Edinburgh International Festival: Grassmarket

After Kim and I had landed a total dream job, we asked our boss if he would extend our tickets a week so that we could travel somewhere after the trek. He quite willingly obliged

Initially, we thought to hop on a train from Manchester and cruise north to Scotland. My parents visited there a few years ago and loved it. I have forever been fascinated by the land, mythology, and spirit of the country. And, well, scotch whiskey.

Then again, Europe lay entirely too close to rule out traveling there. And egad, Istanbul was certainly close enough to visit, if we were feeling particularly ambitious in our plans. The thought process developed, “No, no, let’s just go to Scotland. Well, I do have friends in Stockholm. And I keep saying I want to go back to Valencia. But I suppose Tuscany would be awfully nice this time of year.” And on and on.

On our second rest day of the trek, we decided we must shore up our travel plans. After seemingly endless deliberation, we bought tickets on Virgin trains for Inverness, Scotland. We would spend three nights in Inverness (more on Inverness in a future post) then shuttle down to Edinburgh to witness the International Arts Festival.

The Edinburgh International Festival began in 1947 as an effort to “provide a platform for the flowering of the human spirit” and to bolster the city’s spirits and revenue following World War II. It has become that, and so much more.

I had largely expected the festival to be a raucous party, boisterous whisky-swilling Scots singing in kilts in the streets. I thought there would be brawls in pubs, gutterpunks smoking hash in squares, and thieves and pickpockets honing their skills on naive Americans.

Our experience could not have been further than the machinations of my imagination.

The first day we arrived at our hostel (which, by the by was a private college dormitory run as a hostel while university was not in session) showered, and immediately threw ourselves out into the streets. After the dales and lakes of the north English countryside, and the quiet, peaceful vibe of Inverness, we were ready for some action.

While we knew next to nothing about the Festival, we figured that our “fun-radars” could sniff out a good time wherever it was happening. Before too long, we asked some people and they pointed us to the Grassmarket. We meandered through a cemetery and found the gates on the far end wisely locked so as not to create a public thoroughfare through the hallowed grounds. People were filing somewhat solemnly into the church, but not reverently. Upon further investigation, we saw that the patrons were entering the church not to bear witness to the word of their Lord, but to enjoy a choral performance from a national choir.

A portrait of the festival was beginning to emerge.

The street on the left leads to Grassmarket

We backtracked out through the front gates of the graveyard; from here nightly catacomb tours depart. And though we would have enjoyed it, we did not venture into the bowels of Edinburgh. We walked up the street, past Greyfriar Bobby’s, and down the Street to Grassmarket. En route to Grassmarket we were handed flyers by a comedian that read, “Put This In The Rubbish Bin.” It was for his show. Silly comics.

Looking away from Grassmarket, toward the previous photo.

Looking onto one entrance to Grassmarket.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Grassmarket has a fascinating and dark history. Not only does Edinburgh castle reign down over the square, it is the site of medieval and contemporary markets, and hundreds upon hundreds of hangings. At the northeast end of the square lies a monument in paver stones and concrete which marks the exact spot of the gallows and lists all recorded hangings on that site.

Edinburgh Caste from the southern end of Grassmarket

While we walked around the square and I photographed the scene, I was at first taken aback to see people eating fish and chips and drinking beer on the circular memorial. But as I shot more and more and continued to see through the objective eye of my camera, I had a stark realization. What was happening here in Grassmarket on that day was likely little different than what had happened there in past centuries. The hangings, while most probably appalling to some, were invariably a social gathering. And so, the social scene continues.

The block on the left behind the gentleman in pink details the names of the hanged. The squat pedestal upon which the men are eating is the site of the actual gallows. Note the line of darker bricks in the shape of the gallows.

In the above photo, note the black pub with red lettering at the far right of the shot. That’s Maggie Dickinson’s Pub. As the story goes, “Half-Hangit Maggie” had a love affair with her employer’s son. Shortly thereafter, she became pregnant. Not wanting to be fired, she concealed the pregnancy. The baby was born prematurely and died a few days after birth. Maggie left the baby on the banks of the river Tweed. The body of the baby was found. Maggie was tried for and found guilty of “Concealment of Pregnancy,” the punishment for which was hanging. Maggie was publicly hanged. On the way to Musselburgh where she was to be buried, there came an awful clatter from within her coffin. It was Maggie, banging to be let free. The law saw it as divine intervention, and that she had served her sentence. Maggie lived forty more years. The letter of the law was changed from “hanging” to “hanging until dead.”

And you can bet damned well that I had a pint in Maggie Dickinson’s.

With the exception of the castle, the scenery of Grassmarket is quite average. There is lots of stone, delightful pub facades, and some very enjoyable shops. But what makes Grassmarket special is its history and function. For nearly 600 years, people have been coming to Grassmarket from near and far to trade and socialize. I met a Brazilian who regularly goes to Edinburgh on the weekends and cruises Grassmarket for people to hang with. After meeting him, it became clear to me that though once a scene of executions, the raison d’être of the Grassmarket continues to be a venue for people to meet, drink, and shop.

Coming next in the Scotland series: Cheeky comics, street performers, and the Royal Military Tattoo.

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2 comments

  1. I loved Edinburgh when I was there, but that’s 8 years ago – must put it on my ‘To Do Again’ list 🙂

    1. It’s truly wonderful, particularly during the Festival!

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