When I arrived in Edinburgh, one of the first things that inevitably caught my eye was the strange heart-shaped pattern that can be found next to the High Kirk, at the Royal Mile. Given the fact that it has such a lovely shape, I thought it could be a symbol of love and hospitality. Besides, I was told that, if a foreigner spits inside the heart, they will come back to this beautiful city in a future, and that those who are careless enough to step on it when walking are doomed to never find true love.
How sweet, I said to myself, in utter, blissful ignorance. And I am pretty sure that all the tourists have the same thing in mind when they find this pattern, while strolling through the Royal Mile.
After living here for almost three months, I have learned that Edinburgh is, above all, an enchanted city. There are ghost legends almost everywhere, and lost souls bewitch cemeteries, pubs, castles and old houses. Scottish people seem to be very keen on these stories.
But, why so many tales about ghosts? Well, it probably has something to do with the bloody past of Edinburgh, the other side of the coin, the one we cannot see nowadays, but which shaped the city and gave it part of its character.
Which brings us again to the Heart of Midlothian, the pattern located next to the High Kirk.
Old Tolbooth Prison. Lithograph by W. and A.K. Johnston, 1852.
Where now we see a touristic spot, Old Tolbooth Prison used to stand in ancient times, casting a shadow over High Street with its menacing silhouette for over 400 years. Built in the 14th century and demolished in 1817, Old Tolbooth Prison was infamously known for the gruesome conditions in which its inmates used to be held. Judicial torture was routinately carried out there, and the body parts of the executed prisoners were displayed on pikes atop the building, as a warning sign aimed at criminals.
Sir Walter Scott would publish an account of this terrible situation in his book The Heart of Midlothian, just one year after the demolition. In it, he tells the story of Jeanie Deans, who goes to London in search of a royal pardon for her sister, Effie, accused of infanticide and held within Old Tolbooth Prison until her execution.
Old Tolbooth prison had its own gallows, in the same place where now we can find this charming heart. It is said that people who came to see the public executions that took place there used to spit under the gallows as a sign of contempt either for the judicial system or for the condemned person.
I am sure you can see the conection now and understand why I chose this Heart of Midlothian to write my first entry of this blog. Still, no ghost has claimed this particular spot as far as we know. But I think that such a place of suffering must have left some kind of mark where the heart lies now -and one with a very different shape.