EDINBURGH EXPERT WALKING TOURS - BLOG
EDINBURGH EXPERT WALKING TOURS - BLOG
In a recent survey of all the major cities in Britain, Edinburgh came out on top with the highest percentage of green space of any other city in the UK - 49% of Edinburgh's city centre is covered by parks and gardens, the majority of them open and accessible to the public.
Here's my top picks of the city's open areas that you may want to visit while you're here!
The largest of the city's parks is also a royal parkland, owned by the monarch and also known as either the King's Park or Queen's Park. Access to Holyrood Park can be gained from a variety of places around its perimeter, but for most visitors the obvious entry point is from the bottom of Royal Mile, across from the Scottish Parliament building and adjacent to Holyrood Palace itself.
The park offers a variety of paths across and through it, and it remains an incredibly popular spot for visitors and locals alike. The eastern side of the park provides a route down to the village of Duddingston, a picturesque village with the oldest church in the east of Scotland, and what is reputed to be the oldest surviving pub in the whole of Scotland, the Sheep Heid.
For those who don't want to climb to the summit of Arthur's Seat, in the centre of the park, the Queen's Drive offers a picturesque route to walk, cycle or drive through the park, with space to stop alongside St Margaret's Loch, a small artificial lake that is home to local ducks, swans and geese.
To the south of the Royal Mile, this low lying area was formerly a swampy marshland, which provided not just a defensive function to the city, but was also a water supply known as the Burgh Loch. In the eighteenth century the land was drained in order to create communal parkland where sheep would graze, and into the Victorian period it became an especially popular piece of land for locals, with its paths lined with cherry trees, and its wide expanses of flat land.
Today the Meadows remains popular with locals, especially during the summer when its proximity to the university district makes it a haven for students gathering to soak up the sunshine, or to enjoy a barbecue. It is also the site of venues during the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, hosting circus events in a number of big tops erected on the grass.
At the eastern end of the park is a children's play area, with tennis courts nearby.
PRINCES STREET GARDENS
Originally built as private gardens for the wealthy citizens living in the grand New Town housing along Princes Street, the gardens here are today public, and remain popular with visitors and locals alike. With glorious views of the castle at the western end, and overlooked by the National Galleries of Scotland towards the east, the gardens are the dividing line between the Old and New Towns, and give a spectacular sense of the city's growth in the eighteenth century, as the city grew from the medieval city on the rock to the luxurious developments to the north.
Look out for the floral clock, planted every summer since 1903, near the entrance into the western gardens from the Mound, and the newly restored Ross Memorial Fountain at the base of the castle rock itself. On the eastern side of the Mound, the iconic Scott Monument gives you a more elevated sense of the city.
The gardens are also home to a significant number of statues and memorials - look out for Wojtek the bear, a memorial to Robert Louis Stevenson, and a statue of the explorer and missionary David Livingstone, among others. During the summer you may be able to enjoy live music from the bandstand in the centre of the park itself.
DUNBAR'S CLOSE GARDEN
A true hidden gem, which even many locals don't know about, is this small public garden space tucked away down one of the Old Town lanes near the Canongate Kirk.
The lanes originally provided access to the luxurious garden spaces built behind the grander housing that lined the bottom end of the Royal Mile, and Dunbar's Close Garden was created in the 1970s as a recreation of what these original garden spaces might have looked like.
A gravel path leads you through exquisitely planted sections with aromatic flowers and bushes - a key tool in the Old Town's battle with filth and unpleasant smells - with benches for visitors to sit and enjoy the peace and quiet. A small lawn at the bottom of the pathway attracts families looking for a picnic site in the heart of the city, and it's possible to forget for a moment or two that you're right in the midst of this bustling town.
Explore more of Edinburgh's parks and gardens with my private city walking tours!
Edinburgh as it is seen today has been shaped over its history by a wide variety of figures and influencers who have left their mark. People like Queen Victoria and Prince Albert made physical changes to the city itself; architects like William Playfair and Robert Adam created the style that can still be seen across the Old and New Towns; and cultural figures like Walter Scott helped to promote the city to start the visitor industry which thrives today.
Another figure to list alongside these local heroes is William Chambers, who was Lord Provost (city mayor) between 1865 and 1869, to whom the city owes a tremendous debt - here are five major effects that Chambers should be remembered for...
Edinburgh's Improvement Acts
Starting in the 1860s, Edinburgh's Old Town underwent a huge program of redevelopment, as the medieval-style structures along the lanes of the Royal Mile were proactively demolished and rebuilt to upgrade and modernise the city's poor quality housing. William Chambers was the man who led the efforts, pushing through a series of laws which made provision for the systematic improvement of the Old Town, widening the narrow closes and improving the standard of living for the thousands of people who lived there.
St Mary's Street, stretching from the World's End junction of the Royal Mile, was formerly a narrower lane called St Mary's Wynd, and the houses at the northern end of the street were the first properties built as part of Chambers's improvements. The majority of the Old Town as it stands today dates back to this period of 1860s - 1880s, and without this wholesale effort to rejuvenate the city it's doubtful that Edinburgh would have survived as well as it has.
As part of this city-wide improvement, one major thoroughfare was created which bears William Chambers's name - Chambers Street runs between George IV Bridge and South Bridge, and was previously a narrow road called College Street.
The road ran alongside the Old College of the University of Edinburgh (as it still does), but under Chambers's improvement program College Street was widened and new buildings commissioned along its length on both sides.
Today most of the buildings on the northern side of the street are associated with the University of Edinburgh (as well as Old College on the southern side) but the biggest development on the street is the National Museum of Scotland, which takes up two-thirds of the whole block.
The foundation stone for the museum was laid in October 1861 by Prince Albert, his last public act before his death in December of that year. The modern wing of the museum opened in 1998. A statue of William Chambers himself stands outside the museum.
St Giles' Cathedral Renovation
William Chambers was also responsible for supporting a major renovation of St Giles' Cathedral in the 1870s. The removal of old buildings earlier in the century had cleared space around the cathedral, and it had become apparent that the building - 700 years old at that point - was in a very poor state of repair.
Internally, too, the church had previously become cluttered, the space having been previously subdivided to house four separate churches under one roof. William Chambers financed a major renovation to create, in his words, a 'Westminster Abbey for Scotland'. The outside walls were cleaned and repaired, and the church tidied up on the inside, to create one major internal space for the first time since the 1630s.
A memorial to William Chambers can still be found inside the church itself.
Chambers English Dictionary
Chambers's profession had been a publisher and bookseller, with a shop on Broughton Street in the New Town. Along with his brother Robert he established a publishing house, and in the 1870s they first published their Chambers English Dictionary - the book remains in print, although modern editions have only been published in digital format. The thirteenth edition of the Chambers Dictionary was published in 2014.
In its early days the dictionary was notable for its accessible and wryly constructed definitions of words, such as describing an eclair as "a cake, long in shape but short in duration"...! Until 2005 Chambers Dictionary was used by the international Scrabble organisation, to provide the words recognised in their Official Scrabble Words dictionary.
Probably the most enduring gift that William Chambers gave to Edinburgh is one of its most popular local myths. In 1867, at a time when stray dogs in the city were liable to find themselves rounded up and drowned in the Water of Leith, Chambers bought a licence for one stray dog who had started to garner attention from visitors to Greyfriars Kirkyard.
The story of a former nightwatchman's dog sleeping on his master's grave was appealing to visitors even at that time, and William Chambers realised that, alongside the improvements to the city, Bobby could offer a valuable boost to the city's visitor profile. The licence he bought had no time limit - it would last in perpetuity - and thus the legend of Greyfriars Bobby was born!
Bobby would reputedly spend 14 years sleeping on his master's grave, and visitors can still view the licence, collar and bowl that William Chambers bought for Bobby in the Museum of Edinburgh, on the Canongate section of the Royal Mile. Bobby's grave and statue remain popular highlights for visitors even today.
Find out more about other local heroes with my private Edinburgh walking tours!
One of the most common enquiries I get from visitors planning a trip to Edinburgh relates to the Old Town's reputation for having an underground or hidden city beneath the surface of the streets.
There is a degree of truth to this, although it's worth noting that, in the spirit of attracting tourists, the 'underground' features of Edinburgh are not always quite what they might seem.
Built on a dense rib of volcanic rock, the practicalities of digging deep into the landscape was a problem for even very early settlers - Edinburgh Castle's great weakness was its lack of water supply, with only a relatively shallow well dug into its rock to hold rainwater. So the imagery of an underground city beneath the streets is somewhat inaccurate - as are the descriptions of catacombs or tunnels beneath the Royal Mile.
But here are three 'underground' features in the city that may be worth exploring.
MARY KING'S CLOSE
Streaming off the Royal Mile down the steep landscape on either side are a series of narrow lanes, the 'closes' or 'wynds' of the medieval city. Mary King's Close was one such lane, that was originally open to the sky with towering blocks of tenement housing rising up on either side of the street. Edinburgh was a vertical city rather than a horizontal one for much of its history, resulting in densely packed structures reaching up to 12 storeys high in places.
During the eighteenth century, plans were drawn up for a Royal Exchange, an area of trade offices and business premises in the heart of the Old Town. Unfortunately, as throughout its history, there was little open land available for development, and so the decision was made to partially demolish the buildings along the line of Mary King's Close, to reduce the structures to the level of the Royal Mile. Having taken the tops off the houses, the Royal Exchange building (today the City Chambers) was built over the structures that survived on the hillside below the level of the High Street.
Mary King's Close thus became 'underground', concealed beneath the newer building, and the street remains there today, cobbled and running down between two lines of structures, where costumed guides will lead you through the buildings to give you an atmospheric sense of Edinburgh's past.
The only genuinely 'underground' attraction in the city is located a little further from the city centre. Beneath the major junction of Gilmerton crossroads is a network of tunnels carved out of the sandstone of the area, and they remain one of the city's genuine mysteries - local historians can't agree on when the tunnels were created, by whom, for what purpose, or even how extensive they are.
Some people suggest they date back to Roman or even pre-historic times, while others suggest they were created much more recently, in the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries. The scale of the network makes it unlikely one single person was responsible for them, but there's no record or evidence of an organised period of construction and development.
Chambers with what seem to be seating or tables surfaces have been carved from the stone, and narrow tunnels connects them together, accessible only through a small flight of stairs taking you beneath the modern building visible at street level.
This is my most highly recommended 'hidden gem' of Edinburgh - take a brief tour with one of the local historians to find out some of the theories and ideas about the tunnels, and then take a torch and a hard hat to explore them further on your own, at your leisure... if you dare!
SOUTH BRIDGE VAULTS
Running over the glacial valley to the south of Royal Mile are two elevated roadways, South Bridge and George IV Bridge, built to improve access into the city in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Both bridges run on a series of arches over the landscape, concealed by the buildings constructed alongside each of them, and these vaulted spaces beneath the roadways are still there, and many remain accessible.
George IV Bridge hosts a major festival venue called Underbelly during the summer, with performance spaces in the old arches of the bridge itself. But it is South Bridge, the older of the two developments, which is accessible year-round by visitors on ghost tours.
The bridge was built in the 1780s, and following the increase in population in the city at that time, many poorer families moved into the enclosed, subterranean arches to make their homes in these dank, dark spaces. The vaults were forgotten about following efforts in the nineteenth century to move people into better quality housing, when the spaces were closed off to prevent people moving back into them. They were only rediscovered by accident in the 1980s, and have since become popular spaces for ghost tours, nurturing a reputation for being prodigiously haunted...
Explore more of Edinburgh's above-ground history and features with my private city walking tours!
Of the hundreds of statuesque figures which are dotted around Edinburgh - almost one statue for every street corner! - there are a handful of works produced by the same contemporary artist, Alexander Stoddart.
Stoddart was born in Edinburgh in 1959, and studied fine art and History of Art in Glasgow. He was appointed Queen's sculptor in Ordinary in Scotland in 2008, a member of the royal household in Scotland - the first such post holder was fellow Edinburger Sir John Steell, appointed by Queen Victoria in the 1830s.
Stoddart is responsible for some of the most prominent memorials in Edinburgh - look out for these familiar faces as you explore the city!
JAMES CLERK MAXWELL
Sitting at the eastern end of George Street in the New Town is James Clerk Maxwell, one of the most important and influential physicists of the nineteenth century. Maxwell shaped scientific development and thought in a variety of fields, influencing figures such as Albert Einstein, who mounted a portrait of Maxwell in his office.
Maxwell demonstrated that every colour of light operates on a different wavelength, and associated with this it was Maxwell who produced the world's first colour photograph, in Edinburgh in 1861. He also used pure maths to demonstrate that the rings of Saturn could only be made up of small pieces of dust and rock, a theory only proven with imagery in the 1970s.
David Hume was a major figure during the Scottish Enlightenment period, and is considered by many to be the greatest philosopher who ever wrote in the English language.
Born on the Lawnmarket in Edinburgh's Old Town, Hume studied at the University of Edinburgh in his early teens, before travelling through Europe and returning to the city to publish books on a variety of subjects, from human nature and religion to British history. He was later appointed librarian at the Advocate's Library, attached to the former parliament buildings on the Royal Mile.
Widely considered to be an atheist - and having written lengthy rebuttals to theist beliefs and positions - Hume also wrote about the nature of causality, that the human condition presupposes us to see links between events that cannot be proven, and that it's impossible to demonstrate that doing one thing causes another to happen. It is therefore ironic that Stoddart's statue of Hume - on the Lawnmarket, and across the road from the advocate's library - has his foot overhanging the pedestal, which visitors can rub for 'good luck'...
Another major figure of the Enlightenment - and a friend of David Hume's - was Adam Smith, another writer and philosopher who lived on the Canongate in the Old Town, and wrote what is considered the first textbook on international trade agreements, The Wealth of Nations.
Smith is deemed to be the father of modern economics for his work in the field, laying down principles of production and trade which continue to influence the world over 200 years after his death.
Smith had also travelled widely, and had plans to write 23 volumes of work detailing a variety of aspects of human nature, as well as describing the universe in which we live. Two volume in the series were published during his life - The Wealth of Nations and his Theory of Moral Sentiments - and on his death he left instruction that all unpublished work should be burned.
Smith is buried in the Canongate Kirkyard, where visitors pay tribute by dropping small coins - literally the wealth of nations - on his tombstone.
WILLIAM HENRY PLAYFAIR
William Playfair was one of the architects who created the visual imagery that we find in the city today. Just as Robert Adam had created the distinctive New Town style of buildings which pervaded in the latter half of the eighteenth century, Playfair shaped the new improved city of Edinburgh as it moved through the nineteenth century, designing buildings and monuments across the city - buildings such as the National Galleries of Scotland on the Mound, the Old College buildings of the University of Edinburgh (co-designed with Robert Adam), and a number of churches.
Perhaps most iconically was Playfair's design for the National Monument war memorial on the top of Calton Hill, intended as a recreation of the Parthenon in Athens. This neo-classical Grecian style of building - with columns and decorations - became Playfair's trademark style, and Edinburgh garnered the nickname 'the Athens of the North' partly through its proliferation of Grecian architecture.
ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON
Another son of the city is celebrated in a memorial a short way from the city centre. The statue commemorating Robert Louis Stevenson doesn't depict the author, but instead two figures from his book Kidnapped, sited on the side of Corstorphine Hill, a location for the characters' final meeting in the book.
Alan Breck and David Balfour are shown in Jacobite period dress at the side of the road - Balfour is the protagonist of Kidnapped, while Alan Breck is based on an historical figure of the period who was the main suspect in a notorious murder in the aftermath of the Jacobite Uprisings of 1745-6.
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In our modern age of information overload, it's easy to forget that for the majority of the world's history we have very few reliable and accurate sources of information. Very often historians and archaeologists piece together a picture of what life was like in former times, drawing on the variety of information available, and using existing knowledge to interpret new pieces of evidence.
In a city as old as Edinburgh, there are several instances where historians are unsure about the precise details of past events, and at the heart of one of those uncertainties is St Anthony's Chapel, a ruined structure on a rocky outcrop in Holyrood Park.
Today only one section of wall and a few surviving stones are visible, but at some time in its history this would have been a fairy substantial three-storey chapel building with a tower approximately 40-feet high, which would have had an intimate ground floor space just 8-feet or so wide.
Little is known about when the chapel itself was built - it's likely that the structure was associated with the major abbey of Holyrood, just a few hundred metres away at the base of Arthur's Seat, and indeed one of the paths through the park today follows the line of a historic track which directly connected the two areas. But in the 1100s large parts of Holyrood Park were under the ownership and control of Kelso Abbey in the Scottish Borders, and it's thought that the piece of land on which St Anthony's chapel sits probably fell under their jurisdiction.
In 1426, there is a record of Pope sending money as part of a grant to support repairs to St Anthony's chapel - suggesting both that it was a significant enough structure that the pope would invest in its maintenance, and that by 1426 it was old enough to be in need of substantial repairs. (It's notable that Anthony himself only died in 1231, so the chapel may have been a very early institution established bearing his name.)
Around this time, a small hospital in the name of St Anthony was operating in Leith, specifically treating patients with skin conditions - it's possible there was some connection between that establishment and the chapel at Holyrood Park.
One theory is that the chapel, as tall as it was long, was designed as a navigation aid for pilgrims heading to Holyrood, which is set lower in what for a long time was a densely wooded valley. Perhaps St Anthony's chapel would even have been visible from as far away as the Firth of Forth, the river to the north of the city, from which direction many travellers would have made their approach to the area.
Holyrood Park itself was a major destination for visitors seeking relief in the holy wells which dotted the landscape. At one time it was thought there were as many as seven wells within the boundary of the park itself, underground springs given the names of saints, along with the reputation for healing properties. One of those wells was St Anthony's, which is one of the only two wells to survive in the park today - alas no water flows to it, but the shallow bowl can still be seen on the path beneath the chapel, and it was well known that locals would trek to this particular well on 1 May each year, to bathe in the dew and drink the water.
Other suggestions are that the chapel was a form of monastic retreat, set well away from the city (and the abbey at Holyrood) where it would be possible for monks to experience a form of solitude and isolation. There are the remains of what may have been a monastic cell or a store cupboard built into the rock just to the south of the chapel itself, and early investigations of the site uncovered a number of shallow graves in the vicinity of the structure.
More than that, nobody seems to know! Written records from before the seventeenth-century are relatively scarce, and the chapel would likely have been ruined by that time.
So for all its history and archaeological interest, Edinburgh as a city is one that still holds secrets, and new discoveries are being made fairly regularly as the city continues to grow and develop. For my part, though, I rather like that we don't know all the answers - I prefer my history to have a touch of mystery about it, too!
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Edinburgh Expert Walking Tours is run by Gareth Davies, an adopted native of Edinburgh since 1998...