EDINBURGH EXPERT WALKING TOURS - BLOG
EDINBURGH EXPERT WALKING TOURS - BLOG
For the avoidance of doubt, this is NOT ABOUT ALIENS..! Conspiracy theorists and lovers of Little Green Men should move along, there's nothing to see here. :)
The close encounters I'm talking about are the narrow lanes and alleys of Edinburgh's medieval Old Town. Along the length of the Royal Mile were, at one time, 248 of these separately named 'closes', 'wynds' and 'courts', the narrow streets where Edinburgh's residents were crammed into tight lanes and towering tenements.
There are various interpretations of the name 'close', relating to either the width of the alley (the walls on either side were pretty close, typically just a few feet apart) or the way that many of the closes would be 'closed off' with a gate or other barrier to keep residences protected. Certainly they were dank, dirty, overcrowded and typically unsafe spaces - see Paisley Close, below - which were long overdue for redevelopment by the time the Victorians improved Edinburgh in the 1860s and '70s.
But the surviving lanes and alleys are the parts of the city deserving of your attention, and so here are a few tips for seeking out some close encounters during your visit, so uncover more than the crowded, commercial space of the Royal Mile...
LADY STAIR'S CLOSE
Leading off the Lawnmarket, this lane provides access principally to the Writers' Museum, celebrating three of the city's most important literary figures - Sir Walter Scott, Robert Burns, and Robert Louis Stevenson.
But the space also provides access into Makar's Court - a makar is a Scottish poet - and the paving stones here have snippets from a variety of Scottish poems and verses, as well as giving intriguing views of the back of these buildings which typically were hidden from view. Check out the height of the buildings - Edinburgh's tenements are sometimes claimed as the world's first skyscrapers!
Formerly home to some of Edinburgh's Lord Advocates, this narrow lane offers one of the best views across to the New Town, as well as giving a truly evocative sense of how steep, narrow and inaccessible the city's streets would have been.
One resident of the close was James Stewart, a fearsome bulldog of the Scottish legal system in the seventeenth-century, who prosecuted a notorious case in 1696, leading to the last ever execution for blasphemy in the UK...
The lane is also home to a collection of contrasting buildings, including original structures dating back to 1590 (with the dates still visible in the stone over the doorways) and a modern development which was awarded the Best New Building in Scotland in 2014.
OLD FISHMARKET CLOSE and FLESHMARKET CLOSE
Two of the original market streets of the city, the fish and fleshers' (ie. butchers) markets were on the steep slopes of the hills running down into the valleys to both the north and south of the Royal Mile.
The purpose of putting such markets in such locations was to offer a cleansing effect on the city - all the blood, guts and mess of those market areas would drain naturally into the valleys, in an effort to keep the streets clean. They were not necessarily particularly effective, as contemporary accounts of the fish market in particular describe it as being a 'stinking morass'...
Fleshmarket Close was used as the title of an Inspector Rebus crime novel set in the city, from the author Ian Rankin.
WHITE HORSE CLOSE
Near the bottom of the Royal Mile on Canongate is a lane with one of the most attractive old buildings in the city. White Horse Close was home to the White Horse Inn, one of the old coaching inns where visitors to the city would have stayed in the seventeenth- and eighteenth-centuries.
The lane is private housing today, and the White Horse Inn itself was rebuilt in the 1960s to recover it from the very rundown slum district that it had become at that time. So although the buildings isn't wholly authentic, it is at least offering a visible sense of what the Old Town might have looked like at one time.
Staring out from over Paisley Close on the High Street section of the Royal Mile is the face of a young boy, Joseph McIvor. He had been one of the residents of the tall tenement property on this site that collapsed in the middle of the night in 1861, crushing many occupants of the house to death in their beds.
As rescuers rushed to the site of the collapsed building, they were recovering bodies from under the rubble, and were about to give up their search for survivors when they heard a young voice shouting from under the mass of stone and wood, crying out 'Heave awa' lads, I'm no' deid yet!'
As they continued to excavate they recovered 12-year old Joseph alive, and when the property was rebuilt they immortalised him in the stone above the alley, with an Anglicised version of his words on the ribbon above his head.
Have your own close encounter with the Old Town on my private city walking tours!
Each summer a private estate just a few miles from Edinburgh's city centre opens its gates to the world. The grounds of the house have been laid out as gallery spaces, with sculptures from a wide range of contemporary artists dotted around the lawns, woodlands, and even inside some of the buildings themselves.
It's a fantastic place to go an engage with work by artists like Anish Kapoor, Anthony Gormley and Charles Jencks, with large and small scale works to amuse, entertain and provoke.
There's also a cafe for great quality food to help keep your strength up as you stroll the grounds.
As the world's first UNESCO City of Literature - honoured for the sheer quantity of literary figures associated with the city - Edinburgh is commonly associated with figures like Robert Louis Stevenson, Walter Scott, and (more recently) Irvine Welsh and JK Rowling. But one figure not often associated with the city also has his origins here.
Kenneth Grahame, best known for the classic Edwardian children's story The Wind in the Willows was born in the heart of Edinburgh's New Town, on Castle Street, in March 1859.
He only spent the first year of his life in the city, before the family moved further north to Loch Fyne. Grahame's mother died when he was just five years old, and Kenneth and his three siblings passed into the care of their grandmother in Berkshire.
It was as a child in these quiet rural villages, with cobbled streets and old stone houses, and the River Thames running nearby, that Grahame would first become acquainted with the rich pastoral imagery which dominates his most famous book.
After failing to get into Oxford University, Grahame found himself working at the Bank of England, and would rise to become secretary of the bank before retiring in 1908.
The circumstances of his retirement aren't fully understood - rumours abounded of a disagreement with one of the directors, which may account for the fact that Grahame only received a fraction of the full pension he should have been entitled to. Five years earlier Grahame had been involved in a strange incident in which he was shot at by a 'madman' with a pistol - he was unhurt in the attack, but along with the circumstances of his retirement it suggests a kind of harsh, unsafe, unpredictable 'Wide World' experience which is a far cry from the safe, peaceable, bucolic world of The Wind in the Willows.
Grahame had written short stories and had a degree of success as a published author with stories such as The Reluctant Dragon, but he had had nothing in print for a decade before The Wind in the Willows was published, just four months after his retirement from the bank. During these years Grahame had married and had a son, Alastair, known in his family as 'Mouse', who had been born prematurely, was blind in one eye, and was frequently sick throughout his childhood.
During his son's bouts of illness, Grahame would spin bedtime stories for him, and wrote letters to him, featuring the animal characters who would later fill the published story.
The book was a major success with the general public, and attracted fans as lofty as the then-president of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt. The story was adapted by creator of Winnie the Pooh, AA Milne, as a stage play entitled Toad of Toad Hall, and the story remains popular, with new stage adaptations and film versions capturing the imaginations of new generations of children over a century after it was originally written.
Today the building on Edinburgh's Castle Street where Kenneth Grahame was born is a cocktail bar and restaurant named Badger and Co, after the characters from The Wind in the Willows.
Explore more of Edinburgh's New Town with my private New Town walking tour!
Edinburgh's landscape of hills and valleys is not just a challenge to visitors arriving with suitcases, nor merely one of the features that gives the city its character and charm. It has also been, in a very real way, a major factor in transforming our understanding of our planet.
In the eighteenth century, James Hutton - who died on 26 March 1797 and was buried in the Greyfriars Kirkyard - developed some literally groundbreaking theories that revolutionised our understanding of the earth beneath our feet, and the landscape of the city Hutton had been born in was key to some of those ideas.
Hutton had observed rock features in the landscape of the Scottish Highlands which indicated a difference in the ways in which the rocks had been created, and by extension represented significantly different periods of creation - that some rocks were considerably younger than other rocks beneath and around them.
This was in direct contradiction to the prevailing view of Earth at that time, the view laid down by the church that the planet had been created in the space of just seven days, a few thousand years ago...
In the cliffs of Salisbury Crags, around Arthur's Seat, is a stretch of rock known as Hutton's Section, one of the first examples Hutton found where the layers or strata of the rocks contravened the geological understanding of the period.
On the isle of Arran, off the west coast of Scotland, is the first described example of Hutton's Unconformity, the curious intersection of older and newer rocks jutting out of the surface of the planet.
In these sections, Hutton considered that molten rock - magma - had forced its way up from the liquid centre of the Earth, pushing around and between existing rocks, before cooling and solidifying.
Thus the modern understanding of Earth as a planet constantly shifting, renewing and changing started to be formed - we now know that Arthur's Seat was formerly an active volcano, something that wasn't known before Hutton - and by extension the consideration that the planet is continuing to shift and develop even under our feet today.
Hutton's theories led him to create the notion of 'Deep Time', a consideration of our planet's existence not in terms of hundreds or thousands of years, but millions and billions. His work helped to shape what we think of as the Scottish Enlightenment, and among his friends were other Edinburgh men men such as Adam Smith - founder of modern economics - and the philosopher David Hume.
Today in Edinburgh, an attraction called Dynamic Earth continues Hutton's work, entertaining and educating children about what's happening beneath their feet - and it's just a stone's throw from the site of Hutton's original investigations, bringing the modern science of geology right back to where it all started.
So as you struggle up the hills and steps of the Old Town, consider instead the importance this landscape has had on our investigations of our planet, and try to find it inspiring, instead of just tiring!
Explore more of Edinburgh's historic landscape with my private city walking tours!
Most visitors to Edinburgh come to grasp the notion of its divided identity pretty quickly - the city is split into an Old Town and a New Town area, two contrasting sectors, each with their own history and style. And other visitors become intrigued by the concept of Edinburgh's 'underground' city, a slight misnomer for the above/below divide of the city's development.
But what is less apparent to visitors (and even many locals) is the way that Edinburgh is made up of an accumulation of former towns and settlements across the landscape which have been amalgamated into the city as it grew and expanded. Here's a quick introduction to some of the lost and hidden formerly separate towns which today make up the city of Edinburgh...
First and foremost, probably the most apparent conjunction between an independent town and Edinburgh. Leith grew up around the port on the coast to the north-east of Edinburgh, and although the port was a major feature in Edinburgh's existence it wasn't formerly brought within the city itself until 1920, when nearly 90% of the respondents to a referendum voted in opposition to joining Edinburgh - before the two districts forcibly brought together anyway! Many of those who live and work in Leith still identify as 'Leithers', and the area retains a quite distinct sense of identity and function from the city of Edinburgh itself.
One town which was thoroughly wiped off the map (and the landscape) was the village of Calton, in the valley to the north of the city, nestled between the ridge of the Royal Mile and Calton Hill. This town was on the main route into Edinburgh from the port of Leith, the site of the Trinity College Church, founded in the 1460s, and one of the original locations of the royal botanical gardens.
In the 1840s, Calton was sacrificed to the march of progress as the railways came to Edinburgh, when the village was demolished in order to create land for building the North British Railway Station - today it's Waverley, the city's main railway station.
Up until the sixteenth century, New Bygging was a small settlement just beyond Edinburgh's city wall, but on one of the main routes into the city from the west. It was also a convenient place where Edinburgh held its markets, offering a flat, open patch of land that wasn't available within the city itself.
Following the Battle of Flodden in 1513, as Edinburgh sought to more effectively fortify itself against the prospect of an English invasion, an extension to the existing city wall was planned, which would bring New Bygging within the provision of Edinburgh for the first time. The area today is the Grassmarket, one of the city's most popular social hubs - but for much of its history would have operated as a separate town outwith Edinburgh itself.
Another former town beyond the walls of the city, Canongate was the name for the town on the main road out of Edinburgh to the east, the lower end of the stretch of street known today as the Royal Mile. This section of the Mile is still called Canongate, but the town remained distinct from Edinburgh itself - just a few hundred yards from the city gates - until 1856.
The name, incidentally, doesn't refer to any weaponry or cannons, but describes one of the positions in the church, the canons of Holyrood Abbey, who would have made their way along this route to get up to St Giles' Cathedral. Hence the area became known as the walk - or 'gait' - of the canons. It has long since been corrupted to Canongate.
Another church connection, the 12th-century mill town down the hill to the north of the city was also associated with the abbey at Holyrood. When the city's guild of baxters (bakers, and specifically breadmakers) was established they were compelled to have their flour supplied from these mills, thereby guaranteeing support and maintenance of the church-associated properties.
Only a part of one of the original mill buildings survives in this area, but a small piece of stonework marking the Baxter's Land and dated 1686 was discovered during developments in the 1960s, and is preserved in the buildings of the petrol forecourt at the Canonmills junction.
A bustling and thriving suburb of Edinburgh today was originally a town which grew up around the original wooden bridge - the stock bridge - which provided access over the Water of Leith and up into the city itself.
Today the area is a local haven for shops and cafes, with a regular farmers' market, just a short stroll from the heart of the New Town.
A fascinating contrast with nearby Stockbridge, the Dean Village was another town on a route into the city, on a bridge across the steep valley worn away by the Water of Leith, transformed in this area into a power supply for a string of mills along its banks. The area was another main supplier of flour and milled products for the city, thriving on the through-traffic forced through the area by the access road into Edinburgh.
After the 1830s, developments to the New Town led to the building of a major bridge across the valley, cutting the Dean Village off the main traffic route, and the area went into terminal decline as businesses (and residents) moved away. Today the Dean Village is a remarkable little rural haven almost in the heart of the city, and offers an alternative image of Edinburgh from the tourist heartland that most visitors see.
Take a New Town tour or explore some of these hidden towns of Edinburgh with my private city walking tours!
For a long time the only features to be found on the slopes of Calton Hill were the old Bridewell prison (later the Calton Jail, where St Andrews House stands today) and the Old Calton Burial Ground, a graveyard overlooking the medieval city. But as the New Town project expanded and developed in the late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-centuries, the land on this exposed ridge of rock was bought up for the development of grand private housing; Royal Terrace and Regent Terrace were among the development of properties in the early 1800s.
The developers of these grand houses were aware, however, that there was no ready access from these properties to the centre of the city - the only access was a circuitous route around the northern side of Calton Hill, joining onto the main road into the city from the port of Leith and into the New Town from there. This was not an especially convenient arrangement for the high status families who were being enticed to come and live in these exclusive properties.
So an application was made to construct a major access road across the steep ravine to the west of Calton Hill, to connect straight onto Princes Street and the heart of the New Town. The only obstacle to the development was the Calton Burial Ground, which occupied the hillside on this side of the rock.
Permission was granted to construct a roadway through the land where the graveyard sat, with provision made for the developers to exhume all the bodies in the strip of land where the road would run, leaving the graveyard intact on either side of the new access way. These bodies, exhumed in the name of progress, were to be granted reburial in a new burial ground, to be located on the south-eastern side of Calton Hill.
And thus in 1817 the New Calton Burial Ground was established, a forerunner to the popular Victorian style of graveyards which would later flourish as gardens for people to spend leisure time rather than sombre spaces of mourning and solitude.
Approximately 300 exhumed bodies were reburied a few hundred yards from their original resting place, and for three years no new burials were permitted. In 1821 the burial ground was opened for new burials, and remained in use until closed in the 1870s.
Notable burials in the graveyard include the family plot of the Stevenson family, known as the Lighthouse Stevensons, an dynasty of engineers who constructed lighthouses around the coasts of Scotland, and whose offspring Robert Louis Stevenson is still considered one of Scotland's greatest literary figures.
I am also fond of pointing out the grave of an English doctor who was unfortunately drowned in the Firth of Forth - the body of water to the north of the city - but who even more unfortunately went into eternity with a spelling mistake on his tomb... The stone describes him as being drowned 'in the Frith of Forth'!
In one corner of the graveyard is a watchtower, built in the 1820s, to help guard against the epidemic of bodysnatching which had become a major problem in the city - freshly buried corpses were covertly dug up and sold to the University of Edinburgh's medical school for dissection, and providing armed guards to the burial grounds was just one strategy developed to prevent such things.
In recent years the graveyard has been developed and maintained to attract visitors, and amusingly dubbed 'tombs with a view' because of the graveyard's picturesque views across to Holyrood Palace and Arthur's Seat.
Explore more of Edinburgh's graveyards with my private city walking tours!
In a recent survey of all the major cities in Britain, Edinburgh came out on top with the highest percentage of green space of any other city in the UK - 49% of Edinburgh's city centre is covered by parks and gardens, the majority of them open and accessible to the public.
Here's my top picks of the city's open areas that you may want to visit while you're here!
The largest of the city's parks is also a royal parkland, owned by the monarch and also known as either the King's Park or Queen's Park. Access to Holyrood Park can be gained from a variety of places around its perimeter, but for most visitors the obvious entry point is from the bottom of Royal Mile, across from the Scottish Parliament building and adjacent to Holyrood Palace itself.
The park offers a variety of paths across and through it, and it remains an incredibly popular spot for visitors and locals alike. The eastern side of the park provides a route down to the village of Duddingston, a picturesque village with the oldest church in the east of Scotland, and what is reputed to be the oldest surviving pub in the whole of Scotland, the Sheep Heid.
For those who don't want to climb to the summit of Arthur's Seat, in the centre of the park, the Queen's Drive offers a picturesque route to walk, cycle or drive through the park, with space to stop alongside St Margaret's Loch, a small artificial lake that is home to local ducks, swans and geese.
To the south of the Royal Mile, this low lying area was formerly a swampy marshland, which provided not just a defensive function to the city, but was also a water supply known as the Burgh Loch. In the eighteenth century the land was drained in order to create communal parkland where sheep would graze, and into the Victorian period it became an especially popular piece of land for locals, with its paths lined with cherry trees, and its wide expanses of flat land.
Today the Meadows remains popular with locals, especially during the summer when its proximity to the university district makes it a haven for students gathering to soak up the sunshine, or to enjoy a barbecue. It is also the site of venues during the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, hosting circus events in a number of big tops erected on the grass.
At the eastern end of the park is a children's play area, with tennis courts nearby.
PRINCES STREET GARDENS
Originally built as private gardens for the wealthy citizens living in the grand New Town housing along Princes Street, the gardens here are today public, and remain popular with visitors and locals alike. With glorious views of the castle at the western end, and overlooked by the National Galleries of Scotland towards the east, the gardens are the dividing line between the Old and New Towns, and give a spectacular sense of the city's growth in the eighteenth century, as the city grew from the medieval city on the rock to the luxurious developments to the north.
Look out for the floral clock, planted every summer since 1903, near the entrance into the western gardens from the Mound, and the newly restored Ross Memorial Fountain at the base of the castle rock itself. On the eastern side of the Mound, the iconic Scott Monument gives you a more elevated sense of the city.
The gardens are also home to a significant number of statues and memorials - look out for Wojtek the bear, a memorial to Robert Louis Stevenson, and a statue of the explorer and missionary David Livingstone, among others. During the summer you may be able to enjoy live music from the bandstand in the centre of the park itself.
DUNBAR'S CLOSE GARDEN
A true hidden gem, which even many locals don't know about, is this small public garden space tucked away down one of the Old Town lanes near the Canongate Kirk.
The lanes originally provided access to the luxurious garden spaces built behind the grander housing that lined the bottom end of the Royal Mile, and Dunbar's Close Garden was created in the 1970s as a recreation of what these original garden spaces might have looked like.
A gravel path leads you through exquisitely planted sections with aromatic flowers and bushes - a key tool in the Old Town's battle with filth and unpleasant smells - with benches for visitors to sit and enjoy the peace and quiet. A small lawn at the bottom of the pathway attracts families looking for a picnic site in the heart of the city, and it's possible to forget for a moment or two that you're right in the midst of this bustling town.
Explore more of Edinburgh's parks and gardens with my private city walking tours!
Edinburgh Expert Walking Tours is run by Gareth Davies, an adopted native of Edinburgh since 1998...