It has to be admitted that there is no shortage of books seeking to set out the grislier side of Edinburgh's history. But if you want to gain an understanding of some of the aspects of the remarkably bloody story of the city that are usually omitted from mainstream tourist literature, then "Bloody Scottish History: Edinburgh" by Geoff Holder is an outstanding example of its genre and a book we would wholeheartedly recommend to visitors and residents alike.
There are three main reasons for this. The first is that it's really well written: straightforward, informative, to the point, and in places with just a touch of humour. We read, for example, that the iron maiden "was a kind of IKEA guillotine, being a flat-pack device that could be stored when not in use..." What is particularly good is that although many of the section titles conclude with exclamation marks, the stories themselves are told in a way that is by no means sensationalist and which perfectly balances the (considerable) depth of research obviously undertaken by the author with the needs of a reader interested in the main points of the story and associated background information. The book is also superbly illustrated, with excellent use being made of contemporary (or, at least, old) drawing and paintings. Most are monochrome, the exception being in the eight page diversion in the centre of the book, which covers "Ranger's Impartial List of the Ladies of Pleasure in Edinburgh", a 1775 guide that set out to do exactly what it said on the tin.
The third, and most important, reason for the success of Geoff Holder's approach to the nastier byways of Edinburgh's history is down to his selection of material. Yes, there is good coverage of the sorts of incidents you expect to see included, such as the murders of Lord Darnley and David Rizzio, plus staples such as witch hunting and the plague. But in a book that begins with a Dark Age battle in 603 and concludes with a Zeppelin raid in 1916, there are some real surprises. How many know, for example, that on 6 June 1622 a full scale naval battle took place within Leith harbour when dawn broke to reveal that two Dutch warships had by chance berthed overnight close to a Spanish warship: two nations that were at war at the time?