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The Family Tree - August/September 2003
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 abbot.

  • 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 activity.

  • 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 Princes Street.

  • 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 tall.

  • 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 effect."

  • 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 horse.

  • 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 Edinburgh.

  • 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 street crime.

  • 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 children.

  • 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 a halt.

  • 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.


Return to August/September 2003 Index Page

 


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