Getting to know Edinburgh, the Athens of the North

Getting to know Edinburgh, the Athens of the North

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…

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.

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

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

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.

Edinburgh at night, listening to scary tales

When we visit a city with so many stories as Edinburgh, it is well worth the time invested in learning a bit more. The city is gorgeous by itself, a great city to explore on foot and take hundreds of photos. But I also recommend a few walking tours. Some are paid, some are free. We did one of the free tours, and in the end we gave what we thought it would be fair, some give nothing…, but I don’t think it would be fair to do such a thing. This was the first time I visit a city this way, exploring Edinburgh at night.

Our experience was really interesting, our guide is an excellent storyteller, very theatrical and engaging. She even invited us to be part of some of her stories as props, which was a great way to break the ice and make everyone laugh. Of course, I was one of those volunteers.

During the whole tour she told us stories and tales of a city that once upon a time was the university capital of medicine sciences. A lot of discoveries and progress was made in the medicine field in Edinburgh, but a lot also due to some gruesome means.

Murders and grave robberies

Back then ethics was barely existent. The medicine students needed bodies to learn and practice, and the source of those bodies was completely irrelevant. Thanks to this lack of ethics, a parallel business model of murderings to provide bodies to the wealthiest students emerged. Murderings, grave robberies and who knows what else.

Somewhere in Edinburgh at night
Somewhere in Edinburgh at night

During the tour some specific stories were told, real or just myths? I am not sure. But one that I remember the best tells the story that wealthy people used to be buried with some of their valuables. Of course this would be of more value to the grave robbers, besides the bodies they could also profit with the belongings. One of those bodies that they tried to rob was of a rich woman, who had a ring too tight to her finger, therefore they decided to cut the finger to remove the ring…, of which the pain wakes up the poor woman. Who wasn’t dead after all!

Maggie the half-hangit

This is one of the best known stories of Edinburgh, and one that was told during the night tour. A “horror” story but with a happy ending, who doesn’t like stories like that?

Margaret Dickson, known as Maggie, was a woman convicted to death penalty for conceiving a baby outside the marriage, and for it to die.

Separated from her husband, Maggie needed to find a job and she started working at an Inn. The son of the owner of the Inn started fancying her, and soon after she got pregnant. To avoid jeopardizing her job she kept her pregnancy a secret. The baby was born too weak and with poor health, and a few days later it died.

Maggie, to protect her honor and job she couldn’t make a funeral to the baby, so she left it at the Tweed river. A few days later the baby was found, and Maggie became the main suspect.

On the 2nd of September, 1721, she was hanged by the crime of hiding a pregnancy. After being declared as dead, they placed her in a very cheap coffin, since she was from a poor family. Her hometown was about 6 miles from Edinburg, and they had to take the coffin to her hometown. With the movements of the wagon and the air that was going through the crafts of the cheap coffin, Maggie woke up, to disbelief off her whole family.

This miracle was considered as God’s forgiveness, therefore she was absolved of all crimes. Her husband reunited with her and took her back home. Maggie lived for another 40 years and had several legitimate children.

The people of Edinburgh admired her and called her by half hangit Maggie.

The last public execution in Edinburgh

The opinions regarding death penalties are quite polar, some agree for extreme cases, some are of the opinion that death penalty should never be considered. But regardless of in which side you are, the opinions regarding public executions tend to be unanimous. And some times, one needs a horror case to put an end to a show of death.

The last case of a public execution in Edinburgh was so horrifying that it is part of this city’s history, and one of the stories that are shared in this night tours through Edinburgh.

The life of George Bryce was uneventful. He was a person of humble origins, but with an issue with alcohol. Due to his job he met Isabelle, a young lady with whom he fell in love with. However the romance wasn’t approved by a close friend of Isabelle, whom recommended to put an end to the relationship due to George’s issue with alcohol.

Isabelle did what her friend suggested, and ended the relationship with George, to whom she told the reasons and who suggested it to her. Filled with rage George went to Seton’s workplace, Isabelle’s friend, and tried to strangle her in front of several witnesses that split him from her and immobilized George.

Seton ran away, but George managed to escape and catch her rifht in front of a house, where he slid her throat with a knife. George ran away, but he was caught the following morning without offering any resistance.

Due to how horrific the crime was, the story spread like wildfire, and of course with a few different versions. George knew that with so many witnesses that his trial would be clear, therefore he plead guilty to avoid certain death. However that was exactly what happened.

Edinburgh at night
Edinburgh at night

Despite the fact that back then the public hangings were not that common anymore, in this case hundreds got together to watch his execution. Rope around his neck, and the trapdoor opens. And he dies. But that wasn’t the case…

Due to some reforms, those convicted to death by hanging of crimes in Edinburgh were sent to other towns and cities, since there was no executioner in the city. So they hired someone to execute George, but they hired someone under-qualified at a cheaper rate.

It might sound odd, but qualifications to execute a person are in fact quite important. And in this specific case the lack of qualifications of this executioner lead to one of the most traumatic episodes of Edinburgh’s history.

The executioner didn’t take into consideration the required length for the rope so that the fall would result in a fast death. George was kept hanging for several minutes struggling with a rope around his neck, while the population was watching this horror scene.

A bit by bit, the opinion was changing. What started by eagerness to see someone who committed a horrifying crime paying with their own life, it became a general revolt to make someone suffer that much when it was supposed to be a quick death.

This episode dictated the end of public executions in Edinburgh.

The witch hunt

The witch hunt was one of the stories that they share in the night tours through Edinburgh. There was a time when the accusations of witchcraft were frequent. Any reason could be an argument to condemn someone for witchcraft, and many innocents were killed during this purge.

They shared with us some stories on how they would “prove” that the witches were innocence. With their thumbs tied to their ankles, they would be thrown to the lake. If they floated, then they would be condemn for witchcraft. Otherwise, they would be considered innocent. But of course, in both scenarios the person would end up dying, and there is no record of a person floating

Edinburgh was a really interesting experience, I discovered so much about such a beautiful city, and I learnt much more about a very dark past. A city I highly recommend to visit, and of course, make sure that you leave room to learn more about the secrets those charming streets hide…

By Gil Sousa

Portuguese expat in Cork, traveler and food enthusiastic.

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