Edinburgh's 101 Objects - On the Dark Side trail

*Please note - this unique campaign has now ended, however the majority of objects are still available to see around the city so please continue to browse and enjoy our Edinburgh's 101 Objects itineraries. The information was correct as of 30/07/2019.

Edinburgh has no lack of ghost and mystery tours offering to whisk you away on journeys into the various nooks and crannies of one of the most haunted cities in the world.

But Edinburgh's 101 Objects offers you the chance to visit the relics of the city's dark and twisted past and get to grips with grim reality - learn how the city's past is stranger and more twisted than fiction with the objects from the On the Dark Side trail. 

Stop 1: Object 94 – Door from Prisons of War

94 Prison Door Hero

[Photo credit: © Crown Copyright HES]

In ages past, Edinburgh Castle's vaults were used to confine wave after wave of prisoners, from a Norse earl in 1197 to pirates, witches, Covenanters, Jacobites and more. The prison population reached its peak – more than 500 – during the wars with France of the 1700s and 1800s.

Doors surviving from that period are still on display in the Prisons of War exhibition, including this example, heavily scarred with graffiti by French, American and Spanish prisoners captured during the American War of Independence (1775–1783). The graffiti is among the last marks left by the men held captive, and even includes one of the earliest depictions of the American flag.

Where: Edinburgh Castle, Castlehill, Edinburgh, EH1 2NG

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Stop 2: Object 91 - Witches Well

91 Witches Well Hero

In the 16th century, more witch burnings were carried out at Castlehill than anywhere else in Scotland.  King James VI was paranoid about witches and wrote a book about them, ‘Demonology’, stoking populist fears.  He had Dame Euphane MacCalzean burned in 1591 for casting a spell to create the storms that prevented his wife from joining him from Holland and commissioned ‘Witch Prickers’ to track down the evil women. The men were paid by the confession, so used underhand techniques to ensure high conviction numbers.

This memorial well was designed by artist John Duncan, RSA for Sir Patrick Geddes and erected in 1912 as a memorial to the over 300 women who were accused, tortured and killed for suspected witchcraft.

Where: Edinburgh Castle Esplanade, Castlehill, Edinburgh, EH1 2NG

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Stop 3: Object 95 – Deacon Brodie’s Cabinet

95 Deacon Brodie Hero

This unique and handsome cabinet was owned by Edinburgh writer Robert Louis Stevenson and handmade by Mr William Brodie, a respected cabinet maker and city councillor. In 1788 it was discovered that Brodie had been living a double life: gentleman by day - burglar by night. Copying the keys of the grand houses that his job allowed him access to, he and his gang made off with money and goods to fund his gambling debts, two mistresses and five illegitimate children.

After his capture and the scandalous revelations of his private life came to light, Stevenson was subsequently inspired to write one of the most famous books of all time: The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

Where: The Writer's Museum, Lady Stairs Close, Lawnmarket, Edinburgh, EH1 2PA

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Stop 4: Object 92 – Tomb of John Bayne of Pitcarlie

92 John Bayne Grave Hero

After the 1660s, the Church of Scotland outlawed burial inside the church, which led to the practice of the wealthy commissioning ornate monuments and mausoleums in the kirkyard. Greyfriars has a very fine collection, many from the 17th century.

One of the most impressive is the tomb of John Bayne of Pitcarlie (1620-1681) who stares proudly out from his niche, in his hands a purse containing the royal signet: Bayne was Writer to the Signet (solicitor on behalf of the King) in the middle of the 17th century – so he would have officiated over some very troubled times.

Where: Greyfriars Kirkyard, 26A Candlemaker Row, Edinburgh, EH1 2QE

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Stop 5: Object 99 – Arthur’s Seat Coffins

99 Coffin Hero

[Photo Credit: National Museum of Scotland]

In the summer of 1836, a group of schoolboys hunting for rabbits on Arthur’s seat found a hidden collection of 17 tiny coffins each containing a carved wooden doll. The coffins have been the source of speculation ever since - was it ‘Satanic Spell Manufactury!’ as the Scotsman reported on 16 July 1836? Or were they land burials for the souls of sailors lost at sea?

Since they appeared less than a decade after the Burke & Hare murder spree, many believed they represented their 17 victims. Perhaps made by someone who knew the murderers but dare not speak? Or the work of the guilty parties themselves? The materials are those used for shoemaking; Burke worked as a cobbler.

Where: National Museum of Scotland, (Scottish History and Archaeology, Industry and Empire Gallery), Chambers Street, Edinburgh, EH1 1JF

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Stop 6: Object 98 - Pocketbook made from the skin of William Burke

98 Burke Hero V2

[Photo credit: Surgeons' Hall Museums]

Burke and Hare were two Edinburgh entrepreneurs who, in 1828, discovered they could make a decent wage by selling bodies for dissection at the School of Anatomy.  Students the world over were flocking to Edinburgh to study this new science, and until the 1832 Anatomy Act, only the corpses of executed murderers could be used for dissection - demand was high.  Burke and Hare did one better than their grave robbing ‘Resurrectionist’ competitors:  murder by asphyxiation, and they were well paid for their fresh supplies by the head of the Anatomy School, Dr Robert Knox.

When eventually arrested, Hare turned King’s evidence and escaped punishment, but Burke was hanged and publicly dissected. His bones are still on display at the Anatomical Museum (open just one day a month) and this pocketbook can be found in the Surgeons’ Hall Museums.

Where: Surgeons' Hall Museums, The Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, Nicolson Street, Edinburgh, EH8 9DW

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Stop 7: Object 96 - Ranger's Impartial List of Ladies

96 Rangers Hero

[Photo credit: Edinburgh World Heritage]

Ranger's Impartial List is a 1775 anonymously published “gentleman’s” review of 66 of Edinburgh’s prostitutes from the collections of the National Library of Scotland. The women’s addresses, ages, appearances are described, along with much euphemism about their skills.

Ranger’s List is thought to have been compiled by James Tytler, Church of Scotland preacher, son of a Presbyterian minister, hot air balloonist, and editor of the 2nd edition of the Edinburgh published Encyclopaedia Britannica. Despite his claim to be impartial, the book is packed with judgemental comments about the ladies and their services.

Where: Edinburgh World Heritage, 5 Bakehouse Close, 146 Canongate, Edinburgh, EH8 8DD

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Stop 8: Object 93 - Bloodstain of Rizzio

93 Rizzio Bloodstain Hero

[Photo credit: Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2017]

In the oldest part of the Palace of Holyroodhouse is the tiny room where Mary, Queen of Scots liked to relax with her ladies in waiting and her secretary, David Rizzio. It was 1566, Mary was pregnant, but her happy marriage to Lord Darnley had soured, and a child would threaten his path to the throne.

In yet another attack on an unstable Stuart monarchy, Darnley and his men burst into the room, dragged off the terrified Rizzio and stabbed him 56 times in front of the traumatised Mary, dumping his body in the next room. The darkened blood stain of this diabolical murder can still be seen today.

Where: Palace of Holyroodhouse, Edinburgh, EH8 8DX

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Stop 9: Object 97 - The Watchtower, New Calton Burial Ground

97 Watchtower Thumb V2

The New Calton Burying Ground was opened in 1820 complete with a watchtower to guard against grave robbers, known as ‘resurrectionists’. The fear of your loved one’s body being dug up in the dark of night and sold for anatomical dissection was considerable in Edinburgh because the city had become the world leader in the study of anatomy. The medical schools needed bodies and paid good money for them; until 1832, the only bodies legally available were those of executed criminals - a paltry 55 a year. The schools needed ten times that.

All sorts of deterrents to disinterment were employed: extra deep burial, locked cages over the graves called ‘mortsafes’, ‘coffin collars’ which secured the corpse to the base of the coffin. And guards stationed in watchtowers like this one. It is said that at one point a family of ten lived in the narrow building. 

Where: New Calton Burial Ground, 10 Regent Street, Edinburgh EH7 5BL

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