Between the designer label stores and boutique fashion shops on Edinburgh's George Street, you may notice a small building which still retains a low-key residential-looking frontage. The only obvious indication that the property is more than an original New Town townhouse is the functioning model of a lighthouse above the front door. A brass plate confirms that this is the headquarters of the Commissioners of Northern Lights, or less romantically/more formally the Northern Lighthouse Board.
From this building all the lighthouses around the coast of Scotland are managed and maintained remotely, ensuring the safety of naval vessels in the waters around the country.
Recently I had the pleasure of spending a week in a former lighthouse keeper's cottage, at the Covesea Skerries Lighthouse, near Lossiemouth on the Moray firth. The cottages are now managed by the National Trust for Scotland as holiday cottages, and the lighthouse makes for an attractive and unusual location for a short Highlands holiday.
The Covesea lighthouse, like many of the lighthouses around Scotland, was designed and built by one of the most significant engineering families of the nineteenth century, the Stevensons, whose family home was in Edinburgh.
Robert Louis Stevenson (notably) rests in peace 10,000 miles away on a Samoan island in the Pacific Ocean, having continued his family's connection with the high seas on a less landward basis...
Take an Up-Close and Personal Tour of the city to find out more about the Lighthouse Stevensons, and their literary progeny!
This weekend - May 17th - marks 398 years to the day since James VI made his historic homecoming visit to Edinburgh. It was the last time he would see his the city of his birth, and the first time he had returned to Scotland since the union of the crowns in 1603.
Having sworn to remain faithful to Scotland, and to make regular visits back here during his reign as king of England, James had reneged on his promises and returned here a virtual stranger to his home. Nevertheless great efforts were made for his visit, with a grand celebratory banquet which cost over £6,333 - equivalent to over £1m in today's money.
The banquet was likely only for invited guests and council members, but the list of produce purchased (and served) included:
Drinking and public dancing were the order of the day, though it's astonishing anyone had the energy for dancing after that big buffet...
A new panel portrait of James was created for the Netherbow Port, the grandest gateway into Edinburgh, complete with ornate gold decoration, and at Edinburgh Castle a special renovation had been undertaken for the occasion.
A suite of new apartments had been constructed to commemorate the king's visit, and the small room in which James had been born to Mary, Queen of Scots, had been redecorated with new panelling detailing the king's heraldic coat of arms, and the historic dates from his reign as king of England and Scotland. This decorative panelling is still visible to visitors to the Castle today.
So take a walk in royal footsteps this weekend, and see the city as James VI would have done, before he returned to London to live out the rest of his reign.
For more information about Edinburgh's royal past, take an Up-Close and Personal Tour of the city with me!
Calton Hill in the centre of Edinburgh is worthy of note for at least two reasons. Not only is it one of the most accessible and significant historical sites in the city, it's also one of the best places from which to view Edinburgh itself.
The easiest way to access Calton Hill is to follow Princes Street to the junction with North Bridge (at the Balmoral Hotel) and then continue walking onto what becomes Waterloo Place. At the end of the row of Georgian buildings on the left hand side is a set of steps which will take you straight up off the road to the top of Calton Hill. It's well worth the short climb, especially on a bright, clear day, as the views from the top of the hill are unparalleled, giving you a 360-degree panorama across the city and beyond, with especially fine views northwards, over the Firth of Forth to Fife (try saying that after a few sherries!).
The top of Calton Hill is dominated by the columned structure, known popularly as Edinburgh's Disgrace, but formally called the National Monument. In a deliberate attempt to reflect the iconic Parthenon atop the acropolis in Athens, Greece (and helping to give Edinburgh its nickname the Athens of the North), this was intended to be a large chambered hall commemorating the lives (and deaths) of Scottish soldiers in the Napoleonic wars of the eighteenth century.
The monument was designed jointly by William Henry Playfair (who also designed the National Gallery buildings on Princes Street) and Charles Cockerell, and construction on the monument started in 1822, with the laying of a foundation stone by King George IV. A public subscription was set up to raise the estimated £42,000 required to pay for the monument. After sixteen months, a total of £16,000 had been raised, and in 1826 construction began in earnest. Unfortunately, public support for the monument fell, along with the much-needed funds, and the monument was abandoned, unfinished and incomplete. Thus its nickname, Edinburgh's Disgrace.
The other large building on Calton Hill is the City Observatory, set up in 1776 for the study and observation of astronomy. It was used primarily by students at the university, but also held public seminars and evenings designed to educate and enlighten the masses. Elizabeth Short, the daughter of the observatory's founder, would eventually establish an observatory and outlook tower on Castlehill, which survives today as the Camera Obscura.
Other monuments on Calton Hill include the Nelson Monument, designed to resemble an upturned telescope as a tribute to Admiral Nelson, who had commanded the victorious British naval forces in the battle of Trafalgar. At the top of the tower is a tall mast, on which sits a dark coloured sphere. This functions as a time signal, intended to convey to the ships in the port at Leith the correct time, for them to set their chronometers. From 1861 this time ball ran in tandem with the one o'clock gun from Edinburgh Castle, providing both a visual and an auditory signal (especially helpful on the days when low cloud obscured the mast from view). The ball continues to function today, and can be observed at one o'clock every day except Sundays.
You'll also see the Dugald Stewart monument, a memorial to the Scottish philosopher Dugald Stewart, and, lower down the hill, in the Old Calton Burial Ground, an obelisk to the political martyrs who were punished with transportation for life (being shipped to Australia) for their outspoken thoughts on a controversial democratic political system which would allow the common man to vote.
A lesser-known (and less visible) feature of Calton Hill is the mausoleum of Herman Lyon, a Jewish dentist who came to the city in 1795. At the time, being one of the first Jewish migrants to settle in the city, Lyon found there was no dedicated Jewish burial ground, and petitioned the city council to sell him a plot of land for him to use as a family mausoleum. The council granted him space on Calton Hill for the princely sum of £17, and today Lyon and his wife are buried in an underground mausoleum that is hidden from view beneath the observatory, its entrance concealed by undergrowth.
Calton Hill serves as one of the best place from which to view Edinburgh, with its uninterrupted views along the full length of the Royal Mile, from palace to castle, and from Arthur's Seat right around past the Pentland Hills, and over to Fife. A worthy daytime destination for any visitor, though you would be advised to avoid the area at night as it has a less savoury reputation after dark.
Calton Hill is the end point of my Festival City Explorer Tour in the Edinburgh Festival Fringe this summer, as well as featuring on my New Town-focused Up-Close and Personal Tours all year round. Contact me for more information!
I'm not sure about where you come from, but here in Scotland May is officially Whisky Month! And as 2015 is VisitScotland's Year of Food and Drink it's an especially exciting month to be celebrating Scotland's national drink. (Scotland's other national drink, Irn Bru, is celebrated the rest of the year.)
Whisky is distilled in five main areas of Scotland, and each distillery has a unique history and heritage, resulting in a unique taste for each of the whiskies they produce. Whisky is big business in Scotland, and growing, with one major distillery alone anticipating making 15 million litres of pure alcohol a year by 2017.
To be able to call itself Scotch whisky (or Scotch for short), the product has to be made in Scotland and matured in casks for a minimum of three years. Many whiskies are matured for a lot longer, and the length of the maturation process is given on the label - so when you purchase, for example, a 21-year-old single malt, you can know exactly how long it has been waiting for you to drink it! Whiskies are traditionally bottled at between 40-43% proof (pure alcohol by volume).
Many people visiting Scotland are keen to find out more about its whisky, to visit the distilleries where it is produced, and (of course) to sample the products themselves. But as massive as the Scotch industry is, to truly understand and appreciate the art and heritage of Scotch takes more than picking up three miniature bottles for £10 at a tourist shop on the Royal Mile!
If you want to experience the world of Scotch whisky during your visit to Scotland, I offer a number of recommendations which will give you a great quality introduction to the world of whisky...
Firstly, I have teamed up with the connoisseurs at Jeffrey St. Whisky and Tobacco to offer a regular Whisky Walk, giving you a small-group guided tour of the Canongate and Holyrood areas of Edinburgh, before you enjoy a tutored tasting of a selection of quality Scotch whiskies. Whisky Walks are priced at £20 per person, and numbers are limited so advance booking is recommended.
I'm also pleased to be able to offer a private tasting at Jeffrey St. Whisky and Tobacco as an optional add-on to any of the private tour packages that I offer - contact me for more information.
The Scotch Whisky Experience, on the Royal Mile, will give you a very brief introduction to Scotch, but more a more authentic experience, plan a trip to Glenkinchie Distillery in East Lothian, a short drive outside the city. This is by the more the most accessible functioning distillery in Scotland, although if you have a chance it's well worth trekking up to the Highlands, and especially to Speyside, where the concentration of functioning distilleries is greatest (and the scenery is wildest!).
And if you're visiting Edinburgh during May, you might be interested in an evening blending blues music, Cuban cigars and Scotch whisky, hosted by the folks from Jeffrey St. Whisky and Tobacco, on 21 May 2015. Entry includes lives music, two Cuban cigars and two single malt Scotch whiskies. Booking details and more info here.
Edinburgh Expert Walking Tours is run by Gareth Davies, an adopted native of Edinburgh since 1998...