The Anglicised name of Scotland's capital city is Edinburgh - pronounced 'Ed-in-bu-ruh' for the benefit of those who may confuse its -burgh with cities like Pittsburgh, or even mistake it for Edinboro, PA. The city was named for the feature which still dominates its skyline, Edinburgh Castle; in Gaelic (the language native to Scotland) the city is Dùn Èideann, itself taken from the old Celtic 'Din Eidyn' meaning 'fort on the hill'.
For a long time 'Edinburgh' was specifically the collection of properties stretching from the Castle down the ridge of what is now the Royal Mile, as far as the junction with Mary Street/Jeffrey Street. At this junction a large gateway, the Netherbow Port, marked the city boundary. There is a pub on this corner still named the World's End in recognition of that fact that entering the city gates required the payment of a toll, and for the impoverished residents of Edinburgh this meant they simply couldn't afford to leave the city to venture further afield as they wouldn't be able to pay the fee to get back home. The Netherbow junction was truly the end of their world.
In time the city grew outwards, incorporating outlying townships - areas considered integral to the city centre today, such as Grassmarket, Stockbridge, and even Holyrood, were all at one time separate settlements outside of the Edinburgh city boundaries. This boundary was marked at different periods in history with a series of defensive walls, the King's Wall, the Flodden Wall and the Telfer Wall. Surviving sections of these walls are visible at various points around the city.
The city itself enjoys a number of nicknames, most commonly being referred to colloquially as 'Auld Reekie', a Scots name translating as 'old smokey' on account of the prodigious number of chimneys that the city boasted, especially after the construction of the New Town. Such was the volume of wood smoke and other pollution generated by the city that a plume of dirty smoke hovered in the air over the city, visible from Fife, across the Firth of Forth to the north of the city.
Sometimes you may hear Edinburgh referred to as 'the Athens of the North', on account not only of its National Monument on Calton Hill, an attempted (and only partially completed) recreation of Greece's Parthenon, as well as other neoclassical influence on the city's architecture, but also for its surge in intellectual reputation as a centre of philosophy during the 18th century.
Poets like Robert Burns sometimes used Edinburgh's Latin name, 'Edina', in their work, and people who live here may be heard contracting its four syllables to 'Embra'.
Others just call it home.
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Today, 13th November, is designated world Robert Louis Stevenson (RLS) Day, commemorating the date of his birth in 1850 in a suburb of Edinburgh. He may already have been destined for greatness, as both his father and grandfather were already well known as lighthouse engineers - Stevenson lighthouses still stand around the coasts of Scotland, and had he followed in his father's footsteps young Robert could easily have been another bright light (pun intended) in the world of maritime shipping.
He is likely also to have been inspired by the life and times of Edinburgh's infamous Deacon Brodie, a real-life figure who had also lived two characters - an honourable cabinet maker and council member by day, Brodie used the skills of his trade to re-enter his customer's houses during the night, to rob them of their belongings.
Today the dual personality motif is a common theme in many books, films and television stories, as well as being reflected in some psychological theories of human personality and identity. But it was Stevenson's chilling representation of such themes and ideas in his classic novella that helped such notions become a staple of the gothic horror canon.
Stevenson was a voracious traveller, and the romanticism of the island adventures of Treasure Island formed another backdrop to his own life. Having journeyed around the globe, Stevenson ended his days ten-thousand miles from his Scottish home, on an island in Samoa in the Pacific Ocean. Here he had made a home for himself, taking the tribal name Tusitala - meaning 'teller of tales' - and it was here that he is buried, having died on 3rd December 1894, aged just 44 years old.
A small commemorative stone in Princes Street Gardens commemorates Stevenson in Edinburgh, and his tomb in Samoa bears the following 'Requiem':
Under the wide and starry sky,
Dig the grave and let me lie.
Glad did I live and gladly die,
And I laid me down with a will.
This be the verse you grave for me:
Here he lies where he longed to be;
Home is the sailor, home from sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.
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Today is Remembrance Sunday, when the nation collectively remembers its war dead, an occasion symbolised by the wearing of poppies, the flowers which sprang up in the battle-torn land of the fields of Flanders after the First World War.
You may already know that in Scotland the Remembrance poppies have four petals, whereas in the rest of the UK the design has just two petals, but did you also know that five million paper poppies are made each year at Lady Haig's Poppy Factory in Edinburgh?
The factory was set up in 1926, at the suggestion of Countess Haig, wife of Field Marshall Douglas Haig, who was commander of the British troops during the First World War, including at the battle of the Somme. The factory moved to its current site, a former printing works near Canonmills, in 1965.
In 1998, Edinburgh's Lady Haig Poppy Factory became an independent charity, and today produces eight thousand of the ceremonial wreaths laid at commemorative services across Scotland today, continuing to employ disabled veterans and other ex-service men and women.
Edinburgh has a proud heritage of being divided. All across the city, in a variety of contexts, you can find splits and contrasts - from the physical heights of the Castle, to the valley depths of Stockbridge and the Dean Village, or from the regal New Town crescents to the medieval Old Town lanes, with aspects of the city's physical profile shaped separately by both fire and ice, to give just a few examples.
This experience of division and separation combined within one city boundary famously gave rise to one of the greatest creations of the horror genre, in Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Whereas Stevenson set the scene for paranoid multiple personalities, however, in the real world of Edinburgh the contrasting characters and styles of city make for a rich and vibrant cultural experience.
Since being designated dual World Heritage Sites by UNESCO in 1995, the Old and New Town areas of Edinburgh have required a careful approach to restoration and development. Protecting the historic environment of Edinburgh whilst maintaining modern standards of safety and access has been a challenge for developers, and hasn't always been handled entirely successfully. Yet when it is managed well, as in the recent case of the restored Advocate's Close off the Royal Mile, the effect can be world-class.
The development of Advocates Close has recently been awarded the prize of Best Building in Scotland, for its efficient and authentic restoration of what was a rather dilapidated segment of the city. The nine buildings in the complex date back over 500 years, and were carefully restored at a cost of £45m to create a series of modern, accessible and functional spaces that integrate well with the surrounding environs, and preserves the feel of Edinburgh's Old Town charm.
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Edinburgh Castle is not only the dominant feature of the city’s skyline, visible from miles around, it’s also the feature which gives the city its name – the old Gaelic name translates roughly as ‘the fort on the hill’. It’s also the busiest paid entry visitor attraction in the UK, outside of London, attracting over 15,000 visitors a day during summer 2019.
I don't take tours inside the castle because of the limited access for guided groups - I think it's best explored on a self-guided basis, and at your own pace.
WHAT'S IN EDINBURGH CASTLE?
Visiting Edinburgh Castle presents you with a thousand years of Scots history, as both a site of military strength and royal majesty. Exhibitions and attractions include:
As a historical site, the castle complex can be difficult to access and navigate, especially for those with mobility difficulties - the whole site is on a steep hill, rising to a summit, and there are staircases around both the interior and exterior spaces, with uneven surfaces throughout.
Only one of the three toilet facility areas has level access. Many of the rooms in the castle have narrow entrances and passageways, and space is limited inside all of the buildings and exhibitions.
Those with young families may find the castle struggles to hold the attention of younger children, and its emphasis on military history might disappoint those who want a more regal experience of a richly decorated royal palace.
As a site that is largely open to the elements - most of the castle site is outdoors - full enjoyment may also be more than a little weather-dependent...
The castle gets incredibly crowded during the summer, so during July and August in particular you should expect to spend time queuing to access the museums and exhibitions even after you get through the main entrance and ticket check.
There is very little shelter or public seating inside the castle.
For visitors with severe mobility issues - wheelchair users in particular - a free mobility vehicle operates throughout the day providing access between the inside and outside of the castle. Due to high demand and large crowds, there can be considerable delays and long queues for this service in the summer.
There are no cloakroom or left luggage facilities, so any baggage, prams or suitcases must be kept with you at all times. (The site is an active military barracks, and security is taken extremely seriously by the staff and security team - random baggage checks have been introduced at peak times, so ensure you allow time for this in planning your itinerary.)
PLANNING YOUR VISIT
I always recommend a minimum of two hours to visit Edinburgh Castle.
It is a large site, with a variety of museums, exhibitions and displays, and your entry ticket gives you access to all of them.
Entry includes an optional introductory tour of the external areas of the castle, which lasts up to 30 minutes, and runs throughout the day - a clock as you enter will indicate the time of the next tour.
There is also an excellent self-guided audio tour which is available at an additional cost which provides a wealth of historical information and detail to those who are keen to uncover more about the castle’s past – although you can pick and choose how much of the guide you listen to, according to your interests, there is over six hours of information available...
Many visitors have said that the suggested two-hour visit is simply not enough! But to get full value from the entry fee, two hours is the least you should plan for.
It is highly advisable to book your visit to the castle before you arrive. Not only are tickets bought in advance are cheaper, but can also save up to an hour of queuing to buy tickets on the day in the height of the summer.
Pre-booking entry requires you to select an entry time slot (for example 9.30am to 11am) but once you are inside you can stay as long as you like, until closing time.
Tickets are valid for one entry only – you cannot leave the castle and enter again later in the day, so bring a picnic lunch or buy food in the castle’s cafes if you plan to stay all day.
As many visitors (especially those coming from cruise ships) plan to visit the castle first thing in the morning, there can be considerable crowds at opening time. For a (slightly) quieter visit, going in after 1pm is recommended.
The last entry is one hour before closing – but as you ought to be allowing a minimum of two hours to get full value from your ticket, it is advisable not to arrive later than 2pm or 3pm.
Only tickets bought through the official Edinburgh Castle website (or Edinburgh Bus Tours' Royal Ticket option) guarantee skip-the-line entry - tickets bought through third party suppliers (such as Viator, TripAdvisor, Get Your Guide, or even the walking tours including castle entry) all require the exchange of a voucher, which can present significant queues.
There is no student discount offered on daily castle tickets – for a longer visit you could purchase a student-price Explorer Pass (giving access to additional Historic Environment Scotland sites) or an annual Membership.
There is no parking at the castle – the nearest car park is Castle Terrace (pretty expensive) or on-street on Johnston Terrace (cheaper but with time limits). A general travel tip: don’t bring a car into Edinburgh – the city is extremely walkable, we have excellent public transport options, and as a medieval city the roads really don’t cope well with heavy traffic!
GOOD TO KNOW...
If you are travelling around Scotland and plan to visit other castles, you might be able to save money with an Explorer Pass which provides access to all Historic Environment Scotland (HES) properties.
Check online or ask at the ticket office for details - note that this pass is not advised if you aren't travelling beyond Edinburgh, and the Palace of Holyroodhouse is NOT included in the Explorer Pass (as it isn't run by HES).
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The fifth of November -
Gunpowder, treason and plot!
The infamous Gunpowder Plot from 1605 is commemorated annually in the UK with Bonfire Night, also known as Guy Fawkes Night, with effigies of hate figures (most usually contemporary politicians or celebrities) burned on bonfires, whilst fireworks illuminate the skies.
Fawkes and his co-conspirators were English Catholics who were seeking to assassinate the ruling (Protestant) monarch, King James I, along with a proportion of what they considered to be many of the corrupt lords who ran the government of the day. Barrels of gunpowder were cached in the cellars under the House of Lords in London, and Fawkes was discovered red-handed, preparing to ignite them.
Britain was only recently being ruled by a 'united' monarch, with the political union which saw the creation of the United Kingdom not coming until over a hundred years later, in 1707. James I may have been the first king James of England, but in fact he was also James VI of Scotland, born to Mary, Queen of Scots, and ascended to the joint throne of England and Scotland following the death of Queen Elizabeth I, to whom James was second cousin.
But what role does Edinburgh play in all of this history? In fact, Edinburgh is where it all began - to be more precise, in Edinburgh Castle, where James was born, on the 19th June 1566.
Visitors to the city today can stand in the tiny antechamber where he is believed to have been brought into the world, a small room off the bedchamber of his mother Mary, Queen of Scots.
James survived the attempt on his life in 1605, and indeed ruled the three kingdoms of England, Wales and Scotland for the next 20 years. But had the Fawkes plot been successful, how different might Britain have been, both at the time and subsequently?
In short, the effect of a successful detonation of the 36 barrels of gunpowder would have been devastating, not just on the physical buildings of the Houses of Parliament, but on the political structure of the whole of the country. With the assassination of a Scottish-born king of England, it is uncertain if the future political union of Scotland with England would ever have happened at all.
That's something worth remembering.
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