Getting to know Edinburgh through stories

Sometimes, when I am too lazy to learn about the history of a place I’m visiting, I feel like travel is a bit wasted on me. I start to take all the buildings and streets for granted. There’s no meaning in them for me. Sure, at first when you begin traveling things are exciting just because they are foreign, different. But after seeing dozens of cities, everything starts to blur and becomes the same, and travel starts to lose its magic – just another old church, another train station, and so on.

But the thing is, every single little lamp post and corner shop and dirty staircase has its own story, which you can learn if you just make the effort to be curious. Stories are what makes places memorable, and what helps you connect to otherwise seemingly ordinary objects. Stories give things meaning. And learning them makes you a way better traveller! Edinburgh helped me remember the importance of traveling more meaningfully, through stories.

A frosty morning on Calton Hill.


The guilty feeling of being a crappy traveller creeped up on me when I was on a train from London to Edinburgh a few weeks ago. I hadn’t bothered to properly read up about Edinburgh’s history and had no idea what I was walking into (or, rolling into), or what I wanted to get out of it. Which makes it more difficult to be really excited about a place. I decided to make a last minute effort on the train, and read a few blog posts to the tune of ‘top 10 things to do’ and ‘must see..’. These were certainly helpful in preventing me from completely  missing out on the Edinburgh many people know and love, but still, wasn’t really enough to help me derive any meaning out of a seemingly random Edinburgh building!

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These steps, which take you up to Calton Hill, have caused many many deaths!

So I decided to learn as much as I could about the city while I was there – through tours. And I promised myself I’d actually listen to the tour guides instead of day dreaming. And what better way to make the trip memorable than by going on a tour of all the murderous and creepy things that went down in the city hundreds of years ago?

Well, turns out keeping me from daydreaming is really hard! So yes, of course, I learned so much fascinating stuff about Edinburgh. But the city is so wealthy in history, I wanted to keep learning. So here is a half-remembered, half-researched-after-the-fact recount of all the crazy fascinating yet disturbing stories of Edinburgh’s inhabitants, which still haunt today’s cobble stone streets and pubs.

This is cool to know before you go, so you can have a bit of perspective while you’re walking down the Royal Mile and peeking down random alleyways. Even better would be to take a walking tour, talk to locals, and ask millions of questions. Be curious!

Old Town from above.


Edinburgh had a dead body problem in the early 1800s

As in, people were stealing dead bodies from fresh graves, or ‘body snatching’. And Edinburghers  (yes, they really are called that!)  were also getting murdered so that their dead body could be sold to the university. Sounds really weird, but actually makes a lot of sense. Edinburgh was one of the major places to study anatomy, which required a steady supply of cadavers. These were limited, so desperate students and entrepreneurially inclined individuals started digging up recently buried bodies and selling them to the university for £7-£10 a pop. This seems like a serious crime, but actually, as long as you didn’t take any of the cadaver’s possessions (like jewellery and clothes), it wasn’t hugely punishable – because who are you stealing from if the owner of the body is already dead? The jewellery and clothes, however, supposedly belonged to the family.

The famous West Port murderers, William Burke and William Hare, took this hot market opportunity to a whole new level when they started murdering lodgers staying in Hare’s hostel in order to sell the bodies to a professor. It didn’t end well, and now Burke’s skeleton, ironically, lives in Edinburgh’s Medical School. The public has had limited access to Burke’s skeleton as well as the entire collection of artefacts from the Anatomy Department of the university over the last few years, but the university is offering a virtual tour through an app, so you don’t even have to be in Edinburgh to see it!

Caught this sunset view from our Airbnb flat entrance.


Lots of people were buried alive

Although Edinburgh was certainly one of the most advanced cities in the 1800s, it was still early days in the advancement of medical science, leading to many people being prematurely pronounced dead and buried alive. This was discovered when body snatchers would dig up graves to find fingernail scratchings on the inside of the coffins. Our tour guide told us a story of a woman waking up and screaming as two body snatchers were working on getting the rings she was wearing off her fingers. She apparently went on to live another 20 years!

Adam Smith was not buried alive, but he was buried in Edinburgh. Only economics geeks, like me, will appreciate this.


Up to 6,000 people were tried for witchcraft

Scotland has a frightening witch hunt past. There were several different waves of witch trials throughout 1500s and 1600s, with over 1,500 ‘witches’ executed. The last trial was in 1727. You can read more about it on Wikipedia, and can visit the sites of the disturbing hangings and drownings.

View of New Town from Calton Hill.


Many pub names have interesting stories behind them

I was delighted to find out that, in many cases, the names of pubs have much meaning behind them! For example, World’s End pub in Edinburgh’s Old Town, is apparently named that because it was once situated at the very edge of town, and since the journey to London or elsewhere was likely to be dangerous, it was sort of ‘the world’s end’ in a way. The pub at the grass market square (where public executions used to take place) is named after a woman who survived a hanging – Maggie Dickson. I’m sure there are loads more stories behind many more pub names.

Sunrise view from Calton Hill.


The most loyal dog in the world

On our Saturday afternoon tour we stumbled onto a ceremony for a dog. A crowd gathered, speeches were made, there was some ceremonious marching, and many brought their own pups!

Turns out it was the anniversary of the death of Greyfriars Bobby, a dog that came to sit by his late owner’s grave every single day for 14 years. Soon after the dog started doing this people caught on, made sure he was fed, and he was even made a citizen of Edinburgh. It’s a beautiful story of love and faithfulness!

These small little glimpses of life in Edinburgh back in the day helped me create a personal connection with the city. When I think back on my time in the city, I think of these details and they help me to recreate the feeling I had while I was there.

What about you? What kind of traveller are you and how do you establish connections with places you visit?


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