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.
Edinburgh has two football teams – Hibernian and Heart of Midlothian (Hearts for short) and outside St. Giles’ Cathedralthere is a heart of stone set into the pavement known as the Heart of Midlothian.
If you happen to be walking past and catch somebody spitting on it don’t assume that it’s a Hibernian (Hibs) fan venting his feelings because the custom of spitting on this spot goes back a long time.
Not to be confused with today’s council area of the same name, Edinburgh used to be at the heart of the old historic county of Midlothian, and the area around St. Giles was where the Scottish parliament and administrative offices were located. The original Tolbooth was also situated here which during its time was a court house, prison and place of execution. It was demolished in 1817 but had stood for over 400 years.
The position of the heart is where the entrance to the prison would have been and where the executions took place, and so it’s not difficult to see where the connection between the heart and the custom of spitting on it comes from.
These days it’s said that the tradition continues more for good luck than anything else. Whether that would apply to a Glasgow Rangers or Celtic fan I’m not so sure.
Hovering over the top half of the High Street is the crown shaped steeple of St. Giles’ Cathedral.
Technically speaking it’s not a Cathedral at all as there is no Bishop, so officially it’s known as the High Kirk.
Architecturally, it’s not one of Europe’s outstanding ecclesiastical gems even though it’s been here since 1124. The main reason for that is because what we mostly see today is just a couple of hundred years old after some major restoration in the 19th century.
That’s not to say that it’s not worth visiting because this is the church where John Knox was minister when he helped bring about the Scottish Reformation during the 16th century.
It’s also the church where King Charles I decided to introduce the Anglican Book of Common Prayer to the Scots in 1637. Fury erupted and the following year the National Covenant was signed which reminded the King that he may have been the King of Scotland but he was definitely not the head of the Scottish Church. The outcome of his interference led to the English Civil War and ultimately his life when he was executed in Whitehall in 1649.
Wandering up and down the Lawnmarket, you can’t fail to notice the name of Deacon Brodie. There’s Brodie’s Close, the Deacon’s House Café and Deacon Brodie’s Tavern – so who was Deacon Brodie?
He was born William Brodie in 1741, and his father was head (or Deacon) of the Guild of Cabinet Makers. Following in his father’s footsteps he also took over the name of Deacon, but what made (William) Deacon Brodie stand out was his double life, so much so that Robert Louis Stevenson wrote a fictional novel based around him.
By day, Brodie was a craftsman and councillor, and by night, a drinker, gambler and thief; Eventually the inevitable happened and he got caught. He was brought to justice, found guilty, and was hanged on October 1st 1788 at the Tolbooth Prison in the High Street.
Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel, if you haven’t already guessed by now, was first published in 1886 and went by the title of The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
As Edinburgh started to spread out from the Royal Mile a rabbit warren of Closes, Wynds and Courts developed to house the expanding population. Generally speaking Wynds were open alleyways with a public right of way whereas Closes were private and closed at one end. Collectively, I believe that they’re all often referred to as Closes.
Characteristically, the buildings were (and still are) tenements with multiple occupancy. People from all walks of life lived in the same block but needless to say some apartments were much better than others. I read somewhere that there were as many as 300 Closes, but I think the figure is much nearer to 60 these days. Even so you can’t fail to notice them and it has to be said that most of them are not that enticing to wander into – if you can that is.
To conclude my tour of Edinburgh Castle it seems appropriate somehow to finish with the magnificent Military Tattoo.
As its name suggests, the event is based around the Scottish armed forces, but don’t let that put you off because it’s more to do with kilts and bagpipes than warfare. That said, there is also a solemn side to the proceedings, especially towards the end when recognition of those who have lost their lives in combat are remembered.
For the most part though, it’s an extravaganza of music and dancing, and not just from Scotland either. In fact, it involves more international participants than you might have imagined.
The first Tattoo at Edinburgh Castle took place in 1950 and has grown from strength to strength ever since. The spectacle has become extremely popular and consequently in order to get a good seat, or even any seat, it’s best to book well in advance. This also applies to hotels as well at this time of the year, as it coincides with the Edinburgh Festival.
Edinburgh Castle Pt 5 - The Military Prison and Prisons of War
I’ve been inside many prisons over the years – as a tourist I hasten to add – and there are another two here in Edinburgh Castle near Dury’s Battery.
Firstly, there’s the small Military Prison and then the larger Prisons of War, which I found to be the more interesting of the two.
The Military Prison was built in 1842 for the incarceration of soldiers from the local garrison who would be held in solitary confinement in one of the dozen cells. Later this was extended to sixteen with separate ablution facilities.
In reality this prison was like a cut-down version of civilian prisons elsewhere.
The Prisons of War are somewhat different in as much as that they housed foreign prisoners from a series of different conflicts during the 18th and early 19th centuries.
These large vaults are situated under the Great Hall and Queen Anne Building and had been used for various purposes from stores, military supplies, barracks and even kitchens and a bakery.
After the Royal Palace and the Honours of Scotland, the next must-see part of the castle is the Great Hall which is located next to the Palace in Crown Square.
This grand ceremonial hall was completed in 1512 for James IV and used for entertaining dignitaries with great banquets, but all this fine dining and drinking came to an abrupt end when Oliver Cromwell took over at the helm in 1650 and converted it into barracks.
When the New Barracks were opened in 1799 the hall was converted into a military hospital, and then in 1886 it was restored to something like its former glory.
The one thing that isn’t Victorian though is the hammerbeam roof which has been here from the beginning and one of the most important in Britain. Another original feature is the Laird’s Lug (Lord’s Ear) which is a grilled opening above the right-hand side of the fireplace. It was used for eavesdropping and when Mikhail Gorbachev came to the castle in 1984 his security team insisted that it was bricked up.
Around the perimeter is an impressive collection of weapons and armour on loan from the Royal Armouries.
Edinburgh Castle Pt 3 - The Royal Palace and Scottish Crown Jewels
If there’s one part of the castle that shouldn’t be missed it has to be the Royal Palace and the Scottish Crown Jewels.
The Palace was at the heart of the royal castle from the 11th to the early 17th centuries and probably an extension to David’s Tower.
On the ground floor, the most important event to take place at the Palace occurred on 19th June 1566 when Mary, Queen of Scots gave birth to a son who became King James VI of Scotland after her abdication thirteen months later.
Mary and her husband Lord Darnley were living at Holyrood when rumours circulated that the father of her unborn child was David Rizzio, her Private Secretary. Shortly afterwards Rizzio was murdered at Holyrood and Darnley was the chief suspect. To make matters worse Mary was catholic and the country was now protestant and so she came to the safe haven of the castle to give birth to the future King James VI and I of England. The birth took place in a small room next to her own chamber.
James became King of England in 1603 and left Edinburgh for London. The Palace became neglected, but for a solitary return in 1617 to celebrate 50 years on the Scottish throne, the place had a facelift. The birth chamber was re-decorated (which still shows the same decorations today) and new rooms were added including the Laich Hall.
On entering the castle you’ll be given a map which follows the easiest route up to the top, which is not only wheelchair and pushchair friendly, but also follows a numerical sequence.
Passing through the Castle Gates will bring you to the Argyle Battery where everyone stops for a view out across he city. It’s a natural thing to do, but there are even better views higher up, so it’s not essential to stop here if there are too many people milling around, and you can always stop here on the way back.
Next to it is the One ‘o clock gun and the Redcoat Café which is a convenient place to have a quick coffee and make some plans on what you want to try and see while you’re here, because as I said in my Introduction you may not have time to see everything.
The One ‘o clock gun is fired everyday at one ‘o clock except Sundays, Christmas Day and Good Friday. The spectacle is similar to what happens at Greenwich, but with a twist.
Over on Calton Hill, at the top of Nelson’s Monument, is a time-ball, which just like its London counterpart, was introduced to help ships (in the Firth of Forth) to calibrate the time with the sun in order to aid navigation. This, of course, was when timekeeping wasn’t as sophisticated as it is today. The ball was dropped at precisely 1 o’clock and as long as the weather was clear enough then everything was ok – but the weather in Edinburgh isn’t always clear enough – and so a gun was used to compliment the visual aid.
Apparently, due to the speed of sound, it takes 10 seconds for the signal to reach Leith, and the ships took this into account when setting their timepieces. You may want to do the same because for the gun to be heard out in the Firth of Forth it means that you may not want to stand right next to it. Don’t say I didn’t warn you!
Edinburgh Castle is the most visited paid for tourist destination in Scotland, and like any major attraction, some forward planning will help make your visit a more pleasant experience.
The official website gives all the latest practical information and advice (https://www.edinburghcastle.scot/), but I would particularly draw your attention to the fact that a timed ticketing system is now in operation, and to be sure of being able to visit at a time that suits you best it’s going to be worth considering booking online in advance – and it’s cheaper.
The admission prices may appear to be a bit steep but bear in mind that there are no extra charges once inside the castle and you can spend a fair amount of time here. We spent 4 hours wandering around and ran out of steam before we ran out of things to do, so I’ve decided to break my article on Edinburgh Castle up into different sections so that people can have an idea on what to expect.
Accessibility, even though it’s on a volcanic crag, is relatively easy around the grounds, although there is a slope up to the top. However, some of the indoor highlights are not suitable for wheelchairs and the website lists which ones they are.