Evocative as they are, the place names – Crow Hill and Samson’s Grave, Whinny Hill and the Cat Nick – probably don’t mean much to most city folk as they go about their business.
As for Hunter’s Bog, Pulpit Rock, Woodpecker’s Gully and Hagg’s Knowe, their ancient ring might suggest an age when Scotland’s Capital was in its first flush of youth. But where, precisely, might they be?
Few would suspect that each can be found right at the heart of one of Edinburgh’s best loved and most familiar landmarks.
But now a new book which explores the facts – and the fascinating fictions – of Arthur’s Seat has revealed hidden secrets and long-forgotten fables surrounding the names given to its rocky outcrops, sweeping gullies, hidden caves and deep wells.
Two of the city’s leading storytellers, Donald Smith, director of the Scottish Storytelling Centre on the High Street, and historian and writer Stuart McHardy, have sifted through the centuries to compile the remarkable guide to Edinburgh’s famous landmark.
Published to compliment the recent Speed of Light art spectacular, Arthur’s Seat: Journeys and Evocations draws on folklore tales and real-life stories to create a unique walkers’ guide to the famous ridges, crags and valleys that make up the hill.
“It is simply a magical place,” says Stuart. “It has this ‘otherness’ about it, and I’m sure it still has many secrets to tell.
“Take the Radical Road. It’s said to have been put together by unemployed weavers paid by Sir Walter Scott and friends.
“In fact Sir Walter Scott was the ultimate Tory. The idea of him paying rebels to do this work when he was involved in the groups that put down these people doesn’t seem right. Other places, like The Cat Nick, can be explained simply because it looks like a giant cat has scratched the rock.
“Samson’s Grave and Samson’s Ribs probably got their names from the idea that the hill was the burial place of a giant – Samson.”
But the most important name of all – Arthur’s Seat – remains a mystery. Some argue it’s a corruption of an old phrase, Arn-na-Said, meaning Height of Arrows, but Stuart and Donald agree it’s almost certainly a reference to King Arthur. “There is a lot of Arthurian stuff which is legend but some that has real historical links,” says Donald.
“The earliest mention of Arthur as a hero is at Arthur’s Seat, in a poem which suggests that Arthur was already very well known at the time.”
Stuart agrees: “We still don’t know if Arthur was fictional or factual, but he certainly existed in this poem in the year 600. There’s no doubt in my mind, he is figure behind the name Arthur’s Seat.”
Here though, are some of the stories they have definitely uncovered...
A medieval well house is among the first features walkers see as they set off, however, the park is full of natural springs and underground streams.
For centuries the waters were regarded as mystical and at the heart of customs and rituals. But the Protestant Reformation of 1560 moved to punish crimes of sorcery and witchcraft.
Old habits died hard. Janet Boysman, of the Canongate, was a young widow and known herbalist – precisely the kind of person her neighbour Allan Anderson would turn to when his body became wracked with fever. She tried various remedies, but none worked.
With Anderson’s life ebbing away, she stole away to Arthur’s Seat under cover of darkness to one of its wells where, she confessed, she called on the Holy Ghost, Arthur and his queen to aid her.
The words were barely spoken when, she claimed, a tall and strongly built man appeared and told her to dip Anderson’s shirt three times in the spring waters and wrap him in it. Soon Anderson’s fever had broken and he recovered.
Anderson lived to tell the tale, but Janet’s fate was sealed when the Kirk heard about it. She was duly arrested, interrogated and executed.
SWORDS AND LEGENDS
The earliest reference to Arthur is contained in the ancient poem The Gododdin, which refers to the Votadini people whose territories included Edinburgh.
It tells of warriors gathering to battle Northumbria’s Anglo Saxons and preparing with a whole year of festivities in Edinburgh. Each warrior is described, including Gwarrdur “who although he was not Arthur made his strength a refuge, the front line’s bulwark”.
It suggests that Arthur was already a famous hero and known in the area at the time. It’s also thought that the warriors killed in the resulting battle may have been buried on Arthur’s Seat, which also was known as the Hill of the Dead.
Another bizarre link connects the hill with Arthurian legend. In the 18th century a large hoard of Bronze Age swords and spears were found in the loch. Some, according to Donald, believed the items were simply waste from a smithy, others argued the swords could be offerings to the goddess of the lake or, indeed, the Lady of the Lake, who presented Arthur with his mighty sword, Excalibur.
THE STONE-HEARTED EARL
In the 1820s, Edinburgh was alive with new ideas and ground- breaking scientific work. One local botany society hoped to take advantage of Arthur’s Seat by planting it with exotic flowers, creating walkways and seating areas for all to enjoy.
The Earl of Haddington held the hereditary position of Keeper of the King’s Park, granted from the time of King James VI. He would have none of the botanists’ plans, piously arguing it would infringe the rights of his tenant who grazed sheep there.
He had already upset locals for refusing to pay his contribution to the poor rates in the Canongate parish in 1824. But greater scandal was to come.
The Earl was extracting hundreds of tons of stone a day from the park’s Camstane Quarry to help build Edinburgh’s New Town. Not only that, some was being sold to pave London’s streets, to the fury of locals.
In one of the first environmental “green” campaigns ever recorded, there were angry complaints that the beauty spot was being destroyed. The result was a House of Lords hearing in 1831 and the new Earl of Haddington, who had recently succeeded his late father, was stripped of hereditary rights as Keeper of the King’s Park. It could have been worse, though, for he was handsomely compensated to the tune of £40,000.
HILL OF THE DEAD
Mystery still surrounds the discovery of 17 tiny wooden coffins, found in 1836 by two little boys, stuffed in a hole somewhere on Whinny Hill. Some believe they may have been buried there in a symbolic “laying to rest” for the victims of killers Burke and Hare and writer Ian Rankin created his Rebus novel, The Falls, around them. But the questions of why they were placed there, remain unanswered.
Certainly the area has seen its fair share of death and bloodshed. Salisbury Crags was the site of various duels in the 16th and 17th century.
And in 1660, John Brand brought shame to his father John Craig, a close colleague to Father of the Scottish Reformation, John Knox, when he stabbed a fellow student at the College of Philosophy of Edinburgh at the Crags. He was beheaded.
In 1677 a crowd of around 2000 gathered below Echo Rock, at the south-west corner of Arthur’s Seat. Tension had built between the Trades Association and the Town Guard. When the crowd failed to disperse, the King’s Troops were sent in, armed with firearms. A woman sitting on a dyke was shot and killed, sparking panic among the crowd.
They fled towards Duddingston, where in fields west of the loch, the dragoons took aim and shot several men in the back. From then on, the area became known as Murder Acre.
Murder is also behind Muschat’s Cairn, a pile of stones at the entrance to Holyrood Park near Meadowbank. The cairn is in tribute to Nichol Muschat’s young wife, stabbed to death at his hand as they strolled by St Margaret’s Loch in 1720.
In 1770, excise officer Mungo Campbell was ordered to be executed for the killing of the Earl of Eglinton in a dispute over poaching. After hanging, Campbell’s body was to be handed to the Faculty of Anatomy for medical dissection.
Campbell took his own life first and his friends argued successfully that his body should be returned to them for burial at the foot of Salisbury Crags. Outraged locals later dug up the body.
Eventually Campbell’s friends retrieved the corspe, hired a boat and buried him in the water of the Firth of Forth.
The Slidey Stanes overlook Volunteers Walk. On the outcrop part of the rock face is carved a simple cross, thought to be a Christian attempt to “depaganise” the site. It’s thought the spot was once at the heart of an old fertility rite, in which women slid down the rock hoping to ensure success in either falling pregnant or in having an easy birth.
Witches are said to have woven their spells on the slopes of Arthur’s Seat and in quiet corners of the hill. Some argue that Hagg’s Knowe refers to the surrounding broken ground, others that it takes its name from hags or witches.
This is named after a hangman during the reign of Charles II. Once well off, he’d fallen on hard times and taken the role, believing as his identity was concealed, he could still mix with people at the upper edges of society.
However, one day at Bruntsfield Links enjoying the golf, his identity was uncovered.
Ashamed, he fled to Arthur’s Seat and his body was found next day at the bottom of the cliff face overlooking Duddingston Loch, now known as Hangman’s Rock.
THE CAT NICK
Smuggling is thought to be linked to this spot on the westernmost point of Salisbury Crags. A cave was found in 1728 described as “a snug little room with a lamp hanging from the roof and lighted by a little window covered with a bladder”.
Speculation has swung between whether it was hermit’s den or a thieves’ lair.
Others think the use of a bladder hints at whisky smuggling. Smugglers used to bring their whisky to town contained in bladders often hidden under clothes or within women’s underwear.
• Arthur’s Seat: Journeys and Evocations by Stuart McHardy and Donald Smith, published by Luath Press, £7.99