Plenty of folkloric rituals surround the turning of the year and traditional May Day celebrations - often associated with pagan rites, the May Day itself probably started with the Romans as a way of marking the start of the summer season.
In Edinburgh, the most popular way of marking the turning of the season survives in the tradition of the Beltane fire festival, held on the slopes and summit of Calton Hill at the east of the New Town. This annual parade of dancers and acrobats wielding flaming torches is a modern interpretation of ancient Celtic festivities, but it is far from being the only such way of marking the May Day itself.
Arthur's Seat, in Holyrood Park, has been a focus for some other traditions which blend pagan mythology with Christian sites of worship. The peak of the hill is considered by some to be a focal point for mysterious ley lines channelling energy, and one famous tradition has taken place in the area for centuries.
It is said that a visit to St Anthony's Well in Holyrood Park at dawn on the morning of May Day, to wash in its water or the dew from the grass around it (and, some suggest, returning another eight times to repeat the cleansing ritual during the month of May) has healing or health-giving properties.
The poet Robert Fergusson described the ritual in his 18th-century poem Caller Water:
On May-day in a fairy ring,
We’ve seen them round St. Anthon’s spring,
Frae grass the caller dew draps wring,
To weet their ein,
And water clear as chrystal spring,
To synd them clean.
St. Anthony's well was one of seven Holy Wells that used to be found in Holyrood Park, but it no longer has running water. It is still observable on the path up to the summit of Arthur's Seat - look for the boulder with the ancient collecting bowl sitting at the front of it, from which its water used to be drawn - beneath the ruins of St Anthony's Chapel, a structure dating back at least as far as the 13th-century, but with no clear evidence for its date or purpose of construction.
The well itself has a long history of being a site of pilgrimage for those seeking miracles, and in the 19th-century it was said the slopes leading to St Anthony's Well would be well populated by locals trekking to secure the benefit of its powers first thing in the morning of 1 May, but would be nearly deserted later in the morning.
Today the reverse is more likely to be true, with Arthur's Seat proving a popular spot for visitors throughout the year, with a steady stream of walkers ascending throughout the day - if you're heading up this morning, keep an eye out for the historic well on your way (or down)!
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Probably the most famous of Edinburgh's old graveyards, Greyfriars Kirkyard boasts views across the Old Town to Edinburgh Castle, as well as one of the most popular graves for visitors to seek out.
The graveyard is home to one of the city's best known residents, a dog called Greyfriars Bobby, whose legend which was immortalised in the 1960s when Disney made a film of Bobby's story. The popular tale tells how Bobby spent 14 years sleeping every night on the grave of his master, night watchman John Gray, earning him the reputation as man's most faithful friend. The reality of the situation is less romantic, but arguably more interesting! Join me for a tour to hear the alternative/real history of Greyfriars Bobby...
The graveyard also draws pilgrims seeking out inspirations for the Harry Potter stories, and within the graveyard you will find the grave of Professor McGonagall's namesake, Scotland's 'worst poet' William McGonagall, as well as the grave of 'Tom Riddle'... You'll also enjoy views to George Heriot's School, a building which is believed to have partially inspired the Hogwart's Academy from the Potter universe.
Other features of the area include the Covenanter's Prison, where scores of men, woman and children were held during the 'Killing Time' of the late seventeenth century, when religious martyrs protested against the new king Charles I, many of whom lost their lives along with many more who suffered for their beliefs. The tomb of George Mackenzie - known as 'Bluidy Mackenzie' for his persecution of these Covenanters - is reputed to be haunted by a lively poltergeist, and is accessible to the brave on some of the city's ghost tours...
The existing Greyfriars Kirk dates back to 1602, and burials have taken place here since shortly before that time, with some of those resting here including James Craig, the famed designer of Edinburgh's New Town (who died a pauper), James Hutton, the 'father of modern geology', and John Porteous, who gave his name to the riots in 1736 which led to an overhaul of the system of public executions in the city.
You may also find the curious 'mort safes', devices designed to prevent body snatching from recent burials during the late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-centuries...
Take a tour with me to explore the city's graveyards (and more!) in greater detail...
Some of Edinburgh's most popular and peaceful areas are its historic graveyards, of which there are five in the city centre. They all have public access and offer some wonderful insights into the city's history, the people who have lived here and shaped Edinburgh as we see it today, as well as delivering some the best views and perspectives on the city itself.
On the side of Calton Hill, above Waverley Station, is the Old Calton Burial Ground. Originally relatively inaccessible from the Old Town, the route up to this gaveyard followed a set of steps which still exist today, leading from Calton Road right up the side of Calton Hill to Regent Road. The steps, called Jacob's Ladder, still offer some of the best angles from which to see St Andrew House, the site of the old Calton Jail, but no longer lead directly to the graveyard itself.
In the nineteenth century, the main thoroughfare of Waterloo Place was planned to connect the grand houses of Regent Terrace to Princes Street, and was run straight through the site of the old burial ground, requiring the transposition of several hundred bodies to the New Calton Burial Ground, a little further along the hillside.
One of the highlights of the Old Calton Burial Ground is Robert Adam's mausoleum of philosopher David Hume, bearing just his name, date of birth, and date of death. A modest tomb to a great figure of the Scottish Enlightenment.
The most prominent structure in the graveyard is the Martyrs' Monument, a needle-like structure built to commemorate five men who dreamed of a democratic political system at the end of the eighteenth century. Fearing that what had happened in France, with the overthrow of the monarchy and the government, sometime earlier, the men were arrested and put on trial for sedition, and punished with transportation and 14 years labour in a penal colony in Australia. Only one of them survived long enough to return to his homeland after his sentence, and in the 1840s the monument was erected in their honour.
Most intriguing of all is the statue of former American president, Abraham Lincoln, in the graveyard. He stands atop a memorial to the Scottish soldiers who fought alongside him in the American Civil War, and it remains the only Civil War memorial outside of North America. The statue of Lincoln was the first statue of an American president to be built outside the US when it was erected in 1893.
Other burials in the graveyard include Sir John Steell, who produced several of the iconic statues in the city, and Robert Burn, who designed the nearby Nelson Monument on top of Calton Hill.
Explore the city's graveyards in more detail with my private Edinburgh walking tours!
It has long been known as 'Auld Reekie' - or 'Old Smokey' - the city of Edinburgh cloaked in the smoke from the wood and coal fires which provided heat and power to the households in the Old and New Towns. And in addition to my existing tour and tasting packages, the city can now once again be viewed as residents would have experienced it back in medieval times, with my new tours of the city exclusively for smokers!
Join me for a casual amble through the city, stopping regularly for a cigarette break or the opportunity to refill your pipe, and see the city through a haze of black smoke, the way it was built to be seen. And just as my whisky and beer tour and tasting packages finish with a tutored tasting experience at Jeffrey St. Whisky & Tobacco, so these smokers' routes will end with a few minutes exclusive use of the shop's inbuilt humidor.
Routes will minimise the amount of physical effort required, ensuring that visitors don't get too tired by the challenge of climbing stairs or walking up the long hills of the New Town, and each walk will be tailored to come past as many corner shops and off licences as possible, in case you need to stock up on filters, rolling tobacco or accessories like lighters and matches on the way.
As we walk, gain an insight into the impact of smoke on the city over the centuries, and understand how the city centre was (dis)coloured by the presence of coal fires, industrial premises, and high levels of consumption of cigarettes, pipes and cigars during the medieval times, and well into the more recent industrial ages too.
These tours will be offered for a limited time only, so get in touch to confirm pricing and availability, or with any questions you may have.
Smokers' Tours of Auld Reekie - showing you the the city as it should be seen, through a haze of black smoke!
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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