Edinburgh has long embraced its status as a university town, and like similar perceptions of cities like Oxford and Cambridge in England, and St Andrews elsewhere in Scotland, it is often thought of as one of the classical hubs of learning for students in the UK.
Around 12% of Edinburgh's population is made up of students, and in recent years the city has attracted increasing numbers of students coming from overseas to study here.
Today there are four universities in the city, each with their own character, history and traditions. Here's your brief introduction to these four great centres of learning.
THE UNIVERSITY OF EDINBURGH
The oldest, largest and best-known of the universities is the one which takes its name from the city itself. Established in 1582, the University of Edinburgh is one of the oldest universities in the world - although it's only the fourth oldest in Scotland, with St Andrews, Glasgow and Aberdeen having established their universities earlier (in 1410, 1451, and 1495 respectively).
Today the University of Edinburgh isn't purely campus based, but occupies a series of collections of buildings around the city, with five major campus areas and numerous other small buildings and offices around the Old Town.
The Old College is the grandest of their structures, designed by the architects Robert Adam (who gave the New Town its distinctive style in the eighteenth century) and William Playfair. Today the building houses the law school, but previously was used for medical teaching, and would have been where students such as Charles Darwin and Arthur Conan Doyle attended classes.
Other collections of offices and teaching spaces include King's Buildings, from the 1920s, New College from the 1840s (housing the school of divinity), and Moray House, the university's teaching school.
One of the busiest university areas is around Bristo Square and George Square, where the university has some of its social spaces - Potterrow and Teviot - as well as a new infomatics building, the David Hume tower, the university's main library, and the McEwan Hall, their grand graduation venue. During the spring months in particular this area is busy with students, and in the summer becomes home to a number of festival venues.
Edinburgh didn't acquire any new universities between the sixteenth century and 1966, when the former School of Arts of Edinburgh (dating back to the 1820s) was designated its new status as a university, and a new name.
Heriot-Watt references two major figures of Edinburgh's history. George Heriot was a jeweller and a goldsmith in the sixteenth century, and James Watt was an engineer and inventor whose improvements to the steam engine brought about the Industrial Revolution.
Today Heriot-Watt has a campus to the west of Edinburgh city centre, as well as a campus in Galashiels in the Scottish Borders, and (since 2005) campuses in Dubai, Malaysia and the Orkney islands. A significant part of the courses taught at Heriot-Watt remain based in technology, including chemical engineering, renewable technologies, structural engineering, computing, physics, mathematics, finance, and textile design.
Heriot-Watt was named the Sunday Times International University of the Year in 2018, and frequently scores highly in national and international rankings for its academic teaching.
Another Edinburgh figure gives his name to Edinburgh's third university. The mathematician John Napier was born at his family's estate property at Merchiston near Bruntsfield in 1550. He is best known as the discoverer of lotharithms, and for creating an early computational device known as 'Napier's Bones' which allowed for quick calculation of large numbers. On his death his was buried at St Cuthbert's church in Edinburgh's West End.
The surviving portion of Merchiston Castle, in which Napier was born, now forms the heart of the main campus of the university named for him.
Courses available at Napier include health and social care, biomechanics, business, computing and engineering, and the university has around 20,000 students, including those on overseas placements and exchange programmes.
QUEEN MARGARET UNIVERSITY
The newest of Edinburgh's universities acquired its status in 2007, having previously been a college and university college. Queen Margaret University is named for Queen Margaret of Scotland, who was also a saint (not just figuratively but actually!). She has long held an association with education in Scotland, featuring in the emblem placed on schools across Edinburgh from the nineteenth century onwards.
The university was originally set up as a cooking and domestic science academy in 1875. As a women-only establishment - founded by two women, Louisa Stevenson and Christian Guthrie Wright - its purpose was twofold: to improve the education and working status of women, and to improve the diets of poor and working class families in Edinburgh.
Over time the university incorporated other organisations and schools, including the Edinburgh College of Speech and Drama, the Edinburgh School of Speech Therapy, and the Edinburgh Foot Clinic and School of Chiropody.
Having previously occupied premises in Edinburgh and at Clermiston, in 2010 the university moved to a brand new campus location at Musselburgh, to the east of the city.
Explore more of Edinburgh's academic history and figures associated with its universities on my private city walking tours!
Just as Braveheart defined Scottish history and culture for the mid-90s film buffs, the TV adaptation of Diana Gabaldon's historical time-travelling romance series Outlander has captured the imagination (and hearts) of a whole new generation of viewers.
Originally published in the UK in 1991 as Cross Stitch, Outlander has everything a popular drama needs - doomed lovers, battles, unrequited passions and (of course) men in kilts...!
Since it premiered in 2014, the TV adaptation has been responsible for a massive surge in interest in Scottish history, with whole tour agencies dedicated to providing an authentic Outlander experience for those wanting to walk in the footsteps of Claire and Jamie.
I don't take tours out of Edinburgh, but here's my guide to some of the Outlander filming locations that can be found in the city and further around Scotland - and if you'd like a guide to take you out of the city I can make some recommendations for companies to check out.
EDINBURGH'S OLD TOWN
Series three is when the characters in the story visit Edinburgh for the first time, and there are several locations in the Old Town which were used for on-site filming.
Bakehouse Close is the one which most fans look for, as this is the location for Jamie's print shop in the series. I've lost count of the number of people on my tours who have wanted to have their photograph taken on the steps which provided access to the print shop!
The lane here was heavily decorated for filming, and appeared in a number of sequences as characters made their way through the city's busy medieval streets.
The area historically was a bakery district (as its name suggests) and the adjacent Acheson House property - also used for filming - has served as both a high-status residence and a brothel at different times in history!
Tweeddale Court is another of the old lanes which was used for filming, again highly decorated as a market place, where Claire and Jamie first re-encounter each other in the series.
This narrow lane was originally outside of the medieval city walls, which can still be seen along the alley, and later was the access point to a grand manor house owned by the Marquess of Tweeddale.
Other locations in Edinburgh which feature in the series include the World's End pub; the Signet Library, a grand eighteenth-century legal library which today hosts afternoon teas; the former veterinary school of Summerhall; and Craigmillar Castle, a ruined fortress once occupied by Mary, Queen of Scots (the area around it is still known as 'Little France') which serves as Ardsmuir Prison where Jamie is held after the Battle of Culloden in the Outlander series.
You have to go beyond the city to discover some of the more recognisable and iconic locations from the TV series.
Linlithgow Palace was the birthplace of Mary, Queen of Scots, and features in the Outlander series as the interior of Wentworth Prison. (Exterior shots of Wentworth Prison were filmed at Bamburgh Castle in northern England.)
The private estate of Hopetoun House has featured as a number of locations in the series - as the streets of Paris in season two, and the Duke of Sandringham's home in season one. In the grounds of the estate are Midhope Castle, which features as Lallybroch, the family home of Jamie Fraser. Although the estate is a private property, access can be arranged to view Midhope from the outside.
In east Lothian, outside of Edinburgh, you can find Gosford House which stood in for Versailles on screen, along with Preston Mill, a National Trust for Scotland property where Jamie was spotted hiding shirtless during season one, along with serving as the courtroom where Claire attended a hearing for witchcraft.
To the west of Edinburgh, just a short drive across the Firth of Forth, is the historic village of Culross, which features as Cranesmuir in the series.
At the heart of Culross is Culross Palace, a former royal residence which has associations with King James VI of Scotland. The palace building featured in both seasons one and two of Outlander.
The village here is a lovely place to visit, even if you don't know of its Outlander connections!
Across the other side of the water from Culross is Blackness Castle, styled imposingly in the shape of a ship moored at the side of the Firth of Forth. Blackness stood in for Fort William in the TV series.
Of course, it's the Highland landscape which is a major feature of Outlander's dramatic scenes, and if you plan to visit the Highlands from Edinburgh you should expect to spend a couple of days travelling and staying overnight rather than trying to do the journey there and back in a single day. (Edinburgh to Loch Ness and back is just over 350 miles, which equates to around 8 hours of travelling.)
The battlefield at Culloden outside Inverness was the site of the historic clash between the Jacobite Scots and English armed forced in 1746. You can visit the battlefield for free, and find the grave stones and memorials to the fallen clans, including the Clan Fraser.
Kinloch Rannoch, a short drive from Pitlochry, is the location of the infamous stone circle through which Claire travels in time, but in reality there's no stone circle at the site - they were props created for the series...
The imposing landscape of Glen Coe is on one of the main driving routes to and from the Highlands, and remains an atmospheric and rather unsettling place. The site of a bloody massacre of members of the Macdonald clan by members of the Campbell clan in February 1692, Glencoe remains popular with filmmakers as well as walkers and photographers. It's not hard to see why!
And there are many other locations in parks, fields, forests, villages and even the university buildings of Glasgow and Stirling which stand in for various locations in Scotland and America in the series. Not all the locations are publically accessible to visitors, and many were heavily decorated for filming and don't necessarily bear much relation to what is visible on screen!
So if you're a fan of Outlander it's worth planning your visit in some detail if you want to hit some of the more popular filming sites - the sheer volume of companies offering dedicated Outlander tours means than many of the more remote locations can get very crowded in high season.
I can recommend some smaller, more personal tour services who can tailor an out of town tour to some of the filming locations, and if you want to explore the Edinburgh locations I can feature them on a private walking tour of the city.
Get in touch to find out more, or book your Edinburgh walking tour today!
When you visit Edinburgh, there's no reason to feel you have to spend every minute of every day in the city itself!
There are plenty of destinations for day trips out of Edinburgh, and North Berwick is one such place where you can escape the city for a few hours.
Just a thirty-minute train ride from Waverley Station, or a 45-minute drive if you're travelling by car, North Berwick is a picturesque town on the East Lothian coast, and has been a popular destination for visitors since the rise of mass transit in the nineteenth century. Today it's a bustling seaside town with a variety of attractions, from its many cafes, restaurants, fish and chip shops and ice cream parlours to its surrounding golf courses.
The sandy beaches which run along the edge of the town offer access to the chilly North Sea, for those who are brave enough to take the plunge, and give views across the Firth of Forth to Fife, and back towards Edinburgh. The Scottish Seabird Centre in the middle of the beaches is a popular and interactive attraction keeping visitors informed about the colonies of gannets along the adjacent coastline, as well as the wealth of other avian wildlife and natural heritage of the area. The centre offers regular boat trips throughout the year to observe birds in their natural habitat.
Berwick Law is the conical hill which rises behind the town itself, a similar volcanic feature to Edinburgh's Arthur's Seat, which offers walkers an opportunity to stretch their legs and rewards those who climb to the top with uninterrupted views across the whole surrounding landscape. The top of the hill is marked with a modern replica of the whalebone arches which have stood on the site since 1709. Structures at the top of the hill also mark it as a former site of military lookout posts from the Napoleonic and Second World Wars, and remains of Iron Age settlements can be found on the landscape around the summit.
For those travelling by car, a visit to nearby Dirleton or Tantallon castles are worth considering - the former on the way into North Berwick from Edinburgh, the latter on a clifftop further east, overlooking the distinctive Bass Rock, with its colony of gannets (the world's largest such colony!), the rock itself coloured a speckled white from the effects of so many birds occupying it...
North Berwick is also one of the sites along the John Muir Way, a coast-to-coast pathway across Scotland, from Helensburgh in the west to nearby Dunbar in the east.
Muir was a naturalist and conservationist, born in Dunbar, who is known as the father of America's National Parks, having helped institute the National Parks Service in the early twentieth century. The John Muir Way stretches right across Scotland's central belt and takes in a number of beaches and coastal pathways leading through North Berwick and the surrounding areas.
So there are plenty of reasons to take time away from Edinburgh to explore a bit further afield - and with regular train services every day, it couldn't be easier to factor a visit to North Berwick into your plans!
Book a private Edinburgh walking tour to get more tips and ideas for things to see and do in Edinburgh during your trip.
Visitors to Edinburgh often see little of the city beyond the overcrowded tourist hotspots of the Royal Mile and the Old Town - frequently not even venturing as far as the historic New Town!
I'm always keen to encourage a wider exploration of Edinburgh's features, hence this occasional series highlighting areas further from the city centre that are worth exploring - previously I've written about Bruntsfield and Stockbridge.
Duddingston village is less a suburb of the city and more a historic outpost of Edinburgh, nestled at the base of the eastern side of Holyrood Park, behind Arthur's Seat. Sheep were grazed on the slopes of the park until the 1970s, and traditionally would have been slaughtered at Duddingston before being taken for sale in Edinburgh itself.
The area's chief 'claim to fame' is as the home of Scotland's oldest pub, the Sheep Heid, where a tavern or inn has been sited since 1360. The village of Duddingston was on the historic route between the Palace of Holyroodhouse and Craigmillar Castle, and it marked a convenient stopping point for travellers between the two. It is reputed that Mary, Queen of Scots may have played skittles (a form of ten pin bowling) in the Sheep Heid's courtyard.
Bonnie Prince Charlie - the Young Pretender - lodged his forces at Duddingston in advance of the Battle of Prestonpans in 1745, a key moment in the Jacobite Uprisings of the 18th century.
At the centre of the village is Duddingston Kirk, a church with its origins traced back as far as 1124. This picturesque church is entered through a gateway at which visitors can still see the guard house built to dissuade bodysnatchers from digging up graves in the early nineteenth-century, along with a mounting block for horse riders to use to mount their steeds, and a set of 'jougs', a steel collar attached to a chain cemented into the wall of the graveyard, where those accused of petty offences would be subjected to a period of public humiliation for their crimes.
Famous residents of Duddingston include John Thomson, a former reverend of the church, who gave rise to a popular folk saying in Scotland - 'We're a' Jock Tamson's Bairns' - we're all equal in the eyes of God.
Jean Carfrae Pinkerton, wife of Allan Pinkerton who founded the Pinkerton's National Detective Agency in America in the 1850s (now part of Securitas), was born in Duddingston. Pinkerton played a major role in foiling the attempted assassination of Abraham Lincoln in 1861.
The nearby Duddingston Loch was the setting for Henry Raeburn's iconic portrait of the Reverend Robert Walker, Skating on Duddingston Loch - better known as the Skating Minister - which can be seen in the National Gallery of Scotland.
The village is worth a visit to escape the city centre briefly, with access to Holyrood Park and the main cycle path along the the nearby Innocent Railway line.
Explore more of Edinburgh's hidden gems with my private city walking tours!
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...
Search the blog archive...
© COPYRIGHT GARETH DAVIES 2014-20