Hidden Edinburgh - Seek and ye shall find
Written by David Whitley
Edinburgh is a city that tends to inspire instant love. The Castle, World Heritage-listed Georgian architecture, and an internationally revered cultural scene make it very easy to click with. But venture beyond the obvious, and thousands of secrets unveil themselves...(all images courtesy of visitscotland.com)
Veering off the George IV Bridge to nosily amble down Candlemaker Row is a decision based on pure whim. But it’s rare for such fanciful detours not to bear fruit in Edinburgh. The cobbled descent is flanked by the sort of one-offs that make the Scottish capital so rich for the habitually inquisitive. Ramen restaurant Tang’s stands next to designer knitwear store Joyce Forsyth. The Little Ox art shop and Deadhead Comics line up opposite Transreal, a bookshop specialising in fantasy novels.
At the bottom of the hill, a right turn leads to the dead-end created by the supporting pillars of the bridge’s arch. Yet light twinkles behind an iron railing, leading down wooden steps into one of Edinburgh’s ubiquitous semi-hidden basements. The fairy-lit bar-restaurant hybrid, fittingly called Under The Stairs, packs in a fish tank, roaring fire, and DJ decks amongst the armchairs and fabulously prepared plates of spiced monkfish.
Edinburgh’s Old Town is, to use the technical town-planning term, an absolute mess. It’s a beautiful one, but it defies all logic. Given a blank sheet of paper, not even the most warped surrealist would come up with something so preposterously all over the place. Layers of history have piled up on top of each other around the Royal Mile, the backbone that stretches from Edinburgh Castle to the Palace of Holyroodhouse. Steep stairs plunge into urban gullies, tiny doorways lead into peaceful courtyards, and narrow closes hide all manner of unexpected treasures.
Monteith’s Close hides Monteith’s, long a local favourite for contemporary Scottish cuisine. Venture into Paisley Close, and there’s the Celtic Craft Centre, where in-shop sewing machines make the kilts on sale and visitors with Scottish bloodlines research their ancestry. The Scottish Poetry Library hides down Crichton’s Close, and the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it Dunbar’s Close leads through to a garden that has been faithfully primped to look as it would have done in the 17th century. A map amongst the hollyhocks, native ferns, and rowan trees shows how the Old Town looked in 1647. Such gardens were once commonplace, before many were sacrificed to a population boom and building free-for-all.
Many of these closes are now underneath the City Chambers building, the City of Edinburgh Council’s grandly pompous home. The Real Mary King’s Close is now part of that subterranean warren, and guided tours head down there to give an insight into what life was once like in the densely packed tenement buildings around it.
That life, it seems, wasn’t very pleasant. In one bare, medium-sized room, we’re asked to guess how many people would sleep there. Grimly, the answer’s 10 to 12. “There were no beds, either,” explains the guide. “Just straw and packed earth.”
The smell wouldn’t have aided the pursuit of a good night’s sleep either, she continues. “There was little natural light, so lamps would be lit with cheap animal fat or fish oil. And you see that bucket in the corner?” We know what’s coming, so move on.
Perhaps unsurprisingly given these conditions, disease was also rife. In 1645, the plague arrived, killing 50% of the people who lived there.
It’s all fascinatingly gruesome, but every room in every house has its own story to tell. And Edinburgh has long been a city that thrives on stories. Its almost unmatched literary pedigree includes Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Ian Rankin, and JK Rowling. Down another close, many of the paving stones in Makars’ Court feature quotes about the city from various authors. It’s also home to the Writers’ Museum, which delves into the lives of the three writers most associated with the city.
The sections on Robert Burns and Sir Walter Scott focus very much on their Scottishness and the part they played in reawakening Scottish national pride, but Robert Louis Stevenson has a more magnetic, universal draw.
The man behind Jekyll and Hyde and Treasure Island was a complex, sickly character – and it seems he had a love–hate relationship with his home city. He loathed the climate and rebelled against its ‘middle-class manners’, but he could still vividly recall the places from his youth while writing his last works in Samoa, the Pacific speck where he died at the age of 44.
It’s the little titbits of unexpected information that stick in the memory – his wife’s comment that he never cut his hair while he was ill, and that you could tell how sick he was in a photo from the length of it; the fact that he went to university as a compromise to keep his father happy when all he wanted to do was write; the knowledge that the London of Jekyll and Hyde was largely based on Edinburgh’s closes.
Yet more steps lead down towards the Princes Street Gardens, the vast public space that connects the Old and New Towns. Again, they hide a secret – the parklands were built on top of the Nor Loch, the lake into which all the waste from the tenements would be swept. It’s fair to say that the sprawling green space, dotted with monuments and statues, is an improvement.
At the other end, the New Town is almost the diametric opposite of its older counterpart on the hill. The planning is rigorous and uniform, with handsome Georgian sandstone buildings lining every street and circle. Yet similar rules seem to apply – cafés, comedy clubs, and cake shops furtively huddle down stairs in the basement levels, an unpromising side lane off Rose Street reveals an excellent Californian restaurant called Calistoga, and an office building on South Charlotte Street has a small plaque on the side. I stop to read it, and it turns out to be the house where Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone, was born.
A familiar phrase runs through the brain again: “I didn’t know that before.” It may as well be Edinburgh’s motto. For those with open eyes, an eagerness to read every plaque or engraving, and a willingness to dip through unpromising-looking archways, the stories and quirky knowledge come in floods.
Edinburgh has a habit of giving its old buildings a new lease of life. Many hotels, restaurants, and cultural hubs were once something very different. Opened in 1902, The Balmoral hotel (1 Princes Street, +44 131 556 2414, roccofortehotels.com) was originally a grand Victorian railway hotel known as the North British, and later renamed The Balmoral, meaning ‘majestic dwelling’ in Gaelic.
The Hotel du Vin (11 Bristo Place, +44 844 736 4255, hotelduvin.com), meanwhile, is somewhat maze-like inside. Even if not staying there, it’s worth going for a look at the mural of infamous local bodysnatchers Burke and Hare on the back wall of the main meeting room. But it was once Edinburgh’s lunatic asylum – and poet Robert Ferguson, a key inspiration for Robert Burns, is among the former inmates.
Next to the Hotel du Vin is the student-run Bedlam Theatre, which has an excellent reputation for producing new work. It’s quite a venue, though – the theatre is inside what was once the neo-gothic New North Free Church.
It’s not the only church conversion either. The Hub, the rather unmissable information centre for the Edinburgh festivals at the top of the Royal Mile, is inside one too.
21st Century Kilts
Edinburgh has no shortage of shops wishing to sell you tartan, but the coolest kilts in town are made by Howie Nicholsby of 21st Century Kilts. Defiantly non-traditional, he uses fabrics such as leather to give his version of Scottish traditional dress a hip, modern twist. Star clients include Vin Diesel, Richard Branson, and Russell Crowe.
48 Thistle Street, +44 131 220 9450. 21
When The Kitchin (78 Commercial Street, +44 131 555 1755, thekitchin.com) opened in 2006, its eponymous owner-chef became the youngest recipient of a Michelin star. With experience under French master Alain Ducasse, Tom Kitchin is a zealous champion of seasonal Scottish produce. He’s since taken his nature-to-plate philosophy to Castle Terrace (33 Castle Terrace, +44 131 229 1222, castleterracerestaurant.com) in the Old Town and the less formal, more gastropub-esque Scran and Scallie (1 Comely Bank Road, +44 131 332 6281, scranandscallie.com).
Every August, Edinburgh becomes the comedy capital of the world as the raucous Edinburgh Fringe Festival takes over venues across the city. But the city is also home to The Stand, arguably the most respected comedy club in the UK. Owner Tommy Sheppard is much beloved by comics internationally, and his cabaret-style club pulls in consistently good line-ups every night.
5 York Place, +44 131 558 7272.
Eat Walk Edinburgh
Eat Walk Edinburgh guide Alan Chalmers has adeptly combined historical knowledge, interesting stories, and eateries that most visitors wouldn’t find on their own for his multi-venue foodie walking tour. Expect to try haggis inside a private-members’ whisky club and dessert in a huge folk music venue.
+44 7740 869359, eatwalkedinburgh.co.uk
Distance: 5532 km
Flight Time: 5 hours, 15 minutes
Frequency: 5 flights a week