Edinburgh: Body Snatchers

A city that’s a study in contrasts. And a wellspring of literary inspiration.

With the schizophrenic difference between the Old and New Towns, it should come as no surprise to learn that the man who wrote Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Robert Lewis Stevenson, was a native of Edinburgh. The New Town, where Stevenson grew up, was planned out in the 18th century as a gracious, orderly pattern of wide streets and spacious town houses. But Stevenson was also fascinated by the medieval Old Town, which has always been one of Europe’s most haunted enclaves. It’s a romantic warren of alleyways that twist and turn past moldering graveyards and gas-lit pubs. The laneways often end in ghostly cul-de-sacs, which now bear little bronze plaques with quotes from Edinburgh’s most famous poets and writers. (Robert Lewis Stevenson gets one, of course: “The stars in heaven aren’t so beautiful as the lamps of Edinburgh on a misty night,” he once wrote). The eeriest corner of all is Mary King’s Close. When the Black Plague broke out here 1645, this whole lane was bricked up by the authorities with the tenants still inside, dooming them to starvation. Today, standing inside its fetid tunnels, you can easily imagine when Edinburgh was the most crowded city in Europe, it was filled with the frail tenements that rose as high as 14 stories and were prime fodder for fires and collapse. Back then, pedestrians would have to dash from door to door, dodging the buckets of refuse tossed from above. Tenants would yell gardylou, a corruption of the French gardez l’eau, ‘watch out for the water!’ Stevenson himself suffered from serious health problems due to Edinburgh’s chilly climate, and later in life he was obliged to leave his beloved city. After many epic journeys, he died far away from his damp, dark homeland, on the tiny tropical island of Samoa in the South Pacific.

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