There are hundreds of interesting facts about the Royal Mile. Here’s Ten for starters, nine of which are true!
- Paisley Close
On 24 November, 1861, the 250 year-old houses at 99 and 103 High Street, on the Royal Mile, collapsed. 35 of the occupants were killed but as the debris was being cleared away, a young lad was heard to shout out from within the collapsed building “Heave awa’ lads, I’m no deid yet”. Joseph McIvor is commemorated by a sculpture over the entrance to Paisley Close inscribed with his famous words.
- Holyrood Abbey
One Sunday in 1128, King David I was intent on hunting the slopes of Arthur’s Seat, against religious advice to the contrary on the Sabbath day. While out, he was attacked by a marvellous stag and removed from his horse. The great stag was about to finish the job when David grabbed its horns and was amazed to see a large cross appear between them. Being a religious man, he grabbed for the cross to save him…and the stag disappeared. David vowed to build an Abbey of the Holy Rood (or Holy Cross) near to the site of the event, and so he did.
- Little ‘Ghostly’ Drummer Boy.
Many of Edinburgh’s ghost stories revolve around the forgotten passages of the underground city. One such legend centres on a little drummer boy. A passage was supposedly found underneath Edinburgh Castle and the City Council were concerned about the obvious security risk. The opening, however, was extremely small, so a young boy was sent into the tunnel to investigate where it led. The elders then followed the boy’s drumming from above ground as it led them down the High Street. What they hadn’t thought through was what exactly they intended to do if the drumming stopped, which it abruptly did just next to the Tron Kirk. Should they send another boy down to see what had become of the first? What if he met with the same fate? So the Councilmen, in their wisdom, decided just to block up the tunnel to prevent anything coming out of it, leaving the boy to his presumed fate. Apparently, to this day, on quiet nights, a feint drumming can be heard beneath the High Street just near the Tron.
- Burke & Hare – The Bodysnatchers
William Burke & William Hare did not dig up any fresh corpses from the Old Town graveyards to sell to the Medical College – they cut out the middle man and simply murdered their victims.
There were ‘resurrectionists’ who did exhume bodies from the graveyards to cater for the overwhelming demand from the University for cadavers to practice upon, but Burke & Hare started by selling the body of a an old man who died in their tenement to Dr. Robert Knox. They then murdered another sickly tenant of the building before moving on to luring victims from the street.
They were eventually caught when Ann and James Gray alerted the Police when they found the body of Marjory Docherty. In total there were 17 Victims. Hare was offered immunity for testifying against Burke by the Lord Advocate and Hare’s evidence resulted in the death sentence for Burke, who was hanged on 28 January 1829. A calling card case made out of Burkes skin is on display in the Police Information Centre on the Royal Mile.
- Spit on the Heart
Nestling in the cobbled courtyard outside St. Giles Cathedral is the Heart of Midlothian, which together with brass markers set into the pavement, record the position of the 15th-century Tolbooth, demolished in 1817. The Tolbooth was the administrative centre of the town, prison and one of several sites of public execution.
The heart marks its doorway: the point of public execution. Some people spit on the Heart. This was originally a sign of historic disdain for the former prison, but it is now done to bring good luck.
- John Knox House?
John Knox house is situated in the middle of the High Street portion of the Royal Mile, but if you look at all of the descriptions, they say John Knox is ‘believed’ to have lived in the house. There are no real records and it is said that this was made up by the Victorians on the basis that the house was of the correct age and in the general location.
- Duck and Cover
In Medieval times, the Royal Mile was an extremely crowed place with closely packed buildings, many storeys high. Rather than walk down the stairs, occupants would throw their slops straight out the window into the street, with the cry ‘Gardyloo’ – to warn passers by to get out of the way or have a bucket full of waste landing on their heads. It derives from the French ‘Garde de L’eau’.
- Lookout, it’s the One O’clock Gun
On Wednesday 23rd May 1952, the famous One O’Clock Gun was accidentally loaded with live ammunition. The shell narrowly missed the Ross Bandstand in Princes Street Gardens, leaving a 12 foot wide crater in the flowerbeds. Miraculously no-one was hurt in the incident, although Corporal Peter Watton was subsequently Court-marshalled for his potentially deadly mistake.
- Half Hangit Maggie
Maggie Dickson was sentenced to death for killing her child in 1724 and was hanged in the Grassmarket. A Doctor signed the death certificate and her body was placed in a casket. On the way to be buried she sat straight up scaring the life out of the cart driver. The Council decided that they couldn’t hang someone who was already officially dead, so she was allowed to go free and lived for another 30 years. A pub bearing her name is located in the Grassmarket.
- How much?
Following a design competition, the site for the new Scottish Parliament was chosen to be a former Scottish & Newcastle brewery site at the bottom of the Royal Mile. The winning design by Enric Miralles was a bold and adventurous choice. Work began in July 1999 and was due to complete in 2001, with an initial cost estimate of anywhere between £10-40 Million.
The Parliament was eventually opened in 2004 with an eye watering final cost of £414 million. Whilst during the construction process and subsequent inquiry the building was something of a national disgrace, but it has won many plaudits including the 2005 Stirling prize.