The Old Town
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Edinburgh’s OLD TOWN, although only about a mile long and 400 yards wide, represented the total extent of the twin burghs of Edinburgh and Canongate for the first 650 years of their existence, and its general appearance and character remain indubitably medieval. Containing the majority of the city’s most famous tourist sights, the Old Town is compact enough to explore in a single day, though a thorough visit requires a bit longer. No matter how pressed you are, make sure you spare time for at least a taste of the wonderfully varied scenery and breathtaking vantage points of Holyrood Park, an extensive tract of open countryside on the eastern edge of the Old Town that includes Arthur’s Seat, the peak of which rises so distinctively in the midst of the city.
Holyrood Park – or Queen’s Park – a natural wilderness in the heart of the modern city, is one of Edinburgh’s greatest assets. Packed into an area no more than five miles in diameter is an amazing variety of landscapes – hills, crags, moorland, marshes, glens, lochs and fields – representing a microcosm of Scotland’s scenery. While old photographs of the park show crops growing and sheep grazing, it’s now most used by walkers, joggers, cyclists and other outdoor enthusiasts. A single tarred road, Queen’s Drive, loops through the park, but you need to get out and stroll around to appreciate it fully. You can pick up a map of suggested walks – including those to Salisbury Crags and Arthur’s Seat – as well as details on the geology and flora of the park, from the Park Information Centre.
The National Museum of Scotland fuses a grand Victorian building with an extension built in the 1990s. The recently refurbished older section is a traditional grand city museum covering natural history, indigenous cultures, science and crafts from around the world. Alongside it, the clean lines and imaginatively designed interior of the modern section offer a fresh perspective on Scottish history from earliest man to the present day, laid out in broadly chronological order over seven levels.
The seven levels of the National Museum’s modern extension make up Scotland’s premier historical museum. The nation’s beginnings and earliest peoples are covered in the basement, with artefacts including the Cramond Lioness, a sculpture from a Roman tombstone found recently in the Firth of Forth, along with carved stones and jewellery from Pictish times. Moving up through the museum, look out for the famous Lewis chessmen, idiosyncratic twelfth-century pieces carved from walrus ivory, along with pieces relating to the more significant periods of Scotland’s past, including the Highland uprisings under Bonnie Prince Charlie (whose silver travelling canteen is on display). Industry and Empire covers the era of heavy industry and mass emigration, while Scotland: A Changing Nation traces the different experiences of people living and working in contemporary Scotland, through film, objects and personal stories.
From the small roof garden, accessed by a lift, sweeping views open out to the Firth of Forth, the Pentland hills and across to the Castle and Royal Mile skyline. Other fine views can be enjoyed from the museum’s stylish Tower restaurant.
Centred on a soaring, three-storey atrium, the former Royal Museum of Scotland, a dignified Venetian-style palace with a cast-iron interior modelled on the Crystal Place in London, reopened in 2011 following a £47 million refurbishment. There’s much to appreciate simply from the building itself, with the main Grand Gallery flooded by natural light and encircled by two levels of balcony. The main exhibits are found in rooms off the Grand Gallery, the most notable (particularly for younger visitors) being the natural history collection with stuffed animals, dinosaur skeletons and numerous sea creatures suspended from the ceiling among giant plasma screens showing wildlife in action. An area dedicated to science and technology has everything from robots and space ships to a stuffed model of Dolly the sheep.
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.
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.
The statue of Greyfriars Bobby at the southwestern corner of George IV Bridge, just across the road from the Museum of Scotland, must rank as Edinburgh’s most sentimental tourist attraction. According to the legend – no doubt embellished down the years – Bobby was a Skye terrier acquired as a working dog by a police constable named John Gray. When Gray died in 1858, Bobby was found a few days later sitting on his grave, a vigil he maintained until his death fourteen years later. Bobby’s legendary dedication was picked up by Disney, whose 1960 feature film of the story ensured that streams of tourists have paid their respects ever since.
The grave Bobby mourned over is in the Greyfriars Kirkyard, which has a fine collection of seventeenth-century gravestones and mausoleums, including one to the Adam family of architects. The kirkyard is visited regularly by ghost tours and was known for grave-robbing, when freshly interred bodies were exhumed and sold to the nearby medical school. Greyfriars Kirk itself was built in 1620 on land that had belonged to a Franciscan convent, though little of the original late Gothic-style building remains.
Born in Edinburgh into a distinguished family of lighthouse engineers, Robert Louis Stevenson (1850–94) was a sickly child, with a solitary childhood dominated by his governess, Alison “Cummie” Cunningham, who regaled him with tales drawn from Calvinist folklore. Sent to the university to study engineering, Stevenson rebelled against his upbringing by spending much of his time in the lowlife howffs and brothels of the city.
Stevenson’s early successes were two travelogues, An Inland Voyage and Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes, kaleidoscopic jottings based on his journeys in France, where he went to escape Scotland’s weather, which was damaging his health. It was there that he met Fanny Osbourne, an American ten years his senior. Having married the now-divorced Fanny, Stevenson began an elusive search for an agreeable climate that led to Switzerland, the French Riviera and the Scottish Highlands. He belatedly turned to the novel, achieving immediate acclaim in 1881 for Treasure Island, a moralistic adventure yarn that began as an entertainment for his stepson and future collaborator, Lloyd Osbourne. In 1886, his most famous short story, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, despite its nominal London setting, offered a vivid evocation of Edinburgh’s Old Town: an allegory of its dual personality of prosperity and squalor, and an analysis of its Calvinistic preoccupations with guilt and damnation. The same year saw the publication of the historical romance Kidnapped, an adventure novel that exemplified Stevenson’s view that literature should seek above all to entertain. In 1887 Stevenson left Britain for good, travelling first to the United States. A year later, he set sail for the South Seas, and eventually settled in Samoa, where he died suddenly from a brain haemorrhage in 1894.
The usual starting point for the ascent of Arthur’s Seat, which at 823ft above sea level towers over Edinburgh’s numerous high points, is Dunsapie Loch, reached by following the tarred Queen’s Drive in a clockwise direction from the information centre in Holyrood Park (30–40min walk). Part of a volcano which last saw action 350 million years ago, its connections to the legendary king are fairly sketchy: the name is likely to be a corruption of the Gaelic Ard-na-said, or “height of arrows”. From Dunsapie Loch it’s a twenty-minute climb up grassy slopes to the rocky summit. On a clear day, the views might just stretch to the English border and the Atlantic Ocean; more realistically, the landmarks which dominate are Fife, a few Highland peaks and, of course, Edinburgh laid out on all sides.