One of the most spectacular buildings in Edinburgh's Old Town is the incredibly ornate and decorative George Heriot's School, a private school on a ridge of rock with views across to Edinburgh Castle.
The school building was paid for with money from the estate of George Heriot, who died on 12 February 1624. Heriot had been a jeweller and a goldsmith in Edinburgh in the sixteenth century, and was known by the nickname 'Jinglin' Geordie' because of the noise made by the coins and jewels rattling in his pockets as he walked through the streets of the Old Town.
Heriot became fantastically wealthy, but was also a great philanthropist and would give money to destitute families, donating coins to beggars on the street, and his generosity would later give the city the school that stands today.
Heriot had served his apprenticeship as a goldsmith, and set up his own shop on the Royal Mile near St Giles' Cathedral in one of the 'luckenbooths', or lockable stall properties, which lined the street in the late sixteenth century.
In the 1590s he began selling jewellery to Queen Anne of Denmark, the wife of King James VI of Scotland, and was later appointed as her official goldsmith.
Both Ann and James had extravagant tastes, and Heriot was able to secure some of the finest and most expensive jewellery from across Europe, which he then sold to the royal couple. They would buy the jewellery in instalments (with Heriot adding a significant mark-up to the market value), and the queen would then often seek to borrow large sums of cash from Heriot, secured against the jewellery which he had sold her.
She would repay these loans - again with a significant percentage of interest - and Heriot became fantastically wealthy from his royal patronage. In just ten years it is believed Heriot may have done over £50,000 worth of business with the queen alone, which is equivalent to multiples of millions of pounds in modern currency.
In 1601 Heriot was appointed jeweller to the king, James VI, and in 1603 when James VI of Scotland became James I of England, he removed the royal court from Edinburgh down to London, and took George Heriot with him. Thus Heriot became an integral figure in the royal court, and profited handsomely from his royal connections.
On his death in 1624, Heriot had no surviving legitimate children, and both of his wives had pre-deceased him. He did leave a provision in his will for two illegitimate daughters that had been born to separate women, as well as a number of nieces, nephews and children elsewhere in his family line. But the bulk of his estate, amounting to something over £23,000, was gifted to the city of Edinburgh, for the establishing of a hospital in his name.
Heriot's Hospital was to be dedicated to the care and support of disadvantaged families and children in the city, the "puir, faitherless bairns" as his will described them. And so in 1628, construction began on the hospital building on land to the south of the city.
The sum of money that Heriot left was so great that a huge hospital could be built with it, but at that time there simply wasn't enough open space in the city on which such a large building could be established. And so the money also paid for land to be bought which, at that time, lay just beyond the Flodden Wall, which was the structure marking the southern boundary of Edinburgh.
That piece of land had to be brought within the provision of Edinburgh itself, and an extension to the boundary wall was also built, known as the Telfer Wall, to enclose the school property. Today the junction of the Flodden and Telfer walls can be seen along the Vennel, to the west of the school building.
Having started life as a hospital, providing general social care, Heriot's later became a dedicated school for orphaned boys, and later still started accepting pupils from non-disadvantaged backgrounds. In the 1880s the school started charging for its education, and today is one of the best known private schools in Scotland. A number of free school places continue to be offered to poorer families today as part of its requirement to fulfil its obligations as a registered charitable organisation.
The school is adjacent to the Greyfriars Kirkyard, and pupils often use a side entrance to get into and out of the school property through the church yard. This side gate is generally the best angle from which to view the school, although it can be difficult to get a good view over the heads of the large Harry Potter tour groups who congregate at the gates to enjoy the view of one of the inspirations for the Hogwarts academy...
Views of the school can also been seen from Victoria Terrace (above right) and the esplanade in front of Edinburgh Castle.
For thirstier visitors to Edinburgh, a pub on Fleshmarket Close is named the Jinglin' Geordie in Heriot's honour.
Explore Edinburgh in more detail with my private city walking tours!
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!
Sitting in a natural dip in the land to the south of the Royal Mile, adjacent to the old infirmary buildings and behind Edinburgh University's George Square area, for many years a small stream ran through the Meadows area from east to west. This rendered the area a shallow loch at best, and a swampy marshland at worst. This helped to keep the city supplied with fresh water prior to the first piped supply being brought into the city from Comiston in the 1670s.
In the eighteenth century the land was drained by Sir Thomas Hope, who had rented the land the loch stood on for £800 per year. The parkland that we enjoy today began to be created. Middle Meadow Walk, the tree-line avenue which cuts across the park, was created, and over 1,200 trees planted around the area to provide colour and shade. One of the gardeners who helped to create the park was William Burnes; later in life Burnes's son would be adopted as one of Scotland's most famous sons, the poet Robert Burns.
The Meadows have survived many attempts to develop the area - in the late nineteenth century Middle Meadow Walk was threatened with being widened to allow the faster passage of carriage across the area, and as recently as the 1960s city planners considered running a six-lane motorway through the Meadows.
In 1886 a grand public exhibition hall was built on the Meadows, a glass structure to rival the Crystal Palace in London. This hosted the first of Edinburgh's many public events with an international flavour, the International Exhibition of Industry, Science and Art. The Exhibition ran between May and October of that year, and attracted over 2.7 million visitors. Notable exhibits included detailed and life-size recreations of some of Edinburgh's Old Town streets, including long vanished features like the Netherbow Port.
At the end of the exhibition the glass pavilion was dismantled, and today the only surviving features of the exhibition are a number of tall sandstone pillars topped by unicorns, at the west end of the park. Another feature that survived the exhibition was an arch constructed from four enormous whale bones, which stood at the edge of the park on Melville Drive. In 2014 the arch was removed for maintenance and restoration - Jawbone Walk now no longer features the bones which gave it its name!
At one time the Meadows was considered as a viable site for the construction of a grand new concert hall - the Usher Hall was later built on Lothian Road.
The Meadows also has a place in the city's grand sporting history, having hosted the first local derby between the Heart of Midlothian and Hibernian football teams, on Christmas day in 1875.
During the Second World War, land on the Meadows was given over for allotments, so that local people could cultivate fruit and vegetables to help sustain their community during the war. The last of these allotments survived until the 1960s.
Today the Meadows is popular not just for its open space and public walkways, but also its sports facilities - tennis courts and cricket pitches are available, and well used by the local community. During the summer the air across the Meadows can be thick with barbecue smoke from those seeking to dine al fresco, and the area also hosts a variety of public fairs, festivals and one-off events throughout the year.
The Meadows can be featured on a private walking tour of the city!
This weekend - May 17th - marks 398 years to the day since James VI made his historic homecoming visit to Edinburgh. It was the last time he would see his the city of his birth, and the first time he had returned to Scotland since the union of the crowns in 1603.
Having sworn to remain faithful to Scotland, and to make regular visits back here during his reign as king of England, James had reneged on his promises and returned here a virtual stranger to his home. Nevertheless great efforts were made for his visit, with a grand celebratory banquet which cost over £6,333 - equivalent to over £1m in today's money.
The banquet was likely only for invited guests and council members, but the list of produce purchased (and served) included:
Drinking and public dancing were the order of the day, though it's astonishing anyone had the energy for dancing after that big buffet...
A new panel portrait of James was created for the Netherbow Port, the grandest gateway into Edinburgh, complete with ornate gold decoration, and at Edinburgh Castle a special renovation had been undertaken for the occasion.
A suite of new apartments had been constructed to commemorate the king's visit, and the small room in which James had been born to Mary, Queen of Scots, had been redecorated with new panelling detailing the king's heraldic coat of arms, and the historic dates from his reign as king of England and Scotland. This decorative panelling is still visible to visitors to the Castle today.
So take a walk in royal footsteps this weekend, and see the city as James VI would have done, before he returned to London to live out the rest of his reign.
For more information about Edinburgh's royal past, take a fully customised walking tour of the city with me!
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