EDINBURGH EXPERT WALKING TOURS - BLOG
The 14 September is celebrated in Christian calendars as a feast day, and specifically as a feast of the Cross. It was on this very day in 1128 that king David I of Scotland elected to go hunting instead of attending church, and so set in motion a series of (probably largely mythological) events which had an impact on the development of the city of Edinburgh itself.
At that time, the area around what is the bottom of the Royal Mile today was property of the crown, and very heavily wooded. It may be hard to imagine the expanse of Holyrood Park covered in trees, the rise of Arthur's Seat emerging above them, but before the land was developed this was broadly how it looked. (The area today is, not incidentally, still crown property, and Holyrood Park is also called the King or Queen's Park, depending on the monarch.)
David was a keen huntsman, and so having assembled his men he rode out from Edinburgh Castle, in search of a prize stag. Somehow, somewhere, in the midst of the royal forest he became disoriented and separated from his men. As he sought to return to the path his horse was startled by a large white stag which emerged from the trees. David's horse bolted, leaving the king sprawled on the ground at the stag's feet, whereupon it made as though to gore him to death with its antlers.
At which dramatic point in the narrative things take a turn for the supernatural. Various versions of the story exist - either a crucifix appeared between the stag's antlers, and as David reached for it the stag ran away; or the sunlight through the trees cast the shape of a cross on the stag's face, dazzling it momentarily and allowing David to summon the strength to scare it off; or a physical crucifix appeared in David's hand, which he brandished at the stage, scaring it away.
Either way, there was a cross (in some form) and a lucky escape for David.
Taking this sequence of events as a sign from God that he needed to start being more pious - and not least as a telling-off from the Almighty for having skipped church against his chaplain's advice - David resolved to amend his ways. He would continue hunting, but no longer on Sunday mornings, and not on feast days either. And he would found an abbey on the site where the stag appeared to him.
The abbey he founded was populated with Augustinian monks, and the land around it given over to their care and ownership. The abbey was named after the feast day, that of the Holy Rood, and it would survive as a royal abbey for the next six-hundred years. Later the abbey site was developed, and in the sixteenth century a royal palace grew up adjacent to the abbey building. Today the ruins of Holyrood Abbey directly join on to the Palace of Holyroodhouse, still a royal property, and the official residence of HRH the Queen when she visits Scotland.
The area between the abbey and St Giles' cathedral in the Old Town grew up as a thriving town, beyond the walls of Edinburgh itself, and today survives as the Canongate section of the Royal Mile. The symbol or emblem of the area - represented in various forms through the area - is that of a stag's head with a cross between its antlers.
Explore the Canongate and Holyrood areas in more detail with my customised city walking tours.
On 10 September 1883, Edinburgh's Royal Lyceum Theatre opened its doors to audiences for the first time. Designed by the architect CJ Phipps, who also built some of London's most iconic West End theatres, the building cost £17,000 to build and was originally managed by Howard and Wyndham, two major theatrical agents whose company would go on to produce nearly a century of musical revues, pantomimes and repertory theatre work.
The Lyceum's inaugural production in 1883 was Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing, and starred Henry Irving and Ellen Terry, of which it was written: "never before did Shakespeare's delightful comedy receive an interpretation so adequate in essentials and in every detail so artistically complete".
The original audience, accommodated across four levels of the theatre, was around 2,500 people - today, with an upper level no longer used for seating and remodelled lower levels for the comfort of twenty-first-century audiences, the capacity is a little over 650. This makes it incredibly intimate for a venue of this size, and one of the great features of the theatre today is its ornate internal decoration and its comfortable seating.
Over the years the venue has hosted a wide variety of works, including early cinema broadcasts in 1912, with funds from screenings being donated to charities supporting families hit by the loss of the Titanic, visits by HRH Queen Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh in 1955 and 1962, and the premiere of the influential satirical revue Beyond the Fringe, featuring Alan Bennett, Peter Cook, Dudley Moore and Jonathan Miller, in August 1960.
In 1965 a new Royal Lyceum Theatre Company was formed, and that same company, under a variety of artistic leaderships, has operated the venue ever since. The company produces all its own in-house work, creates its own scenery and costumes at dedicated workshops in the city, and employs actors from all across the United Kingdom, often attracting star performers to tread the theatre's boards. In 2015 the company celebrated its 50th anniversary season, and in autumn 2016 the company began life under its current artistic director, David Greig.
Edinburgh's Grassmarket is a popular area of the city today, just as it has been for many years. Originally an outlying settlement by the name of New Bygging, beyond the city wall, the area had a large open space of relatively flat ground which made it ideal for hosting a large market, trading corn and other grains, and animal feed (for the cattle who were sold a short distance away on King's Stables Road).
The entire area was brought within the boundary of the second defensive wall built following the battle of Flodden in 1513; take a short walk up the Vennel to the west of the Grassmarket to see a remarkably well preserved section of this wall surviving today.
As well as being a market area, the eastern end of the Grassmarket was one of the city's sites of execution, hosting the public gallows on which criminals would be hanged. Public executions were a large part of the city's economy for a long time, with people traveling from outside the city to witness convicted criminals meeting their death. The area could hold several thousand people (some suggest up to 20,000 for a high profile hanging), with the coaching inns and taverns along the northern side providing accommodation and food for visitors.
One of these buildings, the White Hart Inn, claims to be the oldest surviving public house in the city, with parts of the building dating back to the sixteenth century, and the building has hosted its share of famous (and infamous) visitors, including Robert Burns.
It was in inns and taverns like the White Hart that William Burke and William Hare preyed on their victims in the early nineteenth-century, buying strangers to the city any number of friendly drinks to intoxicate them, before taking them back to Hare's lodging house on nearby Tanner's Close to murder them. The bodies of their victims would be loaded into a large barrel and rolled through the Grassmarket - attracting little attention from locals - before being unloaded at the university's medical school and exchanged for hard cash.
In 1736 a series of events known as the Porteous Riots took place, culminating in the brutal mob execution of a commander of the City Guard on the night of 7 September 1736. John Porteous had been found responsible for the deaths of six people during the execution of a convicted smuggler, and on learning that his death sentence was to be commuted an unruly mob took the law into their own hands. Porteous was dragged down an alleyway at the east end of the Grassmarket and hanged from a dyer's pole. His death led to changes in the laws on public executions which were later phased out in the city altogether.
Today the Grassmarket area is home to a number of fine restaurants and bars, as well as popular local pubs and a number of hotels. A visit to Edinburgh is not complete without at least a cursory visit to the Grassmarket, where at various times in the year you'll find it transformed into a thriving contemporary market area, with craft stalls, antiques, artisan designer goods and local food producers selling their wares.
Book a private tour of the city with me and explore the Grassmarket area in more detail!
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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