Chambers at Large in Edinburgh, Scotland: Discovering the Arts and the Macabre

Edinburgh has a very dichotomous history. One the one hand scientists, writers and artists are celebrated for their works, whilst on the other, there are some rather gruesome characters who are remembered for their nefarious exploits.

View of Edinburgh's New Town

Two famous writers who were born in Edinburgh are Sir Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson, famous for Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. A statue to Sir Walter Scott, who wrote the magnificent Ivanhoe, is a focal point in the New Town. His white marble statue is housed in a gothic monument which is slowly becoming blacker and blacker. Made of Binny sandstone efforts to clean it have been in vain, but it is an impressive sight on the main shopping area of Princes Street.

Just off the Royal Mile in Edinburgh is the Writer’s Museum which pays tribute to Scott, Stevenson and Robbie Burns, known for the song sung on New Year’s Eve: Auld Lang Syne. He is celebrated around Scotland and I found, by chance, rooms in which he once resided.

I spent a pleasant hour learning a little more about these writers and Edinburgh is still the locale for more modern novelists. Ian Rankin set his Rebus series in the city and Victoria Street is said to be the inspiration of Diagon Alley where J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter bought his first wand and supped butterbeer.

Victoria Street, aka Diagon Alley

Edinburgh is also setting for several true stories including that of Greyfriar’s Bobby, a dog who loyally stayed by his owner even after his death. He is said to have sat by his owner's graveside until his own passing. His statue is believed to bring good luck to anyone who touches his nose, but this myth was created by a tour guide several years ago and hands constantly touching the statue is causing damage which may result in the removal of the statue to a museum. I was asked to spread the rumour that touching the dog brings bad luck which makes far more sense as thousands of hands touching a statue every hour of every day is bound to spread unwanted germs.

Scotland hasn’t only been the birthplace of writers but of doctors and medical practitioners. There are a few museums dedicated to the marvellous feats of these men and women, however the history of medicine has a dark past as anatomists have had need of cadavers to dissect in order to discover how the human body actually works. In days gone by anatomists, medics and doctors would pay for a fresh body and the lucrative crime of grave robbing meant that cemeteries were guarded, the watchmen paid by bereaved families.

Tower where watchmen would guard the graves of the recently deceased.

In the early 1800s William Burke and William Hare decided to simply kill men and women and sell their victims to the anatomists, rather than rob the graves of the dead! It is believed they killed at least sixteen people before they were caught and their gruesome story reverberates around the Old Town which is awash with veiled alleyways and concealed laneways where crime was once rife.

William Hare saved himself from the noose by testifying against his partner in crime, but Burke was hanged and his body later, possibly justifiably, dissected. It is somewhat ironic that great strides were made in medicine due to body snatching and I cannot help but think those who bought the bodies from Burke and Hare must have suspected foul play but chose to turn a blind eye in the advancement of medical science.

In the Scottish National Museum I learned that the guillotine was not a French invention as I have believed for years. A precursor to the beheading machine used during the French Revolution stands tall in the museum and is ironically entitled The Maiden. Used in Edinburgh between 1565 and 1710 it took pride of place in several locations around the city as the machine could easily be dismantled. Executions were once a very public affair and I could easily imagine throngs gathering in Grassmarket and Castlehill, part of the Royal Mile.

On a lighter note a trip to the National Gallery allowed me to see one of Scotland’s iconic paintings: The Monarch of the Glen by Edwin Landseer. It is a fabulous oil painting of a stag reigning over the Scottish landscape. Unfortunately I didn’t see such a beast when I took a trip out of the city, but the countryside is magnificent which I will describe in my next blog. Meantime, I’m pondering whether to send my heroine of the TREE SERIES, Frieda Keeler, to Edinburgh to solve a murder, not committed by Burke and Hare, but by some equally warped individual.

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