It’s safe to say that Edinburgh has had no shortage of colourful characters over the decades. Maybe it’s something in the Water of Leith or the result of having spent about 800 years all crammed together on a wee strip of volcanic crag and tail. Confined spaces are surely a breeding ground for eccentric characters.
I don’t have the column inches spare to list them all, but a quick trawl through the city archives reveals that back in the 19th century we had the likes of Coconut Tam, (real name Thomas Simpson)who sold exotic fruits including coconuts from his barrow on the High Street.
The diminutive vendor’s famous cry marked him out among the crowds: “Coco-nit, coco-nit, come and buy, ha’penny bit”.
If you ask me he was missing a trick not rhyming “come and buy” with “don’t be ‘shy’”, but what do I know...
One of my favourite Auld Reekie characters, though, made a name for herself in the mid-20th century. Her name was Mary Dunlop and after the Second World War it wasn’t uncommon to see Mary and her trusty pony, Smokey, walking the city streets between the New Town and Morningside.
Smokey’s job, other than being Mary’s loyal companion, was to pull her mechanical barrel organ.
The pair entertained local residents all over Edinburgh with their unique mechanical jingles and would head to the same spot every Saturday morning outside St Giles Kirk on the High Street for over 20 years.
Children, fond of Mary, Smokey and their musical interludes, gave her the nickname ‘Monkey Mary’, which I’m told came about because of a real capuchin monkey which travelled with her and Smokey for a time. Quite remarkable.
Edinburgh local Freddie Wood can remember meeting Mary as a youngster. “I remember Mary very well. I’ve great memories as a lad growing up in the Grassmarket where I worked with Mary, getting the organ and pony harnessed up for her in the morning,” he recalls.
“At night she’d return with Jimmy Stenhouse and his pony and float and Steve Cooney with his fruit wagon.”
One person who can recall Mary during the latter years of her life, is Lost Edinburgh follower Dorothy Walker.
“Smokey moved in with the milk horses in St Cuthbert’s Stables in Grove Street for the few years before Mary stopped going out on the streets,” recollects Mary.
“The last time the organ was out was when I took it to Ainslie Place to be part of the street scene for the film “The Coachbuilders. It can be seen and heard as Mary gave us the handle needed to play it. She always kept the handle at her house.
“A story that makes me smile is Mary’s rather cavalier attitude when it came to roads. She and Smokey, who don’t forget was pulling a barrel organ, would walk smack bang in the middle of the main carriageway - much to the annoyance of motorists.
“Well, I suppose you’re not going to walk along the pavement with a pony, are you?”
Further details of Mary are quite hard to come by, but what we do know is that she sadly passed away in 1966 and that Smokey was taken in by the SSPCA to a centre in Balerno.
The famous barrel organ can be seen today at the Museum of Childhood opposite John Knox House on the Royal Mile.