I had the pleasure of getting a fantastic VIP city tour by Mercat Tours, along with a group of Edinburgh’s bloggers and photographers. Mercat Tours provides quality experiences and brings history alive around Edinburgh’s Royal Mile and Blair Street’s Underground Vaults, find out more www.mercattours.com/
We got to see the old and the haunted of Edinburgh’s Royal Mile from closes, the narrow streets between tenements, which the Royal Mile is filled with from Edinburgh Castle right down the High Street, to some of the city’s famous individuals and of course the Underground Blair Street Vaults.
Our city tour started by the impressive ‘Mercat Cross’, which stands across from the beautiful St Giles Cathedral, also known locally as the High Kirk. The point where in the olden days the merchants would meet to trade and exchange news from around the City and local area. In this location visitors to Edinburgh would come to this spot to find a guide, which is the reason we follow in the footsteps of them. We were joined by our guide Alex of Mercat Tours, who was appropriately dressed in a long black cloak and with his long hair, he looked the part of a historian of our city.
We then headed to St Giles www.stgilescathedral.org.uk/ for a view of the amazing external carvings, in particular the ones you will find at the West Door. The Cathedral itself dates back to 1130, although much of the exterior changed in the 1800’s. By then a lot of old and new Tollbooth’s (prisons) had been built in the square directly to the west of St Giles. A large proportion of the renovations in the late 1800’s were in fact paid for by the local publishers Robert Louis Stevenson and William Chambers.
Directly outside the West Door you will see the ‘Heart of Midlothian’ next to the road. This was one of several sites within the city where public executions would take place. These days, visitors to Edinburgh will often notice people spitting on the Heart. A tollbooth stood on the site, where executions used to take place. The heart marks its doorway: the point of public execution. Some people spit on the Heart. Although it now said to be done for good luck, it was originally done as a sign of disdain for the former prison. The spot lay directly outside the prison entrance, so the custom may have been begun by debtors on their release.
We continued west along the High Street and reached the point where the last public execution took place in June 1864, of murderer George Bryce. This is opposite the High Court Building and a statue of David Hume, who is known worldwide as a historian and the world’s greatest philosopher (1711-1776).
Next we headed back east along the Royal Mile to the statue of Adam Smith, who was also a philosopher and a pioneer of political economy. We worked with David Hume, but also travelled throughout Europe where he met many leaders of his day (1723-1790)
One of the most iconic and photographed closes along the Royal Mile.
North Foulis’ Close
The origin of the name is from John Foulis who owned a tenement in the close. The shop of James Gillespie of Spylaw was located in this spot. He was in the tobacco and snuff business and earned the reputation of being the man who ‘put his business into other people’s noses! You will notice on the brass figure of him that his nose is enhanced to show his trade. Mr Gillespie was also the founder of the James Gillespie Hospital and School (1726-1797)
On 24 November, 1861, the 250 year-old houses at 99 and 103 High Street, on the Royal Mile, collapsed. 35 of the occupants were killed but as the debris was being cleared away, a young lad was heard to shout out from within the collapsed building “Heave awa’ lads, I’m no deid yet”. Joseph McIvor is commemorated by a sculpture over the entrance to Paisley Close inscribed with his famous words.
Outdoors it was getting dame a windy and our final stop was the famous John Knox House on the Royal Mile and what an impressive building. The medieval building dates back to 1470 and is often associated with one of the most dramatic and turbulent times in Scottish History – The Scottish Reformation – which resulted in the outbreak of civil war and the abdication of Mary, Queen of Scots. Although given the name, John Knox in fact only stayed in the house for a short period prior to his death in 1572.
Next we entered the Underground Blair Street Vaults. Below the South Bridge, which has linked Edinburgh’s Royal Mile with the Southside for over 200 years, you will find 19 enormous arches which support the bridge, in these arches are vaulted chambers, linked by a network of passageways. Visiting these you will find out why they were build and also about the people who lived there and the conditions in which they stayed.
When we visited we saw rooms like the Wine Vault to the White Room, which is the most ‘haunted’ of them all!
A big thank you to Alex for an amazing tour and I thoroughly enjoyed the visit to this part of the city.