Now the Festival’s finally over, you can walk round Edinburgh without tripping over tourists and troubadours. It’s time to poke your own nose into this amazing city’s secret nooks and crannies. If you’re not sure where to start, here are nine of my favourites. If you want more, find a copy of Secret Edinburgh by Hannah Robinson. There’s a revelation on every page.
The Mysterious Edinburgh Book Sculptures
In 2011 a wee box was left on a table in the Scottish Poetry Library. Inside was a miniature tree sculpted with extraordinary delicacy from the pages of a book. A short note said: “This is for you, in support of libraries, books, words, ideas . . .” Nine more painstakingly crafted paper sculptures turned up that year. To understand their beauty you need to see them close-up. Start at the Poetry Library and follow the paper trail from there.
The Scotsman Steps
If you’ve had your knees replaced, take a walk up The Scotsman Steps. If they’re giving you gyp, take a walk down them. (Just so you know, there are 104.) Once they were more of a public pissoir than a staircase. Now they are literally a work of art, Work No. 1059 by the artist Martin Creed.
He re-made the steps in hygienic marble but the pleasure for you intrepid stair-climbers is that every step is made from a different marble in colours you can only imagine if you gaze into 104 people’s eyes.
The Blair Street Vaults
Lurking beneath the Tron Bar is an opening into Edinburgh’s dark underworld, the Blair Street Vaults.
Wicked things happened here. The infamous Hellfire Club held meetings here for “people of quality” who wanted to commit immoral acts. Burke and Hare hid their grave-robbed corpses down here. And a century and a half later, a Romanian rugby star was hidden here in his escape from the Romanian secret police just before the 1989 revolution. Call Mercat Tours if you’re brave enough to pay a visit.
The Library of Mistakes
Everyone makes mistakes but the ones financial experts make can rock the world. The shelves here in Wemyss Place Mew are laden with souvenirs of some of their biggest cock-ups, including a framed logo of bankrupt energy company Enron, the superstars of creative accounting. Closer to home is a sketch of the Scots embarking for uninhabitable, disease-ridden Darien in 1789, taking with them 25 per cent of Scotland’s wealth. They lost their lives and the money, leading to the Act Of Union. With the remaining cash, their investors started the Royal Bank Of Scotland and we know what that led to . . .
The Bore Stane
As a six year-old schoolboy I used to gaze up in wonder at this 503-year-old lump of rock at Morningside Parish Church. The plaque below tells you this was the stone into which the Royal Standard was supposedly mounted to rally troops to the muster of the Scottish army on the Burgh Muir before Flodden, the most disastrous battle in Scottish history. Historians suspect that story was made up by Sir Walter Scott as part of the mythology he invented while writing his epic poem Marmion. But Scots kings did drill their armies on this area of common land so I’m with Sir Walt.
Springvalley Gardens Cowboy Street
Just off Morningside Road, in the land of fur coats and nae knickers, is a little corner of the Wild West, a high noon Hollywood street façade for gun- slinging, gutrot-drinking cowboys.
It was commissioned in 1995 by a furniture salesman who wanted a theme-park for his pine furniture shops and constructed by friends of his just back from building sets at EuroDisney. There’s a jail, a trading station and a cantina designed to house carpenters and cabinet-makers. Sadly, this fake frontier town died four years later . . . gunned down by IKEA.
The Library Room at Debenhams
Next time you find yourself in Womanswear at Debenhams, go through the archway titled “Library Room And Personal Shopper” and in among the spangly ballgowns and coloured jeggings is a shrine to former British Prime Minister William Gladstone.
Just across the floor you’ll find his political sparring partner Benjamin “Dizzy” Disraeli. Gladstone and Disraeli hated each other’s guts. Disraeli was a dandy who even designed his own clothes. The only fashion accessory Gladstone can lay claim to was the heavy-hinged leather bag named after him.
David Wilkinson’s Tea-Chest Mural
In the vennel leading from Bernard Street to Carpet Lane, every day you’ll see a Leith trader humping a tea chest out of a doorway in the stone wall. I have a nice photo of my daughter Hannah helping him to lift his box of tea-leaves out into the street.
As trick-of-the-eye photos go it’s not bad because what you see is actually a trompe-l’oeil mural painted by David Wilkinson of the Artists Collective and funded by the old Scottish Development Agency to brighten up Leith’s grim and grimy streets.
Edinburgh Airport Prayer and Quiet Room
If the new, improved Edinburgh Airport is the last place you’d think of going for a bit of peace and quiet, think again. In fact, pause for ten minutes of calm reflection in the airport’s Prayer and Quiet Room.
It’s arranged like a little chapel with chairs and a round stained-glass window. There’s a thick carpet to deaden the click of your heels and a shelf of prayer books and religious texts.
But you don’t have to pray if you aren’t religious. You can de-stress, dream or meditate. Although airport staff claim to have caught people on their knees there for distinctly unreligious reasons . . .