An oft-quoted statistic claims that people in major cities are never more than 6 feet away from a rat. Whilst this may or may not be an accurate figure in Edinburgh, a comparable claim is that you're never too far from a historic crime scene in Auld Reekie. Bloodshed and death may be the stock in trade for some of Edinburgh's ghost tour companies, I tend to focus my tours on the city's history and its cultural attractions rather than exploiting events from its darker side.
Nevertheless, it's unavoidable that the streets and alleys of the Old and New Towns of Edinburgh have seen their fair share of death, so here are just a handful of sites where you may feel that you are walking in the footprints of murderers (and their victims)...
Holyrood Park, with Arthur's Seat at its centre, is a popular space for visitors to stretch their legs and escape the bustle of the city streets during their visit, and beside the road which leads through the park towards Meadowbank is a rough collection of rocks and stones which was once a memorial cairn.
Known as Muschat's Cairn, the monument was established near to where Nicol Muschat, a surgeon, brutally murdered his wife by stabbing her to death in October 1720. At his trial (where he was found guilty of her murder) he gave as justification for his actions that fact that he had simply grown tired of her. Appropriately enough Muschat was hanged for the crime, and in the years that followed local people followed the tradition of placing stones at the spot in memorial of the young woman who died.
The original cairn was removed sometime around 1789, and the current collection of stones is a Victorian reconstruction built in the 1830s.
Tucked away behind the Apple store near the east end of Princes Street is a narrow lane with the sign Gabriel's Road. It sounds like a rather charming name for an atmospheric alleyway through the area, but in 1717 - when the area was still open land, before the construction of the New Town - the lane was the site of a brutal double murder.
Robert Irvine was a tutor to two young boys in the Old Town, who was left jealous and angry when the master of the house in which he worked dismissed the maid with whom Irvine was having a relationship. In revenge on the family, he planned a picnic for the boys, bringing them out of town to what would have been an idyllic rural spot, where he slit their throats and left them for dead...
The story had a remarkable ending when Irvine was arrested, having been observed carrying out his bloody project by a witness in Edinburgh Castle, who had watched the events take place through a telescope. Irvine was hanged for his crime, his hands also being removed before death with the knife he'd used to slaughter the two boys...
One murder without a happy ending is that of William Begbie, a banking courier who was collecting cash to transfer between branches of the British Linen Bank in 1806. Making his way back along Tweeddale Court in the Old Town with £4,000 in cash, he was attacked by an unknown assailant, his body being found by a local girl who was collecting water from the nearby well. The money was gone, and until 1820 the police didn't even have a suspect in the case until a resident of the street claimed to have identified the man he'd seen in the lane fourteen years previously...
The man, James Moffat, was arrested and pleaded his innocence - he hadn't even been in Edinburgh for years, he protested: he'd been serving overseas as a merchant seaman for a decade or more. He was nevertheless held pending trial, until one morning Moffat was discovered dead in his cell. Without a formal guilty verdict, the death of William Begbie remains one of Edinburgh's unsolved murders.
Leading off the Grassmarket is a lane named Hunter's Close. It was here that one of the biggest historical uprisings of Edinburgh's history came to a bloody end.
John Porteous had been a captain in the City Guard, a ramshackle group of men charged with keeping law and order, whose actions had led to the outbreak of a major riot in the Grassmarket in April 1736. When six people died during the rioting, Porteous was arrested and put on trial, and despite having been found guilty it was rumoured that he would face a commuted sentence because of his connections to the British parliamentary system.
Worried that a convicted murderer may go free, 'justice' prevailed and Porteous was executed by a mob of angry locals, in this lane behind the Grassmarket. He was buried in the nearby Greyfriars Kirkyard, where a simple stone marks his grave.
Queen Mary's Bedchamber
Maybe the most famous single murder in Edinburgh's gruesome history is the killing of David Rizzo, Mary, Queen of Scots' private secretary, in 1566. As Mary and Rizzio ate dinner together in her private quarters at Holyrood Palace, a mob of men burst into the room and stabbed Rizzio to death in front of the queen.
Some accounts suggest that Mary herself leapt to Rizzio's defence and attempted to shield him from the attack, but with more than fifty wounds his body was later thrown out of the palace window. A plaque above a grave in the nearby Canongate Kirkyard suggests (although it may be considered unlikely) that this was his final resting place.
But the rooms in which the murder took place are still accessible to visitors exploring the Palace of Holyroodhouse, and stories relate how, for a time, red ink would be liberally sprinkled on the floor at regular intervals to suggest that visitors could still observe the blood shed by Rizzio as he died...!
Perhaps some people's ongoing fascination with death and suffering - or 'torture tourism' - is not such a modern phenomenon after all!
For less gruesome stories about Edinburgh's history, book one of my private walking tours of the city!
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...
Search the blog archive...
© COPYRIGHT GARETH DAVIES 2014-21