One of the most spectacular buildings in Edinburgh's Old Town is the incredibly ornate and decorative George Heriot's School, a private school on a ridge of rock with views across to Edinburgh Castle.
The school building was paid for with money from the estate of George Heriot, who died on 12 February 1624. Heriot had been a jeweller and a goldsmith in Edinburgh in the sixteenth century, and was known by the nickname 'Jinglin' Geordie' because of the noise made by the coins and jewels rattling in his pockets as he walked through the streets of the Old Town.
Heriot became fantastically wealthy, but was also a great philanthropist and would give money to destitute families, donating coins to beggars on the street, and his generosity would later give the city the school that stands today.
Heriot had served his apprenticeship as a goldsmith, and set up his own shop on the Royal Mile near St Giles' Cathedral in one of the 'luckenbooths', or lockable stall properties, which lined the street in the late sixteenth century.
In the 1590s he began selling jewellery to Queen Anne of Denmark, the wife of King James VI of Scotland, and was later appointed as her official goldsmith.
Both Ann and James had extravagant tastes, and Heriot was able to secure some of the finest and most expensive jewellery from across Europe, which he then sold to the royal couple. They would buy the jewellery in instalments (with Heriot adding a significant mark-up to the market value), and the queen would then often seek to borrow large sums of cash from Heriot, secured against the jewellery which he had sold her.
She would repay these loans - again with a significant percentage of interest - and Heriot became fantastically wealthy from his royal patronage. In just ten years it is believed Heriot may have done over £50,000 worth of business with the queen alone, which is equivalent to multiples of millions of pounds in modern currency.
In 1601 Heriot was appointed jeweller to the king, James VI, and in 1603 when James VI of Scotland became James I of England, he removed the royal court from Edinburgh down to London, and took George Heriot with him. Thus Heriot became an integral figure in the royal court, and profited handsomely from his royal connections.
On his death in 1624, Heriot had no surviving legitimate children, and both of his wives had pre-deceased him. He did leave a provision in his will for two illegitimate daughters that had been born to separate women, as well as a number of nieces, nephews and children elsewhere in his family line. But the bulk of his estate, amounting to something over £23,000, was gifted to the city of Edinburgh, for the establishing of a hospital in his name.
Heriot's Hospital was to be dedicated to the care and support of disadvantaged families and children in the city, the "puir, faitherless bairns" as his will described them. And so in 1628, construction began on the hospital building on land to the south of the city.
The sum of money that Heriot left was so great that a huge hospital could be built with it, but at that time there simply wasn't enough open space in the city on which such a large building could be established. And so the money also paid for land to be bought which, at that time, lay just beyond the Flodden Wall, which was the structure marking the southern boundary of Edinburgh.
That piece of land had to be brought within the provision of Edinburgh itself, and an extension to the boundary wall was also built, known as the Telfer Wall, to enclose the school property. Today the junction of the Flodden and Telfer walls can be seen along the Vennel, to the west of the school building.
Having started life as a hospital, providing general social care, Heriot's later became a dedicated school for orphaned boys, and later still started accepting pupils from non-disadvantaged backgrounds. In the 1880s the school started charging for its education, and today is one of the best known private schools in Scotland. A number of free school places continue to be offered to poorer families today as part of its requirement to fulfil its obligations as a registered charitable organisation.
The school is adjacent to the Greyfriars Kirkyard, and pupils often use a side entrance to get into and out of the school property through the church yard. This side gate is generally the best angle from which to view the school, although it can be difficult to get a good view over the heads of the large Harry Potter tour groups who congregate at the gates to enjoy the view of one of the inspirations for the Hogwarts academy...
Views of the school can also been seen from Victoria Terrace (above right) and the esplanade in front of Edinburgh Castle.
For thirstier visitors to Edinburgh, a pub on Fleshmarket Close is named the Jinglin' Geordie in Heriot's honour.
Explore Edinburgh in more detail with my private city walking tours!
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!
Look down to see more details of the city with a private Edinburgh walking tour!
Sometimes all we get to see of a building is its front door, especially in a city like Edinburgh where many of the historic properties are still actively used as houses or commercial premises.
I don't take tours inside any of the paid entry attractions (although I may take you into a few choice locations on our tour!) so I'm used to only seeing the outside of a building.
Here are a few of my favourite doorways of the city, with some stories about the history hidden inside...
17 Heriot Row
Heriot Row remains one of the New Town's grandest addresses, and property on the street routinely sells for in excess of £1.5 million... Notable residents of the street include the physicist James Clerk Maxwell, and John Buchan, an author best known for his adventure story The 39 Steps.
Number 17 Heriot Row was the childhood home of Robert Louis Stevenson, and it is reputedly from a drawing room window on the first floor that he would stand looking out at other children of the neighbourhood playing in the private gardens on the other side of the road. In those gardens is a pond with an island, and it may have been those early experiences which fed his later iconic adventure story, Treasure Island.
4 South Charlotte Street
Another New town address, on the corner of Charlotte Square at the west end of the city. Number 4 South Charlotte Street was the birthplace of Alexander Graham Bell, who would later go on to lodge a patent for his invention of the telephone.
It's a useful reminder that before the New Town was the commercial district we see today, this area was built as a residential area for high-status families.
2 Advocate's Close
Just off the Royal Mile near St Giles' Cathedral is one of the most picturesque of the city's closes and wynds. Advocate's Close was formerly home to one of Scotland's Lord Advocates - the highest legal figure in the country - called Sir James Stewart. Stewart's house was actually at the bottom of the lane, but this doorway near the top of the lane is a powerful reminder that some of Edinburgh's Old Town houses have been occupied for over 400 years - look at the date above the doorway to see when this property was first constructed.
As Lord Advocate, Stewart's most notable case was the prosecution of a young student called Thomas Aikenhead for blasphemy, in the 1690s. Aikenhead became the last person in the UK to be executed for blasphemy...
Further down the Royal Mile, off the Canongate, is Acheson House, built in 1633 for Archibald Acheson, a major figure in the royal court of Charles I.
The crest above the doorway features a cockerel on a trumpet, the crest of the Acheson family, and in the middle of the date is a diagram made of the letters AA and MH superimposed on each other - for Archibald Acheson and his wife Margaret Hamilton.
Into the nineteenth century the house wasn't such a grand property, having become a brothel known locally as the 'cock and trumpet'....
Today Acheson House houses Edinburgh World Heritage, the city's premier heritage and preservation body.
The churches of Scotland are often the oldest structures to have survived the passage of time, and at Duddingston is a church reputed to be the oldest on Scotland's east coast.
One former door into the church - long since closed off - has an archway and stonework which dates back to the church's Norman origins in the twelfth century.
The church remains an active centre of worship for the community.
Earl of Morton's House, Blackfriars Street
Blackfriars Street is another fascinating lane in the Old Town, widened in the 1870s from its original layout as a narrow passageway just a few feet wide.
On the west side of the street are some of the original buildings which survived the wholesale renovation of Edinburgh, including a building which was formally home of the Earl of Morton, one of the regents who ruled Scotland during the childhood of Mary, Queen of Scots.
Today the building is a youth hostel, but above its original doorway is a fascinating emblem of two unicorns, standing aside a crown. This was the royal emblem of Scotland before the union of crowns, when Scotland and England came under one monarchy, in 1603.
The later royal emblem - still commonly used today - is of a lion and a unicorn with a crown between them, but this earlier symbol is still visible on a few surviving buildings from the sixteenth-century.
Take a private Edinburgh walking tour to see more doorways with stories from Scottish history!
Type 'Edinburgh' into Google and among the first results you'll get will be mention of some festival or other. But the Edinburgh Festival as a definitive description is actually a bit of a misnomer; there is no such thing as THE Edinburgh Festival, rather we have a number of festivals which run throughout the year, climaxing in what I often generally describe as 'festival season' over the summer, when a number of these individual festivals overlap and conjoin to give the city's its infamous festival spirit and atmosphere.
Here's a short idiots' guide to help untangle the different festival experiences on offer in the city...
Edinburgh International Festival
Originally THE definitive Edinburgh Festival, what is now Edinburgh International Festival (EIF) was founded in the aftermath of World War II, in 1947, to provide a collective and collaborative platform for creativity and artistic endeavour. Today the Festival is a curated (ie. by invitation) series of predominantly classical performances from a collection of dance, theatre, music and opera companies from all around the globe. The EIF runs during August each year, and culminates with a spectacular live fireworks concert staged in Princes Street Gardens, with fireworks let off from Edinburgh Castle.
Edinburgh Festival Fringe
NOT the Edinburgh Fringe Festival (haircuts, anyone?!), the Fringe - as it is popularly known - also began in 1947, when eight theatre companies who weren't invited to take part in the EIF turned up in the city for a number of impromptu performances. Over the years the number of companies taking part in the Fringe has soared, and today the Fringe (by itself) the world's largest arts festival. The Fringe programme is completely open-access and non-curated, meaning anyone who has the means to produce and stage a production is welcome to bring their work to Edinburgh during August; hundreds of venues across the city host thousands of performances every single day. Today the Fringe is known as a hotbed of creative talent, and many major comedians, actors, theatre companies and musicians have launched their careers by getting noticed at the Edinburgh Fringe.
Edinburgh International Book Festival
Also held during August each year, the Book Festival invites authors from around the world to talk about their work, sign copies of books, and take part in discussions around a range of literary themes. The Festival is held in a series of specially constructed marquees in Charlotte Square in Edinburgh's New Town.
Edinburgh International Film Festival
Currently held in June each year (it has previously taken place in August) the Film Festival is a curated collection of new and classic films, featuring guest appearances by a range of actors, directors and cinema icons.
These are the main cultural festivals for which Edinburgh is known, but we also host a variety of additional festivals throughout the year, including (but not limited to):
and plenty more besides! We have festivals for food, festivals for drink, festivals for historical figures associated with the city, festivals for a range of outdoor pursuits - you name it, we (probably) have a festival for it! And if we don't.... then there's a valuable gap in the market!
See this festival city in more detail with my private city tours!
The dark side of human nature has helped spawn a whole sub-section of Edinburgh visitor attractions, a genre which might charitably be bracketed as 'death-sploitation' - whether it's the underground city, the sites of execution, the history of witchcraft or the real life criminal underworld of Edinburgh, there is an attraction which is geared towards scaring, spooking and generally unsettling you.
We are fortunate, however, to also have access to a variety of sites which tap into some of the above experiences without costing a penny: Edinburgh's graveyards. Scattered across the city, many of the old graveyards of Edinburgh are still open for public access, and (unless you're taking a specific tour through or into the mausoleums themselves) they are completely free.
Here are some of the centrally located graveyards which can be visited on my private walking tours of the city...
St. Cuthbert's Churchyard
Just off Lothian Road is not only the oldest site of worship in the city, dating from the 7th century, but also the resting place of John Napier, Henry Raeburn and George Meikle Kemp, designer of the city's Scott Monument, among many notable other figures. Also features a good example of the watchtowers built in graveyards across the city to help prevent grave robbers...
Most famous as the resting place of Greyfriars Bobby, the dog which earned its status as one of the city's most famous (and cutest) cultural icons. Greyfriars is also one of my favourite places from which to view the different heights and levels of the Old Town, as well as being the final home of some of the city's greatest historical figures, including James Craig, designer of the New Town, Mary Erskine, James Hutton, Allan Ramsay, John Porteous and many more besides. Also the site of the Covenanters' Prison and the mausoleum of 'Bloody' George Mackenzie, reputed to be one of the most haunted sites in the city.
Old Calton Burial Ground
Just a short stroll from the east end of Princes Street, here you'll find the tomb of philosopher David Hume, as well as a monument to Abraham Lincoln, commemorating to the Scottish soldiers who died in the American Civil War, alleged to be the first statue of an American president to be built outside of the US. You'll also find the Martyrs' Monument, an obelisk to the men who were punished for daring to suggest a democratic system which afforded the ordinary man a vote.
New Calton Burial Ground
Further along the edge of Calton Hill is the newer burial plot, used once the pre-existing graveyard was full. From here you can enjoy unparalleled views south across the bottom of the Royal Mile, across towards Holyrood Park and Arthur's Seat. As well as a large watchtower, the graveyard also hosts the Stevenson family plot, the famous lighthouse engineering family (also the family of Robert Louis Stevenson, who isn't buried here).
A short distance from the bottom of the Royal Mile, the Canongate Kirk is a beautiful building with royal associations and an extensive graveyard, from which the views up to Calton Hill are picturesque.
Favourite figures buried here include Adam Smith, the father of modern economics, and Robert Fergusson, the young poet who inspired Robert Burns, as well as another figure associated with Burns, Agnes Macklehose, for whom he wrote the poem Ae Fond Kiss.
Any and all of these graveyards can feature in a private walking tour of the city - contact me for more information!
Throughout Edinburgh's city centre are a vast number of public artworks and sculptures, many of them dating back decades and even centuries. In introducing visitors to the city to some of these prominent city features, one name becomes a recurring motif; just as many of the city's buildings have the same architects or builders names attached to them, so many of the most iconic sculptures in the city share a common artist: Sir John Steell.
Steell grew up in Edinburgh, and rose through the ranks of notable artists produced by the city's venerable arts academies. In the 1830s he achieved public recognition with his first major commission for the city, a carving of Alexander the Great taming his horse, Bucephalus. A popular story is told that although Steell produced the carving in the 1830s, the statue was not formally cast in bronze for nearly fifty years, as the city council hadn't acquired sufficient funds to complete payment for the work.
Angered by not being paid his full fee, it is said that Steell remodelled the head of the horse shortly before it was cast, giving Alexander's great horse the ears of a pig! Today the statue (with its diminutive ears) stands outside the city's council chambers on the Royal Mile, a testament to the 'pig's ear' they made of the commission all those years ago.
There are other significant works by Steell in Edinburgh's city centre - here are four which often feature in my city tours...
Sir Walter Scott
The monument to Edinburgh-born writer and lawyer Walter Scott features within it a large representation of Scott, seated, and with his dog Maida curled at his feet. The monument was designed by George Meikle Kemp, but it was Steell who created the figure of the artist himself.
The memorial to Prince Albert, consort to Queen Victoria, was commissioned by Victoria after Albert's death, intended as a means of honouring her dead husband and preserving his memory. It is said that Steell so accurately captured the likeness of Albert, and presented him so sympathetically, that upon its official unveiling in 1876 Queen Victoria took it upon herself to knight him on the spot. Today the monument stands in the middle of Charlotte Square.
The success of Steell's sculpture of Albert was not replicated in a sandstone carving he produced of Queen Victoria herself, seated and holding a grand jewelled sceptre. When this particular carving was unveiled to HMQ at Buckingham Palace in London it is said that she disapproved so strongly of the likeness that she asked her staff to take the statue and put it where nobody would be able to see it.
The carving duly ended up on top of the grand entrance to the Royal Scottish Academy gallery building in the middle of Edinburgh's main street, Princes Street! Keep an eye out for her as you visit the shops - she looks pretty disapproving even to this day...
The Duke of Wellington
Steell produced a number of statues of Britain's great commander of the armed forces which led the country to victory against the French at the Battle of Waterloo. At the east end of Princes Street is his iconic representation of Wellington mounted on his steed, Copenhagen, who rode into battle with him (and, presumably, out again too). At its unveiling in 1852, the press were keen to play on Wellington's honourary nickname, dubbing the monument 'the Iron Duke, in bronze, by Steell'.
To find out more about Sir John Steell's iconic sculptures, join me for a customised walking tour of the city!
At the top of Lothian Road, one of the city's main arterial routes, is an area of the city which has received a significant amount of redevelopment in recent years. Between Morrison Street and Fountainbridge today you'll find the Scottish Widows building, and a series of new build office spaces, which belie something of the area's industrial heritage.
In 1822 Scotland's grand Union Canal was opened, linking Edinburgh with Falkirk, where it connected with the Forth and Clyde Canal which ran across the width of the country into Glasgow. This man-made waterway was crucial for the transportation of goods across the lower part of Scotland before the age of rail and motorways.
The eastern terminus of the canal was in Port Hopetoun, which was in the area adjacent to Fountainbridge in Edinburgh today. The large monolothic building on Lothian Road, today housing a series of shops and the Odeon Cinema, were the original offices for the canal companies, backing directly onto the basin in which the canal ended.
The canal is still there today, and indeed still functions, but it ends slightly short of its original terminus, just behind the new Edinburgh Quay office buildings housing Cargo bar and restaurant, and a variety of other businesses. Here you'll find a number of barges moored for the purposes of providing pleasure, including the Four Sisters Boatel, a quirky and unique self-catering space which can accommodate up to six people.
In its heyday the canal was a vibrant hub of industry, transporting goods from the nearby factories and warehouses, which have been demolished and given way to new developments (some open areas are still awaiting development). Today the canal itself has a more gentle and sedate atmosphere, with the towpath alongside the water offering passage to cyclists, joggers and walkers. During the summer you may still see barges carrying pleasure seekers, with local canoe clubs also using the area for practice. Ducks and swans make frequent appearances in the area, and fishermen can often be found casting into the waters for leisure.
The Leamington Lift Bridge is a distinctive iron bridge across the canal which can be raised and lowered to allow the passage of barges - originally the bridge stood further east, approximately at the junction between Fountainbridge and Gardner's Crescent, where is provided a similar role during the years of industrial functioning.
From Edinburgh Quay, visitors can travel along the canal (on foot, bike or by boat, if they have the means) over 30 miles along to the Falkirk Wheel, which connects the Union and the Forth and Clyde canals. The route passes over a variety of impressive aqueducts and via a series of tunnels, allowing a unique perspective on the local landscape.
The Union Canal fell into disuse with the rise of the railways in the 1840s, and finally ceased its industrial functions in the 1930s. With a significant amount of modern investment and intervention from heritage groups, the canal has today been restored to functioning order, and provides not just an alternative to the city's often crowded and bustling centre, but an important link with the city's industrial past.
Explore the canal and Fountainbridge with a bespoke city walking tour.
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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