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The People's Story Museum in Edinburgh, Scotland

“History tells a people where they have been and what they have been, where they are and what they are. Most important, an understanding of history tells a people where they still must go and what they still must be.”- John Henrik Clarke

Excuse us for being late for the party! We know that the People’s Story Museum turned 30 years old in 2019, but we hope that we can offer our belated congratulations. Unfortunately, we don’t have much to offer as a gift to this wonderful museum. What we can offer is our continued support and this wee article that provides some highlights of their fantastic exhibitions that we would like to share with others. Therefore, without further ado, we present The People’s Story Museum of Edinburgh…

It probably doesn’t come as a surprise that the People’s Story Museum is a celebration of the life of Edinburgh residents over the centuries. As I’ve said many times before, when we look at history, it’s the people who matter. It is their stories that matter because they are the ones who have made history and, quite frankly, make history interesting. Therefore, the People’s Story Museum focuses on the lived experiences of Edinburgh residents. There is much to see and do at the Museum as there have been many interesting people who have lived here, but the purpose of this post is to share some of our favourites.

When you enter the Museum, you are immediately confronted with exhibits that illustrate just how difficult life was for those living in the Old Town in Edinburgh throughout the 1700s-1800s. Those who held the wealth and privilege wielded the power. Close your eyes and just imagine what it must have been like in 1700s Edinburgh- the stench that permeated the air, tenements built up precariously throughout (some as high as 12 stories!), and the dark closes that held unimaginable secrets (head over to our article on The Real Mary King’s Close for more information on what a ‘close’ is).

There are some scary stories of those who faced a variety of punishments for their crimes. Some examples of sentences for those convicted included- execution (for murder, rape, robbery, or housebreaking), whipping and banishment (for forcible abduction and assault), outlawry (for theft from post office or seducing and debauching young girls), imprisonment (for mobbing and rioting, giving challenge to fight a duel, persuading seamen to desert, or aiding prisoner of wars to escape), and whipping through the streets (for rioting). That’s quite a list, one of them really left me pondering the question- were there really a whole lot of times seamen were persuaded to desert?! Perhaps to become pirates?

Regardless, many places throughout Old Town set the stage for public executions and punishments. It’s hard to imagine the now picturesque Grassmarket or Royal Mile hosting such horrible scenes. Of course, at this juncture, it’s important to point out that the People’s Story Museum is housed in the Canongate Tolbooth which was originally built in 1591. Many people were imprisoned in the Tolbooth when it was once a jail.

Recreated Tolbooth Cell 1794-1795

I don’t know about you, but perhaps we should take a journey upstairs to try to escape the horrors of 18th century Old Town Edinburgh. A breath of fresh air from some determined Scottish women in the 1800s ought to do the trick.

One theme we found throughout the Museum is one that we've explored in many of our articles - strong women. All too often, the contribution that women have made throughout history is ignored or marginalised. However, the People's Story Museum celebrates the role that women have made in various industries in Edinburgh- often while struggling to get through extremely difficult times. You will see this below as we continue to examine some of our favourite exhibitions.

The right to be able to vote and have your voice heard is one that many of us now take for granted. Of course, that right took longer to achieve for some more than others. I am proud to say that the Suffragette movement was strong in Edinburgh, and the first Scottish Women’s Suffrage Society met in 1867. The exhibition shows some wonderful pictures of the 1909 Great Women’s Suffrage Demonstration that took place on Princes Street. One of my favourite quotes is from Bessie Watson- a piper and the youngest suffragette. She is quoted as saying about the parade, “I wore a white dress with a purple, white, and green sash bearing the words ‘Vote for Women’ and a glengarry cap. I rode on a float beside the Countess of Buchan in her cage and I played at intervals along the way. It was an eventful day for a nine year old”. I can’t imagine how exciting it must have been to take part in such a momentous occasion! There are some lovely replica banners that were created for the 100th anniversary of the Great Women’s Suffrage Demonstration that was celebrated on 10 October 2009. The exhibition also points out how one year after the 1909 Princes Street Demonstration, “the Scottish Federation of the National Union of Women’s Suffragette Societies was a federation of all other independent non-militant, suffrage organisations and was founded in 1910 with Dr Elsie Inglis as secretary”. Dr Inglis played an incredibly important part in Scottish and world history and deserves her own article; we will return to her story in the future.

As we continue through the gallery, there are so many fantastic displays that represent a variety of industries that once thrived in Edinburgh; I think it’s best we highlight just a few. One that immediately caught my eye was the Newhaven fishwife. Of course, the fishing industry has played an important in Edinburgh’s and Scotland’s history. If you would like to read more about it, please head over to our article on Newhaven after you finish your virtual exploration of the People’s Story Museum.

Edinburgh also once had a great printing industry. Returning to our theme of strong women, “the printing trade in Edinburgh was unusual in the number of women compositors or typesetters”. Unfortunately, the printing industry virtually disappeared in the 1950s with the development of off-set lithography. Related to the printing industry, Edinburgh was also formerly known for its strong book binding industry.

Artefacts from the printing industry

Display of the book binding process

In what should probably not come as too much of a surprise for many, the whisky industry was an important source of employment for over 200 years for the people of Edinburgh. In fact, the Museum points out how, in 1921, there were 50 companies involved in the whisky industry in the city. However, by 1988, there were only 5. Many women also found regular employment in the industry- performing tasks such as bottling, labelling, wrapping, and packing bottles of whisky. I especially appreciate one quote from former worker, Iris Andrews, that said in 1986, “I don’t think men would be able to concentrate enough to do what we do on the lines. It can be quite fittery and I don’t think men have got the nimble fingers or the speed and I don’t think a man would have the patience to do it.” Thank you, Iris, for the honest and straightforward take on your work!

Display of young women in service

For fans of Downton Abbey, you might be interested in this next bit. Although it isn’t quite as placid as Julian Fellowes depicted through his famous show. The creation and development of the New Town in Edinburgh meant that the rich needed servants to occupy the servants’ quarters of their large mansions. The Museum points out that, “by 1840, a higher proportion of the female population was in service than any other time. While alternative employment was available to men, domestic service remained the principal occupation for women in Edinburgh, and girls from the countryside, throughout the 19th century” (and it continued on through the beginning of the 20th century). The work was exhausting, and servants were expected to be available at a moment’s notice for anything their Master or Mistress needed.

As is present in almost all exhibitions, this one also provides some quotes from people who lived the experience. One comment struck a particular chord with me- “I had come into the big city from the country and went into service. Oh and I broke my heart! There was me, a wee 14 year old, and this house and I had everything to do.”- Mary Gilchrist, born 1921. I can’t imagine having to experience such an incredible burden right after leaving home and at only 14 years old. As it was for Mary, it is heartbreaking for me too to contemplate the struggles that so many young women in Edinburgh experienced during this time.

Here are a few more pictures to highlight the great displays at the People’s Story Museum:

Well, that is where we are going to end our virtual journey through the history of the people of Edinburgh. If you are interested in learning more, you should check out our previous articles that we have done on other museums and monuments that are part of Museums and Galleries Edinburgh. We are big fans and supporters of all their venues and have so far done articles on the following- Museum of Edinburgh, The Writers’ Museum, Museum of Childhood, and the Scott Monument. Stay tuned as we will eventually be writing articles on all their locations.

Of course, the best way to experience The People’s Story Museum is in person and we recommend that you pay them a visit when you are in Edinburgh. We are pleased to say that admission is free, but please consider giving a donation to help with the running of the Museum.

Until next time- Explore & Discover!


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