The Royal Mile
Top of the Royal Mile
Can you hear me? Aye, I can tell from your face that you can. Ah, it's been over a hundred and fifty years since I last walked in the world of light and life.
Still, it's sometimes pleasant to talk to those who still do.
Taking in the sights, are ye? Hmm, well these buildings might interest you. But I’ll wager 10 shillings that you’d be more interested in the goings on, here.
Aye, that you would... just start walking down the High Street, the Royal Mile to you, and I’ll chum ye along. I bet you’d love to hear about my contribution to the medical college.
That’s right, the famed academics, `leaders of the world` in their day because of their experiments, the things they learned from cutting up cadavers. The bodies of those departed, to you and me.
And where did they get them? The plague had been gone from Edinburgh over a hundred years. People were living longer and the college didn’t want old hags riddled with disease, and while they’d still pay for such a corpse... they were prepared to pay a sight more for younger, fresher specimens.
And before you say `Burke and Hare`, let me tell you something; that’s a whole spot o’ nonsense!
Those Irish wallopers only managed 3 of their own before they got caught, and the first was an accident.
If you want to know the truth, then keep those things in your ears and I'll guide you through it. I'll direct you to the spots where the whole grisly thing unfolded as we go along. I might disappear every now and again, but I've got my eye on you, and I'll catch up and I'll tell ye a bit more. You can go ahead and put your `telephone`, or whatever that thing is, away in your pocket. Just be sure to keep listening and old Sam will keep you right.
Right, let’s get to Deacon Brodies pub on the left and I’ll tell you all about it.
See all the way down the hill? This is where it all started. An old friend of mine, Jim Farrington, we’d been on a ship together. He told me he’d found a way of making money. See this pub? We were in a pub round the corner. It’s gone now, I see, but back in the 1830s it was called The White Horse.
`Come with me, Samuel` he said. `Down this way. We’ve gota job to do!` So off we went. Come on, start heading down the hill. Down here. That's it. Now, just keep walking down the High Street. We're about to pass the High Court on your left.
Aye, all manner of scunner's been through they doors. A few innocents, too.
A local nobleman robbed his own cousin, pinned it on a friend of mine. They tried him in there and hanged him the next day.
For all my bad luck, I've not been in, myself... and I'm not for starting today, so just keep heading down. This story must be told.
That Cathedral on the right is St Giles. Started off as a Parish Church in 854 AD. We had a right carry on in there one night... but that’s a story for another time. Just keeping heading down the mile.
So he said to me, `Samuel, the men at the college need some help.` Before even knowing what they wanted, I asked, `Are they willing to pay?` He smiled without even looking at me and I knew the answer. Why else would we be out of the pub?
We kept walking down the mile, and he had a curiously wild look about him.
You can see whisky shops here, of course. Eateries. Tartan atrocities of every kind(!)
But back then there were no tourists. It was a sight to behold down here, rare items from the orient, food, spices, artwork... and opium, of course.
And there were dangers here! Pickpockets, muggers, rapists, aye... you could lose anything in one of these closes that run off to the sides, if you weren’t mindful.
A lot of toxic chemicals down here, too, used by manufacturers to make their goods, and I wondered if we’d been sent to bring a barrel of something awful to the college for their experiments.
But no... they wanted `playthings.`
Tron to the South
Take a look down to your right, to the south... There's the Tron Church, and behind it the Tron Square... That's... well, nevermind the Tron for now. Let's.. let's just keep on. Come on, cross the road, keeping on the mile, the same direction we’ve been heading.
It was here, just at this corner, that Jim stopped me. He drew me close and whispered...
`A man at the college has instructed me to bring him fresh cadavers,` says Jim. `Seemingly it’s for science. This big nob I used to be coachman for... he sent for me. Says to me over a bottle of rum that the only way to learn more about helping the living is to study the dead.`
That’s fine, says I. But are we to become grave robbers? I hadn’t taken his true meaning, at first.
`Not a bit,` says Jim, with that grin running amok.
Anyways, come on, now. Much more to tell.
Further down the mile
Jim always made his own luck. Like marking cards. Banned from every poker game for miles, he was. See this pub on the left? The Royal Mile Tavern? Great name! It wasn’t always called that. Anyway, he nearly got his throat cut in there for cheating.
Another time, he robbed a nobleman. Waited for him in a brothel! Was it this shop on the left? My damned memory... anyway, he hid under Madam Giselle’s bed and when they trotted in drunk, did their business and passed out, he stole every coin they had! Oh, they’d have hung him for that... oh yes.
So, I thought his grand idea was to steal the dead from their graves. But no, he said, `I’ve told you, Samuel, they want fresh bodies before the worms get them!`
`How are we to get to the newly-deceased before the authorities, then?` I asked. I didn’t much like his smile at the best of times. Least of all now.
`Let’s ask a gentleman down here`.
Well, here he was, keen to make his own luck again. He was going to kill a man.
The freshest a body could be.
And so we walked on, come along. I'll show you.
Head down to the World’s End pub on the right.
The World's End
“Don’t worry, Sam,” he said. “This guy is a right bad ‘un. The world will be a better place without him.”
“What makes you say that?” I asked. Sure, there were plenty of villains in a city like this.
“Alford Wick.” He practically snarled as he said the name and I understood.
Just then, the man himself stepped out of this very pub, The World’s End, and headed down St. Mary’s Street. A vicious, lean-faced wolf of a man. Not a burly sort by any means, but you knew just by looking at him... he could hurt you. Word is he was often hired to do dirty work for `businessmen.`
Come on, down St. Mary’s Street - to the right. I can almost still see him hurrying off down here. Still smell him!
Aye, this street still has its cobbles. They’ve been here for centuries. Seen it all, they have. Kings and Queens. Paupers and villains. As Jim and I quietly set off after Alford Wick, I could feel my heart beating faster than I thought possible without any sort of running or the likes. All I could think of was the hangman’s noose.
If we were caught in the act, we wouldn’t see much of a trial. Just a quick `how do you do` and off to the gallows. And as I say, this Alford Wick was not a man to trifle with!
Pause to reflect
See that alleyway on the left? Aye, up there, `Boyd's Entry.` I was walking past it, like you are now, and I remember glancing up there while we were following Mr Wick... I remembered a little story about that alley.
Word had it that Wick was up there one night with a `lady for hire` or whatever you call ‘em nowadays. Anyway, her man tried to rob ‘im when he had his loons down by his knees. Started waving a knife at him and talking fierce.
That’s when he found out Mr Wick is never off-guard. He whipped out a blade of his own from his sleeve and cut the man from cheek to cheek. Once the blood started pouring from his face, the robber ran like hell, of course. Only thing drains quicker than blood is courage, I find. Wick, on the other hand, liked nothing more than a good fight, but he couldn’t get dressed quick enough to chase the poor sap.
So he made do with the wench. That he did. He got his money’s worth and more.
So you can imagine it wasn’t just the noose I feared, as much as not being alive to see it.
A sudden right
Aye, he turned right, here, and headed towards the Grassmarket, along the Cowgate here.
Jim could see my mind was in turmoil. See that church on the right? St Patrick’s. I don’t mind admitting that I wanted to run in there and wait til this was all over.
Alright, I knew there’d be a pretty penny involved, otherwise we wouldn’t even be doing it, but I was genuinely scared. He knew that. So without taking his eyes off our quarry, he opened his coat and handed me a cudgel.
“You better know what you’re doing,” I breathed, as quietly as possible. He just grinned again.
We started to speed up, gaining on Wick, and I noticed he had his own weapon. A small axe.
I felt a bit easier knowing we were armed. But not much.
This street... the Cow Gate... Via Vaccarum! `The Way of The Cows.` It must be obvious by now that this is where merchants brought their livestock to market.
Hmm, it's tidy looking now but back in the 1800s, it was a slum. Home to a lot of Irish, too, who came here for work. "Little Ireland."
Not a clever name, but it worked.
We pressed on after Wick. My mouth began to dry in anticipation.
Wick suddenly disappeared from view. He’d turned right here and set off up Blackfriar Street. My stomach lurched. Was he onto us? Come on, up here!
“Jim, this is too risky!” I said. Even he looked less sure, now.
“Shut up, he can’t be far, come on! Do you want your share or not?”
I shouldn’t have asked. I should’ve stopped there and then and gone back to the pub. To any pub!
But I asked the question; “How much?”
The grin crept back onto his ugly mush.
“A man is waiting for us at the college this very night, my old friend. An assistant of Dr Knox’s. If we take him a fresh specimen at 2 hours past midnight, we’ll receive the sum of ten pounds 10 shillings.”
My heart quickened again, but not with fear. Ten pounds was more money than I’d seen in a long time. Today it’d be like saying a thousand pounds, or 12 hundred American dollars. Not a bad pay for an evening’s work, even if we were splitting it.
My fortunes hadn’t been much to speak of, I confess. Maybe this was the turning point.
Aye, I decided. We’ll get this done. I wanted that money.
And so up Blackfriars we went... Come on.
Back on the Mile
So we got to the top of BlackFriar Street, and as you can see we’re back on the Royal Mile. We’d lost him. Jim cursed a dozen times, quietly at first but louder each time. I worried someone would hear, and wonder if we were up to no good. 'Come on', I said, 'let's walk'. So we went this way, to the left. Back up the Mile to the crossing. Aye, back the way we came, but not far.
“So what now?” I asked, while we walked.
I felt relieved and a bit cowardly, but also cross because I’d already spent the money in my mind.
Jim said we should head to the Tron pub. He reckoned Alford Wick sometimes drank in there. Maybe he was hiding. Didn’t seem likely to me. But we headed towards Tron Square where the pub sat, anyway. I could feel the money slipping away. Five pounds... it could have paid my debts, new clothes, booze for a month if I wanted...
Right, cross over the road and turn left. Walk a few yards down and you’ll see the Tron pub again. Nestled behind the church, just off the road, on Hunter Square.
As we approached the pub, we were quiet. I was still thinking of my lost earnings. One minute I was fearing for my life, but now I just felt cheated.
Jim... well, he'd all but shrugged it off already! Started babbling about grabbing a drink in the Tron, Wick or no Wick.
It vexed me how easy he was about the whole thing. I was all for telling him to shut his hole.
We were just about to go inside the Tron when out of nowhere, Alford Wick flew at us. He knocked me to the ground and turned on Jim. They struggled, rolling on the ground towards the pub itself. I got up and stood frozen to the spot.
Jim let out a yelp and I found my courage again and ran to his aid. I had a cudgel, didn’t I?! I’d forgotten. Stupid me. I took it out and smashed it against Wick’s head. Except I only caught his back. He went down, I thought for good, but he soon rolled over and ran.
See the steps across from the pub? Jim was slumped at the bottom, lying in his own blood. “Help me, Sam,” he said. I stood numbly, looking down at the hole Alford Wick had made in his gut. “Get me to a physician,” he pleaded. “Get us a carriage before I bleeds out!”
I couldn’t speak. I kept thinking about the money we’d lost. That, and Alford Wick had gotten a good look at us. He’d remember this night. And anyway, a gut wound wasn’t that serious. Would take him days to die. He didn’t seem to know that, though.
“Please, Sam. I’m your friend! I was gonna share that fifteen quid with ye!”
Fifteen quid? I said. I thought it was ten?
I’ll never forget his face. Fear. Pleading. He’d given himself away.
Before I knew it, and before he could say another word, I knew I had to have that money. I brought the cudgel down on Jim’s skull.
And I did as he asked. I hired a carriage and took Jim to a physician.
And I got my fifteen pounds.