Europe · UK

Stories of Edinburgh – Europe Travels August 2022

One thing I loved about Edinburgh was the stories I heard about, and the connections from one place that we visited to another. There were three in particular: that of the poet Robert Ferguson and his connection to Robert Burns, the story of Deacon Brodie and his connection to Robert Louis Stevenson, and also a little dog named Bobby.

We first met Robert Ferguson on the street. I thought his young energy really came through in this statue of him bustling down the Royal Mile, book in hand.

For two years, Ferguson wrote poems about his home city. One acclaimed poem was “Auld Reikie”, which observed a day in the life of such ordinary people as shopkeepers, children, whores and dandies, lawyers and schoolboys. But his life was short. He fell down some stairs, hit the back of his head and languished in a hospital. Conditions were not good there and he died at only 24 years of age in 1774. He was buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave. Although his body of work is short, he was already well known and respected when he passed.

All that I knew of Ferguson was from reading the stone about him under his statue. Seeing it prompted me to walk through Canongate Cemetery.

I ran into Robert Ferguson again when visiting the Writer’s Museum. Robert Burns, regarded as the national poet of Scotland and the writer of the song “Auld Lang Syne”, greatly respected Ferguson’s work. He was about nine years younger than Ferguson so was probably aware of him only through his poetry. One thing that he admired about Ferguson was that he had written not only in Scottish English, but also in the native Scots language, Gaelic. Upon hearing that Ferguson was in a pauper’s grave, he paid for a proper headstone to be erected for him fifteen years after Ferguson’s death.

Robert Burns himself was not all that old when he died at the age of 37 from rheumatic heart disease and a bacterial infection that followed. What additional contributions these men could have given the world if they had had the benefit of our modern medicine!

Deacon Brodie was another person whose name kept popping up. I can’t take credit for this excellent picture of him, though. By the time I connected who Deacon Brodie was, we had passed his landmarks.

Credit: David/Flickr

This statue of him stands right outside the tiny cafe that bears his name and which is believed to have been his workshop back in the mid-1700’s. We had popped in for something warm on a cold and rainy morning. His story is painted on the walls but I could only see the portion by our table, since the place was full and bustling. Outside again, I saw Deacon Brodie’s Tavern across the Royal Mile. Who was this guy?

By day, William Brodie was a cabinet-maker and city councilor, a well-respected man who came by the title of Deacon by virtue of his position in the trades guild. But the fine Deacon had his secrets: he was a drinker and heavy gambler. To cover his debts, he began breaking into houses and burglarizing them. As part of his work, he would also install and repair locks. Did you need a new lock for your front door? Better not let Deacon Brodie replace it. He would copy the keys of his customers using wax impressions, and use that key to gain entry at night. Eventually he was caught, tried for his crimes, and hanged. They didn’t mess around with breaking and entering in those days.

The sad part is that he really was an excellent cabinet maker, and there in the Writer’s Museum was one of his cabinets.

The cabinet is made of mahogany veneer, one of only two pieces existing that are known to have been made by the deacon

This lovely piece of furniture was in Robert Louis Stevenson’s bedroom as a child and captivated his imagination. (I wonder: as a child, was it he who pulled off some of the knobs?) Later, he wrote a play about Deacon Brodie. The paradox that was evident in Deacon Brodie’s life also inspired him to write the well-known novel, “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”. It was published in 1886, almost one hundred years after Brodie’s death.

The cutest story of all was that of Greyfriars Bobby, who lived from 1855 to 1872. He was a terrier and owned by a man named John Gray. When Bobby was only two, Gray died of tuberculosis and was buried in Greyfriars Cemetery. For fourteen years, Bobby would spend the rest of his life sitting on his master’s grave. He became the pet of the neighborhood. The owner of Greyfriars Pub would look out for him and feed him, and so did everyone else for that matter. The lord provost of Edinburgh paid for his license and gave him a collar, which can still be seen in the Museum of Edinburgh.

Soon after Bobby’s death, a woman by the name of Lady Burdett-Coutts commissioned a statue of Bobby to be erected, and he is forever remembered. A book was written about him, and there is even a Disney movie titled, of course, “Greyfriars Bobby”.

I spent some time in Edinburgh wandering around looking for Bobby’s statue whenever I thought of it. Looking for it led us into Greyfriars cemetery for an enjoyable post-dinner walk one evening. I read later that J.K. Rowling received inspiration for some of the names in this cemetery for the Harry Potter series: Potter, McGonagall, Riddell, and others. Many are located along Flodden Wall, which I did happen to take a picture of. I wasn’t looking for gravestones that evening.

Bobby is also immortalized at the entrance of the cemetery, which you can see in the top picture of this blog.

If you are in Edinburgh and find Bobby’s statue, please don’t rub his nose. It won’t really bring you good luck and the locals don’t like how the finish on his nose has worn down. They are still pretty proud of their little dog.

Next time – Moving on to the Scottish Highlands

Europe · UK · Uncategorized

A Visit to Edinburgh, Scotland – Europe Travels August 2022

Victoria Street, Edinburgh

Flying from Dublin to Edinburgh was a little bit of an adventure. After we passed security, it seemed like we walked for miles and miles and then descended down to the bowels of the airport. We soon discovered the reason for this: we had to walk onto the tarmac to board our little airplane. It has been years since since we’ve gotten on an airplane any other way but a jet bridge. Although we traveled with carry on luggage, our suitcases were too heavy, so we had to check them. I think that if you had nothing in your suitcase, it still would be too heavy to carry on Aer Lingus. Remember the summer of ’22, when airlines were losing suitcases everywhere? We watched with some relief as they put our suitcases on the airplane. This picture was taken from our shuttle bus window, so you may see some raindrops and window glare.

At first glance from our city bus window on the ride from the airport, I knew I was going to enjoy exploring Edinburgh. The city has many buildings that are over 500 years old. Still others date back to the 1800’s. Monuments and statues are sprinkled everywhere, and Edinburgh Castle looks down on the city from above. I couldn’t wait to get out and see it all.

Looking up at Edinburgh Castle from Victoria Street
“Old Town” of Edinburgh

In the background of the picture above, the tall grey buildings were tenement buildings when first built. The arched steeple peeking over everything on the back left is the cathedral of St. Giles, on the Royal Mile. We had a tiny studio apartment in a very tall building that looked similar to the one in the front. There were three ways to get into it: from the front of the building off the street, from St. James Close at the top of the Royal Mile, and from Lady Stair’s Close.

Inside St. James Close

The Royal Mile starts at the bluff of Edinburgh Castle. It is the location of the ancient and medieval city of Edinburgh, and as the city grew, it stretched down along a sloping ridge. A close, by definition, is a Scot’s term for “alleyway”, and quite a few lead to picturesque lanes, pretty courtyards, and little pubs or cafes as St James Close does in the picture above. There are many closes leading off the Royal Mile, and as we walked, we peeked into some of them.

Many of the closes had informational plaques. This is Anchor Close, named after Anchor Tavern which was formerly here. The close dates from 1521. Also noted: Smellie’s Printing House which printed Robert Burns’ works and the 1st edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, and the parents of Sir Walter Scott resided here until 1771. Edinburgh is full of interesting history like that.

Some closes had beautiful entryways:

In 1861, a seven story tenement building in Paisley Close collapsed and 35 people were killed. It was a huge scandal at the time. One little boy, Joseph McIvor, was heard under the debris: “Heave awa’ chaps, I’m no’ dead yet!” Now he looks over Paisley Close for the ages.

This water cistern dates to the late 1700’s. The city was having issues in that era delivering enough water to the populace. The water cisterns in the city were only turned on for three hours, starting at midnight, to limit demand. People who could afford it hired caddies to fetch their water so they wouldn’t have to get up in the middle of the night and stand in line!

The bagpiper was making beautiful music all day long
Canongate Tolbooth, which was outside the town walls in 1591.

Bookending the Royal Mile at the bottom is Holyrood Palace, the currrent residence of the British crown.

A quaint looking street, full of character, history and tourist shops that stretches for about a mile, gets more than its share of visitors. Early August is high tourist season; by late afternoon the streets were packed. Cal and I are early risers and had no problem being on the Royal Mile just when the shop owners were beginning to pull their postcard racks out onto the street. All across Europe, we reaped the benefits of being out early. I like uncovering the history of a place, and there’s no better time for that than being out before everyone else is.

A turn off the Royal Mile leads to Victoria Street, pictured at the top of this blog. This beautiful view was at the end of the street, right under the castle.

Gothic St. Giles Cathedral is the parish church of the Church of Scotland on the Royal Mile and was founded in the 12th century. The Scottish reformer John Knox is buried here. When Queen Elizabeth recently passed, her coffin was taken from her castle in Balmoral to Holyrood. From there it passed up the Royal Mile to St. Giles to lie in state for four days.

Above the entryway at St. Giles
John Knox

There is a chapel in St. Giles for the Scottish Order of the Thistle. It is the highest honor in Scotland and those recognized for contributing to public life become knights or ladies. In the chapel, the knights’ stalls for the honorees were based on those in Windsor Castle. Some of the animals appear in the knights’ coat of arms.

Also in St. Giles was an enormous plaque memorializing Robert Louis Stevenson. He was born and raised in Edinburgh, but is buried in Samoa. He was always in very poor health, which is probably why he is shown reclining under a blanket.

Which brings me to the Scottish Writer’s Museum. It is located in Lady Stair’s Close, right behind our apartment. After a couple of days in Edinburgh, I could no longer just walk by, and had to pay a visit to this extremely interesting museum.

Lady Stair, by the way, is not the name of the stairs going up to the close. Rather, it is the name of the fairytale-looking townhouse that was built in 1622 and now houses the museum. It was purchased about a hundred years later by Elizabeth Dundas, Lady Stair, the widow of the 1st Earl of Stair. It had been her grandparents’ house.

The Scottish Writer’s Museum, Lady Stair’s Close

A floor was dedicated to each of these three authors: Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott, and Robert Louis Stevenson. A narrow curving stair took me to each level. I’d love to tell you details that I learned about each one, but that would take another blog page. Maybe you’ll just need to visit the museum yourself. It was interesting just to look inside at the architecture of Lady Stair’s house.

Edinburgh’s Royal Mile is considered to be part of “Old Town”. Needing to expand a growing city, New Town was built during the Georgian Era, the late 1700’s to the mid 1800’s.

A view of Edinburgh’s New Town from Edinburgh Castle

Sir Walter Scott’s monument, in New Town, was one of the first things to catch my eye on the day we arrived. It is the second largest monument built in the world honoring a writer. There is a larger-than-life-size statue of Scott inside which is dwarfed by the larger structure.

Why are so many of Edinburgh’s buildings and monuments dark-looking? This goes back to the days when buildings were heated and lighted by fire, and the smoke from coal and peat fires hung over the city. The smoke permeated everything, and gave the city the name of “Auld Reekie” (Old Smokey).

The front of our AirBnb building faced New Town, and down the hill from it was a floral clock built in 1901. This year, the clock was dedicated to the Queen’s 70th Jubilee.

For our last day in Edinburgh, I looked forward to taking a walk I had heard about into the the pretty village of Dean. In the 19th century there were water mills on the river, and the workers lived and worked here. It is now tucked into the neighborhoods northwest of New Town. However, I needed to see a doctor about some minor lingering Covid issues I was having. Reluctantly I booked the appointment for the day of our walk. By happy coincidence, the doctor’s office was right at the top of Dean! We were still able to go.

“Your GP” is the doctor’s office I visited. It has to be the prettiest one I have ever been to.
The view across the river from the doctors office
The tall buildings housed the mill workers and are now apartments

After leaving Dean village we were treated to a long woodsy walk along the Leith river. If we had turned left instead of right over the river from the doctor’s office, we could have walked even further. There are great walking paths here and it is a relaxing break from being in the city.

By the way, one of the issues I was seeing the doctor about was that I was still occasionally having long coughing bouts. It would happen at the worst times – in a taxi, or on a tour – places where I could not get off into a quiet corner without bothering others. The doctor and I discussed this problem at length and I finally realized it was happening when I was wearing a mask. The mask dried and irritated my still-inflamed passageways. “But why,” she asked, “are you still wearing a mask? You’re no longer positive. You can’t catch it now, because you have natural immunization.” To realize this…happy day! It was the silver lining in the big Covid cloud. From that day, Covid was no longer much of a thought in our minds. We masked only in airports and airplanes, and public transportation where required by law.

Next time – Stories of Edinburgh