Lovely dry, bright afternoon in Edinburgh with my friend Joanne, finding out about the way Mrs Grant would have done her shopping in 1810. Edinburgh is a lovely city and surprisingly still very lively, even this late in the season; we had to skirt around lots of other acts to keep up with Mrs Grant – or otherwise, social historian Jackie Lee – and hear her tale.
Joanne spotted this event in the brochure of the National Library of Scotland – there’s an exhibition on now, until 8th November, entitled ‘Lifting the Lid: 400 years of food and drink in Scotland’. I haven’t seen it yet but will make sure I do, and report back. Our Food Heritage Trail accompanies the exhibition and took place up and down the Royal Mile and Canongate. Our fictional Mrs Grant lived in the New Town, which was built to relieve the overcrowding, poor sanitation and general degeneration of the Old Town – but (some things never change) the planners forgot to allow for food markets in the New Town so she had to cross to the Old Town for her provisions. A massive statue of David Hume, the Enlightenment philosopher, occupies a commanding site near the old Fleshmarket – unusually for men at that time (less so now?) he was a keen cook, and would entertain his Enlightenment buddies with home-cooked broths, barley and mutton.
We learned lots of interesting things (e.g. in the 19th century they scoffed oysters with their glass of wine in much the same way as we would now down a packet of crisps); but one of the most surprising was that back in the early 19th century, there was a line of of tenements in the middle of the street opposite St Giles Cathedral – pretty narrow – with the ground floor made up of stalls with wooden shutters which were locked up at night. These were called the Luckenbooth – meaning ‘locked stalls’. The stallholders simply put the shutters back up at night and then retired upstairs. Today, there was a fiddler on a tightrope strutting his stuff where the Luckenbooth would have stood. Wouldn’t like to have been in his shoes.
We visited the Fishmarket, the entrance to the Fleshmarket, Sugarhouse Close (now student accommodation), and a bakery place. Apparently Edinburgh was famous back then for the quality of its cakes. The architecture is very well preserved and very atmospheric; and we finished off in a peaceful little community garden sown near the Holyrood end, dating from the 17th century, planted up with fruits and herbs for the use of local residents.
‘Mrs Grant’ was a fund of information and I definitely recommend her tour – still a few opportunities before the season ends. This tour is part of the offering from Jackie Lee’s company Artemis – see the website for further info. And go if you can. I thought I knew Edinburgh quite well, but hey – there’s always another angle to explore.