Thursday, October 10, 2013

Day 23 - Living Close in Edinburgh

Today we did some shopping and touring and I learned a few more things about Edinburgh.  When we first arrived in the city we noticed several alleyways called "closes" peppered throughout the Royal Mile.  Most of them consisted of narrow steps that would take you from one street level to the other.

According to Wikipedia, the Old Town of Edinburgh consisted originally of the Royal Mile and the small streets and courtyards that led off it to the north and south. These are usually named after a memorable occupant of one of the apartments reached by the common entrance, or the occupations of those that traded therein. Generically they are termed closes, a Scots term for alleyways, although they may be individually named closes, entries, courts and wynds. Most closes slope steeply down from the Royal Mile creating the impression of a herring-bone pattern formed by the main street and side streets when viewed on a map. Many have steps and long flights of stairs.

Writer's Museum in the Lady Stair's Close
The first close we entered and walked through was the Lady Stair's Close.  Located in Edinburgh's Lawnmarket, Lady Stair's Close is the location of an 17th-century townhouse called Lady Stairs House built in 1622 for Sir William Gray of Pittendrum, an Edinburgh Baronet. It was originally called Lady Gray's House after the widow of the first proprietor. It was then bought in 1719 by the widow of John Dalrymple (1648 - 1707) the first Earl of Stair, hence its present name, which has nothing to do with the stairs you need to climb to get into it.

Sir Walter Scott's inscribed stone in Makar's Court
The close contains the Makars' Court - inscribed stones to the great names of Scottish literature and the Writers' Museum, which belongs to the city of Edinburgh, The museum contains memorabilia which celebrate the lives of three writers who all at one time lived in Edinburgh: Sir Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Robert Burns. Burns stayed in the house opposite the museum during his first trip to Edinburgh in 1786. (since demolished and rebuilt, now as Deacon Brodie's Tavern).

Statue of Deacon Brodie in front of the cafe given his name.
As a side note, William Brodie (28 September 1741 – 1 October 1788), more commonly known by his prestigious title of Deacon Brodie, was a Scottish cabinet-maker, deacon of a trades guild and Edinburgh city councilor, who maintained a secret life as a burglar, partly for the thrill, and partly to fund his gambling.

He used his daytime job as a way to gain knowledge about the security mechanisms of his clients and to copy their keys using wax impressions. As the foremost wright of the city, Brodie was asked to work in the homes of many of the richest members of Edinburgh society. He used the illicit money to maintain his second life, including five children, two mistresses who did not know of each other, and a gambling habit. He reputedly began his criminal career around 1768 when he copied keys to a bank door and stole £800. In 1786 he recruited a gang of three thieves, Brown, Smith, and Ainslie.

The case that led to Brodie's downfall began later in 1786 when he organised an armed raid on an Excise office in Chessel's Court on The Canongate. Brodie's plan failed and Ainslie was captured. Ainslie agreed to turn King's evidence, to avoid transportation, and informed on the rest of the gang. Brodie escaped to the Netherlands intending to flee to the United States but was arrested in Amsterdam and shipped back to Edinburgh for trial.

The trial started on 27 August 1788. At first there was no hard evidence against Brodie before the tools of his criminal trade were found in his house; copied keys, a disguise and pistols. The jury found Brodie and his henchman George Smith, a grocer, guilty. Smith was an English locksmith responsible for a number of thefts, even stealing the silver mace from the University of Edinburgh.

Brodie and Smith were hanged at the Tolbooth on 1 October 1788, using a gallows Brodie had designed and funded the year before. According to one tale, Brodie wore a steel collar and silver tube to prevent the hanging from being fatal. It was said that he had bribed the hangman to ignore it and arranged for his body to be removed quickly in the hope that he could later be revived. If so, the plan failed. Brodie was buried in an unmarked grave at the Buccleuch Church in Chapel Street. The ground is now covered by a car park behind university lecture-halls. However rumours of his being seen in Paris circulated later and gave the story of his scheme to evade death further publicity.

Brodie's Dual Nature as depicted in his tavern signs
The dichotomy between Brodie's respectable façade, and his real nature inspired Robert Louis Stevenson to write The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Stevenson's father had furniture made by Brodie.

Another famous close, which I visited today was Mary King's Close.

Mary King's Close is an old Edinburgh close under buildings in the Old Town area of Edinburgh. It took its name from one Mary King, daughter of advocate Alexander King, who in the 17th century had owned several properties within the close. The close was partially demolished and buried under the Royal Exchange. Being closed to the public for many years, the complex became shrouded in myths and urban legends; tales of ghosts and murders, and myths of plague victims being walled up and left to die abounded.  So, when a Japanese parapsychologist visited the close, and reported she felt such a deep sadness in one of the rooms that she couldn't remain, she turned to leave when she felt the definite presence of a little girl who said she was Annie and that she'd lost her parents along with her dolly.

Given that it wasn't unheard of for parents to leave a child sickened with the plague with a favorite doll in order to take care of their healthy children, the tale was plausible.  The parapsychologist left the room and returned the next day with a doll for the ghostly child.  She immediately felt a lightened spirit in the room.  Since then many people have left dolls and other objects for the stricken ghost child.  The people managing the close donate the gifts they receive to a local children's charity.

Additional research and archaeological evidence has revealed that the close actually consists of a number of closes which were originally narrow streets with tenement houses on either side, stretching up to seven stories high.

Tomorrow as we travel back to London, I will add information about Gladstone's Land, a surviving 17th century high-tenement house situated in the Old Town of the city of Edinburgh.  Lots of ghost stories abound in the Old Town, as you can imagine.  In the meantime, I need to get to bed so we can get packed and ready for our train ride back tomorrow.  I have another story to tell about that as well.  Since the train has an Internet connection, I will attempt to connect while on the ride and finish today's tales.  Until then, rest well.


  1. Oh I definitely see a good book featuring Brodie here (perhaps as a secondary character, since he was hanged). Your description made him sound fascinating. Don't let Jekyll and Hyde stop you -- you can add a romance to the story that would make it perfect.

    1. Unfortunately, in addition to being a gambler, Brodie was reportedly a bit of a womanizer as well. Not a very romantic figure, so he'd definitely have to be a secondary figure. I could certainly mention him in my Georgian romance, which begins in 1789 (at the start of the French Revolution) and continues over the next few years. It takes place in England, but one of the supporting characters is Scottish, so I suspect she would have heard of Deacon Brodie's exploits, even if she never met him.