Origins: Edinburgh - #108

Every place in the world has a series of things that give that spot a special character... and make it different from every other place.  When you look at the ORIGINS of these things, you often end up with a better appreciation of the territory -- and that makes it a lot more interesting to visit.  And sometimes, these ORIGINS help us understand why we live the way we do.

Scotland.  People have been living on this land for at least 6,000 years.  The first inhabitants appear to have been groups of hunters and fishermen. Next the Celtic tribes who had been forced out of Europe.  In the year 80 AD the Roman legions marched through. And finally the English.

The first references to Scotland’s central city of Edinburgh were in the notes of Ptolemy, the ancient Roman writer who made his comments in the year 160 AD.   The first site in the area to be colonized was probably a hill called Arthur’s Seat.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Precisely which Arthur actually took a seat here isn’t quite clear.  Romantics like to point to the legendary King Arthur of the Round Table.  But there is no evidence to support that view.  There is, however, considerable evidence that this hill had at least four prehistoric forts and an ancient farming community.

Immediate seating for Camelot or not, it’s definitely a spot from which you can see a lot.  And just below Arthur’s Seat -- Old Town.

Edinburgh’s Old Town is one of the oldest communities in Great Britain and much of it has remained intact.  The Edinburgh author Robert Lewis Stevenson, who wrote  Treasure Island, described what Old Town was like during the 1800’s.

“STEVENSON”:“It grew under the law that regulates the growth of walled cities, not out, but up. Public buildings were forced, whenever there was room for them, into the midst of thoroughfares; thoroughfares were diminished into lanes; houses sprang up, story after story, neighbor mounting upon neighbor’s shoulders, until the population slept fourteen to fifteen deep, in a vertical direction.”

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  One of the things I liked about the Old Town was that all economic levels of the society lived in the same house.  The rich and famous lived in the middle, the poor and unknown at the top and the bottom.  And they were in regular contact with each other.  They met each other in the hallways, on the staircases, in the courtyards.  And they knew a lot about each others’ lives.  If someone in business was being dishonest or a magistrate handed down an unpopular opinion in the courts, they would be confronted about those issues when they got home.  And often the confrontation took the form of a flying bucket of garbage.  I like that system a lot.  As I see our public officials leaving their elegant homes in their chauffeur-driven limousines, I wonder if it wouldn’t be a good idea to have a law that said that all government officials had to go to work in public transportation.  Just to keep them in touch.

Someone who is very much in touch is Anne Doig.  I first met her in 1995 when she worked as an independent guide to Scotland.  And she was one of the best guides we ever hired.  Today she is the Director of Tourism for the city of Edinburgh and a better guide than ever.  She begins by taking us to the top of the most famous building in the city -- Edinburgh Castle.

ANNE DOIG:  You can see the city is very dramatic, because it’s a city born from fire and sculpted by ice.

BURT WOLF:  What was the fire?

ANNE DOIG:  Volcanoes.  This whole area was under a shallow tropical sea that was subject to intense volcanic activity.  And so there were bubbling under the water all these volcanoes and eventually when the ice came, one time there was two miles sheet ice on top of this area and when it moved, it tipped up so dramatically that the ice scraped away all the soft debris and earth and rock and left seven hills that Edinburgh was created on.

BURT WOLF:  So these hills are still volcanic hills...

ANNE DOIG:  They’re still volcanic...

BURT WOLF:  Fire and ice...

ANNE DOIG:  Fire and of fire and ice.  We’re going up the Lang stairs here.  This is the original entrance to the castle way back in the very early period.  Now it’s quite steep, so you can imagine that coming up here with heavy guns and equipment and supplies is very difficult. 

BURT WOLF:  It must’ve been really tough with cannons.  I can see how hard it just is for a guy with a camera.

ANNE DOIG:  Exactly.  Well, this is right at the top, the very citadel.  This is the oldest building in Edinburgh, in fact.  It dates back to the eleventh, twelfth century.  And it’s a small chapel.  The castle was taken in 1313 by the Scots again when they took it back from the English.  They razed it to the ground.  So everything went except the chapel.  They razed it to the ground so the English couldn’t get a stronghold of Scotland again.  So, because this is a chapel it was saved.  So it predates 1313, but it’s...St. Margaret’s Chapel.  There’s a lovely story I’d like to tell you about the chapel. The Scottish military can still hold their weddings and christenings in that chapel.  It’s a very tiny chapel.  So if it’s a wedding, it’s much to the delight of the father of the bride because it only holds sixteen people so it’s not an expensive wedding, he loves it.

BURT WOLF:  It’s a great story.

ANNE DOIG:  So, we’re going to Crown Square now.  This is actually quite interesting because we’re standing here looking at the oldest building in the castle to the right and the very youngest opposite us.  And you’d never really believe that that was the youngest building on the rock, because the castle really is layer upon layer of history going all the way back to the twelfth century.  This building here fits in so beautifully with the other old buildings, but it was actually built between 1923 and -27.  The weathered rock used to build this war memorial was originally part of a chapel called St. Mary’s On the Rock.  It was a Catholic chapel which was demolished during the turbulence of the Reformation.  But being Scottish, they didn’t waste anything, right?  Recycling is nothing new to the Scots.  They kept all the original stonework until they had another purpose to build on this site.  And it was after the First World War they wanted to build a memorial to all the Scots who died in World War I.  So they used the same stones and resurrected this building here.  And we think it’s a beautiful building.  Because it’s something to build out of brick, but to use original stones and fit all back so beautifully, it’s like poetry in rock really.  All the Scots who died and all the conflicts of the twentieth century are listed by name in books in this memorial.  And they can be very touching because people come from all around the world to visit Edinburgh Castle, and they might have a grandfather or an uncle or something who died in the First or Second World War, and they can go to the books inside and their names will be there.  So it can be really quite a touching experience. 

The origins of the Old Town of Edinburgh and the city begin with the castle, which was a fortress.  And what happened was we had several periods of invading armies and so what the people did is they built these scattered houses and huts in the shadow of the old fortress for protection, and eventually the beginnings of the Old Town developed, coming down from the castle all the way down a rocky ridge.  And as the city increased its importance and eventually became a capital, there was a huge population concentrated on this rocky ridge, and so there was no room for the city to expand out the way, it had to develop up the way because it was a walled city.   So it became a vertical city.  So there was a tumble of tall tenements developed all the way down from the castle down a spine of rock.  So you can forget about Manhattan being the place where the skyscraper was developed; the skyscraper/high-rise development, first in the world, was right here in Edinburgh and that’s a superb example.  Some of the buildings were fifteen, sixteen stories high.

BURT WOLF:  The man that Jekyll and Hyde was based on lived right here.

ANNE DOIG:  That’s exactly right, just around the corner.  His name was William Brodie; his title was Deacon Brodie and he was a well-respected man in the city, head of his guild, a magistrate, a wealthy cabinetmaker, high up in the church.  But at night, this was during the day he had this respected existence, and at night he became a burglar.  So this wave of crime was well-known but they couldn’t catch the thief.  Why not?  Because he was the chair of the committee examining it.  So eventually he was caught red-handed, soon they did catch him stealing, breaking into the excise office down in the Cannongate.  Now this was in front of a very surprised crowd, because here was this well-respected, wealthy cabinetmaker / magistrate being executed for burglary.  He was responsible for all the crime.  There was another twist to the tale, because when he was executed, he was actually executed on the new, improved gallows.  He designed the trap door and he was the first person executed. He also wore an iron collar, hoping to cheat the noose, but he only made his sufferings longer.  So the double life of William Brodie which inspired Stevenson to write Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

BURT WOLF:  Right here.

ANNE DOIG:  Right here, yeah.

In 1752, the Lord Mayor of Edinburgh secretly published a proposal for the improvement of the city.  He complained that there was no place for the merchants of Edinburgh to do their business, no safe repository for the public records, no meeting place for the magistrates and the town council.  The New Town was constructed to meet the needs which the Lord Mayor so rightly described. And everyone who could get up the money moved from the Old Town to the New Town. The exodus from the Old Town was so fast and so dramatic that it has come to be known as “the great flitting.”

ANNE DOIG:  The New Town of Edinburgh was built at the same time when there was an outburst of amazing intellectual energy.  It was a period in our history known as the golden age, the enlightenment.  And the New Town of Edinburgh was really the physical manifestation of what was happening in the minds of the people at that time.  So in contrast to the Old Town, described by Stevenson as “so many smoky beehives,” the New Town was light; it was a city of nature, gardens, reason.  The streets were laid out symmetrically.  Squares were balanced at either end.  So it was exactly a reflection of what was happening to the people at the time.

BURT WOLF:  That’s quite amazing that the architecture would follow the intellectual thought of the period.

ANNE DOIG:  You can read all about the people by reading the buildings.  You can still see the wide doorways, lovely fanlight windows, the original lamps which would have been whale oil, then gas and now electricity.  You can still see the boot scrapes where they used to scrape their boots...

BURT WOLF: they came in from the mud...

ANNE DOIG:  Corinthian columns, medallions.  Nothing has changed much in Charlotte Square since 1767. 

And this is a typical house from that period built by one of the greatest men in our history, the greatest architect of the eighteenth century was Robert Adam.  So this house belongs to the National Trust, but they’ve brought it back to the way it was back in 1790s.  This exactly the way the people would have eaten.  You see the china’s Wedgwood.  Everything came to the table at the same time.  So you have the soup, fish, vegetables, and the courses started in the nineteenth century when you got your soup first and then your next course.  But back in the eighteenth century they ate everything all at once.  So they had their plate warmers, that’s kind of a cute piece of -- you don’t see that very often nowadays.  They brought that up from the kitchen to keep the plates warm, and over there by the fire they would leave them there...

BURT WOLF:  Oh, that faces the back...

ANNE DOIG:  That’s right...

BURT WOLF:  And it’s open and the heat would come in...

ANNE DOIG:  That’s right...

BURT WOLF:  And the foods would be kept in there...

ANNE DOIG:  Kept there, kept warm...

BURT WOLF:  Interesting... after dinner the women would leave...

ANNE DOIG:  That’s right...

BURT WOLF:  And the men would sit here and drink their port...

ANNE DOIG:  Absolutely.  So the ladies would withdraw to the drawing room upstairs and typically of the eighteenth century, they had chairs on the outside.  So there was a big space in the middle, because they might have spontaneous dancing, Scots dancing...

The 18th Century was the golden age of the Scottish Enlightenment.  The city of Edinburgh had become an intellectual center and reminded people of ancient Greece -- to the point where they were calling Edinburgh “the Athens of the North.”  But for much of the population, it was also an age of great change and confusion.  

For hundreds of years the economy had been based on farming.  The structure of life was simple. The year was kept by the rhythm of the seasons.  And then quite suddenly, everything began to change.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   New inventions were being tried out.  New ideas were being presented.  People were beginning to come off the land and work in factories.  It was the beginning of the industrial revolution, and the great thinkers of the time were being asked to explain what was happening.

And this is the resting place of one of the most influential thinkers of them all, Adam Smith.  He lived from 1723 to 1790 and was the author of a book entitled An Inquiry into the Nature and the Causes of the Wealth of Nations. 

He tried to explain the way an industrial society worked, how it produced wealth, and how it avoided chaos.

Smith believed that everyone in business was interested solely in their own profit. And that the chaotic buying and selling of goods and services was actually regulated by this interest in making a buck -- or in Smith’s case, a pound.  “I’ll supply you with something you are demanding, only if you have something that I want in exchange.”

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   He also believed that anytime the free market was restricted it sent investment moneys in the wrong direction.  He looked at government policies that funded or protected specific elements in the economy.  He looked at import duties.  He pointed at excessive taxation.  He believed that in general, the average person in business would end up doing things that eventually benefited the society.  On the other hand, he believed that the average person in the government would end up doing things that eventually hurt us.  He was famous for saying that “the government that governs least is the government that governs best.”  Over two hundred years have passed since Adam Smith came to rest here, and these days many of his ideas are more respected than ever before.

The Scots have always been talented in business, and fortunately they have almost always been honest.  One of their areas of greatest skill has been modern banking. And they have been so reliable that the banks have the right to print their own bank notes...  a right that the English banks lost during the 1800s.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   For the past 150 years or so, one of the most powerful segments of the Edinburgh financial community have been of the investment trusts.  They were originally set up to manage other people’s money, and one of the first places they invested in was the American West.  It was Scottish financial investors who put up the original funds for the North American cattle ranches, railroads and fruit farms.

Adam Smith once said that “Every thrifty man is a public benefactor,” and the trust companies of Edinburgh have used that idea to build one of the most powerful financial networks in the world.

And where have we been eating in Edinburgh?  A grand, French-style building in Register Place.  Inside, the Cafe Royal, originally opened in 1817.  Hundred-year-old stained glass windows show the British at their traditional sports.  At the end of the bar, a tile that presents the first ship that put to sea for the Cunard Line.  For lunch:  seafood chowder, and grilled salmon on a bed of spinach with a mustard sauce. 

Leith has been a port area for centuries, an independent and wealthy place with a clear sense of its own future.  But as Edinburgh grew, it slowly incorporated Leith.  I say “slowly,” because Leith went to war to prevent that incorporation.  Today it is a charming, gentrified edge of the city of Edinburgh.  The docks are lined with a dozen or so small restaurants, of which our favorite turned out to be The Shore.  Set in a building that was constructed during the 1700s, the collective preference of our crew was the Squid with Rosemary, Saffron Fish Soup, and for dessert -- Lemon Tart and Toffee Pudding Cake.

Just in front of the entrance to Edinburgh Castle, in a building that dates back to the 1500s, is a restaurant called The Witchery.

JAMES THOMSON:  Well, the restaurant’s called The Witchery because between 1470 and 1722 over fifteen hundred people were burned as witches in the Castle Hill, which is just outside here.   Anybody who had a physical deformity -- it could be a large nose, or a wart, or whatever -- could be thought to be a witch.   And they’d be taken away and tortured until they confessed to being a witch.  Of course, most of them weren’t actually witches; it was just a public sport at the time, but the church and the Crown became very wealthy because they inherited the estate of the witch.  Now, I researched this and found that there was this great history of witchcraft in the Castle Hill, which had been more or less written out of history books because the churches had lots to do with writing the history books.  So I thought that with this building being on the Castle Hill, we would be a reminder for all the innocent people who died, sadly, of being accused of being witches.

The room is decorated with Scottish antiques, and the kitchen specializes in the use of traditional Scottish produce. I had a good lunch here.  It started with a roasted tomato soup... and was followed by a roast loin of lamb with a mustard and chopped olive crust.  No dessert today -- because my lighting grip, Nigel Smith tells me that there is a unique Edinburgh sweet that I must taste.

BURT WOLF:   I’d like to order six Deep-Fried Mars bars.


BURT WOLF:   Six, please.


Ah, yes, you heard it right, Deep-Fried Mars Bars.  Here in Pasquale’s, as in Fish and Chips shops all over Scotland, the Mars Bar Fritter is as common as malt vinegar.  And no one knows if it was created intentionally or if it was the result of a freak deep-fat fryer accident, but the famous candy bar is indeed coated with batter and plunged into hot fat. ... this batch seems to be fortified with a little extra iron... and yes, this is the same fat that the fish and chips are fried in.

BURT WOLF:   Besides Mars Bars, do you use any other kind of candy?

PASQUALE:  Umm... Snickers... any kind of sweet that I’ve got up there.

BURT WOLF:   What do you think works best?

PASQUALE:  The Mars Bar is the best.  It is more popular.

BURT WOLF:   Do you eat them?

SALESGIRL:  I’ve never tasted one.

BURT WOLF:   You’re right -- you gotta eat ‘em when they’re hot.  Definitely an acquired taste.

There are a number of things that you can do to learn about a city that you are visiting, besides reading a guidebook.  You can walk around the main center of town at rush hour and see the people...You can take a careful look at the architecture... Human scale or future world... Preserving or destroying... You can eat the traditional foods of the town...  And if you can speak the language you can talk to shopkeepers or cab drivers.

SCOTSMAN:  [intense Robert Burns recitation]

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  I think it was George Bernard Shaw who said something to the effect that “the United States and England were two great nations separated by a common language.”  I think that was just proven.  But one of the most interesting ways to find out about the culture of a city is to get somebody to tell you the local jokes.

BILL BARCLAY:  There was an English tour up here, up in the highlands.  And this bus driver was taking them round and I’m not very good at history, but he was sort of stopping off here and saying that “In this field here, that’s when we annihilated the English, annihilated them in 16 whatever,” and he goes on and he says “Just the other side of that bridge is where we pulverized the English, pulverized them in 17 whatever,” and he goes along a bit and, “Over here this is where we massacred the English...” and this chap says “Hold on mate, hold on!”  You know in his English accent -- is that an English accent? -- he says “Did we not win any battles?”  He says, “Not when I’m driving the bus,” he says.

RADIO ANNOUNCER:  You’re listening to Bill Barclay on MAX AM...

BILL BARCLAY:  Now Hunt for Red October star Alec Baldwin is being whipped into shape by his wife Kim Basinger...wouldn’t mind getting whipped into shape by Kim Basinger...

Bill Barclay is an Edinburgh entertainer, stand-up comedian and well-known disc jockey.  Six days each week from noon until 2 PM, he plays records and tells jokes on MAX AM. 

BILL BARCLAY:  We got a lost budgie.  It’s a yellow budgie, it was lost on Thursday the sixth, from the back of Harriet Row between Dundow Street and Howe Street, but I don’t think it’s there now...

Today he’s spending the afternoon in the local pub and educating me on the origin of Edinburgh humor. 

BURT WOLF:  Scots have a big reputation for being, shall we say, careful with their money...

BILL BARCLAY:  Rubbish...

BURT WOLF:  Not wasting...


BURT WOLF:  Is that ever reflected in the local jokes?

BILL BARCLAY:  Did I not just buy you that drink?  There’s a lovely one where of course, where the chap, chapped at a door, a big, big posh house in Edinburgh, and he said, “I wonder if you could give me something for a cup of tea or some --”  “Oh!” the woman said,  “Would you like bowl of yesterday’s soup?”  And he says “Oh, that would be lovely,” and she says “Come back tomorrow.”  It’s not true but not really mean...Well, Scots are known to be sort of hard men.  There’s a lovely story about the Second World War when two Scottish hard men, as we call ‘em, they dropped ‘em off in parachutes behind enemy lines in Germany.  And they were arrested, and taken to the SS headquarters for interrogation and they kept one in one room.  And they grabbed the other one by the hair and dragged him into this room to interrogate him.  And while he’s being interrogated, his pal’s trying to listen at the door to see what’s going on, and he hears the SS officer saying “Vat is your name, wee one?  [Sound of slapping] Where do you come from? [Slap! Slap!]  What are you doing over here? [Slap! Slap!]  Stop punching me while I’m questioning you.”

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):    I like Edinburgh.  It has four distinct seasons and you get them all in the same day!  I hope you will join us next time as we travel around the world.  I’m Burt Wolf.