After a week of exploring the Scottish Highlands, it was time for me to return to Edinburgh for the real purpose of my visit, the SPIE Remote Sensing and Security + Defence Conference of 2016. They had a new conference that year, “Remote Sensing Technologies and Applications in Urban Environments,” which matched my thesis topic almost perfectly. My advisor wasn’t crazy about the idea at first, since I had gone to a conference in April as well, but after months of wearing him down, he agreed to let me apply. To save the department some money, I applied to be the student journalist for the conference, which included food and hotel, so long as I worked a couple hours a day on writing articles about the conference. Pretty sweet deal all around!
I got into Edinburgh on Sunday afternoon and got right to work at putting the final touches on my presentation, practicing my talk, and doing some background research on the talks I would have to report on. Within reason, I tried to arrange my schedule so that I would at least have a couple of free hours here and there for exploring the city.
During my stay I did a free walking tour of the city, and the £10 spooky Dark Side Tour, both from the same company. Looking at the guides, I was pleasantly surprised that I was able to pick out the girl who gave the Dark Side Tour, Sarah. She was excellent; if you get a chance to go on a tour with her, I highly recommend it!
In the free walking tour of the city, we walked all around the historic Royal Mile, and much to my delight, got to see many sights of Harry Potter inspiration. We passed St. Giles’ Cathedral, one of the oldest and best-known cathedrals in the city, and the Writers’ Museum, which celebrates famous Scottish authors.
Outside of St. Giles’ Cathedral we checked out the Heart of Midlothian, a stone heart that used to mark the site of a prison and executions. Perhaps started by released prisoners, the tradition today is to spit on it when passing by. If you visit St. Giles’ Cathedral, take care not to step on it; that’s how the locals pick out tourists!
Near the Writers’ Museum we also got to see the “world’s first burglar alarm,” a staircase step that was slightly smaller than the others, causing uninvited house guests to trip when climbing the unfamiliar staircase in the dark. Was it really the “first” burglar alarm? Probably not; I can’t find anything online to support that, but it was nonetheless a fun story for the tour group.
We also stopped by Greyfriar’s Kirkyard, one of the world’s most haunted graveyards. (No really, this is the first Google result when searching “world’s most haunted graveyard.”) Hauntings aside, J.K. Rowling used several of these headstones as inspiration for Harry Potter characters (most notably Thomas Riddle and William McGonagall). I was on Cloud 9 during this part of the tour. Just beyond the graveyard is George Heriot’s School, which served as the inspiration for Hogwarts and its houses, and on the other side of Greyfriar’s is The Elephant House cafe, where J.K. Rowling penned some of the first Harry Potter books (I love elephants too so it really doesn’t get much better than this). That’s three Harry Potter references within a block of each other. If you want the rest, check out this list, or, search for a Harry Potter specific walking tour (yes, they exist, and I wish I knew about them when I was there).
Yet another attraction near Greyfriar’s Kirkyard is Bobby, a Skye Terrier who, legend has it, guarded his owners grave for 14 years after he passed away. Bobby became such a well-known figure throughout the town that The Lord Provost of Edinburgh paid for his license and collar after a law was passed requiring all dogs to have one. Today he is buried near his owner, John Gray, and visitors leave sticks and dog toys at his grave site. Just outside of the cemetery is a memorial to Bobby, where passers by rub his nose for good luck.
Later in the week I ran across town to join my tour of “The Dark Side” with Sarah. As I said before, she was fantastic and had tons of great stories, both spooky and funny alike. From The Royal Mile we walked to climb Calton Hill for beautiful views over the city at dusk. The tour ended at Canongate Kirk, where we were treated to a rich history of Edinburgh grave robbers, the Burke and Hare murders, and learned the origins of the phrase “saved by the bell.” (I actually already knew this one from a murder mystery I had read, where someone was buried alive. But it was slightly more creepy hearing the story where it came to life, in a graveyard, in the middle of the night.)
The tour version of the story details a deceased woman who was buried, only to be dug up a day or two later by grave robbers. When the grave robbers couldn’t slip her expensive rings off her fingers, they decided to cut her fingers off. After not one, not two, and not three, but four fingers were cut off, the woman woke up screaming bloody murder. When news of this got around, people were absolutely terrified of being buried alive and decided to attach strings to the fingers of the deceased. The strings would connect to bells at ground level, which would chime whenever they woke up and moved their fingers. I imagine this never happened in broad daylight, but only in the middle of the night when the grave keeper was all alone.
Probably the most notable part of my time in Edinburgh was when I set the hotel fire alarm off by blow drying my hair, and forced everyone to evacuate at 6:30am. There were no outlets in the bathroom, and the only other mirror was by the door, right underneath a smoke detector, so technically I don’t think this was my fault. Regardless, I keep telling myself that one day I’ll look back on the memory and find it funny. I’m making slow but steady progress on that front.
The weather I experienced in Edinburgh was much nicer than the previous week of my trip, except of course for the final day, the morning when I was supposed to climb Arthur’s Seat. The rain held off right until I started the short, three-mile walk, and it quickly deteriorated into a blistery, freezing, and wet adventure. At the top of the hill, I hid in between two rocks while waiting for a small clearing to take photos. I got a couple of cool storm photos, but still would have preferred the hour of sunlight instead!
With the (mostly) better weather, a nice selection of good restaurants, and two great walking tours, I had a blast visiting Edinburgh. Of the international cities I’ve visited, it’s one of the few I felt I would enjoy living in. It’s bittersweet to finish writing about my time spent in Scotland, but I’ll keep my fingers crossed for a return visit!