Beneath a portion of Edinburgh’s Royal Mile lies a hidden labyrinth of narrow alleyways and abandoned dwellings. This “secret” underground world is a fascinating peek into 17th-century life. To understand why it exists, however, we first need to take a look at how the city of Edinburgh grew.
Edinburgh originated with a community of people that lived and worked outside the walls of Edinburgh Castle. As its population increased, the city spread east along the sloped stretch of road called the Royal Mile. Overcrowding eventually became a serious issue, but because a protective wall enclosed Edinburgh, residents were unable to expand the city outward. They had no other alternative than to build up. What resulted was a web of narrow alleyways called ‘closes’ that led off of the Royal Mile, and buildings that sometimes grew multiple stories high.
In the spirit of Halloween, I thought it would be fun to do a few blogs this month that highlight some of the weird, dark, and spooky stories of Edinburgh’s past. Edinburgh’s history is full of accounts of unsavory characters and macabre tales, each with the ability to intrigue and fascinate even the most dubious among us. It’s going to be a lot of fun to research and write about them for you.
To kick things off, I would like to introduce you to a man who inspired author Robert Louis Stevenson to write him famed 1886 novella, “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” That man was William Brodie. Or, as he is better known, Deacon Brodie.
I mean, how was I not to fall for her? She is everything that makes me happy. She’s sophisticated, unpretentious, cheerful, elegant, vibrant, charming, and just the sight of her causes my heart to beat a little faster. Simply put, she’s beautiful! I think it might be love. Okay, okay, I’m just being silly. A girl can have a little fun on a Friday morning, right?
Victoria Street, formerly called Bow Street until Queen Victoria took the British throne in 1837, was built during the early 19th century as part of Thomas Hamilton’s Improvement Act of 1827. The planned improvements were designed to transform the original road from a steep, narrow, Z-shaped street into a route that would provide much easier passage into the rest of the city. The redesign was particularly necessary for the carriages that had a challenging time managing the awkward hill.
This radical alteration in design meant that, sadly, most of the original medieval structures were lost forever. Most of what we see today is the result of 19th-century development. A few of the original buildings are still there, particularly at the foot of the curve where Victoria Street meets the Grassmarket.
I read somewhere that Victoria Street was J.K. Rowling’s inspiration for Diagon Alley. I don’t know if that is true or not, but I can see how some might think that. The narrow, curved, cobbled street, the stony upper buildings and terraces, and the brightly painted storefronts do seem to bear a striking resemblance to the one in Harry’s world. It’s certainly an interesting notion.
Victoria Street is arguably one of the prettiest and most photographed streets in Edinburgh. It is where new meets old in an eclectic mix of shops, restaurants, and pubs all set within this preserved picture of the past.
The wheels on American Airlines Flight 6404 gracefully departed the runway, and our plane rapidly ascended into the sky on the path towards home. Always a bit of a nervous flier, I tried my best to relax and breathe while our aircraft climbed ever higher. I leaned my head against my seat and decided to focus my mind on the wonderful memories of the previous two weeks.
Still ascending, our pilot banked a left turn. Mr. C quickly turned my attention to the window where I caught sight of the massive Forth bridges rising out of the water below. The floodgates opened as the realization set in that I was no longer in Scotland.
I stink when it comes to goodbyes. It makes no difference if the thing I’m goodbye-ing is a person or a place. My eyes will inevitably leak. And, of course, my cry is never a dainty, pretty cry. It’s quite the opposite. As someone who usually keeps her emotions in check, this snotty outburst always renders me red, puffy, and embarrassed. My tears on the flight that day were no exception.
Reader, I’m glad you are back! I am really enjoying writing this blog. Writing is such a fun hobby for me, and I feel privileged that you indulge me in sharing something I love. I hope you are having fun as well and are learning a little bit about Scotland. Thanks for popping by!
A few days ago, I gave an introduction to Edinburgh’s Grassmarket by telling you a tale of one of the most famed individuals ever to be associated with the area. Raise your hand if you remember her name. I’m kidding.
Her name was Maggie Dickson, i.e., Half-Hangit Maggie, and I’m sorry to say, she was not the only one who faced her mortality on those gallows.
Hello there! Pull up a chair. Today I am going to tell you a strange tale about a woman named Maggie Dickson who lived in Scotland in the 18th century. History remembers her better as Half-Hangit Maggie.
The story of Maggie Dickson began when her husband abandoned her. Forced to find work, she took a job at an inn in Kelso in the Scottish Borders, where she became involved with the innkeeper’s son. You can probably guess what happened next. Yes, Maggie became pregnant.
Because she did not want to jeopardize her job, she concealed her pregnancy. Unfortunately, the baby was born prematurely and died. In an attempt to further hide her ordeal, Maggie decided to place the lifeless little body in the nearby River Tweed. She was unable to go through with it, however, and instead left the wee one on the river bank. The baby was discovered, and Maggie’s secret was out.
Maggie Dickson was arrested and taken to Edinburgh, where she was tried and convicted for her crime. On September 2, 1724, Maggie hanged in Grassmarket. After being pronounced dead, she was placed in a coffin for transferral back to her home in Musselburgh.
Then something extraordinary happened. On the trip to Musselburgh, the travelers heard a banging coming from the inside of the wooden box. Just imagine their fright! Upon inspection, they discovered that Maggie was not dead, but was, in fact, very much ALIVE! The law ultimately deemed that it was God’s will that she survived the gallows, and Maggie Dickson went on to live another 40 years.
The legend of Maggie, ie. Half-Hangit Maggie continues to this day. I told you it was a strange one! If you fancy it, there is a pub named in her honor in Edinburgh’s Grassmarket where it all went down nearly three-hundred years ago. If you visit the pub, lift a pint to her spirit and cheers the woman who somehow, quite miraculously, managed to survive her own execution.
The Number 11’s brakes squealed and let out a whoosh as the bus jerked to a halt on Edinburgh’s busy Princes Street. The driver opened the door, and two people, who had never before crossed an ocean, now found themselves about to step out into the heart of Scotland’s capital city. Mr. C and I bubbled with anticipation. Excited about the day ahead, we climbed off of the red and white double-decker and took our first tentative steps onto the bustling street. Buses, cabs, cars, bicycles, pedestrians all were players in the well-organized chaos around us. Ahead, the Scott Monument-very Gothic, and very impressive-pointed sharply toward the sky. The squeal of a bagpipe cried in the distance. It was May, the weather was beautiful, and we had one destination in mind – Edinburgh’s Royal Mile.
A “Scots Mile” long, the Royal Mile is the beating heart of Edinburgh’s Old Town. It is a series of four connecting streets that begin on the west end at Edinburgh Castle and slope steadily downward to the east, ending at the Palace of Holyrood House.
There are 196 countries in this big world. So why Scotland? Well, it all began with a thumbnail. Not my own – I’m talking about the itty bitty image that appeared on my computer screen one night while I searched for vacation rentals.
For months, my husband and I had been bouncing around destination ideas for where to celebrate an upcoming milestone anniversary. We had considered several locations, such as Hawaii, the islands, Italy, and others, but we couldn’t seem to land on a decision. Because neither of us were seasoned travelers, we felt it was essential to get it right.
Then one dark winter evening, I was absent-mindedly perusing vacation homes on VRBO. Suddenly, a tiny image of a lovely stone manor house – a tower house, caught my attention. I clicked on the photo and discovered Pilrig House in Edinburgh, Scotland. Huh, I wasn’t even looking at listings for Scotland. Very strange! My interest was immediately piqued, so I took a closer look, which then led me to wander over to their web site. And as the woman said in When Harry Met Sally, “At that moment I knew. I knew the way you know about a good melon.” I sent a text to my husband, told him where we were going, and that was all she wrote!
Except that wasn’t all she wrote, for I had no idea at that time what kind of impression Scotland would make on me. I didn’t know that I would fall head-over-heels, or that it would be the beginning of many subsequent visits to come. Or that it would lead me to begin a blog! Scotland is much more than just a destination for me. It is my heart.
I have established this site as a creative outlet and as a place where I can share what I know about Scotland. I plan to use this space to take you through Scotland – to castles, gardens, churches, stone circles, and many other amazing historical sites. I will share my knowledge of whisky, occasionally make Scottish recipes, and even teach you a bit of history.
Readers, I can’t wait to get to know you and to share my plaid heart with you. Welcome! I’m so glad you are here.