One of the great joys of living in Edinburgh (and of this job) is the constant stream of surprises that the city holds. After more than 20 years, I'm still finding out new things about the city and the people who have lived here!
This short blog celebrates just one example of Edinburgh's diverse history. On George Square in the Old Town - an area occupied by the University of Edinburgh - I have walked past the surviving buildings on the east side of the square hundreds (if not thousands) of times, and I've noticed three buildings in a row that all have a commemorative plaque celebrating people who have lived there or been associated with the buildings.
Across the square, on the west side, are plaques to authors Walter Scott and Arthur Conan Doyle, both of whom lived in the neighbourhood at different times. But it's the diversity of the figures celebrated by the three plaques on the east that that I find fascinating - between these three houses we find a giant of literature, a signatory to the American Declaration of Independence, and an Olympic gold medallist!
Here they are, in reverse chronological order...
Liddell was born in China, to Scots missionary parents, before returning to the UK as a young child. He studied Pure Science at the University of Edinburgh, where he also developed a reputation as an athlete, gaining the nickname 'the Flying Scotsman' for his speed on the running track.
Among his sporting achievements was a place on the Scottish national rugby team in international tournaments in the early 1920s, and in 1924 Liddell was part of the British squad of athletes competing in the Paris Olympics.
He had hoped to compete in the 100 metres event, but after learning that the qualification heats would be held on a Sunday, he withdrew - as a devout Christian, his faith precluded him from competing on the Sabbath.
Instead Liddell set his sights on the 400 metres race, and spent the months building up to the Olympics training for this longer, more gruelling event. On the day of the final, he broke not just the Olympic record but the world record, completing the race in 47.6 seconds, and gaining a gold medal for his efforts. His story is told in the 1984 Oscar-winning film, Chariots of Fire.
Liddell later returned to China to continue his parents' work as Christian missionaries, and was imprisoned in a Japanese labour camp, where he died shortly before its liberation in 1945.
PETER MARK ROGET
Born in London, Roget studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh in the 1790s, but his life was marred by great tragedy, with several figures in his close family (including his father, his wife) dying young. Experiences of depression persisted, and as a means of alleviating his emotional distress he turned to obsessive list making, a habit he had fallen into even as a young child as a means of distraction from the world around him.
In 1805 he began compiling the list that would forever be associated with him, a thesaurus of words arranged by their definition and meaning. He spent nearly 50 nearly assembling and compiling his lists, with the first edition being published in 1848, containing over 15,000 entries linked by concept or theme.
Roget's Thesaurus was reprinted 27 times during its author's lifetime, and following Roget's death in 1869 the book was expanded by first Roget's son, and later his grandson. This definitive literary aid remains in print today, over 150 years later.
Rush was born just outside Philadelphia in America during the period when it was still a colony of the British Empire, in 1745. After graduating from what is now Princeton university aged just 14, Rush was encouraged to undertake further studies, and travelled to Edinburgh to study at the university here in the late 1760s - as such he would have had one of the earliest associations with George Square, which was only being constructed around that time.
In 1769, Rush returned to the colonies where he proceeded to have contact with (and influence on) a great many figures from American history. Thomas Paine consulted Rush for his pamphlet Common Sense, which advocated for American independence from British rule, and later Rush would provide medical training to Meriwether Lewis ahead of the famed Lewis and Clark expedition across the western extent of the North American continent, to reach the Pacific Ocean.
As the representative for Pennsylvania, Rush was one of the signatories to the American Declaration of Independence from British rule in 1776, helping to create the United States of America. It is known that that document was itself inspired by the Scottish Declaration of Arbroath - a similarly-worded statement against English governance dating from 1320, and Rush may even have seen copies of that original declaration during his time in Edinburgh, and drawn on its wording and statement of intent in helping to craft the American document.
In all, this one brief example is an astonishing reflection of Edinburgh's status that such diverse figures of world history were living in the same short section of street at different times...
Find out more about Edinburgh's vibrant and diverse history with my private city walking tours!
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