Edinburgh: Dark Deeds in the Old Town

13 Sep

I’ve always found Edinburgh a splendidly atmospheric city, which is why I’ve visited it time and again over the years. The city is perched on a series of extinct (we hope) volcanoes and rocky crags – a setting so striking that Sir Walter Scott was moved to call it “My own Romantic Town”. In my opinion, however, it was another native author, Robert Louis Stevenson, who perhaps best captured the feel of this city with the following description in Edinburgh: Picturesque Notes: “You go under arches and down dark stairs and alleys. The way is so narrow that you can lay a hand on either wall; so steep that, in greasy winter weather, the pavement is almost as treacherous as ice.”

Stevenson was of course also the author of The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, a tale which although ostensibly set in London unmistakably has Edinburgh’s “dark stairs and alleys” as its inspiration. Jekyll & Hyde was not Stevenson’s only foray into the horror genre, however, for a he wrote a number of shorter ghost stories, perhaps the most famous (or infamous) of which was The Body Snatcher (click to read!), a tale based on the true story of those real life body snatchers, Burke and Hare. Although to be strictly accurate, Burke and Hare never actually robbed graves – they simply decided to cut out the middleman and became a pair of serial killers. Burke and Hare preyed on people whose disappearances were rarely noted – the poor, the homeless and the lost – supposedly for the noble cause of medical research, for which they were rewarded handsomely by Edinburgh’s medical fraternity, in particular the renowned anatomist Dr Robert Knox, who lectured at Edinburgh University.

Burke and Hare’s killing spree was brought to an end when they turned on each other. In exchange for immunity from prosecution, Hare agreed to give testimony against Burke, who was subsequently found guilty, condemned to death and hanged – even though it was accepted at the time that they were both equally complicit. But guiltiest of all in the eyes of the Edinburgh public was Dr Knox, the receiver of Burke and Hare’s grisly acquisitions, who was eventually hounded out of his place at the University, even though there was absolutely no evidence that he knew anything at all about the murders. In a coda that is perhaps fitting, Burke’s body was immediately taken to the Medical School for dissection after he was hanged – the final contribution to medical research of this macabre duo.

When it comes to the classics of the horror genre I always buy the Penguin editions, which are packed with interesting facts written by experts in the field. In this respect The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Other Tales of Terror by Robert Louis Stevenson does not disappoint and is filled with background on this writer and his inspirations, including Burke and Hare. (Incidentally, what I would not do, if I wanted an accurate portrayal of the gruesome twosome, is watch the recently released Burke and Hare movie starring Simon Pegg and Andy Serkis, although the film is nevertheless an enjoyably silly romp, if a little light on both comedy and horror in my view).

Lastly, if you’ve never been to Edinburgh before, one of the best ways to see the city is on an atmospheric ghost tour during the winter months. You really do feel that you’re stepping back through time as you walk those twisting streets and the dark deeds committed there in the city’s past come alive in your mind as they are recounted by a guide. The little-known Edinburgh Torture museum is also a surprisingly informative place to visit although, as its name implies, it is not for the faint-hearted…

One Response to “Edinburgh: Dark Deeds in the Old Town”

  1. charlespaxton August 21, 2012 at 12:37 am #

    Edinburgh is very atmospheric. We enjoyed an Undercity ghost tour there the weekend before last. I had an EMF detector with me, which registered a lot of fluctuation in various places. I believe underground Edinburgh to be genuinely haunted. We were guided through various vaults with a very insalubrious history. Burke and Hare murdered some of their victims down there and also used the vaults as a conduit to get fresh bodies from elsewhere to the morgue. It was distinctly creepy and a very informative tour. Perhaps the most horrible part of the history was the sense of very different worlds co-existing in such close proximity, and the likelihood, if not practical inevitability of unfortunate people from the world above ending up down there and expiring more or less gradually, in abject squalor.

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