On a recent tour I found myself reflecting on a level of paradox to Edinburgh's buildings that I hadn't fully recognised before.
I often talk about how the Old Town isn't that old and the New Town isn't that new - but although the New Town is the side of the city celebrated for its Georgian style, there is a fair amount of Georgian development in the Old Town, too. And I'd never fully recognised this because we often talk about the Georgian style rather than the Georgian period - things which are subtly different!
Our use of terms like Georgian and Victorian relate specifically to the reigns of the various monarchs who ruled Britain at different times. The Victorian period was 1837 to 1901, during the reign of Queen Victoria. We are currently in a Carolean era, after the end of the second Elizabethan era last year - terms which feel slightly unfamiliar or incongruous in terms of contemporary Britain!
But the Georgian period was longer than most - stretching from 1714 to 1837, during the reigns of (collectively) Georges I to IV, and the brief reign of William IV. Because of the extended nature of this period, there isn't necessarily any such single style that we could consider 'Georgian', as the style understandably shifted and changed over 123 years - a period almost twice as long as the Victorian era.
So whilst New Town is what we think of as representative of Georgian style - distinctive detailing in the buildings and the furniture - Old Town itself has a number of Georgian era buildings which often get unfairly overlooked.
Here's my showcase of some Georgian era features to be discovered in Edinburgh's Old Town...
St Cecilia's Concert Room
Hidden in plain sight just off the Cowgate, this building today houses a museum of musical instruments, as well as a performance space. But St Cecilia's concert room was built in the 1760s - right in the heart of the Georgian period - and is the oldest purpose-built concert hall in Scotland.
The oval shape of the concert room is distinctive, with its glass cupola and the addition of sweeping modern seating for the comfort of contemporary audiences.
Built and named not for any George of the Georgian dynasty, but for the brother of the developer who built it, George Square is at the heart of the University of Edinburgh's central collection of buildings today.
Many of the original building were demolished during the mid-twentieth century, and buildings like the university's central library occupy a significant space on the square.
But original residential properties are still visible on two of the square's four sides - including the former homes of both Arthur Conan Doyle and Sir Walter Scott - with some very distinctive 'cherry cocking' decorative detail in the stone work. Inlaying smaller blocks of stone amongst the bigger pieces creates structural strength as well as being visually interesting.
George IV Bridge
One Georgian feature that is named for one of the actual Georges is this major roadway connecting the Lawnmarket on the Royal Mile to Forrest Road, across the Cowgate valley.
Built by Thomas Hamilton in 1832 to commemorate the visit of George IV to Edinburgh ten years previously, this bridge was originally freestanding, and then enclosed by the buildings erected to enclose it on either side.
An earlier bridge, again from the Georgian era, is South Bridge, built in the 1780s, and crossing the Cowgate further to the east...
Edinburgh City Chambers
One of the architects most closely associated with the Georgian style is Robert Adam, who designed Charlotte Square in Edinburgh's New Town - considered some of the finest surviving Georgian architecture anywhere in Europe. But Adam also worked on buildings in the Old Town, including the City Chambers, which he designed in 1760 alongside his older brother, John.
Intended as the Royal Exchange, the building was originally designed to be an indoors trading space for the market traders who congregated around the nearby Mercat Cross. But the traders didn't want to use it, and so it was later taken on by Edinburgh City Council, who continue to utilise the space today.
Another Robert Adam design, the Old College of the University of Edinburgh was the university's first purpose-built school building, and sat at the end of South Bridge. Designed in the 1780s, the building was unfinished at the time of Adam's death, and was later finished by William Henry Playfair.
Although the exterior of the building is impressive, a visit to the Talbot Rice Gallery provides a chance to see the interior of the space too, where the grandeur of the Georgian style is readily apparent...
Dating from 1722, the Candlemaker Hall on Candlemaker Row was - unsurprisingly - the guild hall of candlemakers! The two square towers are typical of the guild hall style that can be found elsewhere in Edinburgh too, and the candlemakers were originally located safely beyond the city walls to avoid the city becoming damaged by fires.
Buildings like this are typical of the 'rubble built' style that was common before the later use of worked stone cut into neat blocks, which is the more common form during the later Georgian style periods of development.
Built in the 1740s, these residential properties just off the Royal Mile on Canongate are typical of the style of housing that developed prior to the tenement style which proliferated during the Victorian improvements to Edinburgh.
Here the rubble built stonework has been covered with plaster, known as harling, which was then painted in a variety of paints drawn from natural pigments - often ochre, pink and cream.
Chessel's Court had also been the site of Edinburgh's customs house, where notorious criminal Deacon William Brodie committed his final robbery before finding his way to the city gallows, in 1787...
New Assembly Close
Built around 1813, the hall on New Assembly Close is today part of the Faculty of Advocates, lawyers from Scotland's legal system, with part of the building dating back earlier to a time when it served as Edinburgh's Assembly Rooms, a meeting space for dancing, balls and society functions.
The building survived the Great Fire of Edinburgh in 1824, and was at one time a branch of the Commercial Bank of Scotland. It features architectural elements that are more typical of what we recognise from Georgian style structures - the symmetrical frontage, the columns, ashlar stone blocks, the windows of different proportions, and the fanlight over the entrance.
Taken together it is apparent from just this selection of structures that the Georgian era buildings of Edinburgh's Old Town offer more of a variety of style and structure than is associated with the New Town.
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Edinburgh can be a challenging city to navigate, being built across a series of volcanic peaks cut through by glacial valleys, creating a dynamic city centre of peaks and troughs - getting from A to B isn't always a straightforward as Google Maps might suggest!
By necessity my Edinburgh tours quite often feature staircases, though always in moderation - I always try to minimise the steps and hills as much as possible, though avoiding them altogether is not entirely feasible...
So here's a foretaste of the kind of steps and staircases that you might encounter during your visit to Edinburgh! I've ranked them all from 1 to 5 in terms of their practicality, historic appeal, challenge, and the view offered.
You're welcome. ;)
GRANNY'S GREEN STEPS
The meeting point for my Old and New Towns fixed route tour is at the bottom of Granny's Green Steps in the Grassmarket, and I won't actually make you climb them - although for visitors heading to the castle they seem like a direct option.
Named for the drying green through which the steps cut and provide access, a public space which still bears the washing line poles from which residents would hang their washing to dry in the nineteenth century, Granny's Green Steps have an evocative name and one of my favourite views of Edinburgh Castle!
Stair rating: 4/5
THE SCOTSMAN STEPS
A spiral staircase which links North Bridge to Market Street, the Scotsman Steps were originally built as part of the Scotsman newspaper offices in 1901, and used to have a number of outlets along their length where passers-by could pick up a copy of the daily paper fresh off the press as they headed to Waverley Station.
Today the office building is the Scotsman Hotel, and the steps have been relaid as a public artwork by artist Martin Creed - each of the 104 steps has been cut from a different piece of marble, creating a colourful journey for those making the climb (or the descent).
Because of its enclosed nature the stairs sometimes attract people who need urgent use of a bathroom, so are regularly sluiced out...
Stair rating: 2/5
An Old Town lane which features regularly on my tours is Advocate's Close, a steep staircase which gives a good sense of how the original city streets would have functioned.
Named for the Lord Advocate James Stewart, who prosecuted the blasphemy case against Thomas Aikenhead in 1696, the lane features a combination of original sixteenth century buildings and contemporary renovations, creating a great sense of Edinburgh through history.
The view across to New Town from the top are pretty spectacular too!
Stair rating: 5/5
This winding thoroughfare between St Giles Street - once dubbed the Fleet Street of Scotland - and Market Street was built as part of the development of a newspaper office and printing house in the middle of the nineteenth century.
The Edinburgh Courant had been established in 1705, one of the UK's first regional newspapers, and one of its early editors was Daniel Defoe, best known today as a novelist for books like Robinson Crusoe. In the 1870s the Courant moved into new offices which also housed the Daily Review, in a building designed by David Bryce. The steps were built as a link to the railway station, where copies of the printed papers would be taken for distribution and sale.
The steps today offer fine views towards Calton Hill, and run in a series of flights around a curve rather than in a straight line.
Stair rating: 3/5
One of the most historic staircases in the city, this steep and uneven line of steps runs from the valley behind Waverley Station up to the side of Calton Hill, and was originally a means of access onto this volcanic outcrop.
Named for the Biblical character of Jacob, who had a dream featuring an image of a ladder which provided access to heaven, the stairs similarly provided access to the Old Calton Burial Ground before Waterloo Place was built in the nineteenth century.
Jacob's Ladder has recently been refurbished to provided lighting and a handrail, but the steps are still rather awkwardly shaped and are challenging whether climbing or descending. They do provide a view across towards Old Town from the top, and of the surviving walls of the old Calton Jail, which was on the site where St Andrew House stands today.
Stair rating: 3/5
MISS JEAN BRODIE STEPS
Named for the 1960s film adaptation of Muriel Spark's novella The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, which used the stairs as a location for a scene featuring Maggie Smith in her Oscar-winning role of Jean Brodie, these steps are more properly known as the Vennel.
They provide access from Lauriston Place down to the Grassmarket, and as well as giving some of the best views in the city of Edinburgh Castle, they also show you two surviving sections of the original city walls.
Not too challenging to ascend (or descend), the steps are both practical, attractive and a popular spot for visitors.
Stair rating: 5/5
Running almost parallel to Advocate's Close, between the Royal Mile and Cockburn Street, Warriston's Close is interesting for the way the steps widen as you descend - what starts as a typical narrow lane become a quadruple width staircase by the bottom!
This makes the lane accessible but intimidating, certainly to go up, and although it offers an interesting rooftops view of Cockburn Street it's not one which will detain you for very long.
More useful as a direct route than as a scenic option.
Stair rating: 2/5
PATRICK GEDDES STEPS
Named for Patrick Geddes, the man who helped establish Edinburgh's heritage protections in the nineteenth century, this stretch of steps is part of the route between Grassmarket and Johnston Terrace, en route to Edinburgh Castle.
The steps also provide access to one of Geddes's urban garden spaces, part of the innovative approach that he brought to town planning, although the garden itself is often closed to public access, which is a shame.
From the top of the steps there are views both towards the castle and back over the Old Town, though you may be too out of breath to enjoy them...!
Stair rating: 3/5
A short but steep series of steps off the Royal Mile near St Giles' Cathedral, which provides a link onto Old Fishmarket Close. The steps are commonly used by the ghost tour companies as a shortcut, but are also quite attractive from the top looking down, with the iron lamp and the arch of the stonework creating an interesting visual composition.
A practical route but can be busy with tour groups.
Stair rating: 2/5
Another set of steps named for a specific person, the Playfair Steps run from near the top of the Mound down to the level of the National Gallery of Scotland, and are named for the architect who built the two gallery buildings here, William Henry Playfair.
The steps have been closed for a number of years while a renovation and expansion of the galleries has taken place, and were only recently re-opened, allowing pedestrian access between Edinburgh's Old and New Towns without having to take the road itself.
Convenient, not too challenging, and with a bit of a view, the Playfair Steps are some of my favourites among the city's staircases....!
Stair rating: 4/5
Sometimes one of the first features of Edinburgh which visitors arriving off the train at Waverley Station are confronted with, Fleshmarket Close - the former site of an old butchers' market - runs in a straight line from the High Street to Market Street, and creates a great sense of how challenging the city streets would have been for a long time.
Today it's a very busy passageway, with a couple of bars and several other businesses along it, opening onto Cockburn Street before linking across to the Royal Mile itself.
Easier for those going down it than those coming up it, Fleshmarket Close is a bit of a city landmark, having been used by the writer Ian Rankin as the title for one of his Inspector Rebus novels.
Stair rating: 3/5
The narrowest of the original surviving lanes of the city, Craig's Close reaches up between Market Street and Cockburn Street, and I've never actually walked up (or down) it! Its interest lies in the impression it gives of the original Old Town, and of how dark, dirty and tightly packed the city would have been at one time.
The width of the passage and the steepness of the steps makes it an unappealing prospect.
Stair rating: 1/5
These staircases show that the best way of getting around Edinburgh is on foot - only by walking will you discover more of the hidden lanes, staircases, and the views or historical features that they provide!
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Edinburgh is a city bursting with statues and monuments, often representing likenesses of real people, sometimes showing allegorical representations of classical virtues - and one sculptor links some of the most iconic or prominent figures that you will find looking down on you from the city's buildings...
John Rhind was born in 1828 and grew up during the boom of Victorian development in Edinburgh, when much of the Old Town was being renovated or 'improved' to transform it from a crowded medieval city into the historic space it is today. As such, Rhind contributed statues, carvings, monuments and figures to a variety of structures in the city. Here's my pick of his works that are most likely to catch your eye during a visit to Edinburgh...
The Mercat Unicorn
Right in the heart of the Old Town stood the original Mercat Cross, a symbol of Edinburgh's status as a market town, around which traders would gather to conduct their business. The original cross was dismantled in the 1750s, and the version which stands near St Giles' Cathedral today is an 1860s recreation which features only a few pieces of stonework from the original.
John Rhind was commissioned to sculpt the decorative unicorn which stands atop the Mercat Cross, itself a reproduction of the original - the unicorn being the national animal of Scotland.
The Goddess Nike
Another non-real subject of Rhind's work is the statue representing the goddess Nike, the figure representing victory, who stands at the top of the dome of the former Bank of Scotland headquarters on the Mound. Now the home of the Museum on the Mound, a museum of money, commerce and finance, the building was a redevelopment by the architect David Bryce, and Rhind's statue of Nike overlooks the Old Town, with laurel wreaths in her hands.
In the classical mythology, Nike was a winged goddess, and as such is often represented in flight - the symbol of the Nike sportswear brand is a reference to this.
But look closely at Rhind's statue of Nike and you'll notice she doesn't have any wings at her back - that was an artistic decision made with respect to Edinburgh's elevated setting and its reputation as being a windy city. If our Nike had wings she possibly would not stay at the top of the building for very long! (The statue is sometimes listed as being Fame - but Fame typically carries a trumpet rather than laurel wreaths.)
Rhind was not restricted to fictional or allegorical figures. Above the entrance to Paisley Close on the Royal Mile is the face of a young boy named Joseph McIvor. He was the best-known survivor of the building which collapsed in November 1861, killing people in their beds and leading to the wholesale renovation of Edinburgh which followed.
When Paisley Close was rebuilt, Joseph McIvor was immortalised in the stonework above the entrance to the lane, with a ribbon over his head bearing the words he is reputed to have shouted when he feared the rescuers were about to give up looking for survivors - "Heave away lads, I'm no' dead yet!"
Actually the ribbon suggests he shouted 'heave away chaps', though I find it hard to imagine a Scottish boy in the 19th century using such a refined word as 'chaps'! The building later became known as Heave-away House.
Monument to Catherine Sinclair
Another real-life figure is celebrated in a monument Rhind created in the New Town, celebrating Catherine Sinclair. It's one of the few large-scale memorials to a historical woman in Edinburgh, and celebrates her work as a children's author and a social reformer.
Sinclair had been born (and lived) nearby on Charlotte Square, one of 13 children to John Sinclair and Diana MacDonald - and, according to local legend, not one of the children was less than six feet tall!
Catherine Sinclair was a friend of Sir Walter Scott's, and is credited with being the person who first discovered that the novels which he had published under a pseudonym was really his, and encouraged him to publicly own his reputation - which he did, to great effect! She was also an author in her own right, having written a children's novel entitled Holiday House: A Book for the Young, which was an early example of fantasy stories for children.
The monument to Sinclair was designed by David Bryce, and sculpted by John Rhind.
Faces on the National Museum of Scotland
Above the original entrance to the National Museum of Scotland are some of Rhind's earliest public works. There are six faces peering out from the stone work - above the centre doorway are Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, who had established the museum itself in 1861, and on either side of them are likenesses of James Watt, Charles Darwin, Michaelangelo and Isaac Newton.
Outside the museum, on Chambers Street, is a statue of the man who gives the road its name - Sir William Chambers, sculpted by John Rhind. Chambers had been a lord provost of Edinburgh and oversaw the improvements of the 1860s, as well as helping to create the legend of Greyfriars Bobby...
Great Hall of Edinburgh Castle
Within Edinburgh Castle's Great Hall - restored in the 1880s - is a huge fireplace graced by four allegorical figures sculpted by John Rhind.
May, Flora, Aurora and Venus (each of them, by necessity, bare breasted...!) stand over the hearth, though most people's attention when they visit the room is on the array of weaponry, armour and the hammerbeam roof above their heads, so Rhind's little women get a little lost in the grandeur of the space.
As a member of the Freemasons, Rhind attended lodge meetings at Edinburgh Lodge (Mary's Chapel) No.1 on Hill Street in the New Town, and served as its master in the mid-1860s. He created a vast array of work, including graves, features within St Giles' Cathedral, as well as contributing several statues to the Scott Monument in Princes Street Gardens, and was honoured for his skill and creativity by getting elected as an Associate of the Royal Scottish Academy. He died just a few days after receiving that honour, in 1892.
But keep your eyes peeled as you explore the city of Edinburgh, and doubtless some of the faces gazing upon you were created by the hands of this impressive master mason.
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Just a few short miles outside Edinburgh is the Iron Age site of Castlelaw, a hill fort established around 2,500 years ago on the slopes of the Pentland Hills.
Sites such as this exist all across the central belt of Scotland. There's evidence of up to four Iron Age forts within Holyrood Park in Edinburgh, and the site of Edinburgh Castle is itself a prehistoric site of settlement. (The tribe which lived on the Castle Rock for a time were known as the Gododdin, a pretty warlike people who are believed to have once spent a full year feasting on their site - high above the surrounding landscape - before marching south to fight the tribes of northern England...)
The Iron Age is a period of time from roughly 800 BCE until the arrival of the Romans in Britain around 43 CE, following the periods known as the Stone Age and the Bronze Age - the names are taken from the common materials which became used as tools and weaponry in their respective times. Some estimates put the population of Britain in that period between 3 and 4 million people, with Scotland at that time still occupied by tribal groups who lived in communities across the vast landscape.
The site at Castlelaw was a fortification, featuring a series of boundary ditches and defensive ramparts which remain evident in the landscape, with the site originally having had a wooden palisade or wall built to protect it from attackers.
Most interestingly, however, the site also has an unusual example of a souterrain (from the French for 'under-ground'), accessed today via a short set of steps which lead into the subterranean chambers.
This underground structure was not a residential space - though it's understandable to imagine people living here - but a storage room or cellar where the settlers of Castlelaw hill fort would have been able to stash food and other valuable resources. Dug into the earth, the walls are lined with stones and would originally have had a timber or thatch roof to protect it from elements.
The people who lived at Castlelaw would have been farmers, working the land, who occupied wooden huts or roundhouses within the defensive structures of the hill fort, looking out over the surrounding landscape.
It's a fairly harsh and unforgiving piece of land, even today, and it's not difficult to imagine that life here would have been pretty difficult and inhospitable. Our Iron Age ancestors would have been much more resilient to the challenges of the Scottish climate than we are today!
So the underground storage spaces would have been crucial to making the best of their harvests, protecting the produce from the weather and ensuring a constant supply of food all year round, especially over the winter months.
The site at Castlelaw hill fort was excavated in the 1930s, and the souterrain examined and covered with a concrete roof, including glass portals to allow natural light into the space, which is easily accessed by visitors.
One of the archaeologists who investigated the site in 1931-2 was Dr Margaret Stewart, who became the first woman to be elected as Honorary Fellow to the Society of Antiquities of Scotland, a cultural organisation which occupied the gallery built by John Ritchie Findlay (today the Scottish National Portrait Gallery) before moving to its current headquarters at the National Museum of Scotland on Chambers Street.
Finds from the 1930s excavation of the site include Roman pottery sherds - not so unusual given the nearby Roman presence at Cramond - examples of local pottery, German buckles and ornamental decorations, and cup-marked stones, a form of prehistoric rock art.
These indicate that the community here had access to trade with a variety of external groups who brought goods from well beyond the local area, including items sourced from right across Europe. Perhaps they may even traded with the Goddodin, in what is the heart of Edinburgh today.
Descending into the small tunnel of the souterrain at Castlelaw is like walking through a doorway that takes you back in time, and although there's no costumed guides or much in the way of information panels, there's something remarkable about just standing in a space created by humans over 2,000 years ago.
You can still put your hands on the ancient drystone walls, which were constructed by a group of people living here long before Scotland as we know it today could even have been imagined. If those stones could talk, imagine the stories they'd tell...
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