Sunday, 17 March 2013

Pictures of Edinburgh

Take a trip through the past

You can never tell what you will see when walking through Edinburgh. Keep your eyes open and your camera ready.

Sunset in Holyrood park

Sunset in Edinburgh can be spectacular.  On the left of this picture you can see the flags  on the stadium that hosts the Tattoo.   This was taken from the road: You can hope for a similar photo without getting lost in the dark

The Grand Union Canal, Edinburgh
This is where Burke and Hare made an honest living before deciding there were easier ways to make money.

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Edinburgh Castle: From the Bronze Age to Morgana La Fee and Onward

Edinburgh Castle: Fireworks display
Edinburgh Castle was built near the railway in order to boost the tourist trade. Every day the one o'clock gun fires in order that the trains may run on time and that blind people may set their watch. A ball falls from the Nelson Monument on Calton Hill at the same time in order that deaf people can set their watch. As a result deaf and blind people tend to travel in pairs in Edinburgh. The one o'clock gun fires at 12:00 as a result of a unilateral agreement with the USA and problems with the speed of sound, though various corrections ensure that the time registered on local watches is around 1:00pm. Every Tourist knows this, but there is a lot more to the building. 

The One O'clock gun

More prosaically the one o'clock gun was initiated in 1861 as a time signal for ships in the Firht of Forth when it was discovered that the earlier signal used since 1852, of a ball on the Nelson Monument that fell down at 1pm was useless in fog ( ii took them how long to realise?). The gun could be heard in Leith Harbour 2 miles away. Since sound travels fairly slowly a map was produced in 1861 to show the exact time it wold be heard in various locations round Edinburgh. In Leith it would be heard 9.32 seconds later. Over the years the size of the gun has got smaller and it is fired from different places. In 2013 it was, for the first time, fired by a woman. In 2012 large numbers of soldiers were fired by the government because firing soldiers was cheaper than cancelling contracts for warships that are by now more expensive and less capable than those of the French Navy, which were originally intended to be a joint venture till the UK decided they did not like the smell of garlic and would go it alone (Source: Private Eye sometime in 2012).

Princes St Gardens

Princes Street Gardens, in front of the castle if you are in Princes St, behind it if you are in the old town, was once a disease ridden sewer called the Nor Loch, the Castle Moat. When the moat was drained hundreds of bodies were found. Since decomposing bodies tend to float to the surface either the sight of a body was just ignored by the locals or the bodies were carefully weighted, perhaps using the ancient equivalent of chicken wire, which allows fish to eat the body ( something Terry Pratchett mentions in one of his books). Still, after that everyone knew where the bodies were buried.

Castle Rock

A long time ago a volcano pushed a plug of lava through soft sedimentary rock and the lava hardened. Sometime later a glacier from the west tried to attack the rock and failed. The hard rock prevented the glacier eating the soft rock behind it and the result was a crag of hard rock, now called Castle Rock, with a tail of softer rock behind it. Edinburgh's Hard Rock Cafe is an uncomfortable walking distance away in George Street and the tail of soft rock now forms the Royal Mile with the castle at one end and Holyrood Palace at the other. On the way from the Castle to Holyrood you pass the Camera Obscura, the Scotch Whiskey Heritage Centre (excellent tours with free Whiskey),numerous souvenir shops, the Cathedral, rumoured to be the place where Edinburgh was founded ( was it ever lost? ), John Knox's house and several Museums. During the Festival the royal mile is impassable because of the street acts there so if you want to explore the Royal Mile, come outside the Festival: come for the Festival too, it's good fun.

Castle Rock was an easy place to defend. The cliffs to the West, North and South meant only one side needed really good defences, but the rock made getting a supply of water in times of siege difficult. It needed a well more than 90 feet deep which still tended to run dry at the worst possible times. Still, like being 100 years old, a fort on the castle beat the alternative

Early Human Habitation

The earliest settlement known is in the late Bronze Age but the finds are not significant so they may have just been transients, it was too early for tourists. It seems likely there was an Iron Age Hill Fort on Castle Rock between the first and second centuries AD, which ties nicely in with Ptolemy's mention of a Votadini settlement called Alauna meaning “Rock Place” perhaps the earliest name for Castle Rock. Excavation unearthed a lot of Roman items suggesting trade with the Romans. However from then on the Rock had a fluctuating but constant population of humans.

Around 600 AD there is a reference to Din Eidyn, the stronghold of Eidyn, which may refer to the Castle Rock, in the British epic Y Goddodin. In his book The Quest for Merlin Nikolai Tolstoy places Merlin at the court of the king in the epic. Regardless, Edinburgh became part of Northumbria, which then became part of England, but returned to Scotland in the second half of the 10th Century.

It is impossible to know much about the people who lived on the Rock after the Romans left Britain as the only evidence is their rubbish heaps: they left no evidence of any structures. One wonders what future Archeologists will make of excavation of landfill sites but that is another story.

There seems to have been a castle on the Rock from 1093 onwards. In 1174 Edinburgh again became English but became Scottish again in 1186 when the king received it as part of a dowry onhis marriage to an English woman chosen for him by King Henry of England. In those days women were given away with the proverbial pound of cheese.

For about a hundred years nothing much happened. Then the King died leaving the throne vacant. The King of England was appointed to arbitrate between rival claimants but naturally tried to get himself established as the Laird of Scotland. A while later he abandoned subtlety and invaded, capturing Edinburgh and taking everything valuable back to London. Some 18 years later the Scots took it back with the unsportsmanlike tactic of a surprise night attack ( the world was going to the dogs ). Robert the Bruce ordered the castle defences destroyed to make it easier to retake if the English captured it again. From then till 1357 the Castle alternated between England and Scotland with the English falling for the clever tricks of the Scots. From then on the Scots, having nothing much to fear from the English, despite occasional attempts at invasion spent the time fighting each other and reinforcing the castle defences. When it suited them one side or the other would call in the English to help.

The remainder of the castle's history is a case of more of the same with the castle being taken by one side or the other even after two crowns were united in 1603 (after which they could no longer call on the English for help: it would have been pointless). It ended up as a prison for captured soldiers in the Napoelonic wars till 49 of them escaped through a hole in the wall. The authorities  then decided the vaults were no longer a good place to dump prisoners (Remeber how long it took them to realise the time ball on Calton Hill was useless in fog) and by 1814 the castle started to become a national monument though it was used as a prison in both world wars.

What's in a name?

In the late 14th century Andrew Of Wyntoun refers to a legendary King of the Britons called Ebrawce or Ebraucus who built Edinburgh. He was alleged to have had fifty children by twenty wives (Now THAT would make him a legend in some quarters),  so where he found the time to build Edinburgh is unclear. Later John Stow credited him with building "the Castell of Maidens called Edenbrough" in 989 BC.

The origins of the name "Maiden Castle", or Castellum Puellarum in Latin, are obscure, but it appears in charters of David I around 1130 and was commonly used until at least the 16th century. It appears in charters of David I (ruled 1124–1153) . William Camden's 1607 Britannia records that "the Britans called [it] Castle Myned Agned, the Scots, the Maidens Castle and the Virgins Castle, because of certaine young maidens of the Picts roiall bloud who were kept there in old time".

The 17th century antiquarian Father Richard Hay, thought the "maidens" were a group of nuns ejected from the castle and replaced by canons, considered "fitter to live among soldiers", but Daniel Wilson and later historians considered this story has "apocryphal".

The name may come from a "Cult of the Nine Maidens" type of legend: Arthurian legends suggest that the site once held a shrine to Morgain la Fee, one of nine sisters. Later, St Monenna is said to have invested a church at Edinburgh, as well as at Dumbarton and other places, and is also said to have been one of nine companions. More simply, the term "Maiden Castle" may refer to a castle which was never taken by force.

The Castle Today
Today the Castle is a Tourist Attraction and the site of the Edinburgh Tattoo and the Firework Displays at the end of the Festival and at Hogmanay. It appears on the coats of arms of the City and the University and has appeared on postage stamps and banknotes. It still has a garrison and is a symbol of both Edinburgh and Scotland visible from many miles away. One of the most visited tourist attractions in Scotland it has to be visited if you are a tourist: before going on the Whiskey Heritage Centre tours. If you go there for the Tattoo take an umbrella.

Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Portobello on the Forth

Portobello beach

There's a small and crowded village to the East of Edinburgh called Portobello. It's a traditional old fashioned sandy beach with a few amusement arcades some pubs and a view out to infinity. The classic 99 Ice Cream with a flake stuck in it that slowly gets soggy till it falls down your front is said to have been invented by the Arcari family. Portobello gave its name to Portobello in New Zealand while Edinburgh gave its name to the nearby city of Dunedin.

The area was originally called Figgate Muir and was an expanse of moorland through which the Figgate Burn flowed from Duddingston Loch to the Sea. The name probably meant “Cow Road” Like Cramond there tended to be long periods where nothing happened. In 1296 William Wallace gathered his forces there, in 1650 there were rumours of a secret meeting between Cromwell and Scottish leaders and in 1661 the highlight appears to have been a race in which 12 women raced from the burn to the top of Arthur's Seat (Not THAT Arthur). You will know that is an impressive feat if you ever walked up to the top.

Being by the sea it had by the 18th century become frequented by seamen and smugglers. In 1739 a sailor who had been present when the English captured Porto Bello in Panama built a house he called Porto Bello Hut, and the house gave a name to the village that grew round it.

By the end of the century things were getting busy. Someone discovered clay nearby and built a brickworks and a pottery factory and the village grew rapidly. It became a fashionable bathing resort and and industrial town. It became a burgh then a part of Edinburgh. It started welcoming visitors as a holiday town and the public baths that opened in 1901 still house one of only three turkish baths left in Scotland.

The Edinburgh Marine Gardens were built in 1908, included various forms of entertainment and a Somali Village with 70 natives. It fell out of use in WW I and so had only six years use. The site now houses a bus depot and car showrooms. The rest of Portobello also slowly declined and is now like a pensioner reflecting on a long and varied life on the way to church.

For Real Ale fans Portobello offers the Three Monkeys on the High Street which at the time of writing has live music three times a week. For photographers the sea, the beach and the remaining fairground attractions offer opportunities as do details of the older buildings. The High Street is close to the city centre by bus but remember buses stop around midnight after which they turn back into pumpkins. Before you come you might want to check out the local community website

Sunday, 3 March 2013

The Mackenzie Poltergeist

Greyfriars Kirk by day

The Poltergeist of Greyfriars Kirkyard is known as the Mackenzie poltergeist, despite not behaving like a poltergeist and probably having nothing to do with anyone called Mackenzie.Even for the most haunted city on the planet the Poltergeist is an oddity.

It is less confined spatially than the average poltergeist, does not throw things around and it has lasted much longer than most poltergeist infestations. Also it lives in a churchyard while poltergeists normally seem to look for human company


Mackenzie was a seventeenth century hanging judge with a particular hatred of covenanters, persecuting them so zealously that he gained the nickname “Bluidy Mackenzie”. However he was in disgrace for a while as he objected to pressure to refrain from prosecuting those involved in the Glencoe Massacre ( such pressure on judges is no unknown in the 21st century in the UK either ) and was, in private life, a cultured and learned gentleman with literary tendencies. He died in 1691 and was buried in the Greyfriars Kirkyard.

Mackenzie imprisoned 1200 covenanters in a field next to Greyfriars Kirkyard, an area described later, probably inaccurately, as the first concentration camp [2], and many died or were executed.
The area now known as the Covenanters' Prison is not where the covenanters were actually imprisoned: it was not added until 1703.

The Birth of the Poltergeist

In December 1998 a homeless man wandered into the churchyard and slipped into one of the mausoleums, the Black Mausoleum, believed to be the tomb of Mackenzie though this is uncertain. He smashed some coffins and fell into a previously unknown mass grave [2] containing the partially decomposed bodies of plague victims. At that point he did exactly what anyone else would do. He ran. How he got out of the pit is not stated. On his way out he ran into a man with a dog, apparently a security guard, who, seeing a filthy vagrant running at him, blood streaming from a cut on his forehead sustained in his panic stricken flight, also ran. As anyone with sense would do.

Ever since there have been well documented reports of something malevolent in the area. The phenomenon has persisted since 1998, which is longer than any poltergeist manifestation I know.

The Poltergeist

The day after the homeless man fell into a pit of decomposing bodies a woman peering though the iron grill on the door was reportedly knocked off its step by a cold blast. Then another woman was found lying near the tomb with a ring of bruises round her neck. She said invisible hands had tried to strangle her. A young man with similar injuries was found lying opposite the vault.

Edinburgh Council locked the vault and wanted to forget they had the key. Then a local author was granted permission to run controlled tours to the mausoleum. Paranormal activity escalated from then on. Since 1998 there have been two to four attacks a month. This is probably a small percentage of the total number of people visiting the mausoleum, which suggests the poltergeist is selective about who it attacks.

Some of the victims lost consciousness, inexplicable fires broke out, people had hair pulled, fingers broken, unexplained scratches, skin gouges, burns, nausea and numbness. An unusually large number of dead animals have been found near the vault and cameras and electrical equipment tend to malfunction near the mausoleum. Interestingly the victims often fail to realise they have been injured till much later. Some injuries disappear as rapidly as they appeared and some turn into lifelong scars. Sometimes the phenomena follow them home.

On occasion everyone on a particular tour feels or see the same thing, suggesting a degree of reality. The company that runs the tours also keeps detailed records and photographs of the injuries sustained by visitors to the mausoleum and its surrounding area.

The aroma of smelling salts and the stink of sulphur have been reported, and inexplicable laughing and growling has been heard along with strange knocking sounds that seem to emanate from beneath ground level.

A mysterious fire destroyed all the notes made by the local author who ran the tours, five years worth of notes and records and people living nearby have reported poltergeist phenomena. It also seems as if the phenomenon has moved to the covenanters prison.

Comparison with a standard poltergeist case

Poltergeist cases develop slowly and few last more than a year. The phenomenon started suddenly in December 1998 and has continued ever since:

Poltergeists rarely do harm but this one hurts people regularly.

Poltergeists normally only move if there is a human focus that moves, but this one has relocated

Cameras and other equipment malfunction: This happens with the Loch Ness Monster but us unusual with poltergeists.

An unusually large number of dead animals are found in the area; I know of no comparison with other graveyards and no poltergeist case that involves killing animals. I note mystery animal mutilations in the USA and wonder if the animals found dead had been mutilated.

Knockings, noises and phantom smells however are observed in poltergeist and ghost cases.

The Wrap

By any standards the Mackenzie poltergeist is an oddity. Skeptics ignore it and it seems to have its own way of discouraging investigation. You have been warned

If you come to Edinburgh and want to risk being trailed, scratched, burnt or otherwise assailed by an alien being you can reach Greyfriars Kirk with a single bus ride from Badjao Bed and Breakfast.

The Kirk is hidden from the main road: a small alleyway to the left of the statue of Greyfriars Bobbie and the pub behind it leads to the Kirk. You should be safe during the day but you will not get into the haunted areas unless you go on the tour. If you stay with us and do go on the tour we would love to hear of any odd experiences you might have.

In the area is the Frankenstein bar, in a former church, the numerous bars of the Grassmarket where public executions used to take place and the Royal Museum of Scotland.

You may also want to read this fulleraccount of the Mackenzie Poltergeist