Things may be looking up, but in Edinburgh you need to look down once in a while too! Not just to avoid tripping on the cobbles and the steps, but to seek out some of the smaller hidden gems and details that are set into the pavements and roadways around the city.
Here are a handful of things to look out - and down - for...
In Scots a makar is a poet, and on Lady Stair's Close in the Old Town you'll find numerous paving stones carved with text from a variety of Scottish writers. Appropriately it's the same lane where you'll find the Writers' Museum, celebrating the lives and works of Robert Burns, Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson.
But take your time passing through the street itself, and check out the inspirational quotes at your feet, including this one from Stevenson himself: "There are no stars so lovely as Edinburgh street-lamps".
Keep your eyes peeled for Edinburgh's trams, running into the city centre from the airport. The new tram service opened just a few years ago, but Edinburgh had horse drawn trams from the nineteenth century, and electric ones in the twentieth century.
The original tram service was finally abandoned in the 1950s, and all the original tracks were ripped up and removed. All except one short section, left as a reminder (or possibly a warning!) to future generations... Look into the roadway at the end of Waterloo Place, near the Balmoral Hotel, for the sad reminder of the city's long-lost tram service.
The Holyrood Abbey provided sanctuary to those in debt, who would otherwise be at the mercy of Edinburgh's draconian legal system, which imposed heavily punishments for being unable to repay money that was owed. At one time the sanctuary had over 2,000 people in its care, and they were so well treated they were known as 'abbey lairds', or abbey lords...
The sanctuary itself wasn't a specific building but an entire area, within which the debtors had to stay if they wanted to remain protected from arrest, The boundary ran up to the summit or Arthur's Seat, and across the Royal Mile at Abbey Strand are a series of brass letters S's, marking a part of this original boundary line.
SCOTLAND IN A NUTSHELL
This one is a bit hard to read, both in the photo and in real life!
Look. What can you see?
I see beauty in the lochs.
I see majesty in mountains.
I see legend in rocks.
And it is ours.
These words are in front of the modern Scottish Parliament building, near the exit where visitors to the parliament make their way out, in a single granite paving stone. They are the words of Robert Adam - but not the classical architect who gave Edinburgh its classical style in the eighteenth century, but a 14-year-old school boy who won a competition to mark the official opening of the new parliament in 2005.
History is yet to demonstrate whether Adam becomes a great poet later in his life, but I rather love his short, simple, beautiful poem which seems to capture Scotland in a nutshell!
PHYSICS MADE PHYSICAL
On George Street in the New Town sits a statue of James Clerk Maxwell, a giant of physics whose pioneering investigations into the world around us yielded all kinds of results which continue to have importance today. Maxwell demonstrated that different colours of light travel at different frequencies, and paved the way for Einstein's general theory of relativity...
In the ground in front of his statue are the four equations which he said defined the physical universe. I can tell you nothing more than that - they're just numbers and squiggles to me! - although one group I had told me that in recent times Maxwell's four equations have been combined into one single statement which (apparently) comes pretty close to being a single unifying theory of the universe...
THE NEXT BIG THING
Walk across Bristo Square in the university district and you may not even notice the Old Town's largest piece of public art, commissioned by the university a few years ago.
The piece is called The Next Big Thing... is a Series of Little Things, and it's 1,600 brass dots set into the paving stones of the square, running across from the west to the east side, looking a little as though someone has dripped metallic paint across the space. The artist is Susan Collis, and her intention was that an piece of art which is almost invisible initially will become more visible with the passage of time, as people walking through the square unknowingly buff the brass dots to make them shiny... So if you don't see it now, come back in a few years when it should be more visible!
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Between the designer label stores and boutique fashion shops on Edinburgh's George Street, you may notice a small building which still retains a low-key residential-looking frontage. The only obvious indication that the property is more than an original New Town townhouse is the functioning model of a lighthouse above the front door. A brass plate confirms that this is the headquarters of the Commissioners of Northern Lights, or less romantically/more formally the Northern Lighthouse Board.
From this building all the lighthouses around the coast of Scotland are managed and maintained remotely, ensuring the safety of naval vessels in the waters around the country.
Recently I had the pleasure of spending a week in a former lighthouse keeper's cottage, at the Covesea Skerries Lighthouse, near Lossiemouth on the Moray firth. The cottages are now managed by the National Trust for Scotland as holiday cottages, and the lighthouse makes for an attractive and unusual location for a short Highlands holiday.
The Covesea lighthouse, like many of the lighthouses around Scotland, was designed and built by one of the most significant engineering families of the nineteenth century, the Stevensons, whose family home was in Edinburgh.
The Covesea lighthouse was constructed slightly against the better judgement of the Northern Board of Lighthouses, who felt an installation on the Moray coast wasn't necessary, despite 16 vessels being lost to storms in the month of November 1826 alone. Public opinion weighed on the side of the sailors, and the site at Covesea was chosen for the lighthouse, which opened in 1846.
Alan Stevenson, the designer and engineer who was responsible for the construction of Covesea, as well 12 other lighthouses, was the uncle of novelist Robert Louis Stevenson. Robert chose not to follow the family line into engineering, instead pursuing a career in law before becoming famous for his literary works.
The Covesea lighthouse was finally decommissioned in 2012 after over 160 years service. Alan Stevenson is buried alongside other members of the Stevenson lighthouse family in Edinburgh's New Calton burial ground.
Robert Louis Stevenson (notably) rests in peace 10,000 miles away on a Samoan island in the Pacific Ocean, having continued his family's connection with the high seas on a more landward basis...
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Being International Women’s Day, this would be a worthy time to introduce you to Catherine Sinclair, notable for being (I believe) one of only two women commemorated with a monument or statue in Edinburgh’s city centre. We have plenty of busts of men - and quite a few dogs and animals - but only Sinclair and Queen Victoria have Edinburgh monuments in their honour.
Located off Charlotte Square (named for another woman, Queen Charlotte, the wife of George III) in the New Town, the monument at the bottom of North Charlotte Street at the junction with St Colme Street, is modelled in a similar style to that of the Scott Monument on Princes Street.
Sinclair was, like Scott, a writer, as well as being a social philanthropist. Working in the 1830s and 40s, Sinclair produced a number of popular books for children, as well as range of titles for adults, with inspiring titles such as The Journey of Life and Anecdotes of the Caesars.
Her association with Walter Scott is well-known, and it is believed that it was Sinclair who discovered that Scott was the author of the Waverley novels, which had originally been published anonymously. Recognising their quality and value, Sinclair urged Scott to go public as their author, and in doing so helped secure his reputation as one of Scotland’s great literary heroes.
Her kindness was well-known, as well as her charitable spirit of support and care for animals and those less well-off in society. She introduced public benches into Edinburgh’s busy streets, to help provide respite to pedestrians, as well as introducing public water fountains, to provide clean drinking water to the public.
Today she may seem a minor figure in the pantheon of great Edinburgh citizens past, but the monument to her is a significant indicator of her standing and reputation, and a valuable reminder that great cities like Edinburgh were not (and are not) only shaped by the men who live and work in them.
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Edinburgh was named UNESCO’s first City of Literature in 2004, thanks to its rich and varied literary history. To mark World Book Day, here’s a rundown of some of the city’s most important writerly figures and influences…
Sir Walter Scott
Commemorated by the world’s tallest monument to a writer, standing adjacent to Waverley station (the world’s only railway station named after a literary work) on Princes Street, Scott was not only born and raised in the city but was also responsible for shaping Edinburgh’s profile as a destination for tourists.
Robert Louis Stevenson
Born locally and living for a time at 17 Heriot Row in the New Town, Stevenson wrote classic adventure titles like Treasure Island and Kidnapped, as well as the short novel The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, a template for gothic horror, as well as the book which best characterises the dual nature of Edinburgh itself.
Creator of the iconic Edinburgh girls’ teacher Jean Brodie, immortalised in the novel The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie – played on screen by Maggie Smith, who won an Oscar for the role. Showcasing locations from across the city, this book superbly represents the world of genteel Edinburgh society, as well as being a treatise on the nature of education and childhood.
The famed author of the Harry Potter books was an unemployed single parent when she first drafted the books which would go on to make her one of the world’s richest women. Various locations across the city are said to have inspired her, including Fettes College and George Heriot’s School as influences on the spectacularly gothic Hogwarts Academy.
Trainspotting raised the profile of modern Edinburgh in a way that no other recent novel could. Set in the seedy world of drug addicts and violent criminals of the Edinburgh underworld, the 1994 film, directed by Danny Boyle, also helped launch the careers of Ewan McGregor and a host of other Scottish acting talent.
These represent just a handful of the literary heritage that can be found across Edinburgh – find out more with a customised walking tour of the city.
Every year in Scotland, events are held on and around the 25th January, to commemorate the life of Robert Burns, Scotland's national poet, born in Ayrshire in 1759.
Famed as the author of songs and poems including Ae Fond Kiss, Tam O'Shanter and To A Mouse, Burns also provided the lyric for what is sometimes considered Scotland's alternative national anthem, Auld Lang Syne:
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
and never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
and days of auld lang syne?
'Burns Suppers', as these annual commemorative events are often called, feature recitals of some of Burns's most famous and popular works, including the ceremonial presentation of a haggis to dinner guests (served with 'neeps and tatties' - mashed turnips and/or swede and potatoes), as well as music and dancing.
The first Burns Supper was hosted in Edinburgh 1816, when "one hundred gentlemen dined as part of the first public celebration of the birthday of the poet Robert Burns". (An earlier celebration, in Greenock in 1802, had been held on the 29th January, wrongly believed to be Burns's date of birth before the true date was discovered the following year.)
One attendee at the celebration in Edinburgh that night in 1816 was Walter Scott, who proposed that a similar celebration should be held every three years - in fact Burns is now commemorated annually at events right across Scotland (and the world!).
Visitors to Edinburgh can explore Burns, his work and his history, at a variety of sites across the city:
Ae fareweel, alas, for ever!
Had we never lov'd sae kindly,
Had we never lov'd sae blindly,
Never met or never parted,
We had ne'er been broken-hearted.
For more information about Robert Burns, visit the Writers' Museum, in Lady Stair's Close off the Lawnmarket on Edinburgh's Royal Mile. This free museum is a fascinating resource for those interested in Burns and any of Scotland's other great literary figures, Robert Louis Stevenson and Walter Scott.
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Scotland and Edinburgh were not always regarded as such attractive places to visit as they are today. Samuel Johnson was a particular critic, once asking: "What enemy would invade Scotland, where there is nothing to be got?"
Happily we have enjoyed the favours of many people who have championed the country, and Edinburgh in particular, and foremost among them was Sir Walter Scott.
Scott may be best regarded today as one of Scotland's foremost romantic novelists for books such as Rob Roy and Ivanhoe, but he was also a judge and a lawyer, as well as being Edinburgh's great cultural ambassador. For were it not for Scott's efforts in the nineteenth century the tourist industry in Scotland may have taken rather longer to become established.
In 1818 Scott led a group of men who sought out the Scottish crown jewels, which had been hidden away in Edinburgh Castle after the union with England in 1707. By the turn of the nineteenth century the Honours of Scotland (as they would become known) were known only through fables and national legends - no one knew for sure whether they still existed, never mind where they might be.
The jewels were discovered by Scott and his men in the bowels of Edinburgh Castle, having been locked inside a sturdy chest for over a hundred years. After their rediscovery, the jewels were put on display in Edinburgh Castle, and quickly became a popular attraction for locals and those visitors to the city, who would pay handsomely to view them (entry to the castle itself being free at this point!).
Perhaps capitalising on this newfound attraction, and conscious that Edinburgh hadn't received a royal visit from a reigning monarch since 1650, Scott invited King George IV to visit the city. This event took place with a great deal of pomp and circumstance, with a grand ball at the Assembly Rooms on George Street.
It was reputedly Scott also who suggested the king might like to wear a kilt, made of Scottish plaid or tartan material - prior to this few people still wore the kilt, considering it old-fashioned and outmoded, and also having been illegal to wear - punishable by six months in prison - after the union with England.
Being modelled (albeit badly, according to contemporary accounts) on King George IV helped to reintroduce the kilt to popular fashion, and indeed to the tourist trade. Everyone visiting Scotland wanted to be seen wearing the striking apparel that the king himself had championed! And so the kilt became a staple feature of 'Scottishness', thanks in large part to Walter Scott.
Scott died in 1832, and in 1844 the monument dedicated to him was opened in Edinburgh's by-then thriving New Town.
Sited in Princes Street gardens, directly across the road from Jenners department store, you cannot miss seeing the Scott Monument on any visit to the city. It is the world's tallest monument to a writer, standing at 200ft and 6 inches high. The monument was designed by George Meikle Kemp, and bears a larger-than-life-size portrait of Scott sculpted by Sir John Steell, as well as likenesses of around 60 characters from Scott's novels cast in the sandstone columns around the monument. On a clear day, you can climb the monument's 287 internal steps to enjoy panoramic views across the city.
Further tribute to Scott is found in the naming of Edinburgh's main railway station, named Waverley after the historical novel written by Scott (but published anonymously at first) in 1814.
Waverley station stands today as the only railway station in the world named after a book, and those emerging from the station are greeted not only by Scott's imposing monument, but the world-class city that he helped to popularise.
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