There has been a stronghold on Castle Rock for millennia, and some parts of Edinburgh Castle are said to date back to the year 1000. The Abbey at Holyrood, at the end of the ‘tail’ of the volcanic plug, was founded in the twelfth century.
A thriving community grew between the two down the street which is variously Castlehill, Lawnmarket and the High Street, and is better known as The Royal Mile. In the 1400s city walls were built around Edinburgh to defend it against English invaders and with a growing population, but confining walls, Edinburgh began to build up – and to dig down.
Pastures which have now become the Princes Street Gardens were flooded to create a loch so that the city had all the water it needed. As housing pressure rose, a rabbit warren of cellars in the soft sandstone under buildings extended deeper and linked ever further with time. It wasn’t a healthy place to live, but it was shelter when there wasn’t any other option, and very close to what was then the heart of the city.
In the 18th century the fouled loch was drained and the ‘new’ Edinburgh we see today, owing a great deal to Georgian architecture and particularly to Robert Adam, rose to become one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Princes Street replaced the Mile as the new heart of the city and the old town became a near ghetto, crowded conditions leading to plague and cholera, and criminal mayhem - body snatchers Burke and Hare operated in this huddle of narrow alleys and crammed buildings.
Out of sight, almost out of mind - Edinburgh’s “basement” was virtually forgotten for decades, although the brave and the bold still explored and a kind of alternative tourism - visitors in hard hats with, probably, nerves of steel! - kept it unforgotten. That’s all changed relatively recently. Old buildings still surviving from that period are now carefully restored and maintained and some old closes have been re-opened to the public. Most famous of these is the Mary King’s Close, which interleaves with the Pearson, Stewart and Allen’s Closes. It is said Mary Queen of Scots spent her last night in Scotland in Stewart Close on her way to imprisonment and death in England, and her dress, with its wide fashionable hoops, brushed both sides as she made her way along the street.
Going underground in the Old Town is a vivid recreation of the city’s life as far back as the 16th century, and such a tourist attraction that exploration and excavation remains ongoing around the area known as the Royal Mile. When I first went down it was eerie in the extreme, exploring houses that had been abandoned for well over a century, or venturing into the close itself to wince up at a distant ‘sky’ which was the underneath of a bustling city street. The lighting was flickering faux gas lights, and I noticed the gleam of eyes in the heavy shadows - the rats were said to be the size of cats, back then - and could hear the faint ghostly cries of street sellers shouting their wares as though they were still there, walled up a street or two away, for all eternity - phew.
My daughter insisted on dragging me down again a few years ago, and this time tours spent much more time in the houses, with only a quick visit into the close itself - perhaps I wasn’t the only visitor who promptly went weak at the knees with claustrophobia!
Now you spend only as long in the close itself as is necessary to take a photograph - don’t let the lighting put you off, you aren’t groping round in the dark! As you can see in the photograph, it’s quite a wide street, with the best addresses at the top, for good reason. The only voice from the past now is distantly shouting ‘gardyloo!’ as the night’s slop bucket is emptied to run down the street to the loch at the bottom …
About author E J Lamprey
She has been variously a book reviewer on a city paper, a columnist in a national magazine, a copy-editor and critiquer, a commercial blogger and a reporter on a country newspaper, usually alongside more conventional jobs, using her maiden name, her married name, or Lamprey, which is just one of the four names with which she was lavishly endowed at birth, and the one she likes the most.
Writing a series of cheerful whodunits set in a Scottish retirement village is her favourite occupation, but a secret passion for SF led to a couple of books appearing under the name Joanna Lamprey. Quite recently the research into singles websites that started with the third Lawns book spawned another book, this time under the tongue-in-cheek name Clarissa Rodgers-Briskleigh.
One thing all the books share is the celebration of being no longer young, yet quite definitely not yet old. It is nature's unexpected and welcome gift, a burst of autumn sunshine and energy, and although that wasn't the original intention, all the books celebrate it to the full.
The Grasshopper Lawns books
Seven Eight Play It Straight
In Seven Eight Play It Straight Edge’s actress stepdaughter is performing in a successful Fringe show during the Edinburgh Festival. Long-standing hostilities are set aside when a violent and bloody murder strikes all too close to home, but the temporary truce doesn’t last after Fiona accuses Edge of the murder.
Excerpt: ‘Well, I think he’s pretty keen on you, so don’t marry him unless you love him. You can’t carry on doing that to people.’
‘That’s an odd comment.’ Edge, who had been looking for her Kindle in her handbag, looked up, surprised.
‘Not at all. I resented you when Daddy married you, because he made such a fool of himself doting on a wife half his age, but I hated you after you married Alistair.’
‘Oh, Fiona. That was so long ago! To be honest, if Alistair had thought you and he would make a go of it, he’d never have joined that introductions club.’
‘I didn’t mean that.’ Fiona drummed her restless fingers on the train table and looked mulish. ‘You let Daddy love you. If you had once—once!—looked at him the way you used to look at Alistair, he’d have been a happy man. I hated that he loved you so much, and you were just a gold digger.’
‘That’s extremely unfair. I loved James, and he was happy. We were both happy. Anyway, how on earth do you know how I looked at Alistair?’
‘Oh, we had a detective following you, Jamey and I, when we were trying to break the tontine. All water under the bridge now, but I’ve got photos of you gazing at each other. I can dig them out and send them to you, if you’d like.’ Fiona glared out the window at the scurrying countryside. ‘Anyway, that’s why I hated you. Not only for taking Alistair from me, but for loving him so much more than you loved Daddy. I don’t think you love him, and I’m just saying you can’t carry on marrying people because it suits you at the time.’
‘I’ll keep that in mind,’ Edge said coolly. ‘In the meantime, I’m going to read my book until we get to Edinburgh.’ She opened her Kindle and pretended to read but the words danced meaninglessly in front of her angry eyes. How dare Fiona deliver her unasked and unwanted opinions? She glanced up briefly and saw that her stepdaughter was still staring out the window, her cheeks wet with tears.