Edinburgh has a proud heritage of being divided. All across the city, in a variety of contexts, you can find examples of splits and contrasts.
My walking tours explore some of these differences, but here's my brief introduction to five ways in which Edinburgh stretches between extremes...
HIGH TO LOW
From the heights of Edinburgh Castle to the depths of the Cowgate valley, Edinburgh's landscape is a geologically dynamic one. Shaped by two opposing forces: fire and ice, to bring a bit of Games of Thrones to the Scottish capital...
The peaks of the city are created by volcanoes, erupting upwards from beneath the Earth's crust hundreds of millions of years ago - there are three extinct volcanic peaks within Edinburgh's city centre: Arthur's Seat, castle rock and Calton Hill.
During the last Ice Age, when most of Scotland was covered with glaciers, the movement of the ice sheets carved the landscape into ridges and valleys - the volcanic rock was too dense for the glaciers to move, and so the deep clefts between the high peaks were created.
Edinburgh's Old Town is an example of what is known in geology as a 'crag and tail' formation - the crag is the castle rock, while the tail was the line or the ridge left between the two glacial valleys. It was on this ridge that the city grew, and to which it was confined for a long time.
The city would be a major inspiration to one of the figures of the Scottish Enlightenment, a man named James Hutton who is today regarded as the father of modern geology.
OLD TO NEW
The centre of Edinburgh is split into Old Town and New Town, two contrasting sides which continue to offer different experiences to visitors.
Old Town is the more touristy side of the city, the bit which most people think of as 'historic', while the New Town operates as the more local, contemporary side of the city.
And the labels themselves are not entirely accurate - the New Town was built from the 1760s onwards, so is more than 250 years old, while the Old Town was redeveloped by the Victorians from the 1860s, during which process around 75% of the original city structures were demolished and rebuilt.
So, as I often say on my walking tours, New Town isn't as new as people expect, and Old Town isn't as old as people think! In fact, most of the Old Town is a century newer than New Town...
PLANNED vs ORGANIC
The two sides of the city contrast in another way, too - whereas the Old Town grew up chaotically and organically, the New Town was built to a specific plan, laid out by James Craig.
The Old Town lanes had grown up with towering structures reaching up to fourteen storeys high as the need for accommodation pushed developers to add more and more levels to the buildings. Developing in this unpredictable way left the buildings vulnerable to collapse, and by the 19th century many were being removed to replace them with better quality housing.
By contrast, nothing in the New Town is there by accident. The wide of the streets, the height of the buildings, the architectural balancing of the Palladian style visible throughout - even the heights of the windows were all styled and chosen for a very specific purpose and effect.
ANCIENT AND MODERN
A more nuanced sense of old vs new, perhaps - becuse even within the Old Town, for example, there are structures which sit at opposite ends of an architectural spectrum.
Advocate's Close is a good example of this. The carving in the lintel above a doorway near the top of this lane, just off the Royal Mile, bears the date 1590 - the building was built by Clement Cor for him and his wife Helen Bellenden.
This structure is over 400 years old, and remains active as a residential space even after all that time. Many visitors are surprised to discover the city isn't a museum city, preserved behind glass - it is a living, breathing, working city, and these centuries old buildings remains active as people's home and businesses.
But look further down Advocate's Close and you'll see some incredibly modern developments, dating back to 2014 when an undertaking was made to improve the surviving structures here and make them functional for a modern age. The development was awarded the status of Best New Building in Scotland, for its efficient and authentic restoration of what was a rather dilapidated segment of the city, at a cost of £45m, to create a series of modern, accessible and functional spaces that integrate well with the surrounding environs, and preserves the feel of Edinburgh's Old Town charm.
On this one lane, as elsewhere in Edinburgh, ancient and modern sit (almost) seamlessly side-by-side.
RICH AND POOR
Like many modern cities, Edinburgh has its share of social issues, including a stark disparity between residents living at opposite ends of a socioeconomic scale. Sadly this isn't a new phenomenon - Edinburgh has long been divided into the 'haves' and 'have nots', from the time when the houses themselves were built by specific families who then sublet them to poorer citizens, reaping a financial benefit from their role as landlords.
After the exodus of wealthy citizens to the New Town in the 18th century, much of the Old Town was left to fall into ruin - Robert Louis Stevenson describes standing on South Bridge, looking down to the Cowgate, and saying one could look from one level of society to the next in the twinkling of an eye: wealthy people lived up on the bridge, while the dispossessed of Edinburgh lived literally in the arches of the bridge beneath them.
Even the Royal Mile experienced a wealth divide - Canongate was the area which lay beyond the city walls, where wealthy figures who had court business could live in closer proximity to the Palace of Holyroodhouse.
They were largely immune from the charges made to enter the gates of the city, whereas for the very poor residents of Edinburgh the cost to enter was so great many of them would never have left during their entire lives - not for nothing did one junction become known as the World's End...
These experiences of division and contrast combined within one city boundary famously gave rise to one of the greatest creations of the horror genre, in Stevenson's classic novella The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.
Stevenson based the character on notorious criminal Deacon William Brodie, and set the scene for paranoia and violence - however, in the real world of Edinburgh, the contrasting characters and styles of city continue to offer a rich and vibrant cultural experience.
Explore more of Edinburgh's intriguing contrasts with my private city walking tours!
The narrow lanes of Edinburgh's Old Town - the thoroughfares named 'closes', 'wynds' and 'courts' - are historic spaces that I always encourage visitors to explore.
The Royal Mile itself is pretty heavily commercialised, and most people can manage to walk up (or down) it by themselves, but these areas just off the main street are where there's much more interesting history and plenty of small details to discover.
So here's a peep into Tweeddale Court - which features in my Royal Mile fixed route tour!
The narrow street is typical of just how enclosed many of Edinburgh's original lanes would have been - just three or four feet wide.
Tweeddale Court is named for the building along it, which in the 1670s was owned by the Marquess of Tweeddale. But the building existed for nearly a century before that, dating back to around 1576. It was built for a man named Neil Lang, who was Keeper of the Signet, one of the highest public officials in the Scottish legal system.
At that time it would have been a detached property set in its own grounds, with a garden behind running down to Cowgate - and, crucially, at one time this land would have been outside of Edinburgh itself.
The wall which runs along the right hand side of the lane as you enter from the Royal Mile is a remaining section of the King's Wall, built by James II in the 1450s.
Edinburgh had become the capital of Scotland only a few years previously, in 1437, and this wall was the first of the three walls constructed at different times to protect the city from invasion by the English.
The first wall would be replaced a century later by a larger and more effective structure called the Flodden Wall, built following the Scots' disastrous defeat by the English at the Battle of Flodden, in 1513.
Once the King's Wall was no longer needed for defence, it was dismantled in places and the stone was recycled. Only two short sections of it survive, including this one on Tweeddale Court.
The Marquess of Tweeddale - a representative in the court of Charles II - took the building in 1670 and redeveloped the space, planting an avenue of lime trees behind the property and creating a grand home for his family.
In the 1680s Edinburgh's first taxi service was established, by a businessman named Alexander Hay. At that time many of the lanes, such as Tweeddale Court, were so narrow horses and carts wouldn't be able to access them, so Hay secured a licence for hiring out sedan chairs...
These sedan chairs were seats enclosed in a wooden box, mounted on poles or handles to be carried between two sturdy Highland men - an original example of the sedan chair can be seen in the nearby Museum of Edinburgh on Canongate. These chairs could be hired at a number of storage sheds around the Old Town - one of which was on Tweeddale Court, where the small stone structure which housed the sedan chairs can still be seen today.
It's an unremarkable looking building built against the King's Wall, but as a historic structure it's very tightly protected - it has claims to being the smallest specifically protected building in the whole of Edinburgh's UNESCO World Heritage Site!
For a fixed fee the sedan chair could take you anywhere within the Old Town walls, and beyond for a higher rate.
By 1750 Tweeddale House was in a poor condition, and its demolition was advocated by no less a figure than Robert Adam, the architect who would give the New Town of Edinburgh its distinctive style. The structure was bought by the British Linen Bank, and for fifty years it was a bank branch serving customers of the Old Town.
On 13 November 1806 a notable murder took place in Tweeddale Court - then named Bank Close - when a banking courier named William Begbie arrived at the bank to transfer around £5,000 in cash to the British Linen Bank's central branch on St Andrew Square in the New Town. It was a journey he'd made many times before - but on this night neither Begbie nor the money would make it to their destination.
A young girl who lived on the lane was heading out to the nearby wellhead on the Royal Mile, when she had to step over a bundle of rags in the alleyway. Those rags turned out to be the body of William Begbie, with a knife still stuck in his chest...
Nobody was ever brought to justice for William Begbie's death, and the murder remains one of Edinburgh's notorious unsolved crimes. Most of the money was later recovered, stashed behind a wall in the New Town, and the only person charged with the crime was found dead in his prison cell before he could come to trial.
Shortly after the bank building was sold to a printing company, Oliver and Boyd, whose name remains over the entrance to the property.
Oliver and Boyd printed school text books, bibles and legal documents - if you look to the left hand side of the lane you'll see an iron winch on one of the balconies, with the letters O and B in the decorative ironwork. This is where paper stock would have been taken into the factory, and where the printed booked would have been winched back down for sale in local shops.
Oliver and Boyd traded from the premises on Tweeddale Court until the 1970s.
The property continues to have a connection with publishing and printing - the offices of the List magazine, established as Glasgow and Edinburgh's events guide in 1985 and continues to operate as an online listings site.
The publishing company Canongate Books was set up in 1973, and has its offices in Tweeddale Court. Authors who have achieved success through Canongate Books include Irvine Welsh, author of Trainspotting, Michel Faber, Yann Martel, and Barack Obama.
Tweeddale Court was also used as a filming location for the Outlander TV series, serving as a marketplace where Jamie and Claire meet in season 3. The lane is largely unrecognisable due to the amount of street furniture used during the filming, but eagle-eyed fans may be able to recognise it!
So there is far more history tucked away off Edinburgh's Royal Mile than you might expect - proving that the courts and wynds of the Old Town are always worth a closer look.
Explore more of the city's Old Town lanes with my private Edinburgh walking tours...
As the British royal family's official residence in Scotland, the Palace of Holyroodhouse has seen its share of kings and queens throughout the centuries. But Edinburgh itself has also been shaped by its royal connections, both from the time when the Scottish royal line was distinct from the English monarchy, and since 1603 when both nations have been ruled by the same monarch.
Many visitors to Edinburgh like to feel they're walking in the footsteps of monarchs and princesses, so here's my rough (and roughly chronological) guide to some of the structures and features of the city which come with royal approval...
Ruling Scotland from 1124 to 1153, David was the eldest son of Malcolm III (aka Malcolm Canmore, meaning 'big head') and Queen Margaret of Scotland, and the grandson of Duncan I who was killed by Macbeth.
One Sunday morning in September 1128, David was hunting on his land around what is today Holyrood Park and Arthur's Seat when his horse was startled by a stag. Thrown to the ground and finding himself at the mercy of the stag, it is said that David saw a crucifix manifest in the air between the stag's antlers - as David reached for it, the stag ran away.
David took this is as a sign from God that on a Sunday he should be at church instead of hunting, and he established the Holyrood Abbey on the site where the stag surprised him. This abbey took its name from the religious feast of the Holy Rood - or holy cross - which is how the area is still known today.
Both David and his mother, Margaret, would later be recognised as Catholic saints.
Edinburgh only became the capital of Scotland in 1437, following the murder of King James I in Perth - his son, James II, inherited a nation which was in social turmoil, and one of the tasks to which he applied himself was constructing the first of the defensive walls which surrounded the southern side of the Old Town.
The King's Wall, as this first wall was known, was built in the middle of the fifteenth century, and two sections of it survive as testimony to the city's need for defence at protection at this time. One section of the wall runs down the side of Tweeddale Court, and features in my Royal Mile and Old Town fixed route walking tour. The only other surviving section can be found down a lane between the Grassmarket and Edinburgh Castle.
MARY OF GUELDERS
In 1449, James II married Mary of Guelders at Holyrood Abbey. They enjoyed just eleven years of marriage before James died in 1460, at which point Mary became regent of Scotland, ruling the nation while their son, who became James III, was still a child.
Mary established a church in her husband's memory - the Trinity College Kirk was located in the town of Calton, which lay outside of Edinburgh in the valley where Waverley Station is today. In the 1840s, when the land was sold for the development of the station, Trinity College Kirk was dismantled stone-by-stone and was rebuilt a short distance away around 20 years later.
In that intervening period, much of the stone of the church had been taken for use in other buildings, so Trinity College Apse, as it is known today, represents all that remains of Mary's original church, and of the town of Calton itself.
The church structure can be found on Chalmers' Close, off the Royal Mile.
It was the father of Mary, Queen of Scots, who established the palace at Holyrood, adjacent to the abbey which by that time had been standing for just over 370 years. Construction on James's palace began in 1501, although the oldest part of the palace which survives today dates from a little later, around the 1520s.
It is this tower - on the left of the palace complex as visitors approach the building - where Mary, Queen of Scots stayed during her brief time in Edinburgh in the 1560s. Visitors can pass through the bedroom she would have slept, and where Mary's secretary, David Rizzio, was murdered in March 1566.
Later kings would add to and extend the palace, most significantly during the reign of Charles II, in the 1660s.
MARY, QUEEN OF SCOTS
Mary herself would add little to Edinburgh's infrastructure, although she gave birth to her son inside Edinburgh Castle itself. One building in the city has her name, and it's the small ruin in the grounds of the palace - known popularly as Queen Mary's Bathhouse.
Whilst it is thought likely the building tiself dates from Mary's time, there is no archeological evidence to support the idea that it was a bathhouse. More likely, it is thought, the building served as a pavilion or summer house in the area where tennis courts would once have been laid out. Mary was a keen tennis player, and so may indeed have spent time at (or in) the building, though probably not as a bathing chamber.
A small Catholic chapel on the Cowgate, the Magdalen Chapel, was built in the 1540s, partly to celebrate Mary's birth - her mother, Mary of Guise, led prayer sessions in this chapel during the time she ruled Scotland regent while Mary was in France.
The next British monarch to have a physical impact on Edinburgh was George III, who came to the throne in 1760. At this time, plans for Edinburgh's New Town are being discussed and conceived, and George would give his name to this side of the city - George Street is for him, Hanover Street for his family line, Princes Street for his sons, Queen Street for his wife...
What is called Charlotte Square today was originally to be St George Square, but the interim development of another square to the south of the Royal Mile being named George Square made this potentially confusing.
Although George was consulted in the planning of the New Town - he made objections to the intention to name one of the main roads St Giles Street, for example, on the basis that St Giles Cripplegate in London at that time was a run-down and overcrowded space, and he didn't want such associations to tarnish to the grandeur of Edinburgh's New Town - he never was able to visit the city, dying in 1820, before the project was completed.
George IV visited Edinburgh in 1822, becoming the first British monarch to do so in nearly 200 years. As well as being one of the princes in the name of Princes Street, he would also have another thoroughfare named for him - George IV Bridge, in the Old Town.
The bridge was built between 1827 and 1836. George himself wouldn't live to see the bridge completed, having died in 1830.
VICTORIA AND ALBERT
The reign of Queen Victoria was, at the time, the longest of any British monarch, and extended through a period of history that saw incredible changes to society.
As such, Victoria is probably the monarch with the most significant impact on the city of Edinburgh - Victoria Street was named for her, having been built as part of the development of the city during the early years of her reign, and the foundation stone of the National Museum of Scotland was laid by Prince Albert just weeks before his death in 1861.
I have a whole other blog post dedicated to Victoria and Albert in Edinburgh...
The late queen was notable for securing the longest reign of any British monarch in history - having celebrated over 70 years on the throne shortly before her death - and was known to be fond of Scotland and, in particular, the Balmoral Estate in the Highlands (which had been bought by Queen Victoria in 1840).
There are several locations in the city with direct connections to Elizabeth, including St Giles' Cathedral where her coffin lay at rest in September 2022, on the journey from Balmoral to London.
The Queen's Gallery at Holyrood was opened to mark Elizabeth's Golden Jubilee in 2002, commemorating fifty years on the throne. It occupies a building built for the Holyrood Free Church in 1850, which fell out of use as a church in 1915.
Nearby is the Canongate Kirk, the official church of the royal family when at Holyrood. Just inside the gates, on the left as visitors face the church, is a cherry tree planted by Elizabeth on the first morning of her first official visit to Edinburgh as queen back in 1952.
At Leith, visitors can still visit the former Royal Yacht Britannia, which served as the royal family's 'floating palace' between 1854 and 1997.
So there are royal associations all across Edinburgh, stretching back nearly a thousand years to when the city would have looked (and felt, and smelled) very different to the way it does today. But still, the sense of walking in the footsteps of these monarchs is palpable.
Discover more of Edinburgh's history with my private city walking tours.
Holyrood is an area of Edinburgh which tends to get overlooked by visitors, who might venture as far as the Palace of Holyroodhouse but who may not spend much time otherwise exploring this end of the Royal Mile.
The area of Holyrood originally lay way outside of Edinburgh's city walls, and was land that had been settled with an abbey in the early twelfth century - the ruins of the Holyrood Abbey, established by Kind David I of Scotland, are adjacent to the later (sixteenth century) royal palace which grew up alongside it.
With restrictions on industries within Edinburgh - the risk of fire was too great when most of its buildings were still timber structures - Holyrood developed as an industrial space, with occupations like glass blowers and iron foundries. The main industry of the city, however, became brewing - by the 1530s Edinburgh had almost one brewer for every 40 occupants!
After the major breweries eventually left Holyrood in the 1980s, plans were made to redevelop the site. Major buildings like the modern Scottish Parliament and Dynamic Earth were the first occupants of this newly invigorated area, and today it's difficult to imagine just how busy and industrial Holyrood would once have been.
So although the Palace of Holyroodhouse is the main reason visitors might find themselves in this part of Edinburgh, here's my brief introduction to some other features of Holyrood that you might discover.
QUEEN MARY'S BATHHOUSE
A popular story linked to this small stone structure on the edge of the palace grounds is that it once served as Mary, Queen of Scots' bathhouse, where she would come for a bath twice a year (whether she needed it or not).
As appealing as that notion is, there's no archaeological evidence the building ever operated as a bathhouse - although it does date to the time Mary was in Edinburgh.
Historians think the building may instead have been a pavilion for tennis courts which they believe once occupied the ground in front of it. Mary was known to have been a keen tennis player, so it's entirely possible she took refreshments at this small building in the sixteenth century...
A PHYSIC GARDEN
Just behind the buildings on Abbey Strand is a newly created garden space to represent the botanic garden which once occupied this site.
Today the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh is a short distance away in the New Town, but the original garden had been established in the palace grounds in 1670. It later moved to the space where Waverley Station is today, and then to ground on Leith Walk in the 1760s, before it ended up in its present location in the 1820s.
The modern recreation of the garden suggests the kind of plants and flowers that might have been cultivated at Holyrood.
SCOTTISH POETRY LIBRARY
Tucked off the Royal Mile on one of the old lanes which previously housed a brewery, the Scottish Poetry Library building was built in 1999 to house the organisation which had been established in 1984.
Whilst most libraries showcase fiction and non-fiction, the Scottish Poetry Library was created to provide access specifically to poetry, and in particular the broad variety of poets who aren't iconic or mainstream figures.
From a collection of 300 books originally, by the time it moved into its new building that number had grown to over 30,000. The organisation continues to work with schools to foster poetry and literacy in young writers, and offers free access to its collection for UK residents.
A 1960s housing block - created by Modernist architect Basil Spence - with a pub and shops at street level disguises the historic nature of the land on which it is built, which still bears the name Golfers Land. It's a reference to a historic game of golf played between English and Scottish nobles, and as such is sometimes considered the world's first international golf competition...
In 1681 two English lords staying at Holyrood Palace made the argument that golf was an English game, and that they could beat any Scots who wanted to play a round with them. The Duke of Albany agreed to the wager, and enlisted as his teammate a cobbler and amateur golder named John Paterson.
The game was played at Leith Links, the golf course which was also the home of the Royal and Ancient Company of Golfers, who today are found in St Andrews.
Albany and Paterson were successful at beating the two English lords, and Albany gave Paterson the cash winnings from the bet, which allowed him to build a grand mansion on a piece of land along the Royal Mile, which became known as Golfers Land. The building today still displays the coat of arms that Albany gave to Paterson, along with its motto - I HATE NO PERSON - not quite an anagram of John Paterson's name (even allowing for the substitution of I for J...).
THE HOME OF ECONOMICS
A few lanes further west of Golfers Land is Panmure Close, the site of Panmure House which, in the eighteenth century, was the home of Adam Smith.
It was in this building the Smith corrected proofs of four editions of his Wealth of Nations, the book which established some of the principles of modern economics, and it was in this building that Smith died in 1790.
Smith is buried in the nearby Canongate Kirkyard, but his former home is today an economics forum space, where figures from all around the world gather to discuss issues of economics, in the home of the man who laid out some of the founding principles.
On Holyrood Road itself are the offices of Rockstar North, a computer games company who produce titles such as the Grand Theft Auto series, and Red Dead Redemption.
People are often surprised that such definitively 'American' products are produced here in Scotland, but I use Rockstar as an example of how Scotland is not just a nation of whisky and tartan and bagpipes and Jacobites, but also of green and renewable energies, computer gaming, computer technologies - it's a twenty-first century country as much as a historic one!
Rockstar North began as DMA Design Limited, set up in Dundee - the DMA standing for 'Doesn't Mean Anything'...! Grand Theft Auto was published in 1997, and after the third instalment of the iconic game series was released in 2001 the company was brought under the Rockstar Games parent company and renamed Rockstar North.
A housing estate with the name Dumbiedykes occupies land to the south of Holyrood Road, and its name is a reflection of a groundbreaking school which sat on this site in the eighteenth century.
Braidwood's Academy for the Deaf and Dumb was established in 1760 by Thomas Braidwood. It was the first school dedicated to teaching deaf children in the whole of the UK, and Braidwood himself was an early innovator and developer of what became sign language.
The area became pejoratively known as 'Dumbiedykes' after the children who came here to be educated - and although the school has long since gone, the unfortunate name has stuck...
A SITE OF UNION
Tucked away at the back of Moray House, one of the campus buildings of the University of Edinburgh, is an unremarkable looking building which was once a summerhouse in these grand gardens.
It is alleged that the Act of Union which brought Scotland and England together under one government was signed, in part, in this building. Because the act was such a contentious document, and because the lords and landowners who added their signatures to it didn't always want to risk being seen to do so in public, it was signed in a number of private locations where discretion could be guaranteed. The pavilion at Moray House was one such location.
The summerhouse structure has been moved from its original location and today stands at the side of the car park to the rear of campus, but its remarkable place in the history of the UK is worth recording.
Speaking of the union... One of the figures who helped create the union with England was the second Marquis of Queensberry, who at that time lived in Queensberry House, today part of the Scottish parliament building.
Queensberry had been effectively employed by Queen Anne to bribe Scottish landowners and lords to agree to the union with England in exchange for gifts of cash and land in England.
On the day in 1707 when the union was finally agreed, Queensberry was out celebrating with the rest of his household, leaving his son locked in his bedroom at Queensberry House. When they returned from the celebrations they discovered Queensberry's son in the kitchen of the building, roasting a piece of meat over the large kitchen fire. And on closer inspection, it was discovered this meat was the kitchen boy, who had been killed and mounted on a spit...
QUEEN VICTORIA'S FOLLY
The final detail of the Holyrood area that I sometimes point out for visitors is the section of wall which runs along the eastern side of Dynamic Earth, a geological exhibition built in honour of James Hutton.
Because the site here was a brewery, when Queen Victoria came to stay at the nearby palace she didn't like having her curtains opened for her every morning just so she could look out onto an industrial site. So she gave money from the royal household budget to the Scottish and Newcastle brewery so that they could construct an artificial wall around their factory - studded with towers and castellated turrets, it created the illusion that the site was something more interesting, like a Highland palace...
When the industrial site here was cleared in the 1990s, part of that perimeter wall was preserved and incorporated into the modern building of Dynamic Earth. So it's a useful illustration of how in Edinburgh just because something looks old doesn't mean it necessarily is! This feature is a Victorian-era folly.
So Holyrood is proof that it's always worth looking a little closer at Edinburgh's buildings - there's more history here than is sometimes apparent from a first glance!
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