EDINBURGH EXPERT WALKING TOURS - BLOG
Edinburgh has long embraced its status as a university town, and like similar perceptions of cities like Oxford and Cambridge in England, and St Andrews elsewhere in Scotland, it is often thought of as one of the classical hubs of learning for students in the UK.
Around 12% of Edinburgh's population is made up of students, and in recent years the city has attracted increasing numbers of students coming from overseas to study here.
Today there are four universities in the city, each with their own character, history and traditions. Here's your brief introduction to these four great centres of learning.
THE UNIVERSITY OF EDINBURGH
The oldest, largest and best-known of the universities is the one which takes its name from the city itself. Established in 1582, the University of Edinburgh is one of the oldest universities in the world - although it's only the fourth oldest in Scotland, with St Andrews, Glasgow and Aberdeen having established their universities earlier (in 1410, 1451, and 1495 respectively).
Today the University of Edinburgh isn't purely campus based, but occupies a series of collections of buildings around the city, with five major campus areas and numerous other small buildings and offices around the Old Town.
The Old College is the grandest of their structures, designed by the architects Robert Adam (who gave the New Town its distinctive style in the eighteenth century) and William Playfair. Today the building houses the law school, but previously was used for medical teaching, and would have been where students such as Charles Darwin and Arthur Conan Doyle attended classes.
Other collections of offices and teaching spaces include King's Buildings, from the 1920s, New College from the 1840s (housing the school of divinity), and Moray House, the university's teaching school.
One of the busiest university areas is around Bristo Square and George Square, where the university has some of its social spaces - Potterrow and Teviot - as well as a new infomatics building, the David Hume tower, the university's main library, and the McEwan Hall, their grand graduation venue. During the spring months in particular this area is busy with students, and in the summer becomes home to a number of festival venues.
Edinburgh didn't acquire any new universities between the sixteenth century and 1966, when the former School of Arts of Edinburgh (dating back to the 1820s) was designated its new status as a university, and a new name.
Heriot-Watt references two major figures of Edinburgh's history. George Heriot was a jeweller and a goldsmith in the sixteenth century, and James Watt was an engineer and inventor whose improvements to the steam engine brought about the Industrial Revolution.
Today Heriot-Watt has a campus to the west of Edinburgh city centre, as well as a campus in Galashiels in the Scottish Borders, and (since 2005) campuses in Dubai, Malaysia and the Orkney islands. A significant part of the courses taught at Heriot-Watt remain based in technology, including chemical engineering, renewable technologies, structural engineering, computing, physics, mathematics, finance, and textile design.
Heriot-Watt was named the Sunday Times International University of the Year in 2018, and frequently scores highly in national and international rankings for its academic teaching.
Another Edinburgh figure gives his name to Edinburgh's third university. The mathematician John Napier was born at his family's estate property at Merchiston near Bruntsfield in 1550. He is best known as the discoverer of lotharithms, and for creating an early computational device known as 'Napier's Bones' which allowed for quick calculation of large numbers. On his death his was buried at St Cuthbert's church in Edinburgh's West End.
The surviving portion of Merchiston Castle, in which Napier was born, now forms the heart of the main campus of the university named for him.
Courses available at Napier include health and social care, biomechanics, business, computing and engineering, and the university has around 20,000 students, including those on overseas placements and exchange programmes.
QUEEN MARGARET UNIVERSITY
The newest of Edinburgh's universities acquired its status in 2007, having previously been a college and university college. Queen Margaret University is named for Queen Margaret of Scotland, who was also a saint (not just figuratively but actually!). She has long held an association with education in Scotland, featuring in the emblem placed on schools across Edinburgh from the nineteenth century onwards.
The university was originally set up as a cooking and domestic science academy in 1875. As a women-only establishment - founded by two women, Louisa Stevenson and Christian Guthrie Wright - its purpose was twofold: to improve the education and working status of women, and to improve the diets of poor and working class families in Edinburgh.
Over time the university incorporated other organisations and schools, including the Edinburgh College of Speech and Drama, the Edinburgh School of Speech Therapy, and the Edinburgh Foot Clinic and School of Chiropody.
Having previously occupied premises in Edinburgh and at Clermiston, in 2010 the university moved to a brand new campus location at Musselburgh, to the east of the city.
Explore more of Edinburgh's academic history and figures associated with its universities on my private city walking tours!
Not that it was the same Alexander Monro throughout that period, of course!
Alexander Monro primus left the medical school in the hands of his son, Alexander Monro secundus, who in turn passed the position to his son, Alexander Monro tertius. By the time this third Alexander Monro resigned from the medical school in 1846, the Monro dynasty had single-handedly governed the anatomy school at this world-class medical insitution for 126 years!
So here is a brief run down of the highs (and lows) of the Alexanders Monro, Edinburgh's three medical musketeers...
ALEXANDER MONRO (primus)
The first Monro was born in Edinburgh and studied at the University of Edinburgh between the ages of 13 and 16, but never graduated. Instead he served as an apprentice under his father, a surgeon in city, and on completing his apprenticeship went to London, Paris and the Netherlands to study under successive medical professionals, before returning to Edinburgh 1719.
Monro's skill and dedication to the relatively new science of anatomy so impressed the sitting professor of anatomy at the city's surgical school at Surgeons' Hall (not yet part of the University of Edinburgh itself), Adam Drummond, that he resigned in order to give the role to the young fellow in whom he saw huge potential as a teacher and medic.
Monro primus developed a reputation as a capable and popular tutor, and from 1722 was made sole professor of anatomy by the city council, giving him full control over this division of the medical school. His lectures were delivered in English instead of Latin, a rare departure for the age, and consequently became so popular with students that in 1725 the surgical college became instituted as part of the University of Edinburgh, whose facilities and capacity for students provided a greater platform for Monro's skill.
Thus the University of Edinburgh's medical school was formally established, with Monro as chair of anatomy, alongside other professors specialising in Theory of Medicine, Chemistry, Midwifery, and 'Physic'. It was then also under Monro's guidance that Edinburgh's Royal Infirmary was initially established, in 1729.
ALEXANDER MONRO (secundus)
The second Alexander Monro was born in 1733, and at the age of 12 - like his father before him - was sent to the University of Edinburgh to prepare him for a life of academia.
From the age of 18, Monro assisted his father in anatomy classes at the university, and when his father's lectures became so popular that not all the students could be accommodated in a single lecture theatre, the pair decide to split the course, with Monro primus teaching half the class during the day, and Monro secundus teaching the second half of the class in an evening lecture.
For over forty years, from 1759 to 1800, Monro secundus taught a full year of lectures at the university, before age and illness forced him into taking classes for only half the year.
As a resident of Edinburgh's New Town in the latter period of his life, Monro secundus dedicated one of his esteemed volumes of medical writings to Henry Dundas, a member of parliament at the time known in Scotland as 'the Great Dictator'. It's likely the two had become friends through their neighbourly connections in the New Town.
Monro secundus died in 1817, and was buried with his father in the grave at Greyfriars.
Despite the early nineteenth century being the heyday of medicine in Edinburgh, under Monro tertius the university began to acquire a reputation for being staid, mired in favouritism and nepotism (a charge exemplified by the Monro dynasty situation), and Monro himself was often described as being unkempt, dishevelled and even dirty during his lectures.
It may have been his visceral response to Monro's medical lectures that turned Darwin instead to the field of natural history, where he would later be a major historical influence.
During this time, too, the popularity of the medical school resulted in significant numbers of cadavers being removed from graveyards for sale to the university - this period of bodysnatching remains one of Edinburgh's worst periods of social history.
The two most famous figures associated with the bodysnatching epidemic weren't graverobbers at all. Burke and Hare went straight to source for their 'fresh meat', and murdered at least 17 people in an effort to keep the university in medical specimens. When the pair were eventually caught, Burke was executed for his role in the murders, and his body donated to the medical school...
Monro tertius died in 1859, and was buried in the Dean Cemetery in Edinburgh's New Town. In a film version of the Burke and Hare story, made in 2010, Monro was portrayed by Rocky Horror Picture Show's Tim Curry. A fitting tribute, perhaps!
Discover more medical heroes of the city with my private Edinburgh walking tours!
Just as Braveheart defined Scottish history and culture for the mid-90s film buffs, the TV adaptation of Diana Gabaldon's historical time-travelling romance series Outlander has captured the imagination (and hearts) of a whole new generation of viewers.
Originally published in the UK in 1991 as Cross Stitch, Outlander has everything a popular drama needs - doomed lovers, battles, unrequited passions and (of course) men in kilts...!
Since it premiered in 2014, the TV adaptation has been responsible for a massive surge in interest in Scottish history, with whole tour agencies dedicated to providing an authentic Outlander experience for those wanting to walk in the footsteps of Claire and Jamie.
I don't take tours out of Edinburgh, but here's my guide to some of the Outlander filming locations that can be found in the city and further around Scotland - and if you'd like a guide to take you out of the city I can make some recommendations for companies to check out.
EDINBURGH'S OLD TOWN
Series three is when the characters in the story visit Edinburgh for the first time, and there are several locations in the Old Town which were used for on-site filming.
Bakehouse Close is the one which most fans look for, as this is the location for Jamie's print shop in the series. I've lost count of the number of people on my tours who have wanted to have their photograph taken on the steps which provided access to the print shop!
The lane here was heavily decorated for filming, and appeared in a number of sequences as characters made their way through the city's busy medieval streets.
The area historically was a bakery district (as its name suggests) and the adjacent Acheson House property - also used for filming - has served as both a high-status residence and a brothel at different times in history!
Tweeddale Court is another of the old lanes which was used for filming, again highly decorated as a market place, where Claire and Jamie first re-encounter each other in the series.
This narrow lane was originally outside of the medieval city walls, which can still be seen along the alley, and later was the access point to a grand manor house owned by the Marquess of Tweeddale.
Other locations in Edinburgh which feature in the series include the World's End pub; the Signet Library, a grand eighteenth-century legal library which today hosts afternoon teas; the former veterinary school of Summerhall; and Craigmillar Castle, a ruined fortress once occupied by Mary, Queen of Scots (the area around it is still known as 'Little France') which serves as Ardsmuir Prison where Jamie is held after the Battle of Culloden in the Outlander series.
You have to go beyond the city to discover some of the more recognisable and iconic locations from the TV series.
Linlithgow Palace was the birthplace of Mary, Queen of Scots, and features in the Outlander series as the interior of Wentworth Prison. (Exterior shots of Wentworth Prison were filmed at Bamburgh Castle in northern England.)
The private estate of Hopetoun House has featured as a number of locations in the series - as the streets of Paris in season two, and the Duke of Sandringham's home in season one. In the grounds of the estate are Midhope Castle, which features as Lallybroch, the family home of Jamie Fraser. Although the estate is a private property, access can be arranged to view Midhope from the outside.
In east Lothian, outside of Edinburgh, you can find Gosford House which stood in for Versailles on screen, along with Preston Mill, a National Trust for Scotland property where Jamie was spotted hiding shirtless during season one, along with serving as the courtroom where Claire attended a hearing for witchcraft.
To the west of Edinburgh, just a short drive across the Firth of Forth, is the historic village of Culross, which features as Cranesmuir in the series.
At the heart of Culross is Culross Palace, a former royal residence which has associations with King James VI of Scotland. The palace building featured in both seasons one and two of Outlander.
The village here is a lovely place to visit, even if you don't know of its Outlander connections!
Across the other side of the water from Culross is Blackness Castle, styled imposingly in the shape of a ship moored at the side of the Firth of Forth. Blackness stood in for Fort William in the TV series.
Gosford House in East Lothian stood in for the French palace of Versailles in season 2 - a considerable amount of CGI was used to mask some of the less French styling of Robert Adam's 18th century design, but the house provided a huge expanse of land for filming, and featured in a number of scenes.
The grounds of the house can be accessed to get a sense of the lifestyle enjoyed by the Wemyss and March family, who continue to own the property.
Of course, it's the Highland landscape which is a major feature of Outlander's dramatic scenes, and if you plan to visit the Highlands from Edinburgh you should expect to spend a couple of days travelling and staying overnight rather than trying to do the journey there and back in a single day. (Edinburgh to Loch Ness and back is just over 350 miles, which equates to around 8 hours of travelling.)
The battlefield at Culloden outside Inverness was the site of the historic clash between the Jacobite Scots and English armed forced in 1746. You can visit the battlefield for free, and find the grave stones and memorials to the fallen clans, including the Clan Fraser.
Kinloch Rannoch, a short drive from Pitlochry, is the location of the infamous stone circle through which Claire travels in time, but in reality there's no stone circle at the site - they were props created for the series...
The imposing landscape of Glen Coe is on one of the main driving routes to and from the Highlands, and remains an atmospheric and rather unsettling place. The site of a bloody massacre of members of the Macdonald clan by members of the Campbell clan in February 1692, Glencoe remains popular with filmmakers as well as walkers and photographers. It's not hard to see why!
To the south west of Scotland, near Dumfries, you can find Drumlanrig Castle, the ancestral house of the Queensberry family. The building is known as the 'Pink Palace' because of the tinted sandstone which is local to this area.
In Outlander, Jamie is seen stopping off here on his journey north to Culloden.
And there are many other locations in parks, fields, forests, villages and even the university buildings of Glasgow and Stirling which stand in for various locations in Scotland and America in the series. Not all the locations are publically accessible to visitors, and many were heavily decorated for filming and don't necessarily bear much relation to what is visible on screen!
So if you're a fan of Outlander it's worth planning your visit in some detail if you want to hit some of the more popular filming sites - the sheer volume of companies offering dedicated Outlander tours means than many of the more remote locations can get very crowded in high season.
I can recommend some smaller, more personal tour services who can tailor an out of town tour to some of the filming locations, and if you want to explore the Edinburgh locations I can feature them on a private walking tour of the city.
Get in touch to find out more, or book your Edinburgh walking tour today!
There are precious few women celebrated in the popular stories and legends of Edinburgh (famously the city has more statues of dogs than it has of historical women...). But one name which is enduringly popular is that of Margaret Dickson, known as Maggie, who acquired a curious kind of celebrity in the eighteenth century.
There are many versions of her story that get told by guides on tours through the city, and the historical record makes it tricky to deduce a fair or factual account of her life (and, as we shall see, after-life) - even the century in which the incident occurred is incorrectly recorded - but this is the version that I share with groups.
Maggie Dickson had been born in or near Musselburgh, a fishing town to the east of Edinburgh, and became the wife of a local fisherman. In the 1720s, when she was still just in her early 20s, she was arrested on suspicion of murdering her newborn baby. She had been discovered in the act of trying to give the body a burial, and despite her protestations that the child had been stillborn - and without any solid medical evidence to the contrary - she was put on trial for causing its death, found guilty, and sentenced to be hanged in punishment for her actions.
The Grassmarket area of the city was where Edinburgh's executions took place at that time, where crowds of up to 20,000 spectators would gather for the spectacle of justice in action.
On 2 September 1724, Maggie Dickson was duly brought to the Grassmarket, hanged, and her body was cut down from the gallows and placed in a coffin to be taken back to Musselburgh for burial.
About half-way between the city and Musselburgh was a small village called Duddingston, and in it a pub called the Sheep Heid - the pub still stands and has claims to being the oldest surviving pub in Scotland.
The driver of the cart bearing Maggie's corpse stopped at the Sheep Heid for his lunch, and when he resumed his journey he became aware of a strange noise coming from the back of his cart.
Upon investigation, the driver discovered the noise to be coming from inside Maggie's coffin, and when he prized the lid off the coffin he discovered, to his horror, that Maggie Dickson was still alive. She wasn't in great condition (she had been hanged, after all) but she was still living, breathing and (quite literally) kicking and screaming.
Suddenly the people of Edinburgh didn't know what to make of Maggie's miraculous survival. Some were outraged and immediately called for Maggie to be taken back to the Grassmarket and hanged, according to her sentence. Otherwise, taking a more critical viewpoint, argued that she had already been hanged, and couldn't be hanged for a second time (she had only killed one baby, after all....).
The legal authorities were similarly perplexed by the state of affair, and the judges of the High Court gathered in conference to discuss what should happen to Ms Dickson. After much legal debate and scrutiny they came to the conclusion that she couldn't be hanged for a second time, as according to her sentence she had already been hanged - a second execution would be justice in bad faith, and so Margaret Dickson was allowed to live.
However, the judges amended the text of the law books that day, and from that point on the sentence was to be hanged until dead - meaning that Maggie Dickson became one of very few people to survive their execution and live to tell the tale.
Maggie Dickson lived (according to some versions of the historical record) for another sixty years, and raised another six children in the latter half of her life. She became known as 'Hauf hangit Maggie', or 'Half-hanged Maggie', and in more recent times has been accorded the greatest honour they can offer anyone in Scotland - they've named a bar after her...
On the Grassmarket today, near the site where she narrowly avoided meeting her death in the 1720s, stands Maggie Dickson's pub, a perennial favourite with drinkers and visitors to the city.
Explore more of the city's history 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...
Search the blog archive...
© COPYRIGHT GARETH DAVIES 2014-21