Day Twenty-two - Our Own City Tour

Today I put together our own little city tour, starting with a walk up to Calton Hill. This is a wonderful viewpoint from which to see the city from a 360 degree perspective. It is hard to miss, with its Athenian columns poking up over the skyline. The National Monument was meant to be a replica of the Parthenon, as a memorial to those who had died in the Napoleonic wars. Building began in 1822, but they ran out of money, so only the façade was built. At that time it was known as “Edinburgh’s Folly”, but now it attracts thousands of visitors each year. Also at the top are two observatories, the Old Observatory House, designed by James Craig, the architect responsible for New Town Edinburgh, as well as the City Observatory, built in 1818. There is also a monument to Horatio Nelson, to commemorate his victory at Trafalgar, and his death in that same battle. There is a ball which drops down the tower at precisely one o’clock, the same time that the gun is fired from Edinburgh Castle, to allow mariners to ser their chronometers. Calton Hill is a much loved spot for Edinburgh residents, hosting events for the Edinburgh Festival, as well as Hogmanay and Samhuinn events. While up there, I ran into a man from Comox, BC, who was taking pictures of his niece’s little stuffed bear, since she couldn’t come on the holiday!

Onward and downward to continue our explorations, after a quick stop at Rabbie’s Cafe. We headed over to George Street, with all of its high end shops. A stop at St. Andrews Square, with its imposing column in the centre, a monument to Viscount Melville. Along the way, we noticed several buildings where windows had been boarded or bricked over. This stems from a law passed in 1696 by William III, who introduced a property tax requiring anyone with more than six windows to pay a levy. So people bricked up their windows to save the tax, resulting in no daylight reaching those rooms. Hence, the phrase “daylight robbery”!

Continuing on, we found the former home of Robert Louis Stevenson, from whose windows he would watch the lamplighter, Leerie, lighting the lamps on the street. There is a plaque on the outside with the last verse of his poem “The Lamplighter” on it. Further on, we found the former home of Alexander Graham Bell, who, though born in Edinburgh, made his way to Canada, and is buried on Cape Breton. We continued our search for local landmarks, finding The “Oxford” Bar, made famous by author Ian Rankin, whose Inspector Rebus was known to frequent the establishment. It is rumoured that the author also tended to show up there on more than one occasion.

We stopped in a little side street for a bite to eat, before heading on our merry way back to Princes Street, where we strolled along beside Princes Gardens. This area used to be a lake, called the Nor’ Loch, and back then was the repository of all of the raw sewage thrown into the streets, accompanied by the warning “Gardy loo!” Rumour has it that the gardeners who tend this area do not have to use any fertilizer!!

We headed on up toward the Royal Mile, making our way up through Advocate’s Close, one of the many alleyways leading from down below to up above. The buildings that formed these closes were very tall and very close together, hence the name. Many were named after the trades and professions of their inhabitants. We were head to Mary King’s Close for a tour. But first, a stop at St. Giles Cathedral, founded in 1124 and in the 16th century, the focal point of the Scottish Reformation. It is regarded as the Mother Church of Presbyterianism. The exterior is very ornate, with carving over almost its entire outer walls. Inside, there is an abundance of beautiful stained glass, a stunning organ, and a lovely little part called the Thistle Chapel. One thing I found interesting is that, if you want to take photos, you have to buy a two pound photo pass - a sticker for your shirt that says you have permission to photograph the church. I thought that was a brilliant idea!!

A quick trip “home” to drop off the purchases we had made throughout the day, then back to the Royal Mile for our Real Mary King’s Close tour. This tour is most interesting in that you are taken by a costumed character of the time underground into the buildings that would have been on the close. Our tour leader was none other than the daughter of Mary King herself, a prominent businesswoman of the time. In the 17th century, the closes would have been open to the sky, though not much daylight reached the street below the eight or ten storey buildings. Mary King’s Close housed numerous tenement buildings, regarded by some as the world’s first skyscrapers. This was a warren of underground rooms that housed people from many social strata. It is said that Mary Queen of Scots even lodged here for one night. Because of the unsanitary conditions and the proliferation of diseased flea bearing rats, the bubonic plague ran rampant through the closes. Dr. George Rae, the official plague doctor, attired himself in a thick floor length leather cloak, to prevent fleas from reaching his skin. As well he wore a bird beak-like mask stuffed with sweet smelling herbs to ward off the stench snd germs. He would lance the buboes, or boils with a hot poker, and drain the pus, giving the victim a 50/50 chance of survival. Victims would hang a white rag out of their window to indicate that they had been afflicted and were in need of food and coal so they did not have to leave their homes and thus infect others. As the years went on the closes became very overcrowded and much dilapidated. It was then proposed that a building called the Royal Exchange be built over top of the closes and construction begsn in 1753. The other end of Mary King’s Close was demolished so that Cockburn Street could be built.

The tour is very interesting and visits a number of rooms and homes that would have existed back in those days. There is ine room of interest that contains a shrine of dolls and stuffed toys, paying homage to Annie, a young girl said tomhave been left behind during the plague and whose ghost appeared to a visiting psychic, who connected with the young girl and found out she was upset at having lost her favourite doll. The psychic then went back out to the Royal Mile, purchased a Barbie from the nearest stall and took it back to the room, and immediately felt the oppressive sadness lift from the room. Since then, people bring dolls for Annie, and there is quite the collection, from Rastafarian bananas to Sponge Bob Squarepants!

Back out into the light and a walk back to the apartment for a bit of a relax before heading out for our last dinner in Edinburgh. We opted to return to the Itslian restsurant half a block away, because we had enjoyed our meal the other night, and the skies were looking rather threatening!