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.
Take a private Edinburgh walking tour to see more doorways with stories from Scottish history!
This weekend - May 17th - marks 398 years to the day since James VI made his historic homecoming visit to Edinburgh. It was the last time he would see his the city of his birth, and the first time he had returned to Scotland since the union of the crowns in 1603.
Having sworn to remain faithful to Scotland, and to make regular visits back here during his reign as king of England, James had reneged on his promises and returned here a virtual stranger to his home. Nevertheless great efforts were made for his visit, with a grand celebratory banquet which cost over £6,333 - equivalent to over £1m in today's money.
The banquet was likely only for invited guests and council members, but the list of produce purchased (and served) included:
Drinking and public dancing were the order of the day, though it's astonishing anyone had the energy for dancing after that big buffet...
A new panel portrait of James was created for the Netherbow Port, the grandest gateway into Edinburgh, complete with ornate gold decoration, and at Edinburgh Castle a special renovation had been undertaken for the occasion.
A suite of new apartments had been constructed to commemorate the king's visit, and the small room in which James had been born to Mary, Queen of Scots, had been redecorated with new panelling detailing the king's heraldic coat of arms, and the historic dates from his reign as king of England and Scotland. This decorative panelling is still visible to visitors to the Castle today.
So take a walk in royal footsteps this weekend, and see the city as James VI would have done, before he returned to London to live out the rest of his reign.
For more information about Edinburgh's royal past, take a fully customised walking tour of the city with me!
"The Queen is dead; long live the King!"
That's the cry that would have gone up across Britain on 24 March, in 1603. At the age of 69, Queen Elizabeth I, daughter of Henry VIII and the last of the Tudor monarchs, died in Richmond Palace, and as she had never married nor borne children, the throne passed to the son of her cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots.
That son was already a king. James VI of Scotland had been born at Edinburgh Castle in 1566, and had been reigning sovereign of Scotland since 1567, following the abdication of his mother, who was later imprisoned and executed by Elizabeth I.
But in 1603, James' power as a monarch was multiplied exponentially, and the status of Britain as a whole changed historically, when he acceded to the throne of England, Wales and Ireland - the first monarch in history to rule these 'united' islands, and paving the way for the formal political union, creating the United Kingdom as we know it today, a century later in 1707.
This Union of Crowns was an historic moment, although it changed the relationship James had with his native Scotland. On 3 April 1603, he made a speech at the High Kirk of St Giles, on the Royal Mile, vowing to maintain and defend his (Protestant) faith, and to return to visit Edinburgh at least every three years - he wasn't going to let being king of England go to his head, as his heart would remain forever Scottish.
Alas this turned out to be an empty promise. On 5 April 1603, James VI (and now I of England) left Edinburgh to travel south for his coronation in London. He would not return to Scotland for another 14 years, and that visit - in 1617 - would be his last. That year marked his fiftieth year as king of Scotland, and he made an emotional return to the room in Edinburgh Castle in which he had been born. The room was ceremonially redecorated for the occasion, and visitors today can still see the painted panelling put in place for this historic visit.
For good or ill, Scotland and England were now formally 'united'.
Find out more about Edinburgh's royal history on customised walking tour of the city.
Apologies for the terrible approximation of a Scottish accent, echoing the catchphrase of one of Scotland's greatest TV crime dramas, Taggart. But there really has been a murder, and a terribly famous one at that.
On this day in 1566, David Rizzio, secretary and (possibly) lover of Mary, Queen of Scots, was brutally murdered in the queen's bedchamber at the Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh. She was heavily pregnant at the time, with the child who would later be crowned James VI and I, and it has been speculated by some that the brutal attack on Rizzio was carefully designed to induce a miscarriage in Mary.
Darnley, Mary's second husband, was jealous of the close relationship between Mary and Rizzio. He may even have believed that the child Mary carried was Rizzio's - he certainly had a hand in plotting the attack, designed to rid Holyrood of Rizzio and frighten Mary, in what was just one of a number of plots to destabilise her reign.
On the evening of 9 March, a posse of men, led by Lord Ruthven, stormed into Mary's chamber where she was dining with Rizzio. The men demanded that Mary give Rizzio up, but she refused, and (it is said) stood between Rizzio and his attackers. The men threatened her with a pistol, and threw her aside to get to Rizzio.
Rizzio struggled against ensuing assault and fought back, but in the end was overpowered by them. He was stabbed a total of 56 times, before his body was kicked down a staircase, and stripped of his jewellery. He was buried the same night, his body interred in an (unmarked) grave in the grounds of Holyrood Abbey - although a grave in the Canongate Kirkyard is reputed to be Rizzio's final resting place.
The murder of Rizzio was certainly as politically motivated as much as it was personally motivated, yet Mary resisted the attempt on her life, and that of her unborn child, and stood steadfast in her position as queen. Just over a year later, in April 1567, her husband Darnley would himself be unceremoniously murdered, possibly with Mary's assistance, in retaliation for his involvement in the assassination of Rizzio.
And as to whether the child she carried - who was later crowned joint king of both England and Scotland - was truly Darnley's or that of the Italian Rizzio, perhaps we'll never know!
Visitors to the Palace of Holyroodhouse can still visit the chamber in which Rizzio was murdered.
Learn more about the lives (and deaths) of other Scottish lords, noblemen, kings and queens, on a private walking tour of the city.
Mel Gibson's kilts-and-claymores epic Braveheart is probably still the most iconic representation of Scotland on film, and 20 years after its original release it has lost none of its appeal. The film's portrayal of thirteenth-century Highlanders has become a definitive cinematic portrait of Scottish people, customs, history and heritage.
Most people know now that historical liberties were taken in making the film, as indeed they had to be - historic reality is rarely as interesting or as neat as cinema audiences demand! - so here is a rough guide to the rights and wrongs of this modern classic.
For a start, the moniker 'Brave Heart' originally belonged to Robert the Bruce, whose portrayal in the film is also regularly called into question. Bruce, in reality, was a powerful and heroic king, coming to the throne in 1306, the year after Wallace's death. Bruce led the Scottish armies at the battle of Bannockburn in 1314, winning a spectacular victory over the English, and was king at the time of the Declaration of Arbroath, formally enshrining the Scots independence from England:
"... as long as but a hundred of us remain alive, never will we on any conditions be brought under English rule. It is in truth not for glory, nor riches, nor honours that we are fighting, but for freedom – for that alone, which no honest man gives up but with life itself."
After his death in 1329, Bruce's body was interred at Dunfermline Abbey in Fife, whilst his heart was embalmed and carried into battle and on crusades as a symbol of Scots power, before being buried at Melrose Abbey in the Scottish Borders. This was the 'brave heart' of Scottish legend.
Screenwriter Randall Wallace (no relation...) was obliged to use artistic licence in writing the backstory to Wallace's history, as no formal historical records exist of William Wallace before the 1290s.
The reality is that the real Wallace is only known from the time when he began leading the rebellion against English force - as an historical figure only the last seven or eight years of his life are a matter of record. It is possible that his father was a minor nobleman in the Scots court, and that Wallace may have been knighted before the infamous victory in the battle of Stirling Bridge, rather than after it, as shown in the film. The truth is, historians just don't know!
It is also highly unlikely that Wallace ever met - or conceived a child with - Princess Isabella of France, wife of Edward II, as she would have been just around five years old at the time the film is set, and didn't arrive in England until years after Wallace's death.... She did become Queen Consort for England in 1308, at the age of just 12, after marrying Edward II against the will of his father, Edward Longshanks.
The accuracy of the battles in Braveheart is worth noting. Wallace's armies did beat the English at the battle of Stirling Bridge - the precise geography of the battleground isn't shown (and the tactically important bridge is missing entirely) but the defeated English army was several times the number of the Scots'.
The battle of Falkirk is a different story, however. Wallace and his men did lose here, but not because of any betrayal by Bruce, or through any specific 'dirty tricks' by the English - it's likely that the skill of the Welsh (not Irish) longbowmen (archers) was simply too great for the Scots to fight effectively. The sacking of the city of York, as shown in the film, is pure fantasy on the part of the filmmakers.
Various other inaccuracies are widely discussed, including the wearing of tartan kilts by the Scots, which would not have been commonplace until several centuries later, and the imposed law of 'primae noctis', which sets up Wallace's initial rage towards the English rulers, was never used by Edward Longshanks, or any other ruler in Britain.
Wallace was hanged, drawn (having his stomach cut open and intestines removed, whilst he was alive) and quartered (his body cut into pieces and distributed across the country) as shown in the film. If anything, his death would have been more brutal and savage than shown - it is unlikely he would have had any such strength as that required to make his final cry of 'Freedom!' before the executioner's axe fell.
Regardless of all its flaws and inaccuracies, the film stands as a powerful and entertaining epic.
Visitors to Edinburgh can find statues of both Wallace and Bruce at the gates of Edinburgh Castle, installed here in 1929. It is said that it was from discovering this statue of his namesake whilst visiting Scotland in the 1980s that writer Randall Wallace was inspired to research William Wallace's life, which later led to the screenplay of Braveheart. (Similar statues also grace the entrance to the National Portrait Gallery on Queen Street.)
It is worth noting that in life, neither Wallace nor Bruce is ever believed to have visited Edinburgh Castle itself....
Explore more of the Edinburgh's real history with a private walking tour!
Scotland and England have long been discussed as if they were mutual enemies of each other, and despite the recent referendum result that saw Scotland remaining 'united' with England, Wales and Northern Ireland there are undoubtedly ongoing tensions and differences between the two nation states.
The political union of Scotland with England dates back to 1707, when the Act of Union, linking the countries to the same political governance, was signed here in Edinburgh. Prior to this, the countries had been ruled by the same monarch - the 'union of crowns' - since the death of Elizabeth I in 1603, when James VI (of Scotland) also became crowned James I (of England).
On the 5th January 1596, just a few years before this union, however, an official proclamation had been put out from Edinburgh, "declaring perpetual peace between Scotland and England, and that none of the Borderers [those living in the border territories] should invade each other, under the pain of death".
It may have been a trifle optimistic to expect 'perpetual peace', but it was a bold wish to express, especially as the Battle of Flodden in 1513 would still have been within living memory for the older generations in Scotland. This was the biggest armoured conflict in history between the two countries, and one in which Scotland fared very badly, with the loss of up to 17,000 soldiers (including the reigning Scottish king, James IV) from the Scottish army, against less than 2,000 casualties for the English.
Nor would the desired peace last for very long, with a number of significant uprisings and revolts in the following centuries (including the Jacobite Rebellions of 1715 and 1745, following the union of 1707). And certainly there were acts of repression and exploitation which were waged against the Scots by those wielding English power, including moves within the most recent decades, which have left an understandable ill-feeling amongst many in Scotland.
Scotland reconvened its own devolved parliament in 1999, and in 2014 a referendum (held on the anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn, a famous Scots victory over the English) was an important event in modern Scottish political history, which saw a record turnout of voters right across the country, engaging with probably the most significant political issue they have ever been consulted on. The outcome of that referendum (a narrow majority voting to stay in the union) has left a resounding impact on many Scots, and the political conversation about independence is continuing in Scotland in a variety of forms.
So although Braveheart-style cries for freedom make for a striking and colourful characterisation of the Scottish general public's relationship with England and the rest of the UK, as a visitor you are encouraged to be sensitive to the fact that this is a serious historical issue that manifests in a wide variety of shades and forms for those on either side of the Scotland-England border. But at least the spirit of that proclamation for 'perpetual peace' from 1596 continues to hold, and that is only to the mutual benefit of those living under the political governance of both nations.
Explore more Scottish history with a private walking tour of Edinburgh!
"Lang may yer lum reek!"
It sounds faintly insulting, I know, but this is a traditional Scots greeting for the new year, translating as 'long may your chimney smoke' - or long may your fire burn.
This is an example of Scots, variously described as both a language and a dialect, with many words relatively easily translated back to formal English. There is no universal distinction between a language and a dialect, but in a 2010 poll conducted by the Scottish Government, an overall 64% of respondents agreed that Scots was best considered a dialect. There may be an element of perspective on the matter led by whether or not a person is a native speaker of Scots - in the same survey, 58% of people who spoke Scots regularly considered it a dialect, whilst 72% of people who never spoke Scots considered it a language.
Certainly a native speaking in Scots might be considered challenging for a visitor to understand - but compare 'dialectic' Scots with Gaelic, an entirely distinct language which bears no easy relation to formal English. According to the 2011 census, just over 1% of the Scottish population indicated that they could speak Gaelic at that time.
If you venture to the Highlands on your visit to Scotland, you'll notice that all public signage is presented in both English and Gaelic - the differences in those languages will be easily visible here.
Scots is still in active use around Scotland, and specific usage varies between regions or areas of the country. (In this sense it is again less like a fixed language than a variable dialect.) You will find examples of Scots phrases readily available on t-shirts, posters, mugs and other souvenir items - none of this should override the fact that Scots is a current and contemporary form of expression across Scotland, and is not merely a vestigial linguistic hangover from bygone times. Even any examples of 'old Scots' that you encounter - such as the motto on the side of John Knox's house - can be understood fairly easily with a little effort to translate into formal English.
Be sensitive to the fact that Scots is an integral part of Scottish heritage and culture. You are likely to encounter Scots in conversation with locals, and if you find yourself struggling to understand anything that you hear or read, a polite request for repetition or explanation will be received more warmly than a joke about your lack of comprehension. Just as some people will find comments about 'Mickey Mouse' Scottish banknotes insulting, so are they likely to feel aggrieved at remarks which denigrate the way they express themselves.
During your visit, you may find the following list of phrases a useful reference...
Aye / Naw - Yes / No
Whaur ar ye fae? - Where are you from?
Awa an bile yer heid - Don't be stupid
A dinna ken! / Eh? - I don't understand
Whaur's yer cludgie? - Where's the toilet?
Caw on the polis! - Call the police!
All my private city walking tours are conducted in plain old English, for the ease of comprehension!
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...
© COPYRIGHT GARETH DAVIES 2014-20