Edinburgh's Princes Street is probably the most iconic of the original New Town streets, running parallel to the Old Town and with world-class views of the castle and other historic landmarks.
Originally a residential terrace of grand Georgian houses, it was later considered one of the great shopping streets of the UK. Today it's an oft-maligned thoroughfare along which locals reluctantly trudge, or down which visitors trundle their suitcases, dodging the trams, looking for their accommodation.
When the New Town was laid out by James Craig, this street of his grid system was purposely designed to only have houses along one side, creating the sense of space that the city enjoys today. Early suggestions for the name of the street were South Street (because of its location in terms of the New Town) and St Giles' Street, referencing the patron saint of Edinburgh.
That name was vetoed by George III, on the basis that St Giles Cripplegate in London was an especially poor, run-down, slum area at the time, and he didn't want the grand, modern, highly desirable New Town of Edinburgh to be mistaken for a slum district!
When the New Town scheme took street names which referenced the monarchy and the (relatively new) union with England, the street became Princes Street, for the sons of George III - two of whom would become king themselves.
Today it's hard to imagine Princes Street as the grand residential space it was originally - you have to look beyond the Apple Store, Marks and Spencer, Primark, the bargain book shops, and the tatty Scottish souvenir shops, mobile phone stores and fast food outlets...
Here's my brief exploration of some of the more notable highlights of Princes Street.
Starting at the west end of Princes Street, the Balmoral Hotel is one of the great architectural landmarks of the New Town, with its iconic clock tower standing over 190ft (58m) high above the street.
Opened in 1902, the hotel was designed by William Hamilton Beattie and remains one of the only buildings on the southern side of Princes Street. Originally it operated at the North British Railway hotel - look for the letters NBR in the stonework of the building - attached to the railway station in the valley behind it, which was originally run by the North British railway company. This historic connection with the railway explains why the clock is always a few minutes fast...
Adjacent to the Balmoral is the Princes Mall, a shopping centre which drops into the valley and was originally the Waverley Market, a Victorian-era market space.
Crossing Waverley Bridge, the tall monument which dominates the eastern section of Princes Street Gardens is the Scott Monument - but look in front of it for the more modest statue of David Livingston, a missionary and explorer.
This statue is the work of Amelia Hill, an artist and sculptor who also contributed several figures to the grander monument to Sir Walter Scott. Hill was the wife of David Octavius Hill, an early pioneer and developer of photography, although she was successful in her own right, and was still exhibiting work at the Royal Scottish Academy into her eighties.
Across Princes Street from the Scott Monument is the former Jenners department store, a true Edinburgh institution and at one time the oldest privately owned department store in the UK. The building (like the nearby Balmoral Hotel) was designed by William Hamilton Beattie - but Jenners had previously occupied two of the original houses which stood on the same site, from the 1830s.
Initially it was established by two men, Charles Kennington and Charles Jenner, who (it is said) were sacked from their jobs at one of Edinburgh's department stores, and so set up their own rival business! When the original premises were destroyed by fire in the 1890s, the new, purpose-built shop building by Beattie was created at the same location. It became an iconic fixture in Edinburgh's shopping landscape, notable in particular for its annual Christmas tree and associated displays.
Sadly Jenners closed in 2020 and the building is currently undergoing a renovation to create a combined hotel and shopping space in the old building.
The Mound was created from the spoil that was being excavated from the construction of the New Town, when over two million cartloads of earth were emptied into the valley between Princes Street and the Old Town. Still operating as a connection between the two sides of the city, the Mound today is the home to two gallery buildings - the Scottish National Gallery and, on Princes Street itself, the Royal Scottish Academy building.
The RSA was designed by William Henry Playfair in the 1820s, and atop the front portico is a statue of Queen Victoria, seated in a chair, by the artist Sir John Steell. The building is typical of Playfair's grecian-styled architecture, and helps explain Edinburgh's nickname in the nineteenth century of 'the Athens of the North'.
Across the Mound from the gallery building stands another Steell statue, of local librarian and wigmaker Allan Ramsay. Beneath him is the city's floral clock - the oldest in the world, having been planted every year since 1903.
Many of the original buildings along Princes Street from this point have been demolished and replaced with modern commercial properties. In the 1950s a plan to run a major motorway through the centre of Edinburgh would have necessitated the wholesale demolition of Princes Street, and much of the gardens.
Various visions of how the development might have looked can be found online, including models of elevated roads running along the sides of the valley and underground roads built under the line of Princes Street today. Thankfully none of them ever got sufficient support to be built, but we may have lost even more of Princes Street than we already have....
The prominent statue of a soldier mounted on a horse opposite Frederick Street represents members of the Royal Scots Greys regiment. The monument was originally created by the artist William Birnie Rhind to commemorate those who fought and died in the South African Boer War of 1899-1902. Later additions to the memorial record the regiment's involvement in both the First and Second World Wars.
The next statue is of Thomas Guthrie, a church minister and preacher who also established a network of 'Ragged Schools', intended to provide care and education to children from the poorer communities of the Old Town. Guthrie's original school was adjacent to the Camera Obscura building on the Royal Mile, and his model of education included not just formal instruction but also provided the children with meals, clothing and religious teachings.
The views of Edinburgh Castle from this section of Princes Street are impressive, and several of the shops have cafes which take advantage of the views - check out the cafe on the upper floor of the Waterstones bookshop...
Near the western-most entrance to the gardens is a statue of James Young Simpson, a medical pioneer who became the first person to be knighted for services to medicine. Queen Victoria had been particularly impressed by his development of the use of chloroform as an anaesthetic during childbirth, and took advantage of its properties during the conclusion of several of her later pregnancies.
On the corner with Lothian Road is St John's Church, built originally by William Burn in 1818 at a cost of £18,000. The church is known for its political activism, and stages the Just Festival (also known as the Festival of Peace) every summer, along with its craft fair. In the graveyard of St John's is the only known grave in Edinburgh of a person born into slavery, that of Malvina Wells.
Finally, on the northern side of Princes Street at its extreme western end, is the former department store building which housed first Robert Maule and Sons, then Binns, which was later bought out by House of Fraser, until it was finally taken over most recently by the Johnny Walker whisky brand, who opened it as a visitor attraction in 2021.
On the corner of the building is the Binns clock, an ornate and decorative clock which still features a small troupe of mechanical bagpipers who march around periodically!
Princes Street is not often thought of so much as a destination, perhaps, as a means of getting to somewhere else in Edinburgh, but if you stop and look you will find more to see on this busy shopping street than you might expect.
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Edinburgh has had its share of philanthropists and benefactors over the years, people like George Heriot whose estate established a school for "faitherless bairns," Mary Erskine who established a school for girls (which survives today), and John Watson, a solicitor who similarly had a school established in his name after his death.
One man who was similarly generous with his money and his position in society was John Ritchie Findlay, after whose death in 1898 it was remarked: "Edinburgh can scarcely have had a citizen of more truly public spirit".
Born in Arbroath in 1824, Findlay studied at the University of Edinburgh before joining the offices of the Scotsman newspaper in 1842, which was owned by his great-uncle, John Ritchie. Having started working as a clerk in the offices, Findlay would work his way through the ranks of the Scotsman organisation to become a partner in 1868, and after his great-uncle's death in 1870 he owned and controlled the greater portion of the Scotsman business.
Through this period, and the time during which he managed the newspaper, circulation increased hugely and Findlay found himself in control of a significant fortune, which he began to dedicate to philanthropic causes and organisations in the city.
As well as providing money, he also dedicated his time and status to advance social issues that he considered important. He was president of the Association for the Medical Education of Women, credited for getting the University of Edinburgh to finally allow women to train as doctors and surgeons after the debacle of the Edinburgh Seven; he founded the Edinburgh Association for Improving the Conditions of the Poor, campaigning for better housing, hygiene and rights for impoverished families in the city; and he became director of Edinburgh's Royal Hospital for Sick Children.
In 1882 Findlay donated £10,000 to establish a gallery for the Society of Antiquities (of which he was secretary at the time) in Edinburgh's New Town. The building - still the Scottish National Portrait Gallery - would become the world's first dedicated portrait gallery space, and Findlay would end up covering the entire £70,000 of the cost of its construction. Notably he did so without his name being publicly attached to the project - his identity as its funder was only disclosed on the day the gallery opened in 1889.
At the time Findlay was also building his own home at the fashionable West End of the New Town. The property at 3 Rothesay Terrace (pictured left) was designed by Sydney Mitchell, and featured distinctive leaded glass bay windows overlooking the street. Today the building is the B+B visitor accommodation.
Mitchell would also be the architect for Findlay's efforts to help regenerate the Dean Village, a former industrual town which had fallen into ruin in the middle of the nineteenth century as the industries moved away and left it as a ghost town.
Well Court (pictured below) was built as workers accommodation, featuring 49 tenement style flats with their own washroom and social hall for community events. The intention was to provide modern, affordable housing for working families, in a space which also brought community back to the Dean Village - the central courtyard of Well Court continues to operate as a communal drying green for people to hang their washing, creating a sense of connection with neighbours that was lacking in other parts of the city at that time (and, possibly, today).
By 1895 all of Well Court's properties were occupied by a variety of workers including painters, gardeners, bakers, masons, hairdressers and teachers. Two further developments in Dean Village were built to continue the repopulating of this once abandoned suburb of the city.
Findlay also wrote a book - Personal Recollections of Thomas De Quincey - which recounted his friendship with the author of Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, whom he had known over the last years of De Quincey's life, and he would also write the entry for De Quincey in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, which had been first published in Edinburgh.
After Findlay's death in 1898 the Scotsman newspaper continued to flourish under his son and (later) grandson's stewardship. The paper moved from offices on Cockburn Street (pictured left) to a new purpose-built office on North Bridge, which continues to operate as the Scotsman Hotel today.
Findlay was buried in the Dean Cemetery, on the ground above the Dean Village and directly across the valley from his home on Rothesay Terrace.
Although he never had his name attached to any of the projects on which he worked, his philanthropy was a major and important contribution to the life of many of Edinburgh's residents in the nineteenth century. That he never seemed to seek recognition or status for his work is perhaps a reflection of his down-to-earth nature and his desire to prioritise the work over the status it brought him.
After his death a memorial was created inside the portrait gallery building on Queen Street. Designed by Rowand Anderson, the memorial features a likeness of Findlay within a grand classical surround (photo at the top of the page). There is also a memorial window to Findlay inside St Giles' Cathedral on the Royal Mile.
Discover more of Edinburgh's local heroes on my private city walking tours!
Today I found out that I have received a Tripadvisor Travellers' Choice award - formerly the Certificate of Excellence - for 2023, based on reviews left by visitors over the last twelve months.
I've been fortunate enough to receive the award for the past seven consecutive years, since 2017 - and I say fortunate because I'm not entirely sure by what means or measures the awards are given. Tripadvisor is pretty secretive about the criteria it uses, but it's believed to be based on a calculation of the number of reviews received in a particular period, and the average rating of those reviews.
Whilst it's always lovely to get accolades such as these - especially when they're (apparently) based on the feedback of visitors - it's frustrating because of the lack of clarity around the process. Each year there are local guides who miss out on the awards, without being able to find out exactly why.
Tripadvisor make it very difficult to get contact from anything other than a chatbot, and getting a response from them on any issue - such as fake reviews being posted - is nigh on impossible.
This is one of the reasons that I stopped using Tripadvisor (and Viator, when they became linked) to sell my tours several years ago. When issues arose with bookings, it was very difficult to get a resolution - as a 'supplier' I wasn't able to contact customers directly, having to use an internal message system that relied on Tripadvisor's emails not going to a junk folder, and putting a significant delay into the communication process (a particular problem in urgent or time sensitive situations).
Tripadvisor's terms of business were pretty inflexible, which frustrated me. I wanted to offer small group tours, limiting public events to just a handful of people, but I couldn't place a cap on the number of tickets that Tripadvisor would sell - their model of selling high numbers of tickets at the cheapest price meant I couldn't guarantee being able to operate the more personal tours that I knew visitors often wanted.
Cashflow became a problem, as tours booked months in advance wouldn't be paid until sometime long after the event itself had taken place, and Tripadvisor's refund policy left me out of pocket when customers cancelled short notice and left me without enough time to resell the spaces on the tours that I had scheduled. All this 'service' for a commission of around 25% from every tour booking!
Feedback from visitors was increasingly that they experienced frustration with the way Tripadvisor or Viator operated, too. Especially the visiors I met, who were wanting to create more personalised, tailored, small-group or private tour options, which didn't fit with the mass market appeal of a global travel site.
So I made the decision to stop listing tours with any third-party sellers, knowing this would impact the exposure and promotion that I could expect. But I have been reassured that visitors who want something more unique or tailored will still find me, and I like to think that having to work a little bit harder to find me means visitors are rewarded with an experience that more closely fits their interests and expectations.
Is it hypocritical of me to still ask for Tripadvisor reviews from visitors on my tours? Possibly! But the travel site's great advantage has always been that (despite the perennial fluctuations to their ranking algorithm, which is as secretive and unpredictable as their criteria for the Travellers' Choice awards) businesses like mine can rank alongside the larger tour companies who dominate the travel sector.
Thanks to the feedback of visitors on my tours, I enjoy being listed alongside companies offering totally different experiences to mine - and to that end Tripadvisor is an interesting 'shop window' of tour products and companies for people researching their trip to Edinburgh. It isn't always easy to find specific tours, and Tripadvisor is now definitely more geared towards selling the tours and acting as agent than to showcasing the variety of tours available, but I am there, and anybody who is prepared to scroll through and do their research can find me.
World travel was badly hit by the pandemic and the years of recovery which we have been through since then, and I know many independent companies and guides, like myself, have struggled to survive. Which is why it's more important than ever to celebrate the recognition that visitor feedback gives guides like me!
I consider myself immensely fortunate that I am still operating, and still enjoying five-star reviews from visitors on my tours, and still able to boast of having a Tripadvisor Travellers' Choice award - not because it's from Tripadvisor, but because it's from the people who have taken my tours, and who have enjoyed their experience sufficiently to take the time and trouble to leave feedback on the world's largest travel site.
So I make no apologies for promoting the widgets and geegaws that Tripadvisor throws my way, and I will always be grateful for people who facilitate those recognitions with their online reviews.
But I will still insist on asking people to book their tours with me directly. Financially it's advantageous (to both me and you, as I don't have to put my prices up to cover Tripadvisor's commission charges) but it also means that you are guaranteed to get the customised, personalised, bespoke service that I think makes a difference to your experience.
I take your tour personally - and that's not something I can do with a third-party like Tripadvisor or Viator or Get Your Guide or any of the other hundred-and-one companies who email me on a regular basis suggesting I might want to list my tours with them.
And even if I'm not the right guide for you, I would encourage you to do your research on Tripadvisor, and then book your tour directly with whichever company or agent catches your eye.
Folks like Andy at Edinburgh Cab Tours or Robert at Historic Edinburgh Tours, or Will at Iconic Tours or Chris at Monarch Tours or Hetty at Hetty's History Walks or Chris at Local Eyes Tours - they're all marvellous people and deserving of your custom - but please, please, PLEASE book with them (or anyone else) directly...
And then go on Tripadvisor and tell everyone else what a fantastic tour you had! It shows your support for local, independent tour guides, and helps other travellers find a quality service that could be the highlight of their trip. :)
Find out more about my (award-winning!) customised private tours of Edinburgh...
Afternoon tea - there's nothing like it! A true British institution, where else do you get to enjoy a spread of tasty treats, bottomless pots of tea, and a chance to stick your pinky out and pretend you're all lah-di-dah?!
Take a break from all the touring and sightseeing in Edinburgh and savour an afternoon tea in one of the grand dining spaces of the city. Many of the hotels offer afternoon teas in their formal dining rooms, but here are some of the other destinations to check out for a true taste of luxury...
COLONNADES AT THE SIGNET LIBRARY
Set amongst the high stacks of the former advocate's library in the collection buildings which housed the original Scottish parliament and the current Court of Session (the Supreme Court in Scotland) on the Royal Mile, why not combine great flavours and sumptuous elegance with an afternoon tea to remember?
Beginning with an amuse bouche, staff will present you with a dazzling collection of sweet and savoury dishes, each of them styled to wow and bursting with flavour.
With gluten free and vegetarian options available on request, and the option to add a glass of wine or bubbly, there's more than a hint of 19th century decadence at the Colonnades. The food is intriguing and original, combining flavours and textures that go beyond simple 'sandwiches and scones', all presented in delicate portions and served on silver stands to enjoy at your leisure.
Staff are friendly and chatty, always on hand to provide fresh tea. It's almost a shame to have to return to the hustle and bustle of the adjacent Royal Mile!
THE SCOTTISH CAFE AND RESTAURANT
Nestled beneath William Playfair's classically-styled National Gallery of Scotland buildings on the Mound in the New Town is the Scottish Cafe and Restaurant, the perfect place to soak up some sunshine on their outdoor terrace after browsing the art.
Their afternoon tea offering combines sandwiches with scones and petit fours, giving you plenty to enjoy while you relax.
AFTERNOON TEA AT EDINBURGH CASTLE
On Crown Square at the top of Edinburgh Castle are their tea rooms, where afternoon tea is served daily (advance booking essential). Each afternoon tea booking includes standard castle admission, making this a convenient combination ticket to explore this iconic site from Scottish history before relaxing with an array of handmade cakes and savouries.
A local hidden gem, just that bit further from the city centre. Prestonfield House is a former estate property which is now a boutique hotel with a restaurant, where afternoon tea is unlike anything else you've ever experienced.
Upstairs in the tapestry-clad rooms you can relax next to a crackling log fire in the winter, or sit out on their balcony with views of Arthur's Seat, while enjoying an array of blended teas and a a stack of savoury nibbles, homemade scones, and sweet treats.
Service is attentive but respectful, and for the most part you're left to enjoy Prestonfield's unique atmosphere at your leisure. It's a sister restaurant to the iconic Witchery on Edinburgh's Royal Mile, but with an added dose of Downton Abbey!
THE GEORGIAN TEA ROOM AT THE DOME
Inside what was formerly a bank building on George Street in the New Town, relax with their afternoon tea offering.
Located upstairs, the Georgian Tea Room offers a hint of the elegance and sophistication of the Regency period, and is the perfect place to collect your thoughts after a morning browsing the shops or exploring the history of the New Town.
All aboard the floating hotel Fingal, moored on the waterfront at Leith, Edinburgh's former industrial port town.
Their elegant art deco styled dining room is the perfect place for a classic afternoon tea experience, while you gaze out at the water and watch the world going about its business. Who knew that opulence could be so buoyant?!
Get more tips for eating and drinking in Edinburgh when you book one of my private city walking tours!
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