Episode 5 - Edinburgh's Mercat Tours
Listen to Episode 5 - Mercat Tours.
Interviewer: Grant Stott (GS)
Interviewee: Tanya Drawn (TD)
Hello, and welcome to Tour Guide Tales brought to you by VisitScotland. I'm Grant Stott and each week I'll be speaking to a different tour guide to hear the eclectic, and often incredibly rich history of Scotland through their knowledge, stories and also their experiences as tour guides. Today I'm speaking to Tanya Drawn, just one of the tour guides from Mercat Tours in Scotland's capital, Edinburgh. It's worth noting that this episode was recorded from our homes during lockdown, and also be aware that this episode will occasionally feature more macabre themes of torture and death as we hear about some of Scotland's fascinating, but occasionally gory past. Even as someone who's grown up in Edinburgh, I'd never even heard of some of these amazing tales and, quite frankly, I think you're in for a treat. Let's hear the tour guide tales of Tanya Drawn of Edinburgh's Mercat Tours.
GS: Well, Tanya, welcome to this edition of Tour Guide Tales, nice to have you along. I'm quite excited about this one because I'm an Edinburgh lad and I'm hoping to learn a little bit more about my home city. So, no pressure, Tanya, no pressure. But first of all, let's start off with a little introduction. Introduce yourself and tell us what you do at Mercat Tours.
TD: Yes, so, my name is Tanya. So, sometimes you'll see me on the Mile leading tours but I'm also training our tour guides, and sometimes creating new tours as well. So, you'll often see me with a little gaggle of new guides or storytellers, as we call them at Mercat Tours, putting them through their paces.
GS: So, how much did you know about the history of Edinburgh before you got involved in this?
TD: I knew, well, I thought I knew a fair amount, I thought I knew all the sites, but you're just amazed at how much there is that you don't know about. When I kind of started with the company and we were doing my first, you know, tours to get to know the company, I was seeing things that I've walked past countless times and just never noticed. So, I think no matter how well you know Edinburgh there's always going to be some little secret tucked away that you didn't know about, or you've forgotten about, or you've never noticed.
GS: And that's what you do at Mercat Tours, don't you, just for those who have perhaps never experienced it, never seen it, never even been to Edinburgh perhaps. You take a group of people around some well-known parts and sites in Edinburgh.
TD: We do, yes, we have a range of tours, we've got history tours, and we've got ghost tours. We like to show people, whether they're an international visitor or whether they're a local, a little bit more of the city that they maybe didn't know about, and fill them in with some historical detail, yeah.
GS: Right, well, you're going to take me on a little tour around my home city and I'm looking forward to discovering more, you know, and, again, like you, I like to think that I know my city, I like to think I know what's going on in the town, but, well, there's always room to learn more and that's what I'm looking forward to doing today. So, let's start with, because we've actually cherry picked just a few favourites, because obviously we could have a podcast that would last all day, but we'll actually cherry pick a few favourites and we're going to start off with Robert Johnstone, not the blues legend, but Robert Johnstone, a well-known figure. Tell us about him and his significance.
TD: Yeah, so, Robert Johnstone is sadly remembered for his death rather than his life, but people are probably aware that public executions were carried out in Edinburgh and they always drew out a massive crowd, but this was one where the crowd took matters into their own hands as it were so. I don't know how much you know about execution to give a bit of background, but because we think, don't we, that these crowds that turned up to executions it's an incredibly morbid thing to do, and, of course, it was but even the people then knew that there was a line, and the old style, as it became known of execution, was that there was a short drop and a short rope, which essentially meant that the person being hanged would be choking at the end of the rope, and it was very long torturous process, and people carrying this out and people watching it knew that it had to be changed, there had to be a more humane way, and so they developed a longer drop, normally with a trap door, that the person would fall through, and a longer rope so the neck would break.
GS: So, what period in our history are you talking about here, when was this?
TD: So, the change happened in the late 1700s, and it wasn't too long after that that Robert Johnstone was sentenced to be executed. He'd committed an armed robbery, and he was going to be hanged in front of a crowd, as always, in the year 1818 on the 30th of December. And, as normal, a crowd gathered, he was being executed near Saint Giles, and so as normal he was taken out of his cell, and as normal they said prayers, and as normal they placed the noose around his neck, and as normal they pulled the lever for the trap door to fall away, but then things go abnormally and the trap door for some reason doesn't work properly, and Robert Johnstone is left with his toes on the trapdoor teetering and that means he doesn't have the length of the rope or the length of the drop and he's choking, and this massive crowd is watching, and the officials are all watching, and they don't know what to do, they all just kind of freeze. But the crowd, the Edinburgh mob, as we call them, very quickly turn and there's cries of murder, and they start picking up stones and throwing them at the scaffold, and none of the officials know what to do, and now they're being hit by stones, so they just start to retreat, and the mob gets more and more angry, and they throw more stones some of which of course are hitting Robert Johnstone to add to his torture, and then the crowd decide 'no, they have to do something about it', so they rush forward, some of them grab hold of him to try and hold him up, and then somebody cuts the rope apparently with a medical scalpel, and Robert Johnstone collapses to the ground, and then, you know, the crowd obviously haven't thought this through, so they pick him up and they carry him over their heads, and they run up the Royal Mile heading towards the Castle going where they don't know, but then they meet some officials, and so they turn around and they head down the Royal Mile, and then they meet more officials, more constables, so they just place Rob Johnstone's body on the ground and all just kind of disperse back into their houses, and the officials find Robert Johnstone's body, don't know if he's alive or dead, so they do a test, they cut into his vein on his wrist, and, I know, they don't bother taking a pulse, no, no…
TD: …cut the wrist, and blood pumps forth and so, okay, yes, he's alive, he's survived, so they take him back to his prison cell and once he's recovered a bit and he's revived and he's able to stand on his own two feet, they take him back to the scaffold, place the noose around his neck, and this time the trapdoor works. So, although that hanging was quick, the whole process is possibly the longest hanging in recorded history.
TD: …so, yeah.
GS: It's interesting, isn't it? You're back to the Edinburgh mob, as you call them, and it was a bit of a spectator sport back then…
TD: Absolutely, yeah.
GS: And there's echoes of this, I think, in the tour that you do, because it's obviously very popular…
GS: …and people are fascinated by these stories, and you can take them to the actual spot…
TD: …that's right…
GS: …on the High Street where it actually happened.
TD: Yeah, yeah. We can stand exactly where Robert Johnstone's scaffold was and, in fact, there is a story that he haunts the place, and it's a bit confusing when you stand there, because it's by Saint Giles church, and if you look at the front of Saint Giles and kind of go around the corner to the right hand side, there's a large staircase going up to a big door, and he's said to float through that staircase, because at the time the staircase wasn't there. So, yeah, you can literally, our guides can stand in the very spot where people apparently saw his ghost and tell the story, and you can imagine, because obviously some of the buildings have changed, and, but some of them have changed remarkably little, so you can really get the atmosphere and imagine that, you know, these people we're talking about were looking at the same thing standing in the same spot.
GS: Yes, it's remarkable, our fascination with the gruesome, isn't it? It really is.
TD: Yes, absolutely.
GS: So, that's Robert Johnstone. We also have the rather intriguing name, this is a new one on me, Johnny One-Arm, tell me about him.
TD: Ahh, okay. So, Johnny One-Arm, you'll be glad you don't know Johnny One-Arm.
TD: People know that Edinburgh is very haunted, you know, I think there's a lot of buildings that, you know, people associate with being incredibly haunted but the streets are too, and for a very long time people were regularly reporting seeing this strange apparition. So, first they would hear this noise behind them, this like a step but very dragging, and if they did turn round they would see this very ghastly figure, a man with only one arm, he had a pistol around his neck and he was dragging very broken legs behind him. And all of these clearly identify him as John Chiesly. John Chiesly lived in Edinburgh, in Dalry specifically, in the late 1600s, and he'd done fairly well in life, he earned a good amount of money, and he wanted to spend it all on drink and gambling and women, but he couldn't because he had a wife and 10 or perhaps 11 children, he could never quite remember, and whenever he came home they were always, you know, nagging at him and saying 'where have you been John', and 'when don't we get to spend any time with your daddy', and 'I need new shoes daddy', and 'I haven't eaten in a week daddy', and he was just, it was too much for him. So, he and his wife decide that it's time for a divorce. And they go to a divorce court because somebody had to sit and decide if you could get divorced, and the person that sits on their case is a very prominent judge, Lord President of the Court of Session, Sir George Lockhart. And he decides that, yes, these two should absolutely be divorced, and that John will have to pay his wife 93 pounds a year for the upkeep of the children, which is a vast amount of money at the time, so John is incredibly angry and he starts screaming in the court that he will have his revenge on this judge. But I imagine that lots of people have threatened this judge over time and he doesn't really think much of it, and occasionally there he hears that he's made further threats, but then it appears that John Chiesly has moved down to London and George Lockhart just carries on. Until the following year, 1689, on Easter Sunday he goes to the Easter service, and there is a strange man pacing around at the back of the church for a while who leaves before the service is finished, and George Lockhart thinks nothing of it, Edinburgh has its characters. But after the service he returns home and as he's getting to the top of his closest street, there's a figure at the top of it who kind of nods at him and greets him, and George Lockhart carries on down as close and becomes aware that this figure has followed him.
GS: No, you're freaking me out with it a bit now, but carry on..
TD: So, he starts to quicken his pace, you know, just a little bit, he's not normally a nervous man, but something doesn't feel right and the footsteps behind him quicken too, and George Lockhart is now getting quite fearful, and so he heads through his door running, and he gets his keys, and, but he's a bit nervous and his fingers are fumbling, and he's trying to open the lock when there's a loud 'bang' and a sharp pain in his right shoulder, and he looks down and there's blood gushing from it, and he turns around and he sees the face of John Chiesly waving a smoking pistol and laughing, and George Lockhart collapses and dies a few minutes later. A massive crowd starts to gather on the close, and they hear the judge, the George Lockhart has been murdered, but there are no doubt as to who's done it, because John Chiesly doesn't try to run away, in fact, he's standing there bragging and waving the pistol around and laughing, so he's arrested, found guilty, but before they execute him they decide to torture him to find out if he has any accomplices. So the tortures - brace yourselves, I won't go into too much detail, I could but I won't - the thumb screws which, you know, they put across the nail beds, and put pressure on, which are pressure points, and they put more and more pressure on until it feels like they're gonna burst, and the booties which sound cute but if you picture like a large wooden boot and both your feet goes in and then it's squeezed together…
GS: …ohh, ohh…
TD: …and wedges of wood… yeah, yeah, and so like ripping muscle, breaking bone, and then they cut off his right arm because he shot the fatal shot with his right hand, and they take him to the gallows, and they execute him, and then his body is put on public display, but it's removed a few days later, nobody knows who by. But that's not the last that is seen of John Chiesly, because his ghost then continued to stalk people on the streets of Edinburgh for at least 200 years until a house in Dalry in the mid-1800s is being renovated, and they take up some of the floorboards, and they find underneath that the body of a man who has broken legs, only one arm, and he has a rusty pistol around his neck, and they'd strung Johnny One-Arm's pistol around his neck just before he'd been hanged, so quite clearly identifies him, and it said that the hauntings then stopped. But we always wonder at Mercat if, was the other arm buried with him, and if not how much of you it does need to be, you know, still kicking around and not buried properly to stop a ghost. So, if you're in the closes of Edinburgh, Grant, and you hear that, you know, dragging step behind you then you didn't want to look around, trust me.
GS: I've had one or two scary experiences late at night in the center of Edinburgh and maybe I'm gonna…
TD: I can imagine.
GS: …put it down to Johnny One-Arm going forward. But I love this, I mean, there's so many, because of the history, because of obviously how far back this wonderful city goes, there are these wonderful hauntings. And there's another one…
GS: …and then another area that I'm very familiar with, Morningside…
GS: …the Green Lady of Morningside. Now I've heard about the Green Lady before, tell us about her.
TD: This is one of my favourite stories. So, I'm gonna take you back, I want you to imagine that you're at a party, and the party is in the year 1712. Right, so try and picture the scene at the, you know, people from the highest ranks of society in Edinburgh are all there swarming around, a bit of dancing, and the men are probably talking war and politics, and the women marriage prospects. And all of a sudden the doors open and a man walks in, and the man is well known to everybody, but he has a handsome stranger with him, and so all the young ladies get excited at this handsome stranger, and they're all looking at him, but then one young lady's eyes look at him and then fall to the floor disappointed, because it's not who she wanted to see. And this young lady is called Betty Pittendale, and it's her story that I'm going to tell you. So, we're not the only ones looking at Betty at this party. Her parents are looking at her too in utter despair, because Betty is going to be a spinster at this rate, because she's still not married and she's almost 25…
GS: My goodness.
TD: …so things are not going well, yeah, and they just desperately want her to get married. And also looking at Betty is Sir Thomas Elphinstone, he is much older than Betty, he's 40 years her senior, but his wife had died a long time ago, and his own children have grown up and left home, and he's very lonely, and he wants to marry again, and he's decided he wants to marry Betty. And her parents are thrilled because he has land and title, he owns a beautiful house in Morningside, he is much older than her and he is known to have a very quick and quite violent temper, but no, it's worth it for his place in society. So, Sir Thomas continues to woo Betty, but really she's reluctant because she is in love, she'd recently been to London, and when there she'd met a man called Captain Jack Courage, and the two of them had only met a few times but they'd fallen deeply in love, and then he was called off, he's a soldier, and he's called off, short notice and she hasn't heard anything from him since. And as he's a soldier she's starting to fear the worst, and she thinks 'well, perhaps I should just marry Sir Thomas'. And when she makes that decision, that's it, mind made up, that's what she's going to do with her life, she's going to become a lady of Morningside. And the marriage is arranged very hastily as soon as she agrees, they possibly thought that she was going to change her mind again, and she starts to settle into her life with Sir Thomas. And a few months later Sir Thomas gets a letter from one of his children, from his son who's going to be able to return home for a short while, and Sir Thomas is absolutely thrilled because now not only will he get to see his son but his son will meet his new wife, and so the two of them start making preparations to have a bit of a party for his arrival, and Betty throws herself into making sure the home looks good and she looks good, and on the night of the party she's very thrilled and a little bit nervous to meet her son-in-law, and when he's announced 'John Elphinstone, into the room', she walks forward to meet him, and her stomach tightens, and her heart leaps into her mouth, and she goes into a cold sweat, and the world just falls away from underneath her feet, because when she looks at John Elphinstone, she already knows him, but she knows him by the name Captain Jack Courage, so the man that she had hoped to marry is now technically her son…
GS: Wow, wow.
TD: …I know, I know. So, the two, I know, so the two of them manage somehow to hide their reaction but over the next few days the two of them are in agony, they managed to have a few snatched conversations and neither of them wants to betray Sir Thomas, they can't possibly be together, but living under the same roof is just going to be impossible for both of them. So, John says that he will leave and he asks Betty for just one thing before he does, 'can he have just one kiss', and, of course, Betty says 'yes', and just as the two of them kiss for the first and only time, Sir Thomas walks into the room, sees his wife and his son in each other's arms, and that temper of his it kicks in, and he storms across the room in a rage, and he picks up a knife and he stabs Betty in the heart, and she falls dead to the ground, and his son John instantly explains everything that has happened, and that they hadn't really betrayed him, and Sir Thomas's temper disappears as quickly as it has risen, and he's beside himself, he's distraught, he can't believe what he's done, that he's killed his beloved wife, and he asks his son to kill him, and of course John says 'no', instead he just picks up Betty in her beautiful green dress and puts her body on the bed, and he leaves, and he comes back the next morning and he finds not only Betty's body but the body of his father who's killed himself during the night. So, John now inherits the house, but he can't possibly live in it after what's happened, and so he leaves, he rents the house out to a family, but it's not too long before the family get in touch and say that they are seeing some very strange things, they are seeing this strange lady in a green dress who walks into the room suddenly and won't say anything, doesn't respond and leaves again, and on one occasion she's seen pursued by an older gentleman and then she throws herself on the bed. And, of course, John realizes who this must be, and so he visits the house taking a medium with him, and the medium communicates with the spirits of the house and discovers that, yes, indeed this is the spirit of Betty, and John asks Betty 'why is she haunting the place, why can't her spirit move on', and she says that it's because she and Sir Thomas lie next to each other in the family mausoleum, and she can't possibly be at peace while she lies next to her murderer.
TD: So, she asks John for just one thing and says 'will you move my coffin, my body', and John says that of course he will, and so he goes to the mausoleum and he has Betty's body moved, but right next to it he ensures that there is a gap and he makes sure that everybody knows that when he himself dies, whenever that will be, that his coffin will lie next to Betty's and that finally together the two of them can be together.
GS: What a story, we were a passionate bunch back then, weren't we?
TD: I know, yes, we were, yeah, yeah.
TD: It's a great story.
GS: It's incredible. I mean, it's almost the stuff of movies, you know, it's the sort of story you'd expect to see on the big screen, I mean, a bit about this tale, how long has this tale been told around Edinburgh?
TD: I thought, you know, I think we've probably been telling these stories as, you know, since the day, so we've probably been telling that story since, you know, 1712. You can imagine John, you know, confessing these events to his friends, and talk, and then them passing on the story and, you know, whoever placed John's coffin next to Betty's, that would have become a story, so over time it'll have just been passed, and probably belong just to Morningside at first, but of course as people move the story has grown and grown.
GS: Well, the next story is another cracker, another one I am familiar with and anyone who's gone for, let's just say, a small pint or two in a certain area of Edinburgh, might be familiar with the name Maggie Dixon.
TD: Yea, indeed.
GS: What a name, what a life, and, indeed, what a death!
TD: Oh, indeed, yes, yeah, Maggie. So, Maggie Dixon is probably better known by another name, but we'll leave that to the end. She was well known in Edinburgh, again, in the early 1700s, and she came from Musselburgh originally, she was a fish hawker, a fishwife. People knew her very well, and she was a very happy woman until the day that our story joins her, which is the day that her husband leaves her. And, you know, of course, coming from a small town, everybody knows the gossip, and everybody was constantly, you know, asking her what she was going to do, and how she was, and, I think, Maggie probably just decided that she'd had enough of that, and she was going to have a new start. And she had family down in Newcastle, so she decides that she's going to move down to Newcastle with a family and start all over again. The year 1723, so the journey to Newcastle isn't a quick one, it's a stagecoach, and the journey stops overnight in Kelso, down in the Scottish Borders, and they stay in a tavern, and whilst Maggie is in the tavern having her dinner and a drink, she gets talking to the landlady there, and it turns out that the landlady could really do with an extra pair of hands to help run the place, and so the two of them get on and they come up with this plan that actually Maggie won't go to Newcastle, she'll stay in Kelso and she'll work in the tavern for bed and board. So, it's going very well and Maggie really likes the landlady, she likes the tavern, she likes the town of Kelso, and she really likes the landlady's son, so much so that it's not long before she realizes that she's pregnant, and that's a problem. And although her husband's left, Maggie is still technically married, and she doesn't know who to tell about this, she doesn't know how William, the landlady's son will react, or the landlady, or the people of Kelso, and then she thinks 'well, maybe she could go to Newcastle, but how will her family react, and she could go back to Edinburgh, but how will they react', so instead she can't decide what to do, and she conceals the pregnancy, she probably wore baggy clothing and bound her stomach, but she still can't make up a mind, so this concealing, the pregnancy carries on all the way through it. And when the baby is eventually born it only lasts a very short time before it dies. And again, now she's stuck, she doesn't know what to do, and she takes the body of her baby down to the banks of the River Tweed, and she places it amongst the reeds, but it's not long before somebody finds it, and then of course people start to talk and, this despite her trying to hide it, some people had guessed that she was pregnant, I suppose, and very quickly people realize that this was Margaret Dixon's baby, and that perhaps by binding her stomach she'd actually caused the death of this child. There was actually a concealment of pregnancy act at the time against doing that. So, she's arrested, she's taken back to Edinburgh, and she's found guilty, and she's sentenced to be executed by hanging, and that takes place in the Grassmarket where all those pubs are now. And right at the front of the crowd is her friends who've gathered together to buy a coffin and hire a cart, so they can take her back to Musselburgh to bury her. She's hanged and the body is placed in the coffin, the coffin on the car, and the friends depart for Musselburgh, but they don't go straight there because, of course, it's Scotland, and we want to have a bit of a wake, don't we, want to celebrate the life of the person, and so they go to a pub that is still there in Edinburgh, you can still drink in it, it's called 'the Sheep Heid' out in Duddingston…
GS: I know it well…
TD: …yes, yeah.
TD: …they didn't play skittles, I don't think…
TD: …but maybe they did, there's a very famous skittle alley there, if you don't know. So, they're in there, and they're raising glasses and telling stories 'to Maggie, to Maggie', and they're having several drinks, and 'to Maggie', they realize actually they really need to get back to Maggie and get her to Musselburgh. So, they all pile out of the tavern and they start onward to Musselburgh, and every now and again there's a strange noise, but they've all had a few and they're blaming it on each other. And they get to Musselburgh, they get to the graveyard, and it's only then that they realize that perhaps the noises are not coming from each other, because this kind of moaning and groaning that's a little bit muffled seems to be coming from the cart. And as they're all looking at it very quickly sobering up they swear that the coffin moves and they all brace themselves, and I imagine there was a lot available shoving and trying to decide who was going to be the one that was going to open the coffin, but one of them does, and when they do Maggie has colour in her cheeks, and they can't quite believe it, but she seems to be breathing, and they open up a vein, because remember that's how we test if people are alive or dead or not in Edinburgh…
GS: …open a vein?
TD: …I know! And Maggie's alive, and they cannot believe that this woman has survived but she has, and the news spreads far and wide, and people are coming to see Maggie, people are throwing about theories as to how this could possibly be, was it the jolting of the, at the cart that brought her back to life, you know, was it intervention, what was it, people are sending money to Maggie to try and help her, the ministers and churches are telling stories and comparing her to, you know, Lazarus rising from the dead, and the greatest legal minds are in a tizzy, they don't know what to do, because they'd sentence this woman to, you know, to be executed and normally the outcome of an execution is that the person dies, and that's not happened, so they don't know what, should they, you know, should they do what they did with Robert Johnstone, should they be hanging Maggie again, or, you know, or she's been hanged and she survived so perhaps that's the outcome, and then, of course, there's the question, well, 'could this be God's will'. And so, of course, as soon as that's suggested, that's it, Maggie has to be left to live her life, and live her life she does, a very long, very happy one, with lots more children, and she is known throughout Edinburgh and beyond, but not so much as Maggie Dixon anymore, but as Half-Hangit Maggie.
GS: Absolutely wonderful, and as you see you can visit the drinking establishment named after her to this day as well.
TD: Yes, there is, indeed, one, yeah, yeah. Yeah, and I wonder how many people drinking in there and know her story, you know, it's that, yeah, it's a fabulous one.
GS: I was aware of the story, I was aware of the fact that they didn't succeed with the hanging, but I wasn't so aware of the backstory to it all, so that's filled in a few gaps for me. And something else I love about, you know, taking a trip around Edinburgh, I took a staycation a few years ago…
GS: …took the kids around Edinburgh, and took a couple of open top tours, and what you enjoy seeing is bits of the city that, you know, you can walk past, you can drive past, they can be part of your commute for years and years and years, and you don't really take it in, there's so many eclectic, remarkable architecture, so give us a couple of examples of things that people who may live in Edinburgh, who may have visited Edinburgh, may be familiar with Edinburgh, but might just walked past and perhaps not noticed…
GS: …there's a very significant piece of a building there. Give us it, because you've picked a couple for us.
TD: Yeah, okay. So, one of my favourites is on the Royal Mile itself. Funny that most of mine have concentrated on the Mile because that's where our tours run, but…
TD: …if you head down the Mile on the north side, just before John Knox House in the Storytelling Center, there's a street close called Paisley Close, and up above it there is a beautiful carving of a young boy's face, and there's a phrase underneath it, and I couldn't believe how long I had been in Edinburgh before I'd heard the story. So, in the night in 1861, there is this almighty rumbling, and then this huge crash, the people of Edinburgh must have thought it had been an earthquake, and they all run out of their houses in the middle of the night, and the building right at the top of the street, Paisley Close had just collapsed. And there's just rubble and clouds of dust, and people running to try and help. It turns out what happened is that over a period of time lots of people have been making changes in the bottom level of this building, someone had put in the doorway, someone had extended their boiler, you know, knocked a hole through, not realizing that this wall that about three different households had knocked holes in, was a load-bearing wall for a house that was probably about seven stories high.
GS: They clearly didn't apply for planning permission, did they?
TD: Yeah, obviously, no, obviously not, obviously not…
TD: …none of that, you know, decide 'I just fancy a hole in my wall here, I'll just knock it through', and fair enough later when some of the survivors of this do say that they had this, the house had been making some strange creaking and groaning noises, but, you know, houses do, don't they, so this had led to this building collapsing, so you can picture the scene, all these people including apparently Charles Dickens, apparently he was there at the time, are rushing forward, and then they're shifting all the bricks and trying to rescue people, and they're finding people who have survived, and people who haven't, they're getting really tired, and it is the middle of the night, and it must have reached a point when they thought, you know, we just need to stop for a while, when all of a sudden this group of men hear this voice coming from underneath the rubble, and it says the wonderful phrase, this wee voice, a wee boy's voice shouts 'heave awa lads, I'm no deid yet!', and so they realized that there's still somebody, there's still something to do, and so they're lifting away all the bricks, and eventually find this wooden beam, and this lad who's about 12 years old, I think, stuck under this beam, and his name is James or Jamie McIver, and he survives, and, of course, he becomes a very famous and well-known as a result of this, and when they re-build the building they carve a face, I don't know whether it actually is a resemblance of, he was a very handsome lad, if it is, but they put in his face and they put in his last words underneath it, but when you actually stand and you read it, it doesn't say 'heave awa lads, I'm no deid yet!', it says 'heave awa' chaps, I'm no' dead yet', because…
TD: …I know, it's brilliant, what Scotsman has ever used the word 'chaps'…
TD: …I, but I love it, because it has been done for tourists, you know, they've anglified it, because they, you know, people, I think, sometimes imagine that tourism is a new thing to Edinburgh and far from it, so I thought, you know, they were probably, I love to imagine that they were starting to carve and someone said 'no, nobody will understand it if you put 'lads' and you spell 'deid' with that way, you can't, 'deid' doesn't have an 'i' in it, what are you doing, and, so I love it that you can read this wonderful story, but, you know, we've not put the Scots in for the sake of the tourists.
GS: 'Heave awa' chaps', I think I much prefer 'heave awa', lads'.
GS: Definitely, definitely.
GS: What a great story, I'm gonna look out for that next time I'm down the High Street, definitely.
TD: Yes, do, do, it's wonderful.
GS: Wellhead. Tell me about this. This is gonna be a new one to me.
TD: Right, okay, so, yeah, there are several wellheads still in Edinburgh from when we got the first water supply in these wells on the Royal Mile, yes, and that happened probably late 1600s. We don't have an exact date, but they did put these wells in, and they drew, the water came from outside Edinburgh, Comiston and Liberton, so about three and a half miles away, and, you know, there's a gravity fed system which is all very complicated and fascinating if you're into engineering, but the bit that fascinates me is the wellhead itself, which is in fact just down from Paisley Close, outside the entrance to John Knox House, and then people would gather there, of course…
GS: Is that that big square building, that little square…
GS: …what looks like a little lighthouse?
TD: Yeah, so… yeah, it looks like it, yes, yes…
GS: … I know where you are.
TD: So, that is the well. It doesn't look like a well now, because, you know, the pump handle and everything is gone, it is just the kind of, the brick surround if you like. So, people would have gathered there or, you know, sent members of their household out to get water, and apart from the fact that it's an interesting piece of history, they had wooden pipes which you can still see, some of in the Museum of Edinburgh. What I love about it is that it's a bit of archaeology in action, so if I take a group there what I always try and do is get somebody to imagine drawing the water from the well, so you explain where the handle would be of the pump and they start to use it, and then, you know, you explain that, well, the bucket of water is going to be heavy, and you're holding it, so you need to brace the bucket, and automatically they'll, you know, put their knee underneath, and they'll rest their foot on the side of the wellhead, and then I'll ask them 'right, okay, what if you're left-handed', and so they'll stop and, you know, they'll do everything in reverse because, of course, then you need to use your left hand to use the pump, and what they suddenly notice at that point is that when you look at the wellhead, you can see on either side little recesses where people's feet have been, thousands and thousands of feet have stood while they've braced their buckets, when they've been getting water, and on the left hand side it's a very, very worn down part, and on the right hand side it isn't, because most people are right-handed, so therefore would be using the pump with the right hand and their left foot on the wellhead, so you can actually, so, you know, we say things like 'how do we know that most people in history have been right-handed', and that right there shows you that, there you go, the wear and the stone show you.
GS: Physical evidence to this day…
GS: …sitting on the High Street…
GS: …and I've passed that building many, many times over the years, and always wondered what that was, I knew it was something to do with the water system…
GS: …but now I know the full story. I'll be looking at that differently from now on.
TD: Good, good.
GS: Another big bit of Edinburgh's history, and there's so many stories I'm sure you could tell me with regards to witches, because there's quite a rich history of, which is certainly in this part of Scotland as a whole, not just Edinburgh obviously…
GS: …the wider geography.
GS: But what can you tell us about the Witches Memorial?
TD: So, the Witches Memorial is a beautiful thing, and not many people know about it, and, again, it's quite hidden away, but it's where it is for a very good reason. So, the Witches Memorial is dedicated to all the people, because it wasn't just women, there were men, majority of women, of course, that were either accused or accused and executed because of witchcraft, because they were accused of being witches. And there was a huge amount of people, a large part of it fuelled by King James VI and his passion for hating witches. He believed that they'd caused a storm that had nearly caused his ship to sink and that they'd sailed out and sieves, that in itself is a fascinating story but, you know, the North Berwick witches, but don't have time for that today.
TD: The highest number of executions of witches took place on the Castle Esplanade in Edinburgh itself, and if you stand on the Castle Esplanade, the building just before you go into the Esplanade itself, on the right hand side as you look at the castle, used to be the water reservoir actually, but on the very back of it there is this little well, a little kind of drinking fountain, if you like, and it's dedicated to all of these people, and it has, it was Patrick Geddes who was responsible for a lot of transformation in the city, who wanted it to be created. It's a beautiful thing, because it represents, so there's a lot of symbology in it, there are two women's faces in profile, and one is a young beautiful face and the other is, I suppose, an old and slightly haggard face, and there's a foxglove in the middle, and a snake, so this represents the two sides to the women, I suppose, that these men, as men and women were very often, you know, they were healers, they were good people, they were not the evil that they were portrayed to be. The foxglove represents the kind of dual use of what they were doing, because a lot of these people were, of course, healers but they're associated with, I don't know, potions that, you know, and doing nasty things with the things that they could concoct…
GS: Hmm, witchcraft.
TD: …and the foxglove, you know, for those, some people don't know it, can be used in small doses, to knock people out if you need it for an operation or, you know, to help you sleep, but too much and it kills. And the snake, of course, throughout mythology and symbolism is associated both with wisdom but also, you know, the evil side, the betrayal side of the serpent. So, it's this wonderfully beautiful and very symbolic thing that not many people know about, and, but we're very, very glad it's there.
GS: I remember growing up being told tales of what we did to witches back in the day, back then…
GS: …and this would have been when the Castle's obviously, where it is at the moment, but what is now Princes Street Gardens was the Nor' Loch, and that was filled with water…
TD: Yes, aha.
GS: …and the story that I got told, perhaps you could tell me if this is right or not, was that they would tie their feet to stones and throw them in the Nor' Lock, and if they floated then that meant that they were a witch, and then they were then duly executed, but if they sank, 'oh, no, you weren't', but they were dead anyway.
TD: Yeap, but, yeah, yeah. It's kind of it, and, yes, it did happen. Today we hear various different versions of it, we call it 'ducking', and in some versions it's that their hands and wrists are bound sometimes to each other, so that, you know, so the wrists are bound to their ankles, there's even stories of their wrists being nailed to their ankles like, you know, that kind of thing, and yet that they're thrown in, it's one of many trials, so there were all kinds of horrific trials that involved, you know, starving these women, depriving them of water, anything to get confession basically, but the most famous one yet is ducking, and that was done in the Nor' Lock.
GS: Wow, we were truly terrible to each other back then, weren't we?
TD: Weren't we just, yeah, and it is, it always strikes me that, you know, they often, you often hear that these kind of accusations would escalate, if there was disease around or something no fingers would be pointed at these people for causing these things, and in actual fact that the very people that you should have turned to because, you know, half, the vast majority of these people were healers or were just, I don't know, a bit smarter than those people around them, or were a little bit odd and eccentric and, you know, and I think…
GS: Yeah, yeah.
TD: …yeah, I think they're the very people that we had the need for, and instead they were persecuted, and we killed them instead.
GS: Well, it's a wonderful insight, a tiny insight into the history of Edinburgh which, as I mentioned at the start of the podcast, is my home city, I love it, I love hearing about these stories as dark and as grisly as some of them are, but it's very much what made Edinburgh the city that it is. What do you enjoy most about it, Tanya, what do you enjoy about, you know, as a storyteller with Mercat Tours, what do you enjoy because I would imagine that the reaction that you get from your guests on these tours, be by day or be at night when you're doing the ghost tours, is, it will be fascinating, jaw-dropping!
TD: Yeah, it is, and it's difficult to kind of sum up that the favourite part, I suppose what we love or what I love most about it is, we have a motto at Mercat Tours, the motto is 'history is a damn good story, what it needs is a damn good telling', and I think that, you know, that sums up that our history is stories, and we love sharing them, and to me regardless of where you're touring, whether it's a small site, whether it's a city, like us you're representing not just your site and not just your company, you're representing Scotland for people, and we're also representing not just the voices of Scotland today but we're the whole history of Scotland, and it's such a privilege to be able to stand and tell people to, you know, I can be the voice of, you know, Mary Queen of Scots, and Adam Smith, and, you know, Robert Johnstone, and Margaret Dixon, and, you know, criminals, and geniuses, and all of that, you know, I get to tell people their stories and I firmly believe that people have been telling stories for as long as we've had the words to tell them, and to be part of that tradition, and to do it live, and to actually be seeing people's reactions in the places where these things happened is always moving, and sometimes you see massive reactions, and sometimes you see small reactions, but you know that at some point some, you know, I know that several people will be going and telling the story of Margaret Dixon or, you know, from hearing it they'll remember, they'll keep spreading the stories and, you know, so I think I maybe see myself as just a curator, if you like, I'm a, you know, and we're all as tour guides, that's what we are, we're not curators of objects, we're creators of stories and history and passing on, and it's a real privilege to be able to do that.
GS: Is there, has there been a standout moment for you at any point whilst telling a story?
TD: I don't, you know, I'd love to say there is, but it's always slightly different, you'd think telling these stories would be the same every time but it's not, and there are so many little moments that, you know, that you remember, that I don't think there is one standout because you think that that's it that's a stand out moment and then the next week somebody has a reaction that you really weren't expecting, you've not heard before, and you think 'oh, no, that was a standout moment', but I will always remember telling the Green Lady of Morningside at once and thinking 'oh, have they guessed, have they guessed who the son actually is', and this woman clearly hadn't and when I said it was Captain Jack Courage, 'ooo', but she swore very loudly and got vet, you know, that's it, I've got her the suspense she was hanging on it, yeah, you can have little fun moments that you're, that you'll always remember but, you know, the tour that you're doing at the time is always the highlight, really, because you're enjoying it, and you're in that moment.
GS: Well, Tanya, thank you so much for spending time with me today, I can sense your enthusiasm, your passion and your love for the art of storytelling, and thanks for joining us today and sharing your tour guide tales.
TD: Very welcome, yes, it's been enjoyable, yeah, thank you and, yeah, you'll need to look out for these things next time, Grant.
GS: I definitely will!
You've been listening to the Tour Guide Tales of Tanya Drawn of Edinburgh's Mercat Tours, I don't think I'll walk around the old town again without thinking of just a few of the characters and events that the walls of those beautiful buildings have seen over the years. Join me again next week when I'll be getting more incredible tales from another tour guide. If you like the show, please leave a review wherever you're listening. I'm Grant Stott and this has been Tour Guide Tales brought to you by VisitScotland.