Tag Archives: edinburgh attractions


23 May
On Saturday mornings I learn the lanes of Edinburgh -
             track their trickles of life.  
I came across Second Hands last week
             and I will certainly go back.
                                    Stacked full it was,
                                    jam packed -
            with nerve tingling
            bits of old bric-a-brac.
                        Walking in - as you do -
             the inner earphone music looped - cocooned,
as it were, in a personal soundtrack - you stalk softly
through this neatly jumbled past
on permanent display.
As the feet shuffle the eyes dart - and extract
rich colour codes - of pearl and puce,
                        faded claret, sumptuous green,
                               burnished gold, dust -
You pick up and play - with silver shades
                                          of tiredness.
                        A pile of cheap picture frames
                                    lazily reclaimed -
                        queue for release.
Some photographs of you - a lady, a beau, a brigadier -
 decompose gracefully, shelved -
                        until such time as
            someone sets them sleeping once again -
                        in their own Petri-dish attic
            of lost minutiae.
            Looking up - from invoices, charts,
                        crinkled maps -
                        the minutes of administrative
                        meetings from ordered pasts -
             I spot - in an awkward, ramshackle line -
                        pictures of the picturesque,
  profligately framed - one eye towards the sublime.
 And, in a lonely nook, 
 alongside a pile of austere railway books, 
           bandy, barely standing but for a cord
                        weaved through his varnished bones
            and a surrogate steel spine -
  an old medical skeleton, head empty and drooped,
            leers maniacally at the carpet.
Idiosyncratic relic. No happy home can accommodate him.
     Think medical professors - long dead - obliging you
          to see through the poor soul’s disappeared flesh -
            and behold her grinning skull.

Hidden Edinburgh: The Craigentinny Marbles

9 May

It’s not everyday you come across a grand monument incongruously surrounded by bungalows (think of the Arc de Triomphe dropping into Barnton, or the Collossus being rebuilt on Dalkeith Road). This really is a strange sight for even the most hardened sightseer. And just think about it – how would it feel if you walked out of your door each morning to be greeted by the grandeur of classical sculpture? Probably pretty great. Well, if you are on the lookout for this kind of thing it might well be worth your while taking a trip up to Craigentinny for a look at the ornate grave of William Henry Miller, also known as The Craigentinny Marbles.

And what’s more, if you like a bit of mystery with your marbles then you’re in the right place. The details of Miller’s burial arrangements, and the speculation surrounding his life and death are extremely bizarre…

The Miller mausoleum is designed in the style of a tomb on the Appian Way in Rome. It was designed by David Rhind and completed in 1856, in open fields on the Craigentinny estate, to the north of the Edinburgh Portobello road, between Piershill and Portobello. On either side of the enormous structure two stone carvings depict epic scenes from the bible. These were carved by Alfred Gatley, an eminent Victorian sculptor,  and fixed to the north and south sides of the monument in 1867. Strangely enough the sculptures are not actually marble at all – they picked up their name from the resemblance they bear to the bas-relief sculptures on the Elgin Marbles which are held in the British museum in London.  The tomb marks the last resting place of William Henry Miller who was at one time a prosperous landowner and member of Parliament for Newcastle under Lyme. Miller inherited Craigentinny house and estates from his father but spent much of his life in England.  It is clear, however, that he had a strong affinity with Edinburgh for it was here that he decided he wanted to be buried. And for the sort of lavish arrangement Miller had in mind you really have to plan ahead.

In his lifetime Miller was a renowned collector of books, one of the great collectors of his age infact. He amassed a library that included six books from William Caxton’s press and was unrivalled among other private libraries of the time for the number, rarity, and condition of its examples of early English and Scottish literature. His pedantry in regard to book collecting was legendary. He became known as ‘Measure Miller’ after his habit of carrying around a ruler to measure the exact size of copies of books before deciding whether or not they would enhance his collection.

Miller died without heirs in 1848 at his estate in Craigentinny after a short illness, he was sixty. His opulent burial arrangements would cost £20,000, a staggering amount of money at that time. Yet it was not merely the cost of his entombment that aroused the public interest. Details of his last will and testament began to circulate around Edinburgh. Miller’s will stated that he should be buried at the bottom of a 40ft stone lined shaft beneath a giant monument, and that on top of his coffin should be placed a heavy stone slab. The town was full of gossip.

The book Old & New Edinburgh, published in 1890, documents that during the time between Miller’s death and his eventual burial people began to think he might have been posing as something he was not:

  “… he was averred to be a changeling – even a woman, a suggestion which his thin figure, weak voice,  absence of all beard and some peculiarity of habit, seemed to corroborate”

It was suggested that Miller, who had never married, had been an adopted female orphan who throughout his life had cunningly disguised himself as a man. And not only had little William been masquerading as a man, but he had used his newfound gender to get all the way to the highest office in the land. Thus his burial arrangements were thought to be a way of ensuring that this secret stayed a secret for ever more.

Absence of all beard or not I think that you’ll agree this all seems a little farfetched. The man was an MP, a figure of public prominence, you would think at least one of his colleagues or constituents might have smelled a rat, confronted him in the local Turkish baths etc. It is true that he was a notoriously private man – rarely allowing anybody to inspect or study his book collection  – but in no way can he be said to have shied away from public life, having run for election seven times.

The most likely explanation for Miller’s esoteric burial arrangements, and the one that is generally accepted, is that his tomb was designed as a way to deter body snatchers. Edinburgh was still recovering from the Burke and Hare scandal a few decades before – and the city still had a tricky problem getting rid of those pesky grave robbers. So, providing one had the requisite funds (which Miller certainly did) it probably seemed like a good idea to bury yourself deep underground where nobody could get their hands on you. Makes perfect sense to me.

For a long time after Miller’s death the monument above his remains stood bare. When the two panels were finally fixed to the mausoleum in 1867 they were described in the press as: ‘the most remarkable pieces of sculpture executed during this century.’ Why not take a trip to Craigentinny for a look and see if you think they were right. (Grave robbers not welcome).

The Edinburgh Police Box

8 Apr

 Listed Building, Coffee Shop, Miniature Gallery, Time Machine

On the Royal Mile there is a castle, a cathedral and a courthouse – and down the bottom end somewhere there’s an old palace and a new parliament. There is also a police box. Funny that isn’t it – I never notice it either. There is also one on Princes Street, on the Grassmarket, The Mound, Heriot Row, Rose Street, Lauriston Place, Dean Terrace … you get the picture. So commonplace are these wee blue boxes around the streets of Edinburgh that they seem to trick the viewer into passing them by as one would a bus stop or a row of parking meters, completely unnoticed.

Now this just won’t do. Concealed within those four small walls the Police Boxes of Edinburgh offer us a compelling slice of history. They remind us of a time when every corner of the city had its own beat bobby who worked from a box at the end of your road. And we’re not talking Dixon of Dock Green here – these guys were real policemen with a real job to do. They were the men at the front line, so to speak, between the public and the police stations. The boxes remind us of a time when domestic phones where uncommon and the public needed assurance of prompt help from the authorities.

The first police boxes appeared in Glasgow at the end of the 19th century. They were little more than a hexagonal phone-stand with a signal lantern on top to alert officers that they were being hailed by the local station. The telephone had only been invented a decade or so earlier and the police were quick to see the benefits of this revolutionary communication device. Edinburgh’s boxes came a little later on, around 1930.  They were designed especially to complement the city’s neoclassical architecture by the architect Ebenezer James MacRae. Macrae designed many public buildings (housing, schools etc) and was a well known architectural conservationist in the immediate pre-war period.

Inside the boxes police officers had only a little bit of room to work with, enough for a sink, a kettle, a chair or two. On winter nights they might warm up with a one bar electric fire or an old oil heater. On night-shifts, officers carried round a battery hand lamp and the beat keys and reference book which gave them access to properties to check the security and contact the owners if something was amiss. The boxes doubled up as a handy place to lock up unruly drunks found causing trouble after dark. Unfortunately what the boxes didn’t have was a loo. It is said that each policeman was armed with a bottle of bleach and that when it came to it (particularly in residential areas) he had to do his business in the sink. One rather grotesque story I stumbled across was that during the 1970’s when women officers began working from the boxes a rumour began circulating that one unlucky lady had broken the sink! Although if The Sweeney is anything to go by, perhaps this was just a smutty office wisecrack from a macho male copper.

In total 142 boxes were installed in Edinburgh, of which about 75 remain – sadly in various states of disrepair and neglect. They are substantial cast iron structures (in other locations they were made of concrete) and appear to have been made at Carron Ironworks in Falkirk, which was once one of the largest ironworks in Europe. Much like the Police Boxes though, this powerhouse of the Industrial Revolution is now a thing of the past. After 223 years, the company became insolvent in 1982.

As police officers began to be issued with personal radios in the 1970’s the Police Boxes were eventually phased out. This happened across the UK. From being an omnipresent sight on Britain’s streets they promptly disappeared. In London there were almost 700 at one time (so it’s not surprising that a certain timelord chose it as the design for his intergalactic time machine) now there are only a few left, scattered around various museums. One of the most novel things about these miniature police stations is that for each British City there was a different design. Edinburgh is unique in that it kept a large number of its boxes in the spirit of architectural heritage.

It is something of a shame then that many of our Police Boxes are now covered in flyers and graffiti, their paint faded and flaking. This isn’t the case throughout Edinburgh though, particularly in the wealthier areas of town where many of the boxes seem to be very well taken care of, take the Heriot Row box for instance.

Some of the boxes have even been bought up and revitalised by businesspeople and social groups. Many of you will be familiar with the Police Box Coffee Stands dotted around the Edinburgh University area. This is a great little idea (a doff of the cap to the old beat bobby and his cup of tea) and a money-spinner too. What’s more the police box at the corner of Drummond Street and The Pleasance has been turned into a miniature art gallery for exhibitions, performances and installations. ‘The Wee Blue Box’ group organises for artists to come in every few months and redecorate. It’s quite a surprise walking down and seeing it for yourself. I’ll bet many of the festival goers on their way down to the pleasance this year turned their head for a second take. One artist, Malcolm Irving, has actually published a book of photographs of the city’s Police Boxes. The pictures are all taken with an old camera, and film that isn’t made anywhere anymore, playing on the idea of obsoleteness and decay.

So if you’re walking through Edinburgh and you catch a glimpse of one of these little structures (and no doubt you will) spare a thought for the old policeman freezing the night away, cherishing his cup of tea (and of course his bleach bottle) a long long time ago.