EDINBURGH EXPERT WALKING TOURS - BLOG
Five-hundred years ago, in 1516, King Henry VIII established the role of Master of the Posts, who had responsibility for delivering the royal messages between courts and castles.
In 1603, when James VI of Scotland became James I of England, one of his first acts on moving from Edinburgh to London was to extend and develop the postal service to ensure that contact between London and Edinburgh was well maintained.
In 1635 this royal mail service became publicly accessible, with postage payable by the recipient of a letter - it was free to send it, but cost money to receive it! In 1660, Charles II officially launched the General Post Office, and the national postal service was officially born.
Today, half a millennium after the original service, the Royal Mail continues to deliver the bulk of the public post in the UK - the Post Office itself is a separate company which operates as a retail outlet. So in effect, you pay the Post Office for the stamp on your letter, but it's the Royal Mail which is responsible for carrying and delivering it.
Traditionally, public mail boxes served by the Royal Mail bore the insignia of the monarch on the throne when they were established. The first pillar boxes were set up during the reign of Queen Victoria in the 1850s, and bear her royal insignia - VR for Victoria regina.
Around Edinburgh you'll find many VR postboxes (pre-1901), an occasional Edward VII (1901-1910), and plenty of GR boxes, from the reigns of George V and George VI. What you won't find, however, are boxes bearing the insignia of Elizabeth II, our current monarch.
During the 1970s, a number of postboxes bearing the EIIR emblem were vandalised and were targets of explosive devices left in the boxes, which caused considerable risk to the members of the postal service responsible for making collections from them.
The resistance that some people in Scotland had to the EIIR insignia was based on the assertion that Elizabeth II of England is only (technically) Elizabeth I of Scotland - Elizabeth I of England ruled before Scotland and England were united. As such, some people in Scotland felt that the EIIR insignia was not appropriate for the monarch they failed to recognise by that title.
With such explosive resistance proving a threat to mail service employees, an agreement was reached that post boxes in Scotland would not bear the insignia of Elizabeth II, but would instead be marked simply with a general royal emblem or a crown crest.
So next time you drop off some postcards home in one of our distinctive red post boxes around the city, check out the emblem to find out which monarch was on the throne when that particular post box was established!
Explore the city in more detail with my private walking tours of Edinburgh.
For those with the means and time to travel outside of Edinburgh, the surrounding areas and landscape are bursting with historic sights and attractions worth checking out.
Within easy distance of the city, and accessible by bus, is the small village of Cockenzie and Port Seton, an historic fishing village on the East Lothian coastline.
As well as being a picturesque area to walk through - and the popular John Muir Way leads straight along the shoreline here - one of the most historic features is Cockenzie House, a seventeenth-century manor house which was once home to the wealthy Cadell family from this area.
The house today is in the process of developing itself into one of the area's key historic visitor sites, with recent restoration of several rooms in the house to restore the style and atmosphere of the original property, as well as restoring the extensive gardens to the front of the building.
Now run by a heritage committee keen to showcase Cockenzie House's historic character, the venue is being made available for a variety of popular uses, from weddings to craft fairs, Jacobite-themed dinners and Outlander-inspired afternoon teas.
Inside the house, the atmosphere of the property in its heyday is wonderfully palpable, with the rooms illustrating the style and quality of life that was embodied by those who lived here.
The building was originally built in the 1680s by James Smith, whose other notable works include Edinburgh's Canongate Kirk, and Traquair House in the Scottish Borders. During the Jacobite Battle of Prestonpans in 1745, the Royalist forces, marshalled by Sir John Cope, left their luggage and valuables at Cockenzie House. In the aftermath of the battle (which lasted only 10 minutes) the Jacobite forces raided the house and made off with the valuables left there for safekeeping!
In the nineteenth-century Robert Cadell was the publisher of Sir Walter Scott's novels, and enlisted the artist JMW Turner to provide illustrations for many of Scott's books. Both Scott and Turner visited the property many times, and the Cadell family retained the property until 1919, when the house was leased to the botanist, anthropologist and explorer Sir Everard Ferdinand im Thurn. Thurn would later be credited as the inspiration for the central figure in Arthur Conan Doyle's novel The Lost World.
Today the house is a haven for those seeking to connect with East Lothian's historic past, and rooms in the house can be hired out for private events with an historic twist, or the gardens utilised for al fresco events.
Cockenzie House also currently houses Hecla, a contemporary art and jewellery studio (named after the unusual stone grotto in the gardens), and is soon to launch a new tea room, both with public access throughout the week. The house is available for hire for public and private events on request.
Explore Edinburgh's hidden history with a private walking tour!
Today, 9 September, marks the anniversary of the Battle of Flodden, of the most significant military events in Scottish history, with far-reaching consequences for Edinburgh in particular, and Scotland as a whole.
In August 1513, King James IV of Scotland had given notice to his enemy, Henry VIII of England, that he intended to invade northern England. At that time, England and France had been at war, and in honour of the traditional 'auld alliance' between Scotland France, the invasion led by James IV was intended to draw troops away from the battle with France. As such it was always intended as something of a suicide mission, though nobody could have predicted how badly the Scots would fare.
James marshalled his troops on the Burgh Muir, roughly in the area where Bruntsfield stands today - the Bore Stone at the top of Morningside Road traditionally (but probably apocryphally) marks the spot where the troops mustered under James's banner, before beginning the march south.
Just over the border with England, outside Flodden in modern-day Northumberland, just past Coldstream, the English and Scots armies met. The landscape of the battlefield - being on a steep hill - and the English experience of battle and general preparedness, would lead to an ignominious defeat for James IV and the Scots. Figures on the casualty numbers vary, but it is generally agreed that the English lost between 1,200 and 1,500 men, whilst some estimates of the Scottish casualties reach as high as 17,000. It was a bitter defeat, and James IV died in battle - the last monarch from the British Isles to suffer such a fate.
News of the disaster eventually reached Edinburgh - some say it was foretold the night before the battle by a ghostly apparition who appeared at the Mercat Cross on the Royal Mile, and read out the roll-call of all the names of those who died in the battle - and suddenly the city found itself incredibly vulnerable. Without an army to protect it, the city was at risk of invasion, and the wall built by James II in 1450 was not substantial enough to keep out an invading English army. And so a new plan was launched to construct a second, larger defensive wall around the south of the city.
The Flodden Wall, as it became, was a fearsome barrier, studded with watchtowers to allow for a more economic defence of the city with comparatively fewer soldiers. It took around sixty years to finish the construction, at least in part because in its early stages the wall was built by women and old people and children - the majority of the working age men of the city simply hadn't returned from Flodden...
Large portions of the Flodden Wall still stand today, and can be found in sections along the Vennel, south of the Grassmarket, in Greyfriars Kirkyard, and along the Pleasance in particular. This defeat of the Scots would be regarded as their worst defeat at the hands of the English, in terms of the number of losses their troops suffered, and the event was commemorated in poem and song by some of the country's creative figures - Walter Scott in particular wrote of the battle in Marmion, published in 1808.
An extract from Scott's poem is inscribed in stonework on the pavement of the Grassmarket, at the western end, which marks the line of where a demolished section of the Flodden Wall originally stood.
Find out more about the defence of Edinburgh with my private walking tours of the city!
One of Edinburgh's most infamous series of events culminated on 7 September, 1736. In April of that year, a convicted smuggler had been executed for the crime of avoiding paying tax to the British government, an event which in turn led to a series of brutal repercussions which became known as the Porteous Riots.
The new taxes had been brought into effect following Scotland's union with England nearly 30 years previously, in 1707. The increased taxes brought an increase in tax evasion, and the hanging of Andrew Wilson was the climax of something of a show trial, intended to make an example of him and his fellow smugglers, and to act as a disincentive to others who may be inclined to similarly seek to deprive the government of their tax income.
At the execution, in Edinburgh's Grassmarket, unrest had broken out in the crowd, leading to the instruction from John Porteous, captain of the City Guard, for his men to fire their muskets to break up the dissenting mob. The riot which broke out left six people dead, and Porteous was arrested and put on trial for their murders.
At his trial in July 1736, Porteous was found guilty of all the charges, and sentenced to be executed. Shortly before his sentence was to be carried out, a stay of execution came from London, who considered that Porteous had only been doing his job in upholding the government position.
The people of Edinburgh rose up against Porteous and his favourable relationship with the British government, and the night before his anticipated release a mob stormed the Tolbooth prison on the Royal Mile and dragged Porteous from his cell to face a summary execution in the Grassmarket.
With none of the apparatus for the execution in place - no gallows, noose or ladders - the mob broke a window of a shop on the West Bow, took a length of rope and left a coin in payment for it, and dragged Porteous down the alley which today is Hunter's Close. It was down that alley the Porteous met his death, his naked, badly beaten body found the next morning, twirling at the end of a rope strung from a dyer's pole.
Porteous was buried in the Greyfriars Kirkyard with a headstone simply bearing the letter P, and the date, 1736. The current gravestone was erected in his memory in 1973.
The Porteous Riots, as they became known, led to a series of punitive measures imposed on Edinburgh by the British government as retribution for the society taking a matter of law into its own hands, and a description of the events can be read in Walter Scott's classic novel, The Heart of Midlothian. Today the alley at Hunter's Close has a plaque commemorating Porteous, and elsewhere in the Grassmarket you can find a lane with the name Porteous Pend.
Learn more about Porteous, and others who went to their deaths in the Grassmarket, on 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...
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