Edinburgh's strange and lesser known statues and where to find them
Whether you’ve rubbed Greyfriars Bobby’s nose for luck or taken a selfie with David Hume to show your love of Enlightenment philosophy, it can’t have escaped your attention that as cities go, Edinburgh gives good statue.
Yes, it does still have more statues of animals than women and yes, far too many of them are still dead white men with the occasional colonial smear on their glittering CVs, but it’s not all soldiers, monarchs and possibly-fictional dogs.
Whether you like literary history, a wags-to-riches tail or the unlikely story of the pirate who cured the plague and married his cousin, there's a statue here for you.
Here’s your guide to the lesser-known statues of Edinburgh:
The Paperback Bookshop Rhino
Edinburgh isn’t exactly lacking in good bookshops, but perhaps one of the most famous is the Paperback Bookshop which stood where the University of Edinburgh gift shop now stands. The front of the bookshop had an impressive rhino head statue above the entrance - but that’s not why it’s remembered.
In September 1960, Paperback Books stocked a book so scandalous that it had been banned since publication in 1928. But not everyone was happy that Lady Chatterley’s Lover was available for any member of the public to read.
One day, a woman entered the shop carrying a pair of fire tongs with which she picked up the book - clearly too filthy to even be touched with bare hands. After paying for the book, she walked out into the street and proceeded to set fire to it in an act of protest. Unfortunately for her, in the world of publishing a book sale is a book sale even if the book in question does end up as a pile of ashes and this only boosted its already controversial reputation.
In honour of the bookshop’s contribution to the literary culture of the city, once the university took over the space and erected the new building, the sculpture was installed along with a plaque “in celebration of the cultural richness of Jim Haynes’ Paperback Bookshop (1959–67) and the merger between The University of Edinburgh and The College of Art (2011) which extends that richness many-fold.”
Morocco's Land Effigy
This might win the award for ‘most overlooked statue with a really weird history’. Several storeys above street level on the Royal Mile, a small statue can be seen emerging from the brickwork, with stone carved into long flowing robes. According to local legend, in the 17th century a man named John Gray was sentenced to hang for assaulting the Provost but escaped and fled to Morocco. He was enslaved by the emperor but quickly rose in favour and became a wealthy man - and a pirate.
On returning to Edinburgh, he found that the very same Provost’s daughter - who also happened to be his cousin, if this wasn’t confusing enough, was dying from the plague, and he was able to cure her.
The Provost was so delighted that as a thanks, he forgave Gray for assaulting him and gave him his daughter’s hand in marriage. They lived in the tenement where the effigy stands, and the Provost had it installed as a way of honouring the Moroccan emperor for supporting his new son-in-law (who was, just to remind you, also his nephew and former assailant).
An alternate interpretation is that it used to indicate a trading post in the building, but this story is far less exciting and doesn’t even contain any pirates.
Bum the Dog
A little-known fact is that Edinburgh is twinned with San Diego, California. While we might not share the same weather, we do have one thing in common - our famous dogs. While no one is quite as good a boy as good old Bobby, San Diego has its very own celebrity canine - and a statue commemorating him now sits in Edinburgh.
As you might guess from the name, Bum was a homeless dog who probably arrived off a boat from San Francisco. Full of attitude, he once got into a fight with another dog causing them to both get hit by a train. Luckily, a local vet managed to save Bum but he had to have part of his front leg amputated.
Cats may have nine lives, but Bum clearly decided YOLO - from that day on, he sought out the finer things in life. Despite relying on the kindness of strangers, he began to turn his nose up at some of the food he was offered and only accepted increasingly elaborate treats.
His fame as a canine connoisseur spread, and he was soon invited to high society parties - in fact, he became so famous that a picture of him was printed on all dog licences in the city. When he died in 1898, a statue of him was erected in the Gaslamp District and in 2008 Edinburgh and San Diego decided to commemorate their shared doggy history by giving each other statues of their most famous good boys.
Bum used to be on display at the entrance to Princes Street Gardens, but is now in the grounds of St Cuthbert’s Church on Lothian Road.