A tour of the City
Entrance to the castle is made at the top of the Royal Mile and into the Esplanade, a wide parade ground that presents splendid views north over the city and south to the Pentland Hills about 8 miles (13km) away. The imposing building you see on the south side is George Herriott's School, built in the mid-seventeenth century as an orphanage and now a private school. During the summer the Esplanade is prepared for nightly pageants held during the Military Tattoo.
The castle entrance is guarded by members of the Highland Regiment, the last draw-bridge to be built in Scotland as well as the imposing statues of Robert the Bruce and William Wallace. There are some six gates between the entrance and the Argyle and Mills Batteries designed to keep the English out but now, for a cost, they are made most welcome. Every day at 1pm (13.00 hours), a salute is fired from the upper battery.
Entering the upper level by Foog's Gate, on the highest terrace stands the remnants of the castle's oldest building and, in fact, the oldest roofed building in Scotland. Her Son, David I, built this miniature chapel for Queen Margaret in the late eleventh century or perhaps in her memory.
Entering Crown Square you come upon the Scottish National War Memorial, a commemorative site for the dead of each of the twelve Scottish Regiments of both World Wars and up until recent times. Douglas Strachan designed the sombre stained-glass windows depicting the scenes of battle through the four seasons.
The Royal Scots Regimental Museum diagonally across the square contains large rooms crowded with military memorabilia.
The Great Hall or Banqueting Hall, built by James IV on the south side of Crown Square, was the meeting place of the Scottish Parliament until 1639. Its hammer-beam ceiling, said to be the up-side-down hull of a ship, was restored to its former glory in the late nineteenth century after the hall had been used as an army barracks for Cromwell's troops. It was here on an occasion known as the "Black Dinner" that the 8-year-old King James II witnessed the death of two of the Black Douglasses, a notoriously powerful family.
The Palace Block on the south-east corner of the castle housed the royal apartments. Mary Queen of Scots gave birth to James I/VI in 1566 in a small antechamber adjoining her own room. Next to this in the centre of the Palace Block is an exhibition surrounding the dramatic story of the 'Honours of Scotland' (Scottish Crown Jewels) and the recent return to Scotland of the Stone of Scone or Stone of Destiny. The fascinating history of both these treasures unfolds as you make your way round the exhibition.
The Stone of Scone and the 'Honours of Scotland'
The crown, sceptre and sword are the oldest in Britain, having survived the restoration period. The crown, which can only be worn again if a Stewart comes back to the throne, is made of Scottish gold and is adorned with 94 pearls, 10 diamonds and several other precious stones. Along with the 'Honours' sits the Stone of Scone, returned to Scotland in 1997 after 700 years. This was the coronation seat of Scottish kings until King Edward I carried it away as war booty in 1296. Since then it has been kept under the coronation chair in Westminster Abbey.
The Old Town
The Old Town was built upon a tadpole-shaped ridge with the castle and its rock at its head. As it pushed east, glacial action peeled away the ground around the basalt volcanic plug and left behind a residue of silt and debris. This is now the Royal Mile which has always been the backbone of the Old Town.
Many of the surviving buildings have seen 200 years or more of Edinburgh life. The Flodden Wall forced the town to grow up instead of out, the high tenements creating a canyon of great character and diversity.
A tour of Edinburgh's Royal Mile, the principal thoroughfare of the Old Town, usually starts at Castlehill outside the Esplanade. On the wall before the start of Castlehill is the Witches Fountain, a spot where more than 300 women were burned as suspected witches, the last in 1722. Ramsay Gardens on the left, an unusual 1890s apartment block, includes Ramsay Lodge built by the poet Allan Ramsay, father of the famous painter of the same name.
The Royal Mile
The Royal Mile is divided into four sections, Castle Hill, Lawnmarket, High Street and Canongate. Canonball House stands on the opposite side of Castle Hill with an actual canon ball embedded in its castle-facing wall above the stairs leading down to Johnston Terrace. It was said to have caught a stray shot fired at Bonnie Prince Charlie's encampment but, in truth, the ball was placed there to mark the gravitation height of the city's first piped water supply, the old reservoir standing opposite.
Next door to Canonball House is the Scottish Whisky Heritage Centre, which gives a worthwhile sample of the whisky-making process blended into audio-visual presentations and historic tableaux. Just outside, the Witchery Restaurant is where the 'Murder and Mystery' walking tours of the Old Town meet.
Outlook Tower and the Camera Obscura stand opposite, a seventeenth century house that was converted for this purpose with a mirrored periscope device reflecting the moving images from outside onto a round white table, the quality of which is determined by the clarity of the day. The roof-top viewing area gives some of the best views of the city equipped with telescopes and viewfinders. There are displays of old pictures of Edinburgh, a pin-hole camera exhibition and a holography presentation. The lower floor houses a small gift shop.
The dark, towering spire of St John's Church is the highest in the city and dominates Castle Hill. This was the Highland Kirk in Edinburgh where all the services were given in the Gaelic language, catering to the large number of Gaelic speakers living in Edinburgh following the Highland Clearances. The Assembly Hall across the road is the meeting place of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland and is taken over during the Festival for larger theatrical productions.
Lawnmarket, a wider stretch of the Mile and once a daily fruit, vegetable and dairy produce marketplace, houses some notable buildings. On the left are Milne's Close and James Court, two courtyards restored in the late 1960s to give an impression of seventeenth and eighteenth century Old Town buildings as well as accommodation for Edinburgh's students.
Gladstone's Land was an earlier seventeenth century tenement building favoured by the wealthier residents of the Old Town but gradually declining into a slum when the more prosperous inhabitants migrated to the less polluted New Town.
Lady Stair's House down the close of the same name was built in 1622 and is now a museum to three of Scotland's more famous literary sons, Sir Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson and Robert Burns.
Brodie's Close was the home of Deacon Brodie, upon whom Robert Louis Stevenson based his character, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Brodie was a carpenter and councillor by day but by night, using wax impressions of the locks of houses, he visited in his professional capacity and then he returned to rob them.
The heart-shaped stones outside the Parliament Square mark the site of the old city jail and Tolbooth and it was here that the head of the Duke of Montrose was displayed following his execution in 1650. Passers-by spit on the stones for luck.
Sir Walter Scott appropriated the Tolbooth's main door and incorporated it in his house at Abottsford in the Scottish Borders and also used the Tolbooth as his opening setting in the novel Heart of Midlothian.
The imposing Georgian designs of Parliament Square continue behind St Giles Cathedral and it is worth exploring to visit Parliament House using the door marked number 11. It may not seem accessible to the public but it is a municipal building open to visitors and well worth experiencing.
The Scottish Parliament sat in Parliament House between 1639 and 1707 and is now attached to the Court of Session for the Scottish Law Courts. In the square itself is Edinburgh's oldest statue, that of the equestrian Charles II. The Mercat Cross at the eastern end of the square was traditionally a gathering place for merchants, merry-makers and executions. Royal proclamations were also made here including Bonnie Prince Charlie's declaration of his father as king.
The present St Giles Cathedral or the High Kirk of Edinburgh belies the ancient structures that have occupied this spot. The first church dates from around the ninth century and was succeeded by a Norman building, which was destroyed by English invaders. Rebuilt in the fifteenth century, this was the base for John Knox's Reformation of the style of Scottish worship from Catholic to Protestant.
At the time of Mary Queen of Scots, and having written the infamous treatise, The First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women, he marched down Canongate to Holyrood Palace to harangue his queen on several occasions. Much to his chagrin, Scotland, France and England were all ruled by Catholic queens at the time.
In 1826, the much-neglected St Giles building was refurbished by William Burn, in the process unfortunately destroying much of the interesting medieval detail. There is still plenty to appreciate inside especially in the Thistle Chapel. Across the High Street is the City Chambers, then Cockburn Street turns off to the left with a variety of unusual and tempting stores. This part of the High Street is populated with some fine pubs, delicatessens and restaurants. The Museum of Childhood contains a riot of artefacts from infancy of the ages but it is curious to note that a bachelor started the collection.
John Knox's House jutting out into the Canongate, is Edinburgh's oldest building dating as far back as 1490. It is uncertain whether he lived here but widely belived that he did. The rooms are rather bare but there are interesting painted ceilings at the top level.
Set at the eastern end of the Canongate and the termination of the Royal Mile is the Abbey and Palace of Holyroodhouse, more commonly referred to as Holyrood. This is the official domicile of Her Majesty the Queen when she is in Edinburgh.
The Abbey was founded in 1128 by King David I after he had been injured by a stag whilst hunting. Legend has it that the animal was about to gore him and he reached defensively for its antlers whereupon he found himself grasping a crucifix or holy rood (cross). He therefore founded the abbey for Augustinian monks devoted to the cross and granted a burgh to the canons, Canongate. The abbey, set in a valley, became a more favoured royal residence, sheltered by Arthur's Seat and Salisbury Crags as opposed to the draughty heights of the castle.
James IV was responsible for the creation of the original palace in the early 1500's, which was replaced with a more imposing building by Charles II who never had the opportunity to live in it. During the 'Rough Wooing' of 1544 and the Reformation as well as at the hands of Cromwell's troops, both the palace and the abbey took a considerable pounding. Mary Queen of Scots set up her court here and was married in the abbey church in 1655 to Darnley, then later to Bothwell. In 1745 Prince Charles Edward Stewart held court in the palace during his brief, victorious stay before venturing south to Derby, then back to his ignoble defeat at Culloden.
From the reign of James VI until Queen Victoria, the palace stood empty of royal visitors. Tours covering some of the more public areas last 35 minutes and leave regularly. The abbey stands in the grounds of the palace with little more than the nave left to see of this once beautiful building.
Directly opposite the palace is a wide tract of grass and craggy hills. The largest expanse of open ground in the city, Holyrood Park is a gathering site for leisure pursuits. Dominated by the volcanic fragments of Arthur's Seat at 823ft (251m), an active volcano about 250 million years ago, and Salisbury Crags, there is a winding road that takes you around these hills to Dunsappie Loch, a wildfowl sanctuary and easy starting place for a hike up Arthur's Seat. This circular route returns via the Queens Drive or you can take a diversion past Duddingston Loch and into the village of Duddingston. This was the quarters for Bonnie Prince Charlie's Jacobite army whilst he held court at Holyrood.
The New Town
It was James Drummond, the six times Lord Provost of Edinburgh, who came up with the idea of a 'new town' and urged the council to support it to relieve the chronic overcrowding that had occurred in the warren of ancient closes and alleyways of Old Edinburgh. A competition was announced in 1767 to design the new quarter, won by James Craig, a 23-year-old unknown architect. His plan was to create an entirely residential area consisting of three main east-west streets encompassed by two grand squares at either end and incorporating large public gardens and green areas.
The symmetry of Craig's design was unusual at the time, a grid-iron layout that allowed for ample fresh air and wide, uninterrupted views. The New Town according to Craig's plan was complete in 1830. Using cart-loads of earth dug up from foundations of new town houses, a rampart was also created over the now drained Nor' Loch to gain easier access to the New Town. This was imaginatively called the Mound. The Nor' Loch was later transformed into the beautiful Princes Street Gardens which are divided in two by the Mound.
Two buildings grace the foot of the Mound that have contributed much to Edinburgh's epithet of the 'Athens of the North'. Designed by William Playfair in the 1840s and the first stone laid by Prince Albert in 1850, the Royal Scottish Academy and the National Gallery of Scotland are Grecian-style, Doric temples, opened daily and admission is free. The gallery was completely refurbished in the 1980s and brought back to its original Playfair design. The interiors are carefully designed to augment the themes and colours of the paintings on display and the collection brings together painters of every school and part of the world.
The Royal Scottish Academy holds Old Scottish Masters but is more dedicated to its two main exhibitions of fine art, the Annual Exhibition during the summer and the Festival Exhibition.
On Princes Street, you enter the New Town proper. Of course, the New Town now is over 200 years old and much of Craig's original ideas have been abandoned. The largely residential intent was superseded by financial and professional institutions now occupying most of the buildings in the adjacent George Street and Queen Street while Princes Street has become the main shopping thoroughfare.
At the eastern end of Princes Street there remains an architectural gem, Register House, a Robert Adam neo-classical design of 1770 with the Duke of Wellington on horseback standing before it. The Cafe Royal, to the left of Register House, is one of Edinburgh's oldest and best-known pubs. Waverley Market stands between the Balmoral and the Scott Monument above Waverley Railway Station. On its upper level is the main Tourist Information Centre. Below is a spacious shopping mall with several good shops and eateries.
Across the road is the Scott Monument, a predominant feature on Princes Street's skyline with a total of 287 steps in all leading to a tremendous view of this part of the city. The monument chiselled from a 50-ton block of Carrara marble was erected in 1844 in honour of Sir Walter Scott.
How did a writer deserve such a monument, one might ask. At the time, Scott's contemporaries felt that he had achieved a rekindling of pride and national feeling which had been lost since the time of Bonnie Prince Charlie. This culminated in a visit by George IV in 1822. Scott used all his creative skills to stage-manage the event incorporating some of the over-romanticised images he had used in his highly popular novels.
The kilt and the bagpipes were ushered back from their 100-year-old exile, almost as stage-props, with George IV even wearing a kilt during the visit. Since then, Scott has been largely attributed to the image of tartan kilts and skirling pipes that is synonymous of Scotland for the rest of the world.
For those that wish to see the city from yet another viewpoint, the climb up Calton Hill will be more than adequately rewarded. The hill is seen at the east end of Princes Street and is easily reached by a flight of steps or the road a little further on.
The views stretch across Edinburgh in all directions taking in the Firth of Forth, just catching the bridges, across to Fife and a good prospect of Arthur's Seat with Holyrood Palace at its foot. Perhaps the best vista is looking west up Princes Street with its spires, chimneys and many statues. This was Robert Louis Stephenson's favourite escape to view his much-loved city.
The various Calton Hill structures include the National Monument standing like a Parthenon, started in 1822 by William Playfair. The intention then was to build a full-sized replica of that famous Greek monument but the town ran out of money and it was later nicknamed 'the National Disgrace'.
The 100ft-(30.5m) Nelson Monument, shaped like a telescope, was completed in 1814 in honour of the naval hero. The Old Royal Observatory to the west of the hill now contains 'The Edinburgh Experience' with details on the city's history from its volcanic birth to the present day using a three-dimensional slide show.
For the architectural enthusiast there is much to see on George Street and Queen Street. St Andrews Square and Charlotte Square stand at opposite ends of George Street and contain some of the most exalted examples. Charlotte Square, designed by Robert Adam in 1791, a year before his death bringing to it a unity of aspect that some of the New Town developments lacked.
The Georgian House on the north side has been opened to illustrate the social and domestic life of a nineteenth century well-to-do family with delightful accoutrements of the period and furniture. St Andrews Square at the opposite end has several imposing structures now mostly used by financial institutions.
Returning to Princes Street, there are moves afoot to pedestrianize from the Caledonian Hotel at the western end to the Balmoral in the east. At the moment a malevolent river of traffic has to be negotiated to reach the more sanguine Princes Street Gardens. The gardens are an oasis of greenery and unstinting flower displays set in the heart of the busy centre of the capital. During the summer concerts are staged in the canvas-covered auditorium.
The main north and west railway line fringes the south
side of the gardens hidden away from view. At the east end of the gardens is Waverely
Station and standing outside are a selection of open-top buses providing enlightening
tours of the city.
Thursday, December 26th, 2019
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