11 secrets of Edinburgh’s Grassmarket you probably didn’t know

The Grassmarket became the official spot for public executions in Edinburgh in 1660.
The Grassmarket became the official spot for public executions in Edinburgh in 1660.
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Think you know the Grassmarket?

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During World War One, in 1916, the Grassmarket was targeted by a German zeppelin in a rare bombing north of the border.

During World War One, in 1916, the Grassmarket was targeted by a German zeppelin in a rare bombing north of the border.

Here are some little known facts and legends from the past of this vibrant area in Edinburgh’s Old Town.

It has been used by humans for a long, long time

When Edinburgh City Council were developing the Grassmarket a few years ago, archaeologists found evidence of early human life.

Carbon dating revealed that the area was in use by humans over 3,000 years ago, in the Middle Bronze Age, around 1500 to 1300 BC.

Early Italian immigrants to Edinburgh made their home in the Grassmarket area.

Early Italian immigrants to Edinburgh made their home in the Grassmarket area.

A lot of people died there...

The Grassmarket became the official spot for public executions in Edinburgh in 1660, and remained so for over a hundred years. As a result, it became the scene for a great many deaths.

Even a hangman was executed at the Grassmarket, after he was found guilty of murdering a beggar.

In 1736, the area was also the site of the famous Porteous Riots, which saw inept Captain Porteous (leader of the Town Guard) lynched by angry locals.

Really - a lot of people

Between 1661 and 1668 alone, over 100 Covenanters were put to death in the Grassmarket in a period known, brutally, as ‘The Killing Time’.

A memorial was erected in their honour in 1937.

One woman cheated death there

In 1724, Maggie Dickson was charged with murder and condemned to hang in the Grassmarket, after she hid an illegitimate pregnancy and the subsequent stillbirth of her child.

Dickson woke up in a carriage after her hanging and went on to live a long life, as she couldn’t be tried again for the same crime under Scots law.

In 1775, an advocate tried to replicate Dickson’s amazing escape from death with one of his clients, and even had surgeons ready to resuscitate the man - before deciding against it.

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It used to be known as ‘Little Italy’

Early Italian immigrants to Edinburgh made their home in the Grassmarket area. Legend has it that the first Italian immigrant arrived in 1882, and worked as an organ-grinder.

The Grassmarket gained a reputation for Italian music and ice cream, and gained the nickname ‘Little Italy‘ for a time.

There was a fight about a giant nose there

The protruding, giant nose above Aha Ha Ha joke shop on West Bow in the Grassmarket is a stand-out feature in the area.

However, back in 1996, the idea was initially rejected by Edinburgh Council for being too big, and detracting from the atmosphere of the area.

A Star Wars rebel owned a Grassmarket pizzeria

Gold Leader - known outside the Star Wars universe as actor Angus MacInnes - opened popular local eatery Mamma’s Pizza in the Grassmarket in 1985.

Mamma’s is still going strong under new ownership, but served up Star Wars themed pizzas to celebrate the release of The Force Awakens.

It used to be home to a ‘wizard’

In 1670, after he had retired from his post as Commander of the Edinburgh Town Guard, Major Thomas Weir grew ill, and from his sickbed told strange stories of a life of wickedness and vice.

His sister, Jean, also confessed to dabbling in witchcraft and sorcery with her brother, who she said had been given supernatural gifts when he rode in a fiery carriage, and gained his power from a walking stick.

The pair were found guilty of witchcraft, condemned to death, and Jean was executed in the Grassmarket.

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It was bombed by a German zeppelin

During World War One, in 1916, the Grassmarket was targeted by a German zeppelin in a rare bombing north of the border.

Four people were injured and one died at the White Hart Inn, before the bombers moved on and caused more destruction across the city.

It’s rumoured that the One O’Clock Gun was fired, and helped to dissuade the bombers from further action.

More than one of the pubs are haunted

With parts of the building dating back to 1516, the White Hart Inn is not only the oldest pub in Edinburgh city centre, but it also claims to be ‘the most haunted’ pub in Edinburgh.

Over the years, staff have reported mysterious noises, slamming doors, shadowy figures and even disembodied limbs in the pub.

Another Grassmarket pub, the Last Drop, is said to be haunted by the spirit of a young medieval girl.

It helped to keep out armies

The Flodden Wall was built around the Old Town of Edinburgh, and fortified to keep the English armies out after the tragic Battle of Flodden in 1513, as well as to deter smugglers.

Today you can follow the remains of the Flodden Wall up from Grassmarket and around Greyfriar’s Kirkyard and the Old Town.

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