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