Hear the fascinating stories behind some of Scotland’s most captivating sights – from Edinburgh’s claim to the title “Athens of the North” to the Body Snatchers of Calton Hill and Gretna Green, the first town encountered across the Scottish border. Below are some of the stories you will discover for yourself while on a Scotland Vacation.
Edinburgh: Athens of the North
Athens of the North: At least 22 cities claim to be the “Athens of the _________.” Edinburgh’s claim to the title “Athens on the North” stems from the late 18th century when the city was noted for its intellectual vibrancy and neo-classical architecture. Its topography is also similar to that of Athens with a castle on a hill, fertile flatlands below and a nearby seaport. The title became ironic a century later, however, when city leaders decided to build a monument to the fallen heroes of the Napoleonic Wars atop Calton Hill, overlooking Edinburgh. The design called for a shrine with neo-classical Greek columns resembling the Parthenon. Local legend says it was to be a full replica of the ancient Greek structure, but the monument was never completed. Today, it stands as a half-finished tribute to all those who gave their lives fighting Napoleon. This effort, designed to enhance the city’s reputation as “Athens of the North,” became more commonly known as “Edinburgh’s Folly,” “Edinburgh’s Disgrace” or “Scotland’s Shame.”
Edinburgh: Body Snatchers
Old Calton Graveyard: Below Edinburgh’s Calton Hill you can see Old Calton Graveyard featuring a stone watchtower that dates back to the 17th century. It was from that tower that Irish grave robbers William Burke and William Hare watched for funerals. Upon a funeral’s end, they took out their spades and dug up bodies to supply the Royal College of Surgeons with fresh cadavers for research. The inspiration? Money and a fateful meeting with Dr. Robert Knox in a pub. During this chance encounter, Knox complained that he could get only one body a year from authorities, only one pair of lungs and one heart to do his research. The lads, Burke and Hare, told their newfound friend they might be able to get him more bodies to assist with his research. Soon they were regularly delivering cadavers. As time went by, there were fewer funerals in the city, so the grave robbers became murderers, killing people to stay in business. Another doctor noticed that the bodies seemed too fresh and notified the authorities … the body snatchers-turned-murderers were discovered. Burke’s sentence was death and then fittingly, dissection at the Royal College of Surgeons. If you go there now, you can see a nice journal on display that looks leather bound … The “leather” is, in fact, Burke’s skin.
Gretna Green: There are many legends of love that surround Gretna Green – the first town encountered across the Scottish border. For centuries, Gretna Green has been synonymous with elopement and blacksmith marriages, although marriage by a blacksmith is more legend than fact.
Until the 18th century, church marriages among the lower classes in Europe were almost unheard of. Instead, lower class weddings were usually looked at as “marriage by declaration.” When England passed the Marriage Act of 1754, establishing church weddings as the only legal form of marriage, a sudden industry began over the border in Scotland, where couples could still wed by declaration.
Scottish “blacksmith priests” began working in pubs and inns and the eloping couples came in droves. While the laws changed over the years, and marriages now need to be registered to be legal, the romantic history of Gretna Green still calls. The six “blacksmith weddings” sites in town still hold a noted 5,000 weddings annually.
And, the town’s fame has etched an eternal place in history, thanks to references in the literary works of Robert Burns, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and others.