Uncovering Edinburgh’s tales of the unexpected: New guidebook aims to share some lesser-known facts

THEY’VE arrived. Great swarms armed with backpacks, wearing sensible shoes and displaying swarthy tans to prove they come from warmer climes than this.

They clutch camera equipment and tourist guides. And when they converse with the locals, it’s often to ask whether the Queen is at home in the Castle and just now and how long, please, is the Royal Mile?

While foreign visitors bring a much-appreciated economic boost to the Capital, their tendency to walk slowly right in front of locals who are in a hurry, or suddenly stop to snap a scene that most of us take for granted can be tiresome.

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But as holiday season hits full swing, perhaps we should extend a courteous hand to our foreign visitors. And next time someone asks if Edinburgh Castle was built so close to Waverley Station to accommodate the tourists, we should embrace the opportunity to regale them with some real 
little-known facts about our great city.

A new tourist guidebook aims to do just that, focusing not on the obvious and at times overwhelming historical detail, but the fascinating little-known facts and quirks that make Edinburgh so unique.

Written by BBC duo radio genealogist Bruce Durie and Caroline Becket, whose programmes include The Radio Cafe, Not a Guide to Edinburgh claims to give even well-read locals an education.

So next time a foreign traveller stops you to ask whether Edinburgh is in Glasgow or what the time difference is between the two cities, you can put them right and then tell them something they really didn’t know . . .


Most of us know a little about Edinburgh’s past. So here’s some facts that usually don’t make it into the history books.

1. There’s a small part of Nova Scotia deemed to be within Edinburgh Castle Esplanade. To encourage settlement in New Scotland, James VI created 100 new baronets of Nova Scotia in 1624. To enable the new baronets to be installed without travelling across the Atlantic, it was decided to allow part of the Castle Esplanade to double up as Nova Scotia.

2. Edinburgh is more or less on the same latitude as Jutland, the Alaska Peninsula, Quebec and Moscow. Which, given the climate, explains a lot.

3. Princes Street should really be St Giles’ Street. However George III thought that sounded too similar to a London slum area of the time. Instead it was named after the Royal Princes, the Duke of Rothesay and the Duke of York.

4. In 1530, the city boasted almost 300 alewives or brewers.

5. And in 1775 the city saw the publication of Ranger’s Impartial List of Ladies of Pleasure in Edinburgh – a prostitutes directory.

6. Edinburgh was rocked by an earthquake in 1801. The tremors hit the New Town, where a barn was knocked down.

7. In 1777 there were eight legal distilleries in Edinburgh. And 400 illegal ones.

8. George IV made a bizarre fashion statement in 1822 when he donned a kilt for his visit to Edinburgh – with pink tights worn 

9. Leith docks have brought millions of pounds of commerce and trade to Edinburgh, but the cost of laying out the modern docks in the early 1800s left the city bankrupt.

10. The Mound was fitted with a curious electric blanket under the ground in 1956 as city fathers tried to find a way to make the slope safer in icy conditions.


Edinburgh has a population of around 490,000 – but the figure’s much higher if you count all of our ghosts.

1. Charlotte Square has a musical spook – listen closely for the sound of a ghostly piano being played.

2. Whistlebinkies pub in Niddry Street has an imp that slams doors, stops clocks and breaks things.

3. The Playhouse is haunted by a stagehand who died suddenly. He goes by the name of Albert.

4. A woman murdered in St Mary’s Street in 1916 is said to return, standing in the road, covered in blood and looking dazed.

5. 15 Learmonth Gardens in the 1930s was beset by the ghost of an Egyptian priest after the owners brought home a bone from a mummy’s tomb.

6. Balcarres Street is haunted by the Green Lady, thought to be Elizabeth Pittendale, killed by her husband after being caught “canoodling” with her stepson.

7. A 2003 radio recording made in old passages beneath South Bridge picked up the ethereal voice of someone shouting “go away” in Gaelic.

8. Leith Corn Exchange pub has the ghost of a publican who hanged himself after claims he tortured children.

9. One of the residents of posh Ann Street in the New Town is a Mr Swan, who drowned at sea but is said to return regularly to wave goodbye to his family.

10. The old dovecote which once stood beside long-gone Corstorphine Castle is home to the White Lady, a ghostly vision said to have once stabbed her lover to death at the spot.


Familiar as they may be, some places harbour unusual and sometimes bizarre elements in their make up.

1. The Meadows, left, was once the Burgh Loch, a source for drinking water, brewing and laundry. By 1871 it was a rubbish tip. Now, of course, it is a city treasure.

2. Everyone enjoys a day out at Cramond. The Romans did too – Cramond was once a Roman camp.

3. The Royal Mile is, in fact, just over a mile long and consists of five streets.

4. Edinburgh’s first zoo was in Broughton Park, near East Claremont Street. It existed between 1840 and 1867 and exhibits included an elephant, bears and big cats.

5. Rose Street’s name is associated with prostitution – to “pluck a rose” was a common expression for visiting a lady of the night.

6. Construction of the Union Canal in the early 1800s involved digging into 25ft of rock and soil in Kirkliston, under which was found a five-foot-long mammoth tusk.

7. King George V Park was the Alton Towers of its day, 150 years ago. The site housed the Royal Patent Gymnasium, a sprawling playground that kept Victorians fit, healthy and entertained.

8. Saughton Park was once home to a tribe of 70 French Senegal natives who lived in bee-hive mud huts. The Senegalese village was created as part of the 1908 Scottish National Exhibition, which included a display on sewage disposal and another on new fangled electricity.

9. St Andrews claims to be the home of golf, but the rules of golf were first compiled on the Links of Leith and golf is documented as being played on Musselburgh Links in 1672, making it officially the oldest golf course in the world.

10. Miles away from the battlefields of the Somme, First World War tanks were churning up the grass at Redbraes Park near Broughton Road in 1917. Brown Brothers engineering works at Broughton Road carried out the first trials of prototype Mark VII tanks there.


Geniuses and oddball eccentrics, Edinburgh has them all . . .

1. Alastair Sim, famous for his 1951 performance as Scrooge, once studied to be an analytical chemist. When he died he left his body for anatomy research.

2. Blame nobleman Mackintosh of Borlum for the expression “You’ll have had your tea”. He complained in 1729 that people slurped their tea and would instead insist he’d had his already and have beer to drink instead.

3. Naughty Edinburgh minister Rev John McQueen caused outrage in the 1600s. He became so besotted by local beauty Mrs Euphame Scott that he pinched her underwear from a washing line and made a waistcoat and drawers from them.

4. Maggie Dickson was executed in the Grassmarket, but, remarkably, brought back to life by the shudders of the cart carrying her to her burial. She later married and had children.

5. Long before rocker Ozzy Osbourne shocked the world by biting the head off a bat, 19th-century showman Ned Holt was thrilling crowds at the Grassmarket by killing rats with his teeth.

6. Sex therapists sound like a modern phenomenon. But in mid-18th century Cowgate-born Dr James Graham’s Temple of Health was charging couples £50 a night to cure their sexual woes by way of an aromatic mattress, some powerful magnets and a jolt of electricity. His 12-foot-wide tilting bed was said to help cure impotency and aid conception.

7. The first man to fly in Britain, James Tytler, did it in a hot air balloon he built himself in August 1784. Tytler suffered the humiliation of crashing several times before finally rising a few feet off the ground. His next attempt took him 350 feet into the air for half a mile. But his final attempt the next year flopped when the balloon refused to launch until after Tytler had left the basket, at which point it sailed high into the sky, thus inspiring the popular put-down: You’re a balloon.

8. Charles Darwin, below, is 
credited with the theory of 
evolution, but years earlier eccentric Edinburgh Court of Session judge Lord Monboddo James Burnett was shocking society with his theory that the orangutan was a form of man. He also believed babies were born with tails which were removed by midwives.

9. Indian Peter is among Edinburgh’s most bizarre characters. Kidnapped as a child, he was sold into American slavery then kidnapped again by Native Americans. He returned to Edinburgh to publish the city’s first “A–Z”-style roads directory and launch the city’s penny post.

10. Years before Fred Goodwin, Edinburgh man John Law was giving the world its first economic crisis. Law, also one of the world’s first self-made millionaires, was born in the Royal Mile in 1671. He went on to be a convicted murderer, fled to France where he solved the problem of how to create an alternative currency to silver and gold by inventing paper money. However, he also persuaded France to invest heavily in a place in America he’d named New Orleans. The settlement at the time, however, was barely more than swamp, the investment collapsed and Law went from millionaire to outcast.


Everyone knows we gave the world anaesthesia courtesy of James Young Simpson, telephones thanks to Alexander Graham Bell and logarithms thanks to John Napier. But what else can we brag about?

1. Edinburgh was the first city in the world to have its own fire brigade. Firemaster Wilkin also designed the UK’s first fire engine that combined engine, hose and escape ladder.

2. Gentlemen with receding locks can today invest in many kinds of remedies, but in 17th-century Edinburgh one of the top cures for baldness was application of the burnt ashes of dove’s dung.

3. The digestive biscuit, one of Britain’s best-loved biscuits, was invented in Edinburgh by bakers McVitie and Price in 1892.

4. And Rose’s Lime Juice – the world’s first fruit cordial, which Victorians supped with their gin, was invented in Leith by a man called Lachlan Rose. Rose, a ship’s chandler, found salts of sulphur could preserve the fruit juice – vital to help sailors combat scurvy – that didn’t involve alcohol. He sweetened the juices, stored it in bottles and gave birth to the soft drinks industry.

5. George Cleghorn is hardly a household name, yet the farmer’s son from Granton is responsible for discovering quinine’s use as the principle weapon against malaria.

6. Edinburgh can also be credited – dubiously perhaps – with bringing the “f” word into publication when in 1503 poet William Dunbar’s classic Ane Brash of Wowing was published in the city, which included the first printed use of the word.

7. Where would we be without our wellies this summer? It’s thanks to the Edinburgh-based North British Rubber Company that we even have them, after it hit on a method of mass-producing rubber boots.

8. And with our wellies we often don our Macintosh raincoats, made possible too thanks to Edinburgh man James Syme’s 19th-century discovery of a solvent for India rubber.

9. The world’s first drugs company was launched by Edinburgh surgeon apothecary John Fletcher Macfarlan in 1833. This was made possible by two other local men, physician Alexander Wood, who created the hypodermic syringe, and chemist William Gregory, who discovered how to prepare morphine hydrochloride in crystalline form, opening up its potential as a pain-relief drug.

10. And finally, if all that has left you in need of a toilet break, give thanks not to the man credited with bringing us toilets, Thomas Crapper. He simply manufactured them. It was Alexander Cummings, a watchmaker from East Lothian who invented the modern flushing toilet in 1775.