Look Closer - Edinburgh 2020 (part 7)
Here it is, the final part of my blog series highlighting 20 hidden gems and small details of Edinburgh, things that you are only likely to find by actively seeking them out!
All my tours try to steer you away from some of the more crowded, busy tourist trails, to give you an experience of the city that is different from the thousands of people who only hit the highlights. Especially in the height of summer, escaping the crowds and finding your own path in Edinburgh crucial, so whether you take a tour with me or just go exploring by yourselves, I hope you've been inspired to look beyond the Royal Mile and the queue to get tickets for Edinburgh Castle.
Previous entries in the series can be viewed here: part 1 | part 2 | part 3 | part 4 | part 5 | part 6
19. A place of healing
In the eighteenth century, a group of children playing alongside the stream between Stockbridge and the Dean Village, discovered a spring bursting from the ground. Unlike the notoriously polluted Water of Leith itself, this spring was clean and fresh and pure, and when local people investigated they discovered it was coming from an underground aquifer. This supply of water was intensely mineral rich, and so a well house was built around it with a pump to bring the water up from deep under ground.
St Bernard's Well, as it was named, became a popular attraction for the wealthy citizens of the eighteenth century. At a time when only those with money had the means to travel, visiting mineral wells became a popular way of spending leisure time, and like the holy wells in Holyrood Park before it, St Bernard's Well is conceivably Edinburgh's earliest purpose-built visitor attraction.
A nearby street was originally named Mineral Street, and provided accommodation to travellers coming to take the water, and although the pathway past the well is relatively quiet today - although popular with local people walking their dogs or cycling - this quiet suburb of the city would have been busy with visitors back in the 1780s.
The well house that is visible today was designed by the classical landscape artist Alexander Nasmyth, and draws on the classical Grecian style. At the centre of the rotunda is a statue of the Greek goddess Hygeia, known as the goddess of hygiene and cleanliness, at the the very top of the structure look out for the golden pineapple, a popular symbol of wealth and status in the Georgian era.
20. An American icon
My final detail of Edinburgh is one which is always popular with visitors, and can be found in the Old Calton Burial Ground. Standing just in front of the grave of the philosopher David Hume is a statue of Abraham Lincoln - and it may seem a rather unusual place to find a statue of an American president!
In fact, it was not only the first statue of an American president outside of the US when it was erected in the 1890s, but to this day it is the only American Civil War memorial outside of North America.
Five Edinburgh men were among the many Scots who fought alongside Lincoln in the American Civil War - like the Irish, the Scots not only had a sense of connection to America, but were also often employed as mercenary forces in conflicts across the globe. After their deaths the bodies of these men were returned to Edinburgh for burial, and one of their wives made an application to the US ambassador to Scotland at the time to request a memorial to commemorate their sacrifice.
Legend has it that the ambassador was resistant to the idea until his wife took up the cause on behalf of the widows of the men who had died in battle, and it was with her support that a memorial to the men was erected over the grave. By extension it commemorates all the Scots-American casualties of that conflict.
Although it was the figure of Lincoln who attracted attention at the time the memorial was unveiled, in recent years it has been the figure at the base of the monument, representing the emancipated slaves, who has become the feature of interest: the figure is represented holding a book in his left hand, a subtle (and ingenious) way of indicating that slaves were not just objects of property, but educated and literate people with their own internal worlds and lives - a pretty forward-thinking representation for the late nineteenth-century...
Both of these features can be seen on a three-hour New Town tour, or can be incorporated into a customised Edinburgh walking tour!
Look Closer - Edinburgh 2020 (part 6)
I always say that there is more to Edinburgh than a guide book could show you, and most of it is hiding in plain view, just waiting for you to find it! There's no secret to it really, you just have to go looking, and be a bit more adventurous than just walking down the Royal Mile...
Going beyond the beaten track of the tourist trail rewards visitors, and that's what I try to do with my tours. This series highlights some of the smaller details of Edinburgh beyond the headline attractions.
Other parts can be found here: part 1 | part 2 | part 3 | part 4 | part 5 | part 6 | part 7
16. Cannonball House
Standing at the top of the Royal Mile, the last building on the left as you walk to Edinburgh Castle is called Cannonball House, and today houses a bar and restaurant offering unparalleled views of the castle esplanade. But the building gets its name from the two cannonballs stuck into its western-facing wall - look for them on the side on the building facing the castle.
Some guides will tell you these were fired from the castle on an invading Jacobite army in the eighteenth century - in fact they have a more interesting (if less romantic) origin.
In 1624 Edinburgh was granted an act of parliament to commission the supply of fresh water into the city for the first time. The water was brought from the hills to the south, via network of wooden pipes - hollowed tree trunks - across the landscape into the city.
The building across from Cannonball House was a water tank, and the cannonballs were put into the wall as level markers, indicating the height of the springs in the south, from which the engineers could calculate how high to construct their water tank to get maximum benefit of the water pressure.
17. Birthplace of a revolutionary
Scotland and Ireland have a long history of shared Celtic traditions and origins, and in the nineteenth century many Irish migrants settled in Edinburgh in pursuit of a better life than they had experienced in rural Ireland - the area of the Cowgate in particular became known as 'Little Ireland' due to the large number of immigrant families who settled there.
By the 1860s the Cowgate was an overcrowded slum, and it was in the shadow of George IV Bridge that a young boy named James Connolly was born to an Irish family, in June 1868.
Seeking a life beyond the slums of Edinburgh, Connolly enlisted with the British Army at the age of 14 (having lied about his age) and was deployed with the troops to Ireland, before deserting to avoid being sent over to India.
Back in Scotland, Connolly became involved in politics, campaigning for the Scottish Socialist Party, which in turn became restyled as the Irish Socialist Republican Party, and he returned to Ireland to spread the socialist cause in 1910. He later established himself as leader of a republican paramilitary troop called the Irish Citizen Army and was involved in leading those opposing British rule of Ireland in the Easter Rising on the streets of Dublin in 1916.
Connolly was injured in the conflict with the combined forces of the British Army and the Royal Irish Constabulary, and in the aftermath of the uprising - in which over 480 people were killed and many more injured - many of the rebel Irish leaders were executed by firing squad. Because of the injuries he sustained, Connolly was unable to stand to face the firing squad, so instead was tied to a chair and shot where he sat on 12 May 1916.
Connolly is commemorated in memorials and statues across Ireland (and the US) and has a railway station in Dublin named for him. A small plaque high up on the Cowgate in Edinburgh marks the approximate site of his birth.
18. The next big thing...
Walk through Bristo Square, at the heart of the university of Edinburgh's city centre collection of buildings, and you'd be forgiven for not spotting the largest public art commission to be installed in the Old Town.
Running across the square, and set into the stones at your feet, are a series of 1600 small bronze dots, looking a little as though somebody has dripped paint across the square. This is a work by artist Susan Collis, entitled 'The Next Big Thing... is a Series of Little Things', and it leads right up to the doors of the McEwan Hall, where university celebrates its graduating students.
Collis's work typically toys with people's expectations of art, and with this commission she subverts the typical experience of a statue becoming invisible in its setting because of its familiarity - something that is seen every day eventually stops being visible because it becomes part of the background of the city.
Her bronze dots in the ground, in contrast, will become more visible over time, as the movement of people walking through the square and scuffing and buffing the metal with their feet means that over time they will become shinier, and so more noticeable...
So remember to look up and look down as you explore the city of Edinburgh - there are details and secrets to be found at every level!
Explore more of the city's hidden gems with my private walking tours!
Look Closer - Edinburgh 2020 (part 5)
On my walking tours of Edinburgh I try to show visitors some of the less familiar sights of the city, to explore areas away from the beaten track of the tourist trail - for every castle and palace there are a hundred smaller details that many people never take the time to look at.
This blog series is my way of introducing visitors to some of the hidden gems and city secrets of Edinburgh that we might encounter on a tour, alongside the popular features that every tourist takes photos of!
You can find other parts of this series here: part 1 | part 2 | part 3 | part 4 | part 5 | part 6 | part 7
13. A military muster point
On the road out of Edinburgh to the south, between the suburbs of Bruntsfield and Morningside, stands a small sandstone monument erected on the wall outside a former church building.
This is the bore stone, reputed to have stood at the point nearby where James IV of Scotland mustered his troops before marching south to invade northern England in 1513. This was a momentous battle in Scottish history.
As well as being a historic defeat for the Scots - James IV became the last British monarch to die on a battlefield - it led to the city of Edinburgh constructing its second defensive wall to protect itself from any potential reprisals by the English.
The Battle of Flodden remains the worst defeat that the Scots ever suffered at the hands of the English, and a big part of that statistic was simply down to the incredible numbers of men that James IV recruited to fight. Thousands of soldiers - many of them just boys - were enlisted from all across Scotland, and they all amassed on the southern outskirts of Edinburgh ahead of their march south.
The bore stone on Morningside Road has a small hole running through it in which, it is alleged, a flag would have been mounted. From this point many thousands of men were walked to their death at Flodden, and today the stone serves as a sombre reminder of the cost of such conflicts.
14. The Magdalen Chapel
Standing on the Cowgate, between the Grassmarket and George IV Bridge, is a small building that has survived over 450 years of city development, religious uprisings and political turmoils.
The Magdalen Chapel was built as a small Catholic chapel in the 1540s, around the time of the birth of Mary, Queen of Scots. It is believed that Mary's mother, Mary of Guise, led prayer sessions at the chapel during her time in the city in the sixteenth century, and the building survived one of the greatest periods of social change at the time of the Reformation in Scotland, in 1560.
When Scotland changed from being a Catholic to a Protestant country, many churches and chapels were attacked by mobs seeking to destroy the Catholic iconography and the elements of worship which were now against the beliefs of the Protestant church - in particular the high decorations, the paintings, statues and stained glass of the Catholic churches, which stood in opposition to the new Protestant church's more earthy form of religious celebration.
It is amazing the Magdalen Chapel survived at all, having been built by a man called Michael MacQueen as a form of Catholic indulgence, a way of helping atone for sins in order to secure his place in heaven. These indulgences, seen by the Protestant church as buying favour with God, were specifically abolished during the Reformation.
Today the Magdalen Chapel has the only surviving, intact, pre-Reformation stained glass windows in the whole of Scotland. They are on the back wall of the building and are each about the size of a large dinner plate. They're not visible from the street, but the chapel is open regularly for visitors to explore its small interior.
15. Birthplace of a great communicator
Visitors often spend little time in the New Town of Edinburgh - the name, perhaps, is a little off-putting. But this whole side of the city has origins going back to the 1760s, and before it became the commercial area that is apparent today, the New Town was an extremely high-status, wealthy residential district.
Look above and behind the shop fronts today and you can still see many of the original house structures, and a number of the buildings were formerly home to significant figures from history - my New Town fixed-route tour can showcase some of this area's fascinating and often overlooked history.
On Charlotte Square are a number of houses with lofty associations, and number 14 South Charlotte Street in particular was the birthplace of Alexander Graham Bell, the Scottish inventor credited with inventing the telephone.
Scotland has long been recognised as the home of a great many inventors, innovators and technological visionaries, and Bell stands among them as a figure who helped to revolutionise communication between people in a way that continues to affect and influence society today.
It is a little strange to think of the father of the modern telephone walking the streets of the New Town as a young boy, seeing the same views and buildings that visitors can see today...
Find more of Edinburgh's less familiar historical features with my private city walking tours!
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