I rode the LNER train from London to Edinburgh, almost five hours. The United Kingdom does a great job with their trains. They are pleasant to ride and have useful schedules, even now, during the pandemic. Passengers had to scan their tickets in order to enter the boarding area, so no conductors came around to check tickets. There were a few attendants in the area, available for any issues that might arise – confusion over seats or luggage or such.
I relaxed in my seat as scenes of England and Scotland moved past my socially-distanced window, leaving the suburbs of London, stopping at large villages, and passing rural scenery that looked “just like the pictures.”
I had reserved an AirBnB centrally located in Old Town. I arrived to find there was a mix-up, and my place already had a resident. Enterprising entrepreneurs have made a business of managing multiple vacation rentals through AirBnB, so there were options available. I was reassigned to a place on Simpson Loan, next to the University of Edinburgh, an upgrade from the place I had reserved, so no complaint about that. On a map, it looked to be a longer walk to visit places, but, as I have learned, Old Town is very compact and easily walked for most people. Being in a university area had its benefits, too, as there were several coffee places and a well-stocked Sainsbury’s (grocery,) to boot. My apartment overlooked an open, grassy area belonging to the building next door, and both buildings were adjacent to “the Meadows,” a large park with paths for bikes and pedestrians and playing fields for games of soccer or rugby.
The next morning, I followed a path, the Middle Meadow Walk, that led from the Meadows toward “the Royal Mile.” Along the path were a couple of old logs, and a sign. The sign said that these logs were water pipes.
Hard to believe in the middle of this rainy summer, but water in old Edinburgh was sometimes a problem. Maybe dry summers were more frequent then, because the sign said that the “draw-wells were frequently inadequate during dry summers.” People walked a long way out of town to get water. To remedy this, a reservoir was built at the top of Castlehill, and water was fed from there to various parts of Old Town (and later, New Town,) by way of underground pipes.
The first pipes were made of lead (!), but they became too expensive, they were heavy and hard to work with and maintain, so they were replaced by wooden pipes. Elm trees were used because they did not absorb much of the water. The logs were hollowed lengthwise with an auger, and then sharpened at one end to allow a tight fit when put together. By 1790, however, the wooden pipes were replaced by cast iron pipes, piping the water to a dozen masonry well-heads, five of which survive around Old Town, such as the one in Greenmarket.
Even this improvement was not perfect. People had to queue for their turn to get their daily water, sometimes late into the night. Well-off citizens would hire a “water caddy” to get a place in line for them and wait for a turn. Waiting at the well ended by 1822, when water was piped directly into the houses.
Middle Meadow Walk ended when it became Forrest Road, which carried car traffic and was lined with small shops. At the juncture of Forrest Road and Candlemakers Row, stands an old church, now known as “Bedlam Theatre,” closed for the time being because of the pandemic prohibition of crowded venues.
Across the intersection from the Bedlam is a statue of a small dog called “Greyfriars’ Bobby.”
According to local record, Greyfriars’ Bobby, a small dog, followed the remains of his master to the Greyfriars Kirkyard (“kirk” being the Scottish word for church) and stayed. The statue was donated, and pays tribute to the dog’s “affectionate fidelity,” lasting from 1858 to 1872, when the dog passed away.
The entrance to Greyfriars Kirk was next to the Greyfriars Bobby pub. I have always enjoyed a good graveyard, during the day time, at least, and the gate was open.
Many of my ancestors came from Scotland – Sinclairs, Alexanders, Johnstons, Kennons, and others – so I was on the lookout for familiar names. I didn’t find any that belonged to my family, but I found a few that appeared in the Harry Potter stories – McGonagall, Moody, Erskin. I thought it was an interesting coincidence, but when two young men stopped to ask me if I had seen the Tom Riddle headstone, I learned that J.K. Rowling apparently often walked through this particular kirkyard, so that the names were not just a coincidence. I wasn’t much help to the two looking for Riddle. I hadn’t seen Tom Riddle, but I was able to tell them where it wasn’t, because I had walked up and down the rows behind me, quite methodically.
Of course, from then on, I looked for Harry Potter names as well as my family names. For family, all I found was one man whose middle name was Sinclair. There were lots of given names “Alexander,” but none whose surname was Alexander, Johnston, nor anything else sounding familiar. For my family, the kirkyard was a bust, but I finally did find Tom Riddle. It was in the farthest corner, and it was “Thomas Riddell.” His son, also Thomas Riddell, was there, too. For an author making up a plot, it’s not a far stretch to reach “Tom Riddle,” a more mysterious iteration.
There were other things about the Greyfriars Kirkyard that were notable, too. One more “Harry Potter” thing, the inspiration for Hogwarts, supposedly: the George Hariot School. It can be seen from the back gate of the kirkyard.
The Greyfriars Kirkyard was also the location of the Covenanters’ Prison, rather ironic since the church was where the Covenant was signed, February 28, 1638, and one of the co-authors is buried there.
Religion and politics do not mix well, no matter what the century, it seems.
John Knox led the Scottish Reformation in 1560, based on the teachings of John Calvin. Mary I (Mary, Queen of Scots) disapproved because she was Catholic, but did not actively suppress the Reformation. When James VI gained the throne, and then the English throne in 1603 as James I, he was convinced that Presbyterianism was incompatible with monarchy. “No bishop, no king” was his belief, but rather than war, he used diplomacy. By the time he died in 1625, the Church of Scotland had bishops.
Charles I (later beheaded by Oliver Cromwell and his followers) was less diplomatic, and tried to force the Prayer Book of 1637, a slightly modified version of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, on the Church of Scotland. It caused riots, and precipitated the National Covenant, which protested the new prayer book and other liturgical innovations, setting those who signed the National Covenant in opposition to Charles I.
A thousand of those signers were put into the Covenanters’ Prison in the Greyfriars Kirkyard, defeated by Government forces at the Battle of Bothwell Brig. They were held for more than four months with no shelter, and only 4 ounces of bread per day.
Some prisoners died, some were tried for treason and executed, some escaped, and some were freed after signing a bond of loyalty to the Crown. Those who were persecuted and died under Charles I are memorialized by the Martyrs’ Memorial on the wall of the Kirkyard, and in the Greenmarket. In the longer arc of time, although the Covenanters lost the Battle of Bothwell Brig, they won the war.
After spending a couple of hours in the kirkyard, I continued walking along the main road, George IV Bridge Road. I passed The Elephant House, which had a sign in the window claiming it was the “Birthplace of Harry Potter.” It’s a cafe/coffee house, so I presume that means that J.K. Rowling spent time in there, writing her stories. They didn’t specify, nor was there anyone to ask – they were closed for the pandemic.
Further up the road, there was a road that turned downhill, lined with little shops, curving around as it wound downward. I spotted the small shops, and decided to explore.
It was Victoria Street. Merchants in Victoria Street are happy to proclaim that this street inspired “Diagon Alley” in the Harry Potter stories. There are even a couple of places that claim to have inspired specific stores in Diagon Alley. I was beginning to think that Edinburgh had developed their own version of “Washington slept here.”
Victoria Street morphs into Bow Street as it passes the curve, and ends in Grassmarket, where people once bought and sold horses and cows – Cowgate Street is adjacent to Grassmarket on the far side. Now, the grass is gone, and it’s covered in cobblestone, edged with pubs, cafes, and a couple of clothing stores.
The pubs and restaurants have put as many tables outside as they can, and they were filled. Tables outside don’t have to be as strict, but they are still at a distance of 1 meter. The tables inside are at a 2 meter distancing. People, including tourists, are required to wear face coverings indoors in most places. Obviously, eating establishments can’t require constant coverage, and hence the greater distance when people are in a confined space.
The Bee Hive Inn was where I waited for the “Literary Pub Tour” last Sunday evening. The upstairs of the pub allowed our group to spread out but still hear. The tour consisted of me, a three-person family from Birmingham, England, and two actors, both nice guys.
The two actors, who stated at the outset that they were actors not scholars, were our entertainment, and we had a grand time listening to them argue good-naturedly about the social and anti-social qualities of Sir Walter Scott, Robert Burns, and Robert Louis Stevenson, and reciting from their works. Their clear favorite was Robert Burns, and they performed works in English and in Scottish, which is not Gaelic, but rather English in the strong Scots dialect.
They were serious about not being scholars. As we walked from Grassmarket to Victoria Street, we passed the monument to the Martyred Covenanters. I asked one of the actors what the Covenant was about, hoping for some history on it, but he didn’t know what it was about, only that the spot was where many were hanged.
We ended at a pub – where else? – and had a glass as we answered some questions about Scott, Burns, and Stevenson, the “older generation,” and J.K. Rowling, part of the “new generation.”
Their scholarship notwithstanding, they were fun, their stories about the authors were humorous, and the family from Birmingham and I had a good time with them. Social distancing was the order of the evening, and the group was small to make that easier. I didn’t get to know the people from Birmingham at all – that kind of traveler collegiality is the victim of social distancing.
By this time, Old Town Edinburgh had worked its way into my imagination. It is utterly charming – narrow alleys, twisty cobblestone roads, and turreted stone buildings abound. It’s easy to see how Edinburgh added inspiration to J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter stories. I found myself thinking what life would be like if I was living here.
2 thoughts on “Edinburgh Casts Its Spell”
My dad (Mike Rutledge) sent me the link to your blog. Loved reading about the history you have learned about while you were in Edinburgh. My daughter is a huge Harry Potter fan and I will have her read this…she will find it very interesting!
I’m very glad that you enjoyed the blog, and I hope that your daughter will enjoy it, too! Mike has always encouraged my writing, which I appreciate. Thank you for your comments!