The weather outside may be frightful, but the winter is still a popular time for visiting Edinburgh - with darker evenings and a whole host of special events, it can be an atmospheric and magical time for exploring the city.
Here are some of my top picks for things to do in Edinburgh this winter to help your days be merry and bright over the festive season!
The traditional Christmas pantomime is a truly Scottish experience, a unique form of entertainment that blends broad comedy, live music and dance, colourful scenery and a whole host of topical references to people and things from the past twelve months, all whilst telling a traditional fairytale. All in all, the panto is a riotous afternoon/evening of entertainment that will keep the whole family amused, and quite unlike anything you would find beyond Scotland's shores! The King's Theatre is home of the panto in Edinburgh, and this year their production is Beauty and the Beast.
For something more classical, check out Wendy and Peter Pan, a retelling of the classic story from Scotsman JM Barrie, at the city's Lyceum Theatre, or Scottish Ballet's popular presentation of Cinderella at the Festival Theatre.
Outdoor light shows have become a popular entertainment in recent years, and both the Botanic Gardens and Edinburgh Zoo have a magical experience to check out this year.
Christmas at the Botanics leads visitors on a trail of fairylights through their gardens and glasshouses, including the Cathedral of Light featuring over 100,000 lights... At the zoo, the Giant Lanterns of China tell myths and legends as you've never seen them before, with over 450 specially created Chinese paper lanterns. Both give families a magic experience!
For a spot of outdoor ice skating, check out the rink on St Andrew Square, part of the formal Edinburgh's Christmas offering which includes the Christmas markets and the funfair in Princes Street Gardens.
The city's 24 Doors of Advent provide access to buildings and spaces that are generally closed to the public, with a different 'door' open each day until Christmas. It's a brilliant live action advent calendar, with a focus firmly on showcasing the city's history, culture and architectural heritage. Check out the online listing to find out what doors are open on which day!
For traditional Christmas carols, the Palace of Holyroodhouse is hosting Carols Around the Christmas Tree, whilst the Usher Hall has a whole host of classical music events and live music with a festival feel.
Whatever you plan to do in Edinburgh over Christmas, wrap up warm!
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With five old graveyards to explore within the city centre, the cemeteries and burial grounds of the city provide a wonderfully palpable connection to Edinburgh's past.
On the Canongate section of the Royal Mile stands the Canongate Kirk, and with it a graveyard bursting with interest. Here are just four of its famous burials...
Living in the nearby Panmure House, Adam Smith is one of the major figures of the Scottish Enlightenment, best known for his seminal work An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations - often shortened to simply The Wealth of Nations, published in 1776.
This book provided the first theories and descriptions of international trade policies, and Smith is rightly celebrated around the world as the father of modern economics (or father of capitalism, depending on your perspective).
On his death, Smith was buried in the graveyard just a stone's throw from his former home, and visitors with an interest in Smith and his writing can pay homage at the man's grave - where coins from around the world (literally the wealth of nations!) are often left - and at the recently restored Panmure House where he lived, now part of the Edinburgh Business School.
A friend and secretary to Mary Queen of Scots, Riccio was an Italian man who was not well liked in the court at Holyrood. It was felt that Mary maybe used him a little to closely for advice and support, and as a fellow Catholic he enjoyed a level of intimacy with Mary that others didn't.
In 1566, whilst Mary and Riccio were dining in her private chambers, a mob of men burst into the room and stabbed Riccio to death. It was one of the most brutal and bloody events of Mary's life, which was already not short on drama and tragedy, and in many ways was the inciting incident which led to Mary's eventual abdication and imprisonment.
The grave records this as being the 'traditional' site of Riccio's burial, but many consider this a highly unlikely circumstance - with no alternative contenders for the grave's occupancy, it remains something of a mystery!
Agnes was a married women who struck up a relationship with the writer Robert Burns, with whom she conducted a long correspondence. Both wrote their letters under pen names, to protect their modesty if the letters should ever be discovered or made public - she used the named Clarinda, and Burns took the name Sylvander. In this way they conducted a purely non-physical relationship, but one that affected the poet sufficiently that when Agnes left Edinburgh to join her husband in the West Indies, Burns was moved to write Ae Fond Kiss, one of his most romantic poems.
Agnes later returned to Edinburgh and is buried in the Canongate Kirkyard.
Another connection to Robert Burns is Robert Fergusson, a young poet who was writing poetry in Scots, the dialect of Scotland, at a time when it was deeply unfashionable to do so.
It was Fergusson who encouraged Burns to break away from writing in English and to adopt his 'mither tongue' in his writing. When Fergusson died at the tragically young age of just 24, Burns was moved to commemorate his friend by commissioning the original grave stone in the Canongate Kirkyard where Fergusson was buried.
Thus it was that Burns was set on the path of becoming Scotland's national poet!
Like many medieval settlements, Edinburgh at one time was a walled city. Defences were essential to keep the city safe, and to protect its occupants from attack and invasion, as well as providing a boundary for the administration for taxes and laws which were levied on those within.
Edinburgh had always utilised the natural landscape for its protection, initially occupying the raised plateau of rock where Edinburgh Castle sits today, keeping the tribes living there safe from invasion by the virtue of up to 80 metres of sheer rock, which provided a pretty effective barrier against invasion!
As the city grew, the two glacial valleys north and south of the ridge along which the city expanded became integral to keeping Edinburgh protected. The valley to the north was flooded to create an artificial lake called the Nor Loch, which was, in effect, a castle moat protecting the whole city from invasion from the north. With no way across the valley, any would-be attackers were forced around to the east and western edges of the city.
With the castle rock to the west and the Nor Loch to the north, only the south and eastern edges of the city needed more substantial defences, and at different times in its history the southern side of Edinburgh was defended by a succession of three walls. Portions of each of these walls survive today, providing a sense not just of how well protected the city was, but the phases in which is grew and expanded.
The King's Wall
The first wall was built just after the city took on the mantle of capital for the first time, in 1437. Built in the reign of James II around the 1450s, the King's Wall as it was known was the first wall constructed as a defence, running along the length of the city from the castle down to near where the World's End is today. To give a sense of how narrow Edinburgh was at this time, the King's Wall ran between the Royal Mile and the Cowgate which was, originally, beyond the city limits.
Two sections of this 500 year old structure still survive amongst the tangle of buildings and lanes of the Old Town. Just behind the Grassmarket, up the Castle Wynd Steps, you will walk along a length of the wall running east-west, demonstrating how the Grassmarket (or New Bygging as the area was known originally) was outside of the city. One further section of the King's Wall surviving on Tweeddale Court, running north-south as it returned to the line of the main street, forming the eastern boundary of the city.
The Flodden Wall
The King's Wall was superseded by the Flodden Wall, built in the aftermath of the devastating Battle of Flodden, in 1513. Expanding the city southwards for the first (and really only) time in its history, the Flodden Wall was built primarily by women, old people and children, as the working age, fighting age men of the city were all killed in the battle with England.
The Flodden Wall was built as a defence against any renewed attack by the English, and was 2 to 3 metres thick in places, and 7 metres high on average. It took around 60 years to finish building, and is made up of predominantly small pieces of stone, reflecting the less heavy workforce who constructed it.
Major sections of this wall have survived, notably along the line of the Vennel, just to the south of the Grassmarket, in Greyfriars Kirkyard, and along the line of the Pleasance at the eastern edge of the old city. The wall itself ran along the lane of St Mary's Street, to join back onto the Royal Mile at the World's End today, where a large fortified gateway called the Netherbow Port acted as the most heavily defenced entrance into the city.
The Flodden Wall has survived primarily because it was never tested in battle - the English never did push the advantage gained at the Battle of Flodden - and a century later the wall itself was extended.
The Telfer Wall
In 1624, following the death of George Heriot, a major figure in the court of James VI, the city was gifted a huge chunk of money to construct a hospital in Heriot's name. The city had no space on which to build a major hospital building, so part of the money was used to purchase land just outside the Flodden Wall, and to build an extension to that wall to run around it.
The wall was engineered by a man named John Taillfer, and in time became corrupted to Telfer, the name the wall has today. Sections of this short, third wall can still be found along the Vennel, where it joins with the Flodden Wall, and along Lauriston Place, along the edge of George Heriot's school today. It's interest to compare its style and colouring to the earlier wall, and to contrast the size of the stones form which its built - a century after Flodden the city had a heavy workforce available once again, and the Telfer Wall is made of predominantly large blocks of stone.
Together these three walls give a sense of the city's limits and protections, and offer an insight into how the city would have looked at different times in its history. To be able to touch stones which have stood on Edinburgh's streets for up to half a millennium also gives a palpable connection to the city's past.
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As we approach the centenary of the end of the First World War, there are many places across the country where commemorative events are being held, and Edinburgh has its own memorials for paying tribute to those who died during the conflict.
The Scottish National War Memorial is inside Edinburgh Castle, with books listing the deaths of service personnel from conflicts right across the twentieth century. The building itself was planned and commissioned after the First World War, and a conversion of a barracks block at the top of the castle was opened in 1927.
Over 147,000 names are contained within the lists in folders inside the memorial, recording deaths of soldiers under the unit and regiments in which they served. These were the deaths during World War One, and in the aftermath of World War Two a further 50,000 names were added.
Visitors can request copies of the listings with their relatives' names on them, but the space itself is a restful area inviting solemn reflection.
The losses to towns and villages between 1914 and 1918 were so immense that memorials were set up after the war around the country. A prominent feature in the centre of even a small town will be its war memorial, listing the names of those who lost their lives. Smaller communities were especially badly hit, with a disproportionately high number of deaths, and the memorials are an important way of not just recording but remembering the sacrifices that were made, and the impact they had on their communities left behind.
Even businesses set up memorials for employees who were lost in the war - the Royal Bank of Scotland offices on St Andrew Square in Edinburgh has two memorials to its staff who enlisted as soldiers, who were killed in both the First and Second World Wars.
There are numerous other sites around Edinburgh where war memorials stand - outside the City Chambers on the Royal Mile is a site where wreaths of poppies are laid, and every November a Garden of Remembrance is established at the foot of the Scott Monument in Princes Street Gardens, with a field of over 8,500 poppies commemorating named servicemen who lost their lives in the conflict.
The poppy is the symbol of remembrance in the UK, and during the two weeks leading up to the weekend nearest the 11th November - the date in 1918 when the armistice was declared - poppies are sold and worn across the country.
There are military memorials throughout Princes Street Gardens, commemorating specific units or conflicts, and at Haymarket to the west of the city centre stands a memorial clock erected by the Heart of Midlothian football club, commemorating players and club members who gave their lives during both the First and Second World Wars.
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One of the most prominent - and best recognised - features on Edinburgh's Royal Mile is its mercat cross, a traditional feature of Scottish towns and cities, and a reminder of Edinburgh's status as a trading town.
'Mercat' is an old Scots word for market, and a mercat cross marked out a town as having the royal charter or licence to hold a market. Having such a right allowed the towns to levy taxes, and so a mercat cross was an emblem of the town's status.
The cross would mark the central point of the town, where people would gather to do trade, and also became the point from which public proclamations would be made - announcing new laws or aspects of current news meant that everybody would be able to stay informed. Today the mercat cross in Edinburgh is still used to announce the calling of general election, along with notable royal proclamations.
In the eighteenth century, it was remarked by one visitor to Edinburgh that he could stand at the mercat cross and "can, in a few minutes, take fifty men of genius by the hand", such was the city's reputation as a centre of innovation.
Mercat crosses were also often the point where punishments would be meted out, a very public demonstration of the consequences or transgressing laws or customs. The square adjacent to Edinburgh's mercat cross was where high-status criminals would be executed, on a fearsome guillotine known as 'the Maiden'. As such the cross was essentially the heart of the city, in the middle of all the action and business of the town.
The crosses themselves were often built to a similar style or standard. Generally they were eight-sided structures - Edinburgh's is relatively large, but generally they might just have an octagonal pediment rather than anything more substantial - with a stone column in the middle, and then either a cross or a unicorn at the top. The unicorn is the national animal of Scotland, hence its prevalence in emblems and carvings across the country!
The cross in Edinburgh originally stood in the main line of the main street itself - in the eighteenth century the cross was dismantled and in 1885 parts of the original were reassembled on its current site, in a new octagonal 'drum house' structure paid for by William Gladstone, who had previously been Prime Minister of the United kingdom (and would later be PM again!).
The emblems around Edinburgh's mercat cross today represent districts and institutions in the city, and were recently repainted and the stonework cleaned.
A little further down the Royal Mile, visitors can still see a second mercat cross, that of the burgh of Canongate, which had formerly been an entirely separate town just beyond the city walls, granted its own right to hold a market. This rather unusual arrangement meant that Edinburgh developed a very important trading competitior just a few hundred yards outside of its city boundary, and Canongate remained separate and independent of Edinburgh until 1856.
Travellers around Scotland are advised to keep their eyes peeled to spot other crosses in towns across the country.
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When you visit Edinburgh, there's no reason to feel you have to spend every minute of every day in the city itself! There are plenty of destinations for day trips out of Edinburgh, and North Berwick is one such place where you can escape the city for a few hours.
Just a thirty-minute train ride from Waverley Station, or a 45-minute drive if you're travelling by car, North Berwick is a picturesque town on the East Lothian coast, and has been a popular destination for visitors since the rise of mass transit in the nineteenth century. Today it's a bustling seaside town with a variety of attractions, from its many cafes, restaurants, fish and chip shops and ice cream parlours to its surrounding golf courses.
The sandy beaches which run along the edge of the town offer access to the chilly North Sea, for those who are brave enough to take the plunge, and give views across the Firth of Forth to Fife, and back towards Edinburgh. The Scottish Seabird Centre in the middle of the beaches is a popular and interactive attraction keeping visitors informed about the colonies of gannets along the adjacent coastline, as well as the wealth of other avian wildlife and natural heritage of the area. The centre offers regular boat trips throughout the year to observe birds in their natural habitat.
Berwick Law is the conical hill which rises behind the town itself, a similar volcanic feature to Edinburgh's Arthur's Seat, which offers walkers an opportunity to stretch their legs and rewards those who climb to the top with uninterrupted views across the whole surrounding landscape. The top of the hill is marked with a modern replica of the whalebone arches which have stood on the site since 1709. Structures at the top of the hill also mark it as a former site of military lookout posts from the Napoleonic and Second World Wars, and remains of Iron Age settlements can be found on the landscape around the summit.
For those travelling by car, a visit to nearby Dirleton or Tantallon castles are worth considering - the former on the way into North Berwick from Edinburgh, the latter on a clifftop further east, overlooking the distinctive Bass Rock, with its colony of gannets (the world's largest such colony!), the rock itself coloured a speckled white from the effects of so many birds occupying it...
North Berwick is also one of the sites along the John Muir Way, a coast-to-coast pathway across Scotland, from Helensburgh in the west to nearby Dunbar in the east. Muir was a naturalist and conservationist, born in Dunbar, who is known as the father of America's National Parks, having helped institute the National Parks Service in the early twentieth century. The John Muir Way stretches right across Scotland's central belt and takes in a number of beaches and coastal pathways leading through North Berwick and the surrounding areas.
So there are plenty of reasons to take time away from Edinburgh to explore a bit further afield - and with regular train services every day, it couldn't be easier to factor a visit to North Berwick into your plans!
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Standing on the corner of Princes Street and the Mound in the New town, a rather dapper looking figure stands looking down on the shoppers and passersby. This is Allan Ramsay, an Edinburgh man notable for establishing the world's first circulating library, and today remembered for his former home in the buildings which bear his name adjacent to Edinburgh Castle itself, Ramsay Garden.
Ramsay had been born in Lanarkshire in 1686, and by 1701 had settled in Edinburgh as an apprentice wig-maker. At the turn of the eighteenth century wigs were worn by men as a form of status symbol, elaborate constructions of human, goat or horse hair that often fell in ringlets below a man's shoulders, or were elevated to a significant height as a means of increasing their wearer's sense of physical stature. They were expensive products and were created by skilled craftsmen whose reputations rested on their ability to create ever newer and greater objects for their customers to display in public.
By 1712 Ramsay had become a well-known wig-maker of excellent reputation with premises on the High Street (today's Royal Mile) for the richest and most high status customers to buy.
His love of reading and literature saw Ramsay join the Easy Club, a cultural group established to celebrate traditional Scots writing just after the union with England in 1707, when many features of Scots culture were threatened with extinction. From this association Ramsay began writing, and by 1718 was a successful enough poet to turn his wig shop into a bookshop. Some people have credited Ramsay's early writing with being a major influence on the careers of Robert Fergusson, and later Robert Burns.
In time Ramsay's bookshop mutated into the world's first organised circulating library, a cultural hub for readers to borrow books, magazines and periodicals and take them away in order to peruse them at leisure, and then return them for other readers to enjoy.
The modern notion of a library providing such access free of charge is quite different from the original circulating library system, where members where charged an annual subscription fee in order to have access to the collections of materials available. The early function of such organisations was not primarily an educational one, as might be expected, but a capitalist one - to profit from those who had money to spend on such memberships.
In Edinburgh, the rise of the Enlightenment ideals and the city's relative affluence made Ramsay's library a roaring success, and he was able to spend time focusing on his own writing, penning not just poems but also dramas, his 1725 pastoral play The Gentle Shepherd being performed and celebrated as a work of theatre in his own lifetime.
Ramsay opened a theatre on Carubbers Close, off the High Street, which was opposed by the religious fervour of the Calvinists, and later forced to close. Ramsay railed against the dour principles of the Presbyterian church in some of his poems of this time.
In 1740 Ramsay retired to the house he had built for himself, still seen on the land immediately east of Edinburgh Castle - the cream and orange coloured building at the top of the Royal Mile is called Ramsay Garden, and the central structure - Ramsay's original home - was popularly known during his own lifetime as 'Goose Pie House' because of its octagonal shape.
Ramsay died in 1743 and in buried in the Greyfriars Kirkyard, where a memorial on the side of the church building celebrates his life. The statue of Ramsay on Princes Street was carved by John Steell, and ensures that Ramsay is still visibly commemorated in the city where he made most impact during his lifetime.
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Edinburgh Expert Walking Tours is run by Gareth Davies, an adopted native of Edinburgh since 1998...