If you’ve been to Edinburgh, then it’s very likely you’ve been to the Royal Mile. It’s right smack dab in the heart of the city and it’s where most tourists flock to, evidenced by the abundance of souvenir shops called things like ‘Thistle do nicely’. If I’m quite honest, it’s an area that many locals (myself included) tend to avoid, especially during the Edinburgh Fringe Festival when it’s full to the brim with actors in face paint or wigs or funny costumes asking you to please please please come see their show (I’ve been one of those actors too, by the way). All this to say: I don’t hang out on the Royal Mile too often.
But when my friend Alan, who I know from the Georgian House, offered to take me on a private historical tour through the ‘hidden’ aspects of the Royal Mile, I jumped at the chance. Turns out, there was a lot I didn’t know about this famous street.
Like, first of all, that it’s actually five street combined. It’s called the Royal Mile because it’s a mile long and it LOOKS like one road, sloping down from Edinburgh Castle to Holyrood Palace. It’s called ‘Royal’ in reference to those two royal sites. But one of the first things Alan mentioned was that it’s a combination of several streets. We started at the top, near the castle itself, at the part where the street changes from ‘Castlehill’ to ‘Lawnmarket’.
Much of the Royal Mile today is stone, but in medieval times there was much more wood and it actually looked more like The Shambles in York, if you’re familiar with that famous street. But a lot of the wood rotted away or was torn down apparently.
One of the coolest things about doing our walk down the street on this rainy day in Edinburgh was that the street was very atmospheric. ‘Dreich’ is the Scottish word for it. Drizzly. Dreary. Bleak. Gray sky to match gray buildings. But with Christmas lights twinkling cheerfully in shop windows and on the street. Here’s nearby Victoria street looking very festive.
Our tour took us down many of the ‘closes’ as they’re called – which are narrow alleyways leading often to courtyards. The closes are frequently named after whoever used the own them and the courtyards and closes themselves can vary quite dramatically. Some are cramped and narrow, from the 1600s or even earlier, and others are wider, more stately Georgian ones like this one: James Court.
James Court also had a lovely and unusual little statue memorial for a woman called Susannah Alice Stephen, who was a landscape designer who sadly died in her 30’s in a diving accident. The sculpture is of a bird in a gardening basket, which I found very sweet.
In nearby courtyard, you’ll find the Writer’s Museum (which I’ve never been to, actually!) which celebrates the lives of 3 great Scottish writers: Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson. Maybe I should visit there for a ‘Madeira Mondays’ post in the future!
And speaking of Robert Louis Stevenson, we also saw Brodie’s Close, named after the Brodie family. Deacon Brodie was an unusual guy: upright citizen by day and burglar by night. He was the inspiration for Stevenson’s novella: The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde!
Carrying on down the mile, Alan pointed out the statue of a fascinating Edinburgh fellow I’d never heard of called James Braidwood (1800-1861). He was a fireman who totally revolutionized the way that fires were fought in the UK in the 1800s. Alan told me about how he built houses and insisted on hiring builders to become fireman – people who were trained to understand how buildings worked. He emphasized getting to the source of the fire – not just throwing buckets of water from the outside. Apparently, Braidwood was also very concerned with the safety of the fireman and introduced some of their protective gear like their distinctive hats. He also always made sure that this men were safe and would go back into buildings looking for them.
He was so successful that he was eventually head-hunted to go down to London to modernize their fire department. But sadly, while he was there, he ran back into a burning building to try to find one of his men and he was killed by a falling piece of rubble. I’d never heard of this guy before, but he had such an interesting story and I think someone needs to go ahead and make a movie about him.
Alan told me so many similar stories, of the unsung heroes of Edinburgh’s past: including one about a woman who became a Doctor and ran a hospice (aka hospital) for poor women in the 1890’s on the Royal Mile. Her name was Elsie Inglis. He even showed me where her hospital was.
That was one of the most special things about Alan’s tour: he brought along photos of how the city used to look through different time periods, and would hold up the photos so I could see the difference. It was almost like seeing ghosts: all of these long gone people, who were photographed looking out of the same window that I was staring at now. Images of children, of women out doing their shopping or catching the bus. In many cases, the buildings looked similar. In some, they’d changed a great deal.
We ended our tour at The World’s End Close, which is where the old city of Edinburgh actually DID end. There’s a famous pub there which is quite nice, but we opted for a hot chocolate instead at The Storytelling Centre across the street.
Alan has been perfecting his Edinburgh knowledge for decades and it was a real privilege to get to see the city with someone so knowledgable and passionate about its history.
So thanks to Alan for his tour and thank YOU for reading and taking this little walk down the Royal Mile with me.
‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring 18th century history and historical fiction. Follow the blog for a new post on the first Monday of each month.
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