Within Scotland, the town of Arbroath - on the coast between Dundee and Aberdeen - has two major claims to fame. One is for the Arbroath smokie, a local smoked fish that is notorious for clearing kitchens with its rich aromas (and for that reason rarely found on restaurant menus - if you want to try it, pick up a smokie in a fishmonger and cook it in the privacy of your own home!).
But the second claim to fame is for being the location for the signing of Scotland's early statement of independence from England, known as the Declaration of Arbroath, which kickstarted seven hundred years of Scottish struggle for autonomy. And the date it happened - 6 April - is still celebrated in North America as Tartan Day.
Signed at Arbroath Abbey on 6 April 1320, the Declaration of Arbroath document is one of the earliest formal expressions of the Scots' desire to operate as an independent nation. The text is in the form of a letter to the Pope, detailing the history of Scotland as a self-governing nation, having raised "one hundred and thirteen kings ... without interruption by foreigners".
The letter seeks the Pope's support in standing against the English king, Edward I, and asks him to:
"warn the king of the English, that he ought
The letter makes the case that the Scots would use military might to meet any attack from the English, and asks the Pope to recognise their right to do so (despite the Pope having excommunicated King Robert I, known as Robert the Bruce, and given express right to Edward I of England to claims on Scotland as its overlord).
Interestingly, the letter isn't written directly from Robert the Bruce (who had been excommunicated for murdering John Comyn in the church at Dumfries in 1306) but from a cabal of lords and nobles, expressing a collective expression of sovereign independence, writing on behalf of the people of Scotland rather than from one single figurehead. Moreover, the lords write that if their king should move towards a position of English support, "we would immediately take steps to drive him out as the enemy ... and install another King who would make good our defence".
This is a notable assertion - to the Pope, of all people! - at a time when kings were generally believed to be appointed by God directly, and to operate with His blessing and support. The people of Scotland are telling the Pope that they will appoint a king to rule them - suggesting an assertion of the Scots' will not just against England but against the church itself.
Mostly, though, it is an expression of a collective will and a collective voice, arguing from the point of view of the common man, who wouldn't actually be given any formal political voice until over five hundred years later.
And most famously the letter contains this passage that is often cited, but which may not be an entirely accurate rendering of the original Latin text:
"whilst a hundred of us remain alive,
It's a line straight out of the Braveheart playbook of Scottish history!
And so began the long struggle for independence for Scotland, a battle waged by the people of Scotland over the last seven centuries.
Barely three hundred years later, Scotland and England would be brought into a union - firstly of shared monarchy in 1603, and then of joint government, in 1707 - that survives today.
But there is still a strong drive for Scotland to be able to stand apart from outside governance, and many people in Scotland continue to seek greater powers for the modern Scottish Parliament, furthering the devolution of political control from the British government at Westminster.
The latest formal public debate on the idea of independence took place in 2014, when the people of Scotland voted narrowly in favour of retaining the union as it stands. With developments in the Brexit situation since 2016, when Scotland voted to retain EU membership, there have been renewed calls for a further referendum on Scottish independence to be held.
So it is a debate that continues to be heated and divisive at times, but certainly one which shows no signs of abating.
No one can accurately foretell the future of Scotland - especially in 1320, before much of the political and social tumult which followed - but it is an interesting example of how Scotland's history manages to be bother distant and contemporary, as discussions that were being had seven centuries ago remain on the political agenda today.
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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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Sometimes all we get to see of a building is its front door, especially in a city like Edinburgh where many of the historic properties are still actively used as houses or commercial premises.
I don't take tours inside any of the paid entry attractions (although I may take you into a few choice locations on our tour!) so I'm used to only seeing the outside of a building.
Here are a few of my favourite doorways of the city, with some stories about the history hidden inside...
17 Heriot Row
Heriot Row remains one of the New Town's grandest addresses, and property on the street routinely sells for in excess of £1.5 million... Notable residents of the street include the physicist James Clerk Maxwell, and John Buchan, an author best known for his adventure story The 39 Steps.
Number 17 Heriot Row was the childhood home of Robert Louis Stevenson, and it is reputedly from a drawing room window on the first floor that he would stand looking out at other children of the neighbourhood playing in the private gardens on the other side of the road. In those gardens is a pond with an island, and it may have been those early experiences which fed his later iconic adventure story, Treasure Island.
4 South Charlotte Street
Another New town address, on the corner of Charlotte Square at the west end of the city. Number 4 South Charlotte Street was the birthplace of Alexander Graham Bell, who would later go on to lodge a patent for his invention of the telephone.
It's a useful reminder that before the New Town was the commercial district we see today, this area was built as a residential area for high-status families.
2 Advocate's Close
Just off the Royal Mile near St Giles' Cathedral is one of the most picturesque of the city's closes and wynds. Advocate's Close was formerly home to one of Scotland's Lord Advocates - the highest legal figure in the country - called Sir James Stewart. Stewart's house was actually at the bottom of the lane, but this doorway near the top of the lane is a powerful reminder that some of Edinburgh's Old Town houses have been occupied for over 400 years - look at the date above the doorway to see when this property was first constructed.
As Lord Advocate, Stewart's most notable case was the prosecution of a young student called Thomas Aikenhead for blasphemy, in the 1690s. Aikenhead became the last person in the UK to be executed for blasphemy...
Further down the Royal Mile, off the Canongate, is Acheson House, built in 1633 for Archibald Acheson, a major figure in the royal court of Charles I.
The crest above the doorway features a cockerel on a trumpet, the crest of the Acheson family, and in the middle of the date is a diagram made of the letters AA and MH superimposed on each other - for Archibald Acheson and his wife Margaret Hamilton.
Into the nineteenth century the house wasn't such a grand property, having become a brothel known locally as the 'cock and trumpet'....
Today Acheson House houses Edinburgh World Heritage, the city's premier heritage and preservation body.
The churches of Scotland are often the oldest structures to have survived the passage of time, and at Duddingston is a church reputed to be the oldest on Scotland's east coast.
One former door into the church - long since closed off - has an archway and stonework which dates back to the church's Norman origins in the twelfth century.
The church remains an active centre of worship for the community.
Earl of Morton's House, Blackfriars Street
Blackfriars Street is another fascinating lane in the Old Town, widened in the 1870s from its original layout as a narrow passageway just a few feet wide.
On the west side of the street are some of the original buildings which survived the wholesale renovation of Edinburgh, including a building which was formally home of the Earl of Morton, one of the regents who ruled Scotland during the childhood of Mary, Queen of Scots.
Today the building is a youth hostel, but above its original doorway is a fascinating emblem of two unicorns, standing aside a crown. This was the royal emblem of Scotland before the union of crowns, when Scotland and England came under one monarchy, in 1603.
The later royal emblem - still commonly used today - is of a lion and a unicorn with a crown between them, but this earlier symbol is still visible on a few surviving buildings from the sixteenth-century.
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Edinburgh's city centre (and, indeed, its surrounding areas) are packed with a multitude of churches, their spires and towers rising above the surrounding buildings.
Many church buildings in the city have been converted from ecclesiastical use, but one still functional church rises above (almost) all of them, and can be seen on the skyline from right across the city - I'd go as far as to say it's a more prominent feature than Edinburgh Castle itself!
St Giles' Cathedral is the largest of Edinburgh's Old Town churches, and sits right on the Royal Mile at the heart of the medieval city. The building is named for the patron saint of Edinburgh, St Giles, a Greek hermit who spent much of his life living in solitude in France. The church itself was established in the twelfth century, and the building has been developed and under almost continuous rebuilding until the nineteenth century.
Despite its name, St Giles is actually not technically a cathedral... In 1560, Scotland changed from being a Catholic country to a Protestant one, and part of this major social Reformation was for the church to get rid of the power structures imposed by bishops. Since a cathedral is (by definition) the seat of a bishop, and as the Church of Scotland no longer has bishops, the building at the heart of the Old Town is the High Kirk of St Giles.
It was the minister of St Giles' at that time, John Knox, who led the Reformation in Scotland, and he is commemorated with a statue in the church, as well as being buried in the former graveyard (now Parliament Square) just outside it.
At other times in its history, as the Church of Scotland underwent a number of shifts and changes, St Giles' became sub-divided and hosted no fewer than four separate churches under its roof, each with a separate congregation and preaching different interpretations of the same basic text. Today the building is reunited as a single church, and continues to be a popular venue for weddings, regular services, and live music.
The distinctive crown tower at the top of St Giles' - more properly known as a lantern tower - was added in the 1490s, and is one of only a handful of such structures in Scotland. It is this feature which can be seen above the rooftops of the city from miles around. Access to the tower for small groups is available on tours of the cathedral, giving visitors a unique perspective over the city centre.
Other highlights of the building include the Thistle Chapel, a highly decorative chapel at one corner of the building which was built in 1911. Knights of the Order of the Thistle, a chivalric honour bestowed on a maximum of 16 people at any single time, and dating from the seventeenth century, are celebrated here. Near the entrance to the Thistle Chapel is an original copy of the National Covenant, a document created and signed at nearby Greyfriars Kirk in 1638, demanding freedom and independence for the Church of Scotland from the monarchy.
The church also has a large stained glass window commemorating Robert Burns, Scotland's national poet, above the main entrance on the west side of the building. A variety of other figures from Edinburgh's history have memorials inside the church, including the author Robert Louis Stevenson, medical pioneers Elsie Inglis and James Young Simpson, and warring nobles Argyll and Montrose.
Access to visit the church is free, but with donations requested.
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The new Mary Queen of Scots film hits UK cinemas today (although it's been out elsewhere for a month already) so here's my review, with an eye on the historical details that it gets right (and wrong!).
There seems no better time for cinematic visions of history which put women to the fore, and one period which lends itself to being viewed through a prism of womanhood is Britain in the sixteenth century, when both Scotland and England were ruled by queens. Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots were cousins, nearly a decade apart in age, whose lives and personal circumstances could hardly have been more different.
Mary Stuart (Saoirse Ronan) had spent her childhood in France, become queen of France (by marriage) aged just 16, and returned to Scotland after being widowed at 18. Elizabeth Tudor (Margot Robbie) was the daughter of Henry VIII, having ascended to the throne on the death of her sister Mary, was unmarried and held the line of royal succession in her hand. If she were to die without producing an heir, the throne would pass to her cousin in Scotland, who would become queen of both the Scots and the English.
On one level, Josie Rourke's film is a story of two women managing the trials and tribulations of romantic life, and part of its weakness is in trying to put a new spin on the balancing act between finding love, holding down a job and managing the challenges of motherhood. For all that she is a traditional romantic heroine, Mary's struggle lacks much originality – in this sense, it is Elizabeth's story which is the more interesting, and Margot Robbie's portrayal of a conflicted monarch at war with her body, her heart, her mind and her advisors which has the more dramatic interest.
But, it is Mary's film, and as such all the key ingredients of the historic tragedy are woven into the drama, including several true elements from the historical record:
The film works best when not trying to juggle so many historical details, and much of the intrigue and discussion around the English queen's attempts to influence Mary's choice of husband, and for what political ends, is a little unclear. The fickle political landscape as a whole makes for unsatisfying viewing – it's not clear how (and why) Mary's half-brother James switches sides to lead the English army against her, and the film's weakest scenes are the conflicts between Scots and English armies, which lack both scale and sense of importance. This story is not an epic clash of swords and armour, and whilst there were significant battles during Mary's reign, they sit awkwardly in a version of the story which is otherwise much more emotional and cerebral in its focus.
The greatest liberty that the film takes – common to all dramatic versions of the Mary v. Elizabeth story – is the face to face meeting of the two queens. In reality, although attempts were made by Mary to meet her cousin throughout her life, the two women never met. It is a fitting climax to their struggle, though, that the two of them meet here shortly before the end of the film, when Mary flees Scotland to seek sanctuary from Elizabeth in England.
This scene is probably the film's strongest moment, being able to shed all need to cleave to a historical reality, and taking place purely in the space of dramatic invention. It is here, in a humble laundry shack in rural England, that the two women exchange words, and it is astonishing how much drama screenwriter Beau Willimon is able to pack into such a short scene. Both women bare their souls to each other, both are moved to tears, and both bring to bear threats upon the other. That it feels like such a genuine moment of interaction is testament to the skill of the two performers. The film is worth watching for these brief exchanges of dialogue, as the two women work to find a balance with each other. Having apparently found resolution, it is all the more shocking that Elizabeth moves immediately to have her cousin imprisoned.
Mary remained a prisoner of Elizabeth, at various houses and prisons across England, for the next 19 years, and the film finishes as it starts, in the moments leading up to her execution.
The line commonly attributed to Mary - “In my end is my beginning” - shows well her sense of place and perspective, recognising and understanding that her death was just the start of a mythologising of her life, and is the reason why her story remains compelling nearly five-hundred years after her death. This latest film is a worthy and watchable revisiting of a familiar tale, fitting the doomed romantic heroine's story into a narrative for the twenty-first century.
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Like many medieval settlements, Edinburgh at one time was a walled city.
Defences were essential to keep the city safe, and to protect its occupants from attack and invasion, as well as providing a boundary for the administration for taxes and laws which were levied on those within.
Edinburgh had always utilised the natural landscape for its protection, initially occupying the raised plateau of rock where Edinburgh Castle sits today, keeping the tribes living there safe from invasion by the virtue of up to 80 metres of sheer rock, which provided a pretty effective barrier against invasion!
As the city grew, the two glacial valleys north and south of the ridge along which the city expanded became integral to keeping Edinburgh protected. The valley to the north was flooded to create an artificial lake called the Nor Loch, which was, in effect, a castle moat protecting the whole city from invasion from the north. With no way across the valley, any would-be attackers were forced around to the east and western edges of the city.
With the castle rock to the west and the Nor Loch to the north, only the south and eastern edges of the city needed more substantial defences, and at different times in its history the southern side of Edinburgh was defended by a succession of three walls. Portions of each of these walls survive today, providing a sense not just of how well protected the city was, but the phases in which is grew and expanded.
The King's Wall
The first wall was built just after the city took on the mantle of capital for the first time, in 1437. Built in the reign of James II around the 1450s, the King's Wall was the first wall constructed as a defence, running along the length of the city from the castle down to near where the World's End is today. To give a sense of how narrow Edinburgh was at this time, the King's Wall ran between the Royal Mile and the Grassmarket and Cowgate which were, originally, beyond the city limits.
Two sections of this 500 year old structure still survive amongst the tangle of buildings and lanes of the Old Town. Just behind the Grassmarket, up the Castle Wynd Steps, you will walk along a length of the wall running east-west, demonstrating how the Grassmarket (or New Bygging as the area was known originally) was outside of the city. One further section of the King's Wall surviving on Tweeddale Court, running north-south as it returned to the line of the main street, forming the eastern boundary of the city.
The Flodden Wall
The King's Wall was superseded by the Flodden Wall, built in the aftermath of the devastating Battle of Flodden, in 1513. Expanding the city southwards for the first (and really only) time in its history, the Flodden Wall was built primarily by women, old people and children, as the working age, fighting age men of the city were all killed in the battle with England.
The Flodden Wall was built as a defence against any renewed attack by the English, and was 2 to 3 metres thick in places, and 7 metres high on average. It took around 60 years to finish building, and is made up of predominantly small pieces of stone, reflecting the less heavy workforce who constructed it.
Major sections of this wall have survived, notably along the line of the Vennel, just to the south of the Grassmarket, in Greyfriars Kirkyard, and along the line of the Pleasance at the eastern edge of the old city. The wall itself ran along the lane of St Mary's Street, to join back onto the Royal Mile at the World's End today, where a large fortified gateway called the Netherbow Port acted as the most heavily defenced entrance into the city.
The Flodden Wall has survived primarily because it was never tested in battle - the English never did push the advantage gained at the Battle of Flodden - and a century later the wall itself was extended.
The Telfer Wall
In 1624, following the death of George Heriot, a major figure in the court of James VI, the city was gifted a huge chunk of money to construct a hospital in Heriot's name. The city had no space on which to build a major hospital building, so part of the money was used to purchase land just outside the Flodden Wall, and to build an extension to that wall to run around it.
The wall was engineered by a man named John Taillfer, and in time became corrupted to Telfer, the name the wall has today. Sections of this short, third wall can still be found along the Vennel, where it joins with the Flodden Wall, and along Lauriston Place, along the edge of George Heriot's school today. It's interest to compare its style and colouring to the earlier wall, and to contrast the size of the stones form which its built - a century after Flodden the city had a heavy workforce available once again, and the Telfer Wall is made of predominantly large blocks of stone.
Together these three walls give a sense of the city's limits and protections, and offer an insight into how the city would have looked at different times in its history. To be able to touch stones which have stood on Edinburgh's streets for up to half a millennium also gives a palpable connection to the city's past.
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As we approach the centenary of the end of the First World War, there are many places across the country where commemorative events are being held, and Edinburgh has its own memorials for paying tribute to those who died during the conflict.
The Scottish National War Memorial is inside Edinburgh Castle, with books listing the deaths of service personnel from conflicts right across the twentieth century. The building itself was planned and commissioned after the First World War, and a conversion of a barracks block at the top of the castle was opened in 1927.
Over 147,000 names are contained within the lists in folders inside the memorial, recording deaths of soldiers under the unit and regiments in which they served. These were the deaths during World War One, and in the aftermath of World War Two a further 50,000 names were added.
Visitors can request copies of the listings with their relatives' names on them, but the space itself is a restful area inviting solemn reflection.
The losses to towns and villages between 1914 and 1918 were so immense that memorials were set up after the war around the country. A prominent feature in the centre of even a small town will be its war memorial, listing the names of those who lost their lives. Smaller communities were especially badly hit, with a disproportionately high number of deaths, and the memorials are an important way of not just recording but remembering the sacrifices that were made, and the impact they had on their communities left behind.
Even businesses set up memorials for employees who were lost in the war - the Royal Bank of Scotland offices on St Andrew Square in Edinburgh has two memorials to its staff who enlisted as soldiers, who were killed in both the First and Second World Wars.
There are numerous other sites around Edinburgh where war memorials stand - outside the City Chambers on the Royal Mile is a site where wreaths of poppies are laid, and every November a Garden of Remembrance is established at the foot of the Scott Monument in Princes Street Gardens, with a field of over 8,500 poppies commemorating named servicemen who lost their lives in the conflict.
The poppy is the symbol of remembrance in the UK, and during the two weeks leading up to the weekend nearest the 11th November - the date in 1918 when the armistice was declared - poppies are sold and worn across the country.
There are military memorials throughout Princes Street Gardens, commemorating specific units or conflicts, and at Haymarket to the west of the city centre stands a memorial clock erected by the Heart of Midlothian football club, commemorating players and club members who gave their lives during both the First and Second World Wars.
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