With the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic set to become the defining global event of 2020, it is perhaps an apposite time to reflect on previous times when illness and death stalked the streets of Edinburgh.
Between the fourteenth century and the seventeenth century the city was struck by bubonic plague - the Black Death as it became known - at frighteningly regular intervals. On most occasions the disease was eradicated in the city within a matter of months, but there was one period of over 16 years when the illness became endemic and circulated within the community pretty constantly.
And beyond the plague, other illnesses such as smallpox, typhus and tuberculosis circulated fairly freely before the age of effective medical intervention. But here are ten instances of Edinburgh dealing with a pretty persistent pestilence...
The first recorded instance of plague to affect Edinburgh occurred nearly 700 years ago, having spread around the globe via the shipping and trade routes which had begun to link what had previously been disparate continents and countries. Nations bordering the Mediterranean Sea had recorded a wave of deaths occurring very rapidly - often within two or three days after infection - and a year later such deaths were being recorded in Edinburgh itself.
It is thought that around two-thirds of the city's population (of around 10,00 people) died in this first round of illness.
A second wave of plague hits Edinburgh, this time killing around one-third of the population - and unlike the first infection, this time it is predominantly wealthier and higher status figures who are affected, perhaps because of their direct connection to infected imported goods and people bringing the disease into the country from overseas (not yet recognised as the route of transmission).
Throughout the fourteenth century, it's thought the plague killed approximately 20% of the population.
A wet summer and autumn is blamed for the illness, with the prevailing medical view about a balance of 'humours' in the human body - each of them being affected by environmental factors such as excessive heat or damp - still not recognising the presence of physical transmitters of the infection through viruses.
1498 - 1514
The longest period in which plague was rampant through Edinburgh, occasioning Edinburgh's city council to take actions to try to guard against infection, recognising the spread of disease in communities outside of the city and seeking to limit contact between those infected communities and Edinburgh itself.
A series of laws and city ordnances are put in place, including:
Teams of cleansers were employed by the city to clean and decontaminate properties where infection had been detected, using smoke and harsh chemicals. These people were housed separately from the rest of the community at the convent on St Mary Street, and paid as little as sixpence a day.
1529 - 1530
New cases of the plague saw even stronger measures taken to protect the city of Edinburgh.
The Burgh Muir, an extent of common land to the south of the Old Town (where Bruntsfield and Morningside are today) was designated as a kind of quarantine zone, and wooden huts were built to accommodate infected victims who would be taken out of the city and kept apart to prevent the spread of infection. Mass burials of plague victims also took place in this area, at a significant distance from the city centre.
During this time there are several recorded instances of punishments being meted out to residents of the city who had contravened the plague laws. One woman, Isobell Cattall, was both branded and banished from the city for not reporting that her daughter had been sick with the plague.
Patrick Gowanlock and his servant, Janet Cowan, were punished for harbouring outsiders in his property, with Gowanlock being banished from the city and Cowan branded on both cheeks for 'conniving' in the crime. An unnamed man was hanged for attending church whilst his wife was dying with the plague, and a woman named Katryne Heriot was drowned for bringing stolen goods into the city, and thereby bringing plague into the town.
After nearly a quarter of a century without incident, plague arrived back in Edinburgh, and the Burgh Muir was once again commissioned as a quarantine zone. The man in charge of looking after the patients dispatched here to die painful deaths was named John Forrest, and the terms of his contract stipulated that if any of the infected people released into his care should be deemed to have spread the disease to others, Forrest would be executed for dereliction of duty.
Thankfully this episode only lasted a year, and by 1575 the city was again disease-free.
A decade later, John Forrest was back in the Burgh Muir with more patients, and the area of infection was fenced off from the rest of the common moorland to prevent the mixing of infected and uninfected communities.
Beggars were forcibly removed from the city and people were instructed to isolate in their households if infection was suspected. A register was kept of such households, and food and drink was provided for them to prevent them needing to leave their homes. Anyone returning from the Burgh Muir was to remain in their homes for 15 days, on pain of death for anyone found breaking the rules.
At least two people were executed for contravening the regulations.
Another outbreak of the plague, arriving through the port of Leith from London, saw people being confined to their homes again, with 16 pence per person provided for those who were constrained from working.
So many people died during this outbreak - which lasted only four months - that Edinburgh's cemeteries were quickly at capacity, and a regulation was passed banning burials in coffins (which took up extra space in the grave).
1602 - 1607
Plague circulated intermittently through this period, with the Burgh Muir being utilised once again as a quarantine and burial zone.
1644 - 1645
The last, and worst, period of plague affecting Edinburgh came at the height of the English Civil War, and nearly three hundred years after the first recorded wave of infections. At this time the population of Edinburgh was approximately 30,000 people, with as many as 50% of them dying of plague.
This was the first time any dedicated medical and surgical support was provided to the city - prior to this treatment had focused on isolation and decontamination of property and materials after a death had occurred.
The medical treatment administered at this time was almost worse than the illness itself. The bubonic boils which formed on a victim within a day or so of becoming infected would be lanced with a red-hot instrument, allowing the filthy pus to be released, with the wound then cauterised to seal the flesh of the patient.
Generally patients would die anyway.
The doctor appointed to treat plague victims in Edinburgh in 1645 was a man named George Rae. He would go from house to house administering the treatment of lancing and cauterising the boils, and wore a heavy mask filled with sweet smelling herbs as a way of trying to avoid some of the stench of burned and poisoned flesh. He had been promised a hefty salary for his work (and his risk) treating patients, and it seems that the city authorities at that time anticipated that Rae would himself become infected with plague and die, since it transpired that they had no intention of paying the promised fee.
In the decade after the last incidence of plague in Edinburgh, Rae battled the council to get the money he had been promised, but is believed to have eventually died without receiving his dues.
One notable victim of the plague from this period was John Livingston, an apothecary or chemist who worked to treat those diagnosed with plague, and whose home had been built in 1639 at the edge of the Burgh Muir area where many plague victims were sent. He died in 1645, having contracted plague from the people he was treating.
He was buried in a tomb on his property which stands to this day and can be visited just off Chamberlain Road in Bruntsfield.
What is interesting about these events as we read them with a modern eye is the similarity in the attitudes to treatment, protection and prevention of the spread of disease. Social distancing, isolation, 10pm curfews and the closure of businesses are all features of the modern approach to tackling Covid-19, and whilst the comparisons with the plague aren't all entirely accurate (or appropriate) the similarities in our attitudes from those of 400 years ago are curious!
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This article was inspired and informed by THE ELEVEN PLAGUES OF EDINBURGH by W. J. MacLennan.
With ongoing restrictions on public gatherings and social contact in Scotland (and all around the world) there has never been a better time to explore Edinburgh's outdoor spaces. A survey of British cities a few years ago ranked Edinburgh top for green spaces in the UK - 49% of the city centre is covered by parks!
Most visitors can find Princes Street Gardens, the Meadows or Holyrood Park and Arthur's Seat by themselves, so here's a quick rundown of some of the city's less familiar spaces to escape the crowds and enjoy a breath of socially distanced fresh air...
The proximity of Edinburgh to the coast means that there are plenty of beach walks, especially out to the east of the city. But tucked away on the edge of the Firth of Forth is the former Roman settlement of Cramond, with an expanse of walking space along the shore - either along the beach or a paved pathway, or venture inland along the River Almond as it flows into the firth and walk along to the Dalmeny Estate.
Brave souls (who check the tides!) may also venture across to Cramond Island, just a short distance from the shore but cut off at high tide. The island itself is great to explore, with its former military structures built to provide protection in the Forth during WWII.
A popular destination for families and dog walkers, Cramond village has a couple of nice cafes for refreshments before or after a walk.
At the bottom of the New Town, and adjacent to the city's Botanic Gardens, another amazing destination for those looking to ditch the crowds, Inverleith is one of Edinburgh's brilliant multi-purpose public spaces.
A children's playground attract families while tennis courts, rugby and footbal pitches attract more sporty visitors, but there's also plenty of wide open space for dog walkers. The pond - usually generously populated with ducks and swans - gives views across to the city itself, and being south-facing is a recommended spot for a lazy picnic or simply a relaxing afternoon to sit and chill.
Another former estate property, and another site popular with dog walkers, is Cammo, on the western edge of Edinburgh, near the airport. The ruins of this old house can still be found in the middle of expansive grounds which feature a variety of landscape features, from a wooded glade to wide open fields and former lawns, as well as an ornamental canal and a walled orangery, now overgrown and derelict.
Take any number of paths through the estate, and discover its original driveway (now overgrown) and its carriage houses and stable blocks, today just tumbledown ruins. It's an atmospheric space with plenty of nooks and crannies to explore.
Another of the city's volcanic outcrops, Blackford Hill to the south of the Old Town is a popular destination for dog walkers, as well as being the location of the city's Royal Observatory, moved here from Calton Hill in the nineteenth century.
Enjoy panoramic views over Edinburgh from the top of the hill, or take the kids for an exploration of the pond at the base of the park, which is also a designated wildlife reserve. The sense of space here is immense, and down in the valley behind the hill is the next local gem...
THE HERMITAGE OF BRAID
A former estate property set in a tranquil wooded valley behind Blackford Hill, through which the Braid Burn (stream) runs, the Hermitage gets its name for the peace and isolation it offered visitors before the city environs grew out to surround it.
Another popular walk for locals with dogs, the stream is also often a destination for school groups and nature clubs exploring the wildlife found along its banks. The Hermitage property itself is now a community centre, but features like the old ice house is a reminder of its function as a grand residence.
Networks of paths run through the trees and criss-cross the stream on a series of bridges, giving a genuine sense of exploring off the beaten track, but you're never more than ten minutes from civilisation!
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Of all the figures who have shaped or influenced Edinburgh's development through the ages, one man probably deserves ultimate recognition for creating not just the visual appeal of the city as we know, but for developing the very principles which underpin Edinburgh's heritage sector.
Patrick Geddes had a major influence in a variety of different fields and subjects during his life, and Edinburgh was the focus of several of his major ideas for city planning and heritage preservation. He was born on 2 October 1854, in Aberdeenshire, and his journeys would take him not just across Scotland but around the globe.
Geddes's primary interest was in the natural world, and his career incorporated work as a zoology professor (in Edinburgh), botany (in Dundee), sociology (at the University of Bombay, now Mumbai), and town planning (in Jerusalem, and Tel Aviv - which became the only modern city fully laid out to Geddes's plans).
His diversity of interest led him to criticise the tendency for scientists to specialise in a particular field to the exclusion of others - the interconnectedness of the natural world and human civilisation was key to his multi-faceted approach to life.
The emblem of the three doves (seen on the sign of the steps which bear Geddes's name in Edinburgh's Old Town today) was a motif he used throughout his work, symbolising the three factors which he considered important in any work of human endeavour - hand, heart and head (in that order of priority).
In Geddes's Edinburgh, at the end of the nineteenth- and turn of the twentieth centuries, the crumbling structures of the medieval Old Town were being ritually demolished and replaced with 'modern' Victorian buildings. This improved their function, but lost the history and heritage of the older structures. Dismayed by this sacrificing of the old in favour of the new, Geddes experimented with a new way of thinking about urban development, which combined modernisation with historical preservation.
In 1886 Geddes and his wife purchased a block of eighteenth-century buildings on James Court, just off the Lawnmarket, which at that time had become a dense, dirty and overcrowded slum district.
Instead of demolishing the buildings, Geddes oversaw a project which he described as "conservative surgery" - he had the worst buildings removed, in order to improve the situation for the surviving structures. Creating more space, with more light, and a better flow of fresh air through the site, Geddes then renovated the surviving buildings to improve conditions. The site became a halls of residence for Edinburgh University students.
Geddes's next major project in the city was to take over the Outlook Tower on Castlehill, which had been built in the 1850s as Maria Short's Observatory and Museum of Science. Today the building survives as the city's Camera Obscura.
Geddes arranged the exhibitions in the building in order of focus, beginning on the ground floor with an overview of world geography, on the next floor was Europe, then the United Kingdom, then Scotland, and finally a feature dedicated to Edinburgh itself. The camera obscura on the very top of the building provided a real-time demonstration of Geddes's vision of Edinburgh as a living, breathing, developing city.
This sociological laboratory, as he described it, put the emphasis on observation and study as a means of understanding the world, and from that his ethos of 'diagnosis before treatment' - to understand a thing before an attempt to improve or renovate it. He disagreed with a trend at that time to build or develop a city with a pre-ordained sense of how its users would interact with it - better, Geddes thought, to understand how a historic population had grown to use their space, how a city had been shaped by its inhabitants, and to develop from that.
Across the Royal Mile from James Court was Riddle's Court, another run-down and poorly maintained building, this time a survivor from the sixteenth century. Riddle's Court had previously been associated with high status figures like the Enlightenment philosopher David Hume, as well as having hosted James VI of Scotland his new wife for a banquet in their honour in 1598. By the 1890s the building was overcrowded, with terrible sanitation, and was ripe for demolition.
Instead, Geddes brought to bear his 'conservative surgery' method, stripping away the parts of the development which couldn't be saved, and transforming the remainder of the building into another student accommodation block, in which he also implemented the outrageous idea (for the time) of letting the student living here govern themselves! They set their own in-house policies, and were responsible for maintaining the building to suit their needs.
Riddle's Court was recently renovated by the Scottish Historic Buildings Trust, and today houses the Patrick Geddes Centre, a conservation and community organisation founded on Geddes's principles.
As well as the large buildings and gardens which survive as monuments to Geddes's vision, smaller details of the city also reflect his influence on the city. Notably on Wardrop's Court, another lane leading off the Royal Mile. At the entrance to the lane are two colourful dragon sculptures, commissioned by Geddes during his extensive renovations of the nearby structures.
Most poignantly, the pair of dragons on the inner court were carved not by a master craftsman, but by Geddes's youngest son, Arthur, with guidance from the sculptor Alec Miller.
They may not be as refined and expertly finished as the outer dragons, but they stand as a direct connection to Geddes family itself.
Past the dragons is the small courtyard of Lady Stair's Close, home to the Writers' Museum and sometimes known as Makars' Court. Lady Stair's House itself is another of Geddes's renovations, though not one he undertook himself. Rather he convinced the Earl of Rosebery, a distant relation of the original owner of the building, to buy the property back from Edinburgh Council in order to repair and restore the structure.
Today the building has a decorative plaque bearign both the date of its original construction (1622) and the date of its restoration (1897)
One of Geddes's perennial concerns was the amount of green space in the Old Town of Edinburgh - or rather the lack of it. Geddes recognised the need for people to have access to open space, to have contact with the natural world in the heart of the densely crowded city.
As such, he introduced a number of urban gardens into spaces left vacant by buildings which had been removed, or created green spaces with the intention of having them with public access for local people to enjoy as they saw fit. Examples of Geddes's gardens can be found around the Grassmarket, tucked away behind buildings or up narrow alleys, and further down the Royal Mile, off Canongate, is one of his original spaces which was renovated in the 1970s.
Dunbar's Close Garden is a recreation of an eighteenth century private garden, on land that was acquired by Geddes in the nineteenth century. It continues to offer a peaceful escape from the busyness of the city, and a secret oasis of tranquility just off the Royal Mile.
There are significant numbers of other buildings and lanes which bear the mark of Geddes's interventions to preserve and maintain them, but the one which most visitors notice at some point during their visit stands right in front of Edinburgh Castle.
Ramsay Garden was where Geddes himself lived for a time, in a development which began in the 1740s by the poet and librarian Allan Ramsay. This distinctive pink and white coloured building was built as a collection of private apartments designed for each individual family who lived in them, and as such the building has no fixed floor plan over its levels, but is instead a series of properties all constructed and laid out according to the the needs of each separate family.
Today flats in this building are some of the most sought after and highly valued properties in Edinburgh, with commanding views over the New Town to the north, or across to the mighty fortress of Edinburgh Castle itself.
And to think that without Geddes's vision and commitment to preserving the city's ancient structures and fitting them to the needs of the contemporary society, so many of these historic features may have been (as so many others were) lost to the merciless swing of the demolition ball in the nineteenth century development boom.
Truly, it is Sir Patrick Geddes to whom we owe a debt of gratitude of gifting us the modern Old Town of Edinburgh.
Discover more of Patrick Geddes's influences on Edinburgh with 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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