The Guardian newspaper in England recently published its annual travel awards for the UK, voted by readers. Most voters are British, so it is always interesting to see which place gets the “Favorite UK City” award. This year, for the 13th year in a row, the winner is…. (mental drum roll)….Edinburgh! I didn’t vote this year, I haven’t voted for the last 13 years if I am honest. However, if I did vote, I think the capital of Scotland would probably get it.
I have been lucky enough to lead plenty of EF Tours in Edinburgh, I have been even luckier to take part as Tour Director for the New Year Conventions that have taken place there in 2006/7 and 2009/10. It is a fabulous city, easily navigated as long as you don’t mind a few hills and quite a few stairs. I thought I would share a walking tour of the Old Town that shows off the best, old and new, of the city.
Start the walk at the esplanade of Edinburgh Castle which has the most accessible views of the city in practically all directions. Evidence of buildings here dates to the 11th century, although fortifications of some kind on this mount, known as Castle Rock, may go back as far as the 6th century.
Move from the esplanade to the Castle Hill. Although the road that runs from the castle to the palace is generally called the Royal Mile, it has various names along the way. The first short section is Castle Hill, followed by the Lawnmarket, High Street, and Canongate. On the right as you move away from the castle grounds are Cannonball House and Castlehill School (the separate boys’ and girls’ entrances are visible only from the rear, on Johnston Terrace). You also see Boswell’s Court, which was originally built around 1600. Across the street is Geddes’ observatory, which has his camera obscura, for unique views of the city. At the roundabout, which marks the end of Castlehill, is the Tolbooth Church (now called the Hub).
Continue down the Royal Mile to the Lawnmarket and Gladstone’s Land. Lands are buildings, and between the 14th and 15th centuries, the plots (or tofts) on the Royal Mile were subdivided into forelands and backlands. Just past the entrances to James Court, Gladstone’s Land dates to at least the 16th century and was purchased by Thomas Gladstone in 1617. He expanded the building upwards and forward toward the street. Inside, you can see both the original frontage as well as a painted ceiling of the once “new” addition in the second-floor front room. Nearby, Lady Stair’s Close has the early-17th-century Lady Stair’s House, the remnants of which now contain the Writers’ Museum with exhibits dedicated to Burns, Scott, and Stevenson.
Across from Gladstone’s Land is Brodie’s Close. Edinburgh’s history has its fair share of rather infamous characters. None more so than craftsman William Brodie: upstanding gentleman and deacon of trades by day but thief and ne’er-do-well by night. Once captured, Deacon Brodie escaped arrest and fled to Holland, where he betrayed himself by his letter writing. Brought back to Edinburgh, in 1788 he was hanged, ironically, on gallows of his own design. Robert Louis Stevenson is said to have had a childhood nightmare about the two-faced Brodie, which later became inspiration for his character The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
Continue down the Royal Mile, passing Bank Street on the left and the George IV Bridge on the right, to St. Giles Cathedral. You’re now on High Street. There is nearly as much history around St. Giles, or the High Church, as the city itself. There is record of a parish church in Edinburgh by the year 854. The reason that St Giles, a 7th century hermit (and, later, abbot) who lived in France, became the patron of both town and church is probably due to the ancient ties between Scotland and France. The church was burned by the English when they overran the city in 1385. Here, in the 1500s, John Knox laid down his uncompromising Protestant reforms, and, later, zealous followers destroyed and removed alters and relics. It’s been rebuilt and renovated repeatedly. All that really remains of the 15th-century church is the spire, a familiar landmark of the city.
Around St. Giles are the Law Courts of Parliament Square, featuring (since 1838) the designs of Robert Reid, though they were inspired by drawings by the great architect Robert Adam. Parliament House was built here in 1641, giving the square its name. Parliament sat here until the 1707 Act of Union when it was closed (all parliamentary affairs being dealt with in London). Scotland regained its own parliament in 1999 (the new building is one of the last you will see on the Mile). On the sidewalk near the Royal Mile, look for the heart-shaped arrangement of cobbles. This is meant to mark the site of the old Tolbooth (where taxes were collected) and a city prison, the latter of which was made famous by Sir Walter Scott’s The Heart of Midlothian. Spitting in the heart is said to bring good luck! Just after St Giles is the Mercat Cross, this was the central meeting place where Royal proclamations and other official announcements were read. The buildings on the other side of the road for the next block are the city chambers. They stand on the site of the old Provost Mansion where Mary Queen of Scots spent her last night. In the courtyard is a statue of Alexander the Great training his horse, Bucephalus. Beneath this area is Mary King’s Close where the poorest lived in the city’s blackened underbelly of chambers: buildings here are as they looked before the mid-1700s. Nearby in the Anchor Close, the first edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica was printed.
On your right you will also pass Old Fishmarket Close, once ‘a steep, narrow stinking ravine’ from the commercial heyday of this poultry and fishmarket. Home also to the City Hangman or ‘Doomster’, the last being a John High who died in 1817. Daniel Defoe is also rumored to have worked here as a secret agent to the English Government at the Treaty of Union in 1707. Further along High Street is the Tron Kirk, a center for Old Town information. A tron was the beam used to weigh goods. The church was built atop a very old lane that today has been excavated
Continue down the Royal Mile, passing North Bridge on the left and South Bridge on the right to the John Knox House. Jutting out into the wide sidewalk on the left side of High Street is a 16th-century house, although any real link to the firebrand Protestant reformer has been discredited over the years. Across the street, Tweeddale Court leads to Tweeddale House, a 16th-century survivor with the Doric porch added in the 18th century just before the printers Oliver & Boyd (whose name remains on the facade) occupied the building.
Nearby is the World’s End Close, the final alley on this stretch of the Royal Mile and indeed historically the last before the city’s old wall, which protected the world within it.
A little further ahead on the right is Chessels Court, in its day a superlative example of mansion flats, built in 1748. In 1963 these Old Town buildings underwent restoration and renovation, giving an open view of the court from the main street, through an arcade. Further ahead on the other side of the road is the Tolbooth, you are now on the Canongate. The attractive clock that extends out over the street was added to the building in the 1880s.
Next door is the Canongate Church. It remains the church that today’s royal family attends when staying at Holyrood Palace. The churchyard, with good views of the Royal High School on Calton Hill, has numerous monuments. Pioneering economic philosopher Adam Smith is buried here and possibly the murdered secretary to Mary, Queen of Scots, and David Rizzio (whose body had to have been moved here more than 100 years after his death). National poet Robert Burns wrote the tribute on the headstone of fellow poet Robert Fergusson and that Mrs. Agnes McLehose (whom Burns addressed in umpteen letters as “Clarinda”) was laid to rest in this cemetery, as well.
Continue on down the Royal Mile to the Scottish Parliament Building, designed by Enric Miralles, a Barcelona-based architect who died of cancer shortly after work on the building was started. The abstract motif, repeated on the facade along the Canongate, was apparently inspired by Raeburn’s painting of Reverend Walker skating on Duddingston Loch, which hangs in the National Gallery of Art. Entrance to the main area of the parliament is free and it is accessible at most times.
Continue to the foot of the Canongate and the Palace and Abbey of Holyroodhouse. Rood means cross, and the abbey (now in ruins) on the grounds of Holyroodhouse dates to King David I and 1128. The residence for royalty followed in the 15th century. Between 1426 and 1460, James II was born, crowned, married, and buried at the Palace. Later, James IV expanded the buildings, as did his heir — all to be redone again in the 17th century by King Charles II, who never apparently visited. A critical episode in the fraught reign of Mary, Queen of Scots was played out here: the assassination of her loyal assistant David Rizzio. Young Pretender Bonnie Prince Charlie stayed at the palace briefly in 1745 during his nearly successful, but ultimately disastrous, rebellion. For many years, the palace remained empty most of the time, and only since the first visit by Queen Victoria in 1842 have its lodgings been regularly used by members of the royal family. In 2002, the Queen’s Gallery was opened for public displays of the royal collection of art.
Adjacent is Holyrood Park. If you have any energy left, these 160 plus hectares (400 acres) of open space allow plenty of ground to roam. From here you can scale Salisbury Crags and the high hill known as Arthur’s Seat, which rises some 825 feet above Edinburgh.
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