Although I've written about a lot of figures who I class as local heroes in Edinburgh, when I look back at the names that crop up most often they tend to be writers or architects (or even criminals...) who have left their mark on the city in some way.
I've only written about one former lord provost of the city previously, and that was William Chambers - but there's another man who was significant for Edinburgh's development through his role as lord provost, and I'm ashamed to say that I don't think I've ever mentioned him on a tour! Not even once - in the more than ten years that I've been talking to people about Edinburgh...
So in order to make up for that heinous oversight here's a whole blog dedicated to George Drummond - who was lord provost of Edinburgh not once, or twice, but for a total of SIX terms between 1725 and 1764.
George Drummond was born in 1688, the year of the Glorious Revolution, and he wasn't born in Edinburgh but in Perth. He came to Edinburgh to study at the Royal High School, and by 1707 - at the time of the Act of Union with England - he was engaged as an accountant, helping to make the financial case for the political union. (Following the disastrous Darien Expedition, Scotland was essentially bankrupt and was drawn into the union with England partly to ease the desperate financial state in the nation.)
By 1716 Drummond was active in Edinburgh Council, and one of his first major contributions to the city was to help raise funds for the establishment of the first Royal Infirmary, on what is today Infirmary Street in the Old Town.
This institution had been championed by Alexander Monro, head of anatomy at the University of Edinburgh's school, who had been campaigning for a hospital to serve the needs of the sick and the poor of Edinburgh in the early 1720s.
The hospital opened in 1729, and by 1738 was already in need of a larger building to support its expansion - Drummond led the fundraising, and the new hospital building was designed by William Adam, father to Robert Adam. A later surgical hospital building by David Bryce still stands on the site today, which is accessed via Drummond Street, one of two roads in the city named for George Drummond.
After the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh, Drummond's next influential commission was the intended Royal Exchange building, which would be used by market traders to take business off the High Street and create a more formal, indoor market space.
The building, by John and Robert Adam, was opened by George Drummond in his role as Lord Provost of Edinburgh in 1760 - but sadly the building proved to be unpopular with the traders and merchants for whom it had been designed. They preferred to conduct business at the nearby mercat cross, as they had done for generations, and instead the building became occupied by the city council itself, and survives today as the City Chambers.
Around this time the population of Edinburgh has grown to above 50,000 people, all crammed into the area of the Old Town, or approximately half a square mile of space. Living conditions in the city were abject in the extreme, and George Drummond began to make the case for a 'new' town to be developed, to ease the overcrowding of what was still, at that time, essentially a medieval city.
In 1766 Drummond announced a public competition to design a layout for this putative New Town - a competition that was won by a young man named James Craig, whose vision for the city's expansion proved to be revolutionary in terms of town planning.
Drummond also set in motion the draining of the Nor Loch, the artificial lake that occupied the valley where Princes Street Gardens are today, in order to provide access to the New Town, and for the ease of allowing its development. Draining the loch proved to be a longer and more problematic task than had been anticipated, and although Drummond laid the foundation for the original North Bridge to cross the valley in 1763, disaster struck in 1769 when the bridge collapsed due to its foundations proving not to be substantial enough, killing five people. The second bridge opened in 1772, and the structure which crosses the valley today is the 1890s replacement, built by Robert Morham.
Drummond would never live to see the New Town that he had campaigned for. He died in December 1766, the year before construction would begin in what became St Andrew Square.
However, he had already been living on land to the north of the city, on his estate near Bellevue, adjacent to the village of Broughton - the place where he had his house (long since demolished but which stood in the centre of what remains a private garden today) is now called Drummond Place.
Throughout his life Drummond had been an active Freemason, inducted into the Lodge of Edinburgh (Mary's Chapel) No.1 in1722 and serving as Grand Master Mason of the Grand Lodge of Scotland in the 1750s.
He was buried in the Canongate Kirkyard on the Royal Mile, in a church that had been built the year he was born. His grave is rather difficult to view today, inaccessible behind a considerable amount of vegetation, adjacent to the wall of the Canongate Tolbooth.
All in all, George Drummond's life was a remarkable one, and his legacy to the city is undeniable. From having direct involvement in major moments of British history (like the union between Scotland and England, and some of the later Jacobite Uprisings) to his impact on Edinburgh itself, Drummond was important because of his sense of vision - he was able to cast forward into the future and make decisions (or argue for developments) based on the versions of the world that emerged through his imagination.
I would argue that this visionary capacity is something that we perhaps lack, as a society, today - the idea that we make decisions now for a future we may never see ('When old men plant trees in whose shade they will never sit,' as the old proverb has it) is a notion slightly alien to us. Or a notion we find it hard to act upon, maybe.
So: George Drummond - I'm sorry I haven't mentioned you on tours before, but I promise to do so from now on!
Discover more of Edinburgh's local heroes on my private city walking tours...
Of all the literary associations that Edinburgh has - which helped earn its status as the world's first UNESCO City of Literature - one of the contemporary writers who still lives in the city is Sir Ian Rankin, creator of the Inspector Rebus series of detective stories.
In 2007 Rankin was the inaugural recipient of the annual Edinburgh Award, given by the city to a resident who has "made a positive impact on the city and gained national and international recognition for Edinburgh" - his handprints can be found outside the City Chambers on the High Street.
Edinburgh is no stranger to crime fiction, with figures like Arthur Conan Doyle, born in the city and best known for creating possibly the world's most famous detective, Sherlock Holmes. But Rankin more explicitly takes his inspiration from Robert Louis Stevenson in exploring the mismatch between Edinburgh's genteel surface and its grimy underworld - the Rebus stories often feature Edinburgh locations as the backdrop to various grisly events, along with utilising significant events and figures from Edinburgh's history to give local flavour to the writing.
Here's my pick of just a few of the city centre settings found in Ian Rankin's books, to help you explore the city in the footsteps of Inspector John Rebus himself.
A terraced street of tenement properties in the suburb of Marchmont, Arden Street is where Rankin was living in 1987, and where he imagined Rebus living in the building directly opposite his as he sat writing the early drafts of the first book.
Arden Street features as a setting both in that story, Knots and Crosses, as well as in flashback in A Song for the Dark Times, the twenty-third title in the series, and is just a short walk from where Conan Doyle himself used to live, on Argyle Park Terrace near the Meadows.
ARTHUR'S SEAT COFFINS
A collection of mysterious wooden dolls, discovered on Arthur's Seat in the 1860s, features in Rankin's twelfth Rebus story, The Falls.
The dolls are historical fact, and can still be viewed - along with prop versions which were made for the TV adaptation of the Rebus story - at the National Museum of Scotland.
A five-star hotel in Edinburgh's New Town, the Caledonian was originally a railway station before being converted into a hotel.
Built from distinctive red sandstone, sourced from the west coast - in contrast with Edinburgh's yellow local stone - the building was built by the Caledonian rail company and served as Princes Street Station, finally closing in 1965.
It features at the beginning of Rather Be the Devil, the twenty-first Rebus novel, published in 2016.
Today a museum complex, Surgeons' Hall was designed by the architect William Playfair and features in Rebus's investigation in The Falls.
The story finds Rebus tracing historical clues related to the serial killers Burke and Hare...
The building itself was the location for the Surgeons' Hall Riot of 1870, one of several high-profile social uprisings in the city.
THE OXFORD BAR
The early novels had seen Rankin create fictionalised settings for his characters, including a variety of local bars where John Rebus consumed a less-than-healthy quantity of whisky and beer.
Later, Rankin realised he needn't go to the trouble of creating fictional locations, when Edinburgh had a good variety of real-life spaces that he could use instead! And so he began putting Rebus into the Oxford Bar in the New Town, known as the Ox, where Rankin himself continues to drink.
The bar remains a popular local, and is decidedly not a tourist bar... Rebus fans may enter if they dare!
ST LEONARD'S POLICE STATION
From the fifth Rebus novel - The Black Book - John Rebus is working out of the police station at St Leonard's, on the southside of the city.
Although St Leonard's is a real place (backing onto Arthur's Seat) it's not necessarily somewhere worthy of visitor attention - unless you're being detained by Police Scotland, of course!
GAYFIELD SQUARE POLICE STATION
Another real-life police station at the top of Leith Walk, to the east of the city centre. Gayfield Square is where DI Siobhan Clarke is working in Saints of the Shadow Bible, the nineteenth Rebus story.
Having previously featured as a location in Alfred Hitchcock's film versions of John Buchan's The 39 Steps, the Forth Bridge, just outside of the city, is the site of the discovery of a body in Rankin's The Black Book, from 1993.
The bridge was built in the 1890s, and is the most recently listed of Scotland's six UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Sometime home of Rebus's nemesis, gangster Gerry Cafferty, Duddingston is a small historic village on the south-eastern side of Arthur's Seat.
The Duddingston kirk is a twelfth century house of worship which remains active, and the Sheep Heid pub has solid claims to being the oldest pub in Scotland.
It may be decidedly tricky to imagine 'Big Ger' Cafferty, one of Scotland's meanest gangsters, living on these quiet cobbled streets, but possibly that was Rankin's point...
MARY KING'S CLOSE
Today a popular underground visitor attraction, at the time that Rankin wrote the sixth Rebus novel - Mortal Causes - Mary King's Close was still a space that could only be accessed by prior arrangement with Edinburgh Council, under whose City Chambers the old street lies. (The setting is right next to where Rankin's Edinburgh Award handprints can be found.)
It's here that the body of a torture victim is found at the start of the story - and where Rebus finds it surprisingly easy to park, even during the summer's festival season...
The eleventh Rebus story, Set in Darkness, features a plot centring on the proposed location of the new Scottish Parliament building, and involves a murder victim being discovered in Queensberry House, a historic property that became part of the modern parliament.
Queensberry House has its own disturbing and gruesome history, dating from the time of the union with England in 1707, when it was allegedly the site of an act of murder and cannibalism - both par for the course in modern politics...!
The only feature of Edinburgh which gives its name directly to a Rebus novel - Fleshmarket Close is Rankin's fifteenth title, published in 2004.
Fleshmarket Close is one of the characteristic narrow alleys - the closes and wynds - of the Old Town which connects the Royal Mile to Market Street.
The defining feature of Edinburgh - and the location which helps give the city its name - is the site of an apparent suicide in The Naming of the Dead.
Seen here viewed from...
KING'S STABLES ROAD
A road I often take groups down, not because it's especially attractive but because it's a good link between the Old and New Towns of Edinburgh. King's Stables Road is the site of a brutal attack which ends in the death of a character in Exit Music, the book which sees Rebus retired from the police (the first time, from 2007).
There are plenty of other references to Edinburgh landmarks and locations in Rankin's Inspector Rebus stories, along with semi-fictionalised settings and places which have never existed on any map. Rankin himself continues to live in Edinburgh, in the Morningside area, and the most recent Rebus novel, published in 2022, brings the inspector bang up to date with a case set during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Discover more of Edinburgh's literary and historical features with my private city walking tours!
On a recent tour I found myself reflecting on a level of paradox to Edinburgh's buildings that I hadn't fully recognised before.
I often talk about how the Old Town isn't that old and the New Town isn't that new - but although the New Town is the side of the city celebrated for its Georgian style, there is a fair amount of Georgian development in the Old Town, too. And I'd never fully recognised this because we often talk about the Georgian style rather than the Georgian period - things which are subtly different!
Our use of terms like Georgian and Victorian relate specifically to the reigns of the various monarchs who ruled Britain at different times. The Victorian period was 1837 to 1901, during the reign of Queen Victoria. We are currently in a Carolean era, after the end of the second Elizabethan era last year - terms which feel slightly unfamiliar or incongruous in terms of contemporary Britain!
But the Georgian period was longer than most - stretching from 1714 to 1837, during the reigns of (collectively) Georges I to IV, and the brief reign of William IV. Because of the extended nature of this period, there isn't necessarily any such single style that we could consider 'Georgian', as the style understandably shifted and changed over 123 years - a period almost twice as long as the Victorian era.
So whilst New Town is what we think of as representative of Georgian style - distinctive detailing in the buildings and the furniture - Old Town itself has a number of Georgian era buildings which often get unfairly overlooked.
Here's my showcase of some Georgian era features to be discovered in Edinburgh's Old Town...
St Cecilia's Concert Room
Hidden in plain sight just off the Cowgate, this building today houses a museum of musical instruments, as well as a performance space. But St Cecilia's concert room was built in the 1760s - right in the heart of the Georgian period - and is the oldest purpose-built concert hall in Scotland.
The oval shape of the concert room is distinctive, with its glass cupola and the addition of sweeping modern seating for the comfort of contemporary audiences.
Built and named not for any George of the Georgian dynasty, but for the brother of the developer who built it, George Square is at the heart of the University of Edinburgh's central collection of buildings today.
Many of the original building were demolished during the mid-twentieth century, and buildings like the university's central library occupy a significant space on the square.
But original residential properties are still visible on two of the square's four sides - including the former homes of both Arthur Conan Doyle and Sir Walter Scott - with some very distinctive 'cherry cocking' decorative detail in the stone work. Inlaying smaller blocks of stone amongst the bigger pieces creates structural strength as well as being visually interesting.
George IV Bridge
One Georgian feature that is named for one of the actual Georges is this major roadway connecting the Lawnmarket on the Royal Mile to Forrest Road, across the Cowgate valley.
Built by Thomas Hamilton in 1832 to commemorate the visit of George IV to Edinburgh ten years previously, this bridge was originally freestanding, and then enclosed by the buildings erected to enclose it on either side.
An earlier bridge, again from the Georgian era, is South Bridge, built in the 1780s, and crossing the Cowgate further to the east...
Edinburgh City Chambers
One of the architects most closely associated with the Georgian style is Robert Adam, who designed Charlotte Square in Edinburgh's New Town - considered some of the finest surviving Georgian architecture anywhere in Europe. But Adam also worked on buildings in the Old Town, including the City Chambers, which he designed in 1760 alongside his older brother, John.
Intended as the Royal Exchange, the building was originally designed to be an indoors trading space for the market traders who congregated around the nearby Mercat Cross. But the traders didn't want to use it, and so it was later taken on by Edinburgh City Council, who continue to utilise the space today.
Another Robert Adam design, the Old College of the University of Edinburgh was the university's first purpose-built school building, and sat at the end of South Bridge. Designed in the 1780s, the building was unfinished at the time of Adam's death, and was later finished by William Henry Playfair.
Although the exterior of the building is impressive, a visit to the Talbot Rice Gallery provides a chance to see the interior of the space too, where the grandeur of the Georgian style is readily apparent...
Dating from 1722, the Candlemaker Hall on Candlemaker Row was - unsurprisingly - the guild hall of candlemakers! The two square towers are typical of the guild hall style that can be found elsewhere in Edinburgh too, and the candlemakers were originally located safely beyond the city walls to avoid the city becoming damaged by fires.
Buildings like this are typical of the 'rubble built' style that was common before the later use of worked stone cut into neat blocks, which is the more common form during the later Georgian style periods of development.
Built in the 1740s, these residential properties just off the Royal Mile on Canongate are typical of the style of housing that developed prior to the tenement style which proliferated during the Victorian improvements to Edinburgh.
Here the rubble built stonework has been covered with plaster, known as harling, which was then painted in a variety of paints drawn from natural pigments - often ochre, pink and cream.
Chessel's Court had also been the site of Edinburgh's customs house, where notorious criminal Deacon William Brodie committed his final robbery before finding his way to the city gallows, in 1787...
New Assembly Close
Built around 1813, the hall on New Assembly Close is today part of the Faculty of Advocates, lawyers from Scotland's legal system, with part of the building dating back earlier to a time when it served as Edinburgh's Assembly Rooms, a meeting space for dancing, balls and society functions.
The building survived the Great Fire of Edinburgh in 1824, and was at one time a branch of the Commercial Bank of Scotland. It features architectural elements that are more typical of what we recognise from Georgian style structures - the symmetrical frontage, the columns, ashlar stone blocks, the windows of different proportions, and the fanlight over the entrance.
Taken together it is apparent from just this selection of structures that the Georgian era buildings of Edinburgh's Old Town offer more of a variety of style and structure than is associated with the New Town.
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Edinburgh can be a challenging city to navigate, being built across a series of volcanic peaks cut through by glacial valleys, creating a dynamic city centre of peaks and troughs - getting from A to B isn't always a straightforward as Google Maps might suggest!
By necessity my Edinburgh tours quite often feature staircases, though always in moderation - I always try to minimise the steps and hills as much as possible, though avoiding them altogether is not entirely feasible...
So here's a foretaste of the kind of steps and staircases that you might encounter during your visit to Edinburgh! I've ranked them all from 1 to 5 in terms of their practicality, historic appeal, challenge, and the view offered.
You're welcome. ;)
GRANNY'S GREEN STEPS
The meeting point for my Old and New Towns fixed route tour is at the bottom of Granny's Green Steps in the Grassmarket, and I won't actually make you climb them - although for visitors heading to the castle they seem like a direct option.
Named for the drying green through which the steps cut and provide access, a public space which still bears the washing line poles from which residents would hang their washing to dry in the nineteenth century, Granny's Green Steps have an evocative name and one of my favourite views of Edinburgh Castle!
Stair rating: 4/5
THE SCOTSMAN STEPS
A spiral staircase which links North Bridge to Market Street, the Scotsman Steps were originally built as part of the Scotsman newspaper offices in 1901, and used to have a number of outlets along their length where passers-by could pick up a copy of the daily paper fresh off the press as they headed to Waverley Station.
Today the office building is the Scotsman Hotel, and the steps have been relaid as a public artwork by artist Martin Creed - each of the 104 steps has been cut from a different piece of marble, creating a colourful journey for those making the climb (or the descent).
Because of its enclosed nature the stairs sometimes attract people who need urgent use of a bathroom, so are regularly sluiced out...
Stair rating: 2/5
An Old Town lane which features regularly on my tours is Advocate's Close, a steep staircase which gives a good sense of how the original city streets would have functioned.
Named for the Lord Advocate James Stewart, who prosecuted the blasphemy case against Thomas Aikenhead in 1696, the lane features a combination of original sixteenth century buildings and contemporary renovations, creating a great sense of Edinburgh through history.
The view across to New Town from the top are pretty spectacular too!
Stair rating: 5/5
This winding thoroughfare between St Giles Street - once dubbed the Fleet Street of Scotland - and Market Street was built as part of the development of a newspaper office and printing house in the middle of the nineteenth century.
The Edinburgh Courant had been established in 1705, one of the UK's first regional newspapers, and one of its early editors was Daniel Defoe, best known today as a novelist for books like Robinson Crusoe. In the 1870s the Courant moved into new offices which also housed the Daily Review, in a building designed by David Bryce. The steps were built as a link to the railway station, where copies of the printed papers would be taken for distribution and sale.
The steps today offer fine views towards Calton Hill, and run in a series of flights around a curve rather than in a straight line.
Stair rating: 3/5
One of the most historic staircases in the city, this steep and uneven line of steps runs from the valley behind Waverley Station up to the side of Calton Hill, and was originally a means of access onto this volcanic outcrop.
Named for the Biblical character of Jacob, who had a dream featuring an image of a ladder which provided access to heaven, the stairs similarly provided access to the Old Calton Burial Ground before Waterloo Place was built in the nineteenth century.
Jacob's Ladder has recently been refurbished to provided lighting and a handrail, but the steps are still rather awkwardly shaped and are challenging whether climbing or descending. They do provide a view across towards Old Town from the top, and of the surviving walls of the old Calton Jail, which was on the site where St Andrew House stands today.
Stair rating: 3/5
MISS JEAN BRODIE STEPS
Named for the 1960s film adaptation of Muriel Spark's novella The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, which used the stairs as a location for a scene featuring Maggie Smith in her Oscar-winning role of Jean Brodie, these steps are more properly known as the Vennel.
They provide access from Lauriston Place down to the Grassmarket, and as well as giving some of the best views in the city of Edinburgh Castle, they also show you two surviving sections of the original city walls.
Not too challenging to ascend (or descend), the steps are both practical, attractive and a popular spot for visitors.
Stair rating: 5/5
Running almost parallel to Advocate's Close, between the Royal Mile and Cockburn Street, Warriston's Close is interesting for the way the steps widen as you descend - what starts as a typical narrow lane become a quadruple width staircase by the bottom!
This makes the lane accessible but intimidating, certainly to go up, and although it offers an interesting rooftops view of Cockburn Street it's not one which will detain you for very long.
More useful as a direct route than as a scenic option.
Stair rating: 2/5
PATRICK GEDDES STEPS
Named for Patrick Geddes, the man who helped establish Edinburgh's heritage protections in the nineteenth century, this stretch of steps is part of the route between Grassmarket and Johnston Terrace, en route to Edinburgh Castle.
The steps also provide access to one of Geddes's urban garden spaces, part of the innovative approach that he brought to town planning, although the garden itself is often closed to public access, which is a shame.
From the top of the steps there are views both towards the castle and back over the Old Town, though you may be too out of breath to enjoy them...!
Stair rating: 3/5
A short but steep series of steps off the Royal Mile near St Giles' Cathedral, which provides a link onto Old Fishmarket Close. The steps are commonly used by the ghost tour companies as a shortcut, but are also quite attractive from the top looking down, with the iron lamp and the arch of the stonework creating an interesting visual composition.
A practical route but can be busy with tour groups.
Stair rating: 2/5
Another set of steps named for a specific person, the Playfair Steps run from near the top of the Mound down to the level of the National Gallery of Scotland, and are named for the architect who built the two gallery buildings here, William Henry Playfair.
The steps have been closed for a number of years while a renovation and expansion of the galleries has taken place, and were only recently re-opened, allowing pedestrian access between Edinburgh's Old and New Towns without having to take the road itself.
Convenient, not too challenging, and with a bit of a view, the Playfair Steps are some of my favourites among the city's staircases....!
Stair rating: 4/5
Sometimes one of the first features of Edinburgh which visitors arriving off the train at Waverley Station are confronted with, Fleshmarket Close - the former site of an old butchers' market - runs in a straight line from the High Street to Market Street, and creates a great sense of how challenging the city streets would have been for a long time.
Today it's a very busy passageway, with a couple of bars and several other businesses along it, opening onto Cockburn Street before linking across to the Royal Mile itself.
Easier for those going down it than those coming up it, Fleshmarket Close is a bit of a city landmark, having been used by the writer Ian Rankin as the title for one of his Inspector Rebus novels.
Stair rating: 3/5
The narrowest of the original surviving lanes of the city, Craig's Close reaches up between Market Street and Cockburn Street, and I've never actually walked up (or down) it! Its interest lies in the impression it gives of the original Old Town, and of how dark, dirty and tightly packed the city would have been at one time.
The width of the passage and the steepness of the steps makes it an unappealing prospect.
Stair rating: 1/5
These staircases show that the best way of getting around Edinburgh is on foot - only by walking will you discover more of the hidden lanes, staircases, and the views or historical features that they provide!
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