Edinburgh is a city of distinct parts. The Old and New Town are separated by the green expanse of Princes Street Gardens and centuries of history. The ancient buildings chronicle the city’s past and it is impossible not wonder what life was like in those days gone by. As the old saying goes, ‘Age before beauty’ so it is fitting that our Edinburgh travels start in the Old Town.
The Old Town is the original settlement that is found on Castle Rock and trails down to the east and south. Try to imagine the city without the Georgian splendour of the New Town in the North and see the tightly packed rat runs and grime of 15th and 16th century living. Prior to the building of the Georgian New Town, Edinburgh was widely referred to as ‘Auld Reekie’ due to the cloud of sooty smoke rising above the Auld Town. Reputedly, this plume of pollution could be seen for miles around, almost as if the extinct volcano of Castle Rock had revived.
Today the city is known for its chocolate box vistas and the world famous view from Princes Street to the castle. Indeed, the city’s architectural heritage has lead to it being awarded UNESCO City of Architecture status in 1995. Despite its small area the city has approximately 4500 listed buildings (including the country’s smallest listed building – the statue of Greyfriars Bobby). However, in the good old days Edinburgh was a smokey , smelly and dirty city suffering the effects of the bubonic plague and religious and political upheavals.
The heart of Edinburgh is the Old Town, parts of which date back to the 12th century (St Margaret’s Chapel in the grounds of Edinburgh Castle). This warren of closes (alleyways), wynds and steep staircases sits at the top of the extinct volcano that forms Castle Rock. Dividing this slope from west to east is the Royal Mile with Edinburgh Castle at its summit and Holyrood Palace at its eastern end. Once home to rich and poor alike the Old Town had high rise tenements (or lands) some reaching 16 storeys.
Gladstone’s Land at the top of the Royal Mile allows visitors to experience life as it was lived in the 17th century. This National Trust curated exhibit will give you the chance to see how the merchant class lived during the Old Town’s halcyon days. Visitors choosing to stay in the heart of the hustle and bustle of the Old Town should consider Ramsay Garden Self Catering. Set in a quiet courtyard beside Edinburgh Castle this period property has unrivalled views over Princes Street and the gardens.
If you want a different perspective on the city then head to the Camera Obscura at the top of the Royal Mile. This former observatory was transformed in Victorian times to allow visitors to see projected images of the city outside via mechanical mirrors. The attraction is also home to a “world of illusions” where young and old alike can marvel at optical tricks and light shows. Summer often sees members of the Scottish diaspora return to Edinburgh to seek out their family history. The National Library of Scotland on George IV Bridge is home to census records from 1841 to 1911 where there is a range of different genealogical databases and resources. Staff are happy to assist with enquiries and bibliophiles can while away the hours in the extensive collections. George IV Bridge is also home to another literary sensation. The Elephant House Cafe is where J K Rowling penned sections of her first Harry Potter novel on her way to becoming one of the worlds best selling authors.
Further down the Royal Mile, St Giles Holiday Houses look out onto the Royal Mile and the “Heart of Midlothian” (depicted as a mosaic of cobble sets on the Royal Mile) This was the site of the Old Tollbooth Prison and tour guides are often heard to remark that spitting upon The Heart brings good luck. It is more likely that the habit formed when locals chose to show their disdain towards the infamous debtors gaol. The Heart marks the spot where public executions would have taken place. Staying here can experience first hand city living, with pubs, restaurants and visitor attractions on your door step. During the International Festival the Royal Mile comes alive with street entertainers.
The High Kirk of Edinburgh also known as St Giles Cathedral has been the Church of Scotland’s base for 900 years. The current building dates from the 14th century and unusually for a Presbyterian church has beautiful stained glass windows that date from the 19th century. An impressive vaulted ceiling adds to the sense of reverence that one feels upon entering this place of worship. Once home to John Knox and site of rioting in the 15th century the building is steeped in Scottish history.
As was the habit in the Old Town, merchants, families, rich men, poor men and even livestock all lived in the same space. The closes along the Royal Mile often give clues as to the owners of the property or the work carried out therein, hence Fishmarket Close, Advocates Close and Skinner’s Close. For truly unique experience of visitors should seek out Mary King’s Close. This thoroughfare was allegedly sealed to contain an outbreak of the Black death in 1644 and was finally entombed beneath the City Chambers Building in the 17th century. Brave souls can venture into the depths to be told of the plague, murders and life in old Edinburgh. The close claims to be haunted by several spectres including ‘wee Annie’ a plague victim who allegedly tugs at the clothing of those who enter her rooms. The tours are lead by a guide in period costume and character.
Returning to the light of the Royal Mile, a short walk to the east will bring visitors to the Museum of Childhood. This free exhibit will raise your moods after your visit to the depths of the city. Toys and Games dating back to the 18th century can be viewed. Children of all ages ( 0-100+) will enjoy seeing into the past and perhaps reliving their childhood games while strolling through this extensive collection.
The Old Town was constrained by the geography of Castle Rock and the city began to sprawl to the south and down into the Grassmarket. This area is now a bustling collection of shops, bars and restaurants flanked by Edinburgh Castle towering above and the high walls of Greyfriars Kirk and Graveyard. In the past this collection of streets and large square would have been a hive a cottage industries and homes. Today you can soak in the atmosphere of this lively location for your holiday at Jeffrey Street Holiday Houses. This apartment has a view out to the castle and it’s a great home from home for those who enjoy being in the thick of the action.
A short stroll up Candlemakers Row will bring you to the statue of Greyfriars Bobby, where having rubbed his nose for luck you can cross the road to the National Museum of Scotland. The NMS is a veritable treasure trove containing a huge and diverse collection of exhibits. Taking in Scotland’s natural and social history and much much more, there are very few places in the world where you can see an entire whale skeleton and an Egyptian sarcophagus within a few steps. The range of exhibits beggars believe and visitors should consider giving at least an afternoon over to sampling the wonders on offer here.
Stopping only to draw breath we can return to the Royal Mile and continue east perhaps stopping to take in the historic and literary offers of the Museum of Edinburgh and the Edinburgh Writer’s Museum. These venues respectively record the lives of the city’s greatest assets – it’s populace and its literary heritage. Edinburgh has been home to Sir Walter Scott, Rabbie Burns, Robert Louis Stevenson and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to name but a few.
For a part of the city not famed for it’s symmetry the Royal Mile is topped and tailed with Castles. We began our journey at Edinburgh Castle sitting proudly surveying all before her and we finish it at the Palace of Holyrood House. The Palace is the Queen’s official residence in Scotland and it sits in a large Royal Park at the heart of the city. Visitors can view the State Apartments and Historic Apartments. Post by Alba