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Travelling Back in Time

7th Jan 2016
Travelling Back in Time

Happy New Year! With headaches starting to fade and unsustainable resolutions made, many of us will be looking back at the New Year's revels.

...Hopefully the memories will be of an evening of celebration and tomfoolery, but almost inevitably the end of the night will have seen the almost traditional trudge home, scouring the streets for a taxi on one of the busiest times of the year for public transport. But have you ever thought about how people travelled in Edinburgh before the times of black cabs and Lothian Regional Transport buses? In the Old Town in the eighteenth century, it probably would have been by sedan chair.

To the uninitiated, a sedan chair is effectively a box with handles at either end, with a seat inside. They could be hired from the Mercat Cross, and upon giving your destination to two chairmen (yes, that’s where the word comes from!) you would find yourself being tossed and jostled over the cobbles to the next ball at the Assembly Rooms, to the local courtroom, or to your humble abode in one of the closes. They were ideal for negotiating their way down our narrow streets, and at the height of their popularity there were over 100 available for hire on the Mile. 

Not everyone was a fan of the sedan chair however. Edinburgh eccentric Lord Monboddo refused to use them, branding the chairmen as thugs, but wasn’t above hiring them on rainy days: not for himself, but for his wig, to make sure it got home bone dry. A sedan chair was also the scene of a mysterious crime. At the height of the body snatching times, when corpses would be exhumed from graves to sell to doctors for dissection, a chair was found abandoned containing the body of a poor departed soul being transported in style to Surgeons Hall!

Like all fashions, the appeal of the sedan chair eventually faded, and they were gradually replaced by carriages. But if you’re curious about our former means of transport, take a look in Tweedale Court on the Royal Mile and you’ll find our last sedan chair shed, used for overnight storage. Or why not visit us in Blair Street? Our Discovery Room has amongst its artefacts a replica sedan chair that you can try for size. 

Taxi!

Gillian

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