21 June 2012

Tales from Edinburgh

When I encounter a new city, especially one where I know no one, my first instinct is to google "free walking tour ______" (the city name goes in the blank). Generally these tours last 2-3 hours and are amazing. The tour guides in red (all the companies that do these seem to wear red) work for tips, so they want to do their best. My tour guide for Edinburgh (James from Portugal) was one of the best yet! We saw so many sights and learned so much about the city. Edinburgh is truly an amazing place.

Let's start with the weather. Edinburgh is on the same latitude as Moscow. It never gets very warm and winters are brutal. Edinburgh is nestled in 7 hills, oh and about 320 million years ago it was a tropical rain forest. Edinburgh (and well all of Scotland) is still moving northward. Scientists predict that millions of years from now, Scotland and England will be two separate islands. But back to the weather - yesterday was a warm (about 68'F / 19'C) summers day, the sun was shining - until it began to rain around 4:30pm. Unusual for Edinburgh. The perfect day for a tour!

Oh yes, all these people were waiting for a tour. Luckily they divided us into about 5 groups.

The first sight we saw was the Mercat Cross. Mercat is an old Scottish word meaning "Market" and the cross was the center of the market / center of town. In the olden days, after a new King or Queen was crowned in London, a rider would head to Edinburgh, stand on the Mercat, and announce it. Nowadays in keeping with tradition, this is still announced from the Mercat three days after it took place (time that would have been needed for the news to reach Edinburgh), but of course with modern technology, everyone already knows anyways.

Next was St Giles Cathedral, which is not really a cathedral as it has no Bishop. Inside was nice, but it was outside that was much more interesting. Outside one saw that some of the bricks were outlined in gold. This marked where the tollbooth used to be. The tollbooth was where one paid their taxes AND the place one was taken if they were to be executed. Not a pleasant place.
The shape of the building was heart shaped, so it became known as the "Heart of Midlothian" (Midlothian, referring not to a town south of Dallas, but rather to the region of Scotland where Edinburgh is situated. After it was torn down, the spot was also marked with bricks shaped as a heart. Today most Edinburghians walk around this heart, rather than through it --- why? Because people spit in it. There are three reasons people spit in it:
1. To spit on the taxman (symbolically)
2. The local Football (soccer to Americans) team is nick-named the "Heart of Midlothian" and so fans of rival teams spit there to spit on their rival.
3. Fans of the team spit there for good luck.

Hey did you know that the Thistle is the flower of Scotland? No, well now you do!

We then went to the Grassmarket - this used to be where people bought grass /hay for livestock....but now it is a trendy place with vintage clothing shops, cafes and bars. Speaking of Bars, one is called Molly Dickson's Pub and there is a great story behind the name.
Molly Dickson was an unhappily married woman who eventually separated (ok ran away) from her husband. She ran to another town and fell madly in love with an innkeepers son. 5 months later she was pregnant. Fearing punishment (for adultery), she hid the pregnancy for 8 months - until she gave birth to a stillborn child. She was going to throw the body of the baby into the Loch, but was caught and arrested. Molly was charged with the crime of "concealment of pregnancy" and sentenced to death. She was brought back to Edinburgh to hang (in the Grassmarket - where hangings took place). She was hung, declared dead, put in a coffin and was being carted off.....when suddenly the man carting her off heard "knock knock knock" from the coffin. He opened it up and Molly was still alive. He quickly closed the coffin and took her back to the Grassmarket. The crowd went wild (this was their version of reality TV afterall) and were excited to hang her again. But suddenly a man in the crowd yelled "stop" and explained that Molly had already been hanged and punished for her crime and could not be punished a second time. Thus Molly was freed. Molly was also now considered no longer married. Why? Because her wedding vows were "until death do us part" and she had been declared dead. Now the story goes that Molly did remarry - the man in the crowd who stopped her second hanging and he bought her the pub. It was said that when someone was to be hanged, Molly would come out of her pub and tell them "don't worry, they hanged me once and look at me, I'm alright. Molly truly earned her nickname "half-hanged Molly".

This next building is the backside of a very important building in modern literary history. This is the back of the "Elephant House Cafe", a cafe that today provides paper and pens for its customers. Why? Because Britain's richest woman spent many many hours there, writing her books. Still don't know who? Why it's Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling of course!

In fact, Edinburgh is teaming with Harry Potter References. In Greyfriars Kirkyard (Kirk = church) if one wanders the graves, one will find names of characters in the series such as McGonagall and Tom Riddle.

But Grayfriars is not just famous for Harry Potter characters, it was here that the concept of life insurance evolved and here that the phrase "working the graveyard shift was coined.
In the 1700's, Edinburgh's college of medicine was one of the best in the world. It had however a problem, they needed more cadavers for learning. People soon learned that they could sell a freshly deceased body fora LOT of money and thus the career known as "body snatchers" evolved. Well no one liked that their recently deceased relatives were being dug up and sold. Plus, many believed that if they were cut up and not properly buried, the soul would not find their way to heaven. The richer folk, would install a "Mortsafe" on the grave - basically it was a gate that was locked to keep the body snatchers out (see photo below). The poor folk however would enlist the help of friends and family to take a shift sitting on the grave. They had to do so 24 hours a day for 3 weeks, at which time the body would have decomposed too much for the medical student usage. Hence the phrase was developed.

One other notable story from the Kirkyard is that of Greyfriars Bobby. Bobby was a little dog, a terrier I believe. When his master died he went and sat on his grave. Bobby did this in fact for 14 years until he himself died. For his loyalty, Bobby was also buried in the Kirkyard. People who come to his grave leave him toys, flowers, sticks and travel tickets. Why travel tickets? Because he never got to go anywhere since he was sitting at his masters grave. Just outside of the Kirkyard is a statue of Bobby, the most photographed statue in Edinburgh.

Walking around town we saw Edinburgh Castle, evidence that the Olympic Torch had just passed through and the flower clock in Scott's Gardens.

The gardens are quite beautiful and amazing flowers grow here - it is quite fertile land. There is a reason, and it's not a pleasant story. Edinburgh old town sits on a hill above the gardens, which are in new town. This used to be where the North Loch was located. This is of course before the days of indoor plumbing. Instead people had buckets for this purpose. When emptying the buckets they would shout the phrase "guardeloo" and then throw their waste onto the streets. Because the streets were hills, and it rained frequently, it would be washed down into the Loch. Dead bodies and other waste was also thrown in. Needless to say it was stinky. When the new town was built, the loch was drained and the ground below was extremely fertile. Perfect for the gardens.

I will wrap this up with one last story, for which I have no photos. That is the story of the Stone of Destiny. The stone of destiny is a large sandstone brick of which it is said, who ever is crowned king of Scotland will sit over this stone. When England took over the ruling of Scotland, the stone was placed under the English throne to show that they were indeed King of Scotland as well. Not all remained peaceful and Scotland and England were at war (think William Wallace....Braveheart). Eventually a peace treaty was signed and it was agreed that the stone would be returned to Scotland. About 400 years later, in 1996 it was. It is said that this was a political move. The ruling party was worried about their rival party's star: Tony Blair. Specifically they were worried he would win the 1997 election (which, in case you don't know, he did). Hoping to gain more votes from the Scottish, they returned the Stone of Destiny, or so some say that was the reason. But the reality is that in 1950, for a short time the Stone was in Scotland as well.
1950, some young (aged 23 or so) Scottish students decided that they would steal the stone. They felt that Scotland should have it back. They were not stealing it to keep for themselves, but to return to their people. On Christmas Eve they broke into Westminster Abbey and stole the stone, but they broke it into two pieces in the process. The smaller piece was driven back as fast as possible and was smuggled into Scotland. The larger piece was driven south and buried in a field. This was done because the Scottish - English borders were being closed and cars were checked. He then went back to Scotland and talked to a stonemason about rejoining the two pieces. The stonemason reminded him what results when you bury dry sandstone in wet soil.....and thus the young man returned (with some of his mates) to Dover. But when they arrived a group of Travellers (aka Gypsies) had camped out on the site. Several bottles of alcohol later and the Travellers moved their caravan to help dig up t he remainder of the stone, which was smuggled back to Scotland and adhered to it's smaller half. But now the stone had to be hidden, every couple of days it's location moved. The police began to catch on and the students decided to turn it in. They left it in a cathedral, imaging the press' reaction. Instead it was found by the minister, who called the police. 24 hours later it was back in Westminster Abbey. The students were never persecuted - afterall how could you justify the theft of something that was actually theirs.

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Location:Edinburgh, Scotland

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