EDINBURGH EXPERT WALKING TOURS - BLOG
Most visitors to Edinburgh have heard something about the 'underground city' in the Old Town. The two areas often described this way are Mary King's Close, an old lane off the Royal Mile, now a subterranean visitor attraction, and the vaults of the arches of South Bridge, where it crosses the Cowgate.
But there's rather more going on beneath the city's streets than just these two specific sites of interest. Over the years, the city has grow up in levels, with newer parts of the city laid upon pre-existing features.
When the former Gilded Balloon site on Cowgate was being redeveloped ahead of the development of the new hotel building adjacent to South Bridge, old street layouts and the outlines of centuries-old houses were uncovered beneath what had been the foundations of the nineteenth century buildings.
Similarly, a few years ago, visitors to the Tron Kirk could walk around a raised platform to look down on the remains of Marlin's Wynd, another lost street. And of course the legends about hidden tunnels running the length of the city, connecting Edinburgh Castle to the Palace of Holyroodhouse, persist even without any solid evidence that they were ever anything but urban legends and ghost stories...
One of the genuine underground mysteries of the city can be explored at Gilmerton Cove, a network of subterranean tunnels dug under one of the suburbs to the south of the city, which remains a hidden gem of the city and is well worth venturing out to explore.
A local guide will take you on a short tour of the tunnels, and will share of the known history of the area, along with some speculations on the aspects of the tunnels not fully understood. You're then free to go and explore - with a hard hat and a torch - to experience the mystery of Gilmerton Cove for your self!
But more often the glimpse we get of an earlier city beneath our feet looks rather more like this:
As the tarmac surfaces of the city's streets break away, it is possible to see underneath something of the original street surfaces, laid out with setts inlaid into the ground, as long sections of the Royal Mile still have today.
These stones are often mistakenly described as cobbles, the distinction being that cobbles are natural pieces of stone set into the roadway, whereas Edinburgh's setts are pieces of stone cut to a formal shape (often rectangular) before being laid. The purpose of streets laid with stone was to improve the experience of horses and carts - horses could achieve a more solid footing on solid stone, rather than bare dirt, and on some of the city's characteristic hills and slops, the difference between stonework and dirt could be the difference between a cart staying upright or tumbling over and spilling its cargo.
These Victorian-era setts are periodically relaid (as evidence by large sections of streets, either in the Old or New Town areas, closed to traffic while the work is carried out) often utilising the original stones but relaying them on an improved foundation, to suit the volume of twenty-first century motor vehicle traffic. The preservation of these traditional stylings are a key part of Edinburgh's adherence to its World Heritage protection orders.
There's also an intriguing network of wires and metal gridwork visible in places beneath the road surface on the Mound, connecting the Royal Mile to Princes Street. This dates back to the 1950s, when a system of providing heat to the road was laid under the tarmac, to ease the issues of ice forming on the road surface in the winter - it's a creative use of an electric blanket principle, providing under-road heating!
The heating system fell into disuse many years ago, but where the road surface has broken and crumbled, evidence of this unusual element of the city's history can still be seen.
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As with many cities of its age and status, Edinburgh has a coat of arms which can be seen in a variety of forms and depictions around the town. The image dates formally from 1732, although it was probably in use a lot earlier than that.
Here's what the coat of arms looks like on an ancient carving now to be found in the courtyard of the Museum of Edinburgh, on the Canongate:
The figure to the left of the central structure (the dexter supporter, in armorial terminology) is a woman thought to be a reference to Edinburgh Castle's ancient nickname of 'the Castle of the Maidens' - perhaps referring to its defence role where high-status women and royal family members would retreat for protection in the time of war.
On the right hand side (the sinister supporter) is a doe, a female deer, who is the emblem of the city's patron saint, St Giles. In mythology Giles was a hermit who kept only the company of animals, in particular this deer. One day a hunting party had the doe in its sights, but succeeded only in wounding Giles, who is often represented with an arrow in his side.
The castle structure in the centre features three towers, a portcullis gate, and usually has banners flying from its turrets - it represents, of course, Edinburgh Castle which still dominates the city today.
The text on the banner conveys the city's Latin motto: Nisi Dominus Frustra, meaning 'Except the Lord in vain'. It's a shortened version of a line from Psalm 127: "Except the Lord build the house, they labour in vain that build it: except the Lord keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain".
And the crest, missing from the stone carving shown above, is a ship's anchor, representing the traditional role of Edinburgh's Lord Provost (or mayor), who was Admiral of the Firth of Forth.
Look out for various surviving versions of the city's coat of arms as you explore Edinburgh - it can be found on buildings all around the city.
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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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