Things may be looking up, but in Edinburgh you need to look down once in a while too! Not just to avoid tripping on the cobbles and the steps, but to seek out some of the smaller hidden gems and details that are set into the pavements and roadways around the city.
Here are a handful of things to look out - and down - for...
In Scots a makar is a poet, and on Lady Stair's Close in the Old Town you'll find numerous paving stones carved with text from a variety of Scottish writers. Appropriately it's the same lane where you'll find the Writers' Museum, celebrating the lives and works of Robert Burns, Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson.
But take your time passing through the street itself, and check out the inspirational quotes at your feet, including this one from Stevenson himself: "There are no stars so lovely as Edinburgh street-lamps".
Keep your eyes peeled for Edinburgh's trams, running into the city centre from the airport. The new tram service opened just a few years ago, but Edinburgh had horse drawn trams from the nineteenth century, and electric ones in the twentieth century.
The original tram service was finally abandoned in the 1950s, and all the original tracks were ripped up and removed. All except one short section, left as a reminder (or possibly a warning!) to future generations... Look into the roadway at the end of Waterloo Place, near the Balmoral Hotel, for the sad reminder of the city's long-lost tram service.
The Holyrood Abbey provided sanctuary to those in debt, who would otherwise be at the mercy of Edinburgh's draconian legal system, which imposed heavily punishments for being unable to repay money that was owed. At one time the sanctuary had over 2,000 people in its care, and they were so well treated they were known as 'abbey lairds', or abbey lords...
The sanctuary itself wasn't a specific building but an entire area, within which the debtors had to stay if they wanted to remain protected from arrest, The boundary ran up to the summit or Arthur's Seat, and across the Royal Mile at Abbey Strand are a series of brass letters S's, marking a part of this original boundary line.
SCOTLAND IN A NUTSHELL
This one is a bit hard to read, both in the photo and in real life!
Look. What can you see?
I see beauty in the lochs.
I see majesty in mountains.
I see legend in rocks.
And it is ours.
These words are in front of the modern Scottish Parliament building, near the exit where visitors to the parliament make their way out, in a single granite paving stone. They are the words of Robert Adam - but not the classical architect who gave Edinburgh its classical style in the eighteenth century, but a 14-year-old school boy who won a competition to mark the official opening of the new parliament in 2005.
History is yet to demonstrate whether Adam becomes a great poet later in his life, but I rather love his short, simple, beautiful poem which seems to capture Scotland in a nutshell!
PHYSICS MADE PHYSICAL
On George Street in the New Town sits a statue of James Clerk Maxwell, a giant of physics whose pioneering investigations into the world around us yielded all kinds of results which continue to have importance today. Maxwell demonstrated that different colours of light travel at different frequencies, and paved the way for Einstein's general theory of relativity...
In the ground in front of his statue are the four equations which he said defined the physical universe. I can tell you nothing more than that - they're just numbers and squiggles to me! - although one group I had told me that in recent times Maxwell's four equations have been combined into one single statement which (apparently) comes pretty close to being a single unifying theory of the universe...
THE NEXT BIG THING
Walk across Bristo Square in the university district and you may not even notice the Old Town's largest piece of public art, commissioned by the university a few years ago.
The piece is called The Next Big Thing... is a Series of Little Things, and it's 1,600 brass dots set into the paving stones of the square, running across from the west to the east side, looking a little as though someone has dripped metallic paint across the space. The artist is Susan Collis, and her intention was that an piece of art which is almost invisible initially will become more visible with the passage of time, as people walking through the square unknowingly buff the brass dots to make them shiny... So if you don't see it now, come back in a few years when it should be more visible!
Look down to see more details of the city with a private Edinburgh walking tour!
Sometimes all we get to see of a building is its front door, especially in a city like Edinburgh where many of the historic properties are still actively used as houses or commercial premises.
I don't take tours inside any of the paid entry attractions (although I may take you into a few choice locations on our tour!) so I'm used to only seeing the outside of a building.
Here are a few of my favourite doorways of the city, with some stories about the history hidden inside...
17 Heriot Row
Heriot Row remains one of the New Town's grandest addresses, and property on the street routinely sells for in excess of £1.5 million... Notable residents of the street include the physicist James Clerk Maxwell, and John Buchan, an author best known for his adventure story The 39 Steps.
Number 17 Heriot Row was the childhood home of Robert Louis Stevenson, and it is reputedly from a drawing room window on the first floor that he would stand looking out at other children of the neighbourhood playing in the private gardens on the other side of the road. In those gardens is a pond with an island, and it may have been those early experiences which fed his later iconic adventure story, Treasure Island.
4 South Charlotte Street
Another New town address, on the corner of Charlotte Square at the west end of the city. Number 4 South Charlotte Street was the birthplace of Alexander Graham Bell, who would later go on to lodge a patent for his invention of the telephone.
It's a useful reminder that before the New Town was the commercial district we see today, this area was built as a residential area for high-status families.
2 Advocate's Close
Just off the Royal Mile near St Giles' Cathedral is one of the most picturesque of the city's closes and wynds. Advocate's Close was formerly home to one of Scotland's Lord Advocates - the highest legal figure in the country - called Sir James Stewart. Stewart's house was actually at the bottom of the lane, but this doorway near the top of the lane is a powerful reminder that some of Edinburgh's Old Town houses have been occupied for over 400 years - look at the date above the doorway to see when this property was first constructed.
As Lord Advocate, Stewart's most notable case was the prosecution of a young student called Thomas Aikenhead for blasphemy, in the 1690s. Aikenhead became the last person in the UK to be executed for blasphemy...
Further down the Royal Mile, off the Canongate, is Acheson House, built in 1633 for Archibald Acheson, a major figure in the royal court of Charles I.
The crest above the doorway features a cockerel on a trumpet, the crest of the Acheson family, and in the middle of the date is a diagram made of the letters AA and MH superimposed on each other - for Archibald Acheson and his wife Margaret Hamilton.
Into the nineteenth century the house wasn't such a grand property, having become a brothel known locally as the 'cock and trumpet'....
Today Acheson House houses Edinburgh World Heritage, the city's premier heritage and preservation body.
The churches of Scotland are often the oldest structures to have survived the passage of time, and at Duddingston is a church reputed to be the oldest on Scotland's east coast.
One former door into the church - long since closed off - has an archway and stonework which dates back to the church's Norman origins in the twelfth century.
The church remains an active centre of worship for the community.
Earl of Morton's House, Blackfriars Street
Blackfriars Street is another fascinating lane in the Old Town, widened in the 1870s from its original layout as a narrow passageway just a few feet wide.
On the west side of the street are some of the original buildings which survived the wholesale renovation of Edinburgh, including a building which was formally home of the Earl of Morton, one of the regents who ruled Scotland during the childhood of Mary, Queen of Scots.
Today the building is a youth hostel, but above its original doorway is a fascinating emblem of two unicorns, standing aside a crown. This was the royal emblem of Scotland before the union of crowns, when Scotland and England came under one monarchy, in 1603.
The later royal emblem - still commonly used today - is of a lion and a unicorn with a crown between them, but this earlier symbol is still visible on a few surviving buildings from the sixteenth-century.
Take a private Edinburgh walking tour to see more doorways with stories from Scottish history!
So you only have 24 hours in Edinburgh? Well, my first piece of advice would be to start planning your return visit NOW!
A single day simply isn't enough to time to get more than the briefest taste of the fantastic flavours that Edinburgh has, but you can certainly spend your time getting to grips with some of the key aspects of our city.
Wear sturdy shoes, dress for the weather, take regular coffee breaks at some of the city's many independent cafes and coffee shops, and carry an emergency supply of chocolate to keep your blood sugars up - this day is going to get hardcore (Jack Bauer eat your heart out!).
Here's my official #ThisIsEdinburgh24 guide to how best to spend your one and only day in Edinburgh...
Assuming you're visiting during the summer, the sun has been up for a couple of hours already, so there's nothing to stop you rolling out of bed super early to begin exploring the city! Of course there's not much open at this time of day, but it's a perfect time for doing what is probably the city's best cost-free attraction: Arthur's Seat.
Climbing to the highest point in the city gives you a fantastic 360-degree views for miles in every direction. It's a relatively easy walk - about 45 minutes from the Palace of Holyroodhouse at the bottom of the Royal Mile, and only the top section is a little scrambly. Even better than the views will be your sense of achievement at this time in the morning!
Having descended Arthur's Seat (or even if you're only just now getting up) grab a hearty breakfast from one of the cafes on the Royal Mile and get ready to go again! Right across Edinburgh you'll find cafes, bars, and restaurants offering you a Full Scottish Breakfast - a variation on its Full English equivalent from south of the border, with the potato scone, Stornoway black pudding, haggis and (if you're lucky) lorne/square sausage providing the local flavour - baked beans, grilled tomatoes, mushrooms and (less commonly) white pudding are all things you're likely to find amongst the standard fare of bacon, eggs, sausage and toast.
Of course the other traditional Scots breakfast of porridge is having a resurgence too - many cafes offer a 'luxury' take on this simple dish. If you intend to take Edinburgh seriously over the next few hours, you might be best advised to have both of the above!
Having refuelled, you're now set to visit the city's most iconic feature, Edinburgh Castle. Open from 9.30am every morning, book your tickets in advance and be at the drawbridge on time to get direct access to this historical site. The castle may not appeal to everyone, but even if you're not into military or royal history, you should find enough of interest here to fill a couple of hours - and the views (more close-up on the city than Arthur's Seat) are stunning. Be sure to visit the birth room where James VI and I was born to Mary, Queen of Scots, and the Prisons of War exhibition is particularly interesting.
Leaving the castle, you should make your way down the hill to the Grassmarket, historically a site not just of an agricultural market but also one of the city's sites of execution - you'll find a shadow of the gallows marked in the pavement at the eastern end of the square. Along here you can top up your energy levels with a drink or a light lunch from the bars and cafes, before moving towards -
- Greyfriars Kirkyard, accessed from the bottom of Candlemaker Row at the east of the Grassmarket. This graveyard is one of the city's most picturesque and peaceful places, and is the resting place of a large number of the city's famous sons and daughters. You'll also find the grave of Greyfriars Bobby, a dog whose story has entered the annals of local mythology for spending 14 years sleeping on the grave of his dead master. Exit the graveyard near Bobby's grave and you'll find a statue to Bobby, usually thronged with visitors taking photographs! Cross the road and you'll be right on the doorstep of the National Museum.
You can easily spend hours wandering around the National Museum of Scotland - lose yourself in the labyrinthine modern wing, or browse the galleries of exhibits in the original Victorian section. Be sure to see Dolly the Sheep, the world's first genetically cloned animal, and The Maiden, a gruesome piece of local history, being the guillotine which sent men to their deaths in the 17th century.
Entry to the museum is free, although you can also pay to visit one of the visiting exhibitions, but whatever you do, don't miss the somewhat hidden roof terrace, with views over to the castle and out to the summit of Arthur's Seat (where you were standing barely 6 hours or so ago!).
From the museum, pass the side of the University of Edinburgh's iconic Old College quad building and head north along South Bridge (yes, you did read that correctly...!), crossing the Royal Mile at the Tron Church and continuing onto North Bridge over the roof of Waverley Station - take a moment (or two) to photograph the views from either side of the bridge. Ahead of you is the Balmoral Hotel and the eastern end of Princes Street. You are now entering Edinburgh's New Town, a Georgian-era city development nearly 250 years old - depending on your inclinations you can choose to browse the shops on George Street or relax in Princes Street Gardens.
If you fancy completing the trilogy of volcano summits in Edinburgh (having already done Arthur's Seat and the rock underneath Edinburgh Castle), turn right to walk up Calton Hill, with its monuments and views. Otherwise your next mission is to tackle -
- the world's tallest monument to a writer - the monument to Sir Walter Scott, colloquially known as the Gothic Rocket, on Princes Street; 287 steps up, and the same number back down - if you have no head for heights, a dodgy knee or a fear of confined spaces (the staircase is pretty steep and narrow) then you can be excused this part of the day by providing a note from your mum....!
The National Galleries of Scotland are not to be missed - the permanent collection of classical work is free to view in the buildings on the Mound, between Princes Street and the Old Town, or if you are more of a fan of modern artists then walk or catch a bus to the two galleries on Belford Road, at the west end of the city centre. The National Portrait Gallery on Queen Street is accessed through St Andrews Square, and again entry is free.
Treat yourself to a quality meal at one of the city's many independent restaurants, and prepare for the evening portion of your visit.
Depending on the time of year, Edinburgh's cultural scene is a rich and varied one. Catch a show at the city's Royal Lyceum Theatre, or check out the Traverse Theatre for contemporary and new writing. The Usher Hall hosts a variety of classical and contemporary music throughout the year, or during the summer you can take your pick of events from the Edinburgh International Festival or the Edinburgh Fringe.
Alternatively, head back into the Old Town for some spooky history either with an evening tour of Mary King's Close, the original 'underground' city, or with one of the city's many and varied ghost walks - you'll find meeting points for the different tour companies along the Royal Mile, between St Giles' Cathedral and the junction with North/South Bridge.
Congrats, you're almost done! You've seen the city from a variety of angles, explored some of its most historic sites, and (hopefully) not been drowned out by the Scottish weather.
Time to kick back and relax with a drink at one of the city's many, many watering holes! No need to ditch the tourist theme just yet though - you've earned a dram or two of Scotch whisky - the nation's favourite export - so head to Sandy Bell's or the Royal Oak in the Old Town for live folk and traditional music every night of the week...
This is just a personal pick of some of the highlights that Edinburgh can offer, and is not intended as a serious single-day itinerary - why not book a more manageable bespoke walking tour tailored to your own personal interests...
The dark side of human nature has helped spawn a whole sub-section of Edinburgh visitor attractions, a genre which might charitably be bracketed as 'death-sploitation' - whether it's the underground city, the sites of execution, the history of witchcraft or the real life criminal underworld of Edinburgh, there is an attraction which is geared towards scaring, spooking and generally unsettling you.
We are fortunate, however, to also have access to a variety of sites which tap into some of the above experiences without costing a penny: Edinburgh's graveyards. Scattered across the city, many of the old graveyards of Edinburgh are still open for public access, and (unless you're taking a specific tour through or into the mausoleums themselves) they are completely free.
Here are some of the centrally located graveyards which can be visited on my private walking tours of the city...
St. Cuthbert's Churchyard
Just off Lothian Road is not only the oldest site of worship in the city, dating from the 7th century, but also the resting place of John Napier, Henry Raeburn and George Meikle Kemp, designer of the city's Scott Monument, among many notable other figures. Also features a good example of the watchtowers built in graveyards across the city to help prevent grave robbers...
Most famous as the resting place of Greyfriars Bobby, the dog which earned its status as one of the city's most famous (and cutest) cultural icons. Greyfriars is also one of my favourite places from which to view the different heights and levels of the Old Town, as well as being the final home of some of the city's greatest historical figures, including James Craig, designer of the New Town, Mary Erskine, James Hutton, Allan Ramsay, John Porteous and many more besides. Also the site of the Covenanters' Prison and the mausoleum of 'Bloody' George Mackenzie, reputed to be one of the most haunted sites in the city.
Old Calton Burial Ground
Just a short stroll from the east end of Princes Street, here you'll find the tomb of philosopher David Hume, as well as a monument to Abraham Lincoln, commemorating to the Scottish soldiers who died in the American Civil War, alleged to be the first statue of an American president to be built outside of the US. You'll also find the Martyrs' Monument, an obelisk to the men who were punished for daring to suggest a democratic system which afforded the ordinary man a vote.
New Calton Burial Ground
Further along the edge of Calton Hill is the newer burial plot, used once the pre-existing graveyard was full. From here you can enjoy unparalleled views south across the bottom of the Royal Mile, across towards Holyrood Park and Arthur's Seat. As well as a large watchtower, the graveyard also hosts the Stevenson family plot, the famous lighthouse engineering family (also the family of Robert Louis Stevenson, who isn't buried here).
A short distance from the bottom of the Royal Mile, the Canongate Kirk is a beautiful building with royal associations and an extensive graveyard, from which the views up to Calton Hill are picturesque.
Favourite figures buried here include Adam Smith, the father of modern economics, and Robert Fergusson, the young poet who inspired Robert Burns, as well as another figure associated with Burns, Agnes Macklehose, for whom he wrote the poem Ae Fond Kiss.
Any and all of these graveyards can feature in a private walking tour of the city - contact me for more information!
One of the city's most picturesque local areas, Stockbridge is known for its independent community spirit and quirky charm. Just a short walk down the hill to the north of the New Town, Stockbridge is an attractive destination for visitors and locals alike.
Originally an outlying settlement, this was the site of the 'stock bridge' - a timber framed bridge providing the primary crossing across the Water of Leith for those approaching Edinburgh from the north - and the area was formally incorporated into Edinburgh in the 19th century.
The current stone bridge was constructed in 1801, and remains at the heart of the area to this day. It's from here that a thousand rubber ducks are released into the Water of Leith every summer during the Stockbridge Duck Race! The race raises money for local charities, with prizes for the sponsors of the first ducks to cross the finishing line - this year's race takes place on 28 June 2015.
Stockbridge also hosted the world's first rugby international, between Scotland and England, in 1871. The playing fields attached to Edinburgh Academicals are located adjacent to Comely Bank Road, which backs straight onto Inverleith Park, another of the city's vast public green spaces.
The main street of Stockbridge is named for the painter Henry Raeburn, who owned estates in the locality in the 18th century. Raeburn had been born in Stockbridge in 1756, and as an orphan was educated courtesy of George Heriot's Hospital, which today remains one of the most prestigious private schools in the country. Raeburn lived and worked locally and produced some of the best known images of Scottish culture, including portraits of Walter Scott and the 'skating minister' on the park at Duddingston.
Other notable occupants of Stockbridge included the 'Stockbridge murderess', and Annabelle Coutts, aka Madame Doubtfire, who owned a second hand clothes store on South East Circus Place, up to her death in 1979 - the novelist Anne Fine lived locally for a time, and borrowed the moniker for the title of her novel, filmed with Robin Williams as Mrs Doubtfire. Stockbridge remains a haven for second hand goods, with some of the highest grossing charity shops in the UK, and a veritable goldmine for quality pre-loved goods!
From Stockbridge it's a short walk not only into the city centre, but also along the Water of Leith towards the Royal Botanic Gardens (to the east), or past St Bernard's Well towards the Dean Village and National Gallery of Modern Art (to the west). Or simply stroll the cobbled streets and browse the shops, independent bars and cafes, or the street market which is held throughout the year.
Explore Stockbridge in more detail as part of a private tour of the city!
Calton Hill in the centre of Edinburgh is worthy of note for at least two reasons. Not only is it one of the most accessible and significant historical sites in the city, it's also one of the best places from which to view Edinburgh itself.
The easiest way to access Calton Hill is to follow Princes Street to the junction with North Bridge (at the Balmoral Hotel) and then continue walking onto what becomes Waterloo Place. At the end of the row of Georgian buildings on the left hand side is a set of steps which will take you straight up off the road to the top of Calton Hill. It's well worth the short climb, especially on a bright, clear day, as the views from the top of the hill are unparalleled, giving you a 360-degree panorama across the city and beyond, with especially fine views northwards, over the Firth of Forth to Fife (try saying that after a few sherries!).
The top of Calton Hill is dominated by the columned structure, known popularly as Edinburgh's Disgrace, but formally called the National Monument. In a deliberate attempt to reflect the iconic Parthenon atop the acropolis in Athens, Greece (and helping to give Edinburgh its nickname the Athens of the North), this was intended to be a large chambered hall commemorating the lives (and deaths) of Scottish soldiers in the Napoleonic wars of the eighteenth century.
The monument was designed jointly by William Henry Playfair (who also designed the National Gallery buildings on Princes Street) and Charles Cockerell, and construction on the monument started in 1822, with the laying of a foundation stone by King George IV. A public subscription was set up to raise the estimated £42,000 required to pay for the monument. After sixteen months, a total of £16,000 had been raised, and in 1826 construction began in earnest. Unfortunately, public support for the monument fell, along with the much-needed funds, and the monument was abandoned, unfinished and incomplete. Thus its nickname, Edinburgh's Disgrace.
The other large building on Calton Hill is the City Observatory, set up in 1776 for the study and observation of astronomy. It was used primarily by students at the university, but also held public seminars and evenings designed to educate and enlighten the masses. Elizabeth Short, the daughter of the observatory's founder, would eventually establish an observatory and outlook tower on Castlehill, which survives today as the Camera Obscura.
Other monuments on Calton Hill include the Nelson Monument, designed to resemble an upturned telescope as a tribute to Admiral Nelson, who had commanded the victorious British naval forces in the battle of Trafalgar. At the top of the tower is a tall mast, on which sits a dark coloured sphere. This functions as a time signal, intended to convey to the ships in the port at Leith the correct time, for them to set their chronometers.
From 1861 this time ball ran in tandem with the one o'clock gun from Edinburgh Castle, providing both a visual and an auditory signal (especially helpful on the days when low cloud obscured the mast from view). The ball continues to function today, and can be observed at one o'clock every day except Sundays.
You'll also see the Dugald Stewart monument, a memorial to the Scottish philosopher Dugald Stewart, and, lower down the hill, in the Old Calton Burial Ground, an obelisk to the political martyrs who were punished with transportation for life (being shipped to Australia) for their outspoken thoughts on a controversial democratic political system which would allow the common man to vote.
A lesser-known (and less visible) feature of Calton Hill is the mausoleum of Herman Lyon, a Jewish dentist who came to the city in 1795. At the time, being one of the first Jewish migrants to settle in the city, Lyon found there was no dedicated Jewish burial ground, and petitioned the city council to sell him a plot of land for him to use as a family mausoleum. The council granted him space on Calton Hill for the princely sum of £17, and today Lyon and his wife are buried in an underground mausoleum that is hidden from view beneath the observatory, its entrance concealed by undergrowth.
Calton Hill serves as one of the best place from which to view Edinburgh, with its uninterrupted views along the full length of the Royal Mile, from palace to castle, and from Arthur's Seat right around past the Pentland Hills, and over to Fife. A worthy daytime destination for any visitor, though you would be advised to avoid the area at night as it has a less savoury reputation after dark.
Explore more of Edinburgh with my private city walking tours!
Edinburgh is well-known for its tales of supernatural occurrences and not-of-this-world presences - whether you believe in ghosts or not, there have certainly been some pretty spooky goings on in the city over the last few hundred years!
I was intrigued to come across this story of a pretty low-profile kind of a ghost, one that hasn't yet made it into the tales told at Edinburgh Dungeon. Recounted in the Caledonian Mercury, a now defunct local newspaper, the story is dated this day, March 30, 1815.
In the story, a local man has appeared in court charged with circulating a story about a ghost that he has seen haunting a property in Jamaica Street, in the New Town. The effect (and alleged purpose) of him propagating such a story was that the proprietor of the premises was having difficulty letting them out, and this was having a negative and damaging effect upon his business and income.
Certainly many properties in the city today pride themselves on their ghostly inhabitants, and indeed trade upon the fact that they are haunted for the benefits of publicity and atmosphere! How different the spiritual climate must have been two centuries ago, that a reputed haunting could have such a detrimental effect upon a person's business that they are moved to take the teller of the ghostly tale to court!
The gentleman in question, in 1815, defended himself at the trial, insisting that he had not only seen the ghost but had spoken to it and engaged it in conversation "on several occasions". He declined to disclose the content of these conversations, however, on the grounds that the ghost had sworn him to secrecy... It certainly sounds like one of the strangest defences ever mounted in a Scottish court of law!
The magistrate hearing the case issued a curious judgement - the defendant was bound over to keep the peace (ie. not to tell any further ghost stories) for a year, under threat of a £5 fine. At this juncture the defendant asked a special permission from the magistrate - since the ghost had previously agreed that it would speak with him again on a future occasion ("to partake of his hospitality," as the article puts it...), could he have formal legal permission to engage the ghost in further conversation, if he agreed to simply not to speak of it to anyone?
The Caledonian Mercury states that in this highly unusual matter of ghost vs. commercial interest, "We, for our part, are of the opinion, that the ghost ought to have been called into Court for its interest".
For more tales of Edinburgh's past, book one of my Up-Close and Personal Tours of the city.
Inspired by an entry in Michael TRB Turnbull's Edinburgh Book of Days.
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...
© COPYRIGHT GARETH DAVIES 2014-20