Celebrating the quirky history: 10 things you shouldn’t miss at Edinburgh Alphabet

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Hundreds of Edinburgh’s quirkiest artefacts, historic treasures and intricate artworks spell out an A-Z of the city’s collections in an exhibition at the City Art Centre. Grab your chance to see them in the show’s last weeks.

1. A IS FOR ARTS & CRAFTS

Edinburgh's alphabet    A is for Adverts - Curator Nico Tyack poses with Old Town shop fronts

Edinburgh's alphabet A is for Adverts - Curator Nico Tyack poses with Old Town shop fronts

See the Scott and Burns monuments in miniature and admire the gothic features of the city’s tribute to author Sir Walter Scott in close-up. The architects built these replicas to help them plan the actual structures, still standing tall in Princes Street Gardens and on Regent Road today.

2. ... AND FOR ADVERTS

Bear grease was believed to be good for hair, while the red and white stripes of the barber’s pole has its origins in blood-soaked bandages. Barbers used to also be surgeons and their patients’ bandages were hung up to dry on a pole outside their practices. See some of the city’s original shop signs, many of which are pictures and sculptures from an age when illiteracy was common.

3. C IS FOR CHURCHES

Edinburgh's alphabet 


A-Z lead curator David Patterson

Edinburgh's alphabet A-Z lead curator David Patterson

A hugely significant event in the history of Edinburgh and Scotland, the signing of the National Covenant was an act of defiance against the Stuart monarch, King Charles I. Without consultation, the king tried to introduce a new Book of Common Prayer into Scotland. His proposals outraged the Scottish people and a covenant document was drawn up. The document committed its signatories to preserve the purity of the Scottish Kirk, and it was first signed in Greyfriars Kirkyard in February 1638.

4. O IS FOR OLD TOWN

The face of an early autopsy patient found in the Old Town adorns the wall of the City Art Centre. Revealed for the first time in the Edinburgh Alphabet exhibition, the reconstruction is based on the skull of a skeleton unearthed in 1993. Identified by council archaeologists as an Edinburgh woman in her mid-twenties to early thirties, she was found within Lady Yester’s Church – now part of the University of Edinburgh’s offices in Infirmary Street. John Lawson, City of Edinburgh Council archaeologist, said: “It could be difficult to trace a deceased patient’s relatives, and indeed many families were too poor to provide a proper burial. As the move towards graverobbing in the later 18th and early 19th centuries tell us, such readily available bodies for research were in great demand. This led medics and hospital staff to meddle with Edinburgh’s criminal underworld.”

5. L IS FOR LAURISTON CASTLE

Edinburgh's alphabet 


Z is for Zeitgeist - Curator Gillian Findlay poses with protest placards

Edinburgh's alphabet Z is for Zeitgeist - Curator Gillian Findlay poses with protest placards

Step into Lauriston Castle and you’ll see the stately home just as it was left by the last owners, Mr and Mrs Reid. Rugs, prints, Italian furniture and classic Edwardian antiques have been taken out of Lauriston Castle for the very first time to take centre stage in a replica set within the City Art Centre. Don’t miss the hand-made cushion depicting the story of George and the Dragon which was crafted by Mrs Reid. You’ll leave wanting to discover the rest of the Castle.

6. P IS FOR PANTO

Natives know Christmas in Edinburgh wouldn’t be complete without a trip to the King’s Theatre pantomime. Not content with taking home a programme, Edinburgh’s Museums Service has a wonderful collection of costumes, set designs and models from the Kings spanning more than 40 years. Check out the exhibition’s intricate set designs for previous renditions of Aladdin, and costumes for Old Mother Hubbard.

7. T IS FOR TOURISM

One of the more unusual displays in the Edinburgh Alphabet exhibition is a packed cabinet featuring dolls of the world. Normally in storage, the display of more than 100 dolls in national dress was bequeathed to the Museum of Childhood by local collector Margaret Guthrie. Margaret travelled the world collecting her dolls, giving each one a name and a story.

8. X IS FOR KISSES

On Valentine’s Day, a mystery sculpture in the style of Banksy’s girl with a balloon appeared at the foot of the Scott Monument. The unidentified artwork features a little girl reaching for a floating red naval mine with a heart shape cut out. While the full story behind the sculpture remains unknown, it is clear the artist intended the piece to be a love note. See it before it goes at the City Art Centre.

9. S IS FOR SCULPTURE

In 2011, David Mach blazed a trail for the opening of that year’s Edinburgh Art Festival by setting fire to a sculpture made of matchsticks outside the front door of the City Art Centre. The artist is back, with a matchstick version of fellow Scottish artist Richard Demarco. Find his creation under S for Sculpture alongside a whole raft of work by Eduardo Paolozzi, Ian Hamilton Finlay, James P McGillivray, Tom Whalen and Kenneth Dingwall.

10. Z IS FOR ZEITGEIST

Banners and placards emblazoned with protest messages demonstrate the last letter of the Edinburgh Alphabet. Following a summer of marches, protest movements and demonstrations about the European Union referendum, UK and the US presidential elections, the council’s museums service snapped up several anti-hate mementoes in order to record history in the making. Gillian Findlay, curatorial and engagement manager, said: “The city has a fabulous and really important collection of protest material dating from as early as the 17th century to the present day. People in this city have never been afraid to put their lives on the line for what they believe. Our part in this process has been to make sure we record the moment.”

l Edinburgh Alphabet: An A-Z of the City’s Collections is at the City Art Centre until October 8, Wednesday to Saturday 10am-5pm, Sunday 12pm-5pm, free entry.