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Exciting Edinburgh: The most historical city in Scotland

Published
July 16, 2022
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The location of Edinburgh within Scotland. Map data ©2022 Google. North is at the at top for this map and all the maps that follow.

EDINBURGH is a beautiful city, filled with a rich history and colourful characters. It’s quite compact and walkable.

Edinburgh. The built-up area inside the ring road is about 13 km wide as measured from west to east. Map data ©2022 Google.

The mediaeval Old Town, which extends from Edinburgh Castle to the Palace of Holyroodhouse via the Royal Mile, is a great place to stroll about.

The Edinburgh Old Town and Arthur’s Seat. Map data ©2022 Google.

The author in front of Edinburgh Castle

The castle is in quite a lofty position

Here is the main tourist entrance to the castle, being guarded by a soldier of the Black Watch.

The statues that flank the entrance are of Robert the Bruce and William Wallace, who both fought against the English king Edward I in the Middle Ages when he tried to conquer Scotland. The red lion is a symbol of Scotland. The motto, Nemo me Impune Lacessit, means ‘let no-one disrespect me and get away with it’.

The public entrance to the castle, flanked by Robert the Bruce (left) and William Wallace (right)

I wonder whether the projecting gutters at the top were used to pour boiling oil on its would-be conquerors? These included the Scots themselves when they tried to take it back from the English in a charge led by Robert the Bruce.

Information panels describing the attack led by Robert the Bruce, and early war poems

The statue that is on the left as you walk in, the one that is of Robert the Bruce, was created by a Scottish sculptor named Thomas Clapperton, who also has two works in the New Zealand town of Oamaru: The Wonderland Statue in a local children’s garden, and the statue that was created for Oamaru’s World War One memorial. You can see pictures of those statues here. So, that’s an amazing Kiwi link with Edinburgh Castle!

The castle also has cannons, which were last fired in earnest during the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745/46, when the castle was in the hands of the British government but the city had fallen to the Jacobites, supporters of the Stuart dynasty, which had been ousted after the death of the childless Queen Anne. It’s all very Game of Thrones.

Mighty cannons in the walls of the castle

An information panel about the rebellion of 1745

The castle also has an impressive Great Hall as well as many other sights. These include the Scottish Crown Jewels, which no ordinary person is allowed to photograph.

The Great Hall of Edinburgh Castle

Sign showing attractions at Edinburgh Castle

An ancient gateway

Some curious turret works

You can get great views of the city from Edinburgh Castle, as in the next photograph.

There is lovely parkland just below the castle, as well. This park is called the Princes Street Gardens. It contains lots of statues, and I was very much struck by a monument to a poet of the 1700s named Allan Ramsay.

The Allan Ramsay Monument in the Princes Street Gardens

Another view of the Allan Ramsay Monument

The same monument, with a path below

The castle above the gardens

Picnicking in the gardens

Here are some other street scenes, just to let you know that Edinburgh does have ordinary streets, after all. Though even these are pretty funky, for instance, the Old Tollbooth Wynd, or alley.

The Old Tollbooth Wynd

One thing I found interesting was the symbol of a deer with a cross in its antlers, which you can see on top of the old tollbooth and also on top of the building below, the Canongate Church on the Royal Mile. The statue just to the right, which looks like a real person at first, is of another poet of the 1700s, Robert Fergusson.

Canongate Church and Robert Fergusson statue

The deer with the cross represents a vision experienced by a saint named Hubert, who was a fanatical hunter but who, after spying a deer with a cross glowing between its antlers, devoted his life to being kind to animals thereafter.

(The same symbol appears on bottles of a German spirit called Jägermeister, meaning master hunter. The makers of Jägermeister have lately had to defend the use of St Hubert’s vision against the charge that it was an offence to religion to put it on a booze bottle. But I digress …)

Here is another interesting one. The Scots dialect, or language, is like English but full of words that are used differently. For instance, in Scots flesh is meat but in standard English flesh is what people are made of. So, ‘Fleshmarket’ looks kind of creepy to anyone who isn’t Scottish.

The Caley Picture House, an old cinema since converted into a pub and restaurant by the J D Wetherspoon company. You can get cheap chips and cheap cups of coffee here. This venue is very close to Princes Street Gardens.

The Wetherspoon sign on the Caley Picture House, next to the main entrance

I also visited the Palace of Holyroodhouse, where most of the devolved Scottish government is now based. Holyroodhouse has also been a royal palace for many centuries, with perhaps its most famous occupant Mary, Queen of Scots, the queen that Elizabeth I of England imprisoned in the Tower of London and then beheaded. The great complex of Holyroodhouse includes the Queen’s Gallery, now an art gallery, with a Scottish red lion in a different pose.

The Queen’s Gallery

The Queen’s Gallery Lion

I took quite a lot of photos of Holyroodhouse, or Holyrood Palace, when I was in Edinburgh a few years ago, and included them in collages for my book A Maverick Pilgrim Way. Here are some of the collages. The first photo is of another monument in the Princes Street Gardens, while the rest are of Holyrood.

This is another interesting symbol at Holyrood. It dates back to the time of the Scottish king James V (r. 1513–1542). Legend had it that only king could command a unicorn, shown duly chained, and so the unicorn was an important symbol of Scottish royal authority in those days.

James V unicorn device in painted stone, Holyroodhouse

Which is probably also where the all-British lion and unicorn device comes from as well. I think the lettering I R S probably stands for James (or Iames), Rex (king) of Scotland.

The Old Town is overlooked by an extinct volcano called Arthur’s Seat, from which you can get more views of the city. Here is a view of the city with the castle at the right and Arthur’s Seat at the left in the early 1700s.

The sketch is dedicated to Queen Anne, the last of the Scottish Stuart dynasty, who reigned over Great Britain and Ireland in the heyday of the real-life pirates of the Caribbean, and after whom the legendary real-life pirate ship Queen Anne’s Revenge was named.

Arthur’s seat is close to the centre of a park called Holyrood Park, which is both bigger and wilder than the Princes Street Gardens, a large area of raw nature in the middle of Edinburgh, though it was on the edge of town in Queen Anne’s day.

Hiking up toward Arthur’s Seat

Looking down the path from Arthur’s Seat

On top of Arthur’s Seat

Here is a video of my rambles through the castle, the Royal Mile, up Arthur’s Seat, and in front of the Palace of Holyroodhouse, which was unfortunately closed to the public this time around because of Covid. But you could still watch the changing of the guard.

The nearby New Town has that name because it was laid out in the eighteenth century, which is new by Scottish standards.

The Edinburgh New Town. Map data ©2022 Google.

The New Town has lots of parks itself, and grand circles and squares. It served as an inspiration for Washington DC and also for the New Zealand city of Dunedin, a name that means Edinburgh in Gaelic.

Edinburgh is also a city of great learning. This fact, along with the ancient Greek or Roman-style architecture of much of the New Town, caused the city to be nicknamed ‘the Athens of the North’.

A sign discussing scholars and philosophers, and showing some ancient-looking (‘neoclassical’) architecture as well

In a similar vein, Calton Hill, which sports several monuments, is known as Edinburgh’s Acropolis.

The view from the foot of Arthur’s Seat, showing Calton Hill

When I was in Edinburgh a few years ago, Aunty June and I went to the castle at that time as well. We visited the St Margaret’s Chapel, part of Edinburgh Castle, built in the twelfth century and one of the oldest surviving buildings built in Edinburgh.

I have lost count of the number of times I have visited Edinburgh Castle, but let me tell you it never ceases to amaze and thrill me.

My grandmother had told Aunty June stories about how she, when she was a child, used to go to Edinburgh Castle and swing on the gates. I stood at the same gates for a little while and imagined what it would have been like for my grandmother to swing on them.

On that earlier visit, I also went to the Fringe Festival held annually in Edinburgh, which I loved. The Fringe Festival began in the 1940s as an add-on to an official, but rather stuffy, festival of the arts held in Edinburgh. The Fringe Festival showcased the acts that didn’t make it into the official Edinburgh festival. It soon acquired the reputation of being the more interesting place to hang out!

So, Edinburgh isn’t all old stuff by any means!

When I was there the previous time, I also went to the port district of Leith, where my grandmother was from.

This time around, things were a bit different. As I mention up by the video, Holyroodhouse was closed because of Covid.

You have to book online to get into the castle, as the numbers are restricted for the same reason. They told me at the castle that they let two hundred people in every half an hour, and cap the numbers at four hundred, and don’t allow more than five thousand in a day. Which I thought was a very good policy.

I’d never seen the Royal Mile so empty, even though there was a cruise ship in town.

In fact, the comparative absence of tourists was why I scaled Arthur’s Seat this time around, for the first time. It had always been too busy before.

Finally, car parking in Edinburgh is an absolute nightmare. I think I ended up paying about forty pounds for the day because I didn’t get in before eleven o’clock, and thus missed out on early-bird deals. Parking a bit further out of town and using public transport is a much better idea, if you are organised enough.

In my next post, I visit the Cairngorms National Park and Inverness!

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