Close Encounters in Edinburgh's Old Town
For the avoidance of doubt, this is NOT ABOUT ALIENS..! Conspiracy theorists and lovers of Little Green Men should move along, there's nothing to see here. :)
The close encounters I'm talking about are the narrow lanes and alleys of Edinburgh's medieval Old Town. Along the length of the Royal Mile were, at one time, 248 of these separately named 'closes', 'wynds' and 'courts', the narrow streets where Edinburgh's residents were crammed into tight lanes and towering tenements.
There are various interpretations of the name 'close', relating to either the width of the alley (the walls on either side were pretty close, typically just a few feet apart) or the way that many of the closes would be 'closed off' with a gate or other barrier to keep residences protected. Certainly they were dank, dirty, overcrowded and typically unsafe spaces - see Paisley Close, below - which were long overdue for redevelopment by the time the Victorians improved Edinburgh in the 1860s and '70s.
But the surviving lanes and alleys are the parts of the city deserving of your attention, and so here are a few tips for seeking out some close encounters during your visit, so uncover more than the crowded, commercial space of the Royal Mile...
LADY STAIR'S CLOSE
Leading off the Lawnmarket, this lane provides access principally to the Writers' Museum, celebrating three of the city's most important literary figures - Sir Walter Scott, Robert Burns, and Robert Louis Stevenson.
But the space also provides access into Makar's Court - a makar is a Scottish poet - and the paving stones here have snippets from a variety of Scottish poems and verses, as well as giving intriguing views of the back of these buildings which typically were hidden from view. Check out the height of the buildings - Edinburgh's tenements are sometimes claimed as the world's first skyscrapers!
Formerly home to some of Edinburgh's Lord Advocates, this narrow lane offers one of the best views across to the New Town, as well as giving a truly evocative sense of how steep, narrow and inaccessible the city's streets would have been.
One resident of the close was James Stewart, a fearsome bulldog of the Scottish legal system in the seventeenth-century, who prosecuted a notorious case in 1696, leading to the last ever execution for blasphemy in the UK...
The lane is also home to a collection of contrasting buildings, including original structures dating back to 1590 (with the dates still visible in the stone over the doorways) and a modern development which was awarded the Best New Building in Scotland in 2014.
OLD FISHMARKET CLOSE and FLESHMARKET CLOSE
Two of the original market streets of the city, the fish and fleshers' (ie. butchers) markets were on the steep slopes of the hills running down into the valleys to both the north and south of the Royal Mile.
The purpose of putting such markets in such locations was to offer a cleansing effect on the city - all the blood, guts and mess of those market areas would drain naturally into the valleys, in an effort to keep the streets clean. They were not necessarily particularly effective, as contemporary accounts of the fish market in particular describe it as being a 'stinking morass'...
Fleshmarket Close was used as the title of an Inspector Rebus crime novel set in the city, from the author Ian Rankin.
WHITE HORSE CLOSE
Near the bottom of the Royal Mile on Canongate is a lane with one of the most attractive old buildings in the city. White Horse Close was home to the White Horse Inn, one of the old coaching inns where visitors to the city would have stayed in the seventeenth- and eighteenth-centuries.
The lane is private housing today, and the White Horse Inn itself was rebuilt in the 1960s to recover it from the very rundown slum district that it had become at that time. So although the buildings isn't wholly authentic, it is at least offering a visible sense of what the Old Town might have looked like at one time.
Staring out from over Paisley Close on the High Street section of the Royal Mile is the face of a young boy, Joseph McIvor. He had been one of the residents of the tall tenement property on this site that collapsed in the middle of the night in 1861, crushing many occupants of the house to death in their beds.
As rescuers rushed to the site of the collapsed building, they were recovering bodies from under the rubble, and were about to give up their search for survivors when they heard a young voice shouting from under the mass of stone and wood, crying out 'Heave awa' lads, I'm no' deid yet!'
As they continued to excavate they recovered 12-year old Joseph alive, and when the property was rebuilt they immortalised him in the stone above the alley, with an Anglicised version of his words on the ribbon above his head.
Have your own close encounter with the Old Town on my private city walking tours!
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