Grassmarket is a lane named Hunter's Close. It was here that one of the biggest historical uprisings of Edinburgh's history came to a bloody end.
John Porteous had been a captain in the City Guard, a ramshackle group of men charged with keeping law and order, whose actions had led to the outbreak of a major riot in the Grassmarket in April 1736. When six people died during the rioting, Porteous was arrested and put on trial, and despite having been found guilty it was rumoured that he would face a commuted sentence because of his connections to the British parliamentary system.
Worried that a convicted murderer may go free, 'justice' prevailed and Porteous was executed by a mob of angry locals, in this lane behind the Grassmarket. He was buried in the nearby Greyfriars Kirkyard, where a simple stone marks his grave.
Queen Mary's Bedchamber
Maybe the most famous single murder in Edinburgh's gruesome history is the killing of David Rizzo, Mary, Queen of Scots' private secretary, in 1566. As Mary and Rizzio ate dinner together in her private quarters at Holyrood Palace, a mob of men burst into the room and stabbed Rizzio to death in front of the queen.
Some accounts suggest that Mary herself leapt to Rizzio's defence and attempted to shield him from the attack, but with more than fifty wounds his body was later thrown out of the palace window. A plaque above a grave in the nearby Canongate Kirkyard suggests (although it may be considered unlikely) that this was his final resting place.
But the rooms in which the murder took place are still accessible to visitors exploring the Palace of Holyroodhouse, and stories relate how, for a time, red ink would be liberally sprinkled on the floor at regular intervals to suggest that visitors could still observe the blood shed by Rizzio as he died...!
Perhaps some people's ongoing fascination with death and suffering - or 'torture tourism' - is not such a modern phenomenon after all!
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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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