Heroism, Cannibalism and the North West Passage

I have written before about The Dean Cemetery, to the rear of The Dean Gallery in Edinburgh. It is an interesting place and many of those that lie peacefully here have a fascinating past, most from Georgian and Victorian society.

Passing through last week – as one of the walks available from www.edinburghwalks.com – I came across the dark Celtic Cross which tells the fascinating story of Lieutenant John Irving of the British Royal Navy.


Irving was part of Sir John Franklin’s expedition to find the North West Passage that left Kent, England in 1845 on board HMS Terror. The other Royal Navy ship in the party was HMS Erebus.

Having wintered at Beechey Island, they thereafter set out to find the Passage, but became locked in the ice for two years. By June 1847 Franklin, twenty Officers and Seamen died, but Irving and 104 other survivors landed on King William Island and tried to march further South into Canada, some 250 miles away. They perished in this venture.

Many expeditions were sent out to trace the crews, and it was in June 1879 that Lieutenant Frederick Schwatka’s American Searching Expedition found Irving’s grave near a place called Camp Crozier, the remains identifiable by the presence of a silver medal engraved ‘Second Mathematical Prize, Royal Naval College. Awarded to John Irving Mid-summer. 1830’, lying nearby. His remains were returned to Edinburgh and on the 7th January 1881 he was buried in the Dean Cemetery.


The tableau on the Cross appears to show the survivors leaving Erebus and Terror to commence their march South.



A synopsis of the terrible affair is also on the cross. However, it brought to mind more recent information that adds colour to this story.

Dr. John Rae was a qualified surgeon from Orkney in Scotland who was employed by the Hudson Bay Company after his arrival there in 1833. He stayed in the Moose Factory area for around 10 years and in this time assimilated with the local native Canadians. He learned their vital survival skills, though his insistence of dressing like a native was frowned upon. Dr. Rae assisted in two searches for Erebus and Terror and their men, but abandoned the search for Franklin in 1854 after learning that the expedition had ended in disaster and that the last survivors having been forced to resort to cannibalism.

In April 1854, Rae had heard from an Inuit that a group of 40 white men had been seen four years previously pulling a boat and sledges South along the West coast of King William Island. From what he was told, Rae decided the men had died in the winter of 1850, after ice had crushed their ships. Some years later, Rae learned that the Inuit had discovered 30 bodies and a number of graves and it appeared the men had died of starvation. But the report of cannibalism caused a scandal which was not accepted by Victorian Britain and, in particular, Franklin’s widow. Even Charles Dickens wrote of his disbelief. But in May 1859 following another expedition, skeletons were found of some of the last survivors and they appeared to confirm that the men had resorted to cannibalism.

Dr. Rae eventually returned to the UK, but his courageous deeds in the snowy wastelands of Northern Canada were never truly recognised….until 2014. On 30th September 2014 a simple plaque was unveiled to Rae in Westminster Abbey in London, England. This plaque is adjacent to a memorial to Franlin.

But there is more……. Also in September 2014 the Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced the discovery of a ship to the West of King William Island, South of the Victoria Strait. This ship has been confirmed as HMS Terror’s sister ship, HMS Erebus. Work is continuing to find Irving’s ship, which must surely be nearby.

So, although Irving was interred in the Dean Cemetery 133 years ago his story and that of the Franklin Expedition continues to evolve to this day.


Golf in Leith & Edinburgh

Scotland is the undisputed home of golf.

The exact origins are not known, but it is recorded that golf had to be banned in 1457 as it interfered with archery practice. But it was James IV of Scotland who took up the sport around 1505 giving it the royal stamp of approval and it is reported that Mary Queen of Scots also played. However it was also a game of the people.

At Leith Links, there were originally 5 holes, around 400 yards long. The first rules of golf were drawn up here in 1744 and the first international golf foursome was played at Leith as was the first ever national tournament, played by professionals in 1867. By this time, there were 7 holes and four rounds were played to complete a ’round’.

Leith Links was the original home of the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers. The Company subsequently moved to their present home of Gullane in East Lothian in 1836. (You can walk around Leith Links and learn more about its history as part of the Sunny Leith guided walk from Edinburgh Walks www.edinburghwalks.com)

I took a walk last week to another area of Edinburgh which has a long history when it comes to golf. A short walk to the South of the medieval city of Edinburgh, but still within easy sight of the Castle – though where is not I suppose – is Bruntsfield Links. Part of  the ancient Borough Muir and Borough Loch, the area provided the old city with fresh water and areas for quarrying, grazing sheep and hunting. The Roman road Dere Street is believed to have cut across the southern boundary of the Muir.

But it is golf that was important to the area. Two of the four oldest golf clubs in the world were based here, and their favoured tavern for refreshment was the Ye Olde Golf Tavern

IMAG0435 which has been here since 1456 and is still open today.


Previously known as the Golf Hotel, this was where the Royal Burgess Golfing Society met, having played golf on the Links from 1735. The Bruntsfield Links Society, which was formed in 1761, also used Ye Olde Golf Tavern as it’s clubhouse. Both these Societies moved to the North of the city in the mid 19th Century as the Brunstfield Links were too busy with other activities. However, you can still play golf for a very small fee on the Links outside Ye Olde Golf Tavern.


You just call into the starters box to rent a club and ball and off you go.


After your round, do as I did and call into Ye Olde Golf Tavern for some food and a drink. You will not be disappointed.

You can also pass through Bruntsfield Links as part of the Three Volcanoes guided walk from Edinburgh Walks  ( www.edinburghwalks.com ).

Grave Matters

Edinburgh and Leith have retained many of the graveyards that were used to bury their dead over many centuries and these are fascinating places to visit.

On all of the walks I lead, I visit at least one graveyard as the story of their inhabitants are  interesting and informative, giving an idea of how people lived and died in our historic city and port – see www.edinburghwalks.com for more details.

The graveyards of the city centre contain the marked remains of philosophers, soldiers, merchants, the great legal and scientific minds of their day, religious leaders, Lords, Ladies and their offspring.

By contrast, when I was in North Leith recently, I visited the former St. Ninians Church and the nearby North Leith Cemetery where many of those interred had a connection with the sea.


On land owned by the Abbot of Holyrood, a chapel to St Ninian was built in 1493 at the end of a bridge over the Water of Leith leading from the Shore into North Leith  – an area in the parish of Holyrood House and Canongate. The building has been altered over time and the unusual Dutch style steeple was built in 1675 – see the date above the doorway.


By this time it had become the parish church of the area, but eventually became too small for the congregation and they moved to North Leith Parish Church in nearby Madeira Street, which was built in 1816.

It was fascinating to have a walk around this very quiet part of Leith which is easily accessible from the busier Shore area and the Bondside on Commercial Street. Before I went to the nearby graveyard, it being lunchtime I called into the nearby RoseLeaf Bar for a drink.

The Roseleaf is a fascinating bar and cafe that opened in 2007, which serves high quality brunches, lunches and bar food all day, but is particulary well known for their ‘Pot-Tails’ – cocktails in old china teapots! My drink and the staff were great – what is there not to like about that.

I knew The Roseleaf in it’s former life as The Black Swan , a name it had had for about a century – though known to local Leithers as the Mucky Duck. My paternal grandfather stayed across from The Black Swan during the latter part of the first World War in the street then known as Bridge Street.

I left The Roseleaf and walked about 50 metres South to the gate way into the graveyard of the old St.Ninians.


Now known as North Leith Churchyard this small burial ground has a fascinating connection to the Port and the sea. It is still “monied” people that made it into here between 1664 and 1820, but there are many more merchants and seafarers than seen in the city centre grounds. Many of the sandstone gravestones have worn away, but the skull and crossbones, hourglasses and angels are still visible along with items with the look of the deceased’s working accountrements,  if the names of the deceased are not.

I found that the final resting place of the grandparents of 19th Century British Prime minister W.E.Gladstone (So that is why Gladstone’s Place is near by). Also that of Lady McIntosh who raised a regiment for Prince Charlie’s 1745 rising. Amongst the more ordinary : John Broun, shipmaster  – died in 1744, the year before Bonnie Prince Charlie was in town.

It is fascinating to visit and graveyards are not scary at all. It adds something to your knowledge of an area and it’s past and I am glad I visited.



Leith Custom House and Ned Kelly’s Gang?

I was in Leith recently (see www.edinburghwalks.com for a guided walk to Leith) and  just off the Shore is the Bernard Street Bridge leading into Commercial Street. On the left is a tenement terrace of restaurants and flats which had sustained damage on the night of the Zeppelin attack on the area on 2nd April 1916. Directly opposite is the imposing Custom House of Leith which escaped any damage during this air raid. Built in 1812, taxes and levies were collected from the movement of goods through the Port of Leith, but in recent years the building has been used for storage by the National Museums of Scotland. Presently, the building is for sale and a move to have the Leith Museum housed here has gathered support and momentum.


The building is adjacent to Dock Place and the old Bondside of Commercial Street where restaurants and bars like Mithas, The Kitchin, Teuchters Landing, Fatma and Bistro Provence have brought this area to light and are all highly recommended.

But the Customs House was the subject of an international incident that, for it’s day, was an outrage. On Friday 4th February, 1881 around 11pm, two uniformed Sergeants by the name of Arnot & Reid from the world famous Leith Police (of “The Leith Police Dismisseth Us” tongue twister) were on patrol when they fell upon two males who were peering in the window of the Customs House. These two males gave their names as Seymour and Grant and stated they were from a ship in the Docks. One stated he was Australian, the other Irish/American. The Sergeants knew of no ship and detained the two, leading them towards the small Police Station at the Dock Gate where Teuchters Landing sits today.  On approach the men drew pistols and shot both unarmed Sergeants and ran off. A chase ensued and another Police Officer was shot and wounded. At the far end of the Bondside opposite the old Cromwellian Citadel Seymour was cornered and having fired his gun again, took his own life. Grant was arrested having tried to commit suicide, but his gun jammed. Grant was arrested and taken to Leith Police Station in Queen Charlotte Street. He later received 14 years gaol.


All three Officers that were shot survived and received commendations and financial redress. The Chief Constable of the Leith Police James Grant wrote to the Chief Officers of Police in Melbourne, Sydney, Hobart, Dunedin and Adelaide as he believed the two men had come to Leith via London from Melbourne on board a ship called The Melbourne and had given different names. The Chief Constable stated that their proficient use of guns showed they may have used them in nefarious deeds in Australia and New Zealand. A copy of his letter is printed in the New Zealand Herald, dated 8th April 1881. It is a fascinating read.

But the rumour that spread around Leith was that these two bushrangers were in fact the remnants of the Australian Ned Kelly’s Gang and his associates who had recently been arrested, gaoled or executed. Had they fled to start a life of crime on the otherside of the world…………


Stockbridge on a Sunday

There was a time in Edinburgh, not so many years ago, that Sunday was a day of rest. You had no choice because nothing really happened. Places of entertainment, shops, cafes and restaurants did not open. Neither did the pubs!

Thankfully this has all changed.

Last month I walked through Stockbridge on a Sunday. A vibrant village with a very bohemian feel just to the North of the city centre, it was thronging with people out with family and friends dining, drinking, chatting, shopping and having a good time. New (and newish) eateries on the scene, The Raeburn, Rollo and Scran & Scallie were full to overflowing, with The Raeburn making good use of their “sit ootery”. Stalwarts like The Stockbridge Tap and Hector’s were also doing very good business too.

However, the main purpose for my visit to Stockbridge that day was to steal a glimpse within St. Bernard’s Well. This is the larger of two Georgian Wells on the South side of the Water of Leith on the path leading from the quiet Dean Village into Stockbridge (see www.edinburghwalks.com for further details of guided walks in the area).  It is named after the troglodyte St. Bernard of Clairvaux who it is said lived here in the 12th Century and is very rarely open to the public.


In 1788 Lord Gardenstone commissioned Alexander Nasmyth to design a grand well on the site, replacing a smaller well house that had been there since 1760. It consists of a circular domed temple with ten Doric columns, within which stands a statue of the Greek goddess Hygeia. Below the statue and columns is the wellhouse. It was thought that drinking the waters of the well did you some good. When the Well first opened the public could call between 6am and 9am each morning and drink to the benefit of their health. They were charged a penny to drink on site or subscribe for five shillings for a season. Drinking offsite was half a penny. Thankfully washing of sores and bathing of limbs was prohibited.


When I called at the Well it was looking magnificent. Having recently had some renovation, Hygiea and the exterior stone work was clean and glistening. However, it was only when I entered the Well room that I was taken aback. The only way I can describe the interior is that it was like being inside a Faberge Egg! From the little light that shone through the windows and from the few candles that had been lit to brighten the


gloom, the roof and walls were illuminated with gold, marble and blue tiles vying for attention. The well pump itself stood in the middle of the room and the latin phrase Bibendo Valebis – By Drinking You Will Be Well – was boldly displayed above the lionhead waterspout, with the marble basin below. The tiled floor was also intricate, colourful and beatiful.Such a contrast from the greyness of the exterior stone.

IMAG0298 IMAG0295

The pump is no longer in working order, but maybe that is a good thing as, by all reports the water were sulpherous and very unpleasant. Better to call into one of the pubs or eateries mentioned earlier for a decent drink!

Leaving St. Bernard’s Well, I headed back into Stockbridge, but could not pass by Stockbridge Market without having a wander round. This fantastic addition to the vibe of Stockbridge takes place every Sunday (they have a Saturday market in The Grassmarket too). Fresh bread, fish, meats, cheese, olives, cakes, chocolate, organic veg, pies, wines and beers make up the majority of stalls, with exotic cooked foods from around the world also available. Also there are clothes, cards, pictures and all sorts of chic bric-a-brac on sale. For me it was a French loaf that caught my eye. Lunch sorted.

Loaf of fresh bread on a Sunday, now that hasn’t always happened in Edinburgh.

When Summer arrives………get Ice Cream

Here in Edinburgh, we have to take the opportunity to get out into the sunshine when it appears…..it may not be here for long. Four seasons in one day is a popular phrase, but you can be sure that here in Scotland we have been known to have four seasons in one hour!

Yesterday, as the month of May was on it’s way out and with sunglasses on, I walked in glorious sunshine from Edinburgh city centre on the Old Town, New Town walk.

From the West End, where the residents of this city have been getting used to the “ding-ding” of the trams from our new transport system I made my way to the base of the main volcanic vent that has our famous castle ontop. 340 million (or so) years after it was active whilst Scotland was then in the Tropics, it is a very impressive sight indeed. You can imagine how attackers must have felt when trying to work out how to attack this citadel.


Walking round the castle rock to the rear I entered The Grassmarket from above it’s Western end. An open and bright area, previously a place of trade just within the city walls and the site of the city gallows, it has been turned into a very European style boulevard with bars and restaurants vying for custom from locals and visitors alike. Tables and chairs line the pavement and in the middle section of the street, under lovely shady trees. It was very busy but the question has to be asked – where would so many people be if the sun was not shining?

I was on a mission though. A mission to visit somewhere I had heard great things about. And in particular, on a mission to buy some quality ice cream. I went looking for Mary’s Milk Bar to find it. This small cafe on the Southside of the Grassmarket has a great retro feel of the 1950’s. My walking partners choice was a dark chocolate filled cone, while I went for the salted caramel. Bliss. These home made concoctions are two of many that they produce, with some wierd and wonderful ingredients – for ice cream anyway – like vinegar or black olive. The ice cream went down a treat.

Back on the walk through the Grassmarket, I visited the site of the old scaffold where some of Edinburgh’s condemned from centuries past came to a grizzly end. Nearby I had a wander round the street market that has been part of the scenery here for only about a year. Lots of choice and very good quality foods on display. This is a great addition to the markets in the city centre, as Edinburgh’s Farmers Market in Castle Terrace nearby and the smaller market at the top of Leith Walk are also very popular.

I carried on with Old Town, New Town up the Vennel in line with the old City Walls. Where next for Ice Cream?



A Sunny day in Sunny Leith

What started as a cloudy and blustery day in Edinburgh turned into a Sunny day in Edinburgh’s port, Leith last week.

I followed Walk D from my website (www.Edinburghwalks.com) and got a marvellous view of the North of Edinburgh, the Kingdom of Fife and the Forth Bridges from Calton Hill. However because of the height and our position to the West of the hill, it was blowy so it was good to get down onto Leith Walk for a bit of shelter.

Venturing North, I made it to the boundary between the City and it’s Port at Pilrig. It brought back stories of the Boundary Bar with it’s two doors (one in Leith and one in Edinburgh) and two liquor licenses, so the patrons could drink up in Edinburgh at the end of the day but drink later on the Leith side as it was still open. All prior to 1920 of course when Leith became part of the city, to the displeasure of the majority of Leithers.


I took in sites of interest to those with a love of literature, the former family homes of Robert Louis Stevenson, Harry Potter’s J.K.Rowling and a train station from Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting.

For much needed refreshment and to dodge a quick shower of rain, I headed to the Lioness of Leith pub in Duke Street, Leith where I had a great pint of Summerhall Ale. The menu looked great too, but I decided to venture out as the sun had come out from behind the clouds and the sky was clearing.

I took in much of the South/Eastside of The Shore and the streets here are full of life. It has been about 30 years now since the first business ventured in here to open a restaurant and try to entice people from The City into their Port. Well now there are Michelin starred restaurants and great bars here to visit. I had lunch in The Vintage on Henderson Street, sharing a tapas style platter and the beers came in 2/3 pint glasses. Staff were very keen and knowledgeable and I would highly recommend it.

After lunch I made it along the old bondside in Commercial Street, past the remains of Cromwell’s Citadel and ended up at the Royal Yacht Britannia and the Ocean Terminal shopping mall. By now the sun was splitting the sky. It was Sunny Leith afterall.

A brilliant walk and such a relaxing day.

Welcome to Edinburgh Walks new website

Welcome to Edinburgh Walks new website and blog. This is where we will be bringing you the latest Edinburgh news. Keep checking back for the latest Edinburgh Walks tour information.