On Edinburgh's Royal Mile, sited outside the High Court on Lawnmarket, sits a statue of an imposing figure reclining in a chair. He often has a bagpiper in his vicinity, and if you linger a moment as you pass him you may notice passers-by rubbing the statue's foot.
The man in the chair is David Hume, an eighteenth-century philosopher born in Edinburgh on 26 April* 1711.
Hume has entered the world rankings of influential figures, and is broadly considered to be one of history's most important philosophers writing in the English language. He was also a prolific writer of British history, and economic theory. His philosophical ideas and theories about human nature were a significant contribute to the period known as the Scottish Enlightenment, and still have influence today. He is justly celebrated here in Edinburgh, the city of his birth (and, in 1776, his death).
The people rubbing Hume's foot on the Royal Mile - specifically designed by the sculptor Alexander Stoddart with the big toe of his right foot dangling seductively over the edge of the plinth on which he sits - are enacting a superstitious ritual whereby the rubber of the toe is somehow magically endowed with either good luck or something of Hume's own wisdom and insight.
One of Hume's great contributions to philosophical enquiry describes the relationship between cause and effect, and considers (in essence) that we can never explicitly connect two events in any sense of 'doing this caused that to happen'. As such, those rubbing Hume's toe for luck are directly contravening one of his fundamental assertions about the world...
During his life Hume lived in various places in the city, including at Riddle's Court just off the Royal Mile.
But most famously he had a house just off St Andrew Square in the east end of the New Town. His devout atheism (broadly denied or ambivalently asserted during his lifetime) led the street on which he lived being informally dubbed 'St David Street', and happily it remains so today!
Until recently one of the University of Edinburgh's campus buildings in the Old Town was named the David Hume Tower. The building was stripped of Hume's name in 2020, on account of some of his comments on issues of race which, as noted by the university itself, "though not uncommon at the time, rightly cause distress today".
When Hume died in 1776, he was buried in a plot on the Old Calton burial ground on the slopes of Calton Hill. His tomb there was designed by Edinburgh's great classical architect Robert Adam - a friend of Hume's during his life - and is styled as a large circular mausoleum, but visitors will note there is no grand inscription or statement of his prolific and influential life's work.
It is reputed that Hume expressly wished for his tomb to bear just his name, his date of birth, and his date of death. History and posterity, he modestly asserted, would do the rest.
Find out more about Hume and other figures from the Scottish Enlightenment on my private walking tours of the city!
*In 1711 Scotland was still transitioning between the old Julian calendar and the newer Gregorian calendar. As such, there is a discrepancy of 11 days in some dates from this period. In the Old Style date format, Hume's date of birth was 26 April. On the New Style dating it is dated 7 May. #simples
Witchcraft on the West Bow
On 14 April, 1670, one of Edinburgh's most infamous figures met his death following a short but sensational trial for witchcraft.
Thomas Weir had retired to live with his sister in a house on the top part of West Bow, for centuries one of the main routes to the top of the Royal Mile. He'd been born at the end of the previous century in Lanarkshire, and as a septuagenarian gained a reputation for his devotion to the Protestant cause, giving impromptu anti-Catholic sermons to public gatherings when he left the house, which he shared with his older sister, Jean.
Neither of the pair was married, and the community also considered them to be a strange couple. Jean, in particular, was often referred to by the nickname 'Grizel', and his devotion to the Protestant church led to Thomas being known as 'Angelic Thomas'.
Thomas also held the prestigious position of captain of the city guard, a body of men (largely ex-soldiers) who were charged with enforcing a rough sense of law and order in the city.
One day in 1670, Thomas Weir had accumulated a small crowd waiting for one of his denouncements of the Catholic faith, when instead they were treated to Thomas's confession of a lifetime of heinous crimes. Of particular note was his sworn friendship with the devil, whom he would meet in Dalkeith (on the outskirts of Edinburgh) or bring to his house, where he and Jean would entertain him with food and dancing.
Other salacious confessions followed, including admissions of bestiality, and confirmation of the local rumours that he and Jean were engaged in an unnatural relationship with each other.
Thomas was promptly arrested, shortly followed by his sister Jean, when he corroborated his claims. The pair were put on trial for witchcraft, and were (of course) found guilty, and sentenced to death. Jean was hanged in the Grassmarket, where she determined to go to her death with the least dignity possible by stripping naked as she climbed the steps to the gallows.
The night before his execution. Thomas was offered a final opportunity to make his peace with God. He declined, claiming:
"I have lived as a beast and must die as a beast!"
... on which basis, on 14 April, they burned him alive, and buried him in a shallow grave with Jean.
It was said that no one would then live in the Weirs' old house for the following two centuries, spooked by the usual array of supernatural effects (strange lights, noises, doors opening and closing) as well as the creatively described effect of going upstairs but feeling as though you were going downstairs...
It was thought the house was lost when the area around the the Lawnmarket and West Bow was being redeveloped in the 1830s. Recent archaeological surveys have discovered that the house survives largely intact, inside the shell of the surrounding facade which was built in the 1880s.
The surrounding streets have been reconfigured slightly from Weir's time, and the street today bears little resemblance to the image above.
For those who believe such things, the building is considered one of the most haunted buildings in Edinburgh. For those who don't believe such things, the building today is the Quaker Meeting House.
Explore the West Bow in more detail with my private walking tours!
Here be Unicorns...
In some parts of the world (chiefly North America, it seems) April 9 is celebrated as National Unicorn Day. What you may not know is that the unicorn is the national animal of Scotland, often featuring in a variety of heraldic designs and logos across the country.
The choice of animal might seem a little unusual - it is a mythical creature, after all, unlike the Highland coo, which is justly celebrated as an iconic beast, and a popular subject for Sottish-themed imagery. We could even have chosen the Loch Ness Monster (another mythical animal with rather more direct association with Scotland) but instead we elected to have the unicorn represent our nation on the zoological stage.
The unicorn was originally, chosen, it seems, for the values and characteristics embodied by this animal. Famously needing to run free and not be constrained by any man-made force (some myths have the unicorns dying out in the Old Testament flood, rather than board Noah's ark) there is certainly a spirit of independence captured in the unicorn's behaviour.
They were also considered proud, noble creatures, embodying the spirit of the Scottish nobility, and used in family crests with royal permission to recognise family service to king and country - the royal emblem of the lion and the unicorn ('fighting for the crown...') is a well reognised device featuring the national animals of both Scotland England.
But originally that royal emblem was a purely Scottish one, and featured TWO unicorns either side of a crown! Some versions of this original emblem still exist, and can be spotted around Edinburgh.
In 1603, when James VI of Scotland took the throne of England (becoming James I of England) the unicorn joined the lion (representing England) on the British royal insignia. Two versions of the crest exist, one in which the lion is crowned and the unicorns stands on the right hand side of the crest, and a Scottish version in which the unicorn and lion are transposed, with the lion now on the left hand side. In this Scottish version, both lion and unicorn are adorned with crowns.
You can also find unicorns in emblems and carvings all across the city. On the columns at entrances to the Meadows parkland, a leftover from the International Exhibition which was held at the Meadows in 1886, guarding the entrance to an Irish pub on Forrest Road, painted on doorways, and inside Edinburgh Castle...
Traditionally, when featuring in a heraldic form, the unicorn is shown wearing a golden chain, securing it to the ground. This is a nod to the mythical beliefs that unicorns were magical and therefore unpredictable, and therefore dangerous. Some would suggest that in modern times, the chaining of the unicorn embodies the relationship between Scotland and England, with the unicorn unable to roam freely and independently.
Unicorn figures can be found all across Scotland - the emblem of Stirling Castle, for example, is a unicorn design - as well as around Edinburgh.
Book a private Edinburgh tour for a unicorn hunt - how many unicorns will you find around the city?!
Seven centuries ago, oOn 6 April 1320, Scotland issued a formal declaration of independence from England, in a document signed in the town of Arbroath.
Known as the Declaration of Arbroath, it contains the famous lines:
"... as long as but a hundred of us remain alive, never will we on any conditions be brought under English rule. It is in truth not for glory, nor riches, nor honours that we are fighting, but for freedom – for that alone, which no honest man gives up but with life itself."
Stirring stuff indeed, with a distinct whiff of Braveheart about it!
(Unfortunately for the Scots who crafted the document, Scotland would indeed be brought under English rule four hundred years later, and the country remains largely governed by London to this day.)
But it has been thought that the Declaration of Arbroath in turn inspired and informed the writing of the American Declaration of Independence, in 1776, when the former colonies of Britain fought to operate independently of British governance.
As such, on 6 April each year, America celebrates Tartan Day, when this iconic patterned material (often referred to as 'plaid' in America) gets celebrated as an emblem of Scottish identity.
The history of tartan in Scotland itself is complex and rich. Originally a tartan cloth need not have had any particular colour or pattern - whereas today 'tartan' often refers to the pattern of colours specifically, rather than the material itself. The pattern of crossing coloured lines and stripes is known as a 'sett'.
In Scottish culture, the distinct colours and patterns of tartan cloths were once said to be used to distinguish between particular clans, or families, of the Highlands and islands. In fact the idea of 'clan tartan' was invented by Sir Walter Scott at the start of the 19th century when Scotland began to fashion its cultural and historical identity for the benefit of visitors.
So powerfully did the tartan enshrine notions of Scottish identity that in 1746 the wearing of tartan 'or any Highland dress' was banned under British law, with men found guilty of wearing the material punishable by up to six months in prison for the offence.
Today visitors to Scotland delight in finding (or, in same cases, creating) the particular tartan of their family name, which need not have any historical or genealogical basis in Scotland. Many large companies and organisations also have their own tartan design, for corporate identity.
Tartan has another historic role, being the subject of the world's first colour photograph, created by scientist James Clerk Maxwell in 1861.
Edinburgh itself has only one functioning tartan weaving mill today, at the top of the Royal Mile, near Edinburgh Castle. There are plenty of shops, however, who will sell you tartan-patterned products of varying degrees of authenticity and quality...
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