Friday, 8 November 2013

EDINBURGH LOG (How do you find anything out?) (Part 3)

A piper.

As the Easyjet airliner came down low on its approach to Edinburgh Airport I felt quite excited. I had never been to anywhere in Scotland before. I feel that Scotland is part of my spiritual home. The British Isles over the centuries has seen a cross migration and integration of people. This is a separate issue to immigrants coming into Britain from further afield. The Irish have come to England in search of work and polarised around the big conurbations because of the building skills they have predominantly brought to the mainland. They have also come with their poetry, their Guinness and their airlines. The Scots have infiltrated England through banking services, whisky, salmon and of course the world’s best football managers. The Welsh have provided coal, the power source of our industrial growth, fantastic singers and beautiful poetry. The United Kingdom has been for centuries a close and perhaps, not always,seamless joining of these four nations. I am an example of this cross pollination. I have a lot of Irish blood a little Anglo Saxon blood from my mother, my wife is Welsh but more noticeably, my surname, being Grant, I have some Scottish ancestry through my father’s father. Hence the partial spiritual connection to Scotland. I feel that part of me comes from Scotland. However, my recent visit to Edinburgh was my first crossing of the boarder. My first touch of Scottish bedrock.

The Forth Rail Bridge opened in 1890.

As the jet reduced its altitude and the very substance of Scotland came closer I got a clear view of The Firth of Forth and then the magnificent Forth Bridge, the looped railway viaduct designed and built by Sir John Fowler and Sir Benjamin Baker and opened on the 4th march 1890. There it stretched across the width of The Forth all 2,528.7 metres of it like sound waves on an audio monitor. Just behind it arched the great Forth Road Suspension Bridge. All around  and off into the horizon were the humped and rolling Pentland Hills. I had never imagined Edinburgh’s surrounds. I have seen pictures of Edinburgh’s iconic buildings and places over the years but I had never tried to imagine its location and setting. Perhaps I had never seen or been provided with that sort of information. Nobody I know, knows Edinburgh, so nobody had described it to me.

Holyrood Park and Arthur's Seat

Maps, books and photographs and TV documentaries have been my only contact. The maps and atlases have given me a sense of Edinburgh’s location in relation to Scotland as a whole, what is near it and what is further away. Its landscape has been only brown and green patches on a map and perhaps the backdrop to the film Thirty Nine Steps adapted from John Buchans novel. Its communication network have appeared to me as spidery lines, blue, yellow and black on a map. Atlases have shown me Scotland and Edinburgh’s  relationship to what I already know and have experienced of England and also its far distance from my birthplace, Southampton, on the south coast. All these things have informed me about Scotland in the past. I also know facts about its history and facts about its industries, its landscapes, its sports, its language and its myths and legends. All this was garnered from books and a variety of other secondary sources. These are very important sources of information when you are engaging with a place but to actually go there, look at it personally, talk to people, to just be physically present is another level of learning about a place altogether.

The airport is not inspiring. A collection of glass cubes and girder boxes. I caught the airport bus into Edinburgh. The stops were displayed on a computer screen as we drove along. Edinburgh ZOO appeared on the left and Murrayfield Stadium, the home of Scottish rugby, came up on the right. Many houses made from stone and corner shops selling familiar products passed and Edinburgh itself began to appear. The bus driver announced that we would not be driving down Princes Street; we would travel parallel to Princes Street along Queen Street. We rode through the elegant Georgian town houses of the New Town. This was my first realisation that there are two parts to Edinburgh. There is the New Town, designed by James Craig in 1766 and built between 1766 and 1850 and then there is the old town on the other side of the N’Or Loch high up on the escarpment ridge that slopes eastward from the massive volcanic plug on which Edinburgh Castle is situated.

Edinburgh Castle with Princes Gardens in the foreground.

I felt excited at my first site of Edinburgh Castle high above me, dominating the whole city, the angular lines and points of its rugged buildings, sharp in silhouette with the sun behind its massive bulk. I had a Berlitz pocket guide to Edinburgh in my pocket and I had my i-phone with its satellite navigation. The bus stopped at Waverley Station, Edinburgh’s main railway station, deep down in the N’Or Loch which extends eastwards from Princes Gardens. I had worked out by using Bing Maps where the guest house I was going to stay in was located in the Priestfield area, south east of the centre of Edinburgh right next to Holyrood Park with Arthur’s seat behind it. However standing next to Waverley Station I could not see Arthurs Seat and I felt a little disorientated. I set the satellite navigation on my i-phone to locate the guest house I was going to stay at. I put in the post code. It placed a blinking marker for me on the screen. I could see a flashing point showing where I was standing too. However I didn’t know which way to turn. The surroundings didn’t at first fit the map on my screen. I couldn’t work it out straight away. I tried walking up towards the castle and it showed me on the the screen that I was walking in the wrong direction. I then stopped a little old lady and asked directions and in her lilting Edinburgh accent she was able to give me directions to Nicholson Street and Dalkeith Road. Once she pointed me in the right direction then the satellite navigation was fine. I walked and walked and began to discover Edinburgh. I was carrying a small back pack and my Samsung SLR camera around my neck so walking wasn’t a problem. It was a brisk walk of about a mile and half. The last part was downhill, sloping away from the centre of the city.

The Mercat Cross

I took three tours whilst I was in Edinburgh. I had seen in The Royal Mile, next to the city cross called The Mercat Cross, just behind St Giles Cathedral, stalls and signs advertising Edinburgh walks. Gentlemen in black top hats and ladies in long black capes hand out leaflets and tell you about their tours if asked. It is the traditional place where the people of Edinburgh receive news of great events. It is still used to make pronouncements of historic importance. You can choose a night time ghost walk, a walk through Edinburgh’s hidden underground chambers or perhaps you might choose a walk around Edinburgh’s historic sites. At the entrance to one of the Closes, named Mary Kings Close, another walk was advertised to the hidden underground streets of Edinburgh. A visit to Edinburgh Castle is lead by guides too. Each guide has a different approach.

Auld Reekie Tours

First of all  I took the  Mercat Tour. Mercat being a Scottish form of the word, Market. The guide began her talk and walk next to the Mercat Cross. She announced to us, standing up on the steps to the cross, some of the gruesome Medieval and Stuart period practices of retribution and punishment that the cross was witness to. Interesting facts delivered with emphasise and relish. How much was she exaggerating? I am sure an unfortunate person being punished or executed at that time would agree with the powerful sentiments of the guide. A good guiding technique and trick to keep the facts vividly remembered by the people on the tour is to assault their imaginations and senses and put ,"the fear of God into them." The lady leading the Mercat tour took us to the Blair Street underground vaults. These were chambers created under the foundations of the South Bridge which was built in the 1780’s. Business men used the vaults for storage and they were also used as workshops for craftsmen. Taverns often created oyster cellars in these chambers. They were used for illicit whisky distilling and finally for criminals and squatters to hide in.Prostitution was also known to occur in these dark vaults. As with all deep dark damp vaults, ghost stories are bound to emerge,stories of strange sounds, lights and whisperings. The guide did not dwell too much on ghost stories, she probably wanted to keep her tour group from running away. She told stories of actual goings on in these cellars. A room displayed artefacts found in the vaults from various periods which we could view and some we could handle. She was very good at explaining the research and archaeology that had taken place and that was continuing, and which was uncovering the story  of the vaults and of course we were all asking questions.

The Blair Street Vaults

The young lady who took myself and a group around the Mary Kings Close was dressed for the part in 18th century maid’s costume. She played her part and used her actors skills. Mary King Close is situated in a different part of the Royal Mile from the Blair Street vaults. These underground rooms were created in the late 1750’s when the old town of Edinburgh was dilapidated and disease ridden. The new town across the other side of The N’Or Loch designed by James Craig was now the place to live. It was suggested that a new Royal Exchange be built on the site of some of the ruinous tenements that branched off the Royal Mile. They cut the buildings down in height by half to make a level area for the foundations of the new building , which was designed by James Craig the designer of the first phase of the new town. The fine new exchange dominated the Royal Mile next to St Giles but the old streets including Mary Kings close still existed, reduced in height, under the new building. The chambers and streets were abandoned and people were not allowed to live there underground. These chambers, as in the Blair Street Vaults, could be used for storage and in some, craftsmen's workshops were located. Our actress guide, in her flowing 18th century maids attire acted the part of an actual historical person, Mary King, who had been the maid to a wealthy family when the Close was an open Edinburgh street.We know about her through law court records because her master was murdered in the house by his mother in-law over a debt and so Mary King’s name appears in the court papers as a witness. We therefore have written proof she lived in the close. It is interesting to see the remnants of rooms in the truncated houses from this hidden and once forgotten underworld. In one room the remains of plastered walls made from wattle and daub are still there with their 18th century patterns and designs. You can see fireplaces, and doorways. There are some artefacts to examine. The guide dramatizes the story superbly and with passion. We hear about the  plague in Edinburgh both the Bubonic plague and the Pneumonic plague. We learned which of the two plagues it was preferable to get. Apparently it was preferable to get the Bubonic Plague.There was a gruesome, painful cure. The buboes could be lanced and the wounds cauterised with a branding iron. You had no hope with pneumonic plague. We learned about people being prone to arthritis, rheumatism, tuberculosis and lung conditions and both  wealth and poverty existing in the closes of Edinburgh cheek by jowl; the rich and poor, the criminal and the priest, side by side. One particular set of facts all guides loved to emphasise, to horrify and fascinate us in equal measure, were the sanitation problems of old Edinburgh. All those on the tour, came away with thoughts of the streets as foul smelling open sewers with piss pots being emptied from windows out onto the closes and wynds below with the shout, “Gardyloo,” which derives from the French ,”prenez garde a l’eau (mind the water), to warn passers-by. So lots of vivid descriptions and enthralling stories and a sense of humour is always needed.

 The guide at Edinburgh Castle added another approach. She told us the stories about the castle, its development, its uses and its present use but she also asked, us, questions. How many gates had we passed on our way into the inner ward of the castle? Which building did we think looked the oldest? She encouraged us us to observe and question. She also set the scene very nicely. She spoke with a French accent and was obviously French. She related how she was married to a Scotsman and now lived in Edinburgh but also pointed out that Mary Queen of Scots was brought up in France, spoke French and had a French accent just like hers. This guide used her attributes well.

The oldest part of Edinburgh Castle. St Margaret's Chapel.

Before I embarked on this adventure in Edinburgh I went into Wimbledon Town one day and went into Waterstones to find a guide book about Edinburgh. There were various ones but I chose the Berltiz pocket guide, partly because it was a pocket guide and was small enough to fit into my trouser pocket. But mostly, however, because it had two clear maps of the centre of Edinburgh and it laid out its sections in an easy to follow  format. The photographs were good, illustrating the various articles about, festivals, history, the act of Union, the old town, the new town, The Royal Mile, Holyrood, entertainment, sports, where to eat, galleries and museums. It was all there, described succinctly. And although I did not go into the restaurants illustrated in the guide book, it gave me a good,"flavour," of what to expect. It allowed me to explore for myself. Apart from using the maps, to begin with, I did not actually use the guide book while I was in Edinburgh but it has been a valuable tool to find answers to some of my questions since being there and has given me a deeper knowledge of Edinburgh since I have come back. It has helped and informed me in retrospect. The front cover of the guide book shows a picture of Edinburgh from Calton Hill and in the foreground is the Dugald Stewart monument, like a small round Greek temple. I went up onto Calton Hill, took out the guide book and tried to replicate the same picture. I got close, but it is almost impossible to replicate a picture exactly. You need the same lens, camera, lighting, time of day and weather conditions, but I did get close.

The Dugald Stewart Monument roughly the same view as on the front of my Berlitz Guide Book.

I love taking pictures. I have had a number of digital cameras over the years, some small pocket ones and two much larger single reflex cameras. I feel the need to take pictures wherever I go,   and definitely out on the street. I took a few hundred pictures in Edinburgh. Taking photographs makes me look carefully. I compose the picture in the view finder. I think about what the information is I am capturing. My eyes and thoughts  begin to focus on something carefully. Looking teaches  so much. We learn from looking. I certainly have. I find myself beginning to create stories and observations when I’m looking through a lens and I certainly did about Edinburgh.

Tweed suits!!

Walking about, looking and sometimes randomly taking a chance in the direction or the street I turn down always provides a learning experience. I want to be surprised and find the unexpected. I use past experience to  age buildings.  “This one is modern with its steel and glass construction. Those are 18th century town houses with their vertical social structure. Over there is a Victorian intrusion, copying neatly, Tudor features. What is a Scottish architectural style? And then of course there are the plaques and labels on things “ John Knox House, Enter Here,”  “Tweedle Court,” “Architectural Design Centre,” (this way arrow sign), “Welcome to the Scottish Parliament,” ”Abbey Strand,” “Horse Wynd,” ”Welcome to Holyrood Park,” “Highland Tour Departures,” “Greyfriars Bobby,” “Jenners,” “Coppers Coffee Bar,” “The University of Edinburgh Old College,” “North Bridge,” “The Royal Mile,” “Auld Reekie Tours,” “ “NEW ASSEMBLY CLOSE, Mansion of Murray of Blackbarony c1580 Ancestor of the Lords Elibank  In courtyard were dancing assemblies hall 1766-1784, commercial bank of Scotland and later children refuge, ” ”Riddles Close, “ House of Cashmere,” “Gladstones Land 1617,” “In a house on the east side of this close, Robert Burns lived during his first visit to Edinburgh 1766.” “The Scott Monument erected 1840-44 Sir Walter Scott bart 1771- 1832” Labels and signs are found everywhere, down every nook and cranny of the city,  increasing your interest, your knowledge, your curiosity. It’s just lovely to say the words on the signs. There is a sort of lyricism, a sort of musicality to them.

Museums and galleries are a rich source of artefacts often displayed in a time line which portrays the story that the locals want to hear. Each artefact , every painting has its own intricate story. They provide a source for interpretation that can continue forever and these collections develop over time and into the future.
I walked around The Scottish National Gallery and came across a beautiful painting of a young girl which struck me forcefully reminding me vividly of Abigail my youngest daughter. It provided a personal moment for me.

The young Scottish girl that reminded me of Abigail.

Learning about Edinburgh or any place occurs in so many ways. Some we are aware of, some we might not be aware of, unless we stop to think.


  1. Interesting post, Tony.

    Of course, I'm with you all the way on the importance of photography in training you to "see" a place more closely and more deeply. Occasionally, I decide to dispense with a camera - to find out what it feels like to be unencumbered. Not surprisingly, when I do that, I will miss the most photogenic moment of the holiday. It feels strange, too, to be without my camera - like walking down the street naked!

    When you're with family, you learn to take photos rapidly - otherwise they get annoyed quickly. It can be upsetting, though - often, I regret not taking more time or care over a particularly important (to me, anyway!) photographic subject. Let's face it, you need to be alone in order to get the pictures you really want.

    And then there are those times when two photographers wander around a place together ... ! What then?

  2. Tony, your writing makes me feel as if I've actually been to these places. And the photos ... well, what can I say? Wonderful!