There's probably only one thing in Edinburgh more popular with tourists than the hoary old Harry Potter inspirations, and that's the concept of an 'underground city'.
I have written before about the various areas of the city centre that might qualify as 'underground' attractions, but the best and most genuinely subterranean attraction of all is one that remains a hidden gem, a little further from the tourist trail than the vaults of South Bridge or Mary King's Close.
Gilmerton is an Edinburgh suburb a short bus ride south of the city centre, and beneath its streets are a network of tunnels cuts into the rock that remain a genuine mystery to local historians and archaeologists.
Gilmerton Cove, as it is known, is accessed through a small shop front adjacent to a bookmaker's, on the crossroads of a busy arterial transport route to the city centre. Step inside this unassuming looking building and you'll find a narrow staircase descending below the level of the street, and into a weird and wonderful world of hand-carved passageways and mysterious chambers hewn from the rock.
A significant stretch of these tunnels has been excavated, and a local guide will take you down with hard hats and torches to give you an introduction to the various features of the cove, along with some of the known history of the area. Then you're free to explore by yourselves - as far as you dare!
The passageways are believed to be at least 300 years old, but there is speculation that their origin goes back as far as the Roman period.
In the nineteenth century a local man claimed to have carved the tunnels himself by hand, but the extent of the network - there are unexplored areas still filled with rubble that are considered too dangerous or unstable to excavate - suggests his story was no more than a bold boast to impress his neighbours.
Certainly whoever was responsible for digging the tunnels must have dedicated considerable time to the task. Some chambers of the tunnel have been carved with seating areas and tables, along with ledges and shelves that would have been useful for storage, and a room that appears to have functioned as an altar or chapel space.
Various suggestions have been expressed about the people who may have once utilised these mysterious spaces.
There are plenty of questions but no solid answers at Gilmerton Cove, and the sense of genuine mystery is something that gives it an appeal to those whose appetites are unsatisfied by the ghost tours or the artifice of the Edinburgh Dungeons.
Even Mary King's Close lacks some of the darkness and mysterious atmosphere of these chilly, slightly damp, strangely quiet tunnels and chambers.
So if the glare of the sun is too much for you, or you have an urge to get up-close and personal with the world beneath your feet, take the trip to Gilmerton Cove for a truly unusual, unsettling and unique experience.
For above-ground thrills, my private Edinburgh walking tours can show you more of the city and its history!
Edinburgh has had a Jewish population since the seventeenth century, when the some of the first Jewish migrants to Scotland came as merchants, medical students or professors.
In 1642, Edinburgh University established a position teaching 'Hebrew and Oriental Languages', for which they employed a "learned Jew" from Vienna named Julius Conradus Otto. It is thought that Otto had been born a Jew in Vienna, and later converted to Christianity. He remained in post at the university until his death in 1649. In 1665 a town council meeting refers to a man named Paulus Scialitti Rabin who had converted from Judaism to Christianity in order to be able to work as a religious teacher in the city.
The first recorded Jewish merchant given the right to operate in Edinburgh was a man named David Brown in 1691, although this was hardly the indication of a society fully open to freedom of religion - Brown was opposed by some on the council for being a threat to the religious community here.
In 1698 a Jewish trader named Moses Mosias was denied the right to operate in the city unless he convert to Christianity, and in 1717 a Jewish merchant named Isaac Queen was granted permission to establish a business in Edinburgh only after paying a fee of £100 - equivalent to around £12,000 in modern currency!
In 1788 a man named Herman Lyon arrives in Edinburgh from Prussia (modern-day Germany), bringing with him a family. He is listed as a 'corn operator' which sounds charmingly rural and agricultural, until you realise this was the descriptor used for chiropodists - those who treated corns and calluses on the feet!
Lyon practised chiropody and dentistry on the Canongate, in the vicinity of Moray House, and in 1795 he applied to Edinburgh Council to purchase land to use as his family's burial site.
In the absence of a dedicated Jewish burial ground in the city, his application was approved, and Lyon purchased a family plot on the top of Calton Hill - at that time being considered as a central cemetery for the growing New Town - for the princely sum of £17.
It's not certain when Lyon died, but he was indeed buried (along with his wife) in his tomb on Calton Hill, which later became overgrown and inaccessible. Lyon's subterranean burial site remains, albeit unmarked and invisible from the surface, just beyond the northern wall of the former observatory complex at the top of Calton Hill.
The Jewish community in Edinburgh grew over the following century. Many of those who came settled in the South Side or Newington area, having travelled from seaports like Hamburg in Germany, and from the Baltic countries and the Netherlands, setting themselves up in business as tailors, jewellers or furriers.
By 1816, there were twenty Jewish families in the city, a quorum of the population considered sufficiently numerous to warrant being granted their own dedicated burial ground.
Thus the Edinburgh Hebrew Congregation opened the first Jewish cemetery in Scotland in the Newington area of the city, accessed via a narrow passageway off Causewayside known at the time as Jew's Close.
In the years following, as this small plot was the only dedicated Jewish cemetery in the whole country, and the bodies of a number Jews who had lived (and died) in Glasgow were brought here for the purpose of burial.
Jew's Close itself has long since been built over, and a large former police station stands on what was the original entry into the burial ground, which is not publicly accessible today but which can be viewed through a railing directly from the adjacent street, Sciennes House Place.
Today there are 29 gravestones which survive in this original Jewish burial ground, representing four generations of Jewish families. Many of the grave stones are badly eroded and worn from time, to the extent that the Hebrew lettering is all but unreadable on many of the memorials.
One of these graves is that of Moses Ezekiel, who died in 1850 aged 74 years old, having been registered as a sealing wax manufacturer in the city. It's also known that descendants of Herman Lyon, who was buried at the top of Calton Hill, were laid to rest at this site, along with the family of an Edinburgh University medical student - and possibly the first Jewish graduate from a Scottish medical school - called Lewis Ashenheim, who published a book in 1836 with the intriguing title Premature Burial Among the Jews....
The burial ground on Sciennes House Place was actively used until 1867, when the growth of the Jewish community in Edinburgh necessitated a larger burial site, and an area of the Newington Cemetery was set aside exclusively for Jewish burials, with later expansions to the Piershill Cemetery on the north east of the city, and then to the Dean Cemetery to the west of the New Town.
In 1909 the University of Edinburgh established the first dedicated Jewish Society in Scotland, and by 1911, Edinburgh had a community of around 2,000 Jews.
Today it is estimated there are around 7,000 Jews in Scotland, and whilst Edinburgh has a minority of that number their focus is still around Newington, where the synagogue on Salisbury Road, built in 1932, remains the focal point of worship and community.
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There's a focus on self-isolating and avoiding social contact at the moment, as the Covid-19 Coronavirus is sending the world into shutdown. For many people the idea of social distancing is rather challenging one, as the modern world has drawn us into ever tighter connections with those around us.
The historic concept of quarantine was developed in Venice, as a way of protecting the city from disease arriving from trade ships, and the original word 'quarantine' derived from the Italian phrase 'forty days', which was the period of isolation they specified in order to stop the transmission of illness.
But there have been other forms of social distancing in the past, too. Many religious groups today still practice a form of retreat, to withdraw from extraneous influences and focus inwardly on the self without the distraction of the world encroaching.
Another popular form of isolation was a hermitage, which also had a religious connection. There is a suggestion that St Anthony's Chapel on the slopes of Arthur's Seat in Edinburgh may have served as a form of hermitage, but there's a feature of the city today which still has the name Hermitage, a link to its origins as an isolated estate well beyond the original city of Edinburgh, which evolved in the 18th century as a romantic retreat from the hustle and bustle of life in the New Town.
The Hermitage of Braid, as it's known, is a public park and nature reserve to the south of Edinburgh, adjacent to Blackford Hill, an elevated spot with commanding views over the city.
The valley in which the park sits was carved out by the Braid burn, or stream, and is a steep ravine with heavily wooded sides.
The land here was owned by the de Brad family (from which the modern name 'Braid' is derived), one of whom - Henry de Brad - was sheriff of Edinburgh in the twelfth century. The surrounding forests and fields would have been populated with wild board and deer, and it would have been a popular spot for hunting.
The original estate property would have been a fortified house in a castle style, but the buildings and developments here today date from the 18th century when the area was redeveloped as a place of retreat.
Robert Burn was the architect who designed and built the Hermitage House in the 1780s, replete with a pump system to bring fresh running water from the Braid burn, and an ice house, a separate feature dug into the rock of the landscape in which to store ice from the winter for keeping food fresh over the summer months.
There's also an original stable block, and a doocot - Scots for a dovecot - which would have been home to pigeons that would have been plentiful supply of meat to the estate, along with a walled garden in which fresh herbs and vegetables would have been grown.
Even today, walking through this area, you can get a sense of how peaceful and isolated the property would have been, set into the natural landscape and offering a valuable contrast to the noise of the nearby city.
Just as eighteenth-century visitors would have enjoyed spending time relaxing here, taking time today to walk the paths of the nature reserve and spend time surrounded by the calming influences of water, birds, trees and (generally) a few local joggers remains a relaxing and positive experience.
Edinburgh has many public parks and open spaces today - remarkably nearly 50% of the city centre is green space - and the Hermitage of Braid is a true hidden gem that even many locals don't know about.
If you're planning a trip to Edinburgh after the period of social isolation eases, you can explore more of the city's hidden gems with my private walking tours!
The Old Town of Edinburgh is the area that most visitors think of as being the 'historic' bit of the city, and relatively few tourists take the time to check out the New Town...
I think the name puts them off, and people don't realise that the 'new' part of Edinburgh is still over 250 years old! As such it has over two centuries of history to explore, and offers a fantastic contrast to the Old Town and Royal Mile area.
For most of its history the city of Edinburgh was clustered along a narrow strip of rock rising to a ridge with a valley on either side of it. That ridge is still there - the Royal Mile runs along it - as are the valleys, which for a long time formed the northern and southern boundaries of the city.
But by the 1740s the population of Edinburgh was rising faster than ever, and this city with an area of just a half square mile (1.3 square kilometres) suddenly found itself with a population in excess of 50,000 people. Conditions in the old city were squalid and filthy, with as many as a thousand people living on each of the narrow lanes or 'closes' along the main street.
Plans were drawn up to formally grow the city for the first time in its history, to spread to the north onto land which was dotted with fields and farms, an area marked on maps of the time as Bearford's (or Barefoot's) Park. This land was bought up from individual landowners, and a comprehensive plan was drawn up to build a whole new town.
In 1767 development started in the area known today as St Andrew Square. This large open space was originally a private garden for the wealth people who lived around the square - all of the New Town was planned as residential property, to allow the wealthy and high-status residents of the Old Town to start a new life away from the the filth and overcrowding of the original city.
The plan for the New Town had been drawn up by a young architect called James Craig, and his vision was a grid system of three broad streets running east-west, bisected by smaller streets running north-south. It was the first example of coordinated town planning in the UK, and his grid system - although it seems common in modern planning - was a truly creative approach to the system of city development.
This initial phase of development was all named for the monarch at the time of its construction - King George III - and to commemorate the union between Scotland and England, which was only 60 years old at the time the New Town was started.
Thus the streets here are George Street, Queen Street, Princes Street, Hanover Street (for the royal family line George belonged to), St Andrew Square, Rose Street and Thistle Street (for the national flowers of Scotland and England). St Andrew Square was originally to be mirrored in St George Square at the west end of the city, but that square was eventually named Charlotte Square for King George's wife, Queen Charlotte Sophia of Mecklenberg-Strelitz.
Craig had won a public competition to design this layout of the New Town, and although his plans were considered a great success he never was able to capitalise on this early opportunity, and towards the end of his life complained to a friend about the "tyranny of straight lines" that he felt his career had been reduced to. He died in poverty and was buried initially in an unmarked grave in the Greyfriars Kirkyard.
It took developers nearly 50 years to build the first phase of the New Town, spreading westwards from St Andrew Square, with the housing around Charlotte Square being completed in the 1820s. But the city continued growing in stages - seven major phases of development in all - spreading all the way out to the west, the north, and later to the east as well. Today everything north of Princes Street is broadly considered to be New Town.
Today the New Town is the more contemporary, local side of Edinburgh, with many local shops, offices, restaurants and bars, and the streets here have a different feel from the more tourist-focused side of the city, in the Old Town along the Royal Mile.
The centre of Edinburgh is protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the bulk of this protected area covers the New Town of Edinburgh.
I offer a specific New Town tour, focusing on this less visited side of the city, which features the Dean Village and Calton Hill along with a stroll along some of the (still) grand residential streets of the Georgian-era Edinburgh, or we can combine Old and New in a customised tour to suit your interests.
Escape the Old Town crowds and check out Edinburgh's New Town with my private city walking tours!
Not all of Edinburgh's historical figures belong to the dim and distant past - many notable residents have walked the streets within living memory and offer a more modern sense of Edinburgh's historical influences.
In a city noted for its literary and artistic influences, one figure had a particular impact on the world of modern art. Born on 7 March 1924, Eduardo Paolozzi was an early proponent of the Pop Art style, and may even have given the movement its name from one of his colourful early collages.
Paolozzi was born in Leith, to parents who were Italian immigrants who had settled in the city early in the twentieth century. The city today retains many of its links to these immigrant families who brought a fresh new vision of food, art, music and culture to Scotland - Paolozzi's parents ran an ice cream and confectionery shop in Leith, and many of the fish and chip shops around the city today are still family-run, while shops like the Valvona and Crolla delicatessen have become local institutions.
This isn't to say that the immigrant families were always treated well in Scotland. Notably in 1940, when Italy became a British enemy during the Second World War, many Italian men and boys across the country were forcibly detained in local internment camps, and a teenage Paolozzi spent three months in Edinburgh's Saughton prison. His fate was rather better than that of many Italian men at that time, however, who had also been detained and were being transported to an internment camp in Canada. The ship they were on, the Arandora Star, was torpedoed by German u-boats in the North Atlantic, and over 800 men perished, 446 of them Italian detainees, including Paolozzi's father and grandfather.
In 1943, Paolozzi joined Edinburgh College of Art, and later studied fine art at University College London. In Paris at the end of the 1940s Paolozzi associated with Alberto Giacometti and Georges Braque, both of whom became major figures in the world of post-war sculpture and painting.
On his return to London, Paolozzi established his studio in London's district of Chelsea, where he began a pioneering approach to assembling collages and printing. In 1952 he was a founder of the Independent Group, whose work and vision would later be a significant influence on the American pop art movement of the late 1950s and 60s. It was Paolozzi's 1947 collage of images and advertising text snipped from American magazines, entitled I Was a Rich Man's Plaything, which influenced the bold, colourful style of pop art, and prominently at the top of the piece is the word 'pop' itself.
Paolozzi was awarded a CBE in 1968, and was knighted by the Queen in 1989. He had already been appointed to the position of Queen's Sculptor in Ordinary in Scotland, a role originally created by Queen Victoria for Edinburgh artist John Steell in the 19th century, and a position currently held by another Edinburgh sculptor, Alexander Stoddart.
Paolozzi's extensive output took in a wide range of media, from sculpture and collage to print and mosaic, and some of his public artworks can be found today across the world, from the walls of London tube stations to the foyer of the British Library.
In Edinburgh you can spot some of his pieces to the east of the city centre, outside St Mary's Cathedral on Picardy Place, where huge sculptures of a foot and a hand are mounted on the pavement, entitled The Manuscript of Monte Cassino.
You can also find some of his statues in the lower levels of the National Museum of Scotland, and around the University of Edinburgh campus at King's Buildings and their central library on George Square.
Paolozzi donated much of his work and material to the National Galleries of Scotland in 1994, and in the former Dean Gallery (now named Modern Two) you can see a recreation of his studio, along with other works including a major figure of an iron giant named Vulcan who stands in the gallery's cafe.
Paolozzi died in London in 2005.
Find out more about Edinburgh's major figures of art and culture with my private city walking tours.
Visitors often remark on the number of church buildings in Edinburgh that no longer serve as churches. Over time, as population changes have seen people come and go, very many buildings have been repurposed, renovated, and given new functions. At least two former churches today house casinos, one is an indoor climbing centre, and several have been turned into bars and restaurants...
Of course many churches, like St Giles' Cathedral or the churches at Greyfriars and Canongate, remain active as churches, but here is a very short list of some of the former church premises that you may still have reason to visit during your time in Edinburgh.
THE HUB (FORMERLY ST JOHN'S HIGHLAND TOLBOOTH CHURCH)
Built on Castlehill on the Royal Mile in the 1840s, St John's Highland Tolbooth Church functioned as a meeting place for the Church of Scotland clergy during their annual general meetings, which today are held just across the road at the New College building.
The 74m spire is still the highest of all the church spires of the Old Town, and the golden cross at the top is the highest point in the city centre, standing taller than the flagpole at Edinburgh Castle. As such it's a useful reference point for navigating the city, visible on the skyline from almost every edge of Edinburgh, but the building itself is also an important venue in the city every summer, as it is home to the administrative offices of the Edinburgh International Festival.
As well as their office space, The Hub (as it is known) has a popular café, a box office for festival events, and a large internal space that is well used for weddings, conferences, and special events throughout the year.
EDINBURGH FILMHOUSE (FORMERLY UNITED ASSOCIATED SYNOD CHURCH)
Dating from the 1830s, this former church building on Lothian Road was converted into a cinema in the late 1970s, and today is home to the annual Edinburgh International Film Festival, as well as hosting a variety of arthouse and blockbuster screenings all year round.
WEST REGISTER HOUSE (FORMERLY ST GEORGE'S CHURCH)
At the west end of the New Town, on Charlotte Square, is the former St George's Church, converted into municipal function in the 1960s and today housing one of Scotland's records and archive offices, for people tracing family history through archive records.
The church took its name from the original square, intended to be St George Square (to mirror St Andrew Square at the east end of the city) and was initially designed by the architect Robert Adam. Adam's plans were modified by Robert Reid, including the installation of a stunning dome modelled on St Paul's Cathedral in London. The church served its community from the 1820s until structural concerns in the middle of the twentieth century saw it repurposed as its current function.
The former congregation weren't left homeless ,and they moved in with the congregation at St Andrew's Church on George Street, which became St Andrew's and St George's, as it is today.
BEDLAM THEATRE (FORMERLY NEW NORTH FREE CHURCH)
Utilised today by the theatre society of the University of Edinburgh, the Bedlam Theatre takes its name from the former asylum and poorhouse which used to stand on this site, at the southern end of George IV Bridge in the Old Town.
The original building was designed by Thomas Hamilton, although it was never popular with the congregation it served, who considered the building ugly and ill-suited to its purpose as a church.
The Bedlam stages student theatre through the year, and serves as a popular venue during the annual Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
QUEEN'S GALLERY (FORMERLY HOLYROOD FREE CHURCH)
Between the modern Scottish parliament building and the Palace of Holyroodhouse is a building which is today attached to the panoply of structures associated with the palace. The Holyrood Free Church was a nineteenth-century building serving the community of Holyrood at the time when it was still a densely populated industrial district. The church closed when the industries moved away, and the local population moved with them.
Today the building houses the Queen's Gallery, hosting rotating exhibitions through the year displaying artefacts and pictures from the Queen's private collection.
GLASSHOUSE HOTEL (FORMERLY LADY GLENORCHY'S LOW CALTON CHURCH)
Dating from the 1840s, this former church adjacent to the Playhouse theatre (itself on the site of a long-lost Baptist meeting house) was demolished during the renovation of the whole Greenside area in the 1960s and 70s.
Part of the conditions for its demolition stipulated that the façade of the building be preserved, and for many years (within living memory) it was propped up with steel scaffolding supports while the area around it was completed revitalised.
Today the original church frontage is incorporated into the glass and steel structure that houses the Omni cinema and a whole host of bars and restaurants, and accessed through the façade itself is the Glasshouse hotel, popular for its roof garden and rear views up to Calton Hill.
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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 distantly 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.
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