City taxi drivers ‘taking tour guide training’

Simon Reid, David Watt, course director Bob McCulloch and Dougie Gray. Picture: Sandy Young
Simon Reid, David Watt, course director Bob McCulloch and Dougie Gray. Picture: Sandy Young
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THE Capital’s fleet of taxi drivers are adding to their knowledge – by retraining as elite tour guides. Drivers are being coached to give tourists an offbeat view of the city via a training programme which could be extended out across the Capital.

Certified drivers get a sticker they can display in their window – and the chance to blather non-stop to their fares in the back about something more interesting than the weather or “last night’s score”.

Based on a similar scheme which runs in London, only a handful of Edinburgh drivers have completed the open-top bus tour rivalling initiative at present.

However all of the city’s 1300 licensed drivers could eventually notch up the proficiency under the ambitious training plan.

The latest graduates to receive their Worshipful Company of Hackney Carriage Drivers tour guiding certificates are Simon Reid, David Watt and Dougie Grey..

The trio, Simon and Dougie from Central Taxis and David from City Cabs, spent three months under the watchful eye of course director and city historian Bob McCulloch, learning all there is to know about Edinburgh and its colourful tales and characters.

A former city cabbie for over 30 years, Bob, 69, from Fairmilehead, is a long-time member of London’s Worshipful Company of Hackney Carriage Drivers.

It pioneered the project which Edinburgh’s fledgling scheme is based on.

He said: “The London group have been doing this for years and they suggested that I start training drivers up here too.

“Everyone knows about the Castle and Walter Scott and Deacon Brodie, so instead we concentrate more on the quirkier and less well-known tales from around the city.

“More and more cabbies are now looking to get involved as it makes perfect sense to capitalise on the tourists in the back of their cabs as they sit in city centre traffic or at traffic lights.”

Tony Kenmuir, boss of Central Taxis, is himself a graduate of the scheme and hopes to encourage all his drivers to take part.

He said: “What the taxi tours have over the bus tours is that the buses always travel along a fixed route whereas us cabbies can go all over.

“I recently had a couple of tourists who told me they liked Robert Louis Stevenson so I took them to all his old haunts and the places that inspired some of his stories and they loved it.

“The fact that Edinburgh is so compact also means you can whizz around a lot of the city’s best sites in just an hour.”

Bob and his team of elite taxi tour guides entertain tourists with stories such as that of the statue of a cat which sits high upon the roof of Ramsay Gardens.

Originally the statue of a dragon, its wings fell off over time.

Another lesser-known tale is that of the forger James Steel, from Dalry, whose work in the 50s and 60s was so close to legal tender the Mint eventually accepted it into currency.

The home of famous city resident John Lawson Johnston, who invented Bovril in his butcher’s shop at 180 Canongate, is another taxi titbit Bob and his colleagues love to regale back seat passengers with.

But to earn their tour driver credentials isn’t easy. Drivers have to give up to an hour each week to learn city history – and also have to study in the evenings from a course textbook.

For the end of the course they must complete a walking tour along the Royal Mile.

Fellow cabbie and guide Dougie, 57, from Dunbar, said: “The course was really eye opening. I’ve driven a cab in the city for over eight years and I was just driving past all this history. I never even knew there was a statue on top of Ramsay Gardens until Bob pointed it out and I must have driven past it hundreds of times.

“Most of the tourists know all the bus tour history like the Castle and Holyrood before they even come.

“We can take them off the beaten track.”

Cabbies’ key spots

KEY places the cabbies highlight include the home of Scotland’s most prolific – and forgotten inventor – Robert William Thomson at Moray Place. Thomson invented rubber tyres 43 years before John Dunlop in 1845.

Other stops include Cannonball House near the top of Castle Wynd which takes its name from a cannonball embedded in the wall about halfway up in the west gable.

The statue of kaleidoscope inventor David Brewster within King’s Buildings is also paid a visit – Brewster suggested it might be useful for designing carpets – as is the home of 17th century city pirate Andrew Grey and his tenement – Morocco Land on the Canongate.