As a city that has a great many artistic connections, from major figures like Eduardo Paolozzi to royal sculptors like John Steell and Alexander Stoddart, it's no surprise that Edinburgh boasts a great many public art works on the streets of the city.
Here are just a handful of works you may find during your visit to Edinburgh...
Work No. 1059
This work by the Turner Prize-winning artist Martin Creed is one piece of art you can literally walk all over...
In 2011 Creed renovated a spiral staircase in the Old Town which had previously been a dark, dank and rather unpleasant access link between North Bridge and Market Street beneath it.
The steps were a feature of the original building when it was first constructed in 1901. At that time the building housed the Scotsman newspaper, where Scotland's daily national was compiled and printed in house. The staircase included a number of hatches into the offices which allowed members of the public to pick up a copy of that day's paper literally hot off the press!
Creed's work replaced each of the old, worn sandstone steps with blocks of marble, each one different in colour and texture - 104 in all. So today pedestrians can climb the steps with a rainbow of shifting shades beneath their feet. Of all the city's staircases, the Scotsman Steps are one worth making the effort to climb!
The Next Big Thing is a Series of Little Things
This is one of my favourite pieces of art in the city, and like the Scotsman Steps, it's one you may not even notice.
On Bristo Square, at the heart of the university district, is the largest piece of public art in the Old Town, commissioned by the University of Edinburgh in 2017. Created by the artist Susan Collis, whose work often blends into its environment and plays perceptual tricks on the observer, the artwork is a series of over 1,600 bronze 'drips' set into the granite pavement, creating the effect of paint having been accidentally dribbled across the square.
Collis's idea was that most of the city's sculptures have become such a fixture of the landscape that passersby rarely even notice them any more. Her work, in contrast, begins as an integral feature of the street and will become more visible over time, as the bronze dots get rubbed shiny by the traffic of pedestrians walking over them.
I think it's fun and playful and worth keeping your eyes peeled for!
A Drama in Time
In a dark underpass at the base of Calton Hill, where the railway lines running out of Waverley Station cross over the top of the Calton Road, is a shining beacon of colour and light that is difficult to miss.
Installed in 2016, Graham Fagen's neon panels create a mini comic strip of images influenced by tales of migrant Scots, travelling from home to resettle their lives in far flung locations. The title is drawn from the writings of Patrick Geddes, a pioneer of social planning whose influence on Edinburgh is still apparent in many Old Town buildings and developments. He wrote: "a city is more than a place in space, it is a drama in time".
A self-explanatory title, perhaps, for an eight-tonne sculpture of a rather sultry looking fish, mounted on the shore at Cramond, a suburb on the coast to the north-west of Edinburgh's city centre.
The artist is Ronald Rae, who hand carves his works from granite, a challenging process which can often take over a year for a single piece of work.
Other Rae sculptures can be found in the city, notably the Lion of Scotland which can be found in St Andrew Square in the New Town.
The Regent Bridge
Another easy work to miss - and the photo here is ho help at all - as this is a light show which is (obviously) best seen at night! The underside of the Regent Bridge, built in the New Town in the early nineteenth century, has been illuminated by the artist Callum Innes. This was his first public art commission, installed in 2012.
The coloured light strips in the ground on either side of the arch throw light up the stone walls of the structure, creating an interesting interplay of light and shadow. It's not a work that will linger in the memory, perhaps, but it does bring a bit of interest to what is otherwise a busy pedestrian route into Waverley Station.
All the World's a Stage
Technically a public artwork, although you will have to have a ticket to an event at the King's Theatre in order to see it...!
The ceiling high above the auditorium in this popular venue was painted by the artist John Byrne in 2013 as part of a major renovation of the theatre, and takes its suitably theatrical title from the famous Shakespeare speech in As You Like It.
It took five weeks to paint the mural, which Byrne suggested at the time would be his last large-scale work.
Byrne has been a major figure in the Scottish arts scene for over forty years, known not only for his distinctive portraiture but his writing, with a fistful of successful plays, including The Slab Boys trilogy, TV drama Tutti Fruitti, and more recent adaptions of Chekhov's plays such as The Cherry Orchard and Uncle Varick. Byrne frequently designs the stage sets for productions of his plays, and often produces the publicity artwork too.
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Edinburgh's graveyards are always a popular feature on my tours, but I tend to steer clear of the ghosts and ghouls whose stories generally populate visits to such spaces. I previously wrote about my Grave Concerns featuring five Edinburgh graves, and then some curious features of Edinburgh graveyards in Grave Concerns II - and now here are five more graves that have stories to tell! (Grave Concerns IV explores one particular grave, the grave of the three Roberts, and part V focuses on graves with connections to women...)
David Octavius Hill
Hill was an early pioneer of photography, and in the 1840s along with Robert Adamson he created some of the earliest surviving photographic images in the world, many of them views of Edinburgh, from their studio on Calton Hill.
Some of these images feature in my walking tours, and they provide an invaluable insight into what Edinburgh was like in the middle of the nineteenth century, and show just how much (or how little) parts of it have changed.
Hill's second wife was Amelia Robertson Paton, herself an artist and sculptor who exhibited work at the Royal Academy, and who carved several of the decorative figures on the iconic Scott Monument in Princes Street Gardens.
When Hill died in 1870, Amelia Hill produced a bronze likeness of her husband's head to stand over his grave, as it still does today. Amelia was buried alongside her husband, under her sculpture of him, in the Dean Cemetery, to the north west of the city centre.
George Buchanan was one of Scotland's greatest thinkers and academics during the sixteenth century, at a crucial time in the nation's history.
Having been born in Stirlingshire in 1506, as a teenager Buchanan studied abroad at the University of Paris and he held professorial positions in a number of European universities before returning to Scotland in 1537.
King James V of Scotland employed Buchanan as a private tutor to his son James, and later would teach the king's daughter, Mary, Queen of Scots.
Buchanan was a Catholic but also supported the rise of Protestantism across Europe, and in 1567 he was appointed moderator of the General Assembly of the post-Reformation Church of Scotland. He became the personal tutor to Mary's son, soon to be James VI of Scotland, and is held responsible for the boy's devout adoption of the Protestant faith, as well as his fierce obsession with the supernatural and witchcraft.
Buchanan died in Edinburgh in 1582 and was buried in Greyfriars Kirkyard. The stone and decorative panel above his grave today is a later replacement of the original stone.
Not all of Edinburgh's burials are in the city graveyards - to the south of the city in the residential area of Bruntsfield is the grave of John Livingston, a seventeenth-century apothecary or chemist who died of the plague - known as the Black Death - in 1645.
It's likely that Livingston caught the disease from the patients he treated. Many of the city's plague victims were buried in communal graves beyond the city boundary, in the area today known as Morningside, in order to try to stop the spread of the disease through the city's population.
Shortly before his death Livingston had bought an expansive property set in an area of its own land between Bruntsfield and Morningside, a glorious rural setting between the city and the countryside where he planned to retire and live a life of comfort. Unfortunately he only lived at the property for nine years before contracting the plague, and was buried as per his wishes in the grounds of the property.
Over time that property was divided up and sold and turned into a popular residential district, and Livingston's grave remained a contentious feature of the local area even until fairly recently.
William Hey Hodgson
Never heard of William Hey Hodgson? That's okay, there's probably no reason why you should know his name! The story with this grave doesn't relate to the person buried so much as the circumstances of the death and burial.
Hodgson was a doctor from northern England, who was probably in Scotland on holiday or for work. What we do know is that - according to his grave in the New Calton Burial Ground - he was "unfortunately drowned in the Firth of Forth by the upsetting of a boat".
I was amused by this initially as I thought it seemed like an unnecessary level of detail - unless it was clarifying that he wasn't drowned as a result of being held under against his will! But on closer inspection I found another detail (which is the whole reason I point this stone out to visitors)...
The Firth of Forth is the body of water which boundaries Edinburgh to the north, the tidal estuary of the river Forth as it flows into the North Sea. But on Hodgson's grave, the text actually described him being "unfortunately drowned" in the Frith of Forth - the misspelling almost as unfortunate as the accident itself.
Poor William Hey Hodgson - not just unfortunately drowned, but spending the whole afterlife with a spelling mistake on his grave!
Lyon had arrived in Edinburgh from Prussia (now part of Germany) in the 1780s, and was a Jewish dentist and chiropodist who practiced from his rooms on the Canongate, on the Royal Mile.
In 1795 Lyon bought a plot of ground to use as his family's mausoleum - at that time the city had no Jewish burial ground, and Lyon's plot was the first recorded Jewish burial in the city. It cost him £17, which was a significant sum of money in the late eighteenth century.
It was also notable for being on the top of Calton Hill! The council were entertaining ideas of turning the hill into a necropolis, and Lyon was the first person to agree a bill of sale for a plot of land. Shortly thereafter the council's plans changed, and an observatory was built instead - but Lyon's ownership of his piece of land was legally binding, and on his death Lyon was buried in his subterranean mausoleum, along with his wife.
The entrance to the burial is hidden from view, overgrown with grass and kept (deliberately) concealed from public access, but it is on the northern edge of the summit of the hill, just beyond the wall of the observatory.
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In 2005, UNESCO named Edinburgh as the world's first City of Literature, thanks to the number and variety of bookish influences that can be found here. From familiar names like Robert Louis Stevenson and Walter Scott to contemporary figures like JK Rowling and Ian Rankin, Edinburgh's streets have influenced novels, plays, poems and works of non-fiction right through history.
So soaked in verbiage is Edinburgh that you can find many examples of poetry and literature inscribed literally in the stone of the city! Here are just a few examples of the words on the streets of Edinburgh...
A good place to start looking for street poetry is on Makar's Court.
In Scots a 'makar' is a poet (a bit like a 'bard' in ye olde English) and to celebrate a whole host of Scottish poets, one of the lanes of the Old Town has been given a distinctly poetic feel.
Lady Stair's Close is also home to the Writers' Museum, but if you cast your eyes downwards on your way to the museum you'll find all kinds of short quotes from a variety of Scottish writers in the paving stones at your feet.
Many of these quotes relate specifically to Scotland, or in the case of the quote above, to Edinburgh itself. A bit like this one:
This quote, from local author Alexander McCall Smith, is one of my favourite descriptions of Edinburgh, and you'll find it on the wall of one of the new buildings on Morrison Street, built to house the expanded Edinburgh International Conference Centre.
The golden coloured sandstone is typical of Edinburgh's stone, and the quote stretches a good distance along the street, hence the slightly strange waves in the picture - it's hard to get the whole thing in frame even with a panoramic feature!
This short poem is one I only discovered quite recently, despite walking miles through the city every year... It's in the pavement at the front of the new Scottish Parliament building at Holyrood, and it's a little hard to read because of the colour of the stone in which it's inscribed. It reads:
Look. What can you see?
I see beauty in the lochs
I see majesty in the mountains
I see legend in the rocks
And it is ours.
The poet is Robert Adam - not the celebrated architect who gave Edinburgh its classical style, but a 14-year old school boy who won a competition to have his poem featured in the parliament complex. I think it's rather lovely.
At another entrance into the parliament building - not one used by the public, alas - is another piece of text that has a poetic quality.
It's a passage from the Bible (1 Corinthians 13:1, if you want chapter and verse!) translated into Scots that was deemed to have a particular resonance for the new Scottish parliament when it was being established in the late 1990s.
The original text reads: "If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal."
There's also a rather interesting poem in the ground outside the University of Edinburgh's main library building on George Square... It is the world's only circular mesostic poem! (No, me neither...)
Have a look at it - start reading from the word 'our' and go clockwise:
A mesostic poem is a bit like an acrostic, where a text is constructed around the letters of a word or phrase that the poem also describes. This example is by the artist Alec Findlay and was commissioned by the University of Edinburgh in 2009, with the letters indicated with dots spelling the phrase 'thair to reman' ("there to remain"), which was taken from the will of the first benefactor of the library itself.
Not all the text that you'll find in the city is poetry or art. Some of it just helpful, like this panel in the Grassmarket which describes the geological activity and interaction between volcanic rock and movement of glaciers which created the city's landscape itself, known as a 'crag and tail' formation...
Most of the text you'll find in the city are Latin quotations and other mottos on lintels of doorways - 'Blest be God for all his giftis' [sic] occurs fairly frequently - and dates of construction. These indicators are always worth looking out for, as they give a real sense of the city's history, and are a direct connection to the people who built and shaped the city over the years.
And some of the text you'll find is pure graffiti, which can often be amusing and insightful, so long as it isn't actively damaging the fabric of the city or detracting from the historic features.
This example continues to make me smile every time I walk past it! (Shoes: model's own.)
Book one of my private Edinburgh walking tours to find more examples of poetry (and graffiti) in this historic city!
On 12 April 1700 one of the most expensive failures in Scottish history was finally brought to a close, as the surviving members of an expedition to settle a Scottish colony on the isthmus of Panama in South America left that continent to return to their native lands.
The Darien project, as it was known, had cost over £400,000 (equivalent to over 20% of Scotland's wealth at the time), led to the deaths over 2,000 people, and left the entire nation state politically humiliated in the eyes of England. It remains a major turning point in Scotland's troubled relationship with England, and the aftermath of the collapse of the Darien Company would cast shockwaves rippling through Scottish society for the next century.
So what was Darien, how did it go so terribly wrong, and what happened afterwards? I'm so glad you asked!
Seventeenth-century Scotland was a very different place from the modern imagery of a nation bursting with confidence and culture.
The so-called 'Glorious Revolution' which led to the crushing defeat of Scots forces at the Battle of Culloden, had broken much of the traditional clan structures of the Highlands.
As a broadly agricultural economy, Scotland's population had been hit badly with a spate of poor harvests, and the already limited export market with Europe had been badly affected by famines which had swept across the Nordic countries.
Relations with England were poor, and the English Civil War and Wars of the Three Kingdoms had weakened the people and military might of Scotland, leaving the whole country in a state of restless depression. A political union with England had been suggested, but forces within Scotland felt that bolstering the Scots' financial independence with stronger export links to overseas markets would serve the country better without compromising its integrity as a self-governing nation.
There were several major trade routes around the globe at that time, but there was one major issue that any international trading nation had yet to surmount: there was no overland link between the Pacific and the Atlantic Oceans, forcing ships to make a long detour around the bottom of South America.
So a plan was suggested by an enterprising Scotsman named William Paterson - who had previously helped to established the Bank of England - to seek to establish a colony on the north-east coast of Panama, and create a passage across the South American continent to provide a service route that could bring tremendous financial benefit to the people who facilitated it. (The construction of the Panama Canal in the twentieth century served essentially the same purpose.)
The Company of Scotland was established in 1695, and charged with raising funds from a variety of backers from across Europe to support the project. Over £400,000 was generated in just a few weeks, equivalent to a fifth of all the wealth in Scotland at the time, and men were enlisted to sail to Panama and be the first colonists to settle Scotland's presence overseas.
A flotilla of five ships flying the Company of Scotland flag sailed from the port of Leith in July 1698, with a total of around 1,200 people aboard. In order not to raise suspicion with English maritime authorities, instead of sailing south and into the Atlantic via the English Channel they instead sailed north, traversing the seas around the northern coasts of Scotland, and out into the North Atlantic above Ireland. They crossed the ocean and arrived in Panama at an area called Darien, landing on 2 November 1698.
Their problems began almost immediately. The settlement that they established - named New Edinburgh - was heavily fortified, with over 50 cannons that had been shipped from Edinburgh, but it had no regular supply of fresh drinking water. The land that they were clearing in order to be able to plant crops was unsuitable for cultivation, and the local communities - to whom the Scots believed they could sell good and trinkets, in order to establish relationships and raise some cash - didn't want what the settlers were selling.
Despite all this, and with an expectation that things would improve, a letter was dispatched back to Scotland trumpeting the early success of the venture, and two further ships with another 300 people were dispatched from Scotland bearing fresh supplies and new colonists with new enthusiasm.
But conditions in New Edinburgh had worsened. As winter turned to spring of 1699, malaria spread rapidly among the new colonists, killing as many as ten people a day by the summer. Food supplies were running short, tensions in the camp were high, and Dutch and English colonies to the north and south had been instructed by their governments not to help to the Scots for fear of upsetting the Spanish, who operated valuable silver mines in the area.
In July 1699, New Edinburgh was summarily abandoned by those who had survived this far. One ship of survivors returned to Scotland to carry news of the expeditions failure, while two more ships sailed north to the relatively small port town (at that time) of New York, on the east coast of America.
But back in Scotland, not yet having received news of the failure of the initial settlers, four more ships carrying another 1,000 settlers had already departed for New Edinburgh! They arrived to the broken and abandoned settlement in November 1699. Thomas Drummond, one of the original settlers who had sailed to New York, had returned to Darien with a fully loaded supply ship, but the new arrivals were devastated to not find a thriving, fully settled town, and were instead being asked to build one again from scratch.
Tensions with the local communities were worse than ever, with Spanish settlers turning against their Caledonian neighbours. A series of sieges and conflicts resulted in further deaths, disease spread unabated, and by the time the Scots finally abandoned their cause in April 1700 just a few hundred of the over 2,500 settlers who had set out on the expeditions were left alive.
In the aftermath of this failure, Scotland was bankrupted and many of the individuals who had invested heavily in the venture had their reputations broken and their business relationships destroyed.
Seeking financial support to overcome the failure of the Darien project, the Scottish government approached the English government to request a financial loan to bail them out. England's response was that a loan would be offered, but that it would be to everyone's advantage if it wasn't a transfer of money between two separately trading nations, but between two partners in a joint enterprise....
Finally, the political union that had seemed so unlikely and unwelcome just a few years before now sounded like the only way the Scots could survive the effects of their failure. The Scottish parliament debated and ratified the terms of the deal, and on 1 May 1707 the United Kingdom officially came into being. One of the terms of the Act of Union of 1707 was a financial payment of over £398,000 to Scotland to help ease its burden on the English economy.
And so the union between Scotland and England was finally agreed, with many lords and nobles - who were humiliated and facing financial ruin after their involvement in Darien - given gifts of land in England to sweeten their disposition to signing away Scots independence.
Today the Darien expedition is something of a shadow on Scottish history, a failure of enterprise and opportunity that led eventually to national downfall. Of course, for many the union with England was (and remains) a vital and valuable partnership, but it seems unfortunate that it wasn't as a result of celebration and shared vision, but came on the back of terrible national humiliation for Scotland. Which may explain why some still see the relationship between the two countries as an uneasy - and unequal - pairing.
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