It's the penultimate instalment of my alphabetical exploration of Edinburgh - featuring S, T and U!
A - C, D - F, G - I, J - L, M - O, P - R, S - U, V - Z
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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First published in 1886, Robert Louis Stevenson's 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... He was buried in an unmarked grave at the church which stands on Guse Dub in the Old Town.
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. Ian Rankin has acknowledged the influence of Stevenson in the formulation of his early Inspector Rebus novels, and 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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