History as we know it is made up of seemingly small moments of drama and action which have unintentionally massive consequences.
One such example occurred in Edinburgh on 23 July 1637, when an Edinburgh woman accidentally started a war between Scotland, England and Ireland, and set in motion a chain of events which wouldn't be fully settled until nearly thirty years later...
'Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned,' as the somewhat sexist proverb has it, and Jenny Geddes was one such woman. We can't know what was going on her head as she took her seat in St Giles' Cathedral that Sunday morning in July 1637 - doubtless she couldn't possibly have known that she was on the brink of almost single-handedly bringing the British Isles to civil war, in a conflict which would shape the political and military landscape of the nation for generations to come.
In one surging moment of outrage during the service, as the historical record has it, Geddes got to her feet and picked up the small three-legged stool upon which she had been sitting. "Daur ye say Mass in ma lug?" she shouted, as she hurled the stool at the head of the minister.
It was an explosive moment of rebellion which would have wide-ranging consequences for the whole of the British Isles.
In modern English, Geddes's accusation - 'dare you say Mass in my ear?' - had its roots in events from a number of years earlier, at the Scottish coronation of King Charles I at St Giles' Cathedral in 1633. Suffering from his adherence to the belief that as monarch he was directly appointed by God, known as the 'divine right of kings', Charles had insisted on an Anglican service for his coronation.
But since the Reformation in Scotland over sixty years previously, the Church of Scotland had taken a different path from the Anglican church, and saw its role in the joining of its congregants to God in a different way. Services had been overhauled and changed from the traditional Catholic-style Mass, and a new structure had been set up within the Scottish church that removed many of the power hierarchies that that the Church of England retained.
Regardless of these major differences which had evolved, Charles I sought to impose the Anglican book of Common Prayer on the Scottish church, against the wishes of many in the Scottish church who saw this as an attempt by an English king to impose his will on a church he didn't belong to.
The first time his authorised book of Common Prayer was to be read publicly at a service in Scotland was in St Giles', on 23 July 1637, and Jenny Geddes was one of many among the congregants that morning who resented the interference of the king in their experience of religious worship. Her outcry (accompanied by a deftly aimed wooden stool) was a passionate rejection of a liturgical form that she didn't recognise or adhere to.
Certainly the scene in St Giles' that morning would have been one of startling violence as a riot broke out amongst the congregation, and Jenny and a number of other protesters were thrown out of the church, taking their cause onto the streets of Edinburgh.
News of the uprising in Edinburgh led to similar riots breaking out in towns and cities across Scotland, and when the king refused to allow the Scottish church to maintain its own form of worship (distinct from the Anglican service) the people of Scotland sought to protect their interests by drawing up the National Covenant, a document that sought to enshrine the rights of Scotland to its own church, and one that operated distinct from the control of the king.
The National Convenant was signed at Greyfriars Kirkyard in Edinburgh in 1638, and copies of the document were circulated across Scotland, as a powerful and passionate declaration of the Scottish church's independence from the English monarch.
Charles I resorted to military force to impose his will on the Scottish church, leading to the so-called Bishops' Wars of 1639 and 1640, establishing a conflict between the authorities of Scotland, England and (by association) Ireland, known as the War of the Three Kingdoms. The following years led to the turbulence and trauma of the English Civil War, which would have a major impact on the nation - in 1649 Charles I executed for treason and the Puritan leader Oliver Cromwell installed himself as Lord Protector (king in all but name) of Great Britain.
So it may be a stretch to suggest Jenny Geddes bore responsibility for all of the historical events which followed her outburst in St Giles', but certainly by speaking out against what she saw as an injustice she helped to foment Scotland's reputation for standing up for itself. And she became a minor celebrity in her own time - and the poet Robert Burns was so enamoured with her that he named his horse Jenny Geddes in her honour!
On such small moments great history turns, and often we forget (perhaps) that it can still be individuals whose actions or presence can lead to major historical changes. And whilst the story of the English Civil War is often told through the kings and military leaders who were involved, it's worthwhile remembering the disaffected Scotswoman whose outrage started it all.
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Visitors to Edinburgh today typically arrive either by plane or train – and, for the record, bringing a car to Edinburgh is generally to be considered a terrible idea! - but these means of mass transit are historically very new, and for a long time the vast majority of people simply wouldn't have had the time or means to be able to undertake travel beyond the locality in which they lived.
Add to this that many towns and cities were protected by defensive walls, and often charged a fee for people to enter – the poorest people of these places simply wouldn't have been able to afford to leave, as was the case in Edinburgh. It's remarkable to think that before the rise of railways in the 1830s and 40s, a majority of Edinburgh people would have spent their entire lives within the confines of the city walls.
But for those who could afford to travel – and had the need to do so – the seventeenth century saw the rise of stagecoach services across the UK.
The first public coach service in Britain launched in 1610, and connected Edinburgh to Leith, at that time an entirely separate town just a few miles to the north-east.
By 1658 there was a regular coach service connection London and Edinburgh. It ran fortnightly, and cost £4 to make the journey - equivalent to over £400 in modern currency. (Mail coaches ran more frequently to carry goods and messages between the cities.)
At that time, travelling between the two cities could take anywhere from 10 to 14 days on average, with overnight stops along the route – hence the 'stage coach', travelling in stages to change or rest the horses.
In 1712 an Edinburgh to London service was advertised as being able to "perform the whole journey in thirteen days without any stoppages [ie. unscheduled interruptions] (if God permits), having eighty able horses to perform the whole journey". This service left Edinburgh on Mondays in winter and Tuesdays in summer (to allow an extra day/night for bad weather), rested for the whole day of Sunday, and reached London the following Friday. It cost £4.10s.
It wasn't until 1734 that a weekly passenger connection between London and Edinburgh was announced, but either it suffered from lack of demand or simply couldn't make the journey in good enough time because by 1760 the service was back to just once a month.
Wealthier people might have paid for a private coach to make their journey, but a monthly service gives an indication of how many people had need of (and could pay for) a public service at that time.
Glasgow, with its shipping interests, had developed a service which connected the city to London in just 10 days by the 1770s, and Edinburgh could be reached from London within the same amount of time towards the end of that decade.
Once arrived in Edinburgh, visitors would be accommodated in coaching inns which existed primarily to serve this purpose. Some would be found in the Grassmarket, but a popular one on the other side of the city was the White Horse Inn, which stood just off the Royal Mile at Holyrood and had historic connections as a royal stable house – it was named for one of Mary, Queen of Scots's favoured horses.
The street nearby at that time was known as Watergate, as it afforded access to a supply of water from which the horses would be refreshed, and not far away was the start of the Great North Road, the main route which connected Edinburgh to London along the length of the east coast, itself based on the line of the old Roman route. Today that road is London Road, and it joins almost directly to the A1, which is turn becomes the M1 motorway, which leads straight to the heart of London – the historic route is still the most direct road connection between these two national capitals.
The White Horse Inn stood on what is today White Horse Close.
With the rise of railways in the 1830s the boom in faster transport options meant that travelling by horse drawn vehicle was no longer the optimal method of making journeys, especially between distant locations. Sending goods, mail and passengers by train was a faster and more efficient option, and the effect was immense – suddenly the means of travel was more available (and affordable) to ordinary, working people, and with the age of steam came the rise in the notion of holidays. For the first time people could travel for pleasure, and coastal destinations in particular became popular with families who otherwise spent their lives in dark, industrial cities.
The last mail coach from Edinburgh to London ran on 5 July 1847, and thereafter mail was sent by rail instead, and passenger travel by stage coach decreased rapidly around the same time.
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James VI of Scotland (later to also be James I of England) was born in Edinburgh on 19 June 1566.
His mother, Mary, Queen of Scots, gave birth to him in the relative safety of the royal apartments at Edinburgh Castle, but within a year his father would be dead and the 10-month old James would be separated from his mother, who would never see him again.
James VI remains one of the most important and best-known of Scotland's monarchs, and he left his mark on Britain in a variety of ways. Here are just a handful of the legacies that James VI & I left behind him.
THE UNITED KINGDOMS
James would become king of Scotland after his mother's forced abdication in 1567, when James was a little over a year old. A series of regents reigned Scotland in place of the infant king, until James was in his late teens, but the biggest event of his reign occurred in 1603, when Elizabeth I of England died without having married or produced an heir to the throne.
Mary, Queen of Scots had been Elizabeth's cousin, with a rightful claim to the English throne - and it was partly through a process of historical manipulation and deeply-rooted paranoia over this claim that Elizabeth had seen fit to execute Mary in 1587, to remove the threat to her reign that she perceived in Mary.
But on Elizabeth's death, it mean that the next rightful heir would be Mary's son, and thus it was that James, already king of Scotland, now acceded to the throne of England as well. This single circumstance of genealogy united Scotland and England under one monarch for the first time, and (to an extent) the years of turbulence and animosity that had existed between the two separate kingdoms as each fought for power, control and resources was resolved.
The Union of Crowns, as it was known, eventually paved the way for the political Act of Union just over a century later, when the two nations would be brought under the governance of one united parliament, creating the United Kingdom as the single, multifaceted entity that we know today.
THE KING JAMES BIBLE
James was a devoutly religious man, raised in the protestant church (despite his mother's Catholicism) and inherited the Scottish church in the throes of its Reformation, which had brought new schisms into focus. What he found in England, after becoming king in 1603, was a more united form of protestantism that still viewed the monarch as the ultimate head of the church, something the Church of Scotland was less supportive on.
So James began to fully embrace his role as de facto head of the Church of England, and in 1604 convened a conference of senior figures from the church to discuss (among other concerns) commissioning a new edition of the Bible that would unite the centrist voices in the church and create a definitive version of the text in vernacular English (as opposed to Latin).
The King James Bible, originally published simply as the Authorised Version, or King James Version as it's sometimes known, was published in 1611, and became the only version of the Biblical texts authorised for use in English churches. (Scottish churches didn't adopt their own Authorised Version until 1633, when James's son, Charles I, was crowned king.)
By the early nineteenth century it became the most widely printed book in history, and despite minor changes to spelling and format it remained the standard version of Bibles referenced around the world until the growth of newer versions in the twentieth century. Today the standard text is still often referred to as the King James Bible.
An earlier book - one written by James himself - would have an equally significant impact on Scotland, and the wider world.
It grew from James's deeply held paranoia and distrust of the world around him, understandable perhaps when considering the traumatic experiences of his early life: he had been separated from his mother, and was subject to the machinations of a court who didn't always act in his interests (as his mother had been before him); his father had been killed in a explosive plot carried out by unknown assassins (and which his mother was reputed to have masterminded); and, most significantly, in 1589 he married Princess Anne of Denmark, whose life was threatened by a major storm at sea during their journey back to Scotland.
Suspicion grew in James's mind that this storm had been conjured by those who wished harm to him and his new wife. A trial took place in Denmark which resulted in two women being executed for witchcraft, after admitting to causing the storm which had been such a threat to the young couple.
Determined to pursue justice on those who had plotted against him nearer to home, James initiated a witch hunting effort that would have long-lasting effects on the people and the king himself.
It's an annual festival that is unique to Britain, but every winter the old rhyme is recited as citizens prepare for an explosive celebration:
The fifth of November -
Gunpowder, treason and plot!
In 1605 a plot was foiled that would have struck right at the heart of the British political and royal establishments, when a stockpile of gunpowder was discovered in the chambers beneath the Houses of Parliament in London.
A cohort of conspirators, of whom Guy Fawkes is the most familiar and best-known name, were just hours from assassinating King James VI & I, along with much of the government who led the country - and James's paranoid fears of history repeating itself were made real. His father had been killed at an explosion in his home in Edinburgh, and now his own life was narrowly saved from a band of rebels who sought to end his reign in a blaze of smoke and flames.
Every winter on Bonfire Night, the fifth of November, British children create (or used to) effigies of Guy Fawkes and parade them through the street collecting pennies, before burning them on a bonfire and turning their eyes skywards to the displays of fireworks which erupt overhead.
In recent years Guy Fawkes has experienced something of a resurgence, as his likeness has been co-opted by protestors and rioters around the globe, in particular the Anonymous collective (itself taking inspiration from the graphic novel V for Vendetta).
In 1590 he oversaw the series of events known as the North Berwick Witch Trials, which lasted over two years and saw in excess of 100 people from this small town just outside of Edinburgh accused of involvement in supernatural conspiracy against the king. It's not known precisely how many met their deaths, but many were convicted of treason on the evidence of torture administered in the Old Tolbooth which stood on the Royal Mile, near St Giles' Cathedral.
Between 4,000 and 6,000 people - mostly women - are believed to have been executed as witches in Scotland between the 1590s and 1660s. Many of them were burned on the esplanade in front of Edinburgh Castle, where a small memorial fountain today commemorates their deaths.
In 1597, James would consolidate his knowledge and learning from the North Berwick events in his book Daemonologie, with its extensive subtitle: In Forme of a Dialogue, Divided into three Books: By the High and Mighty Prince, James.
His text is a series of conversations between allegorical figures, and covers everything from the Devil's relationship with Man, the distinctions between Necromancy, witchcraft, astrology and other magic arts, the path of 'apprenticeship' that witches follow in their pact with the Devil, and the various forms and styles that witchcraft can take.
It is, in short, a handbook for the identification, persecution and punishment of witches, and it was received with enthusiasm by a society who were ready to embrace this thesis for understanding their world, and its reach was extensive - James's ideas on witchcraft are likely to have influenced the notorious witch trials at Salem in Massachusetts in the early 1690s.
One figure who was especially influenced by the book was William Shakespeare, and it's easy to see how in 1606 he came to produce a tale of a power-hungry Scottish king riven with paranoia and working in league with sinister forces: Macbeth.
So James VI and I has left his mark not just on Scotland or even Britain, but has influenced the whole globe with his writings and his reign. Few monarchs can claim to have left such lasting legacies to the world.
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It's a street in Edinburgh that is often (literally) overlooked, but the Cowgate is one of the oldest thoroughfares of the city and the extent of modern development along it disguises centuries of history.
So here's a trip along Cowgate, from east to west, highlighting some of the historical features you might miss (or which have long since been demolished). The Cowgate is more than just a shortcut through the Old Town, and deserves a closer examination!
The line of Cowgate is shown on early maps of Edinburgh, where from the 1490s it was marked as Via Vaccarum, meaning 'the way of the cows'. It was a road which lay outside of the city boundaries for much of its history, and at a time when it was illegal to drive cattle through the city streets the Cowgate provided a route to bring cattle from the fields and pastures to the south and east of Edinburgh to the cattle market near the Grassmarket.
It was a practical road, running along the valley to the south of the Royal Mile and parallel with it, starting at the junction with St Mary's Wynd (or St Mary Street as it is today) and finishing at the east end of the Grassmarket at the junction with West Bow.
In the sixteenth century, when the Flodden Wall was built, expanding the area contained within the city, Cowgate was brought inside the perimeter and at its eastern end had one of the six gates into to the town, called the Cowgate Port.
The area just inside the wall at this eastern end has changed considerably, but one of the major structures here today is St Patrick's Church, which was built in the 1770s. St Patrick's became a Catholic church in the nineteenth century, at a time when Edinburgh was receiving considerable numbers of migrant families moving here from Ireland.
The notorious potato famine of the 1840s in particular forced many to uproot their lives, and many Irish workers travelled to Scotland to find jobs, bringing their families with them when they came. They would often find themselves living in rundown lodgings, and Cowgate at that time was a notorious slum district - the area around St Patrick's became known as 'Little Ireland' due to the large number of Irish families settling here.
In 1875, the parish priest at St Patrick's had the idea to create a football team from the boys' social club which operated out of the church. They would travel to other churches and districts of Edinburgh to play other local teams, and they took the name 'Hibernian', which was from Hibernia, the Latin name for Ireland.
Today Hibernian - or Hibs - is one of the top-ranking football teams in Scotland, and play their home games at the nearby Easter Road stadium.
The next junction along Cowgate has the St Ann's community hall, which has had various uses over the years. But the site here was originally the grand sixteenth-century home of Cardinal David Beaton, a major figure at the time of Mary, Queen of Scots.
Beaton had put himself forward to rule Scotland in Mary's place during her infancy. His home on Cowgate was often described as a palace, which seems remarkable given that the area was a slum 300 years later.
In fact for a long time Cowgate had been a higher status housing district, attracting wealthy figures and families who could afford to live outside of the city, and could enjoy a more comfortable and spacious property than those poor souls crowded into the narrow lanes of the Old Town.
That all changed once the New Town was built, when wealthy families moved to the grand surrounds of George Street and Princes Street, and the housing on Cowgatewas left empty. Much of it was later taken over by the slum landlords.
Cardinal Beaton's house stood until the 1870s, when the area was undergoing a wholesale redevelopment as part of the Improvement Acts to renovate the Old Town. The by-then derelict property was removed and the buildings you see today erected in its place.
Further along Cowgate you'll find the characteristic cow figures pictured above, mounted on the side of the building, a fun reminder of the street's origins. On the opposite side of the street you'll find a former Freemason's Hall, now St Cecilia's Music Hall, and Bannerman's bar, a popular live music venue.
But the major feature just here is the arch of South Bridge, a late eighteenth century development built to try to improve access into Edinburgh.
There are 19 arches in total, but 18 of them are concealed by the buildings built alongside to enclose the structure in the 1780s.
The bridge itself was built as high-status housing and business space, at the time that the area below it was transitioning into a slum district. Later, Robert Louis Stevenson would describe standing on South Bridge and wrote:
Edinburgh's Old Town had officially become a split-level society, not just geographically but also economically.
Continue under South Bridge and the modern hotel on the left hand side of the street was built to replace the former Gilded Balloon venue and arts spaces, which were destroyed by fire in 2002. A little further ahead is another modern development, with a set of blue gates closing access to a lane marked College Wynd.
Although the building here is new, the lane itself is not, and it was here, at the junction of College Wynd and Cowgate, that that author Walter Scott was born in 1771. Scott's family would move from the area shortly after - part of the exodus of wealthy residents away from Cowgate at that time - but the lane continues to be marked as a reminder of Scott's Old Town origins.
The New Town development also led to the Cowgate achieving another notable feature - it became the first underground sewer line in Edinburgh! The artificial loch which had filled the valley to the north of the Royal Mile (where Princes Street Gardens are today) was drained, and the stream which fed it was re-routed around the other side of the castle rock, and was enclosed beneath the level of the roadway to wash away filth and waste flushing down the steep Old Town lanes.
But the oldest surviving buildings of the Cowgate lie ahead of us. Firstly, on the right hand side, the Three Sisters pub and sports bar occupies the former Tailors' Hall, the original guildhall of the tailors of Edinburgh, one of the fourteen recognised guilds or trades of the medieval city.
Tailors' Hall dates from the 1620s, and was originally a quad with a range of buildings along the front of the street and an archway leading into the open square that is visible today, on the inside of the structure. The building was occupied as military offices in the nineteenth century,and the front range of the structure was demolished to make the building more functional.
On either side of Cowgate there are now the rear entrances to the Sheriff Court (on the left) and the National Library of Scotland (on the right).
The second of the two bridges over Cowgate is George IV Bridge, built in the 1820s, and a higher structure than South Bridge previously.
In 1868, a young boy named James Connolly was born in one of the buildings on the left of George IV Bridge. His parents, like many others, had settled here after leaving Ireland, and young James would go on to be one of the major figures in the rise of the Irish republicans uprising of 1916, when he led a faction of rebels opposing British rule in Ireland.
Connolly was executed for his role in the rebellion, but remains a controversial figurehead for many.
Through George IV Bridge, the last feature to note before arriving at Grassmarket is the Magdalen Chapel, on the left hand side of the street.
Built in the 1540s, this remains the oldest surviving structure on the Cowgate. It was built by Michael Macqueen, who left the money in his will to build the chapel in his will as a form of indulgence, a Catholic tradition to help ease the passage into the afterlife by offsetting some of the sins committed during life.
The mother of Mary, Queen of Scots led prayer sessions in this chapel during her time in Edinburgh, and the building was given to the care of the guild of Hammermen, who were silversmiths and jewellers.
Shortly after it was constructed, in 1560 the Scottish Reformation saw the nation converted from Catholicism to Protestanism, and with it the destruction of many Catholic churches and chapels. The buildings were desecrated, relics destroyed, silver candlestick melted down for other uses, and the decorative stained glass windows smashed.
Today the Magdalen Chapel has the only surviving, intact, pre-Reformation stained glass windows in the whole of Scotland. The building is open to visitors to see the inside of this small historic space, with its (rather small) stained glass windows.
And so we arrive in the Grassmarket, the original destination for the drovers and farmers who brought their cattle along this roadway.
Today, locals (and visitors) often see the Cowgate as a bit of a shortcut, providing access across the city without being troubled by the Royal Mile itself. Hopefully you may now look a little closer at some of the buildings along the way, and have a better sense of the history of this ancient thoroughfare!
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The city that changed the world. It's a bold claim - and one I've borrowed from a book by James Buchan - but Edinburgh really has been an intellectual crucible throughout history. One famous remark from an English visitor in the eighteenth century posited the idea that ‘‘you could stand at the Mercat Cross and, in half an hour, shake 50 men of genius by the hand’’.
And that may not even have been an exaggeration, as Edinburgh has been home to a great many thinkers, writers, inventors and scientists over the years.
The Scottish Enlightenment of the eighteenth century was undoubtedly a high point in the city's history, as the crowded and cramped streets of the Old Town created a natural environment for the sharing and developing of big ideas - indeed, I would make the argument that the physical geography of the city, forcing all classes and levels of society to live cheek-by-jowl within such constrained city limits, was key to many of the inventions and developments which are attributed to the Enlightenment period.
But even before and after the eighteenth century, Edinburgh has been home to some great minds, so here's my selection of key figures from Edinburgh (past and present) who have - in various ways - changed the world.
In a nutshell, Adam Smith is credited with shaping our understanding of the economic processes which underpin society, chiefly through his 1776 work The Wealth of Nations. It remains a key text in schools and universities around the globe and the ideas within it continue to influence modern economic practice. To some Smith is the father of economics, to others he's the father of capitalism.
Smith had been living at Panmure House in Canongate - which in those days was just beyond the city limits of Edinburgh - when he wrote his magnum opus, which was born partly of the boom in Scotland's presence in the international trade market during the mid-eighteenth century, when the tobacco plantations of America were among some of the most valuable trade links that Scotland had.
Edinburgh at that time had especially huge amounts of wealth inequality, with very rich and very poor living beside each other, and with cash pouring into the pockets of the fantastically rich coming from both domestic sources (the Scottish Highlands being a long-exploited resource) and overseas markets. Smith's philosophy of cash and trade couldn't have arrived at a more convenient time, although it's doubtful if he could have imagined it still having such resonance on our world two hundred years and fifty years later.
James Hutton was a geologist who drew inspiration from the landscape of Edinburgh (and across Scotland) to shape his theories of the Earth, which would transform not just our understanding of our planet but our experience of it.
In the eighteenth century, church teachings still had it that the Earth had been created in the space of just a few days, and only several thousand years ago. Hutton believed that the features he was observing around Arthur's Seat and up in the Highlands didn't fit that story - the rocks (he hypothesised) had actually been created at different periods of time, and not just a matter of days apart but hundreds of thousands of years. Today the age of the Earth is estimated around 4.5 billion years old, and it has been growing and developing and changing over all that time.
This was the key idea of Hutton's work - that our Earth was not a fixed object that had been created as we know it, but it had shifted ('evolved', as a later geologist, Charles Lyell would describe it) over millennia, with its landmasses, oceans and the life upon and within them constantly changing.
"From what has actually been," Hutton wrote, "we have data for concluding with regard to that which is to happen thereafter." This linking of past, present and future understanding would filter through to a whole raft of later figures, including a particular influence on Charles Darwin (himself briefly a student in Edinburgh) whose later theories of evolution and 'survival of the fittest' would in turn redefine humanity's place and experience in the world.
ALEXANDER GRAHAM BELL
Born on Charlotte Square in the New Town of Edinburgh in 1847, and educated at the Royal High School and University of Edinburgh, Bell was living in North America when he lodged his patent application for the device which revolutionised human communication.
Bell's mother was deaf, as was his wife, which was a major factor in much of his early work in speech and language and his later efforts to improve communication, leading him to seek to develop a device which would allow sufferers of deafness to 'hear' again. The invention of electricity had opened a whole new world of technology and innovation, and Bell set his mind to being able to reproduce the sounds of a human voice using electrical impulses, which he characterised as a 'harmonic telegraph' system.
In 1876, Bell applied for a US patent for his telephone, submitting it on the same day as a second inventor, Elisha Gray, applied for a patent for a similar device - it remains a subject of debate which of them made their application first, but it was Bell who made the first demonstration of the successful device. On 10 March 1876, the first telephone 'call' was made, from Bell to his assistant Thomas Watson, and since then the telephone has come to be an integral component not just of communication but of many aspects of daily life.
Who knows what would Bell make of our reliance on the modern version of the device he developed and patented. He died in 1922 and was buried near his family's home in Nova Scotia, Canada - and at the conclusion of his funeral, every telephone in North America was temporarily silenced as a tribute to the man who had revolutionised communication.
JAMES CLERK MAXWELL
Whilst figures like Bell and Adam Smith have become household names, one major figure from the world of science and technology is yet to be fully recognised by the general public.
James Clerk Maxwell was born in the New Town in Edinburgh in 1831, but moved with his family to an estate in Kirkudbrightshire while still an infant. His early years were spent in a spate of inquisitiveness, asking questions and probing for information from the world around him, a curiosity that would later serve him as a pioneering physicist and polymath who introduced a new understanding of our world.
Returning to Edinburgh to be educated at the Edinburgh Academy, young Maxwell was given the nickname 'Daftie' at school, due to his distracted attention - his mind was often elsewhere, creating the appearance of being slow and unknowing when in reality his brain was seeking out answers beyond those that his teachers could offer. Later studies at the universities of Edinburgh and Cambridge demonstrated that he was far from academically stunted.
Maxwell has several major discoveries and theories attributed to him. His investigations into the properties of light and electromagnetism led to colour photography and (later) television. His writings inspired Albert Einstein, who had a portrait of Maxwell in his office and once commented, "I stand not on the shoulders of Isaac Newton, but of James Clerk Maxwell".
In his 20s, Maxwell had used pure mathematics to prove what the rings of Saturn were made of - a problem that astronomers and physicists had debated for years. But it was only when we were able to get a spacecraft close enough to take photographs - colour photographs - of Saturn's rings that we proved with a visual image what Maxwell had proven with maths over a century earlier.
Today one of the gaps between the rings of Saturn is named the Maxwell Gap.
DOLLY THE SHEEP
Actually the figure to celebrate here is the whole team at the Roslin Institute, who have been pioneering the understanding and application of genetics.
Established in the 1990s from earlier departments of the University of Edinburgh, the Roslin Institute is based on the outskirts of the city and has been involved in several major developments in genetics. But the groundbreaking project that still captures the public imagination came in 1996, when the world's first genetically cloned mammal was announced by the institute.
Dolly, as she was named by Keith Campbell and Ian Wilmutt, who led the team that created her, was developed from a single cell taken from a ewe's mammary gland. She was named Dolly in honour of what the scientists suggested were the world's finest mammary glands, on the singer Dolly Parton...
Dolly gave birth to several lambs who continued her genetic inheritance, before her death at the age of six from an illness unrelated to her genetic origins.
Such was the importance of Dolly's existence (and the genetic leap that had helped to create her) that after her death she was stuffed and mounted for display in the National Museum of Scotland, where she stands in the science and technology gallery as a statement of Scotland's world-leading scientific endeavour.
One of Edinburgh's great minds remains a resident of the city today, confirming the notion that not all of the major figures who have had an influence on the world are consigned to history!
Peter Higgs became a lecturer at the University of Edinburgh in 1960, teaching at their institute of Mathematical Physics, after gaining his PhD from King's College in London in 1954. His writing in the 1960s featured the study of subatomic particles, and in 1964 Higgs hypothesised a new particle - dubbed the Higgs boson - which would resolve some of the difficulties physicists had encountered in explaining some of their observations of sub-atomic matter.
Although predicted in the 1960s, it wouldn't be until 2012 that the existence of the Higgs boson would be proven, following experiments made possible by the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Switzerland.
In 2013 Peter Higgs and François Englert, who had been a part of the 1960s team that made the original predictions, were awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics for their work.
Peter Higgs is today the Honorary Patron of the James Clerk Maxwell foundation, and has a department of Theoretical Physics named after him at the University of Edinburgh's School of Physics and Astronomy, which is based in (appropriately enough) the James Clerk Maxwell building at the university's King's Buildings campus.
This is just a very small, personal selection from the many great minds and figures who have been associated with Edinburgh over the years.
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It's not news to anyone that American visitors make up a significant percentage of those travelling from overseas to explore Edinburgh and Scotland.
From walking the footsteps of their (historically) distant relatives to simply exploring the wealth of history and culture on offer, and from self-drive excursions around the country to one day stops on a longer cruise itinerary, visitors from the US make up around 14% of all visitors to Scotland every year.
So let's look at some of the historical connections between Scotland and America - and maybe you'll find some Edinburgh features to put on your 'must see' list during your trip!
SEEING STARS (AND STRIPES)
Within Edinburgh Castle is a feature considered to be one of the earliest known representations of the Stars and Stripes, the flag of the United States. It's worth seeking out if you're going to take the time and trouble to visit the castle, but is not easy to find!
Look for the Prisons of War exhibition, which is one of the highlights of the castle itself, a recreation of the former prisons beneath the Great Hall where military prisoners were detained. From French naval offenders in the Seven Years' War of the 1750s to some of the original pirates of the Caribbean, these dank vaults have hosted enemies of Scotland from all around the globe.
When American sailors were captured during the American War of Independence, many of them found themselves held in Edinburgh Castle, and it was during this period that one prisoner took a penknife and carved carved an intriguing depiction of a flag into one of the heavy wooden doors of the prison complex.
The doors themselves are now on display with graphic representations alongside highlighting the names, initials, emblems and graffiti that was carved into them over the years, and amongst all these scratches and scrapes you will find (if you look closely) the unmistakable image of a striped flag, just waiting to have stars added to the corner panel...
HONEST ABE (HONESTLY!)
It may seem a strange place to find a statue of the sixteenth president of the United States, but in the Old Calton Burial ground is the imposing figure of Abraham Lincoln, looking down from an ornate marble monument.
The monument itself is a grave of six men who had travelled from Scotland to fight alongside Lincoln in the American Civil War. Like the Irish (with whom many Americans also find associations) the Scots could often be relied upon to provide vital firepower in military conflicts, which is one of the reasons why the Scottish army has connections to many historical battles all around the world.
After their deaths, the bodies of these Scots soldiers were returned to Edinburgh for burial, and it was the widow of one of them - a Sergeant Major John McEwan - who later wrote to the American consul in Edinburgh suggesting a formal commemoration of their deaths may be appropriate.
The consul himself wasn't initially persuaded, until (it is said) his wife came to hear of the request and made the case that the surviving wives and families of the dead men were entitled to an official acknowledgement of their sacrifice.
And so it was that funds were raised to pay for the commemoration, unveiled in 1893, featuring Lincoln along with a representation of an emancipated slave, embodying the cause for which these men fought and died.
The monument is the only American Civil War Memorial outside of the United States, and was the first statue of an American president to be erected outside of North America.
(And did you know that Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin were born on precisely the same day?)
LIGHTING THE WAY
Edinburgh's Central Library is the best-used public library in the city, and it was a gift to Edinburgh from the philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, whose fortune was built in America. At the time of his death, Carnegie had given away over $350,000,000 to charities and causes around the globe, including establishing over 3,000 libraries.
Libraries were a great cause in Carnegie's mind. He wrote in his autobiography: "The fundamental advantage of a library is that it gives nothing for nothing. Youths must acquire knowledge themselves. There is no escape from this." He saw the provision of raw information for the consumption of a public, eager to better their understanding and knowledge, as a great and important thing. It was no coincidence that his own father had helped to establish the first public library in Dunfermline, the town north of Edinburgh where Carnegie was born.
In the 1890s, Edinburgh was offered £25,000 from Carnegie to establish the city's first public lending library. That would constitute 'seed funding' to set up the library, on the understanding that the city itself would pay the balance of funds needed to finish the project.
At that time Edinburgh had no public library and - to Carnegie's horror - did not want a public library. They certainly did not want to have to pay for one! Carnegie's benevolence in establishing the fund was rejected, and he was told to give his money to another city, who would be more willing to supplement it with their own cash.
Carnegie was so determined that Edinburgh should have a public library facility that he doubled his endowment to £50,000.
Today Carnegie's library can be found on George IV Bridge, and above its entrance the motto 'Let there be light', reflecting Carnegie's original intention to enlighten and inform the world through his gifts.
WORDS, WORDS, WORDS
A text that remains oft-quoted even in today's era is the Constitution of the United States of America, a document detailing the principles and rights of the nation and its inhabitants. But much of that text was drawn from writings that had originally been composed here in Edinburgh over a century and a half earlier...
In 1638, the National Covenant was a declaration from the people of Scotland to protect the Scottish church from interference by the king, Charles I.
It was drawn up in Edinburgh and signed at the Greyfriars Kirk, and if we compare some of the phraseology of the National Convenant with some of the text of the Preamble to the Constitution of the United States, drawn up in 1787, we find some surprising similiarities...
It's not word-for-word, but it's not difficult to see that there was a influence on the wording of the later US Constitution from the earlier National Covenant. Which may not be entirely surprising given the over 50,000 Scots who emigrated to the American colonies between 1763 and 1776!
This mass migration is partly why the Scottish diaspora in North America is so strong, and why (in genealogical terms) more than 30 US presidents have documented Scottish heritage.
Four copies of the National Covenant document (which were originally distributed across Scotland) can be found in Edinburgh, including one on display in St Giles' Cathedral.
FRANKLIN, MY DEAR...
Benjamin Franklin was one of the Founding Fathers of the United States, and was known as the First American, who travelled to the UK between the 1750s and 1770s. He spent much of his time in London, but also visited Edinburgh to meet notable figures like David Hume, with whom he lodged for three weeks in 1771.
Franklin was also granted an honourary doctorate from the University of St Andrews, Scotland's oldest university.
One of the places Franklin stayed during his visits to Edinburgh was Prestonfield House, which operates today as a boutique hotel and restaurant. Why not take afternoon tea in the plush surrounds of this incredible former estate property, and see a little of old Edinburgh the way that Franklin might have seen it during his time here.
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