The Palace of Holyroodhouse is largely a seventeenth-century creation, planned for Charles II. Tours of the palace move through a series of royal reception rooms featuring some outstanding encrusted plasterwork, each more impressive than the last – an idea Charles II had picked up from his cousin Louis XIV’s Versailles – while on the northern side of the internal quadrangle, the Great Gallery extends almost the full length of the palace and is dominated by portraits of 96 Scottish kings, painted by Jacob de Wet in 1684 to illustrate the lineage of Stewart royalty: the result is unintentionally hilarious, as it’s clear that the artist’s imagination was taxed to bursting point in his commission to paint so many different facial types without having an inkling as to what the subjects actually looked like. Leading from this into the oldest part of the palace, known as James V’s tower, the formal, ceremonial tone gives way to dark medieval history, with a tight spiral staircase leading to the chambers used by Mary, Queen of Scots. These contain various relics, including jewellery, associated with the queen, though the most compelling viewing is a tiny supper room, from where, in 1566, Mary’s Italian secretary, David Rizzio, was dragged by conspirators, who included her jealous husband, Lord Darnley, to the outer chamber and stabbed 56 times; a brass plaque on the wall points out what are rather unconvincingly identified as the bloodstains on the wooden floor.
The evocative ruins of Holyrood Abbey, some of which date from the thirteenth century, lie next to the palace. The roof tumbled down in 1768, but the melancholy scene has inspired artists down the years, among them Felix Mendelssohn, who in 1829 wrote “Everything is in ruins and mouldering … I believe I have found the beginning of my Scottish Symphony there today”. Next to the abbey are the formal palace gardens, open to visitors in summer and offering some pleasant strolls.
The Queen’s Gallery
Essentially an adjunct to Holyrood palace, the Queen’s Gallery is located in the shell of a former church directly between the palace and the parliament. It’s a compact space with just two principal viewing rooms used to display changing exhibitions from the Royal Collection, a vast array of art treasures held by the Queen on behalf of the British nation. Because the pieces are otherwise exhibited only during the limited openings of Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle, the exhibitions here tend to draw quite a lot of interest.