Robert Louis Stevenson in Edinburgh: Picturesque Notes (1879):
“The ancient and famous metropolis of the North sits overlooking a windy estuary from the slope and summit of three hills. No situation could be more commanding for the head city of a kingdom; none better chosen for noble prospects. From her tall precipice and terraced gardens she looks far and wide on the sea and broad champaigns. To the east you may catch at sunset the spark of the May lighthouse, where the Firth expands into the German Ocean; and away to the west, over all the carse of Stirling, you can see the first snows upon Ben Ledi.
But Edinburgh pays cruelly for her high seat in one of the vilest climates under heaven. She is liable to be beaten upon by all the winds that blow, to be drenched with rain, to be buried in cold sea fogs out of the east, and powdered with the snow as it comes flying southward from the Highland hills. The weather is raw and boisterous in winter, shifty and ungenial in summer, and a downright meteorological purgatory in the spring.
(…)And yet the place establishes an interest in people’s hearts; go where they will, they find no city of the same distinction; go where they will, they take a pride in their old home.”
These beautiful words describe Edinburgh as succinctly and as picturesquely today as in 1879. It’s a monumental town, half windy, half asleep; laidback and merry; dark and gothic, yet charming and picturesque.
We arrived in Edinburgh, only to be welcomed by a cold, windy morning, wintry by Indian standards. We had expected it to be colder than southern England for sure; but 12-16 degrees C came as more than a whiff of chilly surprise. And I had arrived there in shorts, albeit with a simple hoody to cover up above the belt.
Cold it may have been, but enchanting it certainly was. Getting out of Edinburgh Waverly station was like stepping out of the closet into Narnia. It was grand, hauntingly beautiful, yet with a seductive quality seldom found outdoors.
Our B&B checking wasn’t supposed to be before 12 PM, so we settled into a McDonald’s for some good breakfast, some reading & catching up on Facebook, before ambling our way to the B&B, soaking in the city, its sights, sounds & smells. The B&B, it turned out was only a km from the city centre. We were happy.
Later that day, the first step was to layer ourselves up, so our hands could click instead of filling up the pockets. Princes Street is where most of Edinburgh’s shopping is. It’s an arterial road at the edge of the New city of Edinburgh (which incidentally is 300 years old), but at the centre of the overall city. Bridges, Underpasses and walkways connect the street to the old city. But more on that later.
Having bought a couple of wind-cheating warm jackets, we were locals in spirit, and made our way into the labyrinth of old, gothic, and romanesque architecture- grand in appearance, haunting in appeal, yet reassuring in spirit. The most noticeable was a large, smoked, tall spire. It could very well have been on Asguard. I made a mental note of looking up every now and then to catch a glimpse of Thor’s hammer. Turned out it’s the tallest memorial to any author anywhere in the world. Known as the Scott Monument- built in 1844, it is 200 feet 6 inches tall with 287 steps and honours Sir Walter Scott (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Walter_Scott).
It’s visible from almost the entire central part of Edinburgh, both new and old, and forms the backdrop of many a gleaming vistas, people, activities and the most charming Tram of Edinburgh which runs between the airport and the city centre. Edinburgh spells romance, literally and figuratively.
We quickly made our way past the awkward looking Ferris wheel on Princes Street and Scott Monument, and made our way up the flight of stairs on to Calton Hill, for the view.
And what a view it is! Spread out on three sides is the city of Edinburgh- old and new. Straight up is a spiralling skyline dotted by rising cathedrals, minarets, stately buildings and up above all the imposing Edinburgh Castle. In your line of view, moving right is the sprawl of Edinburgh with uniform height aesthetic buildings, housing societies, institutions, playgrounds et al, with the calm North Sea forming the boundary, horizon and beyond. The opening picture in this post is taken from this vantage point. Here’s another a couple hours later. See the golden hue engulfing the city. It’s magical.
Calton Hill is not just a view-point. It’s a historical district in itself with the National Monument in the mirror of the Parthenon of Athens, the tower-like Nelson Monument, The Cenotaph of Dugald Stewart Monument which forms the foreground of most pictures of Edinburgh from the hill such as the above, the Royal Observatory amongst others.
The National Monument(left) and the Nelson Monument(right)
The next day, we started walking from the B&B towards the old city, which started barely half a km slightly down the hill, and thereafter started rising up the hill till it reaches its crescendo at the Castle.
First up our way was the Holyrood Palace- which is the official residence of the Queen of the UK in Scotland. With high walls, an an ornate gate, it looks more like a holiday home and it probably is. Right in front is a rather awkward Scottish Parliament complex. It’s as misfit in the overall architecture of the city, as is a solitary mushroom amid acres of perfectly manicured grass. What were they thinking?
Nonetheless since it was open for visitors to explore the gallery, we didn’t let the opportunity pass to enter a National Parliament, and had a look at the charter, a few declarations and photographs of the struggle to get Scotland a Parliament once again after a gap of 292 years (The erstwhile Parliament of Scotland was dissolved when Scotland had merged with England to form Great Britain in 1707). The new parliament is a devolved one with powers explicitly defined and non-competing with the Parliament of the UK at Westminster.
Moving ahead we started walking up the hill passing cute taverns, shops, schools and the like and came across the interesting looking Museum of Edinburgh, housed in the erstwhile Tollbooth.
Museum of Edinburgh
It’s a fairly largish museum with multiple sections outlining the history, personalities, arts and craft of Edinburgh since and before it was founded. The wooden flooring is reminiscent of an era gone by with it’s creaks as you walk, and the little corners are gems to be treasured. There is even a section wherein you can try clothes of style that people used to wear in the past.
Further up as you move past the quirky shops and pubs, beyond Canongate, you find yourself on a cobbled street with even more grand edifices. As you stand at the crossroads of the Royal Mile with Jeffery and St Mary’s streets, halfway uphill from Holyrood to the Edinburgh Castle, you can at once admire the grandeur and royalty of the 1.3 Mile long cobbled Royal Mile with beautiful architecture, all along, the musical tap of touristy feet, the imposing Castle mound up ahead, the castle-like St Andrews House (housing the Scottish Govt) on the right at the foothill of the Calton Hill, the church spires of Grassmarket & Lawnmarket on both sides of the castle square, the imposing St Giles cathedral and the nearby Mercat Square nearer in the eyesight, and endearing statues of famous Edinburgundians of the past. Every few meters you have signboards urging people to join free or paid walking tours of Edinburgh- both the usual and off the beaten track for tourists- like the Edinburgh Ghost tour. We did the walking day tour, but couldn’t come back for the ghost tour in the evening.
Mercat Cross- where public announcements were made in the medieval ages, as is done today. Also a site of public executions of yore..
The City of Statues- pictured here is the statue of the 5th Duke of Edinburgh- Douglas Scott, against the backdrop of St Giles Cathedral which is actually not a cathedral as it doesn’t have Bishops.
Adam Smith- the author of the famous ‘Wealth of Nations’
The Royal Mile- Edinburgh’s heart
Very near to the Mercat Cross is the ‘Heart of Midlothian’, built into the pavement. If Edinburgh is called the city of stories, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration. Visitors to Edinburgh often take this to be a romantic place, there have been instances of couples in a sweet embrace only to be disgusted with people spitting right next to them. Upon probing you get to know that this was the entrance to the public execution prison; and people would spit in protest against the practice. Another version states that the acquitted prisoners would spit as they got out. The custom continues..
It surely is a city of stories, whether its own or borrowed. Across the street from St Giles and the old Parliament Square is the City Chambers, a quaint building with a statue of Alexander the Great with his horse Bucephalus in its precincts. The story goes that as a 12 year old he asked his father to buy the most expensive horse to visit their town. The father told him he would buy it the day Alexander is good enough to tame the beast. Alexander- great as he was destined to be, held the horse by its reins. The horse had seen many a great men try taming it in vain. It gave a kick. But the young Macedonian, was smart. He led the horse to face away from the sun and made it look at its own shadow, leading it astray. And in one clean move mounted and controlled his first horse. The father bought it for him, and the rest is history…
Alexander with Bucephalus
The City Chambers
Moving ahead towards the castle, you encounter the Lawnmarket crossing, which connects the old town with the new towards your right. If you take the left turn down the slope, you reach the mound- with a Museum- of guess what- Money. Sponsored by the Royal Bank of Scotland (now part of the Lloyd’s Banking group), its traces the history of money, the origins of the world of finance, banking in Scotland and thereabouts. We entered on a whim and were pleasantly surprised at how interesting and interactive it is. We even hand pressed our 1 penny to a memorablia using an old minting machine.
Replace them all.
Further down at the confluence of the old and new cities is the National Gallery of Scotland. It’s outstanding to say the least with masterpieces from the Renaissance period to modern, celebrating European arts and culture.
Tracing our way back to the Royal Mile, it was now time to take a plunge into the fabled Grass market area going downhill towards your left if facing the Castle. And it’s here that Edinburgh really comes alive with its remarkable stories and life.
The two most famous stories are of Greyfrier’s Bobby and Maggie Dickson.
The friendly neighbourhood policeman John Gray was lonely, so he got himself a dog. Not the ferocious kind you would associate with a policeman, but a little, cute pup. He named it Bobby. Upon Gray’s death, people paid homage where he was cremated at the Greyfriar cemetery and left. But Bobby stayed put. He would visit the grave every day for the next 14 years until his death in 1872. As the epitome of loyalty, he became Edinburgh’s most loved ‘citizen’. People still pay homage to Bobby where ‘he’ was cremated. Many a movie has been based on this most famous loyal dog.
Maggie, on the other hand, was your everyday Edinburgh woman catching fish which her husband sold. Her husband deserted her in 1723. Forced to look for a means of livelihood, she moved out of town and found work in an inn. Soon she had an affair with the innkeeper’s son and became pregnant. Fearing the loss of her job, she concealed the pregnancy for as long as she could. She started eating humongous quantities of food in order to gain wait which would conceal the apparent bump in the belly and started dressing in multiple layers.
But she could’t hide it too long, and the baby was born prematurely and died within a few days. Still hiding it, she left it on the banks of the Tweed river. However the baby was found and Maggie was caught. She was sentenced to be hanged, which was duly carried out at, where else, Grass Market in Edinburgh. Upon hanging while she was being carried in the coffin, there was a knock from within the coffin and voila, Maggie came out, alive and kicking. The law considered it the will of god and let her live. Also, she had been hanged already, and the sentence could not be carried again as per the day’s law. She was dead for the law in fact. Maggie lived on for another 40 years and became a local celebrity. Probably ‘to be hanged till death’ could be traced to this, or may be I am thinking too much. Today a pub in her name stands at Grassmarket square, itching her memory forever on the city’s conscience.
Also nearby is the school which inspired J K Rowling to create Hogwarts in the Harry Potter series. She even picked names like Dumbledoor from the cemetery nearby.
George Herriot’s School- the real life Hogwarts
Just a few steps up towards the castle from Grassmarket is a famous hole in the wall shop called Oinkh. They prepare the famous eponymous dish, which is a fully cooked Pig. They cook one everyday, and place the same behind the glass overlooking the busy street. It’s served in 3 sizes, enwrapped in bun- sort of the Mumbai Vadapao with a twist. You may not fancy eating it, but click you must.
Getting back to the Royal Mile, it was now time to explore the vicinity of the Castle and thereabouts. Right outside the castle is the Camera Obscura- a museum so obscure, it borders on some innocent fun. It’s a museum of illusions and recommended if you have time, which we didn’t. So we made it up with this and more, placed right outside.
Fun @ Camera Obscura
The Amber and The Witchery, two of the famous Sottish pubs are right there.
We were nearing the end of our Royal Mile tour. At this moment let me just reminisce the architecture of the structures flanking it, the numerous lanes and bylanes, known here as ‘Close’, the community and its history as the city found its existence and calling.
There are numerous ‘Closes’ all along the Royal Mile, like tributaries contributing to the flow and legend of the mighty river. They are literally close with buildings rising high up, with their tops almost kissing each other. These are where Edinburgh lived. And it was community living of the best, or as you may fancy, the worst kind. As Edinburgh was developing in the middle ages, there was rapid expansion in business, construction and the like. Naturally a large number of Scots and outsiders made the city their home. And it was a fairly compact city. All classes were living together, literally. Although they were living within breathing or farting distance of each other, there still was a class divide. Each building had multiple floors, with the prosperous business and noble families occupying the higher floors, professionals in the middle, and workers and slaves at the ground level.
Unfortunately, Edinburgh did not have a sanitary disposal system. So those who stayed upstairs would throw their waste including human waste down to the very street where they lived. Just imagine the plight of the lower classes and perennial smell of filth all around. Yet, by later 18th century, Edinburgh was in the midst of the Scottish Enlightenment, and the city council started cleaning up. Some thinkers attribute the density of such prolific personalities such as Hume, Adam Smith, Walter Scott etc. during the Scottish Enlightenment to this very Close system, where people, rubbush and idead rubbed shoulders literally. It had its utility afterall. It was sort of a medieval Manhattan!
Burglar Alarm System- Look closer..the steps pattern is designed as a deception for burglars and thieves a few centuries ago. There is no step/or place to keep the foot between the 2nd and the 3rd ones from the top, in the hope that burglars will trip and fall with a thud, thus awakening the owners and neighbours. Not sure how effective it was though..
Spooky yet serene Close
Many a Close are named after people or dominating professionals who lived there
It was time to say hello to the Edinburgh Castle. Built in the 12th Century, it stayed the Royal Residence till the 15th century, after which it largely became a military barrack, ceding the Royal residence status to the Holyrood Palace at the other end of the Royal Mile. It dominates the skyline of Edinburgh, and has been witness to the city beginning as a small settlement to being the Scottish capital, an effervescent city of progress highlighted by the Scottish Enlightenment, to the second largest financial centre in the UK after London.
Or as Alexander McCall Smith said: “This is a city of shifting light, of changing skies, of sudden vistas. A city so beautiful it breaks the heart again and again..”
We had some real fun, whether exploring the nooks and corners, or sitting and enjoying the ale, food and music at the local pubs. @Whiski Bar & Restaurant : The music and ale were equally soothing.
Balmoral Hotel on Princes Street
And it broke our heart as we had to leave.. But not before we did a couple of quick excursions. The first was a two hour trip to Portobello to be at the North Sea. It was just a 20 minute bus ride from Edinburgh to the beach.
Looking North @the North Sea
The second was a one day bus tour of the Scottish Highlands. As much as we wanted to really explore the highlands, time was acting pricey. But we had to at least catch more than a passing glimpse. So we settled on the bus tour, provided by Timberbush tours (http://www.timberbush-tours.co.uk/our-tours/from-edinburgh/). It cost us 46 Pounds a person, and started at 8 AM sharp from right outside the castle. Our driver and guide Gary was knowledgeable, warm, with a sense of humour typically Scottish and a penchant for story telling. The bus itself was comfortable and the audio system effective, which allowed us to enjoy all Gary had to tell us while he drove through some of the most picturesque Bens(Hills), Lochs(Lakes) and Glens(Valleys). Ever heard of the movies ‘The Massacre of Glen Coe’ or ‘Monster of Loch Ness’?
Bens, Lochs (pronounced as Lokhs) and Glens are what constitute and characterize teh Scottish Highlands. We totally enjoyed the tour, while stopping at a few predesignated spots clicking the beautiful greens, and the dark clouds up above. We also sampled some good Scottish Ale near the banks of the large Loch Ness. One regret that remained was that we could not go deeper into the highlands beyond the motorways, to the curving Cycling Highway, the National Walkway of Scotland, into the unspoilt beauty of the Scottish Highlands. But we did get a good introduction, and made a mental note of coming back to some real serenity and exploration.
Nurture amid Nature
Tea for Two- Midway
We had to leave Scotland for the next stage of our journey- London. But Scotland and Edinburgh in particular is going to stay with us for a long time. Until next time…