Welcome to 2020, the year of perfect vision! To mark the start of this new decade, I'm choosing 20 features of Edinburgh that tell interesting, unusual or entertaining stories.
Most of all they encourage you to look a little more closely at the city as you explore it - which is exactly what I try to do with my private walking tours of Edinburgh! There is so much history and so many fascinating, small details in the areas beyond the major city highlights, you just have to look a bit harder to find it...
So here are my first three choices - you can find other parts of this series here: part 1 | part 2 | part 3 | part 4 | part 5 | part 6 | part 7
1: A STATUESQUE PIG'S EAR
Standing in the courtyard of the City Chambers (Edinburgh council offices) just off the Royal Mile is a statue of Alexander and Bucephalus, produced by an Edinburgh artist called John Steell.
In legend, Bucephalus was the horse that was frightened of his own shadow, and Alexander the Great tamed him by getting him to stare straight at the sun - the story epitomises the need to approach problems from a different perspective, to use guile and wit to solve a problem (ie. tame a horse) rather than brute force and domination.
When Edinburgh council approached John Steell to produce their statue in the 1830s, Steell was just a young man starting his career as an artist. Having carved the statue in stone and presented it for approval before casting it in bronze, the council admitted they didn't have the full budget to pay for the final commission, but they would keep the stone version, thank-you-very-much...
Over the next half-century Steell rose through the ranks of British artistry, and became official sculptor to Queen Victoria, who knighted him. In the 1880s, fifty years after the original commission, Edinburgh council contacted Steell to confirm the final casting of their statue in bronze - they now had the rest of the money they had offered, but hadn't increased the sum to allow for half a century of inflation.
Steell was pretty insulted, but agreed to produce the final bronze statue. Before casting it, however, he recarved the horse's ears as pigs' ears - disproportionately small to the rest of its body - perhaps as a symbolic reflection of the 'pig's ear' the city council made of the original commission!
2: ONE FINAL HITCH
At the east end of Princes Street in the New Town is the former General Post Office building, the central sorting office for the city's mail deliveries for a long time (and, incidentally, the point that all distances to and from Edinburgh are calculated from).
The building was recently converted into modern offices, but the building retains its original external stylings and stone facade.
On the street at the front of the building, however, is a single iron bollard, standing slightly incongruously apart from the modern railings which separate the pavement from the road. This is the last of the original hitching posts that used to line the city streets, for the purposes of tying up horses who drew the carriages and carts through the city.
Horses were the main form of power for vehicles in the city before the mechanical age. As well as pulling carts, horses drew delivery vehicles, public trams and the stage coaches which traversed the length of the UK from the 17th century onwards.
This is just one simple reminder that the 'New' Town of Edinburgh actually is not as new as people expect, and has over 250 years of its own history - and you can explore it in much more detail with my New Town Walking Tour...
3: The Baxters of Edinburgh
At one time there were fourteen licensed and regulated trades in Edinburgh, each of which was overseen and managed by a dedicated guild. Among these guilds were cordiners (shoemakers), hammermen (tinsmiths and metalworkers), candlemakers (or chandlers) and tailors, and many of the guildhalls where these trades were based can still be found in the city today.
One of the guilds was the guild of baxters, or bakers - specifically bread bakers - who fed the city, and one of the areas in which they operated premises was the Dean Village, a former industrial town just outside Edinburgh, now part of the New Town.
Evidence of the milling and baking industries of the Dean Village can still be seen around the area, including old mill stones from the mills themselves, the guildhall for the guild of baxters, dated 1675, and stone emblems of the baxters - crossed paddles, studded with circular dots.
These emblems represent the large wooden paddles which were used for putting loaves of bread into the big industrial ovens, and the blobs on the paddles are the loaves of bread themselves.
These small details help to give a sense of what life in Edinburgh was like for the people who lived and worked here, and show that there was so much more happening in Edinburgh than the activity around the castle or the palace, which is where most visitors' attention gets focused today.
Get away from the Royal Mile, explore the less touristy areas of the city, and look closer to find out more about Edinburgh's historical secrets, hidden in plain sight around the town!
See more of Edinburgh's hidden gems up-close and personal with my private walking tours!
Search the blog archive...