Sunday, 28 July 2013

A quick look at Corstorphine Hill

Edinburgh and the Pentland hills  from Corstorphine Hill
Corstorphine Hill is one of the seven hills on which Edinburgh is allegedly built. It fosters Edinburgh Zoo to the south and is mostly forested with broad leave trees. Stones quarried from the hill were used to build a lot of houses in Edinburgh,

From one angle  this was a fish
If anyone asks how long the hill has been around say 340 million years 36 days and four hours. Seriously though the hill was formed about 340 million years ago and is now a long L-shaped ridge 531 metres high with interesting landforms which make it a regionally important geological site, and a colony of badgers, which means it is a local Nature reserve. There are a number of places one can get a great view of Edinburgh as far as the Pentland Hills, and the best time is the hour before and after sunset. Remember your camera. If you don't want to be coming off the hill at sunset and back into town just as bars and restaurants are closing September would probably be a good time to come: the trees should be turning red and it is not too cold.

The hill also includes a permanent set of orienteering courses with a range of difficulties. You can get more details from the Friends of Corstorphine Hill Website.

When I walked the hill recently I found more fallen trees that resembled animals than I have previously seen in any one place.

Geology: the bones of the Giant

In Norse mythology the world was formed from the bones of a dead giant, and on Corstorphine hill the bones are a little easier to see poking through thin layers of vegetation.

The Wind blasts trees into striking shapes
More prosaically the hill is a volcanic intrusion formed when magma pushed its way into softer rocks but solidified before it reached the surface. With time the softer rocks eroded much faster than the volcanic rock which was left standing proud and unbowed. The glaciers that failed to level the hill polished it and you can see smooth outcrops of rock towards the top of the hill. If you want to explore off the beaten track note that the nature of the rock and the quarrying in former times has produced cliffs hidden by the trees, so expect to see the upper branches of a large tree suggesting tactfully this is a good time to turn back

There is a walled garden on the hill, the wall being made from the stones of the hill, which, for those who know what to look for, shows the geology of the hill in miniature, including plant fossils and trace fossils of ancient worms.

Archaeology: A blast from the past

A prancing deer in wood
Cup-markings on the glaciated dolerite surfaces on the west slopes of the Hill were found 1991. There are eleven cup-marks on the dolerite surface; nine in the shape of a pentagon with two in the centre. Their location offers wide views to the west. They were probably part of a sacred landscape of Neolithic or Bronze Age (c3600-1500 BC), but their precise purpose remains unknown. My personal feeling is they may have been used for some form of board game involving moving pegs or other markers from one hole to another
Artefacts have also been found: A collection, made before 1894, from a kitchen midden on Corstorphine Hill, included shells, bone implements, hammer stones, cup-marked stones, part of a quern and pottery fragments.
Hills are always good places to defend in troubled times and is is likely the hill once boasted a hillfort.
Flowers on the Hill

In Brief
Corstorphine Hill is a nature reserve and regionally important geological site. It is an excellent place for a relaxing afternoon away from the crowds in the centre and the Zoo and nearby Corstorphine Village provide livelier entertainment including Giant Pandas while Corstorphine Village has good places to eat and frequent bus links to town.

It is not hard to get to the hill from the Badjao Bed and Breakfast or the city centre. Just don't expect to see too many badgers during the day. They are shy creatures. Friends of Corstorphine Hill.

Saturday, 27 July 2013

Mary King's close: religious mania and ghosts

Edinburgh reputedly has more ghosts per square metre than any other city, even London. This may be because Edinburgh is relatively small and because the Celtic population may be a little more sensitive to the paranormal (I sense skeptics leaving already: keep reading, you may get a surprise).

Mary Kings Close, in the heart of Edinburgh, is allegedly one of the most haunted places in Edinburgh with ghosts showing on souvenir photographs taken by visitors and Electronic Voice Phenomena (EVP), about which I am skeptical, recorded on “official” ghost hunts. None of the evidence is conclusive, no solid evidence of haunting has been found and no amount of evidence will ever convince the more extreme skeptics, but as a whole the body of evidence implies there is something worth investigating.

The Folklore of Mary King's Close

Mary King's close, in Edinburgh's Royal Mile, is a number of closes (back alleys) that grew up in the days when people clustered close to Edinburgh Castle for protection. The closes were rabbit runs between tenement buildings up to seven stories high. In 1645 the Plague struck Edinburgh and, the story goes that the inhabitants of Mary Kings Close were walled in and left to die. The close was then sealed off and forgotten for a century or three till it was rediscovered. This may be why the street was called “the street of sorrows”

Mary Kings Close is now a tourist attraction and this story or a variation is told to tourists. Don't blame the guides, there is relatively little good information on the Close and a lot of what might be termed “Chinese Whispers”. The real story is more interesting.

Known Facts and History of the close

Alexander King a prominent citizen, property owner and lawyer to Mary Queen of Scots had a daughter called Mary, and this may be the origin of the name. The close was never deserted.

It was the site of the Edinburgh Fishmonger Company's Oyster bar, till the City Chambers were built: The close prospered but the Oyster bar was killed off by by the Royal Exchange which reduced the length of the close by around 10% and prevented direct access to the bar from the High Street.

The upper stories of the tenements were demolished around 1753 and the lower stories were used as a foundation for the Royal Exchange, which was built in 1753. Opposite the Oyster bar was an eight storey tenement which was only demolished in 1897. Doubtless the council wanted to demolish it earlier but they could not buy it outright.

The tenements below the Royal Exchange became flats and offices and in one case a tavern and coffee house, with stairs connecting them to the High Street. The stairs have largely vanished though their remains can be seen today. Around 1845 the remaining addresses in Mary Kings close were renamed and the close vanished from the map. Cockburn Street was built in 1855-1860 and wiped out the remaining sections of the close, though these remained within living memory for a long time.

The underground vaults of the Close were used as an air raid shelter during World War II. After that not a lot happened. 

The Plague

Bubonic plague hit Edinburgh in 1645, probably from Europe via the Port of Leith. Edinburgh had a procedure for dealing with plague, as a result of previous experience. Sufferers would put a white flag in their windows and essential supplies would be delivered to them each day. Those who recovered were allowed to leave the house and resume normal life. A plague doctor would visit and treat them regularly. Apparently the plague did not hit the close more than any other part of Edinburgh.

The Haunting of Mary King's Close

In the mid 17th Century the Edinburgh equivalent of todays televangelists, George Sinclair, a Scientist, Professor at Glasgow University and a tub thumping religious nutter who believed totally in the reality of Witchcraft used a public frenzy over witchcraft at the time to promote his own brand of Fire and Brinstone religion. These frenzies happen periodically, the last being the Satanic Ritual Abuse farce of 1987. As part of his campaign he seems to have invented the hauntings of Mary King's Close though I need to do more research on this. It seems likely that Sinclair used his Scientific knowledge to deceive his listeners, just as modern Televangelists will draw a cross on their forehead using a dye which remains invisible till they start sweating, then turns bright red.

The Nor Loch, which was apparently the old castle moat, was near the close (it is now Princes St Gardens) and took the city's sewage and the waste from the nearby market. It generated a load of Methane (Marsh Gas) which produces all the classic symptoms of ghostly visitation: every low-lying area in the world has tales of hauntings by grey ladies, bearded old men and other wraith-like spirits. Marsh gas is lighter than air and hovers, with a slight luminous glow until dispersed or dissolved in the air, and given the right mixture will burn with a blue flame, possibly giving rise to the legned of the Will of the Wisp. Edinburgh has few wind-free days so wispy gas pockets collecting in the houses of the Close's nether regions - trapped and unable to escape upwards, and with insufficient air, unable to dissolve quickly could have produced symptoms of hauntings.

One of George Sinclair's specialities was the effect of "Damps and Wildfire" in Coal-mines. The subject was by no means fully understood in 1685, but he must have had acknowledge of methane gas that could have been used for reassurance and not for raising Cain. But to a religious nutter all is fair.
Be that as it may sightings of the spirits ceased with the draining of the Nor' Loch around 1760 - coincidentally contemporary with the building of the first stage of the present City Chambers. Without marsh gas the ghosts could not survive the soul killing influence of local bureaucracy.
The Hauntings today
Workers in the close have reported strange footsteps, the sound of clothes rustling, and sensed strange presences in the Close. Some of this could be due to expectations and some to the acoustic properties of the close. I recall one tour guide telling the story of trying to use a dowsing pendulum near the close. When the pendulum started to accelerate and swing horizontally not vertically they decided it was time to leave- fast. They collected their belongings the next day. I am told of one group who slept in the Close overnight and heard sounds of drinking and fighting from an empty room overhead that had been a bar in the 17th century.
The most famous ghost in the close is called Wee Annie and alleged to be the ghost of a girl who died in the close. However her existence is not supported by the historical evidence and the psychic who claimed to have seen her seems, according to one source, to have a habit of seeing ghosts of little girls at tourist attractions round the world. This does not mean they do not exist, merely that this claim should be given less weight.
Professional investigations of the close by various psychic research groups have found no real evidence of hauntings. There are some photographs that seem to show people not present when the photograph was taken and some anomalous sounds (EVP), claimed to be words, that I found unintelligible before I read the team's version of what was “said”.
If Mary King's Close is haunted there seems to be no reason for a high density of ghosts other than the plague in 1645 and the hauntings prior to the 21st century can be put down to the effects of Marsh Gas exploited by a religious nutcase who misused their scientific training and exploited a moral panic over Witchcraft in order to instill fear in the public

In brief
Although allegedly one of the most haunted places in Edinburgh the evidence for a real haunting is almost nonexistent, though the possibility cannot be ruled out. Apart from that the Close has an interesting history which will appeal to students of Architecture and of the history of Edinburgh. If you visit the close or the area round it keep an eye out for the relics of the past preserved in the buildings round you and glory at the continuity of the traditions involved.

Much material of interest has been left out to keep this a reasonable length and will be included in my forthcoming book on paranormal phenomena in Edinburgh.

If you are staying at the Badjao B&B we are a ghost free zone and intend keeping it that way. You can reach Mary King's Close with a single bus ride and a short walk. The best time to come if you do not like crowds is September when we may be experiencing a late summer and the trees are turning golden red.

Further reading

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

A walk round Arthur's seat and Holyrood Park

Swans on St  Margaret's Loch
Not many cities have a volcano in their centre, if only a dead one, but Edinburgh is multiply blessed In this regard. The most famous is Arthurs seat, not far from the Holyrood end of the Royal Mile.

Holyrood Park is a group of hills of which Arthurs Seat is the largest. It is also the largest of three parts of the Arthurs Seat Volcano SSSI. It is geologically special and holds important grasslands and unusual insect and animal species. Arthurs seat also cam in at number 9 in the 2013 Lonely Planet list of best treks. 

Apart from tourism the park is used for exercise, relaxation and some events during the festival. When I walked round it recently I saw a boys boxing club training outdoors, a group having an outdoor gym session and rock climbers on Salisbury Crags. For those not interested in such hard exercise or new to the area a walk round the park (I take a camera) takes about 90 minutes. Get the timing right and you will be rewarded by great views and sunsets.

St Margarets Loch And St Anthony's Chapel
St Anthony's Chapel

This small man made Loch to the south of Queens Drive was created in 1856 from marshland as part of Prince Albert's plans to improve the area near Holyrood Palace. It was used as a boating pond but is now merely home to a horde of opportunistic swans trying to convince visitors to ignore the notice saying white bread can make swans ill. There are also loads of ducks and geese, and on a warm day it is popular with visitors

At the back of a loch is a path leading up to the ruins of St Anthony's chapel. The chapel was certainly round in 1426 when the Pope gave money for its repair. It is not clear what is was doing here. Only the North wall and part of the West Wall. In the 18th century it was described as a beautiful Gothic building with a tower about 40 foot high.

The walk up to the chapel is fairly gentle but I would not want to come down this path after sunset, and I recommend making sure you have appropriate footwear. The path is narrow and uneven with a steep drop off to the lake. If you want to take photographs from the chapel get their about 30 minutes before sunset and leave while there is enough light to see the path.


From St Margaret's Loch take the road that leads uphill. After about 15 minutes the trees on the left and the raised banks on the right open up and you will come to Dunsapie Loch, another artificial loch formed when the road was made. It is the home of a range of bird species. There are the remains of a farmstead and a 2000 year old fort on the hill over looking the loch. On the other side of the road is the gentlest and safest path leading up to Arthur's seat. You need proper shoes and to be reasonably fit. If you are 18 stone and have not exercised for years forget it. The last few meters before the top are the toughest going up and coming down. Come down the way you came up unless you like taking risks. I went down another way once and it was fun but I needed my wits about me. It was also less interesting visually.

Arthur's seat

Arthur's seat is the highest point of the park and gives an amazing panorama of Edinburgh. Even in Summer there is likely to be a chill strong wind at the top, perhaps strong enough to blow a small child off the cliff edge.
The Rock itself was formed by an extinct volcano eroded by marauding glacier that exposed rocky crags to the west and a tail of material swept to the East, which became the basalt cliffs of Salisbury Crags between Arthur's seat and the City Centre. There are the remains of a hill fort on the summit and a neighbouring hill. Some of the Hill forts nearby are prehistoric: it is a very defendable place. An epic Y Goddodin of around 600AD mentions a tribe called the Votadini who may have had their seat of power and may include a reference to King Arthur. There are the remains of a hill fort on the East side of the hill and also a series of cultivation terraces, most obvious from the village of Duddingston to the East.

In 1836 while hunting rabbits found 17 miniature coffins with small wooden figures inside them in a cave on the crags of Arthurs Seat. Their purpose and origin will remain a mystery for ever: they could have been made for magical purposes or be related to the Burke and Hare murders of 1832. Te coffins and figures can now be seen in the Royal Museum.

Legend has it that in the 12th century King David I encountered a stag at the foot of Arthur's seat while hunting. He fell off his horse and the stag was about to gore him when he had a vision of a cross between its antlers and the stag turned away. Convinced this was divine intervention the king founded Holyrood Abbey on the spot.


Duddingston Loch
Coming down from Arthur's seat and continuing on the road there is panoramic view of Duddingston Loch, which is a Bird Sanctuary and Duddingston Church and village. Until around 1136 this area was known as Treverlen but then the King gave it to Kelso Abbey who feued it to one Dodin de Berwic who called himself Dodin of Dodinestoun.

The Loch itself is not artificial and is a wildlife reserve. From Holyrood Park an area of what looks like marshland can be seen at one end of the loch, which was used for ice-skating and curling.

One of the more interesting characters in Duddingston was the eccentric Dr James Tytler who contributed greatly to the early versions of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. In 1774 he was seeking sanctuary in the Holyrood Abbey lands to avoid his creditors. In 1775 his wife left him and their children and he was then known to be cohabiting with one or two women, one a washerwoman from Duddingston. Eventually he had to flee to Berwick, leaving both women, to avoid being tried for bigamy ( or perhaps he had to flee the women as well). He was a keen but poor businessman and while he was Britain's first balloonist his success was overshadowed by others.

Finishing the walk
Further down the road a small flight of steps takes you to a point where a number of well maintained paths branch off. One takes you along the foot of Salisbury crags then back down to the main road. This is known as the Radical Road and on a good day you can see people climbing or bouldering. There are notices warning against falling rocks including one far enough from the path that you are right in the danger zone before being able to read the notice. If you are in this area around sunset you can photograph a panorama of Edinburgh. Unlike the path to St Anthony's Chapel this is broad and easy to negotiate, but take a torch anyway. If you want to climb you need a (free) permit.

When you get back to the main road you should see St Margaret's Well on your right and the Scottish parliament on the left. The area between here and St Margaret's Loch is used for some Fringe events but is otherwise uninspiring. But by now you should be tired enough not to want inspiration.

The easiest way to get to Arthur's seat from the Badjao Bed andBreakfast is by car. An alternative is to take a bus to the Scottish Parliament and then a short walk to the park.

Administrative note: We have moved to an online booking management system which means you can check availability and book rooms online by going to our website and using the big “Book Now” button.

Friday, 5 July 2013

The Niddry Street Vaults, perhaps Edinburghs most haunted place

Edinburgh was not always a peaceful place. There used to be volcanos where the castle now stands Arthur's seat, in Holyrood park, was a volcano and so was Calton Hill. Edinburgh is often said to be built, like Rome, on seven hills, though this is an underestimate designed to allow the classical allusion. Over the centuries the inhabitants have built bridges to hide the gorges glaciers carved out in an effort to wear down the hills. One of these bridges housed a hidden city, later abandoned, which is now a tourist attraction in its own right.

The Origins of the Vaults
During the last Ice Age glaciers advances and carved out deep gorges in what is now central Edinburgh (these gorges can still be seen by those with a keen eye for such things). They flowed round Castle rock and left a tail of land they could not touch that is now the Royal Mile. This left a highly defensible rock on which the castle was built, and people built houses, sometimes 14 stories high, close to the castle for protection.

One of the gorges the glaciers carved out was the Cowgate gorge, which today feels like a light starved canyon even in the day. Today the walk from the castle to the High Street or even to Leith is short and pleasant. A few hundred years ago travel within Edinburgh was much harder: a trip to South Queensferry or Cramond might take a day and a trip from the High Street to the South Side of Edinburgh involved negotiating the gorges. Eventually two large bridges were built to span these gorges. One of these was South Bridge,

South Bridge was built between 1875 and 1788 to bridge the Cowgate gorge and provide Edinburgh's first purpose built shopping street. Every inch of space was used for commercial premises. The arches of the bridge formed tenements which almost disguised the fact they were built under a bridge (no one seems to have called the people who lived there trolls ) while the land underneath was excavated to provide storage rooms guared by underground caretakers.

The Vaults: from Business District to Slum

Human behaviour is unchangeable and construction of the bridge was rushed and underfunded. One thing the builders forgot in the rush was to make the bridge waterproof. As a result the vaults flooded and with the perpetual damp became health hazards. Those businesses that prospered moved to healthier places and those that did not saw the place become a slum. This happened rapidly. People began moving out around 1795 and by the 1840s the council had decided to remove all the legal residents, which left the place free to be colonised by the poorest. Then, as now, no one cared about these people as long as they stayed invisible and did not frighten the horses or scandalise “respectable” society. There are suggestions that Burke and Hare, the original unacceptable face of capitalism, hid bodies in the vaults and hunted victims there but there is no evidence to prove this.

The Irish potato famine of 1845-1847, which was created by  landowners selling potatoes for export thus denying them to the natives, similar to the export of British jobs, known as offshoring, in the 21st century which caused endemic high levels of UK unemployment, drove hordes of Irish, who the Reverend Kingsley, author of a popular children's classic The Water Babies, referred to as “white chimpanzees” to Edinburgh. With no money, no work and no prospects they took over the Vaults and moved into the classic industries of the poor such as Prostitution, alcohol and gambling. Fight and murders were common and in the early 20th century the vaults were sealed off. In the mean time several generations were born, lived and died in these damp, unheated rooms.

The Ghosts of the Vaults

In the 198os former Rugby star Norrie Rowan, owner of some property that included the vaults crawled through an opening and found the remains of the hidden city in the Vaults. After some work Mercat Tours were allowed to offer tours of the vaults.

After a while visitors to the vaults started reporting paranormal experiences. A medium claimed to identify several ghosts there and over time it appeared visitors were describing the same ghosts over and over again. There were even ghosts of birds and of a shaggy dog. Others include the spirit of a little boy, who the staff think was killed during the construction of the bridge (allegedly there is a tradition that a building can be protected by a sacrifice during construction, and that if no sacrifice is made a victim will be chosen by the spirits of the land). One rather dark presence dresses in knee length boots, looks scruffy, has bad breath and is associated with one room of the vaults. When unhappy he switches off the lights and extinguishes candles. He seems to dislike women.

Sceptics attribute the phenomena to vibrations from traffic above that are at frequencies too low to hear but which people register unconsciously, expectation causes them to interpret these sensations as paranormal. It is a comforting notion.

As with the Mackenzie Poltergeist visitors to the vaults have left with scratches, burns, bumps and bruises, especially when entering a stone circle constructed by a Wiccan who claimed to have trapped an evil presence in the circle. In 2009 a BBC production team recorded unexplained voices in the vaults for a period of 20 minutes. One voice seemed to be a Catholic priest saying the last rites and they include Children yelling. Like the Mackenzie Poltergeist both entities have lasted far longer than the usual poltergeist infestation, suggesting they may not actually be poltergeists. 

The vaults may or may not be haunted, though this does seem likely, but they show how people will survive in even the most trying circumstances and manage to make a life. It is not a place for the nervous and fainthearted however. 

At this time the Badjao Bed andBreakfast is not haunted and we have no intention of taking in any ghosts.  If you stay with us and visit the vaults we recommend you reconnect with  the mundane world in a nearby bar immediately afterward.