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The Birth of Mercat's Edinburgh Tours

13th Aug 2020
The Birth of Mercat's Edinburgh Tours

How Mercat Tours was born… as told by co-founder Des Brogan.


In the mid 1980s I was a Principal Teacher of History in a central Edinburgh school. At that time, there were many young and enthusiastic history teachers who would meet up regularly at education in-service courses. We all got on well with one another and were always open to new ideas.

During the Easter Holidays in 1985 I was walking down the Royal Mile with my wife, Win, and daughter, Kathleen. We couldn’t help but notice the large numbers of visitors. Some would stop us and ask where certain places were; for example, the Castle and Greyfriars Bobby. It struck me that there were no guides to show people around or provide the ‘story’ of Edinburgh. In those days, there were only volunteer festival guides who ran scheduled Edinburgh walking tours of the Royal Mile for a few weeks in August/September.  


Lightbulb moment

This got me thinking… here was an ‘easy’ way to earn a bit of pocket money for the holidays!

Towards the end of the Easter holidays, I contacted three of my friends who were also History PTs and asked them if they might be interested in doing some guided Edinburgh walking tours during the summer holidays. A few days later we met at my home, and lo and behold within a few weeks Mercat Tours was born.




What’s in a name?

We chose the name because in former days people traded from the Mercat Cross on the High Street and it was always possible to get a guide or ‘caddie’ who could show a visitor around the city. It seemed to us to be an ideal place to start our tours since we were effectively recreating the past.


Where would we go?

First, we decided on the routes. Since there were four of us, we each took an area to research. One did the New Town, one the Old Town, another the Grassmarket and the fourth wrote about the unpleasant side of Edinburgh - gardy loo, murders and … Ghosts!!

Each of us also took an area of organisational responsibility, too – booking administration, finance, marketing and leaflet design. We would run the Old Town tour at 10am, the New Town/Grassmarket alternate days at 2pm and the Ghost Tour at 8pm. This would be every day from 1st July until we returned to school in mid-August.

Day 1

The aim was to start on the first day of the summer holidays (July 1, 1985), and so at 11am I was at the Mercat Cross and set to do a tour. What happened? Nothing!

 Since there was no tradition of guided Edinburgh walking tours in the city, we were starting from scratch, so we needed to create awareness that we were there. We left leaflets at Tourist Information on Waverley Bridge; we handed out fliers on the Royal Mile; we delivered fliers to bed and breakfast houses and hotels by hand; we waited patiently at the Mercat Cross. It took time for the world to discover we were there. 

Indeed it was three days before anyone took the bait, and it was myself who did the first tour of the New Town with three people. I remember thinking, “tourists are actually paying us to do what we love doing most – teaching History!”



Slowly but surely

It was another day before we started getting a few turning up for the Old Town and the Ghost tour. Feedback was very positive and for the remainder of July, numbers slowly increased. By the middle of August, it was clear that the Ghost Tours were the most popular. At this time, however, numbers were less than a dozen on most nights.

Making longer-term decisions

When we returned to school in mid-August, we decided that we would continue the Ghost Tours until after the Festival. The challenge we faced was how to continue the daytime Edinburgh walking tours, since the four of us would be back at work.

Through our contacts we recruited some friends who were free and willing to carry on the morning and afternoon tours during the week while we would cover the weekends.



Time marches on

Since I was in charge of booking and administration and all calls came to my home number, I installed a telephone answering machine. Every evening there would be several messages booking a Ghost Tour and it was obvious that this was going to continue. We decided we would run the tours until after Halloween, and then stop for the winter.

By November 2, 1985, our first season had come to an end. We were back teaching in our various schools and exhausted with the efforts of a normal teaching load combined with the new demands of running a business – even one which was in its infancy.

 But we had learned valuable lessons. We realised that:

  • Much more planning would be required if Mercat Tours was going to run for another season.

  • There was a market for History and Ghost Tours in Edinburgh.

  • A greater commitment would be needed throughout the year.

  • All this would need to be balanced against the existing demands of family and job.

 Was it possible to follow an educational career and also be an entrepreneur?

 Maybe 1986 would answer that question for us… Learn about the early years of Mercat’s Edinburgh Ghost Tours.

Hear more about Mercat's beginning from Des and co-founder Frank in this short video:

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