We’ve driven to Edinburgh for the Scottish International Storytelling Festival, and by the time we’ve found our guesthouse we have a few stories of our own to tell about the Edinburgh one-way system, not all of them repeatable. They were mainly shaggy dog stories, which never seem to come to an end and are filled with aimless twists and turns.
Edinburgh’s Royal Mile doesn’t seem at all like that at first glance. It runs in an almost dead straight line from Edinburgh Castle to the royal residence at Holyroodhouse, and you’d be forgiven for thinking it was nothing but kilt and whisky shops. Look off to the sides, though, and you’ll see any number of steps and alleyways, with intriguing names like Fleshmarket Close, which Ian Rankin used for one of his crime novels, and The Real Mary King’s Close.
As our first event of the Festival we join a tour which promises to reveal The Secrets of the Royal Mile. It’s a tour you can do all-year-round but it’s also part of the Storytelling Festival programme. It’s a good inclusion as it adds to the appeal of the Festival and reminds you how good at storytelling a good walking tour guide has to be to hold your interest – and our guide, Gillian, is very good indeed. Gillian meets us at the Mercat Cross.
‘Mercat is the Scots for Market,’ she explains, ‘so this is the Market Place and it’s also a place of entertainment: that is, where people were taken to be punished. Proclamations were also made here, but they were always three days late as that’s how long it took the news to get to Edinburgh from London. These days, just try Google.’
Gillian leads us to Barrie’s Close.
‘Closes are little residential streets,’ she says. ‘Why are they called Closes? There are two theories. It’s either because they were closed at either end at night, or because people were living very close to each other. It was certainly very crowded. There was a bog around the city so instead of building out, they built up.’
In Stevenlaw’s Close we discover the less savoury side of living in close proximity in a Close.
‘One problem of living in a close,’ Gillian tells us, ‘was the spread of diseases, like typhoid, cholera and the plague. There was no sanitation. People went to the toilet in a corner of the room, then threw it out of the window. They used to shout out Gardez l’eau, ‘beware of the water’. If you were passing by you could shout back Hold Your Hand and they were supposed to give you ten seconds to get out of the way. This didn’t always work, rather to the annoyance of people passing by underneath, as you can imagine. So we brought in one of my favourite pieces of legislation ever, The Nastiness Act, which told you when you could throw your waste out of the window. And it’s never been repealed.’
The stories on our 2-hour tour come thick and fast, from the ribald to the historically intriguing, and with plenty of fascinating facts. We hear about merchants giving false measure and being nailed to their weighing machines by their earlobes… and being given no help to release themselves. Yes, quite.
We learn of the man who introduced an early version of the guillotine to Scotland, and who was one of the first to be executed on it. We learn of Deacon Brodie, who was hung on gallows made by his own company. We learn why a statue of a horse has the ears of a pig, why another statue of a man has a shiny toe and which parking place John Knox is buried beneath.
There are stories of Charles Dickens and Daniel Defoe, and of the John Knox House which is right next to Edinburgh’s Scottish Storytelling Centre, the hub of the Storytelling Festival. During the Festival we’ll hear wonderful stories from Cyprus and Syria, from Iran and from Israel, but we’re glad we didn’t miss our Close Encounter with the Royal Mile. Sometimes the best stories are right under your nose.
For more information on the 2015 Storytelling Festival, see:
The theme of the 2016 Scottish International Storytelling Festival is The Right to Dream, which takes place from 21-30 October 2016. The 2016 theme will explore our ability to dream something different into existence, acknowledging the power of storytelling to lift you out of time and place with the liberating power of imagination. Great stories well told have the ability to evoke indelible images in the mind of the listener. The best of Scotland’s storytelling talent will merge with invited guests from Spain, Portugal, Central and Southern America offering a plethora of dreamscapes and myths in a ten-day celebration of live storytelling, oral traditions and cultural diversity.
See also the Mercat Tours website.
All photos (c) Donna Dailey.