Bits 'n Bobs Author Blog
Day 2: Up bright and early for a hike through Edinburgh. Sounds fun- and it was- but it was also quite informative.
Here, Susie takes a moment to show us Edinburgh's layout. It is a very old city with the castle at the top of an ancient volcanic mound that fell over. The city was built down its slope and is why the streets are rather steep in places.
This is where our journey led. A narrow street, or close, in the old town, dating to medieval times. Since that is my era of interest, I was thrilled! No photos were allowed inside, but I'll try to re-create the tour.
Mary King's Close was the second widest street in Edinburgh, though it is quite narrow by even modest standards. Its buildings were perhaps 8-12 stories high, which allowed little or no light into the lower levels. Rooms for the poorer inhabitants had a ceiling approximately 6 feet high, and 2-3 families (12-14 people) lived in each single-room home. People typically slept on the floor, with perhaps a bit of straw. There were no fireplaces in the dwellings, though some undoubtedly lit fires in the doorways, or used a communal fire nearby to cook their meals.
For light, they used oil lamps burning fish oil or animal fat. This, combined with the aromas of unwashed people and the dreadful sanitation, caused quite a stench. Buckets of human refuse were only allowed to be emptied twice per day - at 7am and 10pm. Shouts of 'Garde loo!' could be heard in the streets as a warning (rather like shouting 'fore' in golf) before the buckets were emptied. Out the window.
Wealthier people inhabited more than one room, and these often boasted carved wooden wall panels as well as carved fireplaces. They would have been on a higher level to avoid the smells and noise at the street. Many wore attachments clipped to the bottom of their shoes to keep them out of the muck on the streets.
Within the close were also byres for the cattle, sheep and goats, perhaps as many as 20-35 cows in one byre. The animals were tied to the walls and did not roam the close.
It's not difficult to imagine the living conditions bred disease among the inhabitants. Both the pneumonic and bubonic plagues spread like wildfire through the close and others like it. Those with pneumonic plague developed a cough that grew more and more violent until their insides burst from the force. They also developed symptoms of blackened and rotting extremities.
Those with bubonic (so named for the bubbles or blisters on the skin) had a bit better survival rate, though the treatment was terrifying. Blisters were lanced, drained, cleaned, then seared with a red-hot poker. Without the benefit of sedation or much in the way of pain management afterwards.
Doctors wore a black leather cloak to keep the plague from touching his clothing, and a beak-like mask with sweet herbs packed in the front of it to breathe through, hoping to keep the miasmas thought to spread the plague from reaching him. Of course, this did not help as the bubonic plague is spread by fleas, not through the air.
Many people were abandoned by their families if they caught the plague.
Once a patient was over the critical stage, he was released from quarantine and sent outside the city for about 6 weeks to recover. Cleaners would come in and burn his house to remove the miasmas, which only succeeded in driving the rats (and fleas) to the next house.
A white flag hanging from a window alerted the doctor (and passing people) that sickness was in the house.
By 1687 (post-plague) Edinburgh was growing! A mixture of water, limestone and horsehair was used to plaster walls and ceilings. Wall paper was taxed, so many people decorated with block painting instead. Some lovely evidence of this artwork was still visible.
Windows were also taxed, so the upper part of a window might have glass while the lower only had shutters.
By 1766 there were over 30 thousand people living in 'old' Edinburgh. Designers were consulted to build 'new' Edinburgh, resulting in wider streets, larger houses, and gardens.
In an area known as Gladston's Land, the dense networks of closes were a distinct contrast to the elegant streets of New Town. Here families often inhabited multiple rooms, with block painting on stone walls and beamed ceilings. They had fireplaces-sometimes in more than one room- and bed steads for sleeping. A curious note: beds were quite short. Granted, the people were a bit shorter than 21st century men and women, but the reason for the abbreviated beds was not simply a lack of stature. People slept in a semi-reclining position. Why? There was a prevailing belief that if you slept flat on your back, the devil might think you were dead and take you away whilst you slept. Also, from the coal smoke and other respiratory ailments, people often had enough congestion they felt as though they were dying when they slept flat on their back, and were more comfortable sleeping partially sitting up..
The poorer people lived on the upper floors, while shops were on the ground floors. The first storey was prime real estate where wealthier people lived. Not too many stairs to climb, yet out of the flow of traffic and muck.
I'll leave you with a few images from the Georgian period.
The price of glass decreased, and entire windows were now glazed.
Most rooms had wood paneling that was often painted.
Oil lamps were no longer in much use- replaced by wax candles
China, vases (Dutch Delft ware)
Furniture was of imported woods.
A spinet (keyboard instrument) was in many drawing rooms
Tea Time was established
Fireplaces in many rooms-- as were fire screens
Clocks are now seen in homes.
Smallpox left its mark on victims' faces, and thick white makeup would be applied-- which would melt off the face if it got too hot. From this we get the term to 'lose face'.
I love hearing where phrases originate. Do you have any favorites?
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