Things to do in Edinburgh beyond festivals, from a Nazi-fighting bear to body snatchers

August helps to put the spotlight on Scotland's capital, which is laden with odd historic attractions away from the stage

Scotland's historic capital offers plenty of attractions off the beaten track. Ronan O'Connell for The National
Powered by automated translation

The world’s largest performing arts event Edinburgh Festival Fringe, which runs until August 28, attracts tens of thousands of tourists to the beautiful city brimming with offbeat sites.

At the same time, the Edinburgh International Festival brings some of the best artists from opera, music, theatre and dance to Scotland's historic capital. But don't miss out on the city's grisly and offbeat secrets, which are open to visitors year-round.

From a bear that fought Hitler, to the body snatchers that terrorised Scotland, here are five rollicking tales linked to locations across Auld Reekie.

On the trail of grave robbers

It began with a shortage, a corpse and a pile of cash. While wandering the cobblestones streets of Edinburgh’s Old Town, I visited alleyways, cemeteries and a museum linked to a startling tale from the early 19th century. At that time, local doctors performing medical research were being hampered by a shortfall of cadavers.

Spotting this gap in the market, a pair of vile and violent entrepreneurs decided to source bodies first from below and then from above the ground.

At Edinburgh’s fascinating Surgeons’ Hall Museums, one of the oldest in Scotland and home to perhaps the most historic pathology collection in the UK, visitors can learn how William Burke and William Hare stole a coffin and sold its fresh contents to an anatomist for the equivalent of Dh5,500 ($1,500) in modern money.

Keen to expand their grim venture, the duo stopped waiting on death and became instigators. Bodies began to drop across the Old Town, now one of the UK's most picturesque and popular tourist attractions. Between 1827 and 1828, the pair of freelance Grim Reapers killed 16 before selling their bodies to the anatomist.

Eventually, police honed in on the ghastly scheme and arrested them. Their trial engrossed the public with its horrific blend of homicide, corruption and double-crosses.

The bear that was a war hero

In a beautiful park beneath Edinburgh's world-famous castle, I watch tourists line up to take photos with a metallic beast. Lush and shady, Princes Street gardens are dotted with monuments to Scottish heavyweights including author Robert Louis Stevenson and physician Sir James Young Simpson.

Yet, those statues are largely ignored in favour of a bronze memorial for a bear who died in the Scottish capital as a former war hero. His name was Wojtek.

The story goes that in 1942, this young Syrian brown bear was acquired by Polish soldiers in Iran. He began life as a mascot and became so popular with these troops that they awarded him the unofficial military rank of corporal.

The soldiers taught the bear to wrestle, box, salute, march and wave. He even joined their beer-drinking sessions and became a part of Second World War campaigns against the Nazis. Once the war ended, Wojtek was sent to Scotland, where he became a much-loved star at Edinburgh Zoo. Seven decades since his death, this unique bear still has many fans who come to visit his likeness.

Scotland's crown jewels

Each day, many hundreds of tourists file in and out of the Crown Room at Edinburgh Castle to peer through the glass at two artefacts, each with a fascinating story – the Honours of Scotland and the Stone of Destiny. The latter was viewed by millions around the world in May when it was wedged under the wooden throne on which King Charles III sat during his coronation in London.

This 150kg stone has been stolen multiple times and is considered by some to have magical powers. It has been used in royal coronations in Scotland and England for more than 800 years.

The Honours of Scotland, meanwhile, are the nation’s Crown Jewels. The crown, sword and sceptre were targeted by the invading English in the 17th century, before being hidden beneath a church, lost for decades and eventually rediscovered and put on display at the castle for locals and tourists alike to enjoy.

The world's first 'troll'

Poet wrote bad, made people feel sad. My apologies for that woeful rhyme, I was channelling William McGonagall, widely considered the worst poet in history, whose bizarre tale is for ever linked with Edinburgh and its historic Greyfriars Kirkyard.

Many tourists visit this eerie yet beautiful graveyard to see the resting place of McGonagall, a Scottish writer so incompetent that he was believed to have been regularly pelted with rotten fish. His poetry was of such poor standard that some scholars now say he may have been the world’s first "troll".

They believe that long before the internet was swarmed by people purposely writing to get a reaction, McGonagall did the same, penning deliberately awful rhymes to gain infamy. Tourists can visit his resting place, and then read some of his work at the adjacent National Museum of Scotland, which documents Scotland's past.

A most loyal companion

On a busy street, near the magnificent University of Edinburgh, I stroke the head of an inanimate dog – strange behaviour that is entirely normal in this city. I’m just doing what many other tourists and locals do – visiting Greyfriars Bobby, a little Scottish terrier who died 150 years ago, yet made such an impact on Edinburgh he was immortalised in statue form, outside a pub in his name.

After his owner died, Bobby sat every day for 14 years by his grave at Greyfriars Kirkyard. This silent act of devotion charmed Edinburgh and created a canine legend.

In 1961, Disney created a film based on the Skye terrier's life, showing how he formed the unique bond with his owner.

Updated: August 09, 2023, 3:59 AM