The historic status of Edinburgh, the capital of Scotland, is beyond question, with ancient buildings scattered across the city, and the seat of Scotland’s Parliament lying close to the royal residence of the Palace of Holyroodhouse. The range of his torical and artistic attractions draws visitors from all over the world.
Castle Rock in Edinburgh has been occupied since around 1,000 BC in the Bronze Age, which is no surprise given its strategic views over the Firth of Forth. The Castle itself houses the city’s oldest build ing, St Margaret’s Chapel, dat ing from the 11th century. A few years after it was built, Margaret’s son, King David I, founded Holyrood Abbey a mile to the east. The town that grew along the route between these buildings, the “Royal Mile”, became a popular residence of kings, although not until the reign of James IV (1488–1513) did Edinburgh gain the status of Scotland’s capital. James built the Palace of Holyrood house as a royal residence in 1498 and made the city an administrative centre. Overcrowding made the Old Town a dirty and difficult place to live, and threw rich and poor together.
The construction of a Georgian New Town to the north in the late 1700s gave the wealthy an escape route, but even today Edinburgh has a reputation for social extremes. It has major law courts, is second only to London as a financial centre in the British Isles and houses the Scottish Par liament. Bankers and lawyers form the city’s establish ment, and the most ambitious architectural developments have been for financial sector companies. Yet out lying housing estates, built after World War II, still have echoes of the Old Town poverty. Edinburgh is best known today as a major tourist centre. There are wonderful museums and galleries to visit, and the city enjoys a widely renowned nightlife. At the height of the Inter national Festival, in August, it is estimated that the population doubles from 400,000 to 800,000.
1. The Royal Mile
The Royal Mile is a stretch of four ancient streets (from Castlehill to Canongate) which formed the main thoroughfare of medieval Edinburgh, linking the castle to the Palace of Holyroodhouse. Confined by the city wall, the “Old Town” grew upwards, with some tenements climbing to 20 floors. It is still possible, among the 66 alleys and closes off the main street, to imagine Edinburgh’s medieval past.
The section of the Royal Mile from High Street to Canongate passes two monuments to the Reformation: John Knox’s house and the Tron Kirk. The Canongate was once an inde pendent district, owned by the canons of the Abbey of Holyrood, and sections of its south side have been restored. Beyond Morocco’s Land, the road stretches for the final halfmile (800 m) to the Palace of Holyroodhouse.
2. Edinburgh Castle
Standing upon the basalt core of an extinct volcano, Edinburgh Castle is an assemblage of buildings dating from the 12th to the 20th century, reflecting its changing role as fortress, royal palace, military garrison and state prison. Though there is evidence of Bronze Age occupation of the site, the original fortress was built by the 6th-century Northumbrian king, Edwin, from whom the city takes its name.
The castle was a favourite royal residence until the Union of the Crowns in 1603, after which the king resided in England. After the Union of Parliaments in 1707, the Scottish regalia were walled up in the Palace for over a hundred years. The Palace is now the zealous possessor of the so-called Stone of Destiny, a relic of ancient Scot tish kings which was seized by the English and not returned to Scotland until 1996.
3. Greyfriars Kirk
Greyfriars Kirk occupies a key role in the history of Scotland, as this is where the National Covenant was signed in 1638, marking the Protestant stand against the imposition of an episcopal church by King Charles I. Greyfriars was then a relatively new structure, having been completed in 1620 on the site of a Franciscan friary. Throughout the 17th century, during years of bloodshed and religious persecution, the kirkyard was used as a mass grave for executed Covenanters.
The kirk also served as a prison for Covenanter forces captured after the 1679 Battle of Bothwell Brig. The Martyrs’ Monument is a sobering reminder of those times. The original kirk building was severely damaged by fire in 1845 and substantially rebuilt. Greyfriars is best known for its association with a dog, Bobby, who kept a vigil by his master’s grave from 1858 to 1872. Bobby’s statue stands outside Greyfriars Kirk.
4. National Museum of Scotland
The National Museum of Scotland comprises two radically different buildings, which stand side by side on Chambers Street. The older of the two is a great Victorian palace of self improvement. Designed by Captain Francis Fowke of the Royal Engineers, the building was completed in 1888, and was substantially restored and expanded in 2011. It includes an eclectic assortment of exhibits, which range from stuffed animals to ethnographic and technological items, displayed in rooms leading off the large and impressive central hall. There are also absorbing exhibits on world cultures, science and technology, art and design and the natural world. As far back as the 1950s, recommendations were made that a new facility be built to house Scotland’s own historical treasures. Work on a site next door to the Victorian building on Chambers Street started in 1993, and took five years to complete.
The result is a contemporary flourish of confident design by architects Gordon Benson and Alan Forsyth, which opened to the public in December 1998. Described as one of the most important buildings erected in Scotland in the second half of the 20th century, the National Museum of Scotland tells the story of the country, starting with its geology and natural history. It then moves through to the early peoples of Scotland, the centuries when Scotland was a kingdom in its own right, and then on to later industrial developments. Some stunning items are on show, including St Fillan’s Crozier, which was said to have been carried at the head of the Scottish army at Bannockburn in 1314, and the famous Lewis Chessman, carved from walrus ivory in the twelfth century.
The Monymusk Reliquary is also on display. Dated to around AD 800, it was a receptacle for the remains of the Christian missionary, St Columba. A museum highlight of a different kind is The Tower (www.tower-restaurant.com), a glamorous rooftop restaurant at the highest point of the new building, which appropriately enough uses seasonal Scottish ingredients.
5. Scott Monument
Sir Walter Scott (1771–1832) is one of the most important figures in Scottish literature. Born in Edinburgh, Scott initially pursued a legal career but he soon turned to writing full time as his ballads and historical novels began to bring him success. His works looked back to a time of ad venture, honour and chivalry, and did much to promote this image of Scotland abroad. In addition to being a celebrated novelist, Sir Walter was also a major public figure – he organized the visit of King George IV to Edinburgh in 1822.
After Scott’s death in 1832, the Monument was con structed on the south side of Princes Street as a tribute to his life and work. This Gothic tower was designed by George Meikle Kemp and reaches a height of 61 m (200 ft). It was completed in 1840, and includes a statue of Sir Walter at its base, sculpted by Sir John Steell. Inside the huge structure, 287 steps give access to the topmost platform. The rewards for those who climb up are great views around the city centre and across the Forth to Fife.
6. Scottish National Portrait Gallery
An exhibition on the 12 generations of the Royal House of Stuart, from the time of Robert the Bruce to Queen Anne, is a highlight here. Memorabilia include Mary, Queen of Scots’ jewellery and a silver travelling canteen left by Bonnie Prince Charlie at the Battle of Culloden.
The upper gallery has a num ber of portraits of famous Scots, including a picture of Robert Burns. The museum was completely refurbished in 2011, in order to display more of the collection.
7. New Town
The first phase of Edinburgh’s “New Town” was built in the 18th century, to relieve the congested and unsanitary conditions of the medieval old town. Charlotte Square at the western end formed the climax of this initial phase, and its new architectural concepts were to influence all subsequent phases.
Of these, the most magnificent is the Moray Estate, where a linked series of very large houses forms a crescent, an oval and a twelve-sided circus. The walk shown here explores this area of monumental Georgian town planning.
8. Calton Hill
Calton Hill, at the east end of Princes Street, has one of Edinburgh’s most memor able and baffling landmarks – a halffinished Parthenon. Conceived as the National Monument to the dead of the Napoleonic Wars, building began in 1822 but funds ran out and it was never finished. Public shame over its condition has given way to affection, as attitudes have softened over the last 170 years or so. Fortunately, the nearby tower commemorating the British victory at Trafalgar was completed, in 1816. Named the Nelson Monument, the tower is designed to resemble a telescope standing on its end. It provides a fine van tage point from which to admire the views of Edinburgh and the surrounding area.
The Classical theme contin ues on top of Calton Hill with the old City Observatory, designed by William Playfair in 1818 and based on Athens’ Tower of the Winds. At present it is closed to the public, but it’s still worth a trip to see the impressive exterior. Another Classical building, the Royal High School, was created during the 1820s on the Regent Road side of Calton Hill. It was designed by Thomas Hamilton, with the Temple of Theseus at Athens in mind. Often cited as a possible home for a Scottish Parliament, the building was the focus for the Vigil for Scottish Democracy, which campaigned from 1992 to 1997 for self government.
A discreet cairn marking this effort stands a little way east of the National Monument on Calton Hill. The cairn contains several “gift” stones, including one from Auschwitz in memory of a Scottish missionary who died there. The final resting place of Thomas Hamilton is the Old Calton Cemetery, south of Waterloo Place, which he shares with philosopher David Hume and other celebrated Edinburgh residents.
9. Holyrood Park and Arthur’s Seat
Holyrood Park, adjacent to the Palace of Holyrood house, covers over 2.6 sq km (1 sq mile) of varying terrain, topped by a rugged 250-m (820-ft) hill. Known as Arthur’s Seat, the hill is actually a volcano that has been extinct for 350 million years. The area has been a royal hunting ground since at least the time of King David I, who died in 1153, and a royal park since the 16th century. The name Holyrood, which means “holy cross”, comes from an episode in the life of David I when, in 1128, he was knocked from his horse by a stag while out hunting.
Legend has it that a cross appeared miraculously in his hands to ward off the animal and, in thanksgiving, the king founded the Abbey of the Holy Cross, Holyrood Abbey. The name Arthur’s Seat is probably a corruption of Archer’s Seat, a more prosaic explanation for the name than any link with the legendary King Arthur. The park has three small lochs. St Margaret’s near the Palace is the most romantic, with its resident swans and position under the ruins of St Anthony’s Chapel. Dunsapie Loch is the highest, sitting 112 m (367 ft) above sea level under Arthur’s Seat. Duddingston Loch, on the south side of the park, is home to a large number of wildfowl. The Salisbury Crags are among the park’s most striking features. Their dramatic profile, along with that of Arthur’s Seat, can be seen from many kilometres away. The Crags form a parabola of red cliffs that sweep round and up from the Palace of Holyroodhouse, above a steep supporting hillside. A rough track, called the Radical Road, follows their base.