EDINBURGH EXPERT WALKING TOURS - BLOG
As we begin the countdown to tonight's epic fireworks finale to Edinburgh's Hogamanay celebrations, here's a few factoids to share with those around you on Princes Street as you wait for midnight.
Small 'countdown' displays will take place on the hour at 9pm, 10pm, 11pm before the climactic midnight display (at midnight!).
If all the fireworks in the midnight display were fired individually, instead of all at once, the display would last FOUR HOURS instead of just five minutes!
And if the combined height of all the fireworks were laid out end-to-end, the distance covered would reach from Edinburgh to Paris, nearly 700 miles!
Setting up the fireworks at Edinburgh Castle, Princes Street Gardens and Calton Hill takes a crew of 14 technicians from Titanium Fireworks more than five days on site...
The display itself features over 2,000 electrical cues to ignite over 11,000 fireworks in 18 different shades of colour.
Midnight on Hogmanay marks the only time in the year when the clock on the Balmoral Hotel, above Waverley Station, tells the correct time - ordinarily it runs a couple of minutes fast as a service to ensure passengers heading for trains don't miss them.
Be sure to wrap up warm if you're out in town for the celebrations tonight, and enjoy the unique celebration of Edinburgh's Hogmanay, and have a very happy start to the new year!
Despite Edinburgh having several year-round Christmas shops, you could be forgiven for thinking that Scotland wasn't all that bothered about Christmas - after all, Hogmanay (the Scots celebration of the turning of the new year) is the biggest celebration in the Scottish calendar, with hundreds of thousands of people journeying to Scotland to celebrate in cities and towns across the country.
There are historical reasons for this shift of festive focus. Christmas was banned in Britain under the rule of Oliver Cromwell in the seventeenth-century, believing the celebration was a decadent indulge unbefitting of a puritan people. From 1643 Christmas celebrations were outlawed due to its popular excesses - drinking, dancing, over-eating, gift giving, singing - which were direct in contradiction of the ideals of the Puritan strand of Protestant faith.
In Scotland, celebrations were subtly adjusted to make the focus of festivities fall the following week, when the calendar marked a change of year. Thus the new year celebration - unrelated to the Christian calendar, and so outwith the purview of the puritan church - became the winter festival instead!
Despite the restoration of the monarchy, with an associated restoration of Christmas celebrations in 1660, Scots continued to mark the new year more fervently than the Christmas holidays. In fact, Christmas day was never a formal public holiday in Scotland until 1958, as many of the present older generation of Scots will attest. Working on Christmas Day was a common enough experience for centuries - and partly influenced Dickens' classic Christmas character, Ebenezer Scrooge - but Hogmanay was a festival that would be marked and celebrated fervently.
A record from 1863 notes that the traditional rite of celebration at the new year was marked in the following way:
"On the approach of twelve o’clock, a hot pint was prepared – that is, a kettle or flagon full of warm, spiced and sweetened ale, with an infusion of spirits. When the clock had struck the knell of the departing year, each member of the family drank of this mixture with a general handshaking, and perhaps a dance round the table, with the addition of a song."
Traditionally, the celebration in Edinburgh took place outside the Tron Kirk on the Royal Mile, where crowds would gather to hear the bells chime at midnight on Hogmanay, and where they would formally welcome in the new year. Today the new year is marked rather less sedately, especially in Edinburgh where a three-day festival period of street performances, markets and live music culminates in the annual street party on Princes Street, and a fireworks display over the city centre.
Some traditional rites are still marked, with the practice of 'first footing', whereby the first person to enter a house was deemed a harbinger of luck and fortune, and would carry with them a gift of silver (for good financial fortune) or a lump of coal, a bottle of whisky or some such token.
So whether you are celebrating Christmas or Hogmanay - or both! - in Scotland this winter, wrap up warm, and be sure to eat, drink and merry in the company of some of the most welcoming people in the world.
Explore the city year-round with my private walking tours!
A week today will be Christmas Eve - if you haven't already been enjoying the winter wonderland of attractions from Edinburgh's Christmas, there's still time to catch a ride on the big wheel or on the star-flyer (if your stomach allows it).
And in case you thought all the flashing lights and market stalls were a recent invention, an article from the Scotsman on 18th December 1923 celebrated that year's Waverley Market Carnival, proving that Edinburgh is no stranger to Christmas cheer:
"The cold, drab, prosaic aspect of the Market has vanished for the time being, as if by the waving of a fairy’s wand," the article says, "and the interior of the building presents an appearance of animation, brightness, and gaiety in keeping with the joyous spirit of the season."
Then, as now, there were stalls and sideshow attractions, including performing animals, which Edinburgh Council would scarcely countenance licensing today: "There are acts by dogs, which display wonderful cleverness; there are astonishing balancing feats by sea lions; there is a boxing pony...."
The Waverley Market was not far from the site of today's 'carnival', above Waverley Station. It was the city's principle fruit and vegetable market up until 1973, and the site also featured an exhibition space where a variety of shows were staged throughout the year, including dog shows, car shows, and a variety of circus and carnival attractions, such as the Christmas carnival. The market site was demolished and redeveloped as the modern shopping centre, today branded as Princes Mall, but previously retaining the Waverley name.
"When one enters this atmosphere of dazzling delights, laughter, and music," the Scotsman reviewer wrote, in 1923, "even the most staid person feels constrained to enter into the fun of the fair." The same can easily said of the modern incarnation of this seasonal extravaganza, with two skating rinks - including a circular rink around the Melville Monument in St Andrew's Square - the big wheel, star flyer, children's Christmas tree maze and other family friendly rides, hot food and drink stalls, and with the Spiegeltent (usually seen during the Fringe in the summer months) providing hours of festive entertainment indoors too.
Edinburgh's Christmas runs until 4th January, and if you're visiting Edinburgh over the festive period, why not book an Up-Close and Personal Tour to get to know the city better?
Inspired by an entry in Michael TRB Turnbull's The Edinburgh Book of Days.
Crossing the World's End junction, you would previously be leaving Edinburgh and entering Canongate, a separate burgh owned by the abbey (and its canons) at Holyrood.
The name Canongate has nothing to do with weapons; it derives from the route taken by the canons of St Giles' as they would walk from their lodgings at Holyrood Abbey - 'the canon's gait' is also reflected in the name of a pub along this stretch of the Royal Mile.
Down here you will find two free museums, the People's Story and the Museum of Edinburgh, both providing a fascinating insight into life in the old city. The People's Story is housed in the distinctive building of the old Canongate tollbooth, built in the sixteenth century. Adjacent to this building, on the north side of the street, is the Canongate Kirk, bearing the royal insignia of Holyrood as it is the Queen's official house of worship when in residence at Holyrood.
In the graveyard of Canongate Kirk you can find the resting places of many famous or influential figures, including Adam Smith, author of The Wealth of Nations and a father of modern economics; Robert Fergusson, a poet who inspired Robert Burns, who is also featured in a statue on the Canongate, immediately outside of the the Canongate Kirk; and Agnes Maclehose, a Glaswegian woman who sustained a correspondence with Robert Burns under the name 'Clarinda', and to whom the poet wrote the poem Ae Fond Kiss. A small cafe a little further down the Canongate, Clarinda's Tearoom, is named for Maclehose.
There any plenty of small and independent shops and cafes to explore on the Canongate, including a year-round Christmas shop!
At the very bottom of the road you'll pass the accumulation of buildings of the Scottish Parliament, designed by Catalan architect Enric Miralles, incorporating several original buildings including Queensberry House, former home to the marquises of Queensberry and reputedly haunted by the ghost of a kitchen boy, roasted alive and canibalised on the eve of the signing of the Act of Union in 1707.
Across the roundabout here you can also visit the last (and shortest) street of the Royal Mile, Abbey Strand, which leads up to the ornate gates of the Palace of Holyroodhouse. The building on the south side of the street houses the Queen's Gallery, exhibiting artworks from the royal collection.
Holyroodhouse marks the bottom end of the Royal Mile, just over a mile in distance from Edinburgh Castle.
To explore the Royal Mile in more detail, book my Royal Mile walking tour, or plan a fully customised Edinburgh tour package!
Walking down from the junction with Bank Street you're still technically on Lawnmarket - you'll pass a statue of David Hume and the relatively modern building of the High Court, before High Street begins.
You can't miss the imposing High Kirk of St Giles (for Edinburgh's patron saint) on the south side of the street. This building, with its distinctive crown-shaped bell tower, is sometimes referred to as St Giles' Cathedral. Although the building was technically a cathedral (that is, housing bishops) for two short periods during the seventeenth century, outside of these times, under the presbyterian Church of Scotland, as it is today, sans bishops, it is more properly referred to as the High Kirk.
Behind the High Kirk are the buildings of Parliament House, where the Scottish parliament sat prior to the union with England in 1707. You'll also find the Heart of Midlothian marked in the pavement near here, famed for denoting the doorway of the old debtors' prison which stood on this site. Visitors often spit on the ground here, as those released from the prison would have done, to indicate their contempt for the justice system.
Down a lane on the north side of High Street, immediately adjacent to the High Kirk, you'll find Mary King's Close, a fascinating guided excursion through the so-called 'underground city', an old Edinburgh street which was built over but remained intact and stands as an informative and entertaining insight into life in old Edinburgh. You'll also pass the City Chambers, housing departments of Edinburgh Council.
On High Street you'll find the box office for the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, a colourful building on the south side of the road. In the summer the queue for tickets here can be immense, so book your tickets online in advance, and join the (much shorter) queue to pick them up from the collection machines instead.
Past the next crossroads, marked by another former church, that of the Tron Kirk, you'll find buildings such as John Knox's House, reputed to be the home of the infamous religious reformer, as well as the Museum of Childhood, a free museum that is not especially child-friendly, but may appeal more to adults seeking to relive experiences from their own youth.
When you reach the next junction, on the south western corner of the crossroads is the World's End pub. For a long time, this junction marked the formal city boundary - Edinburgh reached only from the Castle to this junction, and all land beyond it was outside the city. At this junction once stood the main city gate, the Netherbow Port. This was the route which most people entering or leave the city would have taken, whether they were traders, visitors or invading armies. Crossing through the Netherbow required payment of a toll, so for many of the impoverished locals, paying the toll was more than they could have afforded, and consequently many of them were never able to physically leave the city as they could not have paid the price to get back in. This junction, for many people, was technically the end of the world, hence the pub. The outline of the Netherbow Port is marked in brass bricks in the roadway where it once stood.
You're now technically leaving the old burgh of Edinburgh, and the Royal Mile continues as Canongate.
Explore the Royal Mile in more detail with a Royal Mile walking tour, or a customised Edinburgh tour!
Immediately after the small roundabout at the junction of Johnston Terrace, you're into the Lawnmarket section of the Royal Mile. Originally a market area specialising in cloth or linen, the name Lawnmarket likely derives from a corruption of the French translation of linen, 'lin', or possibly from the Scots pronunciation of 'land', 'laun'.
On the north side of the Lawnmarket you'll find the restored 15th century tenement building of Gladstone's Land, which gives a fascinating insight into life inside the buildings of Old Edinburgh. These properties would have housed families from right across the social spectrum, from shop keepers and merchants to noblemen and their families, and quickly became overcrowded.
Notice the lanes leading off the Royal Mile on either side of the road. Take time to explore these alleys, known as closes, wynds or courts, each of them named for a wealthy or significant occupant of one of the houses here, or for the tradesman or artisan workers who lived there. The closes originally would have had a gate on the street to close them off at night; the wynds would have led down the hill to backstreets; and courts generally opened up into small courtyards, providing access to a range of buildings.
These alleys are a key part of Edinburgh history and heritage, and no visit to the Royal Mile would be complete without an exploration of them. You may be surprised to find pavement cafes, restaurants, bars, gardens, museums and a range of shops all nestled down these alleys, and each has a different character.
Down Lady Stair's Close, off the Lawnmarket on the north side, you will find the Writer's Museum, a free exhibition of artefacts relating to three of Edinburgh's finest literary figures, Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson and Robert Burns.
On either side of the Lawnmarket you'll find both a tearoom and a pub named for Deacon Brodie, an infamous inhabitant of old Edinburgh, a man whose double life inspired Robert Louis Stevenson's characters of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Enjoy a sandwich or a snack in the tea room, whilst the 'tavern' on the corner (whose sign outside is double-sided, and painted to reflect the dual natures of Brodie himself) is a popular spot to try haggis, Scotland's national dish.
The Lawnmarket is also where the City Bus Tours pick up and drop off. During the summer a number of different routes operate, and the buses pull in on either side of the road at the Lawnmarket, depending which route you're taking. This is the closest the Bus Tours get to Edinburgh Castle.
The Lawnmarket continues just across the next junction, with Bank Street and George IV Bridge, before the Royal Mile officially becomes High Street.
Explore the Royal Mile in more detail with a Royal Mile walking tour, or a customised Edinburgh city tour.
The Royal Mile is the heart of Edinburgh's Old Town, being the main street along which the city originally developed. Stretching from the castle to the Palace of Holyroodhouse it is a little over a mile long, and is broken into five separately named stretches, each with its own unique character, attractions and history.
The route of the Royal Mile follows the ridge of volcanic rock which once flowed from the nearby volcano, and was shaped by the passage of a glacier which swept across the area during the last ice age, approximately 10,000 years ago. The force of the glacier wore away softer rock, but couldn't erode the volcanic plug of what is today the Castle Rock. As it moved eastwards, the glacier drew out the 'spine' of the lava flow. This feature is known geologically as a crag and tail formation, and the Royal Mile follows the line of this 'tail'.
Immediately outside the Castle, as soon as you leave the open area of the Esplanade, you're onto the cobbled street of the Royal Mile - this is Castlehill.
On the north side of the street is the Tartan Weaving Mill and gift shop, with an active tartan weaving manufacturer in the basement. The building itself was formerly a purpose-built reservoir to store and supply water to the Old Town, piping water from the Pentland Hills, a few miles to the south of the city. Across the road from it is Cannonball House, now opened as a cafe, restaurant and ice cream shop, named for the two cannonballs lodged in the western wall, facing the castle. These balls were deliberately inserted into the wall to mark the water level of the distant spring which fed water to the reservoir.
You'll also find the Camera Obscura and World of Illusions, a great indoors attraction with an outdoor viewing platform for views across the city, and the Scotch Whisky Experience, offering an insight into the processes of making Scotland's national drink, as well as an extensive shop and restaurant. Next door is the famous Witchery restaurant, a fine dining (and reputedly haunted) restaurant named for the people executed as witches on the Castlehill during the 16th and 17th centuries, with boutique hotel rooms which frequently house celebrities.
During the summer Castlehill is largely pedestrianised, and is often populated with a variety of street performers and buskers, including bagpipers and William Wallace (aka Braveheart), who will happily have his photo taken with you, wielding a variety of authentic weapons, in exchange for a charitable donation.
Castlehill runs down to the junction with the church building with the highest spire in the city (c.240ft) - formerly St John's Highland Tollbooth church it was one of very few churches which provided services in Gaelic. Today the building is the administrative centre of (and box office for) the Edinburgh International Festival.
At the junction with Johnston Terrace, notice the small lane of Upper Bow. This steep and narrow lane was for a long time the primary road up to this part of Edinburgh from the outer Grassmarket area, accessible today via a short staircase to Victoria Street.
The Royal Mile continues down the road, over the junction, as Lawnmarket.
Explore the Royal Mile in more detail with my Royal Mile walking tour, or book a fully customised Edinburgh tour!
Edinburgh Expert Walking Tours is run by Gareth, an adopted native of Edinburgh, with over 20 years experience of living and working in the city...
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