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...
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Last year I amused myself by compiling an A-Z of Edinburgh, and for 2019 my new blog series will explore Edinburgh by numbers! I'm not sure how high I'll go, and I may start skipping digits, but it's my blog and I can make my own rules...!
So here's Edinburgh in numbers, 1 to 3.
The Number 1: No.1 High Street
To begin at the beginning - 1 High Street is an address on the Royal Mile, at the point where the city originally started (and finished, depending which way you were walking!). The junction itself also boasts the World's End, a marker point for the gateway into and out of the city, beyond which many of Edinburgh's residents never would have travelled.
No. 1 High Street is today a pub called No. 1 High Street (for the avoidance of doubt). Above the entrance to the bar you'll find a figure carved in wood, dressed in green and holding a bow in his right hand. He represents the Royal Company of Archers, who have been the official bodyguards of the monarch in Scotland since 1822. It was a largely ceremonial body of men assembled for George IV's historic state visit of that year, but they retain a sense of place and can frequently be seen in the city during the summer, especially during royal visits.
When not 'on duty' the Royal Company of Archers can be seen practising their marksmanship either in the gardens at the Palace of Holyroodhouse, or on the Meadows (near to the path named Archers' Walk which runs across the parkland).
The Number 2: Charles II
Another royal connection for no. 2 - King Charles II, who was a major figure in the development of Holyroodhouse in the seventeenth century, and is represented in a statue on Parliament Square, near St Giles' cathedral.
The statue of Charles was produced by one of the king's favourite artists, Grinling Gibbons. He was known primarily for wood carvings, but the statue of Charles was cast from lead in the 1680s. It commemorates Charles's coronation as king of Scotland in 1649, after the execution of his father, Charles I. It was only after the restoration of the monarchy in England, following the interregnum and brief period of England as Commonwealth, under Oliver Cromwell, that Charles II was formally recognised a king of England too.
Gibbons' statue represents Charles as a Roman general, a very different image from the classic portraits of Charles II in wigs and heavy jackets. The statue was restored in 2011, to remedy a number of misshapen elements from the lead having buckled and twisted over the preceding three-hundred years...
The Number 3: Three Volcanoes
Although the city was traditionally said (like Rome) to have been built on seven hills, there are three major peaks in Edinburgh's city centre - three vents of an ancient volcano which created the dramatic landscape of the city today.
Arthur's Seat is the highest of the three peaks, reaching to 250m above sea level, and is a popular ascent for walkers. Calton Hill is an easier climb, just ten minutes' walk from Princes Street, offering fantastic views over the city, and Castle Rock is the third peak, winding up within the site of Edinburgh Castle itself to a summit near St Margaret's Chapel. The volcanic eruptions which created these features took place around 350,000,000 years ago, when the landscape itself was deep under water.
Between these three summits run a series of deep valleys, created by glacial activity during the last Ice Age, approximately 15,000 years ago.
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The weather outside may be frightful, but the winter is still a popular time for visiting Edinburgh - with darker evenings and a whole host of special events, it can be an atmospheric and magical time for exploring the city.
Here are some of my top picks for things to do in Edinburgh this winter to help your days be merry and bright over the festive season!
The traditional Christmas pantomime is a truly Scottish experience, a unique form of entertainment that blends broad comedy, live music and dance, colourful scenery and a whole host of topical references to people and things from the past twelve months, all whilst telling a traditional fairytale. All in all, the panto is a riotous afternoon/evening of entertainment that will keep the whole family amused, and quite unlike anything you would find beyond Scotland's shores! The King's Theatre is home of the panto in Edinburgh, and this year their production is Beauty and the Beast.
For something more classical, check out Wendy and Peter Pan, a retelling of the classic story from Scotsman JM Barrie, at the city's Lyceum Theatre, or Scottish Ballet's popular presentation of Cinderella at the Festival Theatre.
Outdoor light shows have become a popular entertainment in recent years, and both the Botanic Gardens and Edinburgh Zoo have a magical experience to check out this year.
Christmas at the Botanics leads visitors on a trail of fairylights through their gardens and glasshouses, including the Cathedral of Light featuring over 100,000 lights... At the zoo, the Giant Lanterns of China tell myths and legends as you've never seen them before, with over 450 specially created Chinese paper lanterns. Both give families a magic experience!
For a spot of outdoor ice skating, check out the rink on St Andrew Square, part of the formal Edinburgh's Christmas offering which includes the Christmas markets and the funfair in Princes Street Gardens.
The city's 24 Doors of Advent provide access to buildings and spaces that are generally closed to the public, with a different 'door' open each day until Christmas. It's a brilliant live action advent calendar, with a focus firmly on showcasing the city's history, culture and architectural heritage. Check out the online listing to find out what doors are open on which day!
For traditional Christmas carols, the Palace of Holyroodhouse is hosting Carols Around the Christmas Tree, whilst the Usher Hall has a whole host of classical music events and live music with a festival feel.
Whatever you plan to do in Edinburgh over Christmas, wrap up warm!
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With five old graveyards to explore within the city centre, the cemeteries and burial grounds of the city provide a wonderfully palpable connection to Edinburgh's past.
On the Canongate section of the Royal Mile stands the Canongate Kirk, and with it a graveyard bursting with interest. Here are just four of its famous burials...
Living in the nearby Panmure House, Adam Smith is one of the major figures of the Scottish Enlightenment, best known for his seminal work An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations - often shortened to simply The Wealth of Nations, published in 1776.
This book provided the first theories and descriptions of international trade policies, and Smith is rightly celebrated around the world as the father of modern economics (or father of capitalism, depending on your perspective).
On his death, Smith was buried in the graveyard just a stone's throw from his former home, and visitors with an interest in Smith and his writing can pay homage at the man's grave - where coins from around the world (literally the wealth of nations!) are often left - and at the recently restored Panmure House where he lived, now part of the Edinburgh Business School.
A friend and secretary to Mary Queen of Scots, Riccio was an Italian man who was not well liked in the court at Holyrood. It was felt that Mary maybe used him a little to closely for advice and support, and as a fellow Catholic he enjoyed a level of intimacy with Mary that others didn't.
In 1566, whilst Mary and Riccio were dining in her private chambers, a mob of men burst into the room and stabbed Riccio to death. It was one of the most brutal and bloody events of Mary's life, which was already not short on drama and tragedy, and in many ways was the inciting incident which led to Mary's eventual abdication and imprisonment.
The grave records this as being the 'traditional' site of Riccio's burial, but many consider this a highly unlikely circumstance - with no alternative contenders for the grave's occupancy, it remains something of a mystery!
Agnes was a married women who struck up a relationship with the writer Robert Burns, with whom she conducted a long correspondence. Both wrote their letters under pen names, to protect their modesty if the letters should ever be discovered or made public - she used the named Clarinda, and Burns took the name Sylvander. In this way they conducted a purely non-physical relationship, but one that affected the poet sufficiently that when Agnes left Edinburgh to join her husband in the West Indies, Burns was moved to write Ae Fond Kiss, one of his most romantic poems.
Agnes later returned to Edinburgh and is buried in the Canongate Kirkyard.
Another connection to Robert Burns is Robert Fergusson, a young poet who was writing poetry in Scots, the dialect of Scotland, at a time when it was deeply unfashionable to do so.
It was Fergusson who encouraged Burns to break away from writing in English and to adopt his 'mither tongue' in his writing. When Fergusson died at the tragically young age of just 24, Burns was moved to commemorate his friend by commissioning the original grave stone in the Canongate Kirkyard where Fergusson was buried.
Thus it was that Burns was set on the path of becoming Scotland's national poet!
Like many medieval settlements, Edinburgh at one time was a walled city. Defences were essential to keep the city safe, and to protect its occupants from attack and invasion, as well as providing a boundary for the administration for taxes and laws which were levied on those within.
Edinburgh had always utilised the natural landscape for its protection, initially occupying the raised plateau of rock where Edinburgh Castle sits today, keeping the tribes living there safe from invasion by the virtue of up to 80 metres of sheer rock, which provided a pretty effective barrier against invasion!
As the city grew, the two glacial valleys north and south of the ridge along which the city expanded became integral to keeping Edinburgh protected. The valley to the north was flooded to create an artificial lake called the Nor Loch, which was, in effect, a castle moat protecting the whole city from invasion from the north. With no way across the valley, any would-be attackers were forced around to the east and western edges of the city.
With the castle rock to the west and the Nor Loch to the north, only the south and eastern edges of the city needed more substantial defences, and at different times in its history the southern side of Edinburgh was defended by a succession of three walls. Portions of each of these walls survive today, providing a sense not just of how well protected the city was, but the phases in which is grew and expanded.
The King's Wall
The first wall was built just after the city took on the mantle of capital for the first time, in 1437. Built in the reign of James II around the 1450s, the King's Wall as it was known was the first wall constructed as a defence, running along the length of the city from the castle down to near where the World's End is today. To give a sense of how narrow Edinburgh was at this time, the King's Wall ran between the Royal Mile and the Cowgate which was, originally, beyond the city limits.
Two sections of this 500 year old structure still survive amongst the tangle of buildings and lanes of the Old Town. Just behind the Grassmarket, up the Castle Wynd Steps, you will walk along a length of the wall running east-west, demonstrating how the Grassmarket (or New Bygging as the area was known originally) was outside of the city. One further section of the King's Wall surviving on Tweeddale Court, running north-south as it returned to the line of the main street, forming the eastern boundary of the city.
The Flodden Wall
The King's Wall was superseded by the Flodden Wall, built in the aftermath of the devastating Battle of Flodden, in 1513. Expanding the city southwards for the first (and really only) time in its history, the Flodden Wall was built primarily by women, old people and children, as the working age, fighting age men of the city were all killed in the battle with England.
The Flodden Wall was built as a defence against any renewed attack by the English, and was 2 to 3 metres thick in places, and 7 metres high on average. It took around 60 years to finish building, and is made up of predominantly small pieces of stone, reflecting the less heavy workforce who constructed it.
Major sections of this wall have survived, notably along the line of the Vennel, just to the south of the Grassmarket, in Greyfriars Kirkyard, and along the line of the Pleasance at the eastern edge of the old city. The wall itself ran along the lane of St Mary's Street, to join back onto the Royal Mile at the World's End today, where a large fortified gateway called the Netherbow Port acted as the most heavily defenced entrance into the city.
The Flodden Wall has survived primarily because it was never tested in battle - the English never did push the advantage gained at the Battle of Flodden - and a century later the wall itself was extended.
The Telfer Wall
In 1624, following the death of George Heriot, a major figure in the court of James VI, the city was gifted a huge chunk of money to construct a hospital in Heriot's name. The city had no space on which to build a major hospital building, so part of the money was used to purchase land just outside the Flodden Wall, and to build an extension to that wall to run around it.
The wall was engineered by a man named John Taillfer, and in time became corrupted to Telfer, the name the wall has today. Sections of this short, third wall can still be found along the Vennel, where it joins with the Flodden Wall, and along Lauriston Place, along the edge of George Heriot's school today. It's interest to compare its style and colouring to the earlier wall, and to contrast the size of the stones form which its built - a century after Flodden the city had a heavy workforce available once again, and the Telfer Wall is made of predominantly large blocks of stone.
Together these three walls give a sense of the city's limits and protections, and offer an insight into how the city would have looked at different times in its history. To be able to touch stones which have stood on Edinburgh's streets for up to half a millennium also gives a palpable connection to the city's past.
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As we approach the centenary of the end of the First World War, there are many places across the country where commemorative events are being held, and Edinburgh has its own memorials for paying tribute to those who died during the conflict.
The Scottish National War Memorial is inside Edinburgh Castle, with books listing the deaths of service personnel from conflicts right across the twentieth century. The building itself was planned and commissioned after the First World War, and a conversion of a barracks block at the top of the castle was opened in 1927.
Over 147,000 names are contained within the lists in folders inside the memorial, recording deaths of soldiers under the unit and regiments in which they served. These were the deaths during World War One, and in the aftermath of World War Two a further 50,000 names were added.
Visitors can request copies of the listings with their relatives' names on them, but the space itself is a restful area inviting solemn reflection.
The losses to towns and villages between 1914 and 1918 were so immense that memorials were set up after the war around the country. A prominent feature in the centre of even a small town will be its war memorial, listing the names of those who lost their lives. Smaller communities were especially badly hit, with a disproportionately high number of deaths, and the memorials are an important way of not just recording but remembering the sacrifices that were made, and the impact they had on their communities left behind.
Even businesses set up memorials for employees who were lost in the war - the Royal Bank of Scotland offices on St Andrew Square in Edinburgh has two memorials to its staff who enlisted as soldiers, who were killed in both the First and Second World Wars.
There are numerous other sites around Edinburgh where war memorials stand - outside the City Chambers on the Royal Mile is a site where wreaths of poppies are laid, and every November a Garden of Remembrance is established at the foot of the Scott Monument in Princes Street Gardens, with a field of over 8,500 poppies commemorating named servicemen who lost their lives in the conflict.
The poppy is the symbol of remembrance in the UK, and during the two weeks leading up to the weekend nearest the 11th November - the date in 1918 when the armistice was declared - poppies are sold and worn across the country.
There are military memorials throughout Princes Street Gardens, commemorating specific units or conflicts, and at Haymarket to the west of the city centre stands a memorial clock erected by the Heart of Midlothian football club, commemorating players and club members who gave their lives during both the First and Second World Wars.
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One of the most prominent - and best recognised - features on Edinburgh's Royal Mile is its mercat cross, a traditional feature of Scottish towns and cities, and a reminder of Edinburgh's status as a trading town.
'Mercat' is an old Scots word for market, and a mercat cross marked out a town as having the royal charter or licence to hold a market. Having such a right allowed the towns to levy taxes, and so a mercat cross was an emblem of the town's status.
The cross would mark the central point of the town, where people would gather to do trade, and also became the point from which public proclamations would be made - announcing new laws or aspects of current news meant that everybody would be able to stay informed. Today the mercat cross in Edinburgh is still used to announce the calling of general election, along with notable royal proclamations.
In the eighteenth century, it was remarked by one visitor to Edinburgh that he could stand at the mercat cross and "can, in a few minutes, take fifty men of genius by the hand", such was the city's reputation as a centre of innovation.
Mercat crosses were also often the point where punishments would be meted out, a very public demonstration of the consequences or transgressing laws or customs. The square adjacent to Edinburgh's mercat cross was where high-status criminals would be executed, on a fearsome guillotine known as 'the Maiden'. As such the cross was essentially the heart of the city, in the middle of all the action and business of the town.
The crosses themselves were often built to a similar style or standard. Generally they were eight-sided structures - Edinburgh's is relatively large, but generally they might just have an octagonal pediment rather than anything more substantial - with a stone column in the middle, and then either a cross or a unicorn at the top. The unicorn is the national animal of Scotland, hence its prevalence in emblems and carvings across the country!
The cross in Edinburgh originally stood in the main line of the main street itself - in the eighteenth century the cross was dismantled and in 1885 parts of the original were reassembled on its current site, in a new octagonal 'drum house' structure paid for by William Gladstone, who had previously been Prime Minister of the United kingdom (and would later be PM again!).
The emblems around Edinburgh's mercat cross today represent districts and institutions in the city, and were recently repainted and the stonework cleaned.
A little further down the Royal Mile, visitors can still see a second mercat cross, that of the burgh of Canongate, which had formerly been an entirely separate town just beyond the city walls, granted its own right to hold a market. This rather unusual arrangement meant that Edinburgh developed a very important trading competitior just a few hundred yards outside of its city boundary, and Canongate remained separate and independent of Edinburgh until 1856.
Travellers around Scotland are advised to keep their eyes peeled to spot other crosses in towns across the country.
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