Scotland’s capital city Edinburgh has long been considered to be the posher brother to its more blue collar rival, Glasgow. Seen as a truly world-class centre of culture, it attracts huge numbers of tourists from all over the world, especially for its annual Festival and Fringe festival. The main festival sees classical and jazz artists from around the world, opera and ballet, theatre and more. However Edinburgh’s Fringe festival is now as well known for its outrageous and surreal comedy as any other comedy festival in the world. Its Perrier award has probably launched more famous winners than any other, from Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie to Eddie Izard, Lee Evans and Rich Hall.
Edinburgh’s Ghostly History
Beneath the architecture, art and vibrant social scene of Edinburgh is of course its extraordinary history. Underneath the facade of class and superiority on the surface is a hidden, brutal and cut throat past.
James VI of Scotland (James I of England to be) was so against witchcraft, that he first outlawed it, condemning countless women to death and then wrote his fabled tome Daemonologie, the first such guide to sorcery of modern times. During the 17th and 18th centuries so many witches were hung, burnt or drowned here, that a plaque called the Witches Well. is mounted at Royal Mile to commemorate them. It is a surprisingly calm place considering its brutal and terrible history.
The 19th century gave us one of Edinburgh’s most famous duos; Burke and Hare, grave robbers and murderers. During this time, the practise of grave robbing was popular to supply corpses to local surgeons and colleges for surgery and dissection. However, due to a lack of governance on the source of the bodies and scarcity of supply, as well as a turn of fate, Burke & Hare ended up in the business of murder. Burke was later hung for his crimes in 1829 and his skeleton still hangs in the Edinburgh Medical College, rather ironically his main customer in life.
Mary Kings Close
In the 17th century, Edinburgh was victim to its possibly worst recorded outbreak of the plague. Legend has it to stop further spreading of the virus the worst affected area; which was the living quarters of the poor was sealed up, leaving thousands of people trapped to die.
The Royal Mile, a beautiful historic popular tourist street actually rests on top of a network of alleys and streets which were the prison of the plague victims.
In 2004 these streets were officially opened as a tourist attraction after archaeological investigations had concluded. The Real Mary Kings Close is now a popular though less traditional tourist attraction to visit while in Edinburgh.
Clear Your Throat
Tip: Do not stand or pose in the heart of Midlothian on Royal Mile (in the image below)
If you spend any time sitting outside the St Giles Cathedral on Royal you will notice a weird phenomenon. A local tradition is that anyone who passes the Heart of Midlothian will spit in it. The heart signifies the spot where the last person was hung in Scotland.
In fact it was the location of most public hangings, as where St Giles church is now was historically the site of the prison.
The tradition of spitting apparently comes from the old custom where before a person was hung, they would be forced to spit to ensure their throat was clear and that they were sure to die.
It is unclear how this tradition morphed from prisoners due to be hung, to an activity by normal folk but it is definitely still a custom, so watch out!
Greyfriars Bobby was a Skye Terrier who became known in 19th-century Edinburgh for spending no less than 14 years guarding the grave of his owner until he died himself on 14 January 1872. If you find yourself at the Edinburgh National Museum and you head to its right side where it meets George IV Bridge you will find a statue of a dog called Grey Friars Bobby. Another local tradition is to pat the dog for luck.
Grey Friars Bobby is the story of a dog whose master died and he spent the rest of his life waiting at his masters grave for him to return. The dog eventually died and this statue was built in his memory for his loyalty and obedience.
If you are a fan of the cartoon Futurama you will have likely seen the story of Edinburgh’s Grey Friars bobby be played out in an episode where Fry left his dog Seymour behind before heading to the future.
The story of Grey Friars Bobby is a rather sad but sweet one – but how patting the dog symbolises luck, goodness knows.
Edinburgh has many beautiful and touristic sites but here a few of my weird and less known facts and sites that show the darker side of Edinburgh’s history. Enjoy!
Written for Trippki by Krypto Flamingo