Secret Edinburgh an unusual guide
Discover hidden gardens and clandestine art that even the neighbours overlook ... ...

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Discover hidden gardens and clandestine art that even the neighbours overlook, visit the strangest of museums, get water-boarded in a prototype Jacuzzi and traumatised by Rabelaisian rafters, decrypt mysterious Masonic markings, step inside an Icelandic lava grotto, travel to the Wild West of Morningside, learn the secrets of Mrs Coade’s stone, sniff out the dogs more dazzling than Greyfriars Bobbie, track down traces of Edinburgh’s Great Exhibition… Far from the tourist traps and the crowded landmarks, you may have thought Edinburgh had no more to reveal, but the city still keeps many treasures hidden away in the most unexpected of places. An indispensable guide for those who thought they knew Edinburgh well, or who would like to explore the curiosities of this most secretive of cities.
In the grounds behind the West End’s towering St Mary’s Cathedral is a little hall where the choir practises. It’s not really open to the public except during the August festival, but if you ask nicely at the cathedral and drop a few coins into their donation box, they may let you pop your head inside the Song School, as long as one of the choirs isn’t actually in midrehearsal. If you’ve never seen Phoebe Anna Traquair’s work, prepare yourself for a mural epiphany. If you have – probably at the Mansfield Traquair Centre at the bottom of Broughton Street – then this is a chance to get really close up with Traquair’s brushwork, to be enveloped in her riot of jewel-like colours and vivid characters. The images illustrate the lyrics of the canticle “Benedicite, omnia opera Domine”, aka “A Song of Creation”, the idea being to fill the walls with visible song. Which is exactly the effect – the walls seem to vibrate with joy. The main chorus translates as “O all ye Works of the Lord, bless ye the Lord: praise him, and magnify him for ever.” Biblical scenes are shown against a Scottish landscape – with Leaderfoot Viaduct in the Borders featuring on the East Wall. In among the procession of heavenly and biblical figures, you may spot, to the right of the door, many faces of the Enlightenment – Tennyson, Browning and Rossetti, Thomas Carlyle and James Watts. And to the right of the organ, Dante, Cardinal Newman and of course William Blake, whose figurative style and love of colour were a clear influence on Traquair. If you look carefully, opposite the entrance, you will find the face of the artist herself. The Song School was built in 1885, six years after St Mary’s opened, and has been continuously in use ever since. By 1993 it had become pretty grey and grubby, so with the help of a Historic Scotland grant, the building and paintings were restored. The result is spectacular. The colours sing louder than any choir could. It’s almost narcotic. And when you leave, you’ll still see the afterburn of the images ringing joyously in your eyes.
With its scroll-topped blue pillars and bold lettering, the door of 19 Hill Street is a distinctive entrance to the Masonic Lodge No. 1. Despite being a Georgian town house, it bears the name “Mary’s Chapel” as that was the original location of the lodge in Niddry’s Wynd – just off the Cowgate, until the street was demolished in 1787 to make way for the South Bridge (see p. 41). The lodge is designated No. 1 in Scotland and it may well be the oldest Freemason lodge in the world. References are made to it in 1504 and it holds minutes of the oldest Masonic meeting on 31 July 1599, making it the world’s oldest Masonic document. This was the first lodge to admit speculative Freemasons, i.e. members who were not builders. Some think the first such member (admitted in 1600) was Sir Thomas Boswell, a distant ancestor of Samuel Johnson’s biographer; others think he may have just been signed in for a meeting. But there is clear proof that in 1641 the natural philosopher Robert Moray and the Scottish army colonel Henry Mainwaring were officially initiated as honorary members. Other famous initiates were the Prince of Wales in 1870, and after him Kings Edward VII and VIII (the one who abdicated). If you look further up at the door, you will see an even more distinctive embellishment above the window. An encircled star, with a series of numbers and symbols, has been boldly carved into the stone. The four numbers on the outside of the circle are simply the date 1893, the year it was proposed by Dr George Dickson, the Master of this lodge. His design comprised a hexalpha, a star made up of two opposing equilateral triangles (see following double-page spread for more information on the history and symbolism of the hexalpha). At their centre is a fiery G, the symbol of the Great Architect, i.e. God, radiating his power. The top triangle represents the spirit, the lower one matter, and their layout shows they are in balanced opposition: “As above, so below”. They are surrounded by a circle of perfect universal harmony. This all tells the trained eye that, due to the work of the lodge, all is well in the world. Around the outside of the star are the letters “LEMCN⁰1”, which is a simple abbreviation for “Lodge of Edinburgh, Mary’s Chapel No. 1”. The other Pictish rune 16 symbols are the personal signature marks of each of the officials of the Lodge of Scotland at the time, four of them Grand Lodge Office Bearers. George Dickson himself appears at the top as an H with a rising sun above it.
Edinburgh City Council’s museums own over 200,000 objects between them – too many to be on permanent display, so the overflow gets sorted and stored at the Museum Collections Centre. Visiting the place is like going backstage at the biggest, most random film production ever mounted. Trying to work out a narrative structure would be taxing for even the most experienced Hollywood script doctor. What story could incorporate a Roman Vestal Virgin statue, the 18thcentury St Giles clock mechanism, a small copse of hooded hairdryers, a rack of King’s Theatre panto costumes, a 1970s toddler-sized Tippy Tumbles doll (“She’s tricky … she’s flippy!”) and a bank of vintage televisions? Perhaps you’ve accidentally walked into Terry Gilliam’s brain … You’ll be shown round the neural pathways by one of the in-house conservators, who are experts on all things monumental and also helped restore many of the pieces you see around the city. You can get answers to all your best monumental questions: no, the pig’s ear story about the statue of Bucephalus outside the City Chambers isn’t true, though sculptor Sir John Steell must have been pretty peeved at not being paid for fifty years. There’s quite a menagerie here. If you miss the plump pigeons from Elm Row, they’re roosting under this roof. It was in this workshop that the wonderful Wardrop’s Court dragons were restored to their turquoise and gold. If you’re lucky on your visit, something interesting will be being brushed up, sanded down or restuffed in the workshop. But the most fascinating items are the less glamorous everyday objects in the social history section, cataloguing the changes in domestic and work life. Gadgets of the past, like Bakelite radios, cast-iron typewriters and enormous 1950s prams. Signage from shops on the edges of living memory: William Leith & Co., J. Williamson & Son, John Herdman & Sons. All ready for their close-up at a museum near you, whenever they call “Action”
A friend’s daughter was walking back from Victoria Primary School, up the Newhaven Road, when she spotted a tiny king’s head poking out from the side wall of Advanced Roofing: it was high up above her own head, about level with the Newhaven Road street sign, intricately detailed and wearing a medieval, perhaps Arthurian-style hooded crown. She was thrilled to find it. It really is tiny, maybe the size of a carved chess piece, made of a sort of tarnished pewter. What was it and why is it there? Closer inspection reveals the wall to be full of treasures – a stone thistle, a lump of marble embossed with the letters ZZA, a rose-topped triangle inscribed with the date 1593. The edges of two of the little windows are lined with pebbles. The cement around the larger window is pargeted with a tile-like pattern and a handwritten date (1970) below a hammer and chisel, with a large snaking S on either side. What could they all mean? T h e s e c r e t a r y a t A d v a n c e d Roofing didn’t know anything about it. But a neighbour across the road remembered Stanley Sutherland, who set up his building company there. He was quite a character and built the wall himself, filling it with bits of interesting masonry he’d picked up over the years, like a magpie feathering its nest with trinkets, or a Leith-based Gaudí decorating his walls with random broken objects. Where he found them nobody knows …
It’s pretty tricky to get your timings right for visiting the Anatomical Museum as it’s only open on the last Saturday of each month, and not at all in June, July or December. But your forward planning will be thoroughly rewarded by a tour of the most dramatic display of 300 years of anatomical research. Back when the museum moved here in 1880, Edinburgh was the world centre of anatomical teaching, and those who studied these artefacts included Charles Darwin, Thomas Hodgkin, James Young Simpson and Arthur Conan Doyle. The entrance to the museum alone is quite breathtaking – two towering elephant skeletons guard the doorway, a whale’s jawbone nestles into a high arch and a 3D hologram morphs between the human organs, muscular and nervous systems. The main floor is filled with skeletons, models and preserved prosections. The back wall is lined with white plaster head casts used for the study of phrenology, including that of Franz J o s e p h G a l l , f o u n d e r o f t h i s n ow o u t d at e d “science”. Though some of the displays are not for the faint of heart, many pieces are unexpectedly beautiful, such as the coral-like resin casts of the lung’s vessels. Star residents include “Mercury Man” – a corpse p r e s e r v e d i n l a c q u e r who is the result of one of the earliest methods of studying the body’s work ings, by merc ur y injection, which would trace the route of whichever system it entered. Mercury Man may be shrivelled and blackened but he helped Alexander Monro II understand the lymphatic system. Here too is the skeleton of the notorious William Burke, who is still carrying out his 1829 sentence: to be hanged, dissected and put on display in the museum, like those bodies he had so over-zealously supplied. If you ask nicely, you can be taken up a winding back staircase to the artists’ garret, where diagrams for teaching were produced. In the corner is a hoist to bring body parts up through a trapdoor from the dissection room below. And in the centre stands a specially built display table, with a hole for draining fluids. It’s worth organising yourself to get here soon as there are plans to move the museum alongside the Surgeons’ Hall. This would have the advantage of allowing many more of the thousands of objects to come out from storage in the catacombs below Teviot, but the amazing sense of travel back to a time when this place was at the heart of the scientific world would be sadly lost
A ll around the outside of the Ashworth Laboratories are small but beautifully car ved animal sculptures. They were commissioned for the new zoology department, which in the 1920s was based at Old College and fast running out of space now that normal life was resuming post-war. James Ashworth, Professor of Natural History and specialist in the nerve fibres of polychaete worms, managed to persuade both the Carnegie Trust and J.D. Rockefeller to help fund the building of this state-of-the-art facility. The resulting designs by Sir Robert Lorimer and John F. Matthews, based on Ashworth’s sketches, were perfectly practical, spacious, evenly lit, but a little … dull. Enter Phyllis Bone, a graduate of Edinburgh College of Art who had been chosen by Lorimer to carve the animal sculptures for the Scottish National War Memorial. Bone had studied animalier under Édouard Navellier in Paris. Her work was both scientific in its detail and strikingly modern in style. Bone modelled the animals in clay and worked with the Holyrood Pottery to have them cast in an artificial stone (a bit like Coade stone: see p. 242). Her creatures represent different zoogeographical regions: the reindeer, golden eagle and polar bear are from the Palaearctic region. A beaver and a bison come from the Nearctic. An aardvark, a chimpanzee and a lion signify the Ethiopian (now Afrotropical) region. The Oriental region, aka the Indomalaya ecozone, enlists a rhinoceros, a tiger and an elephant, with ropes entwining its great feet. From Australia we have a kangaroo, from South America a nine-banded armadillo, and from New Zealand a pair of sphenodon lizards. Invertebrates have a group of their own: a dung beetle, a crab and a swirling octopus. On the main staircase inside the building are more of Bone’s sculptures – tiny bronze owls, cats and monkeys perch on top of the finials of the metal balustrade. There is also a copy of Hugo Rheinhold’s famous Darwin’s monkey sculpture: a chimpanzee sitting atop a pile of books and contemplating a skull, probably wondering why he’s been called a monkey, not an ape. In 1944 Bone went on to become the first woman elected to the Royal Scottish Academy. Asked why it was always animals she sculpted, she replied: “All these creatures that fly from us shyly or threaten us fiercely interest me. I am enthralled by their shapes, their rhythmic movements, which, separately and combined, are so decorative and sculptural.”
I n front of the Almondell Country Park Visitor Centre is a pillar. It doesn’t look very remarkable at first, just a tall stone post topped with a small belfry and an iron cross. But if you inspect it more closely, you will see that it is covered with Latin phrases, measurements and symbols, chiselled into the stone like the scrawlings of a fevered mathematician stonemason. The pillar originally stood in the grounds of Kirkhill House, 5 km north of here. It was commissioned in 1776 by David Stewart Erskine, the 11th Earl of Buchan, to commemorate his own achievement: that of building a scale model of the solar system in his garden. In the tradition of the Enlightenment, Buchan was a lover of all the arts and sciences, but he also seems to have had an eye on his place in history. Sir Walter Scott described him as a person “whose immense vanity, bordering upon insanity, obscured, or rather eclipsed, very considerable talents …” Whether it was inspired by ego or enthusiasm, sadly the laws of entropy have caused Buchan’s giant orary to vanish into the cosmos, and the pillar’s writing has become so worn that it’s difficult to read. On the east side, the abbreviated text states: “In the year 1776, I caused a representation to be made of the solar system on a scale of 12.283 miles and 23/100 to an inch; the table of which epitome is engraved on a belfry which stands in the middle of the garden, and of which I shall insert a transcription below.” Said table lists the astronomical symbols for the sun and the planets (apart from Neptune, Uranus and Pluto, which had yet to be discovered) along with their scaled size and distance from the sun. Why Buchan chose such a peculiar scale is not known. But apparently much of the astronomical detail is remarkably accurate. It includes a prediction of the position of the planets on 20 February 2255. (According to Star Trek, that is when the Treaty of Armens is established between the Sheliak Corporate and the United Federation of Planets.) Buchan would perhaps be pleased to know that he had inspired the Kirkhill Pillar Project, where local artists have created an artwalk through pieces inspired by the different planets. One of them, Uranus, is on the main road down into Almondell Park. Directions to the others can be found on their website:
There is something rather extraordinary hidden in the Merchiston Tower. The building itself is worthy of an entry: a medieval red stone tower house hidden in the middle of a modern university campus. It was the seat of Clan Napier and the birthplace of John Napier, the eighth Laird of Merchiston, mathematician, philosopher, inventor of logarithms, and after whom the university was named. Climb the winding stone steps and you will find a large boardroom with an impressive long asymmetric table sitting on a split-pea green carpet; below is a minstrels’ gallery. You are getting warmer. But it’s not until you lean your head back that you really hit the hot stuff. Look closely at the ceiling above you. Running along the rough pine boards are some rather unusual hand-painted tempera illustrations. They appear, at first sight, to be ornamental vases, flowers, angels. The explanatory notes on the wall tell you that this is the finest and earliest dated Scottish Renaissance ceiling from 1581, which was transferred here after being discovered at Prestongrange in 1962. But then you start to notice the details: a winged lizard with a human head, a weird-looking angel emerging from a contorted shell, a bare-breasted Viking lass with a lion’s-head door knocker hanging from her nether regions. It’s all starting to get a bit Hieronymus Bosch. And that’s when you spot the pornographic elves. Truth be told, you shouldn’t have climbed up to the minstrels’ gallery and stood on a chair to see them. You got too close. And now it’s too late. You’ll never be able to think of Santa’s little helpers in the same way again. The bawdy images are copies of a 1565 French collection of woodcuts called “The Droll Dreams of Pantagruel”, the work of François Desprez. He himself was inspired by a series of five books collectively entitled The Life of Gargantua and Pantagruel by the satirist François Rabelais, which charts the epic and somewhat scatological adventures of two giants, father and son. The text is full of lively escapades. An entire civilisation is discovered living behind Pantagruel’s teeth. He drowns an army in urine. He meets the Chitterlings: a race of half-men, half-sausages. Salvador Dalí published his depictions of the same characters in 1974. How they ended up on an East Lothian nobleman’s ceiling is certainly worthy of more study

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