History in Geography-Edinburgh’s Royal Mile

There is this idea that if you know an area, a city, you can look up its main street and see years of history having already been made. The geography of it literally recalls history just in looking. There’s where this happened, here’s where that happened. . .

Take a look down Edinburgh Scotland’s Royal Mile, and you surely see down a millenium. Starting at the west end, there’s Edinburgh Castle, site of more than a few siege takings. In it was born a king, and in it one died, as well. The king born was King James of Scotland, son of Mary Queen of Scots. He was later asked to be the king of England as well. His mom had his dad killed, it is rumored, in the castle. At best, the whole thing was a shady ordeal. Mary, Queen of Scots was not born in it, but she ruled from it for a number of years.

Maybe you think of a queen as someone in her 40’s or 50’s, but no, Mary was a maiden of some 20 something years when she returned to Scotland from France to rule the people of Scotland. But she is another story.

Come out from the castle to the promenade where the Tattoo is held. This tattoo is a military celebration of sorts, held every year during the Edinburgh International Festival in August. At this tattoo several different military regiments from all over Scotland come to show off their skills, uniforms and Scottish pride for all the world to see, and it is quite a show. It is best to take in the later of the two evening events, as the fireworks are more spectacular later on. In August, it is broad daylight at 9:30 pm! So, the good watching is around 11:30.

The Royal Mile is not the official name of the street, it is more an honorary title given to it. This is actually more than a mile, from Edinburgh Castle to Holyrood Palace, at the east end. The Royal Mile actually has 4 street names given to it. The street numbering system has them running out of numbers in short order, so they just change the street name every few blocks, and that takes care of it. Two of those names were done away with, and one assigned to that portion.

Coming from the promenade is Johnston Terrace, which extends east to Bank Street. At this corner is a speakeasy known as Deacon Brodie’s Tavern. Deacon Brodie was a highly respected cabinetmaker; well at least during the day. At night, it was a different story. He was known to be a robber in the night hours. One time he was caught in the coffers of the national treasury. He escaped then and fled the country. He then wrote a note to someone he knew in Edinburgh, from what he thought was a secure location. Authorities were able to determine this so-called secure location, went after him, placed him under arrest, brought him back to Scotland, and hung him on gallows he had himself built for someone else. It was his double life that inspired the Robert Louis Stevenson epic novel, “Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde”.

At Bank Street, the mile becomes High Street, a name which stays with it for most of its length. Walk half a block east on High Street, cross the street, and you see one landmark, the Heart of the Lothian, built into the brickwork just a few feet out the door of St. Giles Cathedral. Scotland is divided into several regions, and Edinburgh is in the center of the Lothian Region. So, the Heart of the Lothian is dead center of this region. In much earlier days, there was a prison on this site.

As I said, this Heart of the Lothian is but a few feet away from the head worship center of the Church of Scotland, St. Giles Cathedral. The Presbyterian Church worldwide has its origins here. What we call the Presbyterian Church, in Europe, is called the Church of Scotland. Its most famous preacher and head was John Knox, a Scot himself, born in Gifford. Knox was himself a disciple of John Calvin of Germany, but when he took his own stand in Scotland it was at St. Giles, and he re-established the church there. Knox was in the pulpit while Mary was on the throne just up the street, and he was heard to speak of the need for dethroning for her deeds. To re-establish St. Giles as such took evicting some adherents of the Church of England. They left and started Old St. Paul’s Episcopal Church.

The Royal Mile runs downhill, west to east, and there are some cross streets, but to facilitate passage down the hill to the north, and indirect access to patrons on the Mile, stepped passageways called closes where built here and there between buildings. It is in these closes that other establishments were located. There are many closes up and down the Mile, and each has its own history.

Step out the east door of St. Giles, take but a few steps, and you arrive at a round structure with a gabled roof known as the Mercat Cross. This was an ancient assembly point for people of the town. They assembled there to hear governmental decrees, proclamations, and to witness public hangings.

One website describes it thus: “the old center of town- marketplace, news-stand, pulpit and gallows . . . it was a real one stop shop!”

The present Mercat Cross does not stand where the original did, but that location is marked by a cross laid into the sidewalk. It was the center of the old Edinburgh.

Going a block or so east on the mile, one arrives at Tron Kirk. Kirk is Scottish for church. (Talk about the US and the UK- two countries separated by a common language!) Now before Knox arrived at St. Giles, the Church of England had pretty well dispatched the Church of Scotland out of the place. They went a block east and built the Tron Kirk.

Actually, it was called “The Bishop’s War, where the king tried to introduce Episcopal structure into the Church of Scotland. He actually took over St. Giles and made it the seat of the Bishop of the Church of England.

So, the Church of Scotland people, refusing this intrusion, went and built the Tron Kirk. The building itself is no longer a church, but its physical structure remains as a visitor center.

Cross the street again, and head east from North Street, walking until you get to a large building called Carrubbers Christian Center. Carrubbers was founded back in the 19th Century in the Carrubbers Close, as a mission. Dwight L. Moody came and brought his chief musician Ira Sankey, and together they raised enough money to build this large 4 story evangelistic center. Originally built with a two-story worship center, the lower floor was converted to other uses in recent years. The center has been a beacon of hope to Edinburgh since its inception and remains so today. It has a library, a meeting hall, and dorm rooms on the top floor for university students as well as visiting clergy.

Go further east, on that side of the street, and the building that juts out and establishes a new position for the fronting buildings is the home of the preacher from the cathedral up the street, John Knox. Knox lived here during his years when he pastored at St. Giles Cathedral. His years pastoring St. Giles were also his last. He died in this house. I will warn you, though, that the people who marked his life with this museum were not terribly kind to his message of the Gospel or his dealings.

Going further down the street one more block, the Royal Mile changes its name to Canongate, a city gate from early days of the town. On Canon Gate, one walks the rest of the mile to Holyrood Palace, the annual accommodations for the Queen of England in June. The royal family also spends a month in the north of Scotland, at Balmoral Castle.

To look up the Royal Mile is to look up into history, and it always reminds you. A sea mist, called a haar, can roll in though, and you won’t see past a block, they are so thick. But you’ll never forget where you’ve been!

A Memphis born and raised writer, with a genuine affection for the music that was also born here.

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