March 26, 2013
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Thoughts on Edinburgh

As a native of Scotland, having moved to Trilogy at Redmond Ridge just five short years ago, member Tom McKay offers some insight into just a few of the places you might visit if you head to Scotland’s capital city, and specifically, to the Royal Mile.  Several Trilogy members will be traveling to Scotland in 2013 – some with the Travel Club of Trilogy at Redmond Ridge, and others through the Trilogy-wide golf trip to St. Andrews.

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Being a native Scot, with my wife born in Edinburgh – and both of us having gone to school and college there – I thought I could offer some insight into just a few of the places you might visit if you head to Scotland’s capital city.  The stories behind what you see may be of more than passing interest, so I’ll share just a few of my favorite Edinburgh tales below.

Of course, as it’s the only city in the world with a castle right in the middle of downtown, a visit to Edinburgh is essential.  But the story of the Royal Mile, the street that is one-mile long and stretches between Edinburgh Castle and the Palace of Holyroodhouse, is worth the telling.

To understand the meaning behind the names “Royal Mile” and Holyroodhouse, you’ll need to know a little bit of history.  Scotland was a kingdom in its own right for thousands of years before the Union of the Crowns, which formed the United Kingdom.  We’ve had many kings and queens over the centuries.  One of our monarchs, King David I (1084 – 1183), told of an experience he had whilst hunting from the Castle.

This experience took place quite a long time ago, before there was a town – 1128, in fact – when the Castle stood in splendid isolation on the highest rock around, surrounded by pristine forest.  While hunting, King David got separated from his hunting party and retainers.  He said that a white stag appeared before him and startled his horse.  He fell to the ground and the stag attacked him. As the animal was about to deliver the deathblow, King David claimed that a hand appeared from heaven with a holy cross, from which the animal shrunk in fear and bolted.  At that moment, a legend was born.

His escape from death, with heavenly help, prompted King David I to decree that on that spot would be built the Abbey of the Holy Rood (as the old Scottish word for a cross was “rood”). This abbey was completely autonomous, but the Canons were required once a year to leave the abbey by the same gate and travel one mile to the castle to pay homage to the king; hence the “Royal Mile.”

The abbey prospered and was actively used until the 17th century. You can see the ruins of the Abbey of the Holy Rood today in the grounds of the Palace of Holyroodhouse, which is the present monarch’s official residence in Scotland.  For several centuries now, our kings have chosen to live in the Palace of Holyroodhouse, surrounded by parkland, rather than in the bleak Edinburgh Castle. Note that the section of the Royal Mile where the road meets the palace is to this day called Canongate (the Canons Gate). A remnant of the original gate is still there.

So, Holyroodhouse Palace and the Royal Mile are not named for the present Queen, but for one of our ancient kings. In fact, another Scottish king, King James IV, built the palace in 1501 after clearing the grounds close to the abbey.  An interesting historical side note is that the wife of King James IV was Margaret Tudor, sister of Henry VIII.

Now, as you leave the castle to head down the Royal Mile, at the first junction with George IV Bridge and the Mound (which is another story), there is a pub on the corner called Deacon Brodie’s Tavern.  This is a very famous pub named after William Brodie, who was a respectable tradesman (a cabinet maker) and Deacon (president) of the Wrights, which made him a member of the Town Council. Part of his job in building cabinets was to install and repair their locks and other security mechanisms and repair door locks.

But William Brodie had a darker side. By night he associated with the low life of the city.  He was a gambler who took to crime to pay his debts. He became a burglar and thief, using his daytime job as a way to gain knowledge about the security mechanisms of his clients and to copy their keys using wax impressions. As the foremost wright of the city, Brodie was asked to work in the homes of many of the richest members of Edinburgh society. He used the illicit money to maintain his second life, including five children, two mistresses who did not know of each other, and a gambling habit.

It’s interesting to note that, according to popular myth in Edinburgh, Brodie designed and built the first gallows. Unfortunately, myth also claims that he was the first victim of its use!  Brodie was turned in by an accomplice who wanted to avoid “transportation” after their failed attempt at an armed raid on the Excise house in the Canongate. “Transportation” was, of course, being sent to one of the Colonies, such as America. What a terrible fate!

Brodie was hanged at the Tolbooth on October 1, 1788, using a gallows he had designed and funded the year before.  According to one story, he wore a special “collar” to prevent the hanging from being fatal. Apparently, he bribed the hangman to ignore it and arranged for his body to be removed quickly in the hope that he could later be revived. This stunt didn’t seem to work, as Brodie was buried in an unmarked grave at the Buccleuch Church in Chapel Street.  Yet rumors persisted of his being seen in Paris after the execution.

Famous Scottish writer Robert Lewis Stevenson knew of the respectable Deacon Brodie and his dark alter ego.  Brodie had made furniture for Stevenson’s father.
Of course, by now you will have remembered that Stevenson was the author of The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde.  Undoubtedly his inspiration for the story was the real life Deacon Brodie.

Have a look at the murals outside the pub before you enter. If you talk nicely to the bar staff, they may still have a little leaflet to share with you.

In the short walk from the Castle to Deacon Brodies Tavern, you will have passed many more intriguing places, all with fascinating stories behind them. In fact, the nearest pub to the castle is The Ensign Ewart, named after Sergeant Charles Ewart, who single-handedly captured the standard (ensign) of the famous French Invincibles at the battle of Waterloo in 1815.  Then, there is Camera Obscura, where you can see the entire city projected onto a 20’ disk in a semi-darkened room.  Did I mention Lady Stairs House, built in 1662 and now the home of the Writers Museum, where you can see artifacts from some of Scotland’s most famous writers like Robert Lois Stevenson, Robert Burns & Sir Walter Scott?

Having walked passed all of this culture and history in no more than perhaps 500 yards, you can imagine what’s in store for the rest of the Royal Mile.  It’s no wonder that one famous writer described it as “The largest, longest and finest street for Buildings and Number of Inhabitants, not only in Britain, but in the World.

Finally, on a lighter note, if you just want a cup of tea, visit my sister.   She still lives in Edinburgh!