Venturing Forth to South Queensferry
The river Forth, flowing into the north sea to the north-east of Edinburgh city centre, was a major obstacle to travellers for much of history. In particular, those pilgrims making the journey to St Andrews faced an arduous diversion inland to the west in order to cross the river at a narrower point, before trekking back all the way to the eastern coast of Fife.
Towns like Culross on the northern side of the water were major towns along the route, growing up around the business that the pilgrims provided to their taverns, inns and hostelries.
But in the eleventh century, Queen Margaret of Scotland established a ferry service which would significantly shorten the journey time of those on the pilgrimmage to St Andrews - it provided a means of crossing the firth of Forth just outside Edinburgh, between the banks of the river at two towns which still bear names connected to this service.
South Queensferry remains a charming coastal town that is well worth your time if you get the chance to visit. It's just over 10 miles out of Edinburgh, and can be reached via car or on a short train ride from the city centre (alight at Dalmeny and walk down to the level of the town, on the coast below).
Stretching along the water between two of the three bridges which now cross the Forth at this point - Queen Margaret's ferry service continued running for 900 years until the Forth Road Bridge was opened to vehicle traffic in the 1960s - South Queensferry offers a wesalth of small shops, cafes and opportunities to enjoy views across to Fife, and of the original Forth Bridge in particular.
Engineered in the aftermath of the Tay Bridge collapse in the 1870s, this railway bridge was deliberately designed to create an image of strength and stability with its criss-crossing gantries and vivid red colour. It continues to be a major rail link between Edinburgh and all points north of the Forth, and for modern pilgrims making the journey to St Andrews (known today as the home of golf) it provides the easiest means of making the crossing into Fife. (St Andrews itself is no longer on the mainline rail route, requiring visitors to alight at the nearby town of Leuchars and catching a local bus or taxi service into the town centre.)
In 2015 the Forth Bridge was designated Scotland's sixth UNESCO World Heritage Site, and was previously considered one of the seven wonders of the modern world.
The single main street of South Queensferry itself is still lined with many original buildings which originally housed locals engaged in the fishing and ferry industry, with an elevated level of shops and accommodation looking out over the cobbled road which is often (sadly) choked with traffic - visitors would be advised to park as close to the Forth Bridge as possible, where a large car park is located, rather than trying to navigate the narrow street of South Queensferry itself, which provides limited space.
At the western end of the town is an area called the Binks, which was where the original ferry service arrived and departed. Near this is the Priory Church, a fifteenth century monastery building which remains active as a community church today.
The Carmelite monastery had been established here in the fourteenth century originally, but after the Reformation of 1560 the church ceased operation as a monastic order and became a Church of Scotland church.
It remains the only medieval Carmelite church building in the British Isles which is still in use.
South Queensferry is also one of the four cruise terminals that serves Edinburgh - for people arriving into the city off a cruise ship I always advise them to clarify which of the ports they are arriving into as none of them are actually Edinburgh. From South Queensferry, a taxi into the city will be pretty expensive, the shuttle buses can take up to 45 minutes to make the journey into town, and the rail service from Dalmeny requires a significant climb from the coast up to the level of the railway line.
Near the point where the cruise terminal delivers visitors onto land is the Hawes Inn, a hostelry dating from the seventeenth century which features in Robert Louis Stevenson's adventure story Kidnapped.
Other notable buildings in the town include the Black Castle, which is the oldest house in South Queensferry, built by a trader named William Lowrie in 1626. Not actually a castle at all, the name is derived from events in 1646 when Lowrie's sister-in-law confessed to paying another woman to use witchcraft to sink Lowrie's boat, causing his death. Both women were later burned at the stake, although the whole events may have been orchestrated by a local 'witch finder' who wanted Lowrie's grand house for himself...
South Queensferry is also the location for a number of annual traditional activities for locals. The Burryman festival dates back several centuries and is believed to be derived from pagan rituals, wherein a local man is clad in sticky burrs from the burdock plant which cover his whole body, leaving only his mouth and eyes exposed. He's led on a slow, uncomfortable pilgrimage through the town, fortified only with whisky sipped through a straw, while local children collect money for local charities and community organisations.
No less uncomfortable is the annual Loony Dook, held on New Year's Day, where people gather at South Queensferry and then plunge into the freezing waters of the Firth of Forth to raise money for charity. In recent years this community event has been co-opted by the organisation which runs Edinburgh's Hogmanay events, but it remains an absurdly popular event for people willing to risk hypothermia (and worse).
Take a trip out of Edinburgh to South Queensferry and on a sunny day you'll enjoy the best of this picturesque town, with incredible views of the Forth Bridge and across to Fife.
Find a local cafe to enjoy a coffee, or take home a souvenir of this historic town.
Discover more of Edinburgh's historic neighbourhoods with my private city walking tours!
In the days when Scotland was occupied by grand families who operated estate properties which employed local people from nearby villages and towns to work on their estate properties, the 'big hoose' became a focus for community life. While some of these estates remain active and operational (and, often, still family owned) others have passed into the care of heritage bodies like the National Trust for Scotland and Historic Environment Scotland. Many remain publicly accessible, or have grounds and parks that can be visited either for free or for a small charge.
Here's my brief guide to a handful of these 'big hooses' that can be visited from Edinburgh...
Built as Whitehill House in the 1680s by the architect James Smith as his own private residence, Newhailes is an early example of the Palladian style which became so popular in Britain in the late 17th- and early 18th-centuries, a style pioneered by Smith who 'imported' it from Italy where he had studied under Andrea Palladio himself.
Smith had to sell the house barely a decade after it was built to ease financial troubles he had acquired by investing in failed mining operations, and the property and its estate passed into ownership of the Dalrymple family, baronets of Hailes.
The brother of Newhailes' first owner notoriously gave the order which let to the infamous Massacre of Glencoe in 1692, while later members of the family would entertain figures such as Adam Smith, David Hume, Samuel Johnson and James Boswell at Newhailes.
When Sir Mark Dalrymple, the 3rd Baronet of Hailes, died without having produced children in 1971 the house began to fall into disrepair, before being finally vacated in 1980. Dalrymple's widow lived in a cottage on the estate until 2011, and her death in 2017 represented the end of the Dalrymple family line.
The National Trust for Scotland has overseen the maintenance and care for Newhailes House since 1997, and today the estate remains popular with local walkers and with a cafe in the property's former stable block - partly designed by James Craig, who created the plans for Edinburgh's New Town - providing lunches and snacks to those who stop by to explore the grounds.
Another James Smith property, Cockenzie House is at the heart of the village of Cockenzie and Port Seton in East Lothian.
Operated now as a community centre with a variety of studios for local artists, therapists and jewellers, the building is set in its original gardens and has a popular cafe and studio shop, as well as hosting antiques fairs and a variety of community events all year round.
Following the Battle of Prestonpans in 1745 - the first skirmish of the '45 Jacobite Uprising - Bonnie Prince Charlie and his troops retired victorious to Cockenzie House, where they fed from fruit trees in the grounds. Later the house hosted artists such as JMW Turner and Sir Walter Scott as guests of the Caddell family who owned the property.
In the gardens of Cockenzie House, look out for the fruit trees which fed those early Jacobites, as well as a characteristic grotto built from pumice, the stone used as ballast which was discarded by ships sailing into and out of the nearby port on early trade excursions to northern Europe and Iceland.
The hecla grotto - its name is spelled out in stone at the front of the structure - was a 19th-century folly with whale bones forming its doorway. Remains of its original ornate decorations, using shells and stones from the local beaches, can still be seen inside the building.
A rare example of an estate which has fallen entirely to ruin, Cammo is a suburb to the north-west of Edinburgh with grounds accessible to local people and visitors. The house itself, another late 17th-century family home, fell victim to vandals in the 1970s, and the area today is maintained by the City of Edinburgh Council.
Only a few collections of stonework and the original doorway of Cammo House survive, although the grounds continue to show evidence of the former status of the property, with an ornamental canal, a pinetum (a collection of rare trees), a walled orangery and a derelict carriage house all suggesting the grandeur the property would have had at its height.
The writer Robert Louis Stevenson visited the area frequently, and is believed to have used Cammo House as the model for the House of Shaws in his novel Kidnapped.
Another local property easily accessible from the city centre is Prestonfield House, dating from 1687 and operating today as a boutique hotel, restaurant and wedding venue.
Set within its own grounds to the south-east of Arthur's Seat, Prestonfield was originally site of a 12th century monastery and later a house named Priestfield, which was destroyed by fire in the 1680s. The new building built to replace Priestfield changed its name to distance itself from its Catholic connections.
As the home of the wealthy Dick family in the 18th and 19th centuries, the estate at Prestonfield becamea high society venue which attracted guests such as David Hume, Benjamin Franklin and (a recurring name on Scotland's visitor records) Samuel Johnson.
The house was also the first place in the UK to cultivate rhubarb, and that vegetable gives its name to the restaurant in the house today.
The interior of Presonfield is a reason in itself to visit for dinner or afternoon tea, with rooms styled in a variety of ornate styles creating a unique and sumptuous setting.
In the grounds, look out for the estate's peacocks who roam freely, and the circular stable block which has been adapted to hosted lavish weddings and other special events.
A short distance from Edinburgh is Vogrie House, a 19th century estate property built in the typical Scots Baronial architectural style, which originally accommodated the Dewar family.
A cafe provides refreshments, and a play park and indoor soft play area for children can help keep younger members of the family engaged.
Although the building is not accessible to the public, the grounds of Vogrie Country Park are spacious and spectacular, with a number of pieces of art dotted through the woods and lawns of the former estate. Look out for two huge, brightly coloured chairs, and a giant's tricyle!
Sometimes known as Dalkeith Palace, today the Dalkeith Country Park provides access to the grounds of this grand estate property. There had been a castle or fortified house on this site since medieval times, but the current house was another of James Smith's constructions from the early years of the 18th century.
The house has several royal connections, having provided accommodation a number of monarchs over the years, including Bonnie Prince Charlie, George IV during his historic visit to Scotland in 1822, Queen Victoria, Edward VII and George V.
During the Second World War the property accommodated Polish soldiers who used the grounds for military training and practice.
Today, although the estate remains active as farmland, much of its grounds are accessible for walkers, with a cafe and artisan gift shops in the former stable block and with an extensive children's play area.
Look out for a huge folly which is currently undergoing renovation.
Another estate property which retains its family ownership is Gosford House in East Lothian. Built at the end of the 18th century to plans by Robert Adam, who also styled Edinburgh's New Town, the property has a distinctive neoclassical style and sprawling grounds which continue to provide space for visitors to explore.
The estate's ponds and woodlands offer a real sense of escape from the routines of daily life.
Used as a filming location for the Outlander television series, Gosford stood in for the Palace of Versailles - an indication of its sense of status and style!
The original owner of the property, the 7th Earl of Wemyss, was Grand Master Mason of the Grand Lodge of Scotland, and after his death he was buried in the grounds of Gosford House in a huge mausoleum styled as a pyramid, referencing several ancient masonic traditions.
The estate also has a rare example of a curling house, effectively a pavilion for the popular Scottish sport of curling, which would have been played on the estate's frozen lakes during the winter months.
Gosford House is open to visitors in the summer, with grounds accessible through the rest of the year (subject to the family's permitting access).
Explore more of Edinburgh's high status history with a tour exploring the Georgian-era New Town!
Just a short drive from Edinburgh are two of the most popular - and impressive - landmarks that visitors often have on their list of sites to see. Although I don't take tours out of Edinburgh, I can heartily recommend a visit to both the Kelpies and the Falkirk Wheel, and can help you find a great local guide who can show them to you, if needed!
The Kelpies were unveiled in 2014, and have fast become one of Scotland's most iconic pieces of amazing public art. Visible from the M9 motorway between Edinburgh and Stirling, the best way to appreciate the scale and style of Andy Scott's artwork is to visit them up-close. They form part of the Helix park, an expanse of reclaimed land that has been turned into recreational space - great for walking the dogs or letting the kids run free!
The Forth and Clyde canal runs through the area, connecting (as its name suggests) the estuaries of the rivers Forth (on the east coast) and the Clyde (to the west). This cross-country transport link was a key feature of nineteenth-century Scottish trade and industry, although the network was superceded by the railways just a few decades later.
On either side of the canal at this point, the Kelpies are two horses' heads, created from steel and lit from the inside at night. Each of them stands 100ft or 30m high, and are the world's largest equine sculptures.
In Scottish mythology, kelpies were water spirits who could change their shape and appearance, and lived in the country's waterways. The notorious Loch Ness Monster would be an example of a kelpie - mysterious, rarely seen... and probably completely mythological!
The beasts seek out human company and contact, sometimes appearing as horses to entice riders to jump onto their backs, before being dragged to a watery grave... Similar creatures occur in other world mythologies, and it's not hard to see a parallel between kelpies and mermaids, luring the unwary traveller to a mysterious end.
Today the Kelpies attract visitors from all over the world, and the canal here has a small visitor centre and a number of little food outlets and coffee huts to encourage you to linger a while and take in the full scale and majesty of the sculptures.
You can also view the maquettes or models of the Kelpies that were created to demonstrate the final artwork.
A few miles further up the canal you'll find the Falkirk Wheel, the world's only 360-degree revolving boat lift. (It's much more impressive than that makes it sound!)
Originally the landscape here would have required boats to navigate a punishing series of 11 separate locks to raise or lower themselves between the levels of the canal. The link fell into disuse in the 1930s, and in was only in 2002 that the Falkirk Wheel provided a modern means of connection.
As you'll see from that timelapse video, the wheel's movement is incredibly smooth and astonishingly impressive to see in real life. It takes about 10 minutes to make a 180-degree rotation, lifting a laden boat in a section of canal between the top and bottom sections.
Redevelopment of the whole site cost in excess of £80m, and visitors today can take a short boat ride to experience the wheel in action, or just observe it from the viewing area near the visitor centre at the bottom. Water sports aficionados can take part in a variety of water-based activities in the marina nearby.
Explore more of Edinburgh's city centre public artworks - and its canal! - with my private city walking tours!
Edinburgh is boundaried to the north by the Firth of Forth, the tidal estuary of the River Forth, which flows into the North Sea. This coast has served as a natural limit to the growth of the city, and for a long time was a major hurdle to travellers - especially pilgrims who made the long trek to the reliquary of St Andrew at the town which bears his name, on the eastern neuk - or 'corner' - of Fife.
Those making their way to St Andrews were faced with a considerable challenge in their efforts to cross the River Forth, necessitating a significant diversion inland to the west to cross at Kincardine, where the river was narrower, before venturing back eastwards to the coast, adding a distance of some forty miles to their already arduous route.
Towns along the northern bank of the Forth created a Pilgrim's Trail, featuring a number of holy sites and shrines to attract such travellers, and villages like Culross - famous today for its use as a setting for the Outlander TV series - capitalised on their saintly connections.
In the eleventh century, Queen Margaret of Scotland - wife of Malcolm III - established a ferry service across the River Forth, to provide pilgrims with a shortcut, and bypassing some of the inland diversion. A ferryman would row travellers across the choppy waters of the Firth of Forth, between two points which today still have names deriving from this transport facility - North and South Queensferry.
But with the growth of Scotland's population and the increase in demands for travel and transport, leading to the rise of mass transit in the 19th century and with the coming of the railways, the Firth of Forth remained a major obstacle for anyone seeking to travel north from Edinburgh or south from Fife.
In 1882 construction began on a cantilevered bridge to span the Forth and carry a railway line which would link Fife directly to Edinburgh. The Forth Bridge was designed by Sir John Fowler and Sir Benjamin Baker, and would become one of Scotland's major landmarks, as well as earning a UNESCO World Heritage Site designation in 2015.
Shortly after its construction was finished in 1889 the bridge was dubbed the 'Eighth Wonder of the World' due to its striking and iconic design of intersecting iron struts, creating a cross-hatching effect that - coupled with its distinctive red colour - made it a visual spectacle.
This style was an accidental consequence of a tragedy which occurred in 1879, when the Tay Bridge - a railway bridge crossing the River Tay at the northern end of Fife - collapsed during a severe winter storm. Seeking to reassure the public of the safety of such large pieces of infrastructure, the Forth Bridge was deliberately over-engineered in order to provide a visual sense of security and strength, adding in the multiple struts and supports to provide more stability than was structurally necessary.
The Forth Bridge opened in 1890, and has since become a feature of Scottish culture as well as an icon of Scottish travel. When Alan Turing, the inventor of the precursor to the modern computer, compiled a series of conditions that would have to be met for a computer to be considered as 'intelligent' as a human being - known as the Turing Test - one of the tasks he described was: 'Write me a sonnet on the subject of the Forth Bridge'. Only if a machine were able to complete all of those tasks laid out by Turing, including the poetry assignment, could it accurately be described as being able to think.
The painting of the bridge also came to be popularly used to describe a Sisyphean task - one that never ends - when it was believed that the job of painting the steel structure in its entirety took so long that by the time a team of workmen had painted from end of it to the other, it was already in need of repainting!
Today the Forth Bridge remains an iconic landmark, as well as providing an invaluable rail link between Fife and Edinburgh which serves thousands of commuters travelling into and out of the city on a daily basis.
Queen Margaret's ferry service continued running for eight centuries (although the boats had been upgraded several times over this period, eventually allowing for cars to be carried!). Even through the end of the 19th century, as trains rumbled across the Forth Bridge high above them, ferries continued shuttling passengers over the waters below. (For a brief time a hovercraft also carried passengers over the Forth a little further to the east.)
In the early 20th century, as car ownership and road travel boomed, a road bridge was planned as a means of providing another means of access across the Forth. Early discussions were held in the 1920s and 1930s, and construction eventually began in 1958.
When it opened in 1964, the Forth Road Bridge was the longest suspension bridge in the world, outside of the United States of America. At just over 2,500m in length, the dual-lane roadway with adjacent footpath is supported between two towers 156m high.
This second bridge to Fife was opened by HRH the Queen in September 1964. As well as improving transport links, for the first time the original Forth Bridge could be viewed from the west, giving travellers an opportunity to appreciate its length and style as it stretched between the banks of the Forth.
At the same time, the original ferry service was discontinued, meaning pilgrims could no longer take a ferry across the Forth for the first time since the eleventh century.
At its peak, the Forth Road Bridge carried 65,000 vehicles across the Forth every day, but by the turn of the 21st century it was reaching the limits of safe capacity, and concerns were raised over the future viability of the bridge as vehicle numbers continued to rise.
Plans for a new road bridge had been discussed in the 1990s, but it wasn't until 2004 that solid arrangements were put in place to commit to upgrading the infrastructure. A third bridge, now known as the Queensferry Crossing, began construction in 2011, and was formally opened by HRH the Queen on 4 September 2017, 53 years to the day since she had opened the Forth Road Bridge.
Today the Queensferry Crossing carries domestic vehicle traffic over the Firth of Forth, while the Forth Road Bridge is limited to commercial vehicles.
These three bridges offer three contrasting styles and functions, and belong to three separate, consecutive centuries - the Forth Bridge from the 19th century; the Forth Road Bridge from the 20th century; and now the Queensferry Crossing from the 21st century. It's a neat way of demonstrating the continued importance of transport links across the Firth of Forth over those centuries, and a visually arresting demonstration of the evolution of technology and design.
Visitors to Scotland today who take a trip out of Edinburgh will often have reason to pass over one of these three bridges. Anyone travelling to St Andrews for a game of golf, or further north to the Highlands, or even just over to pay a visit to Culross and other Outlander locations in Fife, will pass over the Forth and be able to appreciate the visual effect of three crossings over the same body of water.
They say the best trilogies come in threes, and with our bridge(s) to Fife we have one such trilogy to celebrate!
Explore more of Edinburgh's visual architecture and design with my private city walking tours...
With ongoing restrictions on public gatherings and social contact in Scotland (and all around the world) there has never been a better time to explore Edinburgh's outdoor spaces. A survey of British cities a few years ago ranked Edinburgh top for green spaces in the UK - 49% of the city centre is covered by parks!
Most visitors can find Princes Street Gardens, the Meadows or Holyrood Park and Arthur's Seat by themselves, so here's a quick rundown of some of the city's less familiar spaces to escape the crowds and enjoy a breath of socially distanced fresh air...
The proximity of Edinburgh to the coast means that there are plenty of beach walks, especially out to the east of the city. But tucked away on the edge of the Firth of Forth is the former Roman settlement of Cramond, with an expanse of walking space along the shore - either along the beach or a paved pathway, or venture inland along the River Almond as it flows into the firth and walk along to the Dalmeny Estate.
Brave souls (who check the tides!) may also venture across to Cramond Island, just a short distance from the shore but cut off at high tide. The island itself is great to explore, with its former military structures built to provide protection in the Forth during WWII.
A popular destination for families and dog walkers, Cramond village has a couple of nice cafes for refreshments before or after a walk.
At the bottom of the New Town, and adjacent to the city's Botanic Gardens, another amazing destination for those looking to ditch the crowds, Inverleith is one of Edinburgh's brilliant multi-purpose public spaces.
A children's playground attract families while tennis courts, rugby and footbal pitches attract more sporty visitors, but there's also plenty of wide open space for dog walkers. The pond - usually generously populated with ducks and swans - gives views across to the city itself, and being south-facing is a recommended spot for a lazy picnic or simply a relaxing afternoon to sit and chill.
Another former estate property, and another site popular with dog walkers, is Cammo, on the western edge of Edinburgh, near the airport. The ruins of this old house can still be found in the middle of expansive grounds which feature a variety of landscape features, from a wooded glade to wide open fields and former lawns, as well as an ornamental canal and a walled orangery, now overgrown and derelict.
Take any number of paths through the estate, and discover its original driveway (now overgrown) and its carriage houses and stable blocks, today just tumbledown ruins. It's an atmospheric space with plenty of nooks and crannies to explore.
Another of the city's volcanic outcrops, Blackford Hill to the south of the Old Town is a popular destination for dog walkers, as well as being the location of the city's Royal Observatory, moved here from Calton Hill in the nineteenth century.
Enjoy panoramic views over Edinburgh from the top of the hill, or take the kids for an exploration of the pond at the base of the park, which is also a designated wildlife reserve. The sense of space here is immense, and down in the valley behind the hill is the next local gem...
THE HERMITAGE OF BRAID
A former estate property set in a tranquil wooded valley behind Blackford Hill, through which the Braid Burn (stream) runs, the Hermitage gets its name for the peace and isolation it offered visitors before the city environs grew out to surround it.
Another popular walk for locals with dogs, the stream is also often a destination for school groups and nature clubs exploring the wildlife found along its banks. The Hermitage property itself is now a community centre, but features like the old ice house is a reminder of its function as a grand residence.
Networks of paths run through the trees and criss-cross the stream on a series of bridges, giving a genuine sense of exploring off the beaten track, but you're never more than ten minutes from civilisation!
Explore more of Edinburgh's vibrant green spaces with my city walking tours!
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.
Gosford House in East Lothian stood in for the French palace of Versailles in season 2 - a considerable amount of CGI was used to mask some of the less French styling of Robert Adam's 18th century design, but the house provided a huge expanse of land for filming, and featured in a number of scenes.
The grounds of the house can be accessed to get a sense of the lifestyle enjoyed by the Wemyss and March family, who continue to own the property.
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!
To the south west of Scotland, near Dumfries, you can find Drumlanrig Castle, the ancestral house of the Queensberry family. The building is known as the 'Pink Palace' because of the tinted sandstone which is local to this area.
In Outlander, Jamie is seen stopping off here on his journey north to Culloden.
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!
Edinburgh Days Out: North Berwick
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.
Around Town: Duddingston Village
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.
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