Edinburgh is a city that wears the “dreich” vibe well. The dreary, cloudy grays and short, damp days of winter suit the brooding architecture and often dark, twisted past of the Scottish capital.
These are the streets that were bombed during the Scottish wars of independence, giving the most important part of Edinburgh its claim to be the most besieged castle in Europe. This is where cages once had to be placed over graves to prevent corpses from being dug up and sold to medical school, and just around the corner, there are crammed apartments that housed peasants and poets, philosophers and kings. As the poet Hugh MacDiarmid wrote, the city is “a crazy God’s dream”.
I have lived in Edinburgh for over twenty years, but the centuries-old stories hidden in the city’s stones continue to amaze me. They reveal themselves only to those who know where to look.
Angus Stirling is one in the know: an expert on the architecture and layers of stone that make up Edinburgh’s old town. He knows who put what where in the Middle Ages and which Victorian personage furnished it to modernize in the 1800s. Angus is the tour guide for Invisible Cities, a social enterprise that trains homeless people to lead walking tours. Launched in Edinburgh in 2016 by Zakia Moulaoui Guery, the company currently runs four tours in Edinburgh and also operates in Glasgow, Manchester and York. Norwich, Liverpool and Cardiff will be added this year.
Constantly changed, adapted and restored, the Royal Mile has been a living witness to Scottish history since the middle ages.
I signed up for the Royal Mile: Huts to High-Rises tour (£12), which takes the city’s most famous street and the surrounding old town within a 90-minute walk. “Constantly changed, adapted and restored, the Royal Mile is a living witness to Scottish history since the middle ages,” says Angus. “Stones and cement. You can’t get more historic than that. But it’s not Angus’ fascination with building materials that sets his tour apart; Invisible Cities tours also touch on the social landscape – telling tourists about local social enterprises as they go.
Our visit begins in the heart of the old town at the Grassmarket, a market since the 14th century and today known for its best selection of bars. “Edinburgh is an old city and has a dark past,” says Angus. She describes how “Half-hanged Maggie” was hanged here in 1724 for hiding her pregnancy and then leaving her newborn baby’s body – only to wake up a few hours later and step out of her coffin. Maggie Dickson’s bar (number 92) is named after her. In 1736, a Captain John Porteous was lynched by a mob here after he was allegedly shot into the crowd during a riot.
Climbing the 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 provide healthcare to vulnerable and homeless women. All proceeds from Invisible Cities go to community projects like this; other examples are street barber services and free tours for Ukrainian refugees. “We start with the Ukrainian Association, we walk from Waverley Bridge to the castle, and I tell them where they can take their kids or buy cheap clothes,” Angus says.
Angus was left homeless after a downward spiral caused by college debts and a deteriorating relationship, and was given the chance to train as a mentor while working for The Great Issue.
“I thought this was a good opportunity for me to connect people full of Scottish history and language activism,” she says. He speaks seven languages and has a degree in language and history after studying for four years between Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Linköping, Sweden. Indeed, on his trip he laments the impact of John Knox and the Reformation on the Scots language.
Theoretically we now have full status for Welsh and Scots. There is no money behind it, there is law behind it.
“The Reformation brought with it the only English Bible that was acceptable at the time,” Angus says. “In the 1500s everyone had to go to church, which meant they would have to listen to the language of the Bible for hours.” As a result, he says, the Scots began to decline and their status today is quite low: “This is one of the few countries where you are considered more illiterate when you speak two languages rather than just one.”
This is an independent tour from the plaid colored point of view of many guides. Another tour led by Angus, Languages of Scotland (£12), looks in more detail at how Welsh and Scots were suppressed in the country. This tour runs from the Royal Mile to John Knox House, then to the statue of poet Robert Fergusson, one of the leading lights of the Scottish local revival outside Canongate Kirk, and ends at the Scottish parliament. “I’m bringing in the changes that have occurred since it reopened,” he says. “In law, we theoretically now have full status for Welsh and Scots. There is no money behind it, there is law behind it.”
Our tour continues to St Mary’s Cathedral, where the Heart of Midlothian mosaic in the street marks the entrance to the now long gone Old Tolbooth prison. We finish at Tron Kirk, a 17th-century church with one of Scotland’s few surviving hammer-beam roofs, through tales of economist Adam Smith. Not consecrated since 1952, this place is now a craft market.
Angus’ tours are largely focused on the finer details: the age of the bricks and the authenticity of the facades. Other Invisible Cities tours focus more on the guide’s personal experiences with homelessness: Sonny Murray’s Crime and Punishment tour (£15) fits this purpose. It focuses on Edinburgh’s villains, from Robert Louis Stevenson to Burke and Hare, who inspired Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, to venerable carpenter Deacon Brodie, who is a thief by night.
Like Angus’ tour, it starts in Grassmarket but leaves the Royal Mile from there and heads to Greyfriars Kirkyard, best known for the story of Greyfriars Bobby, the dog who guarded his former owner’s grave for 14 years. It’s also where Sonny slept 17 years ago when he was homeless. “I used to carry my tent and sleeping bag with me wherever I went in case it cracked,” he says. “Then I’ll climb the fence here at night.”
As he walks, Sonny breaks down history by pointing to social enterprises – the Grassmarket Community Project, which feeds the homeless and teaches furniture making, and the Street Work, where vulnerable people can shower and clean their clothes.
Sonny remembers meeting George Clooney while working at another social enterprise, Social Bite. “He was a gentleman,” says Sonny, adding that he gave Clooney a recipe for his homemade stew. She also met Prince Harry and Meghan Markle during a tour and took Meghan’s coffee cup back to her daughter, “so she could be a princess too: she was happy about it”.
There are no restrictions on who can participate in Invisible Cities’ training programs, which run in blocks of six to eight weeks and take an average of six months to complete. “Open to everyone,” says founder Zakia. “People may be active addicts, sleep hard, or have large criminal records. If there are situations where they cannot provide guidance – for example, if their addiction is not under control or they are unable to work with children – we try to find other opportunities for them.”
The training is designed to provide transferable skills. “So customer service, public speaking, trust-building, conflict resolution, and first aid,” adds Zakia. “Guidance requires a lot of trust. You are the center of attention and everyone is looking at you, so it’s the opposite of what happens to people living on the street.”
For visitors, these tours offer a chance to learn about the real Edinburgh, from the gritty and grandeur of the past to the wonders and warts of the modern city. And in a city where tourists fill the streets every day, Invisible Cities is a pioneering, urban example of a direct transition to projects that directly benefit its people. In turn, the tourist gets an unusually friendly idea about the city.
“They say everyone deserves a second chance, but most people we work with haven’t had a first chance,” says Zakia. “Our role is about storytelling, opportunities and education.”