There's a matryoshka doll quality to some of Edinburgh's historic buildings, with spaces to be discovered within other spaces, and history found within other historical features. Old College of the University of Edinburgh is one such building, being worth visiting by itself (and featuring on a number of my Edinburgh walking tours) but also boasting one of the city's great art galleries within its walls.
The Talbot Rice Gallery, named for the university's professor of fine art between 1934 and 1972, occupies the upper levels of the quad building, designed originally by Robert Adam and William Henry Playfair. It's a free entry gallery hosting contemporary exhibitions of paintings and sculpture, and offering a glimpse of the interior style of Old College itself.
Located in what was previously an exhibition hall within Old College, the Talbot Rice Gallery opened in 1975. It offers a classical space under a vaulted ceiling supported by Playfair's Grecian ionic columns, as well as a 'white box' contemporary-feeling exhibition space, and feels a million miles from the busy city streets just a few metres away outside.
Both spaces have a lower and upper viewing area, creating a tremendous sense of space and light, with skylights allowing natural light to flood the spaces as needed.
Accessing the upper levels of the classical space also allows visitors to appreciate the style and decoration of the space, with ornate plasterwork on the arches and architraves and cast iron balustrades in typical 19th-century designs.
William Playfair's Greek-influenced interior spaces contrast with the order and symmetry of the classical exterior of the building, which was Robert Adam's vision when he designed the original structure at the end of the 18th century. Taken together the inside and outside offer visions of two contrasting architectural styles, not just from different designers but from different centuries - and visiting the Talbot Rice Gallery is one way of visitors being able to appreciate those contrasts and differences.
The gallery is open to the public year round, although dates of exhibitions may mean it is closed for installation on occasion, so do check their website for details before planning a visit. Special events and public lectures from visiting artists and critics bring an added dimension to the gallery's stated goal of "exploring how the University of Edinburgh can contribute to contemporary art production today and into the future".
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Edinburgh is a city that isn't entirely short on green space, with areas like Holyrood Park, the Meadows and Princes Street Gardens providing valuable parkland for locals and visitors to enjoy.
But as well as these, and plenty of smaller local park spaces across the Old and New Towns - in part an innovation of Patrick Geddes, a nineteenth century planner and heritage figure who championed the creation of public green spaces in overcrowded cities - is the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE), an expanse of space which offers the opportunity to get lost amongst trees and plants and reconnect with nature.
The gardens themselves were initially created in 1670 as part of Holyrood Park itself, adjacent to the royal palace (hence its royal connections). Just a few years later the gardens had grown and were moved to a new site in the valley where Waverley railway station is today - a plaque inside the station commemorates that the gardens were on this site for a time, before being moved again to the bottom of Leith Walk a century later, in the 1760s. Shortly after, in the 1820s, the garden was moved again - uprooted and replanted - to its current location at Inverleith, at the bottom of the New Town and providing views across towards the city skyline.
There are two entrances into 'the botanics', as they're known - the west gate has a modern complex housing a cafe, giftshop and (yes!) a garden centre, for visitors to purchase their own plants and botanical-themed gifts. The east gate is marked with a huge stainless steel gateway cast in the shape of hundreds of flowers.
The gardens themselves are laid out over 70 acres, with ponds, lawns, and themed garden spaces made up of more them 13,000 species of plants. Each specimen is noted and identified with labels, and information panels throughout the space highlight particular features or specific plants and trees of scientific or cultural interest.
This field elm, for example, is one of only four known trees of this species in the entire world - and Edinburgh has three of them!
As well as valuable collections of rare and special plants, the gardens include a glasshouse of tropical and temperate plants species, and collections of national plants from China and Japan, you can feel small as you stand beneath towering sequoias or just relax beside babbling water features that cascade through rocky alpine landscapes.
In the botanics it's very easy to forget you're in the heart of a major capital city - yet it's only a short walk or a bus ride away!
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First thing to clear up, there are only two cathedrals in Edinburgh, and they're both called St Mary's. (St Giles' Cathedral, on the Royal Mile, isn't technically a cathedral but a high kirk...) One of the St Mary's is a Catholic cathedral, to be found at the east end of the New Town, but this post is about the episcopal St Mary's cathedral, which can be found at the west end of the New Town.
It's notable because the building has three tall spires which reach up over the city skyline, meaning that the cathedral can be seen from a variety of viewpoints and outlooks in the city. But the building itself is often overlooked by visitors, perhaps because it's a little further from the traditional tourism area of the Old Town, but perhaps also because of its reputation.
One of my favourite guidebooks to Edinburgh, written with a dry sense of humour, describes St Mary's cathedral as: "worth seeing, but not worth going to see"...!
Despite that phrasing, I think the building is rather interesting, so here is my short appraisal of it.
St Mary's is not actually as old as might be assumed from looking at it. Construction on the spires, which were a later phase of development from the body of the kirk, so to speak, was only completed in 1917. The land on which it was built was an estate owned by the Walker family, stretching from the Dean Village to the north all the way up to Charlotte Square, having been purchased by William Walker in the early 19th century.
On William's death, the land passed to his wife and three children. The eldest son, Sir Patrick Walker, oversaw the development of Walker Street, Manor Place, William Street, Coates Places - all survive today, with their grand late-Georgian terraces now serving as a mix of offices, residential and commercial properties.
After the death of Patrick, sisters Barbara and Mary Walker took over managing and developing the family estate. In 1850 the sisters drew up the first plans to create a church large enough to accommodate a congregation of 1,500 people, between Manor Place and Palmerston Place. They stipulated that the church should be named in honour of their mother, and so the plans to build St Mary's cathedral began taking shape.
From an original budget of £30,000 - equivalent to just over £5m today - the cost of the church eventually topped off at £110,000. Barbara died at the end of the 1850s, and it wasn't until shortly before Mary's death that a competition was launched to source an architect to handle the building's design. The final structure was the work of Sir George Gilbert Scott, a notable designer from the Gothic Revival tradition who also designed the Albert Memorial in London for Queen Victoria, the Midland Grand hotel at St Pancras Station in London, the main building of the University of Glasgow, and parts of the Whitehall collection of offices which house functions of the British Government today.
The central spire of Scott's church is 90m tall, making it the tallest structure in Edinburgh city centre, and the two shorter spires added to the western end of the building later became known locally as Barbara and Mary, after the Walker sisters themselves.
The church remains active and functional, and is known for its acoustic qualities which has led to it being used for a variety of musical events - choirs, chamber orchestra recitals and so on - for which its rather impressive organ is often deployed.
One of the stained glass windows in the cathedral was designed by Eduardo Paolozzi, the father of pop art, whilst one of the buildings in the cathedral's grounds dates back to around 1610. The large cross which hangs above the nave inside the church was created by Robert Lorimer as part of his war memorial, one of many which he designed and built cross Scotland in the years after the First World War.
Otherwise the interior design is also considered to be a curious mixture of architectural styles which borrow from a variety of other iconic churches across Europe, perhaps leading to its rather unfortunate reputation for not being worth visiting.
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