It had to be a Bloody Mary and when it arrived and was placed on the table before me I contemplated my subconscious choice.
The restaurant on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, less than an effortless stone’s throw from the ancient castle, was candlelit. The flame flickered weakly on the dark but highly polished wood panelling on every wall and ceiling, it had the trappings of a church but the red leather banquettes were much too lush to be wholesome and pointed instead to illicit liaisons or clandestine plotting.
Here was a restaurant that did not altogether set out to put me totally at my ease. Even its name, The Witchery, recalled the days in the 16th century when the building’s original owner would have encountered within yards of his doorstep the countless deaths of women burned as witches in a purge stoked by James VI, a superstitious and paranoid king.
Yet it was a respectable residence. It’s four stone storeys, its notable entrance and its proximity to the castle said as much. James Boswell the biographer and the subject of his famous biography, Samuel Johnson, resided here briefly with the former’s uncle.
“A world where people died of plague, gentlemen cavorted with prostitutes and Burke and Hare selected their victims for the city’s eager surgeons and anatomy students.”
In this building, in every building on the Royal Mile from Holyrood Palace to the castle on the crag, the same dichotomy came to light. And it was a long mile as I walked uphill from the palace with my guide examining in the sunlit street the city’s and the nation’s respectable side: the old parliament buildings where Scotland’s parliament sat until 1707 and now where the country’s most senior lawyers have their base; the high kirk of Saint Giles Cathedral where the reformation was preached; and the home of John Knox, the theologian and leading Reformer who challenged Catholic Mary Queen of Scots at every turn.
On the surface, it had all the trappings of an old capital and an ancient nation but it was also on this street that thieves such as Deacon Brodie, Covenanters, Catholics, grave robbers, plotters and witches were meted out their terrible fates.
To leave the open street and explore the permanent twilight of the many narrow closes (passageways) was to grab a glimpse of their world. A world where people died of plague, gentlemen cavorted with prostitutes and Burke and Hare selected their victims for the city’s eager surgeons and anatomy students.
A young Robert Louis Stevenson, keen to turn his back on his parents’ stuffy New Town respectability, immersed himself in this milieu. His experiences and observations of Edinburgh’s dark side undoubtedly inspired his famous novel Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde; a story of a respectable man whose most destructive and immoral desires were given free rein on drinking a potion.
“I clearly had blood on my mind and who knows what else. Not even I was very sure. Nevertheless, I drank my potion and waited for fate to take its course.”
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