Highly Polished Tables and Handcuffs: Doors Open Day

As if I didn’t act middle aged enough it was utterly compounded on Saturday by taking part in Edinburgh’s Doors Open Day. The idea of this weekend-long event is to let people see inside come of the city’s – in this case Edinburgh’s – most stunning architectural and cultural buildings, and to see them for free. All of this is organised by the Cockburn Association. No, I’d never really heard of them either, but they do have a great name.

Somewhat predictably our day got off to a slightly delayed start involving my bus (or rather, lack there of), being stupidly late and Mel (my partner in crime for all things middle-aged) having to wait on George Street with two cups of coffee (sorry!).

In case you were thinking that this particular adventure wasn’t geeky/middle-aged enough already you will be pleased to hear that top of our list of places to visit was the Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE henceforth, mainly because I’m lazy, but partially because it’s their acronym). We had also intended on visiting the City Chambers, however, due to what can only be described as a large cock-up they were to be open on Sunday not Saturday (as advertised) due to the fact that they were holding a wedding. Bit of a fail guys.

The RSE is something I’ve come across a LOT over the last couple of years, their papers and journals have been a constant part of the degree-headache. On top of that, my dissertation supervisor was a fellow of the Society, so I was keen to see what 22-26 George Street actually looked like.Doors Open Day Edinburgh Royal Society of Edinburgh The lavish reception area is adorned with thick carpets and paintings, including the first president of the RSE, The 3rd Duke of Buccleuch, and the monarch who gave the royal charter, George III.  We were given a short presentation on the history of the society, its buildings, who the people were and are, and what they do presently. After the presentation our tour guide (whose name I have totally forgotten) took us all through a gallery and into the Clerk Maxwell Room (he worked on electromagnetism, laying the foundations of modern communications, and was a major influence on Einstein) to see some of his notes, to be told (for the third time) about his statue in George Street, and to see a holographic projection of said statue.

After going back through the reception area we were lead up the staircase of No. 22 and told who the various paintings were off (Patrick Neill, designer of west Princes Street Gardens; Sir Edward Sharpey-Schafer, physiologist with an interest in asphyxia and drowning; and Sir D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson, Chair [Professor] of Natural History, University of St Andrews, to name but a few) and their relation to the RSE.Doors Open Day Edinburgh Royal Society of Edinburgh

Doors Open Day Edinburgh Royal Society of EdinburghThe top of these stairs lead to the Scott Room – named after Sir Walter Scott – which is the Society’s Council Chamber. The Council’s long table is surrounded by beautiful leather-upholstered chairs, each bearing the position within the RSE that its proprietor holds. Again the room is light by a highly-polished brass chandelier and the walls were adorned by portraits of famous members, with Sir Walter’s residing in pride of place above the fireplace.

Our penultimate stop on the tour was the Wellcome Rooms East and West (not a spelling mistake, they were renovated with help from the Wellcome Trust) which serve as the RSE’s function rooms. The East contained several busts (including one of John Napier, of logarithm fame) and a photograph of all the fellows of 1901-02; whilst the West currently holds several, more contemporary, works on loan from the National Galleries. In the West there was also a presentation from a ‘scientific’ company. I won’t bore you with the details, but I’ll just say I would like to see their results, before their interpretations.

Doors Open Day Edinburgh Royal Society of EdinburghThe last official stop of the tour was the Kelvin Room. The first thing we were told upon entering the room was that the red embossed wallpaper dated from the 19th century – and would we kindly not touch it. Apart from this, the room boasted an original period feature from when the building was a tenement – the marble fireplace – not to mention the world’s shiniest board table, a photograph of William Thompson (a.k.a. Lord Kelvin) and part of equipment he used to measure the depth of the Atlantic whilst helping to lay the first transatlantic telegraph cables.

I really enjoyed getting to have a look around the RSE, it was highly informative, but without being patronising, or dull. It also served as a reminder as to just how many people have been part of the society, and their influence on the world. And that’s before you even consider all of the Society’s present day activities and importance.Doors Open Day Edinburgh Royal Society of Edinburgh

The other place I visited was the Edinburgh Sheriff Court. For fairly obvious reasons we weren’t allowed to take photographs in the cells, but I also failed to get any other good pictures of the rest of building. The innards of the building is something I can only really describe as a sort of marble-glad cavern. The multi-floored main atrium is home to the 16 courtrooms.

The tour started in the remand court (Court 3, if you’re interested) with a clerk of court going through what would happen to an individual from arrest through to the decision whether to bail or remand the defendant. From there we were lead through the dock (handcuff-free, I should add) down the narrow, grotty, steep staircase leading to the holding cells, before we were lead by a woman from Reliance (the custodial services people) through the rabbit warren of passages to the main cells. There they have space to hold up to 180 people, in a range of cells ranging from juvenile to solitary.

As there are no photos and not a whole lot else I can tell you about the Sheriff Court, I’ll leave it about there. I really enjoyed both my trip to the RSE and the Sheriff Court – might even be going back (to the RSE, that is, I have no intention of finding myself in the remand court or the cells…) later in the year. I also look forward to seeing other places the next time Doors Open Day comes along.