A few years ago we were lucky enough to travel to Edinburgh and spend four days in the city, discovering its corners. We booked a tour and a guide told us some anecdotes and interesting facts about the Scottish capital, like the significance of the heart next to the Cathedral or the story behind the cemetery, among other many things. We recall some of them in this article.
For more information about the city, see our guide to living in Edinburgh.
1. The strange heart of Midlothian
Next to St Giles Cathedral, on the Royal Mile, visitors can see a heart made of granite slabs on the pavement. It is the place where the former prison of Edinburgh was built in the fifteenth century and demolished in 1817. Today it’s a tradition to spit into the heart for good luck, so it’s not a good idea to step on it because you might slip. But that’s not the only reason you shouldn’t step on the heart: legend says that whoever steps on it will never have luck in love. You’ve been warned!
2. Lucky angel
Inside the cathedral is the figure of an angel playing the bagpipes. It is said that whoever finds it will lead a lucky life. Just so you know, it is not easy to see it—but, as with everything in life, you just have to be persistent. Here’s a hint: it is in the Thistle Chapel.
3. A cemetery with history
In the city centre’s cemetery, which is open 24 hours, it is not uncommon to see Scottish people stretched out on the grass eating something or enjoying a sunny day. For some reason, cemeteries are the second most common place in Edinburgh where people have sex… One of the worst torturers in history was also buried here. This cemetery is also known for the story of the dog Bobby, who waited for 14 years beside the grave of his master hoping he would wake up. Today there is even a sculpture in memory of Bobby, a Scottish terrier.
4. Harry Potter!
There’s another interesting fact about the cemetery: the writer J.K. Rowling borrowed names of the deceased in the cemetery to bring some of her characters to life. If you are a fan of Harry Potter, do not forget to stop by the school that inspired the series.
5. Churches that are not what they seem
In Edinburgh some things are not what they seem. Go into a church: it may surprise you when you find a great restaurant inside. Some churches have been transformed for other uses. The Hub, for example, is an old converted church which now is the home of the famous Edinburgh International Festival.
6. Seats with owners
Walking through the streets of the city, you will see that all the seats in parks and squares have an inscription plate. These are memorials to the dead that families have paid for over the years. In addition, these plates can be seen at Clevedon Pier on the long benches that overlook the sea.
7. Brewery or Parliament?
The Scottish Parliament is in the area formerly occupied by the Scottish and Newcastle brewery. Its architect was Enric Millares, a Spanish man who died in 2000 during the construction of the building. From the beginning, the work was criticized because of its budget: the building was 10 times more expensive than what was originally budgeted. Another criticism was about its modern design, which was poorly integrated with Edinburgh’s medieval atmosphere.
8. Streets with history
Walking along the Royal Mile, we reach alleys known as ‘closes’. These are narrow streets full of stories that often lead to a ‘court’ or courtyard. There were 300 original ‘closes’, but today only 60 remain. Mary King is one of them.
This close is located below Old Town buildings on the Royal Mile. After being closed for years, different stories resurfaced about the victims of plagues, and murderers and their murdered, and these figures have now become legendary ghosts. Reopened to the public in 2003, Mary King’s Close is a reminder of the misery and diseases that reigned there between the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
The poorest of Edinburgh lived there, waiting for the plague or someone to end their suffering. One of them was Annie, a girl who still cries because she lost her doll hundreds of years ago. Visitors often leave toys in the close, in order to comfort the little girl so she can stop roaming the streets. These dolls are donated to children in need.
9. Till the end of the world
In Edinburgh, ‘the end of the world’ is at the southern end of High Street, at the junction with St Mary’s Street. These are walls that protected the old city, which few people dared to cross. Today, gold paving stones mark the exact point where the city ended and, just in front, there is a bar named after this place: The World’s End.
10. The hour of the cannon
In Edinburgh Castle, every day at one o’clock (except Sundays), the Artillery General fires a modern cannon. This keeps an old tradition from 1861 alive, although nowadays it mainly functions as a tourist attraction.
11. Three Crown Jewels
If you visit Edinburgh Castle, you will find three Crown Jewels there, known as the ‘Honours of Scotland’. They are the Crown, the Sword of State and the Sceptre, all of them in perfect condition.
12. The stolen stone
Inside the castle you can also see the ‘Stone of Destiny’, a very valuable symbol for Scotland on which Scottish kings were crowned. The stone was stolen by King Edward I of England in 1296 and remained in London for 700 years. The symbol was returned to Scotland in 1996.
13. A doggy cemetery
In the castle, you can also find a small cemetery where army dogs were buried.
14. A famous sheep
15. A vast library
Students may know that the National Library of Scotland is one of the largest in the UK.
16. Suicide bridge
The North Bridge, located on the Waverley Train Station, connects the New Town with the Old Town, but it is not famous because of this. It’s known for the high number of suicides that took place there. Barriers were placed on the bridge to deter suicides.
17. Time of witches
Beside the gateway to the famous Edinburgh Castle is Castle Esplanade, an open space that was used in the past for burning witches.
18. Edinburgh or ‘the old fireplace’
Edinburgh has been nicknamed “Auld Reekie” (old chimney) since Victorian times, when only coal and wood were used as fuel and the thousands of chimneys in Edinburgh continuously expelled a dense smoke that blackened the city. Although the use of fireplaces is not currently allowed, the image of houses with dozens of them in the roof remains.
19. Delicious haggis
Remember this word: haggis. It is a traditional Scottish dish that you should try at least once in your life. Do not be fooled by the appearance. It may not seem appealing, but it is delicious. At this link, you can learn how to cook it. It is made of lamb or sheep offal (lung, liver and heart) mixed with onion, oatmeal, herbs and spices. It is served with neeps and tatties, mashed swedes and potatoes.
20. The Microsoft building
Microsoft demonstrated that money can buy the impossible. After its proposal to construct modern offices was rejected (because they were too different from the architectural style of Edinburgh), Microsoft acquired an imposing Victorian building and moulded the inside to its liking. It is the Waverley Gate building in Waterloo Place.
For more information on Edinburgh and Scotland, you can read these other articles in addition to our guide:
- 15 great things to do in Scotland
- 10 videos for discovering Scotland
- 14 places you didn’t know were in Scotland
Did you know any of these interesting things about the Scottish capital?