From a sightseeing perspective I think it would be fair to say that Edinburgh’s New Town doesn’t have the same appeal as the Old Town, but the area that (very) roughly extends from Calton Hill to The Haymarket, and from Princes St to Cumberland St is a harmonious blend of classical town planning which, along with the Old Town, constitutes Edinburgh’s World Heritage Site.
The New Town covers about one square mile and has over 11,000 listed properties, one of which is The Georgian House in Charlotte Square.
The square was designed by Robert Adam, whose vision was to make the rows of houses on each side resemble the front of a palace, but in the end only the North side stayed faithful to his original plan.
Hogmanay in Edinburgh is world renowned, but Christmastime is pretty good too, and what’s more, by booking in advance, travel and accommodation costs are a fraction of the price that they are for the New Year celebrations.
The main Christmas market centres around East Princes Street Gardens and has everything you would expect – and more.
We enjoyed our visit here in 2015 so much that we’ve decided to come back again this year (2018).
Watering Holes - A couple of gems around Princes Street
Opposite the Balmoral Hotel and next to the National Archives of Scotland, is West Register Street where there are a couple of watering holes worth seeking out.
The Café Royal Circle Bar is well-known and wouldn’t look out of place on the Champs Elysées. Its famous Oyster Bar Restaurant attracts a clientele that prefers to indulge on oysters and a bottle of Dom Perignon rather than a pint of Belhaven and a packet of nuts.
Mind you, there’s nothing to stop anyone having oysters and champagne in the Circle Bar if they prefer.
It’s worth coming into this wonderful Victorian bar just to take a look at the décor alone. Apart from the magnificent bar, which is more elliptical than circular, there are some incredible Royal Doulton tiled murals of famous inventors and even some stained-glass windows that wouldn’t look out of place in St. Giles Cathedral were it not for the fact they represent outdoor pursuits rather than religious themes.
As you might have guessed, all this comes at a cost. It’s certainly not the cheapest bar in town but it has to be said that the range of cask beers is excellent as is the service, even when it’s busy, which it very often is.
If you can come here at a quieter time it will be easier to appreciate this fabulous building, but even though it does have something special about it, I feel more at home in the Guildford Arms next door.
The high esteem in which Sir Walter Scott is held by the Scottish people is shown by this huge monument to him in East Princes St Gardens.
He is remembered mainly for his historical novels, but was also a prominent member of the Edinburgh establishment.
Born in Edinburgh in 1771, his poems and books brought him worldwide acclaim during his lifetime and when he died in 1832 it wasn’t long before enough money was collected to build this 200ft Gothic tower.
Claimed to be the largest monument to a writer anywhere in the world, the foundation stone was laid in 1840 and completed by 1844. It was built of Binny Sandstone from Linlithgowshire (West Lothian today), but unfortunately Old Reekie has done its worst over the years and by the 1990s the stone was in need of some urgent attention. After close examination, it was felt that cleaning would do more harm than good and so it was decided to just carry out essential repairs with stone from the original quarry. The differences can clearly be seen.
The space rocket-like monument is richly decorated with characters from his novels, and underneath the canopy is a statue of the man himself with his dog Maida.
Of all the history and tales about Greyfriars, there’s probably one that captures the public imagination more than any other – that of Greyfriars Bobby.
During the 1850s, a man by the name of John Gray, walked the streets of Edinburgh as a night watchman for the local police, and with him, went his trusty Skye Terrier Bobby. They trudged the cobbled streets together but in 1858 John died and was buried in Greyfriars Kirkyard.
The story goes that Bobby refused to leave his master’s graveside, no matter what the weather. Several times the gardener of the Kirkyard tried to move Bobby on, but he always returned, and in the end the gardener relented and made up a shelter next to his master’s grave.
Bobby became a bit of a celebrity and was well looked after, but he never left the graveside. For 14 years he kept vigil until he himself died in 1872 aged 16.
In 1981 an unconsecrated grave was made for Bobby near to where John Gray is buried. It has become a shrine for the thousands of visitors who leave flowers, toys and twigs to keep him company.
If you would like to know what he looked like there’s a nice little statue of him on top of a drinking fountain near to the Greyfriars Bobby pub – and if you want to really engross yourself in the story there’s a Walt Disney film based on a children’s book by Eleanor Atkinson.
In 1638 the National Covenant, one of the most significant documents in Scottish history, was signed in Greyfriars Kirk.
This document was the Scottish Presbyterian’s answer to Charles I’s religious policy which had been causing a lot of anger. Copies of the Covenant were distributed throughout Scotland and the Covenanters became the catalyst for the Bishop’s Wars of 1639 and 1640. This ultimately led to the English Civil War in 1642 and the execution of the King in 1649.
After the restoration of the monarchy with Charles II, the Covenanters found themselves on the back foot and after the Battle of Bothwell Brig in 1679 over a thousand of them found themselves in a prison in Greyfriars Kirkyard. Although some of them switched allegiance and others escaped, there were many who died or were executed here. The area where the prison stood is still here and there’s a Martyr’s Memorial in the bottom right hand corner of the Kirkyard.
There are several interesting buildings up on Calton Hill, but I reckon the views are what most people really come up here for.
There are other great viewpoints in Edinburgh, it has to be said, but the climb up to Calton Hill must rank as one of the easiest. It’s also near to the city centre as well, so there’s really no excuse not to come here and get a grandstand view of the city below.
With Arthur’s Seat and the Pentland Hills to the south the views extend westwards along Princes Street to the Castle and then swing around across the New Town towards the Forth of Forth.
On top of this volcanic rock you’ll find the Dugald Stewart Monument, City Observatory, Nelson’s Monument and the National Monument which helps Edinburgh live up to its reputation as “Athens of the North”.
On 12th May 1999, after a wait of 292 years, Scotland once again had its own Parliament, but it took another 5 years for the brand spanking new Parliament Building to be officially opened.
From start to finish the building was controversial and its location and design were immediately criticised. It was due to be completed in 2001 at a cost of between £10m-£40m but overshot both by a considerable margin and was eventually opened in 2004 at a cost of around £414m.
The designer, Enric Miralles, died in 2000 at the age of 45 and never got to see the finished article, which was a shame because he put a lot of thought into the design. His concept was a brave one. His plan was to incorporate a group of modern buildings in a traditional setting in a way that only an artist’s mind can work out. The problem is of course, that not everyone can see what he was trying to achieve.
From a personal point of view, even though I don’t fully understand what was going on in his head, I do actually like the building. There are some aspects of it that I don’t like but overall, I think he made a pretty good fist of it. Whether it stands the test of time is a problem that most modern structures face, and obviously only time will tell.
At the opposite end of the Royal Mile to the castle is Holyrood Palace – the British monarch’s official Scottish residence.
Sitting under the extinct volcano of Arthur’s Seat, the Palace of Holyroodhouse has been a Royal residence since 1503 when King James IV decided to convert the Royal Lodgings of Holyrood Abbey into a home fit for his new bride, Margaret Tudor.
The original Augustinian Abbey was founded in 1128 by King David I, supposedly after a hunting trip. Legend has it that he was thrown from his horse after being startled by a deer and was saved thanks to the appearance of a Holy Cross (or rood) that beamed down from the skies above. Whether you believe this miracle or not is up to you, but at least that’s one of the theories as to how Holyrood got its name.
Raids by the English during the mid-16th century destroyed many of the Abbey buildings and by the end of the Reformation all that was left of any consequence was the nave, which required some serious restoration for the Scottish coronation of King Charles I in 1633. The Chapel Royal, as it became known, was used for Catholic worship during the reign of James VII (and II of England), but by the 18th century, for various reasons, had suffered so much damage that it fell into terminal decline.
The remains of the nave can still be seen today as part of the tour of the palace.
Anybody coming here for an insight into the life of John Knox may well come away disappointed. Having said that, I think it’s still worth a visit as long as you’re not expecting to see a building closely associated with one of Scotland’s great historical figures.
The John Knox House is also part of the Scottish Storytelling Centre which is quite apt really because it’s not entirely certain that the famous reformer actually ever did live here. If he did it was only for a very short time. I think it would be more appropriate to call it the James Mosman House.
James Mosman was the owner of the house in the mid-1500s when he was jeweller, goldsmith and keeper of the Royal Mint for the Stuart kings and queens. He was a staunch Catholic and supporter of Mary Queen of Scots at the time she was forced to abdicate in favour of her baby son James VI.
He joined a revolt that took Edinburgh Castle, but in 1573 was arrested and hanged at the Mercat Cross next to St. Giles Cathedral for treason.