EDINBURGH EXPERT WALKING TOURS - BLOG
James VI of Scotland (later to also be James I of England) was born in Edinburgh on 19 June 1566.
His mother, Mary, Queen of Scots, gave birth to him in the relative safety of the royal apartments at Edinburgh Castle, but within a year his father would be dead and the 10-month old James would be separated from his mother, who would never see him again.
James VI remains one of the most important and best-known of Scotland's monarchs, and he left his mark on Britain in a variety of ways. Here are just a handful of the legacies that James VI & I left behind him.
THE UNITED KINGDOMS
James would become king of Scotland after his mother's forced abdication in 1567, when James was a little over a year old. A series of regents reigned Scotland in place of the infant king, until James was in his late teens, but the biggest event of his reign occurred in 1603, when Elizabeth I of England died without having married or produced an heir to the throne.
Mary, Queen of Scots had been Elizabeth's cousin, with a rightful claim to the English throne - and it was partly through a process of historical manipulation and deeply-rooted paranoia over this claim that Elizabeth had seen fit to execute Mary in 1587, to remove the threat to her reign that she perceived in Mary.
But on Elizabeth's death, it mean that the next rightful heir would be Mary's son, and thus it was that James, already king of Scotland, now acceded to the throne of England as well. This single circumstance of genealogy united Scotland and England under one monarch for the first time, and (to an extent) the years of turbulence and animosity that had existed between the two separate kingdoms as each fought for power, control and resources was resolved.
The Union of Crowns, as it was known, eventually paved the way for the political Act of Union just over a century later, when the two nations would be brought under the governance of one united parliament, creating the United Kingdom as the single, multifaceted entity that we know today.
THE KING JAMES BIBLE
James was a devoutly religious man, raised in the protestant church (despite his mother's Catholicism) and inherited the Scottish church in the throes of its Reformation, which had brought new schisms into focus. What he found in England, after becoming king in 1603, was a more united form of protestantism that still viewed the monarch as the ultimate head of the church, something the Church of Scotland was less supportive on.
So James began to fully embrace his role as de facto head of the Church of England, and in 1604 convened a conference of senior figures from the church to discuss (among other concerns) commissioning a new edition of the Bible that would unite the centrist voices in the church and create a definitive version of the text in vernacular English (as opposed to Latin).
The King James Bible, originally published simply as the Authorised Version, or King James Version as it's sometimes known, was published in 1611, and became the only version of the Biblical texts authorised for use in English churches. (Scottish churches didn't adopt their own Authorised Version until 1633, when James's son, Charles I, was crowned king.)
By the early nineteenth century it became the most widely printed book in history, and despite minor changes to spelling and format it remained the standard version of Bibles referenced around the world until the growth of newer versions in the twentieth century. Today the standard text is still often referred to as the King James Bible.
An earlier book - one written by James himself - would have an equally significant impact on Scotland, and the wider world.
It grew from James's deeply held paranoia and distrust of the world around him, understandable perhaps when considering the traumatic experiences of his early life: he had been separated from his mother, and was subject to the machinations of a court who didn't always act in his interests (as his mother had been before him); his father had been killed in a explosive plot carried out by unknown assassins (and which his mother was reputed to have masterminded); and, most significantly, in 1589 he married Princess Anne of Denmark, whose life was threatened by a major storm at sea during their journey back to Scotland.
Suspicion grew in James's mind that this storm had been conjured by those who wished harm to him and his new wife. A trial took place in Denmark which resulted in two women being executed for witchcraft, after admitting to causing the storm which had been such a threat to the young couple.
Determined to pursue justice on those who had plotted against him nearer to home, James initiated a witch hunting effort that would have long-lasting effects on the people and the king himself.
It's an annual festival that is unique to Britain, but every winter the old rhyme is recited as citizens prepare for an explosive celebration:
The fifth of November -
Gunpowder, treason and plot!
In 1605 a plot was foiled that would have struck right at the heart of the British political and royal establishments, when a stockpile of gunpowder was discovered in the chambers beneath the Houses of Parliament in London.
A cohort of conspirators, of whom Guy Fawkes is the most familiar and best-known name, were just hours from assassinating King James VI & I, along with much of the government who led the country - and James's paranoid fears of history repeating itself were made real. His father had been killed at an explosion in his home in Edinburgh, and now his own life was narrowly saved from a band of rebels who sought to end his reign in a blaze of smoke and flames.
Every winter on Bonfire Night, the fifth of November, British children create (or used to) effigies of Guy Fawkes and parade them through the street collecting pennies, before burning them on a bonfire and turning their eyes skywards to the displays of fireworks which erupt overhead.
In recent years Guy Fawkes has experienced something of a resurgence, as his likeness has been co-opted by protestors and rioters around the globe, in particular the Anonymous collective (itself taking inspiration from the graphic novel V for Vendetta).
In 1590 he oversaw the series of events known as the North Berwick Witch Trials, which lasted over two years and saw in excess of 100 people from this small town just outside of Edinburgh accused of involvement in supernatural conspiracy against the king. It's not known precisely how many met their deaths, but many were convicted of treason on the evidence of torture administered in the Old Tolbooth which stood on the Royal Mile, near St Giles' Cathedral.
Between 4,000 and 6,000 people - mostly women - are believed to have been executed as witches in Scotland between the 1590s and 1660s. Many of them were burned on the esplanade in front of Edinburgh Castle, where a small memorial fountain today commemorates their deaths.
In 1597, James would consolidate his knowledge and learning from the North Berwick events in his book Daemonologie, with its extensive subtitle: In Forme of a Dialogue, Divided into three Books: By the High and Mighty Prince, James.
His text is a series of conversations between allegorical figures, and covers everything from the Devil's relationship with Man, the distinctions between Necromancy, witchcraft, astrology and other magic arts, the path of 'apprenticeship' that witches follow in their pact with the Devil, and the various forms and styles that witchcraft can take.
It is, in short, a handbook for the identification, persecution and punishment of witches, and it was received with enthusiasm by a society who were ready to embrace this thesis for understanding their world, and its reach was extensive - James's ideas on witchcraft are likely to have influenced the notorious witch trials at Salem in Massachusetts in the early 1690s.
One figure who was especially influenced by the book was William Shakespeare, and it's easy to see how in 1606 he came to produce a tale of a power-hungry Scottish king riven with paranoia and working in league with sinister forces: Macbeth.
So James VI and I has left his mark not just on Scotland or even Britain, but has influenced the whole globe with his writings and his reign. Few monarchs can claim to have left such lasting legacies to the world.
Explore more of Edinburgh's royal and political history with my private city walking tours!
It's a street in Edinburgh that is often (literally) overlooked, but the Cowgate is one of the oldest thoroughfares of the city and the extent of modern development along it disguises centuries of history.
So here's a trip along Cowgate, from east to west, highlighting some of the historical features you might miss (or which have long since been demolished). The Cowgate is more than just a shortcut through the Old Town, and deserves a closer examination!
The line of Cowgate is shown on early maps of Edinburgh, where from the 1490s it was marked as Via Vaccarum, meaning 'the way of the cows'. It was a road which lay outside of the city boundaries for much of its history, and at a time when it was illegal to drive cattle through the city streets the Cowgate provided a route to bring cattle from the fields and pastures to the south and east of Edinburgh to the cattle market near the Grassmarket.
It was a practical road, running along the valley to the south of the Royal Mile and parallel with it, starting at the junction with St Mary's Wynd (or St Mary Street as it is today) and finishing at the east end of the Grassmarket at the junction with West Bow.
In the sixteenth century, when the Flodden Wall was built, expanding the area contained within the city, Cowgate was brought inside the perimeter and at its eastern end had one of the six gates into to the town, called the Cowgate Port.
The area just inside the wall at this eastern end has changed considerably, but one of the major structures here today is St Patrick's Church, which was built in the 1770s. St Patrick's became a Catholic church in the nineteenth century, at a time when Edinburgh was receiving considerable numbers of migrant families moving here from Ireland.
The notorious potato famine of the 1840s in particular forced many to uproot their lives, and many Irish workers travelled to Scotland to find jobs, bringing their families with them when they came. They would often find themselves living in rundown lodgings, and Cowgate at that time was a notorious slum district - the area around St Patrick's became known as 'Little Ireland' due to the large number of Irish families settling here.
In 1875, the parish priest at St Patrick's had the idea to create a football team from the boys' social club which operated out of the church. They would travel to other churches and districts of Edinburgh to play other local teams, and they took the name 'Hibernian', which was from Hibernia, the Latin name for Ireland.
Today Hibernian - or Hibs - is one of the top-ranking football teams in Scotland, and play their home games at the nearby Easter Road stadium.
The next junction along Cowgate has the St Ann's community hall, which has had various uses over the years. But the site here was originally the grand sixteenth-century home of Cardinal David Beaton, a major figure at the time of Mary, Queen of Scots.
Beaton had put himself forward to rule Scotland in Mary's place during her infancy. His home on Cowgate was often described as a palace, which seems remarkable given that the area was a slum 300 years later.
In fact for a long time Cowgate had been a higher status housing district, attracting wealthy figures and families who could afford to live outside of the city, and could enjoy a more comfortable and spacious property than those poor souls crowded into the narrow lanes of the Old Town.
That all changed once the New Town was built, when wealthy families moved to the grand surrounds of George Street and Princes Street, and the housing on Cowgatewas left empty. Much of it was later taken over by the slum landlords.
Cardinal Beaton's house stood until the 1870s, when the area was undergoing a wholesale redevelopment as part of the Improvement Acts to renovate the Old Town. The by-then derelict property was removed and the buildings you see today erected in its place.
Further along Cowgate you'll find the characteristic cow figures pictured above, mounted on the side of the building, a fun reminder of the street's origins. On the opposite side of the street you'll find a former Freemason's Hall, now St Cecilia's Music Hall, and Bannerman's bar, a popular live music venue.
But the major feature just here is the arch of South Bridge, a late eighteenth century development built to try to improve access into Edinburgh.
There are 19 arches in total, but 18 of them are concealed by the buildings built alongside to enclose the structure in the 1780s.
The bridge itself was built as high-status housing and business space, at the time that the area below it was transitioning into a slum district. Later, Robert Louis Stevenson would describe standing on South Bridge and wrote:
Edinburgh's Old Town had officially become a split-level society, not just geographically but also economically.
Continue under South Bridge and the modern hotel on the left hand side of the street was built to replace the former Gilded Balloon venue and arts spaces, which were destroyed by fire in 2002. A little further ahead is another modern development, with a set of blue gates closing access to a lane marked College Wynd.
Although the building here is new, the lane itself is not, and it was here, at the junction of College Wynd and Cowgate, that that author Walter Scott was born in 1771. Scott's family would move from the area shortly after - part of the exodus of wealthy residents away from Cowgate at that time - but the lane continues to be marked as a reminder of Scott's Old Town origins.
The New Town development also led to the Cowgate achieving another notable feature - it became the first underground sewer line in Edinburgh! The artificial loch which had filled the valley to the north of the Royal Mile (where Princes Street Gardens are today) was drained, and the stream which fed it was re-routed around the other side of the castle rock, and was enclosed beneath the level of the roadway to wash away filth and waste flushing down the steep Old Town lanes.
But the oldest surviving buildings of the Cowgate lie ahead of us. Firstly, on the right hand side, the Three Sisters pub and sports bar occupies the former Tailors' Hall, the original guildhall of the tailors of Edinburgh, one of the fourteen recognised guilds or trades of the medieval city.
Tailors' Hall dates from the 1620s, and was originally a quad with a range of buildings along the front of the street and an archway leading into the open square that is visible today, on the inside of the structure. The building was occupied as military offices in the nineteenth century,and the front range of the structure was demolished to make the building more functional.
On either side of Cowgate there are now the rear entrances to the Sheriff Court (on the left) and the National Library of Scotland (on the right).
The second of the two bridges over Cowgate is George IV Bridge, built in the 1820s, and a higher structure than South Bridge previously.
In 1868, a young boy named James Connolly was born in one of the buildings on the left of George IV Bridge. His parents, like many others, had settled here after leaving Ireland, and young James would go on to be one of the major figures in the rise of the Irish republicans uprising of 1916, when he led a faction of rebels opposing British rule in Ireland.
Connolly was executed for his role in the rebellion, but remains a controversial figurehead for many.
Through George IV Bridge, the last feature to note before arriving at Grassmarket is the Magdalen Chapel, on the left hand side of the street.
Built in the 1540s, this remains the oldest surviving structure on the Cowgate. It was built by Michael Macqueen, who left the money in his will to build the chapel in his will as a form of indulgence, a Catholic tradition to help ease the passage into the afterlife by offsetting some of the sins committed during life.
The mother of Mary, Queen of Scots led prayer sessions in this chapel during her time in Edinburgh, and the building was given to the care of the guild of Hammermen, who were silversmiths and jewellers.
Shortly after it was constructed, in 1560 the Scottish Reformation saw the nation converted from Catholicism to Protestanism, and with it the destruction of many Catholic churches and chapels. The buildings were desecrated, relics destroyed, silver candlestick melted down for other uses, and the decorative stained glass windows smashed.
Today the Magdalen Chapel has the only surviving, intact, pre-Reformation stained glass windows in the whole of Scotland. The building is open to visitors to see the inside of this small historic space, with its (rather small) stained glass windows.
And so we arrive in the Grassmarket, the original destination for the drovers and farmers who brought their cattle along this roadway.
Today, locals (and visitors) often see the Cowgate as a bit of a shortcut, providing access across the city without being troubled by the Royal Mile itself. Hopefully you may now look a little closer at some of the buildings along the way, and have a better sense of the history of this ancient thoroughfare!
Explore more of Edinburgh's hidden history with my private city walking tours!
The city that changed the world. It's a bold claim - and one I've borrowed from a book by James Buchan - but Edinburgh really has been an intellectual crucible throughout history. One famous remark from an English visitor in the eighteenth century posited the idea that ‘‘you could stand at the Mercat Cross and, in half an hour, shake 50 men of genius by the hand’’.
And that may not even have been an exaggeration, as Edinburgh has been home to a great many thinkers, writers, inventors and scientists over the years.
The Scottish Enlightenment of the eighteenth century was undoubtedly a high point in the city's history, as the crowded and cramped streets of the Old Town created a natural environment for the sharing and developing of big ideas - indeed, I would make the argument that the physical geography of the city, forcing all classes and levels of society to live cheek-by-jowl within such constrained city limits, was key to many of the inventions and developments which are attributed to the Enlightenment period.
But even before and after the eighteenth century, Edinburgh has been home to some great minds, so here's my selection of key figures from Edinburgh (past and present) who have - in various ways - changed the world.
In a nutshell, Adam Smith is credited with shaping our understanding of the economic processes which underpin society, chiefly through his 1776 work The Wealth of Nations. It remains a key text in schools and universities around the globe and the ideas within it continue to influence modern economic practice. To some Smith is the father of economics, to others he's the father of capitalism.
Smith had been living at Panmure House in Canongate - which in those days was just beyond the city limits of Edinburgh - when he wrote his magnum opus, which was born partly of the boom in Scotland's presence in the international trade market during the mid-eighteenth century, when the tobacco plantations of America were among some of the most valuable trade links that Scotland had.
Edinburgh at that time had especially huge amounts of wealth inequality, with very rich and very poor living beside each other, and with cash pouring into the pockets of the fantastically rich coming from both domestic sources (the Scottish Highlands being a long-exploited resource) and overseas markets. Smith's philosophy of cash and trade couldn't have arrived at a more convenient time, although it's doubtful if he could have imagined it still having such resonance on our world two hundred years and fifty years later.
James Hutton was a geologist who drew inspiration from the landscape of Edinburgh (and across Scotland) to shape his theories of the Earth, which would transform not just our understanding of our planet but our experience of it.
In the eighteenth century, church teachings still had it that the Earth had been created in the space of just a few days, and only several thousand years ago. Hutton believed that the features he was observing around Arthur's Seat and up in the Highlands didn't fit that story - the rocks (he hypothesised) had actually been created at different periods of time, and not just a matter of days apart but hundreds of thousands of years. Today the age of the Earth is estimated around 4.5 billion years old, and it has been growing and developing and changing over all that time.
This was the key idea of Hutton's work - that our Earth was not a fixed object that had been created as we know it, but it had shifted ('evolved', as a later geologist, Charles Lyell would describe it) over millennia, with its landmasses, oceans and the life upon and within them constantly changing.
"From what has actually been," Hutton wrote, "we have data for concluding with regard to that which is to happen thereafter." This linking of past, present and future understanding would filter through to a whole raft of later figures, including a particular influence on Charles Darwin (himself briefly a student in Edinburgh) whose later theories of evolution and 'survival of the fittest' would in turn redefine humanity's place and experience in the world.
ALEXANDER GRAHAM BELL
Born on Charlotte Square in the New Town of Edinburgh in 1847, and educated at the Royal High School and University of Edinburgh, Bell was living in North America when he lodged his patent application for the device which revolutionised human communication.
Bell's mother was deaf, as was his wife, which was a major factor in much of his early work in speech and language and his later efforts to improve communication, leading him to seek to develop a device which would allow sufferers of deafness to 'hear' again. The invention of electricity had opened a whole new world of technology and innovation, and Bell set his mind to being able to reproduce the sounds of a human voice using electrical impulses, which he characterised as a 'harmonic telegraph' system.
In 1876, Bell applied for a US patent for his telephone, submitting it on the same day as a second inventor, Elisha Gray, applied for a patent for a similar device - it remains a subject of debate which of them made their application first, but it was Bell who made the first demonstration of the successful device. On 10 March 1876, the first telephone 'call' was made, from Bell to his assistant Thomas Watson, and since then the telephone has come to be an integral component not just of communication but of many aspects of daily life.
Who knows what would Bell make of our reliance on the modern version of the device he developed and patented. He died in 1922 and was buried near his family's home in Nova Scotia, Canada - and at the conclusion of his funeral, every telephone in North America was temporarily silenced as a tribute to the man who had revolutionised communication.
JAMES CLERK MAXWELL
Whilst figures like Bell and Adam Smith have become household names, one major figure from the world of science and technology is yet to be fully recognised by the general public.
James Clerk Maxwell was born in the New Town in Edinburgh in 1831, but moved with his family to an estate in Kirkudbrightshire while still an infant. His early years were spent in a spate of inquisitiveness, asking questions and probing for information from the world around him, a curiosity that would later serve him as a pioneering physicist and polymath who introduced a new understanding of our world.
Returning to Edinburgh to be educated at the Edinburgh Academy, young Maxwell was given the nickname 'Daftie' at school, due to his distracted attention - his mind was often elsewhere, creating the appearance of being slow and unknowing when in reality his brain was seeking out answers beyond those that his teachers could offer. Later studies at the universities of Edinburgh and Cambridge demonstrated that he was far from academically stunted.
Maxwell has several major discoveries and theories attributed to him. His investigations into the properties of light and electromagnetism led to colour photography and (later) television. His writings inspired Albert Einstein, who had a portrait of Maxwell in his office and once commented, "I stand not on the shoulders of Isaac Newton, but of James Clerk Maxwell".
In his 20s, Maxwell had used pure mathematics to prove what the rings of Saturn were made of - a problem that astronomers and physicists had debated for years. But it was only when we were able to get a spacecraft close enough to take photographs - colour photographs - of Saturn's rings that we proved with a visual image what Maxwell had proven with maths over a century earlier.
Today one of the gaps between the rings of Saturn is named the Maxwell Gap.
DOLLY THE SHEEP
Actually the figure to celebrate here is the whole team at the Roslin Institute, who have been pioneering the understanding and application of genetics.
Established in the 1990s from earlier departments of the University of Edinburgh, the Roslin Institute is based on the outskirts of the city and has been involved in several major developments in genetics. But the groundbreaking project that still captures the public imagination came in 1996, when the world's first genetically cloned mammal was announced by the institute.
Dolly, as she was named by Keith Campbell and Ian Wilmutt, who led the team that created her, was developed from a single cell taken from a ewe's mammary gland. She was named Dolly in honour of what the scientists suggested were the world's finest mammary glands, on the singer Dolly Parton...
Dolly gave birth to several lambs who continued her genetic inheritance, before her death at the age of six from an illness unrelated to her genetic origins.
Such was the importance of Dolly's existence (and the genetic leap that had helped to create her) that after her death she was stuffed and mounted for display in the National Museum of Scotland, where she stands in the science and technology gallery as a statement of Scotland's world-leading scientific endeavour.
One of Edinburgh's great minds remains a resident of the city today, confirming the notion that not all of the major figures who have had an influence on the world are consigned to history!
Peter Higgs became a lecturer at the University of Edinburgh in 1960, teaching at their institute of Mathematical Physics, after gaining his PhD from King's College in London in 1954. His writing in the 1960s featured the study of subatomic particles, and in 1964 Higgs hypothesised a new particle - dubbed the Higgs boson - which would resolve some of the difficulties physicists had encountered in explaining some of their observations of sub-atomic matter.
Although predicted in the 1960s, it wouldn't be until 2012 that the existence of the Higgs boson would be proven, following experiments made possible by the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Switzerland.
In 2013 Peter Higgs and François Englert, who had been a part of the 1960s team that made the original predictions, were awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics for their work.
Peter Higgs is today the Honorary Patron of the James Clerk Maxwell foundation, and has a department of Theoretical Physics named after him at the University of Edinburgh's School of Physics and Astronomy, which is based in (appropriately enough) the James Clerk Maxwell building at the university's King's Buildings campus.
This is just a very small, personal selection from the many great minds and figures who have been associated with Edinburgh over the years.
Explore more of Edinburgh's world-changing residents on one of my private city walking tours!
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...
Search the blog archive...
© COPYRIGHT GARETH DAVIES 2014-21