Getting to know Edinburgh, the Athens of the North

Edinburgh, the city of the dead

An adventure doesn’t have to be epic to be enjoyed, it doesn’t have to last for several months to have memorable stories to tell, and it doesn’t have to be shared with an old friend to feel absolutely comfortable. This trip to Scotland was one hell of a trip, filled with moments to remember and to try not to forget (this blog will certainly help to keep those memories alive).

This trip to Scotland was quite spontaneous, not much planned, but obviously Edinburgh had to be in the list of mandatory places to visit. We checked prices how to get there, and the capital of Scotland happened to be the cheapest option from Cork as well. The first thing we did was deciding where to stay, taking into account we would arrive by the end of the day, we decided to go with it. Then…, we only had to enjoy the city.

Besides the touristic thingies, I had also a personal goal of what to do in Edinburgh, and that was to meet an old friend I met in Greece. One of those friends who visit us countless times, in Portugal, in Ireland, and that we are really pleased to see them again. This time was my time to pay him a visit, it was a very pleasurable “had to“! We didn’t have much time to spend together though, one coffee the day after I arrived, and another one before my departure back to Cork.

National Gallery of Scotland
National Gallery of Scotland

Regarding the city, after breakfast we walked to the castle, where we ended up not getting in because we already had a tour booked and we assumed we would get inside the castle anyway. We wandered a bit through the historical center while we were waiting for out tour, so that we could also have an idea of what to expect.

Free tour through Edinburgh

At scheduled time we were at the meeting point, ready for our free tour! Our guide was really eloquent, he explained in detail some of the most important moments of Edinburgh’s history, which can be resumed to…, a lot of dead people…

Science, mostly medical sciences, have a really obscure past, most of what is known nowadays was due some not so good practices… The way medicine is practiced nowadays is way different from what it used to be just 50 years ago, and unfortunately thanks to those bad practices and experiences that they did.

In early XIX century, Edinburgh was considered the capital of medical studies, and a lot was discovered there, a lot was tried…, and a lot of dark things happened there too…

Getting to know Edinburgh, the Athens of the North
Getting to know Edinburgh, the Athens of the North

We were fed by real tales of stories that happen in the city, each stop a new story. One of those stories tells the last public execution in Edinburgh city, in 1864, of George Bryce. Our guide has the eloquence gift, sharing with us such an horrific story really made us tremble a bit, it is hard for me to image how killing someone was considered a kind of street performance, and this one went too far. By evilness or incompetence of the executioner, George instead of dying the moment the floor opens, he was suffering for over 40 minutes, because the length of the rope was badly calculated. Even the sadistic population thought that was too much.

But not all horror stories end badly, one good example is the famous story of Maggie Dickson (they even have a pub with that name), which was sentenced to death for killing her baby son, even though she always denied that and all the proofs were inconclusive, she ended up being hanged anyway. She was 30 minutes hanged, and according to the law, her body was then transferred to her town. On the way to her town, the cart driver who was moving her body heard some sounds coming from the back, he stopped to double check what was that sound, and Maggie was still alive! By then, this was considered as will of God, therefore they forgave her for the crime. Maggie lived 25 more years after her death

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Being in Edinburgh, obviously we would have to have section of the tour just for Harry Potter. Why? Because J. K. Rowling lived in Edinburgh, and wrote the first book in that city, most of the characters’ names were inspired in local people, and even some popular buildings and alleys in the book were also inspired by some streets in Edinburgh. One of those places is Greyfriears Kirkyard Graveyard, which is right a school that also inpired JK to create Hogwart’s. We walked around the graveyard and we were pointed at some tombs, the names engraved in those tombs were used as characters of the book itself, some of them well known by those who read the books or saw the movies, like Lord Voldemort. But for me, the best part of the graveyard was a less known story, of a dog…

Greyfriars Bobby, another legend-dog though not as known as Hachiko, is another great example of loyalty and how dogs are indeed a man’s best friend. According to the tales, Bobby spent about 14 years, until his death, always laying on the top of his owner’s tomb. Bobby died with 16 years, which means that a 2 years dog got so attached to his owner that he spent almost all his life on the top of a tomb…, if this is not loyalty… It is another story of death and graveyards in Edinburgh, but this one filled with love. Some years ago I was by Hachiko’s statue, and this time I saw Bobby’s, a story that at that point was totally unknown to me. It is great to know that animals also have these kind of homages.

Regarding the free tours, there are two things you should know, first they are not entirely free, these people spend their time to prepare these stories, and they spend even more time to share them with us. They need to have really good people-skills, they need to know how to deal with different kind of people and to keep their customers always happy. In the end of the tour, we give them some symbolic amount of money for the work they did, and it is up to each one of us how much to give. Of course some people don’t give anything…, but well… Regarding this tour, I loved his sense of humor which reminded me a lot the Irish personality and the way they make fun of the English, the Scottish also have history with them, and they don’t lack jokes towards that. It was a really pleasant and interesting tour, filled with culture and humor.

After our tour, we went for another walk, to the National Gallery, where we spent a good while to enrich our soul with art. We saw art from some of really known artists, I guess we spent around two hours inside, and from there we went to the garden right next to the galleries to rest a bit. It was a really tiresome day, a lot of walking, and that was just the first day, more up to come.

By Gil Sousa

Portuguese expat in Cork, traveler and food enthusiastic.

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