10 of Edinburgh’s best urban legends
Greyfriars Bobby

A new, updated version of this article can be found here

Everyone loves a good old wives’ tale, especially when there’s a ripping yarn attached, but how many of the famous Edinburgh facts and stories you’ve grown up hearing and re-telling are actually true?

We’ve chosen ten of our favourite local urban legends to disprove right before your very eyes – apologies in advance for any heartbreak the truth might cause.

Myth: The Royal Mile is a mile long

Royal Mile
Daniel / Flickr / CC

Fact: Edinburgh’s most famous of streets has been lying to us for too long, and it’s time for those cobblestones to ‘fess up and face the consequences. Sometimes known as Edinburgh’s High Street, the Royal Mile is approximately one Scots mile long from end to end which is actually a different size to a modern day mile. For context, one mile today measures around 1.6 kilometres, while a Scots mile is about 1.8km.

Myth: There are plague victims buried under Bruntsfield Links

Fact: Between the 15th and 17th centuries the plague hit Edinburgh hard and the old Burgh Muir forest – which then covered most of the city’s south side – was used to isolate plague victims in an attempt to stop the epidemic. These days grassy Bruntsfield Links with its short-hole golf course is pretty much all that remains of Burgh Muir, and a rumour has spread (fuelled by many a ghost tour guide) that the lumps and bumps on the Links are a direct result of the bodies buried underneath.

While one or two unfortunate plague victims may have passed away en route to Burgh Muir and been laid to rest along the way, the majority were disinfected and treated in the makeshift hospitals there, rather than being abandoned or buried in the wilderness. Leith Links, however, is a different story…

Myth: Nobody uses the trams in Edinburgh

Edinburgh trams
Daniel / Flickr / CC

Fact: As much as we all love to hate them, someone (maybe even someone you know and love) has been breaking the rules and actually travelling on the bloody trams. 4.92 million people used the Edinburgh trams in their first year of service, working out at an average of over 400 thousand travellers per month.

On top of that, a recent survey has revealed that 95 percent of tram users are openly satisfied with the service. Traitors.

Myth: The tale of Greyfriars Bobby is a totally true story

Fact: As much as we love the heartbreaking tale of cute little Skye terrier Greyfriars Bobby, the accuracy of his famous story has been challenged many times over the years. The legend goes that the pooch’s owner John Gray was buried in Greyfriars Kirkyard and the fiercely loyal Bobby spent the rest of his days (fourteen years) sitting on his master’s grave. Contradictory historical statements from Edinburgh residents claiming to have known John Gray and Bobby mean that the truth is still unclear, and many believe that Bobby was simply a stray dog living in the graveyard who was featured in a fabricated newspaper story.

Myth: It’s tradition to rub Bobby’s nose for luck

Greyfriars Bobby 1950
Getty Images

Fact: In recent years visitors have taken to rubbing the nose on the statue of Greyfriars Bobby found on George IV Bridge for luck. Apparently encouraged by a local tour company, these troublesome tourists have upset some locals by slowly wearing off the paint and incidentally turning the terrier’s once black nose a shiny gold colour. As far as we know there’s no truth in this so-called Edinburgh tradition, and poor Bobby’s nose is getting chilly.

Myth: The Festival is the city’s biggest contribution to culture

Fact: True, the annual Edinburgh International Festival is considered to be among the most important cultural celebrations in the world, but it isn’t all the city has up its sleeve. The Festival Fringe, for example, is the largest arts festival on the globe to feature live theatre and comedy performances and last year 1.94 million tickets were sold – and it doesn’t stop there.

Edinburgh’s International Film Festival is the oldest continuously running film festival in the world. The Edinburgh International Science Festival was the world’s first science festival in 1989 and is still Europe’s largest. Even the Edinburgh International Book Festival is the biggest of its kind. Not bad, Edinburgh, not bad.

Myth: Trainspotting was filmed in Edinburgh

Fact: Set in Scotland’s capital but featuring only a handful of iconic Edinburgh landmarks, not much of the filming for Danny Boyle’s adaptation of Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh actually took place in the city. Aside from the opening chase scene on Princes Street and a shot of Calton Road, those with a keen eye will struggle to recognise any of the real Auld Reekie in the movie. In reality much of the film was made in Glasgow, with some extra footage shot in the Highlands and around London.

Myth: It rains all the time in Edinburgh

Fact: You may leave home armed with an umbrella at all times, but statistics show that rainfall in Edinburgh comes in well below the Scottish average. In fact, it rains less here every year than it does in Rome, Frankfurt and New York, so count yourself lucky.

Myth: The ghost of a lost bagpiper haunts the Castle

Edinburgh Castle bagpipers
Getty Images

Fact: Edinburgh is an old city with more ghost stories than we can count. Until someone proves otherwise, we’re remaining skeptical about this particular tale and its inconsistencies. The story goes that a few hundred years ago some secret tunnels were discovered under Edinburgh Castle, supposedly leading to other parts of the city, including Holyrood House. A young bagpiper was instructed to march down one of the tunnels playing his pipes loudly so that his progress could be tracked from above.

About halfway down the Royal Mile, the bagpipes abruptly stopped and (despite the efforts of search parties) the piper was never seen again. Allegedly his ghostly piping can still be heard to this day, but in some versions of this story the bagpiper is a drummer boy and that’s why we’re officially dubbing it a fantastically creepy urban legend.

Myth: Edinburgh locals are notoriously grumpy

Fact: We’ve all heard the stereotypes about Edinburgers being snobby and mean – “you’ll have had your tea” and all that. But – believe it or not – it has been scientifically proven that Edinburgh is one of the happiest cities in the UK. When asked, a whopping 97 percent of residents said they were satisfied with their chosen hometown and happy to be here.

Main image: Getty Images

Know of any more Edinburgh urban legends? Let us know of Facebook or Twitter.

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