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.
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I have recently had cause to engage directly with the legacy of one of Edinburgh's local heroes, a man born in the Old Town, buried in the New Town, and standing as one of the great pioneers of his age. William Dick established Scotland's first veterinary school in Edinburgh, which continues to operate today as part of the University of Edinburgh.
Dick was born on White Horse Close, a picturesque alley just off the Royal Mile near Holyrood Palace. I often bring groups into this lane because of its instagram-friendly appeal, but in 1793 when young William was born it would have been less pretty and more a run-down slum area - but it was an area that had long held a connection with horses, with legends of Mary Queen of Scots' horse being stabled here, as well as being the site of a major inn serving visitors arriving into Edinburgh from the horse drawn coaches in the seventeenth century.
Dick's father was a farrier - horse shoe making - and so horses would have been a significant presence in the boy's life, and growing up in an environment where animals were such a feature was certainly an influence on William's later veterinary pursuits.
In 1815 the Dick family moved to accommodation in the New Town, just off St Andrew Square, and he was schooled in Shakespeare Square, which no longer survives but was near where the northern end of North Bridge is today. He began to take anatomy lessons, and would later fuse his interest in horses with his medical studies, travelling to London to study as a veterinary surgeon.
Returning to Edinburgh, Dick set up his own veterinary college, training others in treatment of disease in farm animals and livestock, horses and dogs. Having provided students with a certified qualification in "the veterinary art", Dick's reputation grew and his college gradually expanded, until Queen Victoria appointed him as her royal veterinarian in 1842.
Dick died in 1866, and was buried in Edinburgh's Old Calton Burial Ground, just a short distance away from White Horse Close where he was born, and overlooking the bottom end of the Old Town.
William Dick's veterinary college was officially renamed the Royal (Dick) Veterinary College in 1902, and moved into purpose-built buildings near the Meadows on the south side of the city in 1916. Those buildings today are the Summerhall complex of art studios, performance spaces, bars and brewery, and in recent years have become a haven for a variety of cultural interests in the city.
The door still has an original brass plate noting the buildings as the premises of the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies.
In 1951 the Dick Vet became part of the University of Edinburgh, who still operate their veterinary training and medical hospital for animals under the Royal Dick banner. Their main campus is a little distance from the city centre, where they have a variety of world-class and state of the art facilities for treating and caring for sick and injured animals.
It was here that I brought my co-guide Monty on Hogmanay 2019 for an emergency spinal operation after he lost the use of his back legs. At the time of writing, Monty is well on the way to making a full recovery, and that is in large part to the care, professionalism and dedication of the Royal Dick staff.
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Probably the most visited grave in Edinburgh's graveyards - aside from those ordinary folk, like Thomas Riddell, whose graves have been co-opted by Harry Potter Inc. - is that of Greyfriars Bobby, one the city's best-known local heroes.
Bobby, of course, wasn't a person, but a dog. (Edinburgh notoriously has more statues of dogs than women...) And 14 January every year is commemorated as the date in 1872 when he died and was buried in the graveyard of the Greyfriars kirk.
The legend of Bobby has it that he belonged to a man called John Gray, a night watchman in Edinburgh, who patrolled the Old Town every night with his dog for company. When John Gray died, he was buried in the Greyfriars kirkyard, and the story then goes that his dog Bobby spent every night for the next 14 years sleeping on his master's grave...
It's a lovely romantic story, and one which was made into a film by Walt Disney in the 1960s. The story has also become a staple of children's stories, with many book versions reprinted over the years. But, as with most things in Edinburgh, the reality behind the myth is rather less romantic!
After John Gray's death in 1858, Bobby effectively became a stray dog - without an owner to pay for a licence for him, he was liable to being rounded up along with the other stray beasts of the city, and drowned in the water of Leith.
However, he had started loitering the graveyard, territory which would have been familiar to him from his nighttime patrols. But it may not have been his affection for his master so much as his appetite that led him to stay here - all the bars and inns at the boundary of the graveyard would empty waste out of their windows, providing Bobby (and other strays) with a regular, and plentiful, supply of food to scavenge from.
The Victorians were as obsessed with animals as we are - if they could have shared photos on social media, of dogs in top hats or cats on bicycles, the way we do today, they would have been doing it! And so the story of Bobby started to spread, and visitors began travelling into Edinburgh just to look for the dog in the graveyard.
The lord mayor - or provost - of Edinburgh around that time was William Chambers, who realised the appeal of Bobby, and sought to capitalise upon it. He bought a licence for Bobby 'in perpetuity', which meant it would last forever, along with a collar and bowl for him to drink from.
Of course, dogs don't live forever, and the natural lifespan of the Skye terrier is between 8 and 10 years. If we assume Bobby was two years old when his master died, after 14 years of sleeping on his master's grave he would be 16 - twice the natural lifespan of the breed, and as a virtual stray!
It is now considered that there may actually have been as many as four dogs throughout that period, making sure there was always one in the graveyard for visitors to meet - and realising they couldn't keep the story going forever, when one of the dogs died he was given the honour of being buried at the very front of the church.
But visitors continue to seek out Bobby, and often there's a crowd gathered at his grave and around the statue of him mounted on the street just outside the graveyard. (In recent years visitors have started rubbing the nose of the statue for luck, causing huge amounts of damage to the figure. So please don't. It's not lucky. Especially not for the council who pays thousands of pounds each year repairing the damage done by visitors...)
As well as the grave and the statue, look out for Bobby's bowl, collar and licence, which are on display at the Museum of Edinburgh on the Canongate.
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Edinburgh as it is seen today has been shaped over its history by a wide variety of figures and influencers who have left their mark. People like Queen Victoria and Prince Albert made physical changes to the city itself; architects like William Playfair and Robert Adam created the style that can still be seen across the Old and New Towns; and cultural figures like Walter Scott helped to promote the city to start the visitor industry which thrives today.
Another figure to list alongside these local heroes is William Chambers, who was Lord Provost (city mayor) between 1865 and 1869, to whom the city owes a tremendous debt - here are five major effects that Chambers should be remembered for...
Edinburgh's Improvement Acts
Starting in the 1860s, Edinburgh's Old Town underwent a huge program of redevelopment, as the medieval-style structures along the lanes of the Royal Mile were proactively demolished and rebuilt to upgrade and modernise the city's poor quality housing. William Chambers was the man who led the efforts, pushing through a series of laws which made provision for the systematic improvement of the Old Town, widening the narrow closes and improving the standard of living for the thousands of people who lived there.
St Mary's Street, stretching from the World's End junction of the Royal Mile, was formerly a narrower lane called St Mary's Wynd, and the houses at the northern end of the street were the first properties built as part of Chambers's improvements. The majority of the Old Town as it stands today dates back to this period of 1860s - 1880s, and without this wholesale effort to rejuvenate the city it's doubtful that Edinburgh would have survived as well as it has.
As part of this city-wide improvement, one major thoroughfare was created which bears William Chambers's name - Chambers Street runs between George IV Bridge and South Bridge, and was previously a narrow road called College Street.
The road ran alongside the Old College of the University of Edinburgh (as it still does), but under Chambers's improvement program College Street was widened and new buildings commissioned along its length on both sides.
Today most of the buildings on the northern side of the street are associated with the University of Edinburgh (as well as Old College on the southern side) but the biggest development on the street is the National Museum of Scotland, which takes up two-thirds of the whole block.
The foundation stone for the museum was laid in October 1861 by Prince Albert, his last public act before his death in December of that year. The modern wing of the museum opened in 1998. A statue of William Chambers himself stands outside the museum.
St Giles' Cathedral Renovation
William Chambers was also responsible for supporting a major renovation of St Giles' Cathedral in the 1870s. The removal of old buildings earlier in the century had cleared space around the cathedral, and it had become apparent that the building - 700 years old at that point - was in a very poor state of repair.
Internally, too, the church had previously become cluttered, the space having been previously subdivided to house four separate churches under one roof. William Chambers financed a major renovation to create, in his words, a 'Westminster Abbey for Scotland'. The outside walls were cleaned and repaired, and the church tidied up on the inside, to create one major internal space for the first time since the 1630s.
A memorial to William Chambers can still be found inside the church itself.
Chambers English Dictionary
Chambers's profession had been a publisher and bookseller, with a shop on Broughton Street in the New Town. Along with his brother Robert he established a publishing house, and in the 1870s they first published their Chambers English Dictionary - the book remains in print, although modern editions have only been published in digital format. The thirteenth edition of the Chambers Dictionary was published in 2014.
In its early days the dictionary was notable for its accessible and wryly constructed definitions of words, such as describing an eclair as "a cake, long in shape but short in duration"...! Until 2005 Chambers Dictionary was used by the international Scrabble organisation, to provide the words recognised in their Official Scrabble Words dictionary.
Probably the most enduring gift that William Chambers gave to Edinburgh is one of its most popular local myths. In 1867, at a time when stray dogs in the city were liable to find themselves rounded up and drowned in the Water of Leith, Chambers bought a licence for one stray dog who had started to garner attention from visitors to Greyfriars Kirkyard.
The story of a former nightwatchman's dog sleeping on his master's grave was appealing to visitors even at that time, and William Chambers realised that, alongside the improvements to the city, Bobby could offer a valuable boost to the city's visitor profile. The licence he bought had no time limit - it would last in perpetuity - and thus the legend of Greyfriars Bobby was born!
Bobby would reputedly spend 14 years sleeping on his master's grave, and visitors can still view the licence, collar and bowl that William Chambers bought for Bobby in the Museum of Edinburgh, on the Canongate section of the Royal Mile. Bobby's grave and statue remain popular highlights for visitors even today.
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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!
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.
For more information about other significant figures from the city’s past, why not book a customised walking tour of the city?
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.
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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