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Wandering in the Museum of Edinburgh


A visit to the Museum of Edinburgh (and more about the name in a moment) is a bit like visiting an older family member who's been keeping pictures and family treasures, inheriting them as older members pass on. You never know what you'll find.

I mean, did I expect these? Not a bit! In order, they are a piece of oatmeal cake baked by Robert Burns's wife, a golf ball once used by Robert Louis Stevenson and dug up from his garden after his death, and Sir Walter Scott's nutcracker.


The museum itself is a bit of an antique. It was once known as the Huntly House Museum, named after the yellow-stuccoed building it started in, but it now winds its way through several adjoining 16th century buildings, passing up and down some, well, interesting stairways and passageways.


About the name. It is both the name of this museum, and the name of a series of city-owned free museums and monuments around the city, and a few that have admission fees. Included are the nearby Peoples' Story Museum, the Writers' Museum, the Museum of Childhood, the Walter Scott Monument and around 200 other exhibits and monuments.


A number of exhibits describe Edinburgh as a 'city of trades' and a 'city of contrasts.' This statue of a Highlander represents trade; he's taking snuff and thereby selling tobacco products, much as America's 'cigar store Indians' did.


And here's a contrast: An elegant sedan chair, meant to carry ladies or gentlemen safely through the filthy streets and alleys of Old Town Edinburgh, which had no functioning sewer system until the 19th century. Instead, at 10 pm, householders or servants would cry "Gardy Loo!" and heave the contents of their chamber pots out the windows. The cry came from French 'Gardez l'eau!' or 'Watch out for the water!'


Sitting on a narrow ridge descending from the castle and bound by its walls, Edinburgh had nowhere to go but up, occasionally to ten or eleven stories. And the sewage had nowhere to go but down.


Several detailed models show different periods in the city's development, with Edinburgh Castle high on a hill which is actually the summit of a (probably) extinct volcano, with the city built on top of a long lava flow that is the main street of Old Town Edinburgh. That's the Royal Mile, which ends at the bottom with the Palace of Holyroodhouse and the Scottish Parliament buildings.


The wealthiest families may have lived in mansions, but many also lived on the lower floors of buildings along the Mile, with shops below and poorer lodgings above. For those with money, decor might include painted ceilings like the one above.


This elegant piece stood above the entry to one of the city's alleys, or closes, occupied by wine merchants, whose wares are shown being unloaded from ships using a crane powered by a boy in a treadmill. The stone is from 1678. By 1620, 250,000 gallons of wine were coming into the city annually, and by the 1690s, a third of the city administration's income came from taxes on wine.


But if wine was important, so was water. As the city grew and became more crowded, local wells and ponds were not enough. In 1624, the city was given permission to tap water from outside the city and bring it to a reservoir on the Castle Hill through wooden pipes, actually tapered hollow logs. From there, it flowed to twelve wells, each with a wellhead from which residents could fill their buckets. Two survive; a wellhead, with open mouth, is in the museum.


There's also a craft-and-play area for young children, although there were few in evidence when we visited on a day when school was open.


Edinburgh is a far more diverse city than I might have thought, and recent immigration has made it more so. The museum had a temporary exhibit featuring interviews with numbers of recent Edinburghers, who describe what it was like and what it was like to make a new home.


In several places, the museum shows off some of the city's fine products, including silver, glass and ceramics. The exhibits range from fine handwork of original design through eras of mass production and again to recent artisan returns to original design and hand work. I


I really want that pottery carp, which is actually a tureen for (fish) soup!

20230621_112858The museum also has a niche for another local product, Douglas Haig, the Field Marshal who commanded the British forces in World War I. In possible deference to a local hero, the museum treads a narrow line between the contrasting views of Haig as a poor general whose belief in a war of attrition led to two million British casualties and of Haig as a brilliant leader in a time of changing tactics and technology.

And, it has medals and pictures to display, so...


A less controversial, and definitely cuter, local hero is Greyfriars Bobby, a Skye terrier, who waited faithfully at his master's grave in the churchyard of Greyfriars Kirk. Depending on your choice of legend, the master was either an Edinburgh copper or a visiting shepherd. In either case, locals fed and cared for Bobby until he died in 1872. In 1867, a new ordinance required licenses for dogs and ordered strays to be destroyed. Bobby's fame led to the Lord Provost of the city paying for his license and collar. In the city's souvenir shops, he seems to be #2 only to pictures of Highland 'coos.'


One of the biggest stories of Edinburgh's history is its own development, with one of the earliest examples of conscious city planning in an existing city. As the city grew in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, it became clear that 'up' was not a permanent answer for Edinburgh's growth. George Drummond, Lord Provost, or mayor, convinced the Town Council that the answer was 'out.'


That meant draining the artificial lake that ran below the city's walls, and building a new neighborhood on its other shore, with a bridge to connect the Old and New Towns. The valley between them became Princes Street Gardens, Edinburgh's first great public park. The work started in the 1760s. A visit by George IV in 1822, marked its completion. It was the first visit of a British monarch since Charles II's Scottish coronation in 1651.

20230621_112300Visitors feel the varying textures of stone used in New Town buildings

A young architect, James Craig won a competition to design the New Town, with wide avenues and several large public squares, each honoring an important royal or public figure. The building of the New Town had a tremendous effect on the city, with nearly all the well-to-do figures moving to new elegant Georgian homes in the new neighborhood, leaving the Old Town to become, until well into the 20th century, a crowded if historic slum.


Much has changed in the years since then, including the revival and redevelopment of the Old Town, and the city's expansion far beyond its earlier borders. The whole of it is too big a story for one place or one museum, but the Museum of Edinburgh is a great place to start—and admission is free.


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The best part of every trip is realizing that it has upset your expectations

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