The defining feature of Edinburgh's Old Town is the Royal Mile, the road which runs like backbone through the middle of the city, connecting the two royal residences - Edinburgh Castle and the Palace of Holyroodhouse.
Whilst the castle evolved as a defensive and protective site, the palace grew as a grand, comfortable and luxurious space which has provided a backdrop to some of Scottish history's most significant figures (and events).
Still the official residence in Scotland of the British monarchy, here's my introduction to this houseful of history...
The land where Holyrood sits today has long been royal property - Arthur's Seat and the Holyrood Park are still owned by the crown, with access for the public maintained - but before it was settled with buildings it was a densely wooded royal hunting ground. The establishment of the Holyrood Abbey by King David I dates back to 1128, with the palace itself not developing for another few hundred years, from the early part of the sixteenth century.
The oldest parts of the palace complex were built by James V, the father of Mary, Queen of Scots, before his death (obviously). Subsequent monarchs developed the site, adding to it and creating (by the eighteenth century) a quadrangle of a palace in the French hôtel particulier style. Charles II was responsible for a significant renovation of the palace from 1671 onwards. Look for the crown emblem with his initials above the central entrance into the front of the palace
Even today it's possible to discern different periods of construction - look at the image below and you'll see that the towers on the right of the picture have a different style and texture from the towers to the left - that's because they're around two hundred years newer!
Visitors to the palace today don't get to see any of the current royal family's private chambers, but instead follows the line of the processional route that guests to the palace would have taken, through a series of state rooms towards where the royals would have received them, either in the presence chamber or in their private bedrooms.
First, though, you will see the central quad, a grassy space in the middle of the palace - this was created when Charles II commissioned his redevelopment in the 1670s. Although the design was undertaken by William Bruce, the plans were drawn up by the king's master mason, Robert Mylne. Mylne's name is engraved in the foundation stones of the new building, visible in one corner of the courtyard.
Notice the detailing of the building visible here. The palace walls are composed from a series of Grecian-style columns stacked on top of each other, and increasing in decoration as they get higher.
This is the classical order of Grecian columns, from Doric on the ground floor (the simplest and least decorative), through Ionic (with scrolls atop each column) to Corinthian (with the most ornate decorative detail). This reflects that the apartments higher in the palace were the more high-status and important.
Climb the Grand Stair to the first floor, where you can see the royal dining room and the throne room used by George IV and later by his niece Queen Victoria as a dining room.
Beyond them are the king's presence chamber, where Charles II granted an audience to special guests (his cypher, the initials C and R, along with angels and symbols of state are represented in the ornate plaster of the ceiling), and the morning drawing room or privy chamber, used for meetings by the current king, Charles III.
When Victoria used this room in the nineteenth century, it is said she had the painting above the fireplace - a pastoral scene of a woman bathing by the Dutch artist Jacob de Wet - covered with a mirror, disliking the exposed flesh on display in the picture!
In the 1560s, after Mary, Queens of Scots, returned from having spent most of her life to that point in France, she spent a considerable amount of time at Holyrood, and it was here that one of the most significant moments of her dramatic life took place - the murder of her secretary, David Rizzio.
Visitors to the palace today can climb the narrow staircase which linked the bedroom of Mary's husband, Henry Darnley, to her own private chambers, and up which a mob of men crept before stabbing Rizzio to death in the queen's bedroom. His body was later left in the antechamber beyond the bedroom, and rather distastefully the palace still maintains the pretence of the floorboards of the room being stained with his blood - the current floorboards are clearly modern, and the stain upon them created with an unsubtle smear of ink or paint...
The largest room in the palace is the Grand Gallery, which stretches 45m (150ft) along the entire length of one wing of the palace. The room today is still used for grand receptions and banquets, with up to 400 guests able to be accommodated at a single table.
Charles II commissioned the artist Jacob de Wet to produce over 100 paintings representing real and mythical Scottish monarchs, from prehistory through to himself. It took de Wet two years to complete the work, finishing an average of one portrait a week! Today 96 of the paintings survive and are displayed in this elegant room.
But Charles II was uneasy about his lineage, and was keen to have his legitimacy as king asserted - and so de Wet gave each of the figures in the paintings Charles's prominent nose, suggesting a family likeness running all the way back into antiquity...
Outside the palace you can visit the ruins of the original Holyrood Abbey, which was finally allowed to fall into ruin following the Glorious Revolution of 1688.
The abbey had been the site of marriages (including that of James IV and Margaret Tudor, elder sister of King Henry VIII of England, uniting the Tudor and Stewart royal dynasties, in 1503), and coronations (including that of Charles I in 1633). King Robert the Bruce held parliament in the abbey in the fourteenth century, and a succession of royal burials were made here, including David II, and Mary, Queen of Scots' father, James V, and second husband Henry Darnley.
And the last aspect of the palace experience to savour are the extensive gardens which run around the rear of the property, looking out directly onto Arthur's Seat - one of Prince Albert's interventions was to create a ha-ha to keep grazing animals out of the palace gardens without imposing a physical fence or a visible wall for those inside the palace.
The effect is remarkable, creating an illusion that the lawns simply run as an extension of the space of Holyrood Park! It is in these gardens that parties are held each summer to honour local people, and to celebrate the achievements of those young people working towards their Duke of Edinburgh Awards.
Back in the sixteenth century the gardens were also used for hunting, and playing tennis - and even today the royal company of archers - the king's official bodyguards in Scotland - use the lawns to practice their archery up to three days a week. You can also occasionally see them practicing on the Meadows in the Old Town, near to Archers Walk.
You will finish your palace visit by returning through the forecourt area, in which stands a replica of the fountain at Linlithgow Palace, where Mary, Queen of Scots was born. Commissioned in 1858, the fountain only ever flows when the palace is occupied by the royal family or other invited guests.
Beyond this are the palace gates, dating from the 1920s, which mark the start of the Royal Mile on Abbey Strand.
A visit to the Palace of Holyroodhouse gives a tremendous sense of royal presence dating back around 900 years, and because it remains actively used it retains a sense of purpose - and it's not hard to feel directly connected to centuries of Scottish monarchs in the rooms and corridors of the palace.
Discover more of Edinburgh's royal associations with my private city walking tours!
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