This year we are celebrating Scotland’s ‘Year of Stories’. Traditionally Scotland is a country well-known for its historic myths and legends. There are tales of the supernatural and folklore, as well as more down-to-earth adventure and derring-do. What better place to discover some of these stories than on a tour in Scotland’s capital itself?
You’re spoilt for choice in Edinburgh. Around every corner there are stories which cross all genres. Discover mystery, murder, escape and mayhem to the tales which still have the power to melt hearts today. Often fact is stranger than fiction and never was the cliche more true than in the city.
The stories are as varied as the history of Edinburgh and its citizens themselves. They reflect the colourful lives of the people who lived, loved, fought and died here and sometimes their afterlives too. So history is never boring with their tales to tell, especially when fact and fiction collide to become legend.
Here are just 2 of Edinburgh’s surprising and most popular historic stories.
1. A story of a beloved wee dog
One of the most famous and heart-warming tales from the city, is about a wee Skye Terrier called Bobby. I’ve briefly mentioned the story of Greyfriar’s Bobby in one of my earlier blogs. He has to be the best-known and probably the most loved dog in Edinburgh. To this day his act of loyalty still touches people and brings crowds of visitors to see his statue and gravestone. Last month marked the 150th anniversary of Bobby’s death, and as a result of his popularity people participate in his commemoration annually.
The story of Greyfriars Bobby has evolved into a legend, with variations on the core theme. Here’s one of my favourite versions. Around 1850, John Gray arrived in Edinburgh as an out of work gardener. He avoided the workhouse by becoming a night watchman for the City of Edinburgh Police. ‘Bobby’ became his wee four-legged companion and together they were a familiar sight patrolling the Old Town streets. As John Gray looked out for law-breakers, Bobby helped his master by chasing after any fleeing culprits. He nipped at their ankles to slow them down, so John Gray could then catch up and apprehend them.
A Loyal Companion
Their partnership came to an end in 1858 when John Gray, known as Auld Jock, died of tuberculosis. He was buried in Greyfriars Kirkyard, where you can still see and visit his gravestone. This is when Bobby demonstrated his devotion and loyalty to his old friend. For the next 14 years he faithfully stayed by his master’s graveside. For the most part he only left it to eat and occasionally patrol the local area. A local soldier, Colour Sergeant Scott befriended Bobby. He taught the wee dog to head for Traill’s Coffee House when the One O’Clock gun was fired. It soon became Bobby’s favourite place to eat. Perhaps it’s not surprising, because John Trail and his family are said to have fed Bobby a hot meat pie for his lunch! It was the place where Sergeant Scott would often join Bobby at lunchtime too.
However, despite his local popularity, Bobby suddenly faced an uncertain future and probable death. In those days owners of dogs needed to pay for a dog licence. Any dog found without a licence would be taken by the authorities and destroyed, if their owner did not come forward and pay. In 1867 John Traill was charged with keeping an unlicensed dog, namely Bobby. He was summoned to the Burgh Court on the High Street to answer the charge in court. The problem was that John Traill didn’t own Bobby. This was the point he argued in Court, explaining that he only fed the dog and so the future looked suddenly bleak for the wee Skye Terrier.
A Well-Connected Friend
Very luckily for Bobby, his fame had spread around the city and further afield. Just in the nick of time, in stepped the Lord Provost (the Town Mayor) William Chambers to personally save Bobby. He was in a position to change the fate of the dog and presented Bobby with a leather collar. On the collar was a metal plate with the inscription “GREYFRIARS BOBBY, from the Lord Provost 1867, Licenced”. Bobby had been saved and lived out the rest of his days quietly.
Both Bobby’s collar and a small dish he used still exist today. If you’d like to see them, they are on display in the Museum of Edinburgh as a poignant reminder of a well-loved dog.
Bobby died in 1872 and Baroness Angela Burdett-Coutts commissioned and gifted a memorial fountain in his honour to Edinburgh Council. She was an animal lover and said to be the richest heiress in Britain at the time. It was her grandfather Thomas Coutts who had founded Coutts Bank in London. The artist and sculptor William Brodie, created the little statue of Greyfriars Bobby. The dog’s sculpted life-size bronze sits on top of the fountain, which is now no longer in use. Originally the top part of the fountain supplied drinking water for people and the bottom part for animals.
A Shaggy Dog Story?
Having told you the most popular version of the story of Greyfriars Bobby, now is the point to say that there are those who say this tale is not true at all! Some have said that Bobby was simply a stray who wandered around Greyfriars. Others have said that although the story of his life is true, the original Bobby died in 1867. Because of his fame, it has been rumoured that Bobby was replaced with a similar-looking canine substitute. For this reason it has been said that it was this look-a-like Bobby who died in 1872. We’ll never know what really happened, but that’s where truth and legend combine. The story of the devoted wee dog has found its place as part of Edinburgh’s history and firmly remains there.
A Wee Dog with a Shiny Nose
Whatever the absolute truth of the history of Greyfriars Bobby, he has remained popular. Over the last 150 years his statue has drawn many hundreds of thousands of visitors. He sits outside a pub that bears his name and close to the gates of Greyfriars Kirkyard. Unfortunately, in recent years a new trend of rubbing his nose for luck has suddenly developed. It might not seem a significant thing to do. Perhaps if it were only a few people rubbing his nose you’d be right. However, Edinburgh has many thousands of visitors yearly. Needless to say the high number of visitors has meant that Bobby’s nose is now shiny and slowly wearing down.
If you’re coming to Edinburgh, make sure to visit Bobby’s statue and Greyfriars Kirkyard and take lots of photos. Just spare a thought though for his poor rubbed-down, shiny nose and try to keep your hands to yourselves!
2. The story of Deacon Brodie
Most of Edinburgh’s popular or infamous historic characters end up having a pub named in their honour. Deacon Brodie is no exception. William Brodie was born in Edinburgh in 1741 and like his father Francis before him, he became a fine cabinet-maker. He was recognised for the quality of his woodworking skills and became a mastercraftsman. As a result he eventually rose to be the Deacon (the head) of the Incorporation of Wrights. In his position as Deacon, Brodie also had a place on Edinburgh’s Town Council.
To outward appearances William Brodie was a successful craftsman and a well-respected and upstanding member of Edinburgh society. However, outward appearances were deceptive. Behind the scenes, he actually lived a double life. He was a compulsive gambler, with two mistresses and was father to their 5 children. In order to finance this gambling habit and expensive lifestyle he turned to crime.
The Phantom Burglar
As a popular furniture-maker, Deacon Brodie was in high demand by Edinburgh’s social elite. Those who could afford it were moving from the Old Town to the recently created New Town. They needed to furnish their new, elegant townhouses with more good quality furniture and William Brodie was happy to oblige. He would go to their houses to measure up for whatever piece of furniture they required before heading back to his workshop in the Old Town. Making cabinets meant that Brodie was experienced with locks too.
Cunningly during his visit he managed to take an imprint of the owner’s front door key in either putty or a piece of wax. A copy of the key was made and during the night he would return to the house to stealthily let himself in and rob the owners of their valuables. He’d lock up behind him, so that no trace of a break-in was evident. The result was a worrying spate of burglaries that nobody could explain, leading to all types of speculation. The idea of a phantom on the loose was one of the popular theories of the day. The matter was even debated by the Town Council, where Brodie himself was a member and would have sat, knowing the full truth.
A Step Too Far
Between 1786 and 1788, William Brodie worked with three accomplices; Andrew Ainslie, George Smith and John Brown. With the success of his criminal activities, Brodie had became over-confident and not too careful about who he chose to work with. John Brown was already a convicted thief on the run from the English authorities and facing transportation so he was using an alias. His real name was Humphrey Moore.
Eventually they went a step too far in their crime spree. On 5th March 1788 they robbed the General Excise Office of Scotland (tax office) in Chessels Court, known to have £600 in cash on site. In fact there only turned out to be £16 in the office that night. Worse was to come however, as unexpectedly the bank official returned to the office. The bungled robbery was a disaster and although William Brodie and his gang escaped without being captured, it wasn’t long before his accomplices were in custody.
Although at this stage William Brodie was not implicated, he decided that it would be safer to make a run for it to the Continent and from there to a new life in America. He got as far as Amsterdam, but the Law was hot on his heels. His route took him to London and then aboard a ship to Amsterdam via Ostend, where Brodie asked a fellow passenger, who would be heading back to Edinburgh to take some letters to deliver for him. Suspicious of Brodie, his letters were given to the authorities instead.
Capture and Trial
William Brodie’s luck ran out in Amsterdam, where he was captured the night before his ship was due to set sail for America. He was taken back to Edinburgh and held in the Old Tolbooth, awaiting trial. Two of his accomplices, Ainslie and Brown, had turned King’s Evidence. This meant that they saved themselves from the gallows with a Royal pardon and so were free to implicate Brodie as the criminal mastermind behind the robberies. George Smith was the other unlucky member of the gang who also stood trial. Despite the testimonies of Ainslie and Brown, the evidence was largely circumstantial, until a search of Brodie’s premises uncovered hidden weapons and keys. His guilty action of fleeing Edinburgh after the robbery sealed Deacon Brodie’s fate, although he argued he’d fled the city as he was about to be charged with using loaded dice when gambling.
On 27th August 1788 the trial began of both William Brodie and George Smith. Two days of evidence finally resulted in both men being found guilty and sentenced to death. They were to be hanged on 1st October 1788.
A Final Twist in the Tale
Like all the very best stories, the tale of William Brodie has a final twist or two. It’s where historical fact and local rumour combine to give us a lasting legend.
On the day of his execution William Brodie appeared calm and self-assured. Edinburgh tradition has it that, as a member of the Town Council, he had been involved in the design of a new type of gallows. Ironically he was to be one of the first to try the new design out. Whether this is true or not is debatable, but from eye-witness accounts at the time, he certainly boasted that the new gallows were the most efficient ever built.
However, this is not the only twist. It’s said that the reason Deacon Brodie was so calm on the day of his execution is because he had done a deal with the hangman. Hidden under the high neck of his shirt, William Brodie was wearing a metal band around his throat. He hoped that this would be enough to protect his neck, so he would survive the hanging.
Despite this measure and his apparent confidence, Deacon Brodie did not survive and died on 1st October 1788 in front of an enormous crowd. Some estimates put the number of people watching around 40,000. Needless to say, the execution of such a prominent Edinburgh citizen was a local sensation and drew many spectators.
The Real Jekyll and Hyde
The story of William Brodie is said to have been the inspiration for Robert Louis Stevenson’s book “The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde”. He saw the two sides of Brodie’s life and character and explored the split when he created his famous novel.
Stevenson seems to have been fascinated with the story of Deacon Brodie. One of the reasons for this is thought to be because of Stevenson’s childhood. As a sickly child, Stevenson was often unwell and spent a lot of time in bed in his family’s Heriot Row home, where his imagination could go riot. Sitting in the corner of his bedroom was a cabinet which had been made by William Brodie. It was a daily reminder of Edinburgh’s infamous past resident and a direct and close connection to him for Robert Louis Stevenson.
If you’d like to see William Brodie’s cabinet, then you’ll find it at The Writer’s Museum in Lady Stair’s Close. The museum is temporarily closed at the moment, but hopefully it’ll re-open soon. This museum has exhibitions for Sir Walter Scott, Robert Burns and Robert Louis Stevenson. Tucked in a corner downstairs beside other artefacts from Stevenson’s life and work, sits Deacon Brodie’s finely crafted wooden cabinet.
It’s a very solid connection with a character from Edinburgh’s colourful past and just one of many examples of the stories that you can discover on an Edinburgh Unwrapped walking tour.