Sunday, July 02, 2006

Back in Edinburgh

Back we arrived in Edinburgh in the late, late afternoon. I had my hostel already bookwed but some of the others hadn't bothered and we arrived to discover that the huge Beltaine festival was going to be celebrated the next afternoon and that there was no room at the inn - so to speak. I think almost everyone found rooms in the end although I know two of the girls ended up bunking down together somewhere due to the shortage of beds.

My train left early the next morning so I wandered through town snapping shots and also looking around for Real Mary King's Close and Auld Reekie' tours to book tours. I also managed to find my way up to the castle and started asking people why there were so many crowds of people there. Turned out the Edinburgh Military Tattoo was doing a special display that evening and I was fortunate enough to get a front row view (basically because I sat down with the kiddies on the concrete in front of the thick crowds; like several other adults I would like to add!)

Photography isn't allowed in Real Mary King's Close; it's well worth doing though! Edinburgh is rather like Ankh Morpork in that it built on top of itself. You had buildings on top of other buildings with narrow little roads (closes) down at ground level. The higher levels kept building forward (to try and get more light) which meant that at street level you had very light and walked ankledeep in muck - both animal excretion and human wastes that were thrown from the balconies above and sliddered their way downhill to the loch (now a drained and very well fertilised park). Eventually they started building over the lower sites and alleys all together - such as when the Exchequor or Royal Chancellory was built (the building is still there and used). They encourage people to leave but many of them stayed having nowhere else to go but gradually the building above kept extending itself outwards until the streets and buildings below were completely inaccessible.

While people continued to live and run businesses there they had to rely on candlelight. Most of those who chose to live there after the building work was cutting off any access to natural daylight were very very poor. Living conditions were squalid to say the least, fires fatal either in the short-term if not controlled or in the long-term due to smoke inhalation. The area was lawless and many crimes happened in the dark. A number of the nastier criminal elements transferred their basis of operations there and would sometimes venture elsewhere in the city before returning to relative safety.

In recent times excavations have created access down into one of the Closes where Mary King was one of the more prosperous and recorded property owners. The buildings are perfectly intact. You can still faintly see wallpaper and tracings on some of the walls and one house is so perfectly intact in its entirety that only researchers are allowed in there. The tour is interesting both for the location and for the history lecture that you garner over the hour. There is a resident ghost of course as well. A psychic in one of the rooms senses a little girl searching for her mommy (presumably dead from the plague or fleeing an infected daughter) and missing her dolly. Visitors pitying the little girl have created a shrine of toys and books and dolls for the little girl. Periodically they take the gifts to the local children's hospital.

One of the great things about Edinburgh are the ghost walks. A lot of the UK cities have these but there's something about Edinburgh that just makes them seem right somehow... A lot of the tour decided to sleep instead but Troy, our American boy and myself ventured along on Auld Reekie's 10.30-midnight tour. The staff are dressed in gorgeous costumes (our guide must have been freezing but she was stunning) and get paid not by the hour but per head that they escort so we quite happily helped her drum up extra numbers. The tour begins above ground with a walking tour and a summary of the history of Edinburgh. It covers things like the polluted streets and the coining of the phrase 'shit faced' > you see they eventually decided that it wuld be more hygenic if chamberpots couled only be emptied at certain times. You were required to yell out 'Gardeloo' (derived from a French term) before tossing your muck onto the streets below. However, if you were a tourist or staggering home drunk from the pub more likely, then all you heard was something incomprehensible being yelled out and your natural reaction is to look up....

We also visited the heart of Edinburgh (drawn onto the pavement) where tradition is to spit on it, there was a reason for this once and now its simply customary...

We also went over the witch trials with all their gruesomeness and Matt (? our American boy) was the victim used in the demonstrations i.e. the way that they were tied up before being thrown into the water with little chance of swimming away from the trial. The costumes of the women though often captured air and made them naturally bouyant. Their families used to stand on the shore and stone them to try and weight down the clothes. Drowning was considered a better death than being pulled out and drowned as a witch.

Then we went to their torture chamber where she explained in detail how the instruments were used. I felt sick...

Then down into the underground depths... The various walking companies have bought up large sections of the underground tunnels and chambers to install their bars and nightclubs into and to conduct their walking tours. We got to hear about the various activities that used to occur there and about the resident malevolent spirits. Their main room has her splitting the men and the women as the ghost seems to virulently hate woman and is stronger on one side of the room than the other (so the women are placed on the further side). All lights get switched off while she's talking and it's damn scary. There's no light, it suddenly feels claustrophobic and you've lost the male escorts that you're meant to be able to reassuringly grab hold of...The talk is psychologically well done. Our guide declared that she was a sceptic and thought that 95% of the tales they were told as guides or emailed were nonsense. She told us how she had to spend an hour calming down one crying, screaming girl only to be told later by the girl's whispering, giggling friend that it had been her running nails up the girl's back and blowing on her neck. However, other claw-like marks on people's legs and attacks on the guides as well as photos of a shadowy figure on either side of the guide had convinced her that the presence in this room at least was real (so of course everyone promptly starts taking photos of her looking for the ghost!).

We were disappointed by the pub we ended up in though as it was tiny and crowded. We had our free drink and scarpered.

The next morning I ended up having breakfast in a cafe with a French girl; mmm their full breakfasts included haggis on toast, before running out to get some more photos before lugging my suitcase to the train station.


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