Payne Odom Genealogy Library Family Tree
The Family Tree -
Facts about Edinburgh
EDINBURGH has witnessed some
momentous events over the centuries – but there is plenty your
history classes never told you about: the best cure for baldness in
the city in the 17th century, or why a bunch of medieval
monks went on strike, for example. And they certainly never
explained where the famous phrase "You’ll have had your tea" comes
from. So, in an effort to bring alive some of the quirky events,
tales and myths of Edinburgh, writer Jim Hewitson has pulled them
together in a collection called Astonishing Scotland! A Cheeky
Thesaurus of Scottishness. Here are 50 of the most peculiar facts
about our capital city.
Romantics may believe that Rose
Street was named after the wild roses on the slopes above the
North Loch (now Waverley Station). But Rose Street is commonly
used to describe red-light districts of European towns, and to
"pluck a rose" was a common euphemism for picking up a prostitute.
The ironic Edinburgh greeting
"You’ll have had your tea?" is said to have originated with a
nobleman, Mackintosh of Borlum, who in 1729 complained of the
widespread habit of tea-slurping. When out visiting, he had to
confirm that he had already had his tea so that he could get a
glass of beer instead.
One of the most popular cures
for baldness in the 17th century Edinburgh was the
application of the burnt ashes of dove’s dung.
The first animal to be bought by
Edinburgh Zoo was a gannet, which cost 18p and now appears on the
crest of the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland.
Potholes are not a new
phenomenon. In fact, the rough, potholed streets of Edinburgh in
the 16th century meant there were only nine hackney
carriages in the city, whereas there were 188 public sedan chairs
and 50 owned privately by well-off families.
In 1571, the Scottish Parliament
earned the nickname the "creeping parliament," as when it met in
the Canongate it came under fire from Catholic guns above them on
the Castle rock, and members had to go about their business on
their hands and knees.
When the bells of St. Giles in
Edinburgh rang out to signal the Union between Scotland and
England in 1707, the dubious melody was "Why should I be so sad on
my wedding day?"
The first recorded instance of a
Scottish industrial dispute comes in the annals of the medieval
monks of Inchcolm Abbey in the River Forth, who downed their
psalters (book of psalms) because of the abusive behavior of the
A full-scale model of Edinburgh
Castle, used in the late 1990s when the Capital’s Tattoo visited
Wellington, is still in storage in New Zealand.
One of the ancient and odd
privileges of the doorkeepers at the Court of Session in Edinburgh
is to demand a five shilling penalty form any noisy individual who
appears in the court precinct wearing spurs.
The illustrious Edinburgh
University professor and philosopher Dugald Stewart (1753-1828)
was so highly thought of by his students that one said that there
was "eloquence in his very spitting."
Edinburgh is no stranger to
spitting. The Heart of Midlothian on the pavement outside St.
Giles’ Cathedral at the site of the old Tollbooth is where
citizens can still be seen spitting on authority.
In the summer of 1843, a strange
phenomenon was reported at Leith, where there was a mysterious
in-rush of water at low tide which retreated with equal swiftness.
It seems the mini tidal wave was the result of offshore seismic
The world-famous Mound linking
the Old Town and New Town is an artificial hill begun in 1783. It
contains 1,501,000 cartloads of earth from the foundations of
Edinburgh’s highest genuine hill
is Arthur’s Seat, at 822 feet. One possible derivation of the name
is from the Gaelic, Ard-n-Said, or Height of the Arrows.
At the end of the 19th
century, an ox of enormous dimensions was sold by Colonel
Hamilton, of Pencaitland, East Lothian, to a Shropshire butcher.
The animal was reportedly 16ft long and stood more than 5ft 8in
During the construction of the
Union Canal in the early 1800s, the tusk of a mammoth, nearly 5ft
long, was discovered under 25ft of rock and soil in Kirkliston.
Broxburn, West Lothian, became a
tourist attraction at the turn of the 20th century when
a 100ft-long icicle formed from the viaduct on the Union Canal. A
postcard was even produced to mark the phenomenon.
A difficult time for dogs in the
1700s came as the result of an Edinburgh butcher’s dog going mad.
Magistrates ordered the slaughter of all such animals, even dogs
which led the blind.
The mineralogist Robert Jamison
(1774-1854), as keeper of Edinburgh University Museum, broke
records as he gathered 40,000 rocks and minerals, 10,000 fossils,
8000 birds and thousands of insects.
General John Reid tried to
combat the stress of military campaigns in the 18th
century by composing flute sonatas in his tent. He left his
fortune to the University of Edinburgh to endow a chair of music.
There was little love lost
between Edinburgh and Leith in the 1400s when an order levied a 40
shilling fine and loss of trading rights for a year on any
Edinburgh merchant taking a Leith resident into partnership.
Many of the nuns who helped
establish the convent of St. Catherine of Siena at the Meadows in
1517 were the wives of men who had fallen at the Battle of Flodden
two years before.
In the immediate aftermath of
Flodden, an English invasion was expected. Edinburgh merchants,
who had been left in charge of the city, ordered that all women
should go inside as their wailing was "causing a dispiriting
Street riots were commonplace in
16th-century Edinburgh, but perhaps the most
spectacular was when magistrates banned a performance of the Robin
Hood pageant and general mayhem ensued.
English prisoners held at
Borthwick Castle in Midlothian were given the opportunity to earn
their freedom by leaping across a 12ft gap between the castle’s
twin towers, 110ft up, with their hands behind their backs.
Kicking Horse Pass, one of the
most important routes through Canada’s Rocky Mountains, was named
in the 1850s, reportedly to commemorate an incident when Edinburgh
geologist and explorer Sir James Hector parted company with his
Brewing in 16th-century
Scotland was usually the preserve of the brewster wife. Civic
records show that in 1530 there were 288 female brewsters in
In 1436, the Scottish
Parliament, meeting in Edinburgh, ordered the closure of all
public houses by 9 pm under pain of imprisonment to try to cut
In the 16th century,
a disease raged in Edinburgh which was mysteriously called "The
New Acquaintance," characterized by coughing and a sore head. It
is now thought it was an old acquaintance – influenza.
The 16th century
inventor of logarithms, John Napier of Merchiston, demanded
complete quiet for his studies. When cockerels in his backyard
were disturbing the peace, he soaked some grain in brandy and
threw it out for them. Peace reigned.
In a bizarre attempt to end
civil unrest resulting from feuds among his noble lords, King
James VI ordered bitter foes to trot hand-in-hand pairs from
Holyrood up the Royal Mile in June 1587.
Morocco’s Land in the Conongate,
where there is a carved figure of a turbaned Moor, commemorates
Andrew Gray, who fled from justice but returned in 1645 with a
party of Barbary pirates and is said to have cured his cousin, the
Provost’s daughter, of the plague and then married her.
In the late 1700s, Erasmus
Darwin, grandfather of the naturalist, said he was guided to his
lodgings through the dark closes of Edinburgh by the
phosphorescence from rotting fish heads.
Edinburgh minister Rev. John
McQueen caused a scandal in the 1600s when he became so besotted
with local beauty Mrs. Euphame Scott that he stole her
undergarments from the washing line and had a waistcoat and
drawers made from them.
The anatomy section of the first
edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, the brainwave of three
Edinburgh men, caused controversy, containing "unvarnished
portrayals of the unmentionable parts of the human body."
Scotland’s most famous dueling
arena was the grassy slope sited below Arthur’s Seat. The last
known duel fought there involved a Court of Session judge, Lord
Shand, in 1850.
Crowds lined the streets of
Edinburgh in 1650 to see the arrival of Oliver Cromwell, victor of
the Battle of Dunbar. The talk in the High Street hostelries was
predominantly about the size of his nose.
The best-attended lecture in the
history of Edinburgh’s medical school came in 1829 when the body
of William Burke, the murderer who had supplied the school with
corpses for dissection, was himself put under the knife.
Maggie Dickson, "executed" in
the Grassmarket, was brought back to life by the jolting of the
cart which carried her to her burial. It is said Maggie – who has
a pub in the street named after her – later married and had
Edinburgh’s Alexander Graham
Bell was told by the Western Union that the telephone he invented
was "an interesting novelty without any commercial possibilities."
On a famous visit to Edinburgh
in 1822, George IV had to retire early from a dance at the
Assembly Rooms when an over-enthusiastic Scot dropped his pistols
on the King’s big toe.
When Charles Dickens misread the
inscription on a tombstone in Canongate kirkyard in 1869, the
character of Scrooge was born. In the twilight he read Ebenezer
Lennox Scroggie Mealman, as Meanman.
In 1701, cockfighting – the most
popular sport in Scotland at that time – was banned from the
streets of Edinburgh because huge crowds were bringing traffic to
The butcher’s bill for Christmas
meals at Holyrood Palace in 1528 included 13.6s.8d for 1000 ox
feet and 1340 sheep feet.
John Knox, the Haddington-born
father of the Scottish Reformation, spent so much time among
English Reformers on the continent that on a visit to Edinburgh in
1558 he was taken for an Englishman.
The fiddle tune The Flowers of
Edinburgh recalls the popular nickname for the stench that
emanated from the sewers between the tenements.
St. Giles Street was the name
originally planned for Princes Street – until George III heard
about it and lost his temper, saying that it reminded English
people of the most disreputable parts of London.
Black Rod raps on the door of
the debating chamber in the House of Commons and demands entry on
behalf of the monarch. Before the Union of Parliaments of Scotland
and England in 1707, Scotland had an Usher of the White Rod who
performed similar functions in Edinburgh.
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