EDINBURGH EXPERT WALKING TOURS - BLOG
In honour of it being St Andrew's Day in Scotland every 30 November, here's a brief introduction to St Andrew Square, one of Edinburgh's iconic Georgian squares in the New Town area.
The square was created during the first phase of building of the New Town from the 1760s, and was an integral part of James Craig's design to have George Street flanked at each end with an impressive garden square. Named for the patron saint of Scotland, the large monument in the centre of the square isn't in fact dedicated to the eponymous saint.
The statue is of Henry Dundas, first Viscount Melville, and a man of considerable influence in Scotland in the latter half of the eighteenth century, his power gaining him the nicknames 'King Henry the Ninth' and 'the Great Tyrant'.
He was the United Kingdom's first Secretary of State for War, and is (to date) the last member of British Parliament to be impeached, for misappropriation of public money - some say the money he 'misappropriated' was used to construct the monument, costing £8,000, on which his statue stands today.
The Dundas family seemed to have a predilection for behaving badly - Henry's cousin, Lawrence Dundas bought a plot of land on the east side of the square, land which had been intended for the construction of St Andrew's church, as laid out in James Craig's original designs for the New Town. Instead of constructing the church, however, Dundas had a large mansion house built for his family to live in. In 1825 the mansion passed into ownership of the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS), becoming its head office. The building still operates as a branch of RBS today. (The church which was supposed to have been sited here moved a short way down George Street.)
After its completion the square was an incredibly desirable place to live, with many well-off family and landowners purchasing properties here. Famous residents include Sir Henry Brougham, whose name lives on in the design of the four-wheeled horse-drawn carriage that he had built to his specifications. The philosopher David Hume not only lived on the square, but who unwittingly gave his name to one of the streets running off it. A dedicated atheist, the previously unnamed street between St Andrew's Square and Princes Street was (ironically) dubbed 'Saint David Street' in honour of its famous occupant. The name stuck, and today is still known as St David Street.
Today the square is open as a public garden, as well as a useful thoroughfare to cross between George Street and the east side of the square. At the north east corner of the square is access to Edinburgh Bus Station, adjacent to the Harvey Nichols department store. Recent efforts are underway to redevelop the south side of the square, removing unsightly architectural constructions from the 1960s and replacing them with building which work to retain and show off the square architectural heritage.
Explore the New Town in more detail with a private Edinburgh city walking tour!
With its characteristic hills and valleys, ploughed into ridges and troughs, Edinburgh is a city very much shaped by geological influences. Although much of the ground beneath your feet in Edinburgh was shaped primarily by the effects of the last ice age, the most visible influences on the cityscape are the three extinct volcanoes whose outcrops still dominate the city today.
The rock on which Edinburgh Castle is built is the plug of a volcano, believed to be around 350 million years old. The summit of the rock is 130 metres above sea level, and it was on this exposed by defensively significant site that human occupation in the city began approximately 3,000 years ago.
At the other end of Princes Street, graced by the columns of Playfair's unfinished National Monument, is Calton Hill. A second volcano site, the hill here is only 103 metres high but is easily climbed and affords a fantastic 360-degree panoramic outlook across the city and further afield to Fife, over the Firth of Forth (the estuary of the river Forth) to the north.
The most dramatic of the volcanoes, however, is Arthur's Seat. Situated at the centre of Holyrood Park to the east of the city centre, it rises to a height of just over 250 metres, and is a worthy attraction to visitors wishing to stretch their legs and gain a new perspective on the city. The lower slopes of the hill are easily climbed, whilst the final stretch is a little more challenging, so solid footwear and a willingness to scramble as required are advised.
The name Arthur's Seat has no solid derivation. Some people attach it to the Arthurian legends of Camelot, but a more grounded explanation is likely to be a corruption of the Gaelic phrase Àrd-na-Said, meaning 'the height of the arrows', indicating the highest altitude that an archer could attain with an arrow fired from his bow. (If you're fortunate you may still witness the Royal Company of Archers, the Queen's official bodyguards in Scotland, who still practice in the grounds of Holyroodhouse at the base of Arthur's Seat.)
Viewed from the city centre, in front of Arthur's Seat is a ridge of imposing cliffs, called Salisbury Crags. If scaling the full height of Arthur's Seat feels too much for you, there are paths which run along the base of the crags - called the Radical Road - and also along the top, both providing picturesque outlooks over the city. The creation of the crags came about when the volcano collapsed in on itself, and as the surface crust fell into the crater the land broke off and pivoted upwards. On the smoother side of the crags, between the ridge of clifftop and Arthur's Seat itself, is further evidence of prehistoric human occupation, dating back several thousand years.
It was whilst excavating sites around Holyrood Park and Arthur's Seat in the latter part of the eighteenth-century that James Hutton discovered what he considered to be evidence for dating the Earth's mass. Prior to this time it was widely accepted that Earth had been created according to the terms laid out in the Christian creation myth - that is, within seven days, and probably only about 6,000 years previously. Hutton uncovered layers in the rock which seemed not to make sense, as the lower layers of rock - those which had been deepest underground - bore evidence of being younger than the rocks at the surface.
This observation gave rise to his theories about the way in which the Earth shifts and recreates itself, a process of ongoing change and difference, which in turn led to our current understanding of structures such as the tectonic plates which support Earth's massive landmasses. These insights coincided with the so-called Scottish Enlightenment, and earned Hutton the moniker the Father of Modern Geology. You can still visit the site of Hutton's excavations in Holyrood Park, where the exposed layers of his work bear the name Hutton's Unconformity.
Within Holyrood Park are a number of natural and man-made lakes, and the ruins of St Anthony's Chapel, dating to the fifteenth century. Along with a plethora of plants and wildlife - Historic Scotland run the ranger service responsible for maintaining the park itself - Arthur's Seat and Holyrood Park are an integral part of Edinburgh's scenery. And, what is more, access to the park and to Arthur's Seat is completely free of charge, making it an economical choice for visitors too!
Explore more of the city with my private walking tours!
Edinburgh is a city bursting with independent retailers, and whilst in recent times the city centre may have given way to many chains and branded stores, it's the local, independent merchants who are still likely to be hands-down favourites with locals.
One such local store has attained a reputation and a customer base which has seen fit to rank it among the best delicatessens not only in Scotland but in the UK as well. Near the top of Leith Walk, five minutes walk past the eastern end of Princes Street, is the deceptively small shopfront of Valvona and Crolla, an Italian food and wine merchant that was established here in 1934. As they celebrate over 80 years in business, and still in the same building for all of those years, Valvona and Crolla (or V&C as locals know it) is well worth taking a stroll to visit whilst you're in the city.
Founded by two Italian immigrant families, the shop today trades internationally and is still family-run. Philip Contini is grandson of original co-proprietor Alfonso Crolla, and together with his wife Mary they manage the daily business of selling imported Italian meats, cheese, pasta, fruit and vegetables, as well as wine and a whole range of home and kitchen gifts and accessories. They bake their own bread in their local bakery premises, and at the back of the narrow, Aladdin's cave of a shop there is a restaurant and cafe serving high-quality meals, snacks and drinks. Snap up a copy of Mary's latest recipe book, or catch Philip performing with his Be Happy Band during the festival or on special occasions!
Combining the very best of Italian and Scottish produce, heritage and tradition, V&C makes for a tasty stop-off on a stroll around the city, or a convenient place to meet friends for a coffee.
The Scots-Italian tradition has become well established in Edinburgh, following the arrival of many immigrant families to Scotland during the early twentieth-century. Although introducing Scots to an eye-opening (and mouthwatering) selection of pasta, 'proper' ice cream and coffee, it wasn't always easy for such families and businesses, especially during the Second World War.
But today Valvona and Crolla is a thriving and forward-looking local business which trades all over Europe, with their Scots-Italian heritage proudly to the fore, and can look forward to at least another eighty years as an independent family business.
Get tips on more local restaurants and shops when you book a private city walking tour with me!
St Andrew has been recognised as the patron saint of Scotland (as well as Greece, Russia, Poland and a few other places...) ever since the declaration of Arbroath in 1320. Several relics of the martyred apostle (a fisherman by trade) were brought to a small coastal village in Fife in the middle of the 10th century, and the town on the site today is named St Andrews after him. The cross of St Andrew - deriving from the form of the crucifixion by which he died - is also a national symbol of Scotland, and is represented in our national flag, the Saltire.
In the 11th century, Queen Margaret (later canonised and made Saint Margaret) established a ferry crossing to carry pilgrims journeying northwards to the reliquary in St Andrews. The site of this crossing is still marked today by the villages of Queensferry and North Queensferry on the banks of the Firth of Forth, some distance to the north of Edinburgh. The world-famous Forth Rail Bridge was constructed to carry a rail line across the Forth in the same area, opening in 1890.
The national shrine to St Andrew is located in St Mary's Metropolitan Cathedral at the eastern end of Edinburgh city centre, where two relics of St Andrew (one described as a 'large portion of the shoulder of the Apostle Andrew') are kept, presented to the cathedral in 1879 and 1969. St Andrew's body is today housed in Amalfi, in southern Italy.
St Andrew's Day is celebrated on 30th November each year, and following the Scottish Parliament's introduction of the St. Andrew's Day Bank Holiday (Scotland) Act 2007 the day is officially a bank holiday across Scotland. Perhaps confusingly, banks are not required to close and employers are not required to grant the day as holiday to employees! Nevertheless, the day is usually marked in a variety of ways across the country, as much in a celebration of Scotland and Scottish culture and identity as for St Andrew himself.
The weekend nearest to 30th November is usually the most prodigious period of celebration, and visitors are likely to be able to enjoy a variety of experiences during this weekend and the surrounding days, including ceilidhs, dinners, concerts or dramatic performances, or special menus or deals in restaurants across the country.
Explore more of Edinburgh with my private walking tours!
At the bottom of the Esplanade, in front of Edinburgh Castle, you will find a small monument known as the Witches' Well. No longer a functioning well, it was constructed as a small memorial fountain to commemorate the women (and men) burned as witches, a spectacle which traditionally took place here at the top of Castlehill.
The process of trying, torturing and executing people accused as witches is an unpleasant one, but according to the official Records of the Burgh of Edinburgh show it could also be a pretty costly one, too. The following details are taken from a report into the death of John Fian, a schoolteacher from Prestonpans outside of Edinburgh, executed along with "a number of others" on the 16th December 1590.
In order to be executed at the stake (after having been first strangled into unconsciousness, if a degree of clemency had been allowed), a carpenter would have dug a hole and erected the wooden post into the ground, "for which he was paid ten shillings". This sum is equivalent to just over £100 in today's money - a small fortune in 1590.
Then there is the material required for the actual burning. We're told that "ten cart-loads of coal" were heaped around the post, at a cost of 64 shillings (nearly £700 today), over which two bundles of heather (not so lucky for those accused of witchcraft...) and two bundles of yellow broom were spread. As if this material weren't flammable enough, "six barrels of tar" were poured on top.
But most expensive of all was the cost of the executioner himself. According to a dictionary of the Scots language dating from 1818, a public executioner was called "the lokman" (also known as the 'doomster'), and for the execution of John Fian (and others) in 1590 he was paid £5, 18s and 2d - or a whopping £1,250 in modern money!
Not bad for a day's work. It's true what they say - there's a good living to be made from death, especially in the sixteenth century!
Check out the Witches' Well as you approach Edinburgh Castle. It's on the end wall of the last building on the right hand side as you head up Castlehill, and it is engraved with a brief history explaining its commemoration of those executed at this site.
Explore the darker side of Edinburgh with my private walking tours!
As the city of Edinburgh grew and expanded its boundaries, outlying areas and settlements that were originally external to the city became integrated into the city itself.
Many of these smaller areas still survive as districts or suburbs of Edinburgh, and some still retain a sense of distinct character and identity. Any visitor to Edinburgh would be heartily encouraged to explore and investigate these outlying areas for a richly varied experience of shops, cafes, restaurants and accommodation.
Bruntsfield is one such area, lying to the south of the main east-west city axis. It takes its name from a corruption of 'Brown's Fields', after a previous landowner, and originally fell within the Burgh Muir, an expansive area of outlying land no longer formally recognised, although the name survives in a couple of street names and that of a local secondary school, Boroughmuir High.
Originally woodland, the area was cleared during the reign of James IV in 1508, and much of the wood from the trees felled here was used in the construction of timber-framed properties on what is today the Royal Mile and West Bow. A small quarry was established in Bruntsfield, taking stone to build local city properties, and the spaces between the excavated areas became a popular area for playing a form of golf, a pastime which survives today on the Bruntsfield Links, a public pitch-and-putt short-hole golf course. Bring your own clubs and balls to play an idle round or hire them from the nearby Golf Tavern for a small fee.
The area was developed into characteristic Edinburgh tenements, streets of large terraces subdivided into flats, with the main streets having shops in the ground floor properties at street level. Bruntsfield today is a thriving hub that is known for its local and independent shopping opportunities. Aside from a few small chain stores, there are plenty of independent cafes and restaurants and boutique shops.
Bruntsfield remains an excellent local community with thriving businesses, and as well as being popular choice for locals is also worth a look by those visiting the city. Stretch your legs, break away from the city centre environs, and discover a whole other side to Edinburgh just a few minutes off the beaten tourist track.
Explore more of the city with a private walking tour!
Charlotte Square at the west end of Edinburgh's New Town is a part of the city bursting with historical and architectural interest. If you're visiting the city, or even if you live here, take some time to walk around its four sides to experience what life was like at the heart of Edinburgh's Georgian New Town.
Many buildings around the square have historical significance - Field Marshall Douglas Haig was born in a house on the southern side in June 1851, and a few years previously at number 14 South Charlotte Street, leading off the square to the south, Alexander Graham Bell had been born, later to become popularly credited with inventing the telephone.
Number 6 Charlotte Square - called Bute House - is today the official residence of the First Minister of Scotland, and at number 7 is the Georgian House, a period recreation of what these properties were like, run and managed by the National Trust for Scotland. The offices of the Edinburgh International Book Festival, held on the square every summer, are at number 5a Charlotte Square.
Charlotte Square was the final area of construction from the first phase of the New Town development, finally being completed in 1820, over fifty years since the construction had begun at the east end of the city.
At the centre of the (still private) gardens in the middle of the square is a statue of Prince Albert, commissioned by Queen Victoria following Albert's death. Victoria considered the statue a great likeness of her husband, and at its unveiling is said to have knighted the sculptor, John Steell, on the spot.
James Craig's original designs for the New Town stipulated that both Charlotte Square and its opposite number at the east end of George Street, St Andrew Square, would be graced by a church. The squares would be named for the respective patron saints of Scotland and England - St Andrew to the east and St George at the west end of the city.
By the time they came to develop St George Square, however, another development south of the Royal Mile had taken the name George Square - in order to avoid confusing postmen and tourists, they renamed the New Town develop Charlotte Square, after the wife of the monarch, George III.
The building of the former St George's church still stands on the west side of Charlotte Square, but is today one of the offices of the National Archive of Scotland. The dome at the top of the building was modelled on the dome of St Paul's Cathedral in London, and the building itself was originally designed by Robert Adam.
When severe subsidence was discovered under the church building in the 1960s the Church of Scotland sold the building to the city council who could afford to restore it to the perpendicular, and it has remained in the portfolio of council properties ever since.
Explore Charlotte Square and the New Town in more detail 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...
Search the blog archive...
© COPYRIGHT GARETH DAVIES 2014-21