This month around Edinburgh, beautiful festive lights add some Christmas sparkle and cheer to the streets, monuments and buildings of the city. Along with the glitz and dazzle of the decorations, there are stories and history to discover at these locations too.
With people unable to travel to the city this year for Christmas or New Year celebrations, here are a few bright lights from Edinburgh to help give a little seasonal cheer.
The Christmas lights at the Dome never fail to attract plenty of admirers. The building is at the heart of the Georgian New Town on George Street. This striking classical, temple-like structure is dominated by tall pillars and portico at the top of a flight of steps. The festive garlands of twinkling Christmas lights are pretty eye-catching as they wind their way around the fluted pillars at the entrance.
The decorations may seem a little frivolous for a building which started its life as the Commercial Bank built in 1846. However, like so many of Edinburgh’s other historic grand banks, finance and insurance buildings in the New Town, it’s been converted into a restaurant and bar. The Dome is well-known locally for its spectacular Christmas decorations, both inside and out.
This wasn’t the original building situated here when Edinburgh’s New Town was first designed by architect James Craig in 1767. However, as Edinburgh became an established financial centre, Scottish banks had monumental buildings designed to show off their wealth and prestige.
Inside, the entrance lobby leads to the original banking hall with its large dome in the centre of the ceiling. It’s an impressive building whatever the time of year, even without the magic of Christmas decorations. However, over the festive period it really does becomes a magical and dazzling space. Dominating the banking hall is their huge bauble-bedecked Christmas tree.
The Melville Monument
From George Street it’s only a short walk to St Andrew Square where you’ll find the Melville Monument. Reaching a height of 42 metres, you really can’t miss this statue-topped column as it dominates the gardens at the centre of the square. It was designed by the Edinburgh architect William Burn and completed in 1821.
Lit with atmospheric blue lights at Christmas-time, this monument is dedicated to the 1st Viscount Melville, Henry Dundas. He was a lawyer and advocate who became MP for Midlothian in 1774. He went on to hold a variety of important government posts becoming Home Secretary, Secretary of State for War and First Lord of the Admiralty and Treasurer of the Royal Navy.
A Politically Powerful Man
In fact Henry Dundas more or less ran Scotland for the Prime Minister, William Pitt at end of the 18th century. In his day he was so influential and powerful that he was nicknamed King Harry the Ninth or the Uncrowned King of Scotland. This gives you some idea of his status at the time and how he was viewed by his contemporaries. In the 1790 elections he controlled 33 of the total 45 Scottish seats in parliament. Later he was disgraced and impeached in 1806 for misappropriating Navy funds. Although he was found not guilty he never held office again. To this day, he remains the last MP to have been impeached in the UK.
Henry Dundas has always been a rather controversial figure and even more so these days. Not for any of the reasons above, but because he opposed the immediate abolition of the slave trade and so delayed the Emancipation Act by decades. This decision is said to have been founded on greed and self-interest. Whatever the reason, it added years of untold pain and misery for the slave trade’s many victims. It has been estimated that the delay allowed 630,000 more people to be transported as slaves from Africa to the West Indies.
If you’re now wondering why on earth a statue would be built to commemorate such a man, the answer is simple. It was funded by voluntary subscription by the officers and men of the Royal Navy. Although just how much choice the average sailor had in gifting the ‘voluntary’ donation is debatable!
On a more uplifting note, the monument was so tall that at the time of its construction there was local concern it would fall over. So Robert Stevenson, the famous lighthouse builder and grandfather to the even more famous author, was brought in as a trusted adviser. He had been instrumental in the invention of the world’s first iron-balance crane for the erection of the Bell Rock Lighthouse. It was this crane which was used to put the monument in place.
Going back to the 1700s, long before the New Town existed, this was called Moultray’s Hill. In fact in the past it has had several variations of that name.
According to Edinburgh tradition, this is where several mulberry trees were planted around 300 years ago. Mulberry trees were vital for the silk industry, as silkworms will only eat mulberry leaves. These trees, it is said, were brought over to Edinburgh in 1730 when skilled French silk weavers arrived to work.
There is a story that these weavers from the Picardy region in France were fleeing religious persecution and so came to Edinburgh as refugees. However, the date is too late for that, so it’s more likely they were invited over in the hopes of helping to kickstart a Scottish silk industry. Houses were built for them nearby and the settlement became known as Picardie Village. Only the name of the nearby street Picardy Place remains as a reminder of their time here.
The mulberry trees have long since gone too and today Multrees Walk runs between St Andrew Square and the St James Centre passing by several luxury shops.
The Scott Monument
The Scott Monument is a familiar and iconic landmark in the city. It honours the famous Scottish author Sir Walter Scott who died in 1832 and was opened to the public in 1846. Rising to an impressive height of 61 metres there are 287 internal steps spiralling up to the top. Within the monument sits a sculpture of Walter Scott with his dog Maida carved in marble.
The monument is the result of a competition which invited architects to submit their plans for a suitable memorial. The winner was an unknown called John Morvo. In fact this was a pseudonym given by George Meikle Kemp, who wasn’t an architect at all but a carpenter by trade. The real John Morvo had been a medieval master mason at Melrose Abbey situated in the Borders near Abbotsford, the home of Walter Scott. Perhaps it was the abbey architecture which was Kemp’s inspiration for this memorial spire which locals call ‘The Gothic Rocket’. Sadly for Kemp he drowned in the Union Canal in 1844 before the monument was completed.
Before the New Town was built, the Mound didn’t exist. The deep valley between the Old Town and the site of the New Town was filled by the murky, dirty waters of the Nor’ Loch. This was only drained just before construction of the New Town started.
James Craig, designer of the New Town, actually had no hand in planning the Mound. It was simply the result of builders dumping the excavated soil and rubble from digging out the foundations of the New Town houses. As construction of the New Town continued, the number of barrel loads increased, creating a considerable mound of earth.
At the time the only bridge connecting the Old Town and the New Town was the North Bridge. Unfortunately it was located at the east end, an inconvenient site as construction of the New Town continued westwards. It meant long walks for tradesmen and women living in the Old Town who provided services for the new inhabitants in their stylish New Town houses.
In 1781 George Boyd, a clothier (tailor) is said to have put down planks over the mud to create a short-cut crossing from his home in the Old Town to his New Town customers. This led to the muddy causeway being called Geordie Boyd’s Mud Brig (bridge) at the time. Today the Mound is still a popular route between the Old and New Towns, although luckily not so muddy!
St Giles Cathedral
Right at the heart of the Old Town you’ll find St Giles Cathedral. Actually it was only a Cathedral for the very briefest of times during its roughly 900 year history, but somehow the name has stuck. It’s been a protestant church for centuries and its true title is The High Kirk of St Giles.
St Giles has always been the religious hub of Old Town Edinburgh and during its history it has experienced some pretty turbulent times. It has been the location for key moments in Scottish history and the stories connected with it are legendary. Surprisingly for a church it has also been used as a prison and even had the local 16th century guillotine, called The Maiden, stored within its walls.
Being so close to the castle has meant that this steep section of the Royal Mile has witnessed many tumultuous and quite literally explosive moments in the past. There’s even a cannonball in the wall of one of the buildings to prove it (although that’s a different story and less exciting than local legend would have you believe).
In the 16th century more people were burned as witches at Castle Hill than anywhere else in Scotland. A cast-iron plaque and memorial fountain commemorates those hundreds of poor souls who were condemned and executed as witches here.
The building on the left of the above picture now houses the Tartan Weaving Mill but started out as the Castle Hill water reservoir. This building was completed in 1851, but replaced an earlier 17th century building. Amazingly Edinburgh had its own piped fresh water supply from 1674.
It might not look it from the outside, but this building once held over 1.7 million gallons of water and was 30ft in depth!
And finally we come to one of the Old Town’s curved, steep, cobbled streets which is lined with a dolly-mixture of attractive multi-coloured shops. It’s a street with 2 names. At the curved bottom of the street where it joins the Grassmarket, it’s called West Bow. As it turns the corner and heads diagonally up to George IV bridge it changes its name to Victoria Street.
The West Bow is the original medieval street which started at the Grassmarket. For many centuries it zigzagged its way steeply upwards to the Upper Bow and Castle Hill.
However by the 1830s, a programme of improvements were implemented. These were designed for easier access to the Old Town and to introduce more light and space. Victoria Street is one of these improved roads and was completed in 1834. It kept the original West Bow entrance and name before cutting a swathe through the original jumble of Old Town medieval buildings and connecting closes.
So to give a magical end to this festive blog, this street is said to be connected to J K Rowling’s Harry Potter series. The reason for this is that it’s believed to have been the inspiration for Diagon Alley.