EDINBURGH EXPERT WALKING TOURS - BLOG
Visitors to Edinburgh often see little of the city beyond the overcrowded tourist hotspots of the Royal Mile and the Old Town - frequently not even venturing as far as the historic New Town!
I'm always keen to encourage a wider exploration of Edinburgh's features, hence this occasional series highlighting areas further from the city centre that are worth exploring - previously I've written about Bruntsfield and Stockbridge.
Duddingston village is less a suburb of the city and more a historic outpost of Edinburgh, nestled at the base of the eastern side of Holyrood Park, behind Arthur's Seat. Sheep were grazed on the slopes of the park until the 1970s, and traditionally would have been slaughtered at Duddingston before being taken for sale in Edinburgh itself.
The area's chief 'claim to fame' is as the home of Scotland's oldest pub, the Sheep Heid, where a tavern or inn has been sited since 1360. The village of Duddingston was on the historic route between the Palace of Holyroodhouse and Craigmillar Castle, and it marked a convenient stopping point for travellers between the two. It is reputed that Mary, Queen of Scots may have played skittles (a form of ten pin bowling) in the Sheep Heid's courtyard.
Bonnie Prince Charlie - the Young Pretender - lodged his forces at Duddingston in advance of the Battle of Prestonpans in 1745, a key moment in the Jacobite Uprisings of the 18th century.
At the centre of the village is Duddingston Kirk, a church with its origins traced back as far as 1124. This picturesque church is entered through a gateway at which visitors can still see the guard house built to dissuade bodysnatchers from digging up graves in the early nineteenth-century, along with a mounting block for horse riders to use to mount their steeds, and a set of 'jougs', a steel collar attached to a chain cemented into the wall of the graveyard, where those accused of petty offences would be subjected to a period of public humiliation for their crimes.
Famous residents of Duddingston include John Thomson, a former reverend of the church, who gave rise to a popular folk saying in Scotland - 'We're a' Jock Tamson's Bairns' - we're all equal in the eyes of God.
Jean Carfrae Pinkerton, wife of Allan Pinkerton who founded the Pinkerton's National Detective Agency in America in the 1850s (now part of Securitas), was born in Duddingston. Pinkerton played a major role in foiling the attempted assassination of Abraham Lincoln in 1861.
The nearby Duddingston Loch was the setting for Henry Raeburn's iconic portrait of the Reverend Robert Walker, Skating on Duddingston Loch - better known as the Skating Minister - which can be seen in the National Gallery of Scotland.
The village is worth a visit to escape the city centre briefly, with access to Holyrood Park and the main cycle path along the the nearby Innocent Railway line.
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Here's the final instalment of my alphabetical exploration of Edinburgh, featuring the letters V, W, and Y, with a couple of cheaty entries for X and Z! Links to the previous posts can be found at the bottom of the article.
THE LETTER V
V is for the Vennel, a narrow lane running off the Grassmarket. The Scots word 'vennel' described any such lane, similar to the 'ginnel' of northern England, but whereas Edinburgh has many of the 'closes' and 'wynds' that were the local names for the alleys, the city today has just one vennel.
From the Grassmarket, the steep steps leading up the Vennel doubtless put off many from exploring it, but climbing the steps is rewarded with an unparalleled view across to Edinburgh Castle. (If the steps look familiar, it may be from the film version of Muriel Spark's Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, in which the lane featured in 1969...)
At the top of the steps, you can also see not one but two of the defensive walls which enclosed the southern side of Edinburgh, the Flodden Wall (built after 1513) and the Telfer Wall (c.1620s). The junction of these two walls offers a chance to contrast the building style and materials of each wall, and give a sense of how imposing the walls would have been to visitors approaching from the south.
THE LETTER W
W is for White Horse Close, one of the picturesque lanes off the Royal Mile near Holyrood. The building at the head of the lane was formerly the White Horse Inn, which was the coaching inn where visitors would have arrived into Edinburgh during the seventeenth century.
Stage coaches ran regularly along the Great North Road, connecting London and Edinburgh, roughly along the line of the A1 and M1 motorway today. In the early days of the service, it could take anywhere from ten to fourteen days to travel between the two cities, and on arrival in Edinburgh visitors would have been accommodated in this lane at the foot of the Royal Mile.
Although the lane is an attractive example of Edinburgh's old lanes, it's not entirely authentic, as the building of the White Horse Inn itself was rebuilt from scratch in the 1960s, preserving the external appearance of the original building, but refitting its interior for a more modern function...
THE LETTER X
X is the shape formed by the St Andrew's Cross, which forms the primary figure on the flag of Scotland, known as the Saltire. You'll find the Saltire in various forms and on numerous flags around the city, taken from the particular crucifix on which St Andrew (Scotland's patron saint) was martyred.
THE LETTER Y
Y is for James Young Simpson, one of the city's most important sons - although the middle name 'Young' was acquired at university, which he attended at the age of just 14. He was later appointed president of the Royal Medical Society of Edinburgh at the age of just 24.
Simpson is best known as a pioneer of anaesthetics, which he specifically developed as an aid to childbirth. He lived at 52 Queen Street in the New Town, and is rumoured to have discovered the properties of chloroform after a dinner party, at which he invited his guests to inhale from various liquids he'd brought from his laboratory at the medical school.
Queen Victoria was one of the first women for whom chloroform made the process of childbirth less painful (and less dangerous), in 1853, and was so pleased by its effects that she made Simpson her private physician in Scotland. He became the first man to be knighted for services to medicine, and was offered a prestigious burial within Westminster Abbey in London, but elected to be buried closer to home at Warriston Cemetery in Edinburgh, when 100,000 people lined the route of his funeral procession to pay tribute to him.
THE LETTER Z
Z is for the shape of the original route into Edinburgh from the west. Stretching from the Grassmarket to the Lawnmarket was the West Bow, a snaking, almost switch-back incline that saved visitors an almost two-mile detour to the bottom of the Royal Mile itself.
In the 1830s, as Edinburgh was experiencing efforts to improve its accessibility, Johnston Terrace and George IV Bridge were constructed to save travellers the treacherous climb of West Bow, and the road was extended and partly renamed Victoria Street.
The lane today claims some of the dreaded Harry Potter connections, being a (speculative) inspiration for Diagon Alley - although at least two other streets in the city claim the same influence!
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Canongate is one of the sections of Edinburgh's historic Royal Mile, and is bursting with features of interest that are sometimes overlooked by visitors more focused on the major attractions at either end of the Royal Mile itself. But the Canongate area is well worth taking some time to explore - here are my top five features worth finding time to check out during your visit...
One of the five old graveyards in the city of Edinburgh, the Canongate Kirkyard has a number of burials of interest, as well as offering stunning views up to Calton Hill.
The most significant figure interred in the grounds of the church is Adam Smith, popularly known as the father of modern economics, who lived in the nearby Panmure House after writing the book for which he is best known, The Wealth of Nations. This treatise on international trade laid the foundations for the modern global economy, and visitors to his grave often leave small coins of overseas currencies as a fitting tribute to his influence.
Two FREE Museums
On either side of the road near the Canongate Kirkyard are two small council-run museums which offer fascinating insights into Edinburgh's history and culture.
The Museum of Edinburgh occupies buildings dating back to the 1560s, and features a range of exhibits including Greyfriars Bobby's dog collar and bowl, and some of the original wooden water pipes which brought fresh water into the city in the 17th century.
The People's Story is in the old Canongate tolbooth, the former town hall of this settlement, and relates the history of the city through testimony from the people who have lived here over the centuries.
The best preserved of Edinburgh's old lanes and alleys, Bakehouse Close was an old industrial lane which exported bread and cakes into the city of Edinburgh, and was recently used as a filming site for the third season of Outlander, including the location for Jamie's print shop in the series.
Acheson House on the eastern side of the close dates back to 1633 and today houses Edinburgh World Heritage, the body which works with UNESCO to preserve and protect the city' historic features. Look out for the emblem of the Acheson family, carved into the stone above the original main doorway, which also gave a later brothel which occupied the buildings its quirky nickname, the Cock and Trumpet...
Dunbar's Close Garden
Tucked away down a lane just past the Canongate Kirk (as you head down the Royal Mile) is one of Edinburgh's finest hidden gems. The garden here is laid out in the style of the 17th century gardens which would have been found behind the grander houses of Canongate at the height of its popularity.
Dunbar's Close Garden was transformed in the 1970s with funding from a charity called the Mushroom Trust, and today offers a welcome oasis of calm and tranquility just a short step from the chaos of the Royal Mile itself.
Cranachan & Crowdie
One of the finest shops in the whole of Edinburgh, and regularly featuring in 'best of' lists of the city, Cranachan & Crowdie is unique in that all their products are crafted in Scotland. They have a wide range of food and gifts, many from local and artisan producers, and featuring products you won't find in the brashier, more touristy souvenir shops.
From cheese and meat to tea towels and books, they also have a fine range of Scottish gins and a resident shortbread quality control expert in the form of Caley the Australian labradoodle! You can book a short food samples tasting session at Cranachan & Crowdie on my private Edinburgh walking tours.
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The suburb of Cramond on the north west edge of Edinburgh is an area rich in history. I wrote recently about the Roman settlement at Cramond, and here's another story with some royal connections.
James V of Scotland, father of Mary, Queen of Scots, had his palace at Linlithgow and would travel through the Cramond area regularly to get from Linlithgow into Edinburgh.
Crossing the River Almond at Cramond is the old Cramond Brig, a bridge that provided access for traffic across the steep valley, and in 1532 James V was travelling through the area without his entourage when he was attacked by five robbers as he crossed the bridge.
A local man named Jock Howieson saw the fight and ran to help the stranger who was outnumbered by his assailants. Having successfully seen off the robbers, Jock Howieson escorted the man - who he didn't know to be the king - back to his home, where he provided a basin of water and a towel for him to clean his face and recover himself.
The king introduced himself to Howieson as a courtier in the palace at Holyrood, serving James V of Scotland. He told Howieson that he'd like to reward him for his help and kindness, and invited him to visit Holyrood where he would show him around the palace.
Howieson was pleased to accept the man's invitation, and was told that he should make his way to Holyrood the following weekend, and at the palace gates to ask for him by name, the 'Goodman of Ballengeich'.
The following week Jock Howieson travelled to Edinburgh, and presented himself at the palace gates, asking to be met by the Goodman of Ballengeich.
Presently the man emerged from the palace and greeted Howieson warmly. They began to tour the palace, and Howieson was asked if he would like to meet the king himself. He accepted the invitation, and at the doorway into the grand gallery where the king was assembled with his court Howieson was told, "You'll know the king immediately you enter the room, as he will be the only person wearing a hat".
As they entered the room, filled with people, Howieson looked around in vain for the king, but all he saw were courtiers removing their hats - turning to his guide he saw that the Goodman was still wearing his cap. Howieson reflected, "You said the king would be the only man wearing his hat, and as you and I are the only two people wearing caps - and as I know that I am not the king - then you must be him".
Howieson removed his cap and knelt at King James's feet. The king asked Jock if there was anything he wanted, in recognition and thanks for saving his life at Cramond Brig, and Howieson replied that all he desired was to own the farm on which he worked as a labourer.
The king duly rewarded Howieson with a gift of the lands and occupation of Braehead Farm, on condition that Howieson and his family always be ready with a basin of water and a cloth for the king to refresh himself anytime he passed through Cramond.
Braehead remains in the ownership of the Howieson family, and in 1822, when George IV visited Scotland on his royal tour, descendants of the Howieson family attended the king with a basin of water, as James V had requested three hundred years previously.
It's a pleasing story - and the bridge at Cramond is still worth visiting if you are walking through the area - but alas the details have no historical basis and are probably simply a creation from the imagination of Walter Scott, who wrote a version of the tale in his book, Tales of a Grandfather.
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It's the penultimate instalment of my alphabetical exploration of Edinburgh - previous posts linked at the bottom of the page!
THE LETTER S
S is for South Bridge, one of the main thoroughfares through the heart of the Old Town. Built as an elevated roadway across the Cowgate valley in the 1780s, the road is supported on a network of nineteen arches, of which only one (crossing the Cowgate itself) it externally visible today.
The road was designed as Edinburgh's first purpose-built shopping street, but the vaults on the bridge beneath street level, behind the buildings erected on either side of the roadway, also became a vital part of the city's infrastructure during the early nineteenth century, when the growing population and desperate need for housing led people to move into the subterranean spaces. The author Robert Louis Stevenson wrote: "To look over the South Bridge and see the Cowgate below ... is to view one rank of society from another in the twinkling of an eye".
The vaults of South Bridge were later evacuated of their occupants and many arches filled with rubble to prevent people moving back in. A number of arches were excavated in the 1980s, and today many of the ghost tour companies lead tours into the 'underground' spaces, to thrill visitors with tales of dread and suffering.
THE LETTER T
T is for Tweeddale Court, one of the lanes off the Royal Mile with a number of historic features. The narrow lane is lined on its western side with a high stone wall that is a remaining section of the King's Wall, the first of the three defensive structures which protected the southern side of Edinburgh from invasion during the reign of James II. The wall was built in the 1450s, and gives an indication of the city's compact scale - the line of Tweeddale Court would originally have been outside of the city, running up to the gateway on the Royal Mile near what is today the World's End.
It was also on Tweeddale Court that a banking courier named Thomas Begbie was murdered in 1806, whilst transferring money from a branch of the British Linen Bank - the building today houses offices of the List magazine, as well as the publisher Canongate Books. Begbie's murder remains one of the city's unsolved crimes.
The small stone shed built against the King's Wall is the last remaining sedan chair storage shed in the city, from a time before motorised vehicles, and when horses and carts would have been unable to navigate the steep and narrow lanes of the Old Town. Sedan chairs were carried between two men, providing a comfortable, enclosed seat for people of high status to relax in whilst being transported through the city.
The lane was also used as a film set during the third season of Outlander, which was filmed along here in 2017.
THE LETTER U
U is for unicorns, the national animal of Scotland - of which there are many around Edinburgh. Not real ones (obviously) but in decorative carvings, emblems and on statues around the city. See the cheeky unicorn sticking his tongue out at the English lion on the gates into the Queen's Gallery at Holyrood, or the decorative panel from the reign of James V with the unicorn in all its glory.
The top of the Mercat Cross has a unicorn, chained to the ground (as all unicorns generally are) to keep them under control.
You'll also find unicorns atop the pillars at the entrances into the Meadows, dating from the International Exhibition in the 1880s.
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Next week the King's Theatre in Edinburgh hosts a new touring production of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, based on Robert Louis Stevenson's classic novella of man's divided personality.
First published in 1886, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (to give it its full title) fast became a popular staple of Gothic melodrama, and has since been adapted countless times into film, stage, comic book and TV versions, and has influenced many more.
Stevenson's story concerns the visionary scientist Dr Henry Jekyll, who discovers a potion that allows him to change into an alternative personality, the evil Mr Edward Hyde. It is believed the first draft of the book was written in the space of just a few days, after Stevenson dreamed the whole basis for the plot during a terrible (and possibly drug-induced) nightmare he experienced whilst living in Bournemouth, on the south coast of England.
The story is set in the dark and atmospheric streets of Victorian London, but it was Edinburgh who helped inspire Stevenson's writing, with one figure from the city's history who is alleged to have been the basis for the whole split personality concept.
Edinburgh's Deacon William Brodie was a member of the church, member of the city council, and a successful businessman, with his own cabinet making and locksmith business in the Old Town. However, he harboured a secret life wherein he masterminded robberies of wealthy families in the city, using his privileged position as a locksmith to gain their trust (as well as access to their homes).
After a bungled robbery on the city's customs house on Chessel's Court, Brodie fled Edinburgh to escape capture, only to be arrested in Amsterdam and brought back to Edinburgh to face trial.
He was found guilty in a sensational trial in the city, and sentenced to be hanged for his crimes. Legend has it that Brodie himself had helped to design the mechanism for a new gallows, featuring a trap door mechanism to ensure a faster, less painful death for those being hanged. It is considered a rare feat of poetic justice that Brodie was hanged on an gallows of his own construction...
Stevenson had certainly heard the story of William Brodie - he owned a writing desk and a cabinet made by the man himself - and must have utilised the notion of one man embodying two very different characters in his creation of Jekyll and Hyde. It is often said that Edinburgh itself inspired something of that split nature, being one city with two very different sides - a medieval, dark, dangerous Old Town, and a clean, bright, comfortable New Town. This 'split personality' of Edinburgh's city centre is still in evidence today.
'Jekyll and Hyde' became a classic shorthand for describing the duality of man's nature, the competing elements of good and evil within our psychologies, and the split personality trope is still a common feature in many horror stories. Even the name Brodie lives on - those who have watched the early series of TV drama Homeland may recognise that the central character's name is Marine Sergeant Nicholas Brody (spelled differently, but with the same split nature to his character).
We have Robert Louis Stevenson - and, by extension, Edinburgh - to thank for all that!
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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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