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Roger McCann

Writer | Blogger | Photographer

Articles - Heritage


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A Walk through Dundee

2019-01-08 14:12:37

As I waited for the traffic lights to change before crossing the road outside Dundee’s newly refurbished railway station, a friendly woman engaged me in conversation. “Braw, isn’t it” she said, answering her own question.

We were gazing at the tall masts of the R.R.S. (Royal Research Ship) Discovery berthed in its dock by the River Tay. The ship was built hereabouts beginning March 1900 for the National Antarctic Expedition to be led by Captain Robert Falcon Scott. His quest the following year was to be first ever to reach the South Pole. Scott described the ship as, “a splendidly strong and well-fortified structure and the machinery is in all respects equal to the hull.” At 172 feet long and 32 feet broad it seems small for what was then an adventure into the unknown. But he was right. The ship survived two years imprisonment in the crushing, vice-like grip of Antarctic pack ice.

At Discovery Point Centre, in comfort, visitors can learn something of that Antarctic experience before boarding R.R.S. Discovery to see the crew’s actual living quarters.

From there, a few steps will take you to the front door of Dundee’s newest attraction – the futuristic V&A Museum of Design – the only outpost of London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. The fantastic building designed by Japanese architectural practice Kenzo Kuma & Associates opened on the 15th September 2018.You’ll find the permanent display dedicated to Scottish design including a Charles Rennie MacIntosh tearoom. A succession of international exhibitions will feature throughout the coming years.

To reach the newly paved waterfront walkway behind the V&A, find the tunnel-like space which leads through the building. From there views across the river are extensive to the shores of Fife.

As you head eastwards, pause for a moment at the memorial slab commemorating the opening of the Tay Road Bridge in 1966, at the time the longest in Britain. The bridge appears graceful from a distance but close up the dull concrete is severely strong and functional.

Past the bridge, the river becomes ever wider and deeper - safe for docking ships and oil rigs.

A sign for the Frigate Unicorn points along a street heading away from the waterside. This was a busy place when ships from India unloaded tons of jute for Dundee’s now defunct jute industry.

The long- empty warehouses have now been converted into riverside apartments. Behind the apartment blocks, lies Victoria Dock. One sad-looking boat, the North Carr, appears to be held together with a coverall coating of red paint and rust. Once it was manned, a working lightship that signalled safe passage for ships negotiating the River Tay estuary. Now, when lightships have been replaced with fixed buoys this is the only survivor in Scotland.

Further along Victoria Dock, the Frigate Unicorn, the oldest British-built wooden ship afloat was built for the Royal Navy in 1824. Visitors can wander amongst the cannons and historical fittings to get a feeling for times when Britannia ruled the waves.

Crossing a new bridge to the north side of Victoria Dock leads to an avenue of new shops and business premises. This refurbishment, renamed City Quay, is part of a long overdue plan to make more of Dundee’s superb riverside location.

Leave the harbour by the wide gates that open onto streets constructed originally for transporting goods quickly from ships to shore markets. Appropriately named Commercial Street was designed to give speedy access to the town centre and continues across the High Street to the McManus Art Gallery and Museum in the surrounds of Albert Square.

The galleries show a collection of Victorian and 20th century Scottish paintings including landscapes by the ever-popular Dundee artist, the late James McIntosh Patrick. The museum houses displays of local history. A stained glass window in the museum cafe commemorates Mary Slessor who worked as a child in a Dundee weaving shed and later became Scotland’s most famous woman missionary to Africa. This is the same woman whose portrait graces present day bank notes. At the rear of the museum, a statue of Queen Victoria appears to approve.

It’s worth taking a turn round the ancient stones of the Howff cemetery, diagonally opposite the statue of Robert Burns on Albert Square. The cemetery was granted to the town by Mary Queen of Scots in 1564. Many of the ancient stone grave markers have a carved symbol denoting the trade of the deceased.

From the graveyard there’s a good view of the red stone building opposite known locally as the Courier Building. This was the historic home of D.C.Thomson, publishers of newspapers, magazines and comics such as The Dandy and The Beano. Cartoon characters in these two esteemed publications were inspirational for the artists who created the life size sculptures of Desperate Dan and Minnie the Minx, complete with loaded catapult, which stand on a pavement near the end of Reform Street.

Ahead, the City Square is enclosed on the south side by the imposing bulk of the Caird Hall, a popular venue for a diverse range of concerts and other gatherings.

West along the Nethergate, St. Mary’s Church was founded in 1190. A guided tour to the top of the adjoining Auld Steeple (232 steps) will give further insights into the City’s mediaeval history and great views. In contrast, immediately behind, all glass front, stainless steel and polished wood is the Overgate Shopping Centre.

It was not so far away, unmarked by any monument, that a different sort of retail outlet probably had a much greater impact on the world. A Belgian immigrant, Edward de Gernier, in the late 1870s, opened what he claimed to be “the first chip potatoes, peas and vinegar stall in Britain.” Today, throughout the land, fast food fanciers have reason to thank M. de Gernier.

Before crossing the road to find the plaque commemorating Winston Churchill’ s time as an M.P. for Dundee, look for the replica of a unicorn on top of a stone column which stands on the pavement in front of the Auld Steeple. This is Dundee’s 16th century Mercat (market) Cross. Like others in Scottish towns and cities, it marked a place where merchants would gather and as it was granted by the monarchy, it gave merchants the right to hold a market.

Further along Nethergate, on the left, hardly noticeable, a small plaque on a tenement wall commemorates Fanny Wright (1795-1852) an early feminist and proponent of women’s rights. In the same house lived Dr. Thomas Maclagan, also a pioneer in his field. His research into salicin, an extract from the bark of white willow trees led to further research abroad. What millions of people are grateful for, and know today as aspirin, was the outcome.

The Nethergate merges with Perth Road and on passing St. Andrew’s Catholic Cathedral you reach the cultural quarter, the bohemian West End. Dundee Contemporary Arts building houses galleries, cinemas and a café/ bar. In the restaurant, large windows give a good view over the Science Centre. There is a choice of other art galleries and eating establishments nearby, including a restaurant in the Repertory Theatre though a “peh” (meat pie) or “ingin bridie” culinary specialities of Dundee might be hard to find here.

Still on the Nethergate, past the University and across the road from Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design, the street known as Roseangle leads down to the river. Near its end, on the left, is a well - used children’s play area. Passing trains and small aircraft that leave and return to Dundee’s nearby riverside airport add extra interest.

Before leaving Roseangle, stroll at least as far as the bandstand on Magdalen Green, Dundee’s oldest park. The bandstand is used for concerts in summertime.

Retrace your steps to Roseangle and Riverside Approach, which ends almost below a span of the Tay Railway Bridge (1887). From here, panoramic views extend across to Fife and up the river towards Perth. Seals are often seen on sandbanks near the bridge supports when the water level is low.

Stumps on the east side of the old railway bridge are still visible in the water. These are remnants from the calamity since known as the Tay Bridge Disaster, when, in high winds on the 28th December 1879, the evening train from Edinburgh to Dundee - engine, six carriages and all the passengers, plunged into the icy waters of the River Tay. No one survived. A hundred yards or so to the west, on the walkway, there is a memorial to those who lost their lives in the disaster.

Continuing eastwards, Riverside Drive leads back to the railway station, to Discovery point, the V&A and the centre of town. As you leave the rail bridge behind, you might take a few minutes to read William Topaz McGonagall’s poem carved into the walkway – though you’ll have to find the start and walk back towards the bridge.

Beautiful Railway Bridge by the Silv’ry Tay!

Alas! I am sorry to say...

Views of both bridges spanning a huge expanse of water, Fife, green on the opposite bank, are splendid.

First published in The Glasgow Herald

Further information: There is a choice of cafes and restaurants along this walk including at Discovery Point, the V&A and the McManus Art Gallery and Museum.

www.brightdundeetours for a guided tour of the exterior of the McManus Art Gallery and Museum

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Caithness Flagstone Industry

2018-05-17 07:13:08

On two hessian covered tables in Castlehill Heritage Centre there is a display of tools that were used by workmen employed locally in the Caithness flagstone industry. Visitors are encouraged to pick up the hammers, to feel their weight. The handles are not overly long or thick, but the head is a heavy lump of metal. Swinging such a hammer accurately to thump short, stubby iron wedges into place over the course of a day must have been physically gruelling.

Despite the tough working conditions the Caithness flagstone industry gave many local men a living. Other men given jobs came from further afield. They had been cleared from their crofts and smallholdings by agents of the landowners in the west of Scotland. Initially these men had been heading to the east coast, to the town of Wick, to work in the herring industry but decided, perhaps by the offer of jobs, to stop in Castletown, the centre of the flagstone industry at the time. Others got work on the estate of James Traill of Rattar, Sheriff of Caithness. However, many of these men remained unemployed.

Sheriff Traill had great compassion for these ‘Highlanders’ as he called them and gave large numbers a place to stay and a piece of land to work. When they could not pay rent, he did not press them, but took instead an I.O.U. or promissory note until times improved.

James Traill had inherited the Castlehill Estate in 1788. His agricultural improvements included the combining of small farms into much larger units which allowed modern husbandry to flourish. He planted trees and experimented with new fertilising methods. By introducing a dairy herd from Dunlop in Ayrshire into his cattle breeding programme he improved Caithness cattle which until then had been seen as inferior to herds in the rest of the country.

Traill did not stop there. Having erected a lint-mill, a barley mill and a corn mill he soon realised that with greater yields, new markets were also needed. Alongside all of these improvements he was also the driving force behind the expansion of the Caithness flagstone industry.

The origins of this industry extend back millions of years when layers of sediment were laid down in Lake Orcadi, a vast shallow sea which once covered much of northern Scotland and Orkney. Through geological time the layers of sediment eventually hardened to sandstone which would be quarried much later for use as a building material.

Over thousands of years Caithness men have had an affinity with this material and evidence of their skilled use of stone is easily found. The remains of brochs, hut circles, cairns and standing stones still mark the landscape. When these structures were left behind some of the stone was carried away by later generations and reused for other purposes.

Closer to our own times there are many buildings on farms and in villages and towns that have been cleverly constructed in stone including the fine public buildings of Wick and Thurso. Much more humble, yet still in use and common across the county are the stock proof fences of single upright flagstones fitted together to make lines of field boundary markers.

Though the business of producing flagstones and exporting them had gone on in a small way for a number of years, it was Sheriff James Traill who had the harbour built at Castlehill to get his products, especially flagstones, to a much wider market. Until then stones were ‘lightered’ in small craft to larger ships anchored in the bay. The cut stone was taken to the harbour from the cutting yards by pony and cart or on a horse drawn bogey pulled along a rail track. Then it was loaded by hand aboard small schooners.

Traill’s harbour builder was James Bremner who was born locally in 1784 near Keiss, a village north of Wick. After an apprenticeship at Steel’s shipbuilding yard in Greenock, Bremner returned to work in Caithness as a shipbuilder, harbour builder and wreck raiser. As well as Castlehill Harbour, Bremner built five other local harbours. In total he planned, built or improved nineteen harbours in the north of Scotland which were much needed for the booming herring and flagstone industries. When the building of Castlehill Harbour was complete, the first cargo was shipped out in 1825.

By 1840, one hundred people worked at Castlehill. By the turn of the century, the work force had increased to five hundred.

There were various specialisms in the workplace. To separate two or more thinner slices from a large piece of sandstone the Splitter would select a line. Then using hammers to knock in chisels the Hammermen would follow the line round the outside of the slab. When a chisel stuck, it would be left poking out of the stone – then a fresh chisel was used. When the complete circumference of the slab had been worked round, water was then poured on and the stone left until the next day. The separated layers of stone could then be lifted.

The Dresser was responsible for cutting the stone slabs into squares or rectangles at the cutting bed using a rough toothed, iron saw blade hung from a frame.

The Sand Boy’s job was to fill a V-shaped box above the cutting saws with abrasive sand for aiding the cutting process. He would also add sand to wooden polishing plates. For this process, each lot of grit added was less coarse than the previous one until the required finish of the stone was reached.

In the early days at Castlehill, power was supplied by a waterwheel. This was succeeded by steam engines and eventually oil engines. The Engineer’s job was to operate, maintain and repair this equipment. He also had to care for the wind pump at Castlehill. Its turning action helped drain the surrounding land and turn grinding wheels on which the engineer would sharpen tools.

The Manager was the owner’s right hand man. As well as striving to get maximum effort from the work force, the manager spoke with customers and searched for business all over the world.

So that ships could be loaded whatever the state of the tide, a derrick was built at the harbour mouth to operate boom gates. In this way, water could be kept in the basin. By keeping the heavily laden ships afloat and so prevented from resting on the harbour bottom, loading could continue and no damage would result. From this small harbour, records show that 7000,000 - 8000,000 feet of stone was shipped out annually.

If the weather was too wet or freezing cold, flagstone work could not continue. If there was no work - there was no pay!

On such days, some stone workers might be given farm work. This change of roles was not always welcomed by the stone workers or the farm workers. But since Sheriff Traill owned the flagstone works and the farms there was little say in the matter. Sharpening tools at a grinder at Castlehill windmill may have been a marginally better alternative.

While employment was high, quarry workers were encouraged to live in Castletown and Mr.Traill offered feus of land or plots for sale. Workers were also allowed to take free off cuts of partially dressed stone so they could build their own homes on the main street and in the ‘backies’.

Though stone workers’ wages compared favourably with those of agricultural workers, life was not easy. Working days were long and holidays were few. Lateness for work was punished – even arriving five minutes late meant the loss of an hours pay. There was no sick pay, no national social security payments and workers were forced to buy provisions and coal from the company store on the Traill estate at fixed prices.

Despite the hardships, when there was time off, the quarrymen competed with each other in feats of strength and in athletic pursuits including long jump and throwing.

Kite flying, singing, storytelling and keeping ferrets for poaching rabbits were also popular pastimes as were the dances which would go on for most of a night, leaving no time to go home before setting off for work in the morning.

Unfortunately, from around 1902, the industry began to decline as manufacturers made similar products in concrete which was cheaper. In the next few years trade at the Castlehill works continued to fall before finally closing in 1912. Increased transport costs, higher wage demands and the continuing competition all affected demand and by the 1920s most of the other Caithness quarries had closed.

The workers had to look for jobs elsewhere and many ended up emigrating. For some of them the streets of Boston were not ‘paved with gold’ as they were led to believe, but were paved with flagstones from Caithness.

The flagstones produced at Castlehill Quarry had been sold for use in towns and cities all over the U.K. Supplies also went to Europe, Australia, North America and South America.

However, recently the flagstone industry has had a change of fortune and a range of high quality flagstone goods including paving, roof slates, fireplace finishes and kitchen surfaces are produced locally using state of the art equipment.

The village of Castletown lies on the coastal road, the A836 which runs across the north of Scotland between Thurso and John O’ Groats. The Castlehill Heritage Centre can be found easily within a few minutes of the village.

The Centre, an updated, refurbished farm steading of local stone and floored with flags is a treasure trove of information about the people and local industries which went on in the immediate area.

Various hands-on classes which take place throughout the year give an insight into traditional crafts that were once commonplace. Beautiful baskets of flowers have been hung from the outside walls and the garden fronting the Centre is stunning.

On leaving the Centre and garden, visitors can cross the road to the start of a signposted trail and walk in the footsteps of the stone workers who made this same short journey from the nearby quarry to Castlehill Harbour.

First published in The Highlander

The Magazine of Scottish Heritage

Further information: WWW.castletownheritage.co.uk

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Whisky Smuggling in Glenlivet

2018-02-21 12:08:38

Whisky has been made in Scotland for a very long time though the earliest written records date back only to 1494 when it was noted that Friar John Corr was commissioned to buy 8 bolls of malt (a quantity of grain) to make aqua vitae for King James 1V.

In those days, whisky making was very much a cottage industry. In wintertime, when sodden fields kept farmers off the land, they would turn to other work, making use of any excess barley, to produce Uisge Beatha, the so-called ‘water of life’.

When taxation was introduced by the Scottish Government in 1644 the whisky distillers were distraught but did pay up grudgingly. The tax system seems to have been fairly complicated with farmers being taxed at different rates – the size of the farm, or the size of the still on the farm determining how much money had to be paid.

That system lasted until 1707. On the 16th January in that momentous year Scotland signed the Treaty of Union.

By 1713, the power of government had moved from Edinburgh to London and when finance was needed to keep British soldiers fighting wars all over the world, it was decided the best way to do this was to raise the tax on Scotch whisky. However, taxes were raised too high and whisky makers refused to pay them.

As if this hardship was imposed only yesterday, the tour guides at Aberlour Whisky Distillery on Speyside tell groups of visitors, “at that(taxes being raised too high) we were driven into the hills, forcing us to make our whisky illegally!’’

There were many bloody battles in these hills between the gaugers, (customs and excise men) and the illicit distillers. It got so bad that the Red Coats, soldiers of the English Army were ordered to rid the hills of illicit stills, of which there were hundreds.

“But we fought back to save our amber nectar,” the guide relates as if he had been there, personally wielding a sword.

This battle raged on for over 100 years.

In 1822 King George 1V visited Edinburgh. He came dressed in full highland regalia – kilt and sporran with a Tam o’ Shanter bonnet on his head. He demanded Glenlivet whisky knowing full well that the output was illegal. Of course, this caused the Government great embarrassment – even though they knew where to find a supply.

“Everybody,’’ an observer noted, ‘‘including lords and lairds, members of parliament and ministers of the gospel, drink what is in reality, illicit whisky. It is far superior to that made under the eye of the Excise’’.

But now the matter was out in the open and everyone was aware of it. The Government now offered a reward to anyone who would give them information on the whereabouts of illicit stills. The reward offered was £5.00.

With this chance of easy money the illicit distillers would keep working on their product until their whisky stills had burnt out. When that happened, they would report the whereabouts of their burnt out still to the government officers and claim £5.00 reward. A government agent would come and inspect the burnt out evidence before handing over the money that enabled the distillers to buy new equipment and carry on making more whisky.

It wasn’t always so easy. The smugglers’ bothies (secreted dens) were dark, smoky, unhygienic places. Camouflaging a site was crucial as the work places had to be difficult to find. A story is told of how one smuggler was shocked at finding a local gamekeeper reclining on the heather topped roof of his still house! Another smuggler constructed his chimney in such a way so the issuing smoke blended with the spray of a nearby waterfall.

Great ingenuity was shown, not only in carrying out the various distilling processes, but in warning other whisky makers of the approach of the excisemen.

Even as late as 1904 it was written, ‘In Strathspey and neighbouring localities where a mutual bond of protection exists, it is the practice, when the exciseman is seen approaching, to display immediately from the house top, or a conspicuous eminence, a white sheet which, being seen by the people in the next ‘town’ or farm steading, would indicate a similar signal should be hoisted. Thus, the alarm passes rapidly up the glen. Before the officer can reach the transgressor of the law, everything will have been carefully removed and so well concealed that even when positive information has been given, it frequently happens that no trace of the work can be found.’

Because the actual still represented an expensive item of equipment, much trouble was taken to hide it when the distilling operations were completed. Some distillers would tie a cord and a float to their equipment then throw the lot into the waters of a nearby loch. Others would hide their equipment in the pulpit of the Kirk. For his help in this skulduggery the church officer would expect a good dram.

These nefarious activities were commonplace until the Duke of Gordon, owner of the Glenlivet Estate at the time and a powerful man in government circles, decided to do something about this illegal activity. He knew there were hundreds of men and women on his land making whisky illicitly, but he didn’t want to stop this work completely. Otherwise, how would his tenants be able to pay the rent he demanded?

The Duke went to the Government and made a case for his tenants for the reduction of their taxes. He also asked for a reduction in the cost of a licence and in the legal size of a still. At that time, the legal size of a still was 400 gallons.

After much deliberation, the cost of a licence was set at £10.00. The legal size of a still was reduced to 40 gallons and taxes were cut in half. This was a much more viable proposition. The bootleggers could now consider making their product legally. .

The Duke went back to his Glenlivet estate and tried to persuade his tenants that whisky making within the law was best.

The very first tenant the Duke managed to convince was a man called George Smith from Upper Drumin Farm. Mr. Smith was granted a licence to make whisky legally on 1st November 1824. He could now produce and sell his whisky openly. However, at the same time, to those yet to be convinced, he became the most hated man in the glen.

George Smith had a ready made customer base – King James 1V had made sure of that.

“The rest of us,” the guide at Aberlour Distillery will tell you, “kept on making our whisky by dead of night and we felt that George Smith was a threat to our livelihood!”

“So much so, we tried to get rid of him, to burn his premises down with George Smith inside.”

“On a number of occasions, we even tried to stop him as he delivered whisky to his customers.”

But Smith was made of stern stuff. With the help of a pair of pistols he had received from his great friend, the Laird of Aberlour, Smith used the weapons to great effect – not only to save his whisky still, but also his own skin.

As Smith began to prosper, more and more of the illicit distillers came to realise he had made the right decision. Eventually they began to make the trip to Elgin and pay for this new licence which allowed them to produce whisky legally.

By the 1840’s, it was believed there were no illicit stills left in the glens. Whisky was still sold in casks holding eight and a half imperial gallons and as yet there was no bottling. When the bottling process did appear in the 1850’s, George Smith took an interest. His agent, Andrew Usher from Edinburgh, was the first to brand and bottle Old Vatted Glenlivet.

This was the beginnings of the huge Scottish whisky industry that reaches round the world today.

Glenlivet lies between the Ladder and Cromdale Hills in the Cairngorm National Park in North East Scotland. Nowhere in Glenlivet is lower than 600 feet and winter snows can last into the spring. The estate is managed to provide opportunities for sustained employment in agriculture, farming, sporting and tourism.

As part of the annual Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival in May, there are a number of guided walks. One of the walks follows tracks taken by the whisky smugglers who made their way with their precious cargo, perhaps being harassed by excise men, to customers as far away as Edinburgh or Aberdeen.

Wildlife watching from the comfort of an all-terrain vehicle also gives an insight into the lives of the whisky smugglers. An estate tour guide will drive to the best places where visitors may spot roe deer, red deer, brown hares, red and black grouse as well as smaller birds. These creatures were a necessary food source for the smugglers.

Knowledge of grasses and other plants, such as heather, was also important. As well as camouflage, heather could be made into ropes or a belt to sling a couple of small kegs of whisky over each side of a pack horse.

Close up, smuggling was hardly a romantic lifestyle. It was more of a necessity, as was the ability to make use of whatever materials were available.

First published in The Highlander

The Magazine of Scottish Heritage

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Mary King’s Close

2017-06-08 14:37:06

In Scotland’s capital, the Old Town thoroughfare running from Edinburgh Castle down to Holyrood Palace is often referred to as the Royal Mile. Castlehill leads down to the Lawnmarket which continues into the High Street. A short walk past John Knox’s House this becomes the Canongate leading to Horse Wynd which turns past the front of the new Scottish Parliament building. From the Royal Mile, a series of roads, narrow lanes and tight alleyways fall away to either side. These alleyways, or ‘wynds’ and ‘closes’, once had gates that could be locked at night to protect the inhabitants from thieves and vagabonds.

During much of the year the Royal Mile is busy, thronged with visitors. Some come to wave at the occasional parades of passing royalty. Others delight in spotting politicians or celebrities, busking musicians or street theatre performances. Treading in famous footsteps where dramatic events in Scottish history took place is also an attraction. Then there are those visitors who are prepared to venture below present day street level to learn about the lives of the ordinary people who once lived in the tenements.

Standing up to eight stories high, these buildings were known as the world’s first skyscrapers. Densely populated, they each housed up to 600 people of all classes and trades. Society was then organised vertically. The wealthy lived at the top of a building and the poor lived amongst the filth at the bottom. As there was a general lack of sanitation throughout the town, everybody suffered.

The entrances, or closes off the main street, were often named with a simple description of the businesses or activities carried on there. In Bakehouse Close you would smell baking bread. Fleshmarket Close and Skinner’s Close were less savoury. This was where the slaughtermen, butchers and tanners carried on their trades. A lawyer could be consulted in Advocate’s Close or a ship’s chandler in Anchor Close.

Other closes were named after prominent citizens who dwelt there. For example, Pearson’s Close was named after Alexander Pearson, 17th century merchant, while Stewart’s Close, was probably named after William Stewart, merchant, magistrate and resident in 1710. These names would change over time. Thus, Mary King’s Close came to be named after a comparatively wealthy business lady.

Night time in the Old Town could be dark and dangerous with robbers lurking to waylay the unwary. To help lessen the dangers, the Burgh Council, in the winter of 1554, issued a regulation requiring trades people to light a lantern each evening in front of their booths. It had to be lit between the hours of 5 o’clock in the evening and 9 o’clock the next morning. Failure to comply could incur a fine. Without this early form of street lighting, a walk through these crowded warrens of interlinked passages in falling darkness must have been a frightening prospect.

An apocryphal story that has been retold many times would have us believe that Mary King’s Close was sealed tight with the inhabitants trapped inside at the time of the plague in the 1600’s. This drastic action was supposedly taken to stop the disease spreading further.

The sealing of the building didn’t happen, but what is true is that in 1753, the Burgh Council decided to develop a new building on the site. The houses at the top of Mary King’s Close were knocked down and part of the lower sections were kept and used as foundations for the Royal Exhange Building, now known as Edinburgh City Chambers, on the High Street.The remnants of the houses that remain below have been re-opened, studied in detail and it’s now possible to wander through Mary King’s Close (with a guide) to gain an insight into the lives and times and ghosts of some of the past residents.

From documentary evidence a fair amount is known about Mary King’s life. She owned a market stall selling fine lace collars and dresses. Business was so good that she could afford to raise her four children in relative luxury. Her wood panelled home was higher than ground level and away from the waste and rubbish that would have run down the alleyways. Though her furniture was sparse, she did own a ‘long wooden settle’, the equivalent of a modern day couch or sofa.

Mary was also the proud owner of a ‘tappit hen’ and a quaich. From such fine silver drinking vessels, she enjoyed many a measure of wine or ale. This indulgence was another indication of Mary’s wealth. In her testament she left a number of belongings to her children including gold rings, silver spoons, gowns, considerable quantities of fabric ruffs, tin chamber pots and a velvet doublet.

Her house was lit by lamps called ‘crusies’ in which fish oil or animal fat was burned. Adding to the aromas from these fuels would have been the smells emanating from the contents of a bucket which stood in a corner of a room. This was the early form of Edinburgh’s sanitation system!As well as being used as a toilet, this was a sick bucket and a receptacle for food waste. It was the job of the youngest able member of the family to take this bucket and empty it out – once in the morning and once at night! The waste eventually ran down through the alleyways to the Nor’ Loch – now better known as Princess Street Gardens. Death by drowning in the foetid water of the Nor’ Loch was a punishment handed down to those committing serious crimes such as murder.

On a present day tour of Mary King’s Close, your guide, dressed in period costume will give you more colourful details and ask you to imagine that you have stepped back in time to the year 1645 when the plague was at its worst. You are now standing in the Craig family home near the foot of Mary King’s Close.

You will learn that Mr. John Craig, head of the household, has died of pneumonic plague that very morning. His body lies on the floor, bound in a sheet, awaiting collection. John had been a gravedigger at Greyfriars churchyard and unfortunately, he infected the rest of his family. His wife Janet and three children, young John, Robert and Thomas will be taken into quarantine at Sciennes, a district outside the Old Town.

Pneumonic plague was the worst of the two forms of the disease, the other being bubonic plague. Symptoms were similar to modern day influenza – feelings of lethargy and nausea went with being sick every few minutes into that small bucket now placed by the side of a sufferer’s bed.

As well as internal bleeding, a victim’s skin would turn black. This discolouration gave rise to the common name of the plague - the Black Death.A high percentage of those who caught the plague didn’t survive. There was no cure for the worst form though there was a partial cure for the lesser bubonic plague. In many instances, the illness could be a slow death sentence.

Outbreaks of this ‘contagion’ were common place during the 16th and 17th centuries and over the course of many years, the Scottish authorities put great effort into attempts at protecting the country’s ports against infection. But though ships required a bill of health declaring them to be plague-free, the captains of some vessels were frequently fined for trying to sidestep the regulations.

Many people, particularly the wealthy fled the town, so a careful watch was kept on the remaining inhabitants who were threatened with fines and imprisonment if caught trying to leave. Certain everyday activities were banned such as wakes, penny weddings and the wearing of a plaid. It was thought that a person wearing a plaid, a length of tartan material wrapped round the body and often over the head, might be attempting to hide their sickness.

The Craig’s house, like those of other victims, would have been cleaned by specially appointed plague cleaners who wore grey tunics marked with a white saltire, the cross of St. Andrew, patron saint of Scotland. Goods, bedding and clothing were usually burned. The billowing smoke from the flowering shrub, Broom was thought to ‘cleanse the air’.

Whilst in their homes during the plague, families like the Craigs received charitable donations which included ale, wine, bread and coal. These provisions were delivered on a daily basis from residents who were still healthy enough but who went in fear. This practice was considered better for all concerned and ensured that the infected people stayed in their homes. Thus, the well enough members of the community had good reason to give generously.

If a household could afford treatment, they would send for Dr. George Rae. The good doctor would lance the buboes (abscesses) then cauterize and seal the wounds with a red hot poker. This entire operation was carried out without any form of anaesthetics – that particular process had yet to be discovered. The pain inflicted during this treatment must have been awful. On the other hand, there was a half chance that a life might be saved.

At the time, it was believed that the plague was spread by miasmas – foul smelling poisons in the air. To prevent these smells affecting him while attending to his patients, Dr. Rae wore a floor length, thick, black leather coat type of garment. Over his head and face he wore an equally thick, black leather mask with a long, beak shaped protuberance. The ’beak’ was filled with sweet smelling herbs and spices that acted as a crude filter.

As strange as his costume appears, it did work for Dr. Rae since he lived for another thirty years after the plague left the city. It is known that he was the second plague doctor to take up the job after John Paulitious, the first official plague doctor, who died, in June 1645.

Dr. George Rae was employed by the council on June 13th of that year and given the sizeable salary of £100 Scots a month. By November, incredibly, he had negotiated a further £10 Scots per month – he was not expected to live long!

Though it took longer elsewhere, the worst of the plague was over in Edinburgh by the autumn of 1646. By then, the Council had second thoughts regarding the Doctor’s payment. George Rae was still chasing his money almost 10 years later. He won eventually and claimed an unprecedented yearly pension of £1200 Scots.

The Black Death, as we now know, was not spread by miasmas, but by fleas brought in on the backs of rats. The rats probably arrived from Europe on the ships that sailed into Leith harbour. The fleas would jump from the rats and bite into their human victims.

Some of the original passageways off the Royal Mile, as well as now having restaurants and bars, are still used as short cuts between streets. They have long been made safe with modern paving, lighting, and handrails where necessary. No longer will you hear the cry, “Gardyloo,” (from the French ‘regarde l’eau’) as some householder pours the contents of a bucket of filthy waste water from the height of an upstairs window opening. But it’s still possible to get a sense of the conditions that prevailed and the people who lived there hundreds of years ago.

First published in The Highlander

The Magazine of Scottish Heritage

Further Information: www.realmarykingsclose.com

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