8 of Edinburgh’s most bizarre traditions explained

The Hearth of Midlothian. Picture: Cate Gillon
The Hearth of Midlothian. Picture: Cate Gillon
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Edinburgh is home to more than its fair share of unusual customs, both historical and modern.

Sometimes, the truth behind these traditions is even stranger than fiction.

The One o'clock Gun at Edinburgh Castle. Picture: Greg Macvean

The One o'clock Gun at Edinburgh Castle. Picture: Greg Macvean

SPITTING ON THE HEART OF MIDLOTHIAN

The Heart of Midlothian is a heart-shaped mosaic on the pavement of the Royal Mile, which many people spit on in passing, supposedly to bring them good luck. Whilst spitting on the Heart of Midlothian is a tradition that goes back several hundred years, it was originally done as a sign of disdain rather than luck. The heart marks the entrance to the now-demolished Old Tolbooth prison, which was where Edinburgh’s public executions took place. It is thought that locals would spit on prisoners as they were led from the prison entrance to the gallows to show their disgust.

THE ONE O’CLOCK GUN

The tradition of setting off a gun from Edinburgh Castle at 1pm every day dates back to 1861. In the 1850s, there was demand from Edinburgh citizens to have an accurate city-wide time system, so a ‘Time-Ball’ on the Nelson Monument on Calton Hill was installed. The problem with this, however, was that it was a visual indicator, so the ball couldn’t be seen in bad weather, or if you happened to be looking in a different direction at one o’clock. It was decided that an audible signal would work better (and would also allow ships in the Firth of Forth to set their maritime clocks), so a 64 pound cannon was fired from Edinburgh Castle daily from June 1861.

Arthur's Seat. Picture: Scott Loudan/TSPL

Arthur's Seat. Picture: Scott Loudan/TSPL

WASHING YOUR FACE IN THE MAY DAY DEW ON ARTHUR’S SEAT

The pagan tradition of washing your face in the May Day dew was given an Edinburgh twist in the 1940s, when around 40 people climbed Arthur’s Seat for a Christian service at the top. By the 1960s, over 1,000 people were making the trek at sunrise to wash their face in the dew on the first day of spring. Although numbers have dwindled now, many people still take part in this early morning tradition. It is alleged that the practice will give participants eternal beauty.

SALT AND SAUCE

Having your chips with salt and sauce , or ‘chippy sauce’, is a custom unique to Edinburgh. Although the exact origins of this local delicacy are unclear, it’s thought that the tradition stems from the Scottish love of being thrifty. Many people believe that the concoction is a mixture of brown sauce and vinegar, but according to chippy experts, it is actually two parts Gold Star brown sauce and one part water. The thinned down mixture not only tastes great on chips, it also helps the bottle of brown sauce to last longer.

RUBBING DAVID HUME’S TOE FOR LUCK

David Hume, one of the world’s most celebrated philosophers, was commemorated with a statue on the Royal Mile, unveiled in 1997. Legend has it that the sculptor, Sandy Stoddart, deliberately made Hume’s big toe poke over the edge of the plinth to entice people to touch it. Rather than just a mischievous act, people see the tradition of rubbing Hume’s toe as a symbol of good luck – particularly students looking to gain some of his wisdom before an exam. Ironically, one of Hume’s most famous theories was that there is no direct cause and effect between two unrelated events – so he would have viewed rubbing the toe to gain good luck as a load of nonsense.

BEING TAPPED ON THE HEAD BY JOHN kNOX’S BREECHES

If you’re a graduate of the University of Edinburgh, you’ll no doubt remember being tapped on the head with a ceremonial bonnet as you walked across the graduation stage. The Geneva Bonnet is supposedly made of material taken from breeches belonging to John Knox, the famous theologian and religious reformer. However, in 2000 the bonnet was restored and a label found dating back to 1849. Knox died in 1572. It is often stated that the bonnet was taken into space, but that’s not strictly true either – in 2006, a university badge was taken into space by astronaut, Piers Sellers, which was then incorporated into the Geneva Bonnet.

EDINBURGH ZOO’S PENGUIN PARADE

The penguin parade at Edinburgh Zoo, which is now one of the venue’s most-loved traditions, started by accident. In the late 1950s, a keeper accidentally left the gate to the penguin enclosure open, and the penguins then followed him around the zoo. Visitors were so taken with the procession that the zoo decided to make it a regular event, with around two thirds of the zoo’s penguin population now taking part daily.

EATING A 99 ON PORTOBELLO BEACH

Enjoying a 99 ice cream at the beach is a popular tradition across the whole of Britain, but the custom has particularly close ties to Edinburgh. According to legend, the tradition of eating a 99 (an ice cream cone topped with a Flake chocolate bar) was started by the Arcari family of Portobello. Stephen Arcari – who founded an ice cream parlour in 1922 – is believed to be the first to add a stick of flaky chocolate to an ice cream cone. The shop, which was located at number 99 Portobello High Street, lent its name to the new creation.

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