EDINBURGH EXPERT WALKING TOURS - BLOG
EDINBURGH EXPERT WALKING TOURS - BLOG
One of the great appeals of Edinburgh's city centre is its wealth of architectural heritage. From modern wonders such as the new Scottish Parliament building, to the original high-rise structures of the Old Town, the city's shape and style varies almost from street to street.
One of the most important figures in the city's architectural history is Robert Adam, born in Kirkcaldy on 3 July 1728, to a family of designers and architects - along with his father William and brothers John and James, the Adam family would collectively produce some of the most important buildings in the UK during the eighteenth century.
Adam is best known in Edinburgh for his New Town houses, creating a visual style replicated throughout the New Town as it grew and developed, but there are structures designed by Adam right across Edinburgh.
Here are some highlights for visitors to explore...
In 1788 the University of Edinburgh planned to replace some of its older, dilapidated school buildings with a new purpose-built structure, that would better reflect its status and ambition as a university. Robert Adam was commissioned to produce an impressive double quadrangle structure to be built on a site adjacent to what was then the new South Bridge in the Old Town, and he duly produced plans for the 'New College' building.
Construction came to a halt as funding dried up, and in 1792 Adam died. Work only recommenced in 1815, when Adam's plans were passed to William Playfair, who modified the grand scheme Adam had imagined to create just one single courtyard, and was virtually completed by the early 1830s. It was only in the 1880s that the grand dome above the eastern entrance was added.
Today the building - now known as Old College, after the 1840s development of a newer New College - houses the university's law school and associated administrative offices, as well as the Talbot Rice Gallery.
The buildings around this exclusive and high-status housing area were designed by Robert Adam and Robert Reid. Collectively they are considered some of the finest surviving Georgian architecture anywhere in Europe, and the range of buildings on the northern side of the square are the most visibly interesting.
Number six Charlotte Square is the official residence of the First Minister of Scotland, and is adjacent to the Georgian House museum, a period recreation of what these extraordinary buildings would have been like as residential properties.
North Bridge was the construction built to provide access between the Old and New Towns in the 1760s, and where the bridge joined to Princes Street Adam built a substantial building that acted as a grand example of the style that New Town would become recognised for.
Register House was built as a records office to house the national archive and records of Scotland, and Adam worked on the buildings jointly with his brother James. The building was paid for with £12,000 recovered from accounts of Highland estates owned by those who had been involved in the Jacobite uprising of 1745.
After five years of construction, building work came to a halt, and the structure was left unfinished for nearly a decade until Adam modified the plans to finally have it finished in 1788.
The building continues to function as a public records office today.
DAVID HUME MAUSOLEUM
As well as grand houses and civic buildings, Adam also designed a number of monuments and memorials in Edinburgh, including the grave of his own father, in Greyfriars Kirkyard in the Old Town.
Most notable is the circular mausoleum to the philosopher David Hume, who died in 1776. Adam had been a friend of Hume's, and was commissioned after Hume's death to produce the mausoleum to house his grave.
Hume's grave stands in the Old Calton burial ground - a non-denominational graveyard for a man who was noted as an atheist in the eighteenth century.
ROYAL COLLEGE OF PHYSICIANS
Built originally as a private residence for Baron Ord, this property on Queen Street in the New Town today houses the Royal College of Physicians, and is replete with stone decorations of a staff surrounded by a curled serpent, a motif widely recognised as an emblem of the medical profession.
Other Robert Adam buildings in the city have been lost or destroyed, including the Bridewell Prison which stood on the site of St Andrew's House on the side of Calton Hill today (part of the original prison walls do survive) but many other major works by Adam survive around the rest of the UK. After his death Adam was buried at Westminster Abbey in London.
But his vision was one which influenced Edinburgh majorly during its development in the eighteenth- and early nineteenth-centuries, and he remains a significant figure in the city's history.
Explore more of Adam's architectural gems with my private Edinburgh walking tours!
With this year's Edinburgh International Film Festival opening this week, what better time to look around the city to find some of the locations which have featured in films over the years.
Ironically, many films made in Edinburgh were often set elsewhere, and films set in Edinburgh were filmed elsewhere - so for a long time Edinburgh didn't appear as itself on screen very often! In recent years that has changed. So here are just a few film locations around the city, with some clips of the films that featured them.
THE PRIME OF MISS JEAN BRODIE (1969)
The film which won Maggie Smith her first Oscar, for Best Actress, in this iconic adaptation of the novel by Muriel Spark. Set in Edinburgh in the 1930s, Smith plays a teacher at a girls' school, inspiring (and endangering) her pupils with a combination of art, history and politics.
Several locations from around the city were used during the filming, including the village of Cramond, the Meadows, Bruntsfield (Where Muriel Spark had lived) and the Edinburgh Academy building (which stood in for the film's setting of the Marcia Blaine School for Girls). But a series of steps called the Vennel, with views across to Edinburgh Castle, featured in a particularly memorable sequence, and have latterly be renamed The Jean Brodie Steps.
AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR (2018)
A more recent blockbuster had a crucial sequence set in 'Scotland' and filmed in Edinburgh - Avengers: Infinity War saw a sprawling fight sequence take place in the streets and skies over the Old Town, and recognisable features from the film include St Giles' Cathedral, the Mercat Cross and the Royal Mile, Waverley Station and Cockburn Street.
It's a rather nice example of Edinburgh not being represented in a historical context, but rather a modern setting - when you find films of Edinburgh in the traditional Hollywood fashion they very often focus on the cliche and stereotype of Scotland, so it's refreshing to see the city represented as a contemporary, living city too!
GREYFRIARS BOBBY (1961)
Here's one of those 'traditional' movies, with all the cliche and stereotype preserved intact! In 1961 Walt Disney made a film version of the story of Greyfriars Bobby, helping to make it one of Edinburgh's best-known local legends. The film takes a few liberties with the reality of the story (of course!) but was filmed partially in Edinburgh, including on the castle esplanade, and in Greyfriars Kirkyard itself.
Films like this helped to build Edinburgh's profile as a visitor destination, as well as proliferating the Bobby myth, and today the city is still attracting thousands of people who come here specifically to see the statue and the grave of this tiny local hero. All we ask is that you DON'T rub the nose of the statue - it won't bring you good luck, and only damages the statue itself.
Another recent hit, this adaptation of an Irvine Welsh novel (who also wrote Trainspotting, one of the best known modern films set in Edinburgh) showcases something of the Scots' reputation for dark humour. The first scene of the film features the main character, played by Scottish actor James McAvoy, walking through streets of the Old Town, including the front of Edinburgh Castle, Castlehill, West Bow and Grassmarket.
Novels like Trainspotting (and the film in particular) show a very different side of the city from the tourist imagery, and are a reminder that every city has its public and private faces, and that the surface experience of a city like Edinburgh isn't necessarily the whole story or the whole experience of the people who live here.
CLOUD ATLAS (2012)
This adaptation of David Mitchell's genre-defying, galaxy-sprawling epic set part of its characters' story here in Edinburgh, and featured the Scott Monument among other locations for its filming.
This film is a good example of how Edinburgh doesn't always feature as Edinburgh, and how many times the city serves as a backdrop for all kinds of non-Scottish stories.
These are just a handful of the films that have taken Edinburgh as an inspiration for setting or story - there are many more!
Explore of Edinburgh's inspiring settings and landscapes with my private city walking tours!
I've been meeting an increasing number of visitors coming into the city from cruise ships, and whilst it's always a pleasure to be able to show off the city there are a number of recurring questions and comments that arise when arranging such tours.
Cruise companies offer a variety of shore excursions for passengers to book, from which the cruise company takes a commission payment. My bespoke tours are only available to book directly through me, and it is apparent that cruise companies are not always providing passengers with as much information as they might need to be able to plan their own shore excursions into Edinburgh.
So here's my rundown of tips and comments for passengers arriving into Edinburgh from a cruise, and in particular the advice I would give to those looking to book one of my private Edinburgh tours!
CHECK WHICH PORT YOU'RE ARRIVING INTO
There are four major ports from which cruise ship passengers can travel into Edinburgh - and one of those ports is actually in Glasgow! So be aware that if your cruise itinerary describes visiting Edinburgh, you may actually be docking a significant distance from the city.
CONFIRM TENDER AND TIDE IMPLICATIONS
Different ports have different docking arrangements, and most commonly visitors have to take tenders from the ship to shore - this can add significantly to the time taken to get off the boat.
Also, different ports can be differently affected by the high and low tides, which in some instances can dramatically shorten the time available on shore. Check how long you will actually get ashore in Edinburgh, and confirm the need for tendering to and from the ship itself.
SHUTTLE TRANSPORT OPTIONS
For the ports further from Edinburgh, most cruise companies provide a regular shuttle transport link from the dock into the city centre. Different cruise lines have different policies on whether this service is free or paid for, and how frequently the service runs.
Generally the shuttle transport from cruise ships drop off on WATERLOO PLACE in Edinburgh, but it's worth confirming that detail, especially if you're planning to meet a tour guide (like me!) when you get there.
Cruises into NEWHAVEN seem less inclined to provide a shuttle transport service (maybe because it's a much shorter distance from the city), so you may want to plan a taxi/Uber or local bus journey into the city - it should take you about 20 minutes in a taxi, a little longer by bus.
Travelling into the city from SOUTH QUEENSFERRY or ROSYTH, shuttle buses can take up to an hour to make the journey. A taxi may be quicker, but would be fairly expensive. From South Queensferry, regular trains run via nearby DALMENY STATION, which is a commuter line into the city.
Dalmeny Station is a short walk from South Queensferry dock, but up a considerable number of stairs from sea level. Trains from Dalmeny take about 15 minutes to reach the city centre, arriving into WAVERLEY STATION in the centre of the city.
Travelling from Glasgow can be a more elaborate process, and I would generally suggest visitors take advantage of the transport options laid on by the cruise company for the sake of simplicity - otherwise travelling by train can require a change of trains (and, in Glasgow city centre, changing between the two central stations) and public bus services can take a disproportionate amount of time.
CONSIDER THE NUMBER OF PASSENGERS ON YOUR VESSEL
Depending on the size of your vessel, you could be joining a couple of thousand other passengers disembarking (which has a major impact on the time taken to tender to/from the ship) and your ship may not be the only one in town - over the summer, there can be ships docking in each of the ports, meaning the net number of cruise passengers coming into the town can be fairly significant.
Major attractions, such as Edinburgh Castle and the Palace of Holyroodhouse, can quickly get swamped by large groups arriving at the same time, so be aware that you will be amongst crowds almost anywhere you are in the city - entry tickets in particular should always be bought and printed in advance to save you joining long lines wherever you go.
UNDERSTAND EDINBURGH'S PHYSICAL LAYOUT
Edinburgh is a challenging city to explore. Built on a ridge of rock, with steep valleys running between high peaks, it's not a big city centre, but getting around it can be harder than you expect.
Gauge your physical fitness for walking and exploring - it's a city best explored on foot, but even walking through the lanes and alleys can be problematic for people with even minor mobility issues.
Also the number of people in the city at peak times can make even short distances difficult to cover quickly. Similarly, with the volume of traffic and tour buses in the city, taxis and buses can take longer than expected to cover moderate distances.
PLAN TO DO LESS, RATHER THAN MORE
Try to plan your day to give yourselves plenty of time between attractions, or to find places for lunch, as things can generally take a lot longer than you might expect. And content yourself to plan to do less rather than more - this may be your only day in Edinburgh, but trying to do EVERYTHINGTHECITYHASTOOFFER in a single visit of just a few hours is simply not possible (and wouldn't be enjoyable even if it were possible!).
Aim to get a flavour of the city during your visit, and an overview of what it has to offer visitors. My tours won't take you inside any attractions, so although a full-day is often people's first instinct for a tour, with me you'd be better taking a shorter introduction to the city, with a plan to visit one of the attractions by yourselves after our walk...
LUNCH, SHOPPING, TOILETS
... and don't forget time for lunch, shopping and bathroom breaks!
START PLANNING YOUR RETURN TRIP
One visit to Edinburgh is never enough - so start planning your return trip now!
Edinburgh's graveyards are some of the most peaceful and interesting places in the city - there are five burial grounds within the city centre, and all of them maintain public access for visitors to enjoy a sense of their history.
Here is a very short selection of graves to seek out in Edinburgh, offering an overview of the city and the inhabitants who have shaped it over the last 900 years or so...
Parliament Square, near St Giles' Cathedral on the Royal Mile, was originally an adjacent burial ground, running down the slope of the hill to the south of the city. In the seventeenth-century, plans were made to reclaim the graveyard space and develop it as prime real estate - the bodies that were exhumed were all transported to the nearby Greyfriars kirkyard, and a new parliament hall was built on the site beside St Giles'.
One burial marker remains in the car park of Parliament Square today. Under parking space number 23 is a stone marking the place of burial of John Knox, the protestant reformer and former minister of St Giles' who led the Scottish Reformation in 1560.
What the stone is less clear on is whether Knox is still buried there - differing versions of the city history can't agree on whether his corpse was exhumed, along with the rest of the burials (in which case the stone marks the site of his burial, but doesn't specify that he still lies there), or whether Knox was considered the one figure important enough to leave 'at rest' when the graveyard was cleared (in which case he may still be under the tarmac today).
In 1766 a young man by the name of James Craig entered a public competition to design a layout for the 'new' town of Edinburgh, which was to be developed on the northern side of the city. Craig had completed his apprenticeship as an architect just the year before, and so was still a young, upstart figure alongside some of the more notable - and famous - names who were practising as designers and engineers in the city at that time.
Craig's vision for the New Town - a broad grid system - was the one chosen as the winner of the competition, and before he was even thirty years old Craig was to experience his greatest and most accomplished success, a city plan which exists to this day, observable in the wide Georgian-era terraces of the New Town. George Street, Princes Street, and the two gardens of St Andrew Square and Charlotte Square survive as major features in the city, thanks to the genius vision of this singular young man.
His later career would never achieve such levels of success, and Craig died of tuberculosis at his home on the West Bow in 1795. Having tried to move away from the "monotony of the straight line" around which his New Town plans were fixed, he died in debt and was buried in an unmarked grave within the Greyfriars kirkyard. The stone above his grave today was a later addition, a modest (and unremarkable) grave for a man who did so much to shape the city of Edinburgh.
In 1736 a series of events rocked the sense of law and order in Edinburgh, when the Grassmarket became the scene of a violent riot that left six people dead. John Porteous was the captain of the City Guard who stood trial for murder as a result, but who was brutally executed by a mob who feared he may have avoided the death penalty for his behaviour.
The events became known as the Porteous Riots, and were a central element of Sir Walter Scott's novel The Heart of Midlothian. After his death, Porteous was initially buried in an unmarked grave in the Greyfriars kirkyard, and in the 1970s was afforded a more commemorative grave stone by a society who still consider him to be an upstanding representative of British justice, cut down in his prime and murdered for carrying out his duties.
Another murder victim is commemorated in the Canongate kirkyard. David Rizzio was the Italian secretary to Mary, Queen of Scots, who was assassinated in Mary's bedchamber in Holyrood Palace in 1566. Legend has it that Rizzio suffered more than fifty stab wounds before his body was thrown from a window into the street, and the stone above the grave records that 'according to tradition' he was buried here at the Canongate kirk.
Some consider it unlikely that Rizzio is indeed buried here, as by 1566 the church would have been a protestant establishment, and Rizzio (as an Italian, and a close friend of Mary, Queen of Scots) likely to have been a Catholic.
Regardless, the grave is an important reminder of this church's association with the monarchy in Scotland, and remains the church where the Queen worships during her time in residence at Holyrood.
Another grave outside a traditional burial ground is that of Charles Ewart, who is buried on the esplanade in front of Edinburgh Castle. Ewart was a soldier with the Scots Greys, who fought at the Battle of Waterloo against Napoleon in 1815. It was Ewart who successfully captured the regimental emblem - the eagle - of the French 45th unit, shortly before victory was declared, and many considered Ewart's actions to be a key moment in the winning of that historic battle.
Following the capture of the eagle, it became the emblem for the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards, and the figure that Ewart seized in battle is still preserved in the regimental museum inside Edinburgh Castle itself.
Ewart continued to serve in the military until 1821, and lived near Manchester until his death in 1846. His body was buried in a churchyard at Salford initially, before being exhumed in 1938 in order to give him a more ceremonial burial in front of the castle where his former unit are still commemorated.
Ewart's grave stands near the top on the right hand side of the castle esplanade with a substantial ceremonial altar making his grave. Equally notably, a pub bearing his name can be found on the Lawnmarket section of the Royal Mile, and is formally the highest pub in Edinburgh...
Explore more of Edinburgh's notable figures (and the burial grounds they rest in) on my private city walking tours!
For the avoidance of doubt, this is NOT ABOUT ALIENS..! Conspiracy theorists and lovers of Little Green Men should move along, there's nothing to see here. :)
The close encounters I'm talking about are the narrow lanes and alleys of Edinburgh's medieval Old Town. Along the length of the Royal Mile were, at one time, 248 of these separately named 'closes', 'wynds' and 'courts', the narrow streets where Edinburgh's residents were crammed into tight lanes and towering tenements.
There are various interpretations of the name 'close', relating to either the width of the alley (the walls on either side were pretty close, typically just a few feet apart) or the way that many of the closes would be 'closed off' with a gate or other barrier to keep residences protected. Certainly they were dank, dirty, overcrowded and typically unsafe spaces - see Paisley Close, below - which were long overdue for redevelopment by the time the Victorians improved Edinburgh in the 1860s and '70s.
But the surviving lanes and alleys are the parts of the city deserving of your attention, and so here are a few tips for seeking out some close encounters during your visit, so uncover more than the crowded, commercial space of the Royal Mile...
LADY STAIR'S CLOSE
Leading off the Lawnmarket, this lane provides access principally to the Writers' Museum, celebrating three of the city's most important literary figures - Sir Walter Scott, Robert Burns, and Robert Louis Stevenson.
But the space also provides access into Makar's Court - a makar is a Scottish poet - and the paving stones here have snippets from a variety of Scottish poems and verses, as well as giving intriguing views of the back of these buildings which typically were hidden from view. Check out the height of the buildings - Edinburgh's tenements are sometimes claimed as the world's first skyscrapers!
Formerly home to some of Edinburgh's Lord Advocates, this narrow lane offers one of the best views across to the New Town, as well as giving a truly evocative sense of how steep, narrow and inaccessible the city's streets would have been.
One resident of the close was James Stewart, a fearsome bulldog of the Scottish legal system in the seventeenth-century, who prosecuted a notorious case in 1696, leading to the last ever execution for blasphemy in the UK...
The lane is also home to a collection of contrasting buildings, including original structures dating back to 1590 (with the dates still visible in the stone over the doorways) and a modern development which was awarded the Best New Building in Scotland in 2014.
OLD FISHMARKET CLOSE and FLESHMARKET CLOSE
Two of the original market streets of the city, the fish and fleshers' (ie. butchers) markets were on the steep slopes of the hills running down into the valleys to both the north and south of the Royal Mile.
The purpose of putting such markets in such locations was to offer a cleansing effect on the city - all the blood, guts and mess of those market areas would drain naturally into the valleys, in an effort to keep the streets clean. They were not necessarily particularly effective, as contemporary accounts of the fish market in particular describe it as being a 'stinking morass'...
Fleshmarket Close was used as the title of an Inspector Rebus crime novel set in the city, from the author Ian Rankin.
WHITE HORSE CLOSE
Near the bottom of the Royal Mile on Canongate is a lane with one of the most attractive old buildings in the city. White Horse Close was home to the White Horse Inn, one of the old coaching inns where visitors to the city would have stayed in the seventeenth- and eighteenth-centuries.
The lane is private housing today, and the White Horse Inn itself was rebuilt in the 1960s to recover it from the very rundown slum district that it had become at that time. So although the buildings isn't wholly authentic, it is at least offering a visible sense of what the Old Town might have looked like at one time.
Staring out from over Paisley Close on the High Street section of the Royal Mile is the face of a young boy, Joseph McIvor. He had been one of the residents of the tall tenement property on this site that collapsed in the middle of the night in 1861, crushing many occupants of the house to death in their beds.
As rescuers rushed to the site of the collapsed building, they were recovering bodies from under the rubble, and were about to give up their search for survivors when they heard a young voice shouting from under the mass of stone and wood, crying out 'Heave awa' lads, I'm no' deid yet!'
As they continued to excavate they recovered 12-year old Joseph alive, and when the property was rebuilt they immortalised him in the stone above the alley, with an Anglicised version of his words on the ribbon above his head.
Have your own close encounter with the Old Town on my private city walking tours!
Each summer a private estate just a few miles from Edinburgh's city centre opens its gates to the world. The grounds of the house have been laid out as gallery spaces, with sculptures from a wide range of contemporary artists dotted around the lawns, woodlands, and even inside some of the buildings themselves.
It's a fantastic place to go an engage with work by artists like Anish Kapoor, Anthony Gormley and Charles Jencks, with large and small scale works to amuse, entertain and provoke.
There's also a cafe for great quality food to help keep your strength up as you stroll the grounds.
As the world's first UNESCO City of Literature - honoured for the sheer quantity of literary figures associated with the city - Edinburgh is commonly associated with figures like Robert Louis Stevenson, Walter Scott, and (more recently) Irvine Welsh and JK Rowling. But one figure not often associated with the city also has his origins here.
Kenneth Grahame, best known for the classic Edwardian children's story The Wind in the Willows was born in the heart of Edinburgh's New Town, on Castle Street, in March 1859.
He only spent the first year of his life in the city, before the family moved further north to Loch Fyne. Grahame's mother died when he was just five years old, and Kenneth and his three siblings passed into the care of their grandmother in Berkshire.
It was as a child in these quiet rural villages, with cobbled streets and old stone houses, and the River Thames running nearby, that Grahame would first become acquainted with the rich pastoral imagery which dominates his most famous book.
After failing to get into Oxford University, Grahame found himself working at the Bank of England, and would rise to become secretary of the bank before retiring in 1908.
The circumstances of his retirement aren't fully understood - rumours abounded of a disagreement with one of the directors, which may account for the fact that Grahame only received a fraction of the full pension he should have been entitled to. Five years earlier Grahame had been involved in a strange incident in which he was shot at by a 'madman' with a pistol - he was unhurt in the attack, but along with the circumstances of his retirement it suggests a kind of harsh, unsafe, unpredictable 'Wide World' experience which is a far cry from the safe, peaceable, bucolic world of The Wind in the Willows.
Grahame had written short stories and had a degree of success as a published author with stories such as The Reluctant Dragon, but he had had nothing in print for a decade before The Wind in the Willows was published, just four months after his retirement from the bank. During these years Grahame had married and had a son, Alastair, known in his family as 'Mouse', who had been born prematurely, was blind in one eye, and was frequently sick throughout his childhood.
During his son's bouts of illness, Grahame would spin bedtime stories for him, and wrote letters to him, featuring the animal characters who would later fill the published story.
The book was a major success with the general public, and attracted fans as lofty as the then-president of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt. The story was adapted by creator of Winnie the Pooh, AA Milne, as a stage play entitled Toad of Toad Hall, and the story remains popular, with new stage adaptations and film versions capturing the imaginations of new generations of children over a century after it was originally written.
Today the building on Edinburgh's Castle Street where Kenneth Grahame was born is a cocktail bar and restaurant named Badger and Co, after the characters from The Wind in the Willows.
Explore more of Edinburgh's New Town with my private New Town walking tour!
Edinburgh Expert Walking Tours is run by Gareth Davies, an adopted native of Edinburgh since 1998...