It could be my favourite structure in Edinburgh. Standing just over 200ft (61m) high, and known as the Gothic Rocket, the Scott Monument is often mistaken for a church - understandably, perhaps - and dominates the view of the eastern section of New Town along Princes Street.
The monument was commissioned following the death of Sir Walter Scott in 1832. At the time he was probably the most widely read British author of the era, with books like Rob Roy and Ivanhoe having become instant classics for readers across the UK, Europe and North America.
Scott is credited with inventing the historical novel, using a combination of fact and fiction - reality filtered through imagination - to tell stories about Scotland's people, history and landscape. Having published the works anonymously at first with his first novel Waverley in 1814, and then using the pseudonymous 'by the author of Waverley' for subsequent books, he only publicly acknowledged that he was the author in question sometime later (and, it is said, at the encouragement of his friend Catherine Sinclair).
A public consultation was held to receive applications for a monument in Scott's honour - the three best designs would win a cash prize of 50 guineas, and the winning entry would be built. Fifty four entries were received in the competition, and the winning design was one submitted under the name John Morvo. Morvo was a French architect who had built Melrose Abbey in the Scottish Borders.... except by 1832 he'd been dead the best part of a thousand years!
It was revealed that the competition entry had been drawn up by a man named George Meikle Kemp - he wasn't an architect, and didn't have any formal training in the field. He had previously been employed by the architect William Burn as a draughtsman, and had sought to be employed as an architect on a number of building projects in Glasgow and in the Scottish Borders, but no design job ever came to fruition because of his lack of training.
Kemp revised his winning entry, and in 1838 it was confirmed that his design for a monument celebrating Walter Scott would be built in Princes Street Gardens, in Edinburgh's New Town. Construction started in 1840, with the foundation stone for the monument laid on 15 August - what would have been Scott's 69th birthday.
The Scott Monument is built of Binnie sandstone which was quarried in West Lothian. The stone was chosen because the quarry which produced it had a plentiful supply (and a lot would be needed!) but also because it was an especially oily form of sandstone, which would attract dirt and dust to the surface of the monument.
To a modern eye the building seems dirty and discoloured - even though it had an extensive clean just over a decade ago - but it is likely that the colouring of the structure today is at least partly what Kemp wanted; instead of looking new and clean, the monument would look dirty and old, which fitted with its Gothic styling and with Scott's tendency to create historical works which were in some ways exaggerated or heightened versions of Scottish history.
By early 1844 the monument was nearing completion. And then on 6 March of that year Kemp vanished after walking home from a meeting with the head builder. His body would be found five days later in the Union Canal - the circumstances which led up to his death were never fully established, and it's possible he simply stumbled and fell into the water and drowned before anyone realised he'd had an accident.
George Meikle Kemp would never see his monument to Walter Scott completed. At the time he had only just over £200 to his name, and although there was a great outpouring of grief and his funeral was well attended, his family struggled financially in the years after his death. He was buried in St Cuthbert's churchyard.
Construction of the monument was completed in the autumn of 1844, when Kemp's son - Thomas, aged just 10 years old - oversaw the placing of the final stone. It was estimated that 23 masons died during the construction project, of illnesses related to the inhalation of stone dust and its effects on their lungs. Thomas Kemp himself would die in 1853.
As well as featuring a marble likeness of Walter Scott himself - produced by John Steell, and featuring the author along with his favourite dog, named Maida - the Scott Monument features 68 figurines based on characters from Scott's books. These include fictional characters as well as those based on historical figures, such as Mary, Queen of Scots, George Heriot, Robert the Bruce, and John Knox. Different artists were responsible for the individual carvings, including John Hutchison, Amelia Hill, William Brodie and John Rhind.
Visitors to the monument can still climb the 287 steps up to the four viewing platforms, including the highest 'crows' nest' outlook point at the top of the monument - the view across the Old Town and New Town (on a good, clear day) is rather incredible, and well worth the effort! A small museum to Scott can be found on the first level. Look out also for the graffiti carved into the sandstone from Victorian-era visitors on the staircases.
(Not everybody was a fan of the monument - Charles Dickens, after visiting Edinburgh in 1847, wrote: "I am sorry to report the Scott Monument a failure. It is like the spire of a Gothic church taken off and stuck in the ground..." However, Queen Victoria did like it, and was said to have asked George Gilbert Scott to use the monument as an inspiration when he produced the Albert Memorial in London.)
The Scott Monument also features in a number of films set in Edinburgh, as well as some that aren't - notably it's one of the locations in the 2012 film adaptation of David Mitchell's time-travelling, universe-hopping sci-fi novel Cloud Atlas, and was also used by the American magician and stuntman Harry Houdini for chase sequence in a 1920s film he made called Haldane of the Secret Service, although the sequence filmed on the monument didn't make it to the final movie. (Houdini would later develop a turbulent friendship with Edinburgh-born author Arthur Conan Doyle, over the differing opinions about spiritualism).
Today the Scott Monument is operated by Edinburgh city council, and even if you don't manage to climb to its summit, it forms a fitting feature for any exploration of the city.
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Edinburgh became the world's first UNESCO City of Literature in 2005, and is celebrated today for its wealth of literary connections. Figures like Robert Louis Stevenson, Sir Walter Scott, Robert Burns, Arthur Conan Doyle and JK Rowling occur frequently in many visitors' experiences of Edinburgh, but there's a whole host of less familiar - or less expected - literary associations too.
Here's my brief peek at five other bookish figures whose lives intersected with Edinburgh...
The city may be famous for crime novelists like Doyle, Ian Rankin, Ambrose Parry and Quintin Jardine, but the grandmother of all popular crime writers also has an Edinburgh connection.
Agatha Christie was married at St Cuthbert's church in 1930 - her second marriage, after she sought a divorce from her first husband. At that time, that she was a divorcee was scandalous enough, but the man she was marrying being 14 years younger than her was even more so!
Max Mallowan was an archaeologist, and their marriage was an elopement - they tied the knot at St Cuthbert's church with no friends or family, just two witnesses off the street.
In her autobiography, Christie describes being married at St Columba's church in Edinburgh, rather than St Cuthbert's... Could this be an easy mistake to have made, or a deliberate red herring in her own life story?
THOMAS DE QUINCEY
Born in Manchester in northern England, DeQuincey is still best known for the semi-autobiographical novel he wrote in 1821 called Confessions of an English Opium Eater.
His life had been full of personal drama, including bereavement, unemployment and homelessness, and he had begun using opium as a means of suppressing his pain and his moods, and became addicted - the novel he wrote was based on these experiences, including time he spent under the care of the monks at Holyrood Abbey, which in the nineteenth century was still a debtors' sanctuary.
DeQuincey died in Edinburgh in 1859 and was buried in St Cuthbert's churchyard. His work is considered by some to have inspired other writers to create stories of their addictions, itself a literary genre today. Perhaps without DeQuincey we may not have had Irvine Welsh, author of Trainspotting, another Edinburgh literary connection.
The original Mrs Doubtfire, of Anne Fine's children's novel Alias Madam Doubtfire, was an Edinburgh woman named Annabel Coutts, who ran a second-hand shop in the New Town. She had been married a number of times, her first husband being a seaman named Arthur Doubtfire. She had been questioned on a number of occasions on suspicion of running brothels in the city, and using her shop as a front for the money she made, hence her nickname 'Madam Doubtfire'...
In the 1970s, when Anne Fine was staying in the city, she came to know of Madame Doubtfire's shop, and would later use the name for her children's story, which later got turned into the classic family film, Mrs Doubtfire.
The accent Robin Williams uses in the film is not just a Scottish accent but decidedly an Edinburgh accent, so it's possible he knew something of the character's local origins...
A figure not often thought of as a Scottish writer so much as an English one is Kenneth Grahame, best known for The Wind in the Willows. But he had been born in Edinburgh before moving to England as a young child.
His family had occupied a house on Castle Street in the New Town, in which today is a bar and a restaurant named Badger and Co., after the characters from his most popular story.
Best known as a novelist for books like Robinson Crusoe, Defoe found inspiration for that story following time spent in Edinburgh in 1706.
At that time, the Scottish government was in discussion with the English parliament about what would become the Act of Union, creating the United Kingdom under one political system.
Defoe had been employed by the English government to act as a spy, and had been posted to Edinburgh under cover of working for one of the local newspapers - his job was to report back to the English authorities about the attitudes to the union that was being negotiated, and to keep them informed about developments that the official channels of communication may not cover.
During his time in the city, Defoe lived at Moubray House on the Royal Mile. The building still stands, adjacent to John Knox's House on High Street, and I often use it on tours to illustrate what many of Edinburgh's old buildings would have looked like at one time or another - narrow, with a shop front at street level and then an external staircase providing access to accommodation space on the upper floors.
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Out of Edinburgh - Visit Doune Castle
Some Scottish castles have a unique appeal for visitors, who are drawn to them for sometimes quite specific reasons. Eilean Donan, for example, is the most photographed castle in the UK, representing a definitive vision of Scottish-castle-ness... Urquhart Castle on the banks of Loch Ness has the merit of actually existing and being visible, unlike the other attraction of that loch... And Doune Castle is still best known (probably) for being where Monty Python filmed scenes from their 1975 film Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
Located just a few miles beyond Stirling Castle, Doune is a great example of a ruined castle with enough sense of place and space to warrant a visit, and can be incorporated into the itinerary of a day trip from Edinburgh without too much difficulty.
Here's my introduction to this historic (and cinematic) place.
Although there probably a fortress on this site from sometime in the twelfth century (and a nearby Roman settlement from the first century) the current castle dates from around 1400CE, built around a central fortified courtyard with apartments and functional spaces on the northern range of the structure.
The castle was built was Robert Stewart, Duke of Albany (1340 - 1420), son of King Robert II. As an uncle to James I of Scotland, Albany ruled Scotland as regent during the years when James was held prisoner by the English. Later Doune became a royal residence and was visited by both Mary, Queen of Scots and her son, James VI.
Originally the courtyard is believed to have smaller structures built around its internal walls - places for keeping animals, store rooms, and workshop spaces, perhaps - and a series of large windows on the southern wall suggest a planned expansion with grand private chambers which never got built.
The castle was significantly restored in the 1880s, having become a roofless ruin, so the bulk of the physical interior of the space is Victorian - but giving a great sense of what Doune might have been like at the height of its status as a grand residential property.
The audio tour included in Doune castle's entry price is narrated by Terry Jones, one of the aforementioned Pythons and a bona fide historian with several serious history books to his name. His commentary as you explore the castle provides a level of detail about what life at Doune would have been like, as well as the background to some of the historical figures and families associated with the place. Optional extra content periodically reflects on the experience of filming Holy Grail, with audio excerpts from the film.
Doune was also used as a filming location for Castle Leoch scenes from Outlander (optional audio content narrated by Sam Heughan is available) and featured in a variety of other screen outings, including Ivanhoe with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in 1952, the 2018 film Outlaw King, about King Robert the Bruce, and served as Winterfell Castle in the Game of Thrones TV adaption.
The kitchen area is a cavernous space where meals would have been prepared - check out the enormous fire pit where meats would have been roasted.
In the walls of the room you can still see the marks made by the kitchen staff who would have been sharpening their blades against the stone - a fascinating detail that really shows how history leaves its mark...
Meals would have been served in the Great Hall, which is one of the rooms which was restored in the nineteenth century. A large brazier in the middle of the room shows where heat would have been generated originally (note there are no fireplaces in the space).
A raised area at the eastern end of the room would have been where the high table was located, where the lord of the castle and high statues visitors would have sat to eat. One of the benefits of this space was a private garderobe or toilet!
This hall was used for the Camelot song and dance sequence from Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
Upstairs you can still see the private chambers, including a smaller hall that would have been used for smaller gatherings and private meetings. One of the alcoves in the room, overlooking the castle's inner courtyard, would have served as a small chapel for private religious observation.
This is the brightest room in the castle, with large windows on three sides of the space, and the remnants of stone supports in the walls indicate that there would have been another level above it originally.
Standing in the private bedrooms - one with its own private bathroom space! - gives a remarkable sense of connection to the past, and although the Lord's Hall is distinctly Victorian in its style and decoration it's not hard to imagine the high status quality of life for the figures who spent time here.
This room has two large fireplaces right alongside each other - an unusual configuration, and possibly arranged in such a way for either one or both to be lit to provide varying amounts of heat to the room as required.
Although a relatively modestly sized site for visitors to explore today - allow an hour to 90 minutes for a visit - Doune castle retains much of its imposing fortress structure and offers an opportunity to use your imagination to imagine what life would have been like back in the late Middle Ages. And if that's not your thing, stick Monty Python on and immerse yourself in a much sillier medieval world!
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