EDINBURGH EXPERT WALKING TOURS - BLOG
Here's the final instalment of my alphabetical exploration of Edinburgh, featuring the letters V, W, and Y, with a couple of cheaty entries for X and Z! Links to the previous posts can be found at the bottom of the article.
THE LETTER V
V is for the Vennel, a narrow lane running off the Grassmarket. The Scots word 'vennel' described any such lane, similar to the 'ginnel' of northern England, but whereas Edinburgh has many of the 'closes' and 'wynds' that were the local names for the alleys, the city today has just one vennel.
From the Grassmarket, the steep steps leading up the Vennel doubtless put off many from exploring it, but climbing the steps is rewarded with an unparalleled view across to Edinburgh Castle. (If the steps look familiar, it may be from the film version of Muriel Spark's Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, in which the lane featured in 1969...)
At the top of the steps, you can also see not one but two of the defensive walls which enclosed the southern side of Edinburgh, the Flodden Wall (built after 1513) and the Telfer Wall (c.1620s). The junction of these two walls offers a chance to contrast the building style and materials of each wall, and give a sense of how imposing the walls would have been to visitors approaching from the south.
THE LETTER W
W is for White Horse Close, one of the picturesque lanes off the Royal Mile near Holyrood. The building at the head of the lane was formerly the White Horse Inn, which was the coaching inn where visitors would have arrived into Edinburgh during the seventeenth century.
Stage coaches ran regularly along the Great North Road, connecting London and Edinburgh, roughly along the line of the A1 and M1 motorway today. In the early days of the service, it could take anywhere from ten to fourteen days to travel between the two cities, and on arrival in Edinburgh visitors would have been accommodated in this lane at the foot of the Royal Mile.
Although the lane is an attractive example of Edinburgh's old lanes, it's not entirely authentic, as the building of the White Horse Inn itself was rebuilt from scratch in the 1960s, preserving the external appearance of the original building, but refitting its interior for a more modern function...
THE LETTER X
X is the shape formed by the St Andrew's Cross, which forms the primary figure on the flag of Scotland, known as the Saltire. You'll find the Saltire in various forms and on numerous flags around the city, taken from the particular crucifix on which St Andrew (Scotland's patron saint) was martyred.
THE LETTER Y
Y is for James Young Simpson, one of the city's most important sons - although the middle name 'Young' was acquired at university, which he attended at the age of just 14. He was later appointed president of the Royal Medical Society of Edinburgh at the age of just 24.
Simpson is best known as a pioneer of anaesthetics, which he specifically developed as an aid to childbirth. He lived at 52 Queen Street in the New Town, and is rumoured to have discovered the properties of chloroform after a dinner party, at which he invited his guests to inhale from various liquids he'd brought from his laboratory at the medical school.
Queen Victoria was one of the first women for whom chloroform made the process of childbirth less painful (and less dangerous), in 1853, and was so pleased by its effects that she made Simpson her private physician in Scotland. He became the first man to be knighted for services to medicine, and was offered a prestigious burial within Westminster Abbey in London, but elected to be buried closer to home at Warriston Cemetery in Edinburgh, when 100,000 people lined the route of his funeral procession to pay tribute to him.
THE LETTER Z
Z is for the shape of the original route into Edinburgh from the west. Stretching from the Grassmarket to the Lawnmarket was the West Bow, a snaking, almost switch-back incline that saved visitors an almost two-mile detour to the bottom of the Royal Mile itself.
In the 1830s, as Edinburgh was experiencing efforts to improve its accessibility, Johnston Terrace and George IV Bridge were constructed to save travellers the treacherous climb of West Bow, and the road was extended and partly renamed Victoria Street.
The lane today claims some of the dreaded Harry Potter connections, being a (speculative) inspiration for Diagon Alley - although at least two other streets in the city claim the same influence!
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It's the penultimate instalment of my alphabetical exploration of Edinburgh - previous posts linked at the bottom of the page!
THE LETTER S
S is for South Bridge, one of the main thoroughfares through the heart of the Old Town. Built as an elevated roadway across the Cowgate valley in the 1780s, the road is supported on a network of nineteen arches, of which only one (crossing the Cowgate itself) it externally visible today.
The road was designed as Edinburgh's first purpose-built shopping street, but the vaults on the bridge beneath street level, behind the buildings erected on either side of the roadway, also became a vital part of the city's infrastructure during the early nineteenth century, when the growing population and desperate need for housing led people to move into the subterranean spaces. The author Robert Louis Stevenson wrote: "To look over the South Bridge and see the Cowgate below ... is to view one rank of society from another in the twinkling of an eye".
The vaults of South Bridge were later evacuated of their occupants and many arches filled with rubble to prevent people moving back in. A number of arches were excavated in the 1980s, and today many of the ghost tour companies lead tours into the 'underground' spaces, to thrill visitors with tales of dread and suffering.
THE LETTER T
T is for Tweeddale Court, one of the lanes off the Royal Mile with a number of historic features. The narrow lane is lined on its western side with a high stone wall that is a remaining section of the King's Wall, the first of the three defensive structures which protected the southern side of Edinburgh from invasion during the reign of James II. The wall was built in the 1450s, and gives an indication of the city's compact scale - the line of Tweeddale Court would originally have been outside of the city, running up to the gateway on the Royal Mile near what is today the World's End.
It was also on Tweeddale Court that a banking courier named Thomas Begbie was murdered in 1806, whilst transferring money from a branch of the British Linen Bank - the building today houses offices of the List magazine, as well as the publisher Canongate Books. Begbie's murder remains one of the city's unsolved crimes.
The small stone shed built against the King's Wall is the last remaining sedan chair storage shed in the city, from a time before motorised vehicles, and when horses and carts would have been unable to navigate the steep and narrow lanes of the Old Town. Sedan chairs were carried between two men, providing a comfortable, enclosed seat for people of high status to relax in whilst being transported through the city.
The lane was also used as a film set during the third season of Outlander, which was filmed along here in 2017.
THE LETTER U
U is for unicorns, the national animal of Scotland - of which there are many around Edinburgh. Not real ones (obviously) but in decorative carvings, emblems and on statues around the city. See the cheeky unicorn sticking his tongue out at the English lion on the gates into the Queen's Gallery at Holyrood, or the decorative panel from the reign of James V with the unicorn in all its glory.
The top of the Mercat Cross has a unicorn, chained to the ground (as all unicorns generally are) to keep them under control.
You'll also find unicorns atop the pillars at the entrances into the Meadows, dating from the International Exhibition in the 1880s.
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This instalment of my alphabetic introduction to Edinburgh features the letter P, Q and R. Previous instalments are linked at the bottom of the page!
THE LETTER P
P is for Princes Street, one of the original three main streets of the New Town. Today the street is a rather depressing line of mobile phone shops and department stores, but originally this would have been a long residential street with fantastically wealthy families living in the three- and four-storey townhouses which stretched from end to end.
In the initial plans for the New Town in the 1760s, the street was designated simply South Street, being the southern most one of the planned development. A little later its planned name was to be St Giles Street, named for the patron saint of Edinburgh, but the name was blocked by George III.
At that time St Giles in London was a run-down, slum district, and the king perhas felt that the associations were unbecoming for what was intended as a desirable residential district in this new development. As the streets began to take their names from the new union with England (just six decades old when they began building), Princes Street was named for the sons of George III. (George Street and Queen Street were named for the king and his wife.)
One original plan had been to have houses on both sides of the street, maximising the amount of properties that would be built, but the New town's designer, James Craig, argued that blocking the view between the Old and the New Town would be detrimental to the city's character, and that keeping the space open would help unify the two sides of the city. And so an Act of Parliament was secured to prevent development on the south side of Princes Street, ensuring that this line between the two halves of Edinburgh is kept open and clear, a key moment in the development of the New Town project.
THE LETTER Q
Q is for Quartermile, a major development taking shape to the south of the Royal Mile. The site at the heart of Quartermile was Edinburgh's old Royal Infirmary from the 1870s up until 2005, when the site was sold for development and the hospital moved out of town. Over the last decade the former hospital buildings and grounds have been turned into contemporary accommodation, shops and office spaces, with the final phase of development - the main infirmary building itself - still to be completed.
The buildings on this site now represent a collision of styles and textures, with the original sandstone and red brick hospital buildings interspersed (and extended into) glass and steel structures which offer panoramic views across the city (to the north) and over the green space of the Meadows (to the south). Some will find the combination of contemporary architecture with nineteenth-century buildings too much of a clash of cultures, but the site is fast becoming a popular and well recognised feature in the city's landscape.
Edinburgh, as with any old city, must continue to develop and grow as a living centre for people, and Quartermile represents one of the key transformations in the town in the twenty-first century.
THE LETTER R
R is for Robert Louis Stevenson, born in Edinburgh in 1850, whose work as a poet and author helped to shape the city's great literary legacy to the world. The family home at 17 Heriot Row is where Stevenson spent much of his childhood, with the popular story that he first span the early working of the story that became Treasure Island as he played around a pond in the gardens directly across the road from his home.
The city has many other Stevenson connections - Cramond and Corstorphine both featured in Kidnapped, the Old and New Towns (along with one of the city's famous residents) inspired The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and the Hispaniola restaurant is named for the ship from Treasure Island, being a place where Stevenson spent plenty of time drinking - but, at his own request, lacks a major memorial to the man. Stevenson spent the latter years of his life on an island in Samoa, in the Western Pacific, and was buried out there when he died.
Edinburgh' Princes Street Gardens has a modest - often overlooked - memorial tucked away in a grove of birch trees, but artefacts from his life and career can be viewed at the city's Writers' Museum, on Lady Stairs Close, just off the Lawnmarket.
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We're crossing the halfway point of this alphabetic exploration of Edinburgh, brought to you this time by the letters M, N and O! Previous blogs are linked at the bottom of the post...
THE LETTER M
M is for the McEwan Hall, one of the grandest buildings in the Old Town, which can be found in the university quarter of the city centre on Bristo Square. The hall is owned by the University of Edinburgh, and serves as their graduation hall where students celebrate completing their studies.
William McEwan founded the Fountain Brewery in Edinburgh in the 1860s, later to become one of the largest family brewing businesses in Scotland. Brewing and distillation had been Edinburgh's predominant heavy industry for centuries, with areas around Holyrood and around the canal at the west side of the city becoming industrial hubs where thousands of litres of beer was made on a daily basis.
Into the late nineteenth century, alcohol (or the steady provision of cheap alcohol) was held responsible for many of the social ills which afflicted Britain's cities - poverty, drunkenness, unemployment, were all attributed to the output of people like William McEwan and his business, and consequently many brewing families were moved to give gifts to the cities they operated in as a way of being seen to give something back to their societies.
McEwan gave Edinburgh University £113,000 to build a concert hall in his name, and the hall remains a key property in the university's portfolio, recently receiving investment for a renovation of many times the original cost of the building.
THE LETTER N
N is for the New Calton Burial Ground, a replacement graveyard built in 1818 to house bodies displaced from the Old Calton Burial Ground when Waterloo Place was built through the middle of it.
Around 350 bodies (estimates vary) were reburied in this new location, on the side of Calton Hill overlooking Arthur's Seat and the bottom of the Old Town. For three years no new burials were permitted here, until the graveyard opened formally in 1821.
The graveyard is overlooked by the grand New Town developments of Regent Terrace, and in order that the sensibilities of those able to afford such grand properties not be offended, the graveyard had to be concealed by the trees and landscaping.
The graveyard today has approximately 2,000 grave stones still standing, but there are believed to be over 14,000 people buried here, including communal graves for those who died in the city's hospital and poor houses. Famous burials here include the so-called Lighthouse Stevensons, who have a family plot in the graveyard, and William Dick, veterinary pioneer.
Today the graveyard has been rebranded 'Tombs with a View' for its picturesque outlook and is well worth passing through during your time in the city.
THE LETTER O
O is for Old Fishmarket Close. Leading off the south side of the Royal Mile near St Giles' Cathedral, as its name suggests this was formerly the site of one of the city's fish markets. Fish would be sold at the top end of the lane, where they would be gutted, allowing all the blood and guts to wash naturally down the incline to the Cowgate valley. It was a very primitive way of keeping the streets clean! In contemporary accounts the street was described as being a 'stinking morass'...
Fishmarket Close was also where the city's executioner would have had his home. Not a particularly illustrious or desirable job, the executioner had his accommodation provided and paid for as part of his pay and benefits package. Whether having such a house on the 'stinking morass' of Fishmarket Close was punishment or reward is not entirely clear.
On Hogmanay 1571, two of the ceremonial cannonballs fired from the castle to celebrate the new year fell short and landed in Fishmarket Close. They hit the stacks of unsold fish left at the sides of the lane, and the fish were thrown into the air. For the first week of January 1572, people travelled from all across the city to collect free fish from the roofs of the houses which were still standing...
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This is part four of my alphabetic amble through some of Edinburgh's history (links to previous parts at the bottom of the blog), brought to you this time by the letters J, K and L!
J is for JK Rowling
It is hard to avoid Edinburgh's associations with the Harry Potter series of children's books, as many enterprising businesses seek to capitalise (one might say exploit...) the city's links with the author and her work.
In deference to the great bulk of genuine history that Edinburgh offers (and in order to keep my cynicism in check!) I tend not to mention JK Rowling or her literary output on tours, unless there are children with a keen interest in the stories walking with me. But there are various sites of Potter pilgrimage around the town for those who insist on pursuing such things!
Rowling does still have a house in Edinburgh, and she did complete a teacher training course at the Moray House campus of Edinburgh University, which is their school for education. Everything else is a cultural confection that has led to the greatest travesty of all - the University of Edinburgh's Quidditch Club, where otherwise rational and (presumably) intelligent students run around the Meadows with broomsticks between their legs. For shame.
K is for Knox
A pair of Knoxes, actually - two of the city's famous historical inhabitants are John Knox and Robert Knox.
John Knox was the minister of St Giles' Cathedral in the sixteenth century, and famously was the man who moved Scotland away from Catholicism and onto the Presbyterian form of Protestantism that still forms the basis of the national Church of Scotland. Knox had been born in Haddington in East Lothian, and become a major figure in the historical record for his associations with Mary, Queen of Scots, a devout Catholic who represented the opposite side of the theological debate.
On the Royal Mile visitors can still visit John Knox's House, a maintained building from the period in which Knox was minister in the city, but not believed to have ever belonged to the man himself. A small plaque in Parliament Square near St Giles' Cathedral marks the reputed spot where Knox was buried, but even this story comes with a healthy dose of doubt...
Robert Knox was head of Edinburgh University's anatomy school in the nineteenth century, a popular figure who inspired his students and brought life to the study of dead bodies... It was Robert Knox who gained a level of infamy by paying cash for corpses and being heavily involved with the serial killers Burke and Hare, who took it upon themselves to ensure the medical school had a healthy supply of cadavers. Whilst Burke and Hare faced the consequences of the law for their criminal acts, Robert Knox avoided legal action but was effectively forced out of his profession and would later leave Edinburgh for good to seek out new life in London.
L is for Lady Stair's Close
One of the narrow lanes leading off the Lawnmarket section of the Royal Mile where visitors can find the city's Writers' Museum dedicated to three of Edinburgh's most famous authors: Robert Louis Stevenson, Walter Scott and Robert Burns.
The building which houses the museum was once owned by the widow of the 1st Earl of Stair. Lord Stair's wife had previously been Lady Primrose, whose first husband had been a violent drunk - one afternoon as she was dressing for dinner she saw her husband in the mirror's reflection, entering the room behind her with a knife in his hand. Fearing he was going to do her harm she leapt from the bedroom window and sought refuge with her mother-in-law. Lord Primrose later left the country and travelled through Europe where his violent reputation hadn't followed him.
One day Lady primrose paid to have her fortune told and had described to her a scene in which a man standing at the altar, about to wed his wife, was killed by a guest at the wedding. Some years later, when Lady Primrose's brother returned from travelling through Holland, he described how he had been invited to the wedding of a mutual friend, a fellow Scotsman, and on arrival at the church recognised the groom-to-be as his sister's violent husband. Drawing his sword he killed the man in revenge for the mistreatment of his sister. The details accorded with the story Lady Primrose had heard from the fortune teller!
Lady Primrose later remarried and became Lady Stair, and bought the building on the lane which still has her name.
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Part three of my alphabetic trawl through Scotland's capital city - read the previous entries here and here! This week comes to you courtesy of the letters G, H and I!
THE LETTER G
G is for George Street, George Square, and George IV Bridge - and it's a different George every time!
The Georgian-era New Town was built from the 1760s onwards, under the reign of George III originally. Much of the New Town was named to honour the monarch - George Street for the king, Princes Street for his sons, Queen Street for his wife, Hanover Street for the royal family line, and Frederick Street for George's father. The newly established union between Scotland and England was also commemorated - St Andrew Square and St George Square for the patron saints, Rose Street and Thistle Street for the national flowers.
By the time they came to build St George Square, another development on the southern side of the city already had the name George Square, with no connection to the royal family - but at the risk of having George Square and St George Square to confuse tourists and postmen, they renamed St George Square as Charlotte Square, also after the wife of George III.
George IV Bridge was built during the 1820s, and named for the monarch who succeeded his father, who visited Edinburgh in 1822.
THE LETTER H
H is for David Hume, one of Edinburgh's most influential residents, and who is still considered by many to be the most significant philosopher who wrote in the English language. Hume was born in a property just off the Lawnmarket on the Royal Mile and attended Edinburgh University at the age of just 12 years old. During his life he travelled widely through France and England, before returning to Edinburgh where he became a popular figure in high society and was for a time the chief librarian in the Advocate's Library, a legal library still on Parliament Square.
Hume's influence in politics, philosophy and economics was profound, with many scholars and philosophers who came later paying great tribute to Hume in their works.
Hume was also widely considered to be an atheist, at a time when such a position was a dangerous one to take. His home in the New Town led to the street being ironically dubbed St David Street, a name which stuck and survives to this day.
After his death in 1776, Hume was buried in the Old Calton Burial Ground. He made two stipulations for his grave - the first was that it should cost no more than £100, a relatively meagre sum in the eighteenth century, and secondly, any grave or memorial to him should bear just his name, his date of birth and his date of death. He wanted no mention of his life or work, reasoning that if he had done anything worthy of being remembered, history and posterity would ensure his reputation survived.
THE LETTER I
I is for the 'Innocent Railway', a 12-mile stretch of railway line which connected the mines of Dalkeith with the city centre. Built in the 1830s, the Edinburgh and Dalkeith Railway, as it was formally named, was a horse drawn track which brought coal from the outskirts of Edinburgh to join with the main transport networks, and later was expanded to run as a passenger service. In the 1840s the line was bought by the North British Railway company, who operated the main line between London and Edinburgh, and part of their acquisition from the Edinburgh and Dalkeith Railway became integral to the route between Edinburgh and Carlisle.
The nickname 'Innocent Railway' was supposedly adopted because no lives were lost during its construction and operation, a rare occurrence during the industrial age of the nineteenth century when labour was cheap and industrial accidents were commonplace.
Today part of the line adjacent to Holyrood Park survives, where the original tunnel which carried the service underground has been transformed into a cycle route. The entrance to the tunnel is difficult to find by accident, requiring a short detour through a housing estate to discover it, but it remains a well used and popular 'hidden gem' of the south side of the city.
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A - Z of Edinburgh:
A - C, D - F, G - I, J - L, M - O, P - R, S - U, V - Z
Part two of my trawl through Edinburgh in an alphabetic fashion (read about A to C here) brought to you by the letters D, E and F!
THE LETTER D
D is for Dumbiedykes, an area of the city between Holyrood Road and Holyrood Park.
Today it's a housing area, but historically this was the site of the UK's first school for deaf and dumb children. Founded in the 1760s by Thomas Braidwood, the school was unique in tailoring its teaching to the needs of pupils who would ordinarily be excluded from standard schooling. Braidwood developed a form of what became sign language, and also taught children the skill of lip-reading.
In 1783, Braidwood and his family moved to London, and re-established their school there, expanding and developing their services until Braidwood's death in 1806, when the school was taken over by Braidwood's youngest daughter, Isabella. A grandson, John Braidwood, established a school for deaf children in Virginia, US, in 1812.
Today little remains of the original Braidwood Academy, except a few crumbling sections of wall, marked by a commemorative plaque, but the area in which it stood became known as Dumbiedykes (with a silent 'b'), a pejorative nickname acquired because of the large number of deaf and 'dumb' children who would be found there.
THE LETTER E
E is for Enric Miralles, the Catalan architect who designed the new Scottish Parliament building. Built on a regenerated industrial site at Holyrood, the parliament offers a splash of post-modernism amongst the city's predominantly classic architecture, and is a building filled with symbolism and imagery.
Miralles' vision for the parliament was that it should reflect a variety of elements of Scottish culture and heritage, the idea being that the building as a whole symbolised Scotland as a whole.
Unfortunately, Miralles died before the building could be completed. Aged just 45 when he died of a brain tumour in July 2000, Miralles' parliament building had to be completed under the guidance of another lead architect, Benedetta Tagliabue, Miralles' wife.
The parliament was designed as a public building, with free entry to visitors to explore its interior spaces, which are (broadly) more attractive than the exterior of the buildings. In architecture, as in life, it's what's inside that counts!
THE LETTER F
F is for Fleshmarket Close, one of the narrow lanes and alleys - the 'closes' - of Edinburgh's Old Town. These lanes run off the Royal Mile, into the steep gullies on either side of the city, and remain some of the most evocative and atmospheric parts of the Old Town.
Edinburgh's closes were named for significant people who lived on them, or the trades and businesses based there - Fleshmarket Close was a butcher's market, where meat would be hung along the alley, blood dripping down the steep incline of the lane to drain naturally down to the lake in the valley to the north of the city.
Today, Fleshmarket Close is one of the first visions that greets visitors emerging from Waverley Station, it steps stretching up out of sight - a worthy introduction to a city filled with staircases and alleys!
The crime writer Ian Rankin, who lives in Edinburgh, sets his Inspector Rebus stories in the city, and often utilises the real life locations in his stories. One of his novels is entitled Fleshmarket Close after this dark and brooding passageway through the Old Town.
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