Continue away from The Royal Mile to find the statue of Greyfriars Bobby, with its shiny nose polished by good luck seekers, commemorating the Skye Terrier who may, or may not, depending on what story you believe, have sat by his master’s grave after his master died.
Back in the direction of the Castle, Castlehill is dominated by the former Tolbooth-Highland-St John’s Church, now the headquarters of the Edinburgh International Festival society – The Hub, on the north side by there are the Outlook Tower and Camera Obscura. The Assembly Hall of the Church of Scotland is further down on the same side. The Scottish Parliament met in the Assembly Hall between 1999 and 2004.
The Esplanade, just in front of Edinburgh Castle, is the venue of the annual Edinburgh Military Tattoo, when specially designed temporary grandstands are erected. Cannonball House is notable for a cannonball lodged in the wall, which marks the elevation of Comiston Springs, three miles to the south of the Castle, which fed a cistern on Castlehill, one of the first piped water supplies in Scotland.
In less than a mile, I obtained a rich insight into the history of Edinburgh and into the lives of some of the influential people who have lived in the Scottish capital in the last 500 years.
Opposite St Giles is the building that was used as The Royal Exchange before becoming the City Chambers in 1811. It’s hard to believe now, but part of the building was built over the sealed-off remains of Mary King’s Close, an actual Old Town alley. This time capsule is now open to the public, who can visit an almost perfectly preserved 16th Century townhouse and a 17th-Century gravedigger’s dwelling, accompanied by a costumed character.
Lawnmarket was originally part of High Street, which accounts for the street numbering being a continuation of the High Street numbers. Lawnmarket is a corruption of Landmarket and this was where items, referred to as “inland merchandise” in a charter of 1477, such as yarn, stockings, coarse cloth and linen were sold. On the right side is the preserved 17th-century merchant’s townhouse Gladstone’s Land owned by the National Trust for Scotland. The lower end of the Lawnmarket is intersected by George IV Bridge on the left (south) and Bank Street on the right (north). Bank Street leads to The Mound where I saw the headquarters of the Bank of Scotland. Heading along George IV Bridge I passed The Elephant House where JK Rowling wrote most of the first two Harry Potter books.
Further up, High Street meets North Bridge which runs north over Waverley station to Princes Street, and South Bridge, which spans the Cowgate to the south. Further up on the right is Parliament Square, named after the old Parliament House which housed both the law courts and the old Parliament of Scotland between the 1630s and 1707. Parliament House now houses the Court of Session, Scotland’s supreme civil court.
St Giles’ Cathedral, the High Kirk of Edinburgh, also stands in Parliament Square. By the West Door of St Giles’ is the Heart of Midlothian, a heart-shaped pattern built into the road, marking the site of the Old Tolbooth, formerly the centre of administration, taxation and justice in the burgh. The prison was described by Sir Walter Scott as the “Heart of Midlothian”, and soon after demolition the city fathers marked the site with the heart mosaic.
On the south side, just past the High Kirk, is the Mercat Cross from which royal proclamations are read and the summoning of Parliament announced. The whole south side of buildings from St Giles to the Tron Kirk had to be rebuilt or refaced in the 1820s following the Great Fire of 1824.
In 1736, Sir James Sinclair glazed the windows of the chapel for the first time as well as relaying the floor and repairing the roof. However, the chapel was still ruined and was visited in the next 100 years by, amongst others, Robert Burns, Walter Scott, and William Wordsworth, who found the chapel inspirational enough to write the sonnet ‘Composed at Roslin Chapel during a storm’.
After the visit of Queen Victoria in 1842, she let it be known she hoped the chapel could be preserved for the nation. 20 years later the chapel was rededicated and services held for the first time in over 200 years. Subsequent preservation work to the roof may have done more harm than good, causing water to become trapped in the stonework. This moisture had to be removed and the only way was to cover the chapel in a canopy, allowing the stonework to dry out naturally. This has now been achieved, but work is still needed to keep the chapel in the pristine state it appears to be in today.
At the point where Canongate becomes High Street there once stood the Netherbow Port, a fortified gateway between Edinburgh and the Canongate, which was removed in 1764 to improve traffic flow – I was amazed when I read this as the reason as I tend to associate improving traffic flow with the late 20th Century. Following the English victory over the Scots at the Battle of Flodden in 1513, a city wall was built around Edinburgh known as the Flodden Wall, some parts of which survive. The Netherbow Port was a gateway in this wall and brass studs in the road mark its former position.
On the High Street stands the John Knox House reputed to have been owned and lived in by the Protestant reformer John Knox during the 16th century. Although the house bears his name, Knox almost certainly lived in Warriston Close where a plaque indicates the approximate site of his actual residence. The John Knox house dates from around 1490 and is the oldest tenement house surviving in Edinburgh. The interior has painted ceilings and an exhibition about Knox’s life and work as the leader of the Protestant Reformation in Scotland.
Other features worth finding are the angel with bagpipes, in the Lady Chapel near the Mason’s Pillar, the Fallen Angel on the eastern wall of the Lady Chapel, and the Lamb of God on the northern wall of the North Aisle, just to the left of the entrance from the Visitor Centre. This Lamb of God was a symbol of the Knights Templar, whose role was to protect pilgrims as they attended the sites in the Holy Land during the period of The Crusades.
Visitors today might find it hard to believe, but Rosslyn has been in ruins for over half of its existence. In 1592 Oliver St Clair was ordered to destroy the altars of Rosslyn, as the church authorities believed the chapel was a ‘house and monument of idolatrie’. After the altars were destroyed, the Chapel ceased to be used as a house of prayer and subsequently fell into disrepair. In 1650, Oliver Cromwell stabled his horses here when he was campaigning in the area.
On Canongate on the right, the People’s Story Museum is a museum housed in the historic Canongate Tolbooth. Their collection tells the story of the people of Edinburgh from the late 18th century to the present day through oral history, reminiscence and written sources. The museum also houses Britain’s largest collection of reform flags and banners. These 144 items include banners in support of political reform, trade unions and the anti-apartheid movement.
The Edinburgh Museum in Huntly House, opposite The People’s Story, contains an original copy of the National Covenant of 1638. This document reaffirmed Reformed faith and Presbyterian discipline and denounced the attempt by King Charles I and William Laud, archbishop of Canterbury, to force the Scottish church to conform to English liturgical practice and church governance. This museum also contains the collar and feeding bowl once used by Greyfriars Bobby, of whom more later.
There are depictions of Trillium, Indian Corn, and Aloe Vera indicating the sculptors of the chapel were familiar with these plants, even though Western Explorers weren’t supposed to have reached North America and India, where these plants originate, until at least 10 years after the carvings were crafted. There are also representations of an elephant and a camel, although the carvers would not have seen these animals first hand.
Rosslyn is well-known for its representations of The Green Man, a pagan symbol that some people believe was included in the chapel, so that non-believers would be familiar with at least some of the features they saw, and hence, would be more likely to feel they could identify with what the chapel was about. The Green Man was being used as an enticement to get non-believers to visit this Christian chapel. There are over 100 carvings of the symbol, starting with a young-looking boy in the north-east corner and then proceeding 360 degrees in a clockwise direction around the chapel until the final face, so wizzened and haggard.