Edinburgh: Castle

That’s probably going to look like some real funny syntax going on in the title there, but it makes sense if you’ve been following the series I’ve been doing for the past week, in which I recreate a walking tour of Edinburgh. You can see yesterday’s post here (a great one). Reading the posts in the right order isn’t especially necessary as it’s just the order they would come on a walking tour.

Edinburgh Castle often has the best weather in the entire city. On a sunlit day, we get more of them than a lot of people think, it’s the one part of the city which is always bright. On a windy day, however, it’s the worst. Here’s a verbatim quote from me on one of my tours on a particularly windy day.

“In Ancient Greece, the orator Demosthenes, famous for his speeches against Philip of Macedon, used to put pebbles in his mouth and shout over the sea to practise the volume of his voice. The modern Edinburgh street orator’s sea is the Edinburgh Fringe. My voice is louder than wind, stronger than chainsaws. Let’s go.”

Here it is. This is a castle, and it’s in Edinburgh. Therefore it’s called Edinburgh Castle because we are very literal people. The first thing to know about Edinburgh Castle is that it looks very castle-y. You might think that’s a flippant comment, of course a castle is going to look like a castle, but you’d be surprised. Queen Victoria came here in the 19th-century with high hopes but found herself disappointed. “is that it?” she asked a footman, “Can you make it look more castle-y for me?”

And because she was Queen, that’s exactly what they did. Some of the external features of the castle are anachronistic and ahistoric, neither original features from back in the day nor very similar to how the place would have actually looked. But it please the Queen so there we are.

Victoria was good at some things, but not imagination, too. She looked at a wall and asked why it was full of holes.

“Those holes are for cannons, ma’am”

“Well, why aren’t there cannons in them?”

“We don’t have cannons, ma’am.”

“That’s ridiculous, find cannons for them.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

They sent an officer out to go and fetch some cannons, but he was on a budget. He went to the cannon makers and it was far beyond his price range. This officer was clever and tried at the scrap yard. He got some old cannons from a ship and brought them back to the army base to do some reconstruction work.

Totally ahistoric cannons, but they pleased the Queen and that story has been charming visitors ever since.

The Castle wasn’t particularly ancient before that, anyway. It seems every couple hundred years it got a redesign to fit the military needs of the day. The site itself has hosted a fort for about 3000 years, the oldest continuously occupied site in the UK. It’s never fallen in a direct assault, only by sieges where thousands of soldiers wait outside for months for the food to run out.

It’s still an army base now, but these days the only real military function it has is as the site of the Edinburgh Military Tattoo. The Tattoo is a show of military marching bands from around the world, Army bands come here from around the world to perform for a 6000 people arena. I’m a pacifist but I’m in favour of the army just because otherwise there won’t be marching bands as good as these guys.

One year I worked at the Tattoo and on the day they were filming, a cameraman tripped. Right in front of an enormous column of soldiers. Before the show the cameramen had one instruction.

Don’t move.

The guy was lying there, arms pressed into his body for dear life, as the entire column daintily stepped over him. While playing instruments. They didn’t even break rank, their shoulders remaining in a clean line. Now that’s discipline. Must have been quite a show for the cameraman looking up all those kilts.

If you’re back in Summer, not this Summer but the next one, it’s a good idea to book tickets for the show in advance. If you do it several months before you can get them for about £30 a go, on the day it could be hundreds.

Here’s a different story because you can see it from the castle.

This right here is Arthur’s Seat. Do I have a story for you.

This story goes back four and a half thousand years. To a time before the castle itself. The people who lived here were simple farmers until a dragon came up to visit them. The dragon was hungry for gold and human flesh and he began a reign of terror not to be repeated for thousands of years.

He ate the parents of a pagan wizard. The wizard went to the dragon to pay homage.

“Oh, great and noble creature. You have killed my parents. Some poor defenceless farmers who neither meant you nor anyone else any harm. I thank you.”

The dragon sneezed a plume of smoke, as if to say, “Get on with it, peasant, I have a hundred other tributes to extort today.”

“In recognition of your accomplishments,” continued the wizard, “I’d like to present you with the final harvest of my parents farm.”

The wizard pulled out a wooden bowl containing a type of beige paste.

“Scottish oats are the finest oats in all creation, and they make great porridge,” the wizard pitched, “I noticed your meat-heavy diet lacked fibre so this would be good for your breakfast and the continued health of your bowels, that your tyranny might live on for a thousand years.”

The dragon was stunned. The wizard had looked into his heart and provided him with his greatest desire – easier poop.

“I humbly accept your gift, peasant”

The dragon took several hurried bites of the porridge, in betwixt moaning pleasure at his satisfaction with the dish. When he’d finished and burned the bowl to ash, the dragon yawned. As he yawned, he curled his back into a pronounced hump and rested his head on the ground.

The dragon’s scales turned into solid rock and he remained like that forever.

The wizard had been clever. He had laced the dragon’s porridge with whisky and raspberries, also the origin story for the Scottish dessert porridge cranachan.

It’s a myth, but a pleasing one, and it’s somewhat close to the truth. Arthur’s Seat was a volcano until about 350 million years ago. Castle Rock, the hard jagged rock which the castle sits atop, is also a former volcano. Edinburgh has a fascinating natural heritage and that’s why geology was invented here. (I’ve already said you’re welcome for that).

Queen Victoria came to Edinburgh and had some interest in walking up a hill.

“Why, certainly, ma’am. Arthur’s Seat is one of the most beautiful hills in all creation and said to be a possible site of Camelot, ma’am.”

“Yes, but it’s rather steep, isn’t it? Do you have any shallower hills?”

The Queen’s hosts had to admit that they did not.

“Can you make a shallower hill?”

The Queen’s hosts had to admit that they could.

That’s why Calton Hill is so easy to climb up. It has proper paths. Staircases to avoid it getting too steep. It takes only about half an hour to get to the top. If you come to Edinburgh and want to do a hill without it taking out your whole afternoon, Calton Hill is the one to do.

After all, it’s good enough for the Queen.

Right, that’s north of a thousand words. Back for more tomorrow. It’s going to be on cool things to eat and drink around Edinburgh and will serve as a kind of after-quarantine-I’m-doing-this list.

It’s annoying being inside all the time. Especially at the minute because I’m rapidly running low on whisky. There’s maybe only 3 drams left in there. And though nobody in my house is showing any symptoms of the virus, the local shop isn’t really big enough to enforce social distancing so I’m not keen to go in there. If anyone has any ideas on that front, let me know.

Become a Patron!

Hurriedly set up that Patreon account some time last year when I heard they were changing their rules around and you could get grandfathered in if you got one on that day – let’s see if it works, I can’t remember what I set the tiers at but I’m sure you’ll work it out because only clever people read what I write. I believe I said I’ll write limericks for money, and that offer still stands. I’m also willing to list patrons on ever post from here on out, so it’s a decent time to get involved.

Edinburgh: The Plague and You

Today’s a good day for me. It’s my anniversary, I wrote about it just now here. However, I’m also writing a stop from my tour every day. You can find a past great example here. This one isn’t necessarily a stop I always do on the tour because when you’re in the actual place there’s other cool stuff to talk about, but this is nonetheless some great facts and very relevant to the time we’re living in. On we go.

Edinburgh is a place of contrasts. Auld Reekie and the Enlightenment, bound together in one location and at the same time. While there was great development in the city throughout the centuries, this was often held back by disease.

Edinburgh had eleven instances of mass death. The first recorded instance was in 1349. Before that, we thought plagues were just God’s judgement upon the English. But then some Scottish soldiers brought it back with them from a war, and it ran right through the city.

The thing you need to know about Edinburgh is it has these narrow streets. They’re called Closes. They run off the Royal Mile, a misnomer street which is neither particularly Royal nor a Mile, in the direction of Market Street in one direction and to the Cowgate in the other. These streets can feel mazelike to those who first come to the city, some of them are deadends and others loop back to where you started, but this is the easier version. Back in the day there were 300 of them. And they were narrow.

No room for social distancing in those days. About 50 thousand people lived in close proximity to one another, on top of one another. The buildings in Edinburgh shot 14 stories into the air in some instances, we were the early modern Manhattan. Plague easily travelled from person to person. In some instances, half the population died in a season.

(That’s the reason in this other piece of writing I did I reference a golf course on top of a burial site. This actually exists, but is in reality more of a pitch and putt).

Public health was a serious concern. But this is a land of people who try to solve problems. Each plague, the city tried different techniques to cease the spread. A lot of these would today seem mystical, superstitious, and utterly insane. The thing you’ve got to remember is that these guys didn’t already have a background of evidence to use. We’re very blessed to be in a time when our medical professionals share information and evidence from around the world to come to better conclusions about how to treat illness. Back in the day, doctors found themselves praying for solutions while the body count mounted.

By the 19th-century, when much of Edinburgh’s historic centre was renewed and changed, the city brought down the number of closes. There were once 300 of them. Now there are about 40. Each one had to fit a standard width. But before I tell you about that. Here’s the story of an excellent doctor.

His name was James Young Simpson. In the 19th-century he greatly improved medicine in a variety of ways. He professionalised obstetrics, the medical discipline most concerned with childbirth and came up with a couple of great innovations. Later in his career he voiced his support for women joining the medical profession. He’s the guy who figured out that chloroform, in the right amounts, could knock people out for surgery.

That’s right, Scots invented anaesthetics – you’re welcome. If you’ve ever had surgery and had the mercy of being unconscious instead of just being made to bite down on a bit of bark, you’re welcome.

James Young Simpson was also interested in why so many patients in hospitals, even after they had successful treatments, later went on to die from fevers and infection. He figured out the answer: bad blood. Doctors were transferring poisoned blood from sick patients to other patients, and this contamination led to death. His solution – doctors would have to dip their hands in a chlorine solution in between dealing with patients.

That’s right, Scots invented washing your hands – you’re welcome.

Of course, Simpson was a bit wrong. It wasn’t bad blood that was causing infection, it was germs. But in the end, if a solution to a major problem came earlier because someone misunderstood the underlying causes, that doesn’t seem as bad as millions dying because until the science was all properly together. It did mean that doctors had absolutely dreadful skin on their hands, though.

In a similar way, the predominant theory about how illness spread until the latter part of the 19th-century was the “miasma theory”, the idea that bad smells cause disease. That’s why when they redesigned Edinburgh’s Closes they decreed that they must be at least one-coffinwidth.

Every body had to be enclosed in a coffin as it travelled through the streets. The reasoning, people who died of disease smelt bad and disease tended to spread local to where the bad smelling dead bodies were. Therefore, if they are all in coffins they won’t spread disease because their smell won’t hurt people. It’s a bit backwards, they were treating a symptom of the problem rather than the problem itself, but it worked.

An interesting detail I’ve turned over in today’s research is that in 1500 the regulation for if anyone in your house had plague was 12 days of no-contact. The more things change, the more they stay the same. Nobody is being branded with a hot iron, or drowned, for breaking quarantine yet, but if that did happen it would probably find renewed popularity. Stay safe out there and stay indoors.

Right, that’s your lot for today. Tomorrow, Edinburgh Castle, Arthur’s Seat, and Queen Victoria. As Edinburgh as you can get.

I hope you found it fun today, I found it to write. Below you’ll find a link to my Patreon if you want to support me during this trying time. Especially at the minute because I’m rapidly running low on whisky. There’s maybe only 3 drams left in there. And though nobody in my house is showing any symptoms of the virus, the local shop isn’t really big enough to enforce social distancing so I’m not keen to go in there.

Become a Patron!

Hurriedly set up that Patreon account some time last year when I heard they were changing their rules around and you could get grandfathered in if you got one on that day – let’s see if it works, I can’t remember what I set the tiers at but I’m sure you’ll work it out because only clever people read what I write. I believe I said I’ll write limericks for money, and that offer still stands. I’m also willing to list patrons on ever post from here on out, so it’s a decent time to get involved.

My Exquisite Wife – Year 2!

Taking a brief break from the tour series I’ve been doing to tell you about something important.


My wife is the best. I say so all the time. Sometimes somewhat originally, too. Often when she’s done something excellent. At our multiple anniversaries.

My wife is simply exquisite. Absolutely perfect for me. This is what a relationship should look like. Plus we have an amazing dog.


Photo Credit: Untitled South

The life we’ve built together is absolutely amazing, and though we are temporarily in a tricky place because of the leading conversation of the day, I know we’re going to be absolutely fine.

This is a short post, but it’s a lot longer and less compact than “I love you” – something that I adore saying each and every day to her.

The writer of this piece is mushy.

Edinburgh: How Scotland invented the world

There’s a million Coronavirus-themed playlists on Spotify (my favourite is called Quarantunes), just as there are millions of Covid takes going round at the minute. That’s why this is a brief reprieve from all of that.

This is a journey into what I did in my day to day life before the Virus. This is the continuation of my recent series of a virtual walking tour of Edinburgh, and this stop is lit. Read it and be warm.

This gorgeous structure is the Scottish Writers’ Museum. Originally it was the private house of a family who wanted to make this their forever home. To take up that much space and make a house made of stone back in the seventeenth-century took Jeff Bezos money – these guys were loaded. Over the years it’s gone through several different purposes and that’s what brings it to its position as the Writers’ Museum.

Now you might think, Scotland and writers. That’s a bit like the combination Scotland and salads. Or England and spices. Or America and healthcare.

But that’d be wilfully ignorant. Scots eat salads. The English love spices. And Americans spend more on healthcare than most other countries, though with worse outcomes because a corrupt oligarchy who benefits from people being punished for getting sick. Anyway, there’s no politics today. Just something worth thinking about.

Scotland got writers. This museum is devoted to three of them.

It’s devoted to a writer called Robert Burns. Or Rabbie Burns if you want to be more Scots. Rabbie Burns effect on the world cannot be overstated. As well as being an excellent poet he was a terrible farmer. His history is basically him going from failed farm to failed farm all the while writing great poems, but that’s part of his appeal. As well as him being a big drinker and a massive shagger.

He wrote our national epic – Tam O’Shanter. A national epic is supposed to be the poem which defines your country. A lot of them are about mythical figures founding the land. Or great heroes defeating dragons or the like. Not our national epic, though.

Tam O’Shanter is the story of a man who goes to town for a market. At night, he goes to the pub and finds himself in high spirits till he starts to think of his wife back home

“Gathering her brows like gathering storm,
Nursing her wrath to keep it warm”

Fellows, isn’t that a terrifying image?

Well Tam gathers up himself and heads out home on his horse, Meg. On the way home he sees lights at a ruined church and goes to investigate only to find a bunch of witches doing a demonic ritual and having an orgy. They spot him peeking on them and they chase after him. It’s a furious chase and it only ends because Tam… crosses a bridge.

Witches can’t cross over water so when Tam cross the bridge he escapes. But his poor horse loses her tail.

Essentially, it’s the tall tale of a man who’s been at the pub for a bit long. But it’s a far better story than traffic, so try it out next time and see if your missus isn’t at least charmed.

Rabbie Burns once found himself in a field ploughing when he heard a saddening noise. He destroyed a the hice of a family of mice. Rather than carry on with his day like a good farmer would. Burns stopped and began to scribble up another classic, ‘To a Mouse’. It was in this that he came up with the immortal phrase.

“The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men
Gang aft agley.”

Meaning, goes often wrong. It was this that inspired the title of John Steinbeck’s novel Of Mice and Men.

That’s right, Scots invented American literature – you’re welcome.

Not quite, but a few cool Scots did make good in America. Such as John Muir, founder of the US National Parks. And the town Pittsburgh was initially supposed to be pronounced more like Edinburgh but then ze Germans got to it. I’m told we shouldn’t claim responsibility for Pittsburgh, so let’s just forget that.

Rabbie Burns invented another impressive thing that we sing every New Year – Auld Lang Syne.

That’s right, Scots invented New Year – you’re welcome.

It might sound absurd, but New Year wasn’t always the great drinking fest that we know and love today. That’s an example of Scottish culture going worldwide. We went hard at New Year, Hogmanay we call it, because we didn’t use to celebrate Christmas. It was seen as too foreign and superstitious for us. We didn’t even have a day off at Christmas until the 1960s.

What we had instead was a different holiday. We’re one of the only countries in the world where not only do we get the 1st of January  off, we also get the 2nd of January off. It’s a legal public holiday instead of everyone just calling in sick.

At one point a bank decided to go against this, “This is ridiculous, you guys are getting English holidays to bring you in line with the rest of the world.” And everyone in Scotland went on strike until the bank had to back down. We’re very protective of our traditions and especially when they involve taking a day off for recovery.

Another brilliant writer represented in the Writers’ Museum is also called Robert. Robert Louis Stevenson. Robert Louis Stevenson came up with a lot of really cool stories, and these inspired writers far beyond Scotland.

An example of things he came up with – peg legs, parrots on shoulder, buried treasure, x marks the spot, pirates.

Robert Louis Stevenson invented pirates almost in their entirety in his novel Treasure Island. He decided they were to sound like farmers from Somerset because that seemed piratical enough. Even later when historical understanding has debunked his work completely, fiction writers still have to go back to tropes he invented because he so successfully got them into the imagination.

That’s right, Scots invented pirates – you’re welcome.
Scots invented Pirates of the Caribbean – you’re welcome. That’s why Davy Jones sounds so Scottish even though he should sound Welsh with a name like that.

Stevenson also came up with another excellent story. The story of a man turned into a monster by a potion – the story of this Scottish man on a Friday night, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. This story has gone on to inspire writers around the world, like a modern fairytale. One such writer it influenced is Stan Lee, who wrote about another man turned into a monster by a potion.

That’s right, The Incredible Hulk is Scottish – that’s why he’s called Bruce.

Mark Ruffalo did a good job of playing him in the Avengers series, but imagine if it had been Ewan McGregor? Let that thought please you forever.

That’s right, the strongest character in the Avengers was Scottish – you’re welcome.

The Writers’ Museum is devoted to a third important writer, Walter Scott. There’s references to Walter Scott all around Edinburgh, it seems every third pub is named after one of his books in some way. He’s the guy who gave our train station the name Waverley. The only train station in the world named after a novel.

It was in this series that he invented historical fiction, the idea of setting a story in the past but making it about a love story. This is the technology that made Outlander possible. It’s also, arguably, the technology that makes Stranger Things possible since it was set in the 80s.

That’s right, Scots invented Netflix – you’re welcome.

Walter Scott made another great contribution to the world, however. Walter Scott is the inventor of Scotland. A country so grand and important to him that he named it after himself.

Now at this point you might be thinking, “How can Scotland only have been invented by Walter Scott, a guy from the 18th-century, when you said earlier it’s one of the oldest countries in Europe? What farce is this?”

We didn’t invent farce, sure that was the Greeks.

Walter Scott is more the re-inventor of Scotland. See, Scotland had stopped existing after a difficult period of history known as the Jacobite Uprisings.

This was a series of wars in the 18th-century trying to bring the Stuarts back to the throne of the United Kingdom, which they had lost because they were Catholic.

The most successful of these uprisings was in 1745 – otherwise known as ‘The 45’. In the 45, Bonnie Price Charlie came over to Scotland from France to fight for his father’s claim to the throne. He rose up the Highland clans and convinced them to follow him. Charlie did really well, actually, given how little he had at first. He took almost all of Scotland and marched south into England, where he made it as far south as Derby. That’s before he was convinced by his advisors to turn back to Scotland and defend what he had rather than go for more, then he started losing battles. This culminated in a mass extinction of the Jacobite claim in the Battle of Culloden, and Bonnie Price Charlie got dressed as a woman by his handmaiden, Flora MacDonald, so he could escape.

That’s right, Scots invented crossdressing – you’re welcome.

So Charlie got got and he left Scotland for France, a symbol of heroism in defeat. Meanwhile, back in the corridors of power discussions were being had. These Scots were a difficult bunch and were causing way too many problems relative to their smallish size. It was decreed that the culture of Scotland was going to be changed to become a more content state.

Scotland became known as North Britain, both in Westminster and certain literature from the time. Kilts were banned, tartan was also outlawed. In doing so, it was believed they could eliminate the country in a couple generations. Culture may seem strong, like it could survive anything, but culture is actually very weak. Culture can be destroyed in a single generation if the traditions are not passed on and clothing, especially, cannot survive being banned.

Kilts and tartan were relegalised a few decades later and everyone thought it was cute. Their grandfathers wore kilts.

But Walter Scott brought it back. He wrote stories about the Highlands before the Jacobite uprisings. Stories of a misty, magical land full of kilts and tartan and family. Scots read Scott’s work and they thought it was amazing. English people also started reading it and went looking for Scottish ancestry. A very important man picked it up and decided it was incredible and he should meet Scott.

Which is easy to do when you are George the Fourth, King of the United Kingdom. George met Walter Scott and told him his work was fabulous. It had inspired him to visit Scotland to see what it was all about. The King was looking for some sartorial advice – what did the people of Scotland wear in their day to day lives?

Walter Scott was a clever man and always able to think a couple of steps ahead. He replied, “A kilt, your majesty. We all wear kilts in Scotland. It has to be a tartan kilt, too, or it’s naught but a jumped up skirt.”

The King was bemused at this information but came back, “Very well, I shall get myself a kilt made!”

Walter Scott ran back up to Scotland and, quite out of breath, told the people, “Kilts… tartan… whisky, no time to explain.”

See,the people of Edinburgh are Lowland Scots, not Highland Scots. Tartan was never part of our tradition this far south. Families cobbled together new tartans from whatever dyes they had available and it can be argued the ancient Scottish kilt tradition in fact dates to the 1820s.

George the Fourth alighted his carriage in 1822 to find everyone was wearing kilts and tartan. He was pleased he didn’t stand out. But then nobody in the crowd knew where to look.

George the Fourth was very unpopular in England due to food shortages following the Napoleonic War. Any crowd he saw down there was never especially pleased to see him and would hurl insults and abuse his way. He did not expect the reaction he got.

The people began clapping and cheering uproariously. Starved of a royal visit for nearly 200 years, it seemed like the Scottish love of the monarchy was still going strong. The King was touched at his reaction.

What they neglected to tell him is that they were actually laughing at him. A kilt is supposed to come down to the knee. Poor old George’s kilt however came down to the middle of the thigh. Like a mini-skirt. The guy who made his kilt had never done one before. So the King came to Scotland in a mini-skirt and everyone just went along with it and started clapping. It’s an Emperor’s New Clothes situation, nobody wanted to tell the King he was naked.

The King said to his nearby advisor, “Oh, my! I’m beloved by Scots! I love Scotland now.”

The kilt came back into fashion. It remained in fashion in Scotland, especially for formal events and pageantry. It had a season in London but they move on far quicker in fashion terms. Another thing that made its way down to London at this time was whisky. Our national drink found its way into the mouths of traders from across the globe and before you know it, an extremely lucrative industry was set up shifting Scottish spirits around the world. Today whisky is our 2nd most valuable product, after oil.

And all because Walter Scott.

That’s my piece for the day. Tomorrow, some awesome facts about diseases. How topical.

It’s been an even longer one today than yesterday but I hope you found it the thrilling joy ride to read that I found it to write. Below you’ll find a link to my patreon if you want to support me during this trying time. Especially at the minute because I’m rapidly running low on whisky. There’s maybe only 3 drams left in there.

Become a Patron!

Hurriedly set up that Patreon account some time last year when I heard they were changing their rules around and you could get grandfathered in if you got one on that day – let’s see if it works, I can’t remember what I set the tiers at but I’m sure you’ll work it out because only clever people read what I write. I believe I said I’ll write limericks for money, and that offer still stands. I’m also willing to list patrons on ever post from here on out, so it’s a decent time to get involved.

The writer of this piece is full of panchetta.

Edinburgh: Throwing Stools at Bishops

Quarantine kind of sucks, doesn’t it? No long intro today because this story needs no frame. If you want to know what’s going on with this not really introductory intro, consult here. Regardless, this is going to be a fun post with a couple of really awesome stories to it. Gather round!

Edinburgh’s St Giles Cathedral is a truly marvellous structure. It’s old, dating back to the 12th-century. It’s had a few fires though so it didn’t always look quite so grand as it does today. It went through major renovations through the centuries and has changed  what sect of Christian was in charge of it over the years, which leads to the most interesting thing about it.

St. Giles Cathedral is not a cathedral.To many, this comes as shocking news. I mean, look how cathedralesque it is, it’s hard to imagine how this could be anything but a cathedral. But a cathedral needs something very important. Cathedra in Latin means chair. The chair of a cathedral belongs to a bishop. Presbyterianism ain’t got bishops so it ain’t got cathedrals. Making St. Giles Cathedral in more accurate terms merely the High Kirk of the Presbyterian faith.

Then again, they still call it a cathedral because that looks better on key rings and postcards. Marketing has a far larger sway in the history of the world than it’s often given credit.

The fact that Presbyterianism hasn’t got bishops is something of an oddity to many other Christians. Most other forms of Christianity are led by a Pope, or by important religious thinkers, or even by the King or Queen. But Presbyterianism is a bit different and for that I’ll need to tell you the story of a very important guy.

His name was John Knox, and he was our Protestant reformer. Our answer to Jean Calvin and Martin Luther. As a protestant reformer you might expect he was driven by some very hardset theological differences from the Catholic Church, and you would be partially correct. The John Knox story is in fact a story of revenge.

He was in in training to become a priest from a young age. He learned his Greek, he learned his Latin, he learned his Bible backwards and forwards. Because Greek goes in the other direction. It seemed like all was going to be well until he was taken as a galley slave by the French.

Knox came to despise his French captors. They punished him with a whip in one hand and a Bible in the other, their hypocrisy as stinging as the whip strokes and the salty sea water in the wounds. Knox came up with a plan that would make Alexandre Dumas proud. He swore revenge on the Catholic Church.

First, he travelled to Switzerland to learn how to be a good Protestant and then he returned to Scotland and put his plan into action. He founded a church with no Pope. No cardinals. No bishops. An independent church, led by independent people free to follow their own convictions in a confederation of churches. There are rules and dogma, but unlike other forms of Christianity, they can change their minds on topics far easier. Representatives from Presbyterys around the world meet up once a year to discuss the great questions of the day. That’s why our church is gayer than any other church in the world. Not Knox’s intention starting out, but it’s a sign how over the years progressive ideals will tend to win out over the more conservative ones.

Anyway, now you know the story. St. Giles was a Presbyterian kirk and we were all quite all right with that, thank you very much. But then, there came a King, the King of both Scotland and England. His name was Charles the First. He considered himself something of a divine king, elected by God to rule.

Charlie was aided in his delusion by a quirk of the English constitutional system whereby whoever is on the throne of England is head of the Church of England. The King looked towards Scotland and puzzled, “Hold on a minute. I’m King of England and head of the church, but I’m King of Scotland and not? We should fix that.”

And attempt to fix it he did. Charles encouraged the spread of Episcopalian churches, and tried to change around the way the Presbyterians ordered their church services. This included the introduction of bishops.

In 1637, the people of Edinburgh went to St. Giles Cathedral for their weekly religious practise only to find something strange. Behind the pulpit stood, not their regular minister, but a new minister. One wearing, not a Presbyterian all-black, but a more Catholic white. The parishioners looked at each other and asked, “Has the Fringe Festival started early?”

Confused, they sat down to hear him out, and the new minister announced:

“Right, I’m the new Bishop of Edinburgh. Here’s one from my new album.”

And he took out a copy of the Book of Common Prayer and began to read. Now as it if wasn’t scandalous enough that this guy was claiming to be a bishop and was wearing a hat like the Pope’s, he was also reading from that most hated book. A book of state-approved church services which was so unpopular in Scotland the only way to successfully use it in a sermon was to point a loaded gun at the congregation. The Bishop had forgotten his gun.

There was an uproar, as everyone got to their feet and began shouting at the guy to get out of town. Fun fact, Scots invented the word ‘heckle’. It initially came from a Dutch word meaning ‘hook’ but the Scots took it to mean shouting at a politician, shouting at a comedian, or shouting at a bishop.

That’s right, Scots invented heckling – you’re welcome.

The heckled bishop was not to accept this abuse and exercised some great crowd control.

“My friends, surely you all agree that this is a house of God and shouting is an act of violence, therefore, hauld yer wheesht.”

A great Scottish expression meaning, “Shut it.”

The people of Edinburgh were impressed into silence by the Bishop. All except one woman. Her name was Jenny, Jenny Geddes, and she decided that she wasn’t going to lie down and take it.

“I’ll no hear mass in my lug!” She bellowed, then bent down and picked up her prayer stool.

Then she launched it towards the Bishop.

The stool sailed through the air and struck the Bishop square on the face, breaking his nose and blasting his blood all over the altar of the church. Liberty in every blow.

Now, I don’t know about every country in the world’s history. But when blood gets spilled in a church in Scotland, something is about to happen.

Jenny’s fellow worshippers looked on aghast at the bloody Bishop, vestments soaking up blood like red wine on carpet. Jenny’s fellow worshippers looked towards each other, hoping the resolve of their neighbours would tell them what happens next. Jenny’s fellow worshippers looked at Jenny’s triumphant face. Were they to scorn her, cast her into the streets, trample her as a heretic? No.

Instead, they all picked up their prayer stools and launched them towards the Bishop, who shouted, “Jesus Christ!”, and bolted up the belfry to escape. The deposed Bishop stayed there for three days as the people of Edinburgh broke out into riot, we do love our riots, many of them about extortionate taxes on whisky. As a direct result of this attempt to mess with religion in Scotland, a majority of the Edinburgh population signed something called the National Covenant – a petition demanding King Charles cease trying to mess with religion in Scotland. He could be King here, but not God’s representative on Earth.

This petition found Charles in poor spirits and so he sent an army north to crush the perfidious Scots. Normally for a well-trained army against a ragtag group of religious rebels the outcome is pretty clear. Also normally, when an army from England marches north into Scotland we’re about to face a national humiliation. But on this instance, the Scots won. Decisively. (In the English’s defense, the King was technically Scottish and nobody loses to the Scots like the Scots).

They took the King hostage. They ransomed him back to parliament. Parliament and the King were not on speaking terms at that time so it was an especial humiliation for him. Charles was not to be deterred by a single loss. He demanded more money from parliament and they said to him, “Mate, you’ve had enough, give me your keys.”

This is what kicked off the English Civil War. The bloodiest conflict proportionate to population that’s ever happened across all of the British Isles. A conflict that led many Presbyterians to leave Scotland for America, and when it came time for the American Revolutionary War these Presbyterians had one demand for the Constitution. Separation of church and state.

That’s right, Scots invented secularism – you’re welcome.

Now what other city tour in the world has a story of a bishop being pelted by chairs and that starting a civil war?


It’s been a long one today, but it was necessary to get all the religious stories at one time in a decent thematic block. Tomorrow, I’ll be telling you about our literature and telling you more of how Scots invented everything.

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The writer of this piece will need to go out tomorrow for more coffee. May God have mercy on his soul.