a walking tour of the city’s hidden stories

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Edinburgh is a city that tolerates “wooden” weather well. The gloomy, overcast grays and short, damp winter days match the bleak architecture and often dark, deviant past of the Scottish capital.

These are streets that were bombed during the Wars of Scottish Independence, making the central part of Edinburgh considered the most besieged castle in Europe. This is where cages had to be placed over the graves to prevent corpses from being dug up and sold to medical school, and around the corner the tightly packed tenements housed peasants and poets, philosophers and kings. The city is, as the poet Hugh MacDiarmid wrote, “God’s mad dream”.

I’ve lived in Edinburgh for over twenty years, but the centuries of history hidden in the city’s stones still amaze me. They reveal themselves only to those who know where to look.

Angus Stirling is one of those who know: he is an expert on the architecture and layers of stone that make up Edinburgh’s Old Town. He knows who put what where in the medieval era and which Victorian personage paved it in the 19th century trying to modernize it. Angus is a guide at Invisible Cities, a social enterprise that trains homeless people to lead walking tours. Founded by Zakia Moulaoui Guery in Edinburgh in 2016, the company now runs four tours around Edinburgh, as well as operating in Glasgow, Manchester and York. Norwich, Liverpool and Cardiff will be added later this year.

Constantly altered, adapted and renewed, the Royal Mile has been a living witness to Scottish history since the Middle Ages

Grassmarket in Edinburgh.

Grassmarket in Edinburgh. Photo: Adam Goodwin/Alamy

I signed up for the Royal Mile: Huts to High-Rises tour (£12), which covers the city’s most famous street and the old town around it in a 90-minute walk. “Continually altered, adapted and renewed, the Royal Mile has been a living witness to Scottish history since the Middle Ages,” says Angus. “Stones and cement. There’s nothing more historic than that.” But it’s not the fascination with building materials that distinguishes Angus’ tour; the point is that Invisible Cities tours also touch the social landscape – teaching tourists about local social enterprises on an ongoing basis.

Our visit begins in the heart of the old town at the Grassmarket, a market square since the 14th century that today is best known for its wide selection of pubs. “Edinburgh is an old city with a dark history,” says Angus. She tells us how “Half-hangit Maggie” was hanged here in 1724 for concealing her pregnancy and then abandoned the body of her newborn child – only to wake up hours later and climb out of the coffin. The Maggie Dickson pub (at number 92) is named after her. In 1736, one Captain John Porteous was lynched here by a mob after allegedly shooting at the mob during a riot.

Maggie Dickson survived the 1724 hanging and is remembered by the pub.

Maggie Dickson survived her hanging in 1724 and has a pub named after her. photo. Konrad Zelazowski/Alamy

Climbing colorful Victoria Street, we stop at St Columba’s, an easily overlooked church just off the Royal Mile. Angus tells us about Sparkle Sisters, a charity based here that organizes events that offer health services to vulnerable and homeless women. All profits from Invisible Cities go to community projects like this one; other examples are the services of a street barber and free tours for Ukrainian refugees. “We start with the Ukrainians’ Association, cross Waverley Bridge and come to the castle, and I tell them where they can take their children or buy cheap clothes,” says Angus.

Angus became homeless after a downward spiral caused by university debts and a broken relationship – and was offered the opportunity to train as a guide while working for Big Issue.

“I thought it was a good opportunity to connect people full of Scottish history and language activism,” he says. He speaks seven languages ​​and earned a degree in language and history after four years of study in Aberdeen, Edinburgh and the Swedish city of Linköping. Indeed, during his journey, he laments the influence that John Knox and the Reformation had on the Scots language.

In theory, we now have full status for Gaelic and Scottish. There’s no money behind it, but there’s a law behind it

Angus Stirling

“The Reformation brought with it the only English-language Bible that was accepted at the time,” Angus tells us. “In the 16th century, everyone had to go to church, which meant they had to listen to the language of the Bible for hours on end.” As a result, the Scots began to decline, he says, and today their status is quite low: “It’s one of the few countries where you’re often thought to be more ignorant if you speak two languages ​​instead of just one.”

This is a tour free from the tartan-tinted point of view of many guides. Another tour led by Angus, Languages ​​of Scotland (£12), goes into more detail about how Gaelic and Scots have been suppressed in the country. This route continues the Royal Mile to John Knox House, then the statue of poet Robert Fergusson – the leading light of the Scottish Vernacular Revival – in front of the Canongate Kirk and ends at the Scottish Parliament. “I’m making changes that have happened since it reopened,” he says. “In legislation, we now theoretically have full status for Gaelic and Scottish. There’s no money behind it, but there’s a law behind it.”

John Knox House.

John Knox House. Photo: Ian Rutherford/Alamy

Our tour continues to St. Mary’s Cathedral, where the Heart of Midlothian mosaic in the street marks the entrance to the Old Tolbooth Prison, which is long gone. Thanks to the stories of economist Adam Smith, we end up at Tron Kirk, a 17th-century church built with one of the few surviving hammer-beam roofs in Scotland. Deconsecrated since 1952, it is now a craft market.

Angus’ tours are very focused on the small details: the age of the bricks and the authenticity of the facade. Other Invisible Cities tours focus more on the guide’s personal experiences with homelessness: Crime and Punishment by Sonny Murray (£15) fits the bill. It focuses on Edinburgh’s villains, from Burke and Hare to Deacon Brodie, a respected carpenter turned thief by night, inspiring Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

Like the Angus route, it also starts at Grassmarket, but from there it turns off the Royal Mile and heads to Greyfriars Kirkyard, the most famous dog in history, Greyfriars Bobby, who guarded his former owner’s grave for 14 years. That’s where Sonny slept when he was homeless 17 years ago. “I took my tent and sleeping bag with me everywhere in case I hurt one of them,” he says. “Then I used to climb the fence at night.”

As he walks, Sonny interrupts the story by pointing to social enterprises – the Grassmarket Community Project, which feeds the homeless and offers furniture making classes, and Streetwork, where vulnerable people can shower and clean clothes.

Sonny recalls meeting George Clooney while working at Social Bite, another social enterprise. “He was a gentleman,” says Sonny, adding that he gave Clooney a recipe for a homemade stew. He also met Prince Harry and Meghan Markle on tour and took a cup of Meghan’s coffee to his daughter “so she can be a princess too: she was happy with that.”

There are no restrictions on who can participate in the Invisible Cities training programs, which take place in blocks of six to eight weeks and last an average of six months. “It’s open to everyone,” says founder Zakia. “People may be in active addiction, sleeping outdoors, or have a huge criminal record. If they have conditions that prevent them from working as guides – for example, their addiction is not under control or they cannot work with children – we will try to find them other opportunities.”

Kirkyard Greyfriars.

Greyfriars Kirkyard is best known for the story of Greyfriars Bobby, a loyal dog who guarded his former owner’s grave for 14 years. Photo: Alan Wilson/Alamy

The training is aimed at transferring universal skills. “So it’s customer service, public speaking, trust building, conflict resolution and first aid,” adds Zakia. “Leadership requires a lot of self-confidence from you. You’re the center of attention and everyone’s eyes are on you, so it’s the complete opposite of what often happens to people living on the street.”

For visitors, these tours offer the chance to experience the real Edinburgh, from the gray and glitter of the past to the wonders and warts of the modern city. And in a city where tourists throng the streets every day, Invisible Cities is a pioneering example of a revitalizing, urban approach directly to projects that directly benefit its residents. In turn, the tourist gets an extremely intimate insight into the city.

“They say everyone deserves a second chance, but most of the people we work with haven’t had a first chance,” Zakia tells me. “Our role is about storytelling, opportunity and education.”

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