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!
Every private Edinburgh walking tour includes my personalised information service, with tips and ideas for things to see and do in Edinburgh during your trip.
Although I have only limited availability for private tours during August, I am running a small group public tour throughout August at 10am and 12pm, to offer a brief introduction to the city whilst trying to avoid some of the festival crowds!
Every year I lead a different route, with a different theme, and the theme for 2018 is: FIRSTS AND LASTS.
So our meander through the city will be strewn with stories of notable firsts and lasts from Edinburgh's history. Things like:
Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Edinburgh was a focal point for a huge amount of scientific research. medical pioneering, social advancements, philosophical pursuits and literary development. Uncover some of these moments of history in this fun and informative Old Town and Royal Mile tour!
Each tour lasts approximately 90 minutes, and will showcase some highlights and hidden gems of the city's history, along with stories of some of my favourite 'firsts' (and a few notable 'lasts'!) associated with Edinburgh.
The Edinburgh Festival Fringe is the world's largest arts festival, with over 3,000 performances taking place every single day of August. Each of my tours is limited to just 10 people, for a more personal experience, but this means it is essential to pre-book your tickets!
Tickets can be bought online through the Edinburgh Festival Fringe box office, or via telephone on + 44 (0) 131 226 0000.
Tours meet at Fringe venue 363, the statue of William Playfair, outside the National Museum of Scotland on Chambers Street, and return there at the end of the walk.
Tickets just £12 (adults) and £10 (concessions).
Previews from 1 - 3 August, all tickets £10.
Family tickets and 2-for-1 offers available to Friends of the Fringe.
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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On 18 May 1650, the Marquess of Argyle was hosting a wedding party on the occasion of his son's marriage to the daughter of the Earl of Moray - the venue was Moray House, a grand townhouse on the Canongate, which had been built in 1625 and had been described as the most handsome house in the whole of Edinburgh.
Just as today you might hire a country house hotel for your family wedding, Moray House was a sumptuous setting for the nuptials, with spectacular gardens to the rear with views that overlooked Arthur's Seat, and on the front of the building a stone balcony which allowed those inside the building to look out onto the bustling Canongate.
Later that same year the house would be requisitioned by Oliver Cromwell as he brought the English army to Edinburgh, en route to take Edinburgh Castle, but in the late spring May sunshine an almost equally dramatic event was about to unfold on the balcony which can still be seen from the Royal Mile today.
The date of the Argyll family wedding coincided with the date of the execution of the Marquess of Montrose, a long-time enemy of the Argylls. The two families had fought on opposite sides of the Civil War, with Montrose supporting the English forces whilst Argyll defended the integrity and culture of Scotland. Montrose had been captured some weeks prior to the Argyll wedding, had been put on trial for treason, and having been found guilty as a traitor to Scotland was sentenced to be executed at St Giles' Cathedral, in the heart of the city.
There are differing versions of what may have transpired that day, but the more dramatic telling of the story which I favour has it that Argyll saw the opportunity to make a bold statement of vengeance against his enemy, and had arranged with the prison authorities for the prisoner Montrose to be brought down to Moray House before the execution, and to have him dropped in the roadway beneath the balcony, where tour buses and visitors pass by today.
All the guests at the wedding were then invited out onto the balcony, to spit onto Montrose, to show their contempt for him, and their commitment to the Argyll family. And then, having been roundly spat on, Montrose was dragged back up the Royal Mile to St Giles where his execution took place.
So, not a good day for Montrose, but everyone at the Argyll wedding said it was the best one they'd ever been to!
Montrose's head was removed and his limbs distributed to Glasgow, Stirling, Perth and Aberdeen as a warning to other would-be traitors. His head was placed on the highest spike above the Tolbooth prison of Edinburgh.
Unfortunately for Argyll, the political tables in Scotland were ever turning, and almost ten years to the day later, in 1661, Montrose's corpse was being dug up from its grave - and his limbs returned from the four cities - to be given a commemorative funeral procession through the city, followed by burial inside St Giles (where his tomb can still be seen today).
It was Argyll's turn to face execution for treason! On 27 May 1661, Argyll was executed on the Maiden, the guillotine that can still be seen in the National Museum of Scotland on Chambers Street, with his head being placed on the same spike that had held the head of his enemy Montrose for the previous decade. A memorial to Argyll can also be found within St Giles' Cathedral today.
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On 1 May 1707, the formal Acts of Union which brought Scotland and England together under one government for the first time in their respective histories came into effect.
The two nations had been under one monarch for nearly a century, after the so-called Union of Crowns in 1603.
But separate governments had managed the power in the separate countries, with England ruled from London whilst Scotland was governed from the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh, which at that time sat in the buildings adjacent to St Giles' Cathedral on the Royal Mile. The area today is still named Parliament Square.
A number of efforts had been made to bring the two countries under one government during the seventeenth century, although Oliver Cromwell had separated out the three nations (Scotland, England and Ireland) under his so-called Commonwealth during the interregnum between Charles I and the restoration of the monarchy with Charles II. But it was really only after the ill-fated Darien expedition, which had sought to settle a new colony of Scots on the narrow strip of land between North and South America which made the political union between the countries an economic necessity.
The company behind the risky recolonisation was funded with almost a fifth of all of the money circulating in Scotland at the time (equivalent to about £48m today), which was lost when the venture failed catastrophically. The English government was persuaded to bail out the financial losses that threatened to cripple Scotland, leading to the stabilising of currency rates between the Scots and English pounds, and ultimately to the establishment of the Royal Bank of Scotland.
In order to save Scotland from financial ruin, a union between the two countries would allow England to provide support to the nation under a favourable funding arrangement, and it was this need for stability which helped to further the cause for those seeking a political union in Scotland.
In 1707, the Scottish parliament in Edinburgh acted to make itself obsolete as it voted in favour of the union with England, and on the day the final treaties between the two countries were signed the bells of St Giles' Cathedral rang out the tune Why Should I Be So Sad on My Wedding Day? - a sign of the lack of public support for the union itself!
The novelist Daniel Defoe, at that time a spy in Edinburgh on behalf of the English government, reported that for every Scot in favour of the union, there were 99 against it - not an auspicious level of support for a momentous political union.
The second Duke of Queensberry, resident at Queensberry House on the Royal Mile, was considered instrumental in securing the union, with his dedication to bribing the lords and landowners of Scotland for their assent to the union. Many families were gifted tracts of land in England - helping to expand their power and their economic potential - in exchange for support to the union. (It is pleasingly ironic that the home of a man who helped to secure the union with England is now incorporated into the modern Scottish parliament building...)
Signatures to the act of union were allegedly added in the modest summerhouse in the gardens of Moray House, today part of the University of Edinburgh. A structure believed to be part of the original summerhouse survives, and is visible in the university car park from Holyrood Road.
On 1 May 1707, Scotland and England formally entered joint rule under a single government, and remained that way until 1997, when in recognition of a majority level of support for self-governance among the Scottish people, permission was given for Scotland to establish a devolved parliament.
When the new Scottish parliament sat for the first time, at the Assembly Hall off the Lawnmarket, on 12 May 1999, the session was opened by the oldest elected MSP, Dr Winnie Ewing, with the words: "I want to start with the words that I have always wanted either to say or to hear someone else say - the Scottish Parliament, which adjourned on March 25, 1707, is hereby reconvened."
After nearly 300 years, the control of Scottish politics was back in the hands of the Scots.
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Visitors to Edinburgh often see little of the city beyond the overcrowded tourist hotspots of the Royal Mile and the Old Town - frequently not even venturing as far as the historic New Town!
I'm always keen to encourage a wider exploration of Edinburgh's features, hence this occasional series highlighting areas further from the city centre that are worth exploring - previously I've written about Bruntsfield and Stockbridge.
Duddingston village is less a suburb of the city and more a historic outpost of Edinburgh, nestled at the base of the eastern side of Holyrood Park, behind Arthur's Seat. Sheep were grazed on the slopes of the park until the 1970s, and traditionally would have been slaughtered at Duddingston before being taken for sale in Edinburgh itself.
The area's chief 'claim to fame' is as the home of Scotland's oldest pub, the Sheep Heid, where a tavern or inn has been sited since 1360. The village of Duddingston was on the historic route between the Palace of Holyroodhouse and Craigmillar Castle, and it marked a convenient stopping point for travellers between the two. It is reputed that Mary, Queen of Scots may have played skittles (a form of ten pin bowling) in the Sheep Heid's courtyard.
Bonnie Prince Charlie - the Young Pretender - lodged his forces at Duddingston in advance of the Battle of Prestonpans in 1745, a key moment in the Jacobite Uprisings of the 18th century.
At the centre of the village is Duddingston Kirk, a church with its origins traced back as far as 1124. This picturesque church is entered through a gateway at which visitors can still see the guard house built to dissuade bodysnatchers from digging up graves in the early nineteenth-century, along with a mounting block for horse riders to use to mount their steeds, and a set of 'jougs', a steel collar attached to a chain cemented into the wall of the graveyard, where those accused of petty offences would be subjected to a period of public humiliation for their crimes.
Famous residents of Duddingston include John Thomson, a former reverend of the church, who gave rise to a popular folk saying in Scotland - 'We're a' Jock Tamson's Bairns' - we're all equal in the eyes of God.
Jean Carfrae Pinkerton, wife of Allan Pinkerton who founded the Pinkerton's National Detective Agency in America in the 1850s (now part of Securitas), was born in Duddingston. Pinkerton played a major role in foiling the attempted assassination of Abraham Lincoln in 1861.
The nearby Duddingston Loch was the setting for Henry Raeburn's iconic portrait of the Reverend Robert Walker, Skating on Duddingston Loch - better known as the Skating Minister - which can be seen in the National Gallery of Scotland.
The village is worth a visit to escape the city centre briefly, with access to Holyrood Park and the main cycle path along the the nearby Innocent Railway line.
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Here's the final instalment of my alphabetical exploration of Edinburgh, featuring the letters V, W, and Y, with a couple of cheaty entries for X and Z! Links to the previous posts can be found at the bottom of the article.
THE LETTER V
V is for the Vennel, a narrow lane running off the Grassmarket. The Scots word 'vennel' described any such lane, similar to the 'ginnel' of northern England, but whereas Edinburgh has many of the 'closes' and 'wynds' that were the local names for the alleys, the city today has just one vennel.
From the Grassmarket, the steep steps leading up the Vennel doubtless put off many from exploring it, but climbing the steps is rewarded with an unparalleled view across to Edinburgh Castle. (If the steps look familiar, it may be from the film version of Muriel Spark's Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, in which the lane featured in 1969...)
At the top of the steps, you can also see not one but two of the defensive walls which enclosed the southern side of Edinburgh, the Flodden Wall (built after 1513) and the Telfer Wall (c.1620s). The junction of these two walls offers a chance to contrast the building style and materials of each wall, and give a sense of how imposing the walls would have been to visitors approaching from the south.
THE LETTER W
W is for White Horse Close, one of the picturesque lanes off the Royal Mile near Holyrood. The building at the head of the lane was formerly the White Horse Inn, which was the coaching inn where visitors would have arrived into Edinburgh during the seventeenth century.
Stage coaches ran regularly along the Great North Road, connecting London and Edinburgh, roughly along the line of the A1 and M1 motorway today. In the early days of the service, it could take anywhere from ten to fourteen days to travel between the two cities, and on arrival in Edinburgh visitors would have been accommodated in this lane at the foot of the Royal Mile.
Although the lane is an attractive example of Edinburgh's old lanes, it's not entirely authentic, as the building of the White Horse Inn itself was rebuilt from scratch in the 1960s, preserving the external appearance of the original building, but refitting its interior for a more modern function...
THE LETTER X
X is the shape formed by the St Andrew's Cross, which forms the primary figure on the flag of Scotland, known as the Saltire. You'll find the Saltire in various forms and on numerous flags around the city, taken from the particular crucifix on which St Andrew (Scotland's patron saint) was martyred.
THE LETTER Y
Y is for James Young Simpson, one of the city's most important sons - although the middle name 'Young' was acquired at university, which he attended at the age of just 14. He was later appointed president of the Royal Medical Society of Edinburgh at the age of just 24.
Simpson is best known as a pioneer of anaesthetics, which he specifically developed as an aid to childbirth. He lived at 52 Queen Street in the New town, and is rumoured to have discovered the properties of chloroform after a dinner party, at which he invited his guests to inhale from various liquids he'd brought from his laboratory at the medical school.
Queen Victoria was one of the first women for whom chloroform made the process of childbirth less painful (and less dangerous), in 1853, and was so pleased by its effects that she made Simpson her private physician in Scotland. He became the first man to be knighted for services to medicine, and was offered a prestigious burial within Westminster Abbey in London, but elected to be buried closer to home at Warriston Cemetery in Edinburgh, when 100,000 people lined the route of his funeral procession to pay tribute to him.
THE LETTER Z
Z is for the shape of the original route into Edinburgh from the west. Stretching from the Grassmarket to the Lawnmarket was the West Bow, a snaking, almost switch-back incline that saved visitors an almost two-mile detour to the bottom of the Royal Mile itself.
In the 1830s, as Edinburgh was experiencing efforts to improve its accessibility, Johnston Terrace and George IV Bridge were constructed to save travellers the treacherous climb of West Bow, and the road was extended and partly renamed Victoria Street.
The lane today claims some of the dreaded Harry Potter connections, being a (speculative) inspiration for Diagon Alley - although at least two other streets in the city claim the same influence!
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Edinburgh Expert Walking Tours is run by Gareth Davies, an adopted native of Edinburgh since 1998...