Scotland #01 – Edinburgh
Scotland July 2022 - #01 Edinburgh
This travel-blog is for a trip we took to Scotland in July of 2022. Other than a few days on our own in Edinburgh at the beginning this was on a formal tour of the Scottish Highlands operated by RS (Road Scholar, www.roadscholar.org).
Entire Trip map
Detail of our routes in Edinburgh
Arriving in Edinburgh
As is our custom for international trips including formal tours, we scheduled our flight to arrive a few days ahead of when the formal tour starts. We do this for a couple of reasons. First is that if we are delayed in route we can still usually meet our tour at its start. But a second important advantage is that we can adapt to the local time zone before we have to start adhering to time tables set by the tour which usually include wake up times earlier than our bio-clocks would like if still on California time.
At the time of this trip the airline industry was still reeling from the Covid-19 pandemic during which they furloughed or gave early retirement to much of their staff. But then in the spring of 2022 there was a massive (and somewhat unexpected) rebound in the travel industry as stir crazy people longed to get away and most Covid related restrictions and mandates had been lifted. Whether or not they should have been lifted is another question that only time will tell, but lifted they were. Of course the airlines were very happy to sell seats on planes, not withstanding the fact that they didn’t have enough people to fly the planes, maintain them, or support their customers. And at the same time the airports didn’t have enough people to deal with the associated logistics that come along with increased flights such as luggage handling.
Of course to no ones great surprise chaos ensued. Thousands of cancelled flights, hundreds of thousands of bags shoved into empty rooms at airports as there were no workers available to get them to their owners. Every night on the news were stories and lists and lists of cancelled flights and shots of luggage piled up literally to the ceiling with no idea when or how they’d ever be reunited with their owners.
So, here we were embarking on a 5,000 mile trip to the other side of the planet, with Covid-19 cases rising again and in the middle of this melt down of the travel industry. Well, we lucked out. Our flight left only 2 hours late. We deliberately paid extra for a direct flight as the risks involved in a layover were just too high for our taste. Having (again deliberately) given ourselves 3 hours of layover time at Heathrow, we had no trouble making the London to Edinburgh connection and that flight too was for the most part as scheduled. Whew! And not only that, but all of our luggage showed up on the carousel in Edingurgh. What a relief!
After surviving this all night flight from California, getting through Heathrow, flying to Edinburgh and checking into our hotel (which had mixed up our reservations and it took 4 room attempts before they got us into a room where the electricity worked, and that was not in the dungeon). It was a tiny room, but by that time we were beyond caring.
By the time we got settled in it was pretty late and we were beat. Dinner that night was a bag of potato chips and a soft drink at the hotel’s bar. The next day, still dealing with jet lag, we took one of those hop-on hop-off city bus tours to get a lay of the land and to decide what we wanted to see when we were more energetic later on, and then went back to the hotel for an afternoon nap. But the next day we were ready to sightsee. What I describe below is a combination of things we did on our own the first couple of days in Edinburgh and what we saw on the formal tour.
Edinburgh in General
Edinburgh is not the largest city in Scotland being only about half the size of Glasgow. And, unlike Glasgow which grew up as a heavily industrialized city (ship building, coal, steel), Edinburgh was established as a city of the church, education and the law. The city is really in two parts, old town and new town, which are quite distinct from each other. The new town areas started being built in the 1820’s whereas old town can trace its roots back to the first century AD.
One architectural feature found in parts of new town is that entire city blocks of multi story houses were designed as a single unified façade even though they were individual units.
Entire city block designed as a single unified façade (Charlotte Square)
Edinburgh’s nickname is “Whiskey Row”. This came about as many shipping merchants lived here and one of the main products they shipped out of the port was whiskey. As it turned out, the street where our hotel was located (Royal Terrace) was occupied by many of these merchants. Being on a hillside facing the port a bit under 2 miles away, the houses on this street had a clear view all the way down to the harbor and the owners could watch their ships coming and going from the comfort of their homes so this street became quite popular for those owners.
View down to the waterfront from Royal Terrace
Edinburgh is built on some hills a bit away from a bay on the North Sea. It is said that Edinburgh is built on 7 hills (same as San Francisco), but it seems that each book that references the 7 hills lists a different set of hills as being the 7 - but so goes history. But whichever the 7 hills are, the terrain of the old city is marked by a series of steep narrow valleys. In the beginning, buildings were built along the ridges in order to avoid flooding and for defense from invaders with each ridge being a separate group of people – almost like a separate little village. However, over time, these separate communities found it cumbersome to have to go all the way down to the bottom of the valley and up the other side to conduct trade or to visit with one another. So, they built bridges from ridge to ridge to alleviate this problem. Most of these bridges, although rebuilt many times, are still present. But, then as more and more people moved in, they started to develop the sides and bottoms of these valleys’s filling in the gaps. These lower sections of town basically passed right under those bridges with only a few places where you could drive a wagon between the upper and lower areas.
In our modern age this can be a bit confusing to travelers looking at a map as in many places it looks like there is an intersection when in fact one of the streets is several hundred feet above the one it is crossing. Here’s an example.
(image from Open Street View)
If you were walking along South Bridge St. and wanted to go to some place on High street, you could just go to the intersection and turn left or right. However, if instead you wanted to visit someplace on Cowgate St., once you got to the intersection you’d see the scene below with no way to get down to Cowgate Street from South Bridge Street.
(Image found online)
From a tourist perspective though, Edinburgh is a very charming city with lots of historical architecture, statues, and monuments going way back in time as well as interesting neighborhoods to wander around with lovely parks scattered about. And, like any other self respecting old European city it has a handful of old homes of famous people which in Edinburgh’s case includs Sean Connery, Iain Glen, J K Rowling, Dolly the Sheep, Alexander Graham Bell, Stuart Sutcliffe, Gail Porter, and Irvine Welsh. Even so there really are only a small number of major attractions to visit. Of course, like any old European city there is the obligatory museum which we didn’t visit but heard from others that it was quite well done. The main other attractions are Edinburgh Castle, the Royal Mile, HMY Britania, Holyrood Palace, and the Royal Botanical Gardens. There are other 2nd tier attractions as well such as famous folks houses, historical buildings, and other museums, etc., but those are the main hits in this city.
National Records Office with Duke of Wellington Statue
Property taxes were based on the number of windows. Ergo, many blocked up windows
In Edinburgh there are many places, typically in the more affluent neighborhoods, where there is a small park (called a Garden) ringed by streets with houses on the other side. One would think that these are just small city parks to give the residents some green space and something nice to look at from their front windows. But, these are actually private parks with fences all around. Only households which pay an annual “garden fee” are permitted to set foot in them.
One of the many “Private” parks scattered throughout the city (Charlotte Square)
Our first port of call in Edinburgh was to take the bus down to Leif to see the HMY (Her Majesty's Yacht) Britania sometimes called the “Royal Yacht”. Leif is the dock area of Edinburgh which is currently undergoing an extensive gentrification with new apartment buildings and shopping malls sprouting all over the place as well as the construction of a light rail extension from Downtown Edinburgh. According to a taxi driver, the light rail extension is apparently in the 10th year of a 4 year project, and does not look anywhere near being done. The redevelopment plan was part of the deal that resulted in the Britania being docked here after decommissioning.
The yacht was used by the Royal family from 1954 through 1997. The idea of a royal yacht goes back to King Charles II (1660), with this vessel being the 83rd, and last, Royal Yacht. Over her 43 years of service, she traveled over a million miles and circumnavigated the glob several times.
The Britannia was launched in 1953 by Queen Elizabeth II and commissioned in January 1954. And, as it turns out it has only served one Monarch. Even though it is not a sailing ship per-se, it has three masts and is 412 ft long. As WWII was pretty fresh in peoples mind when it was being designed the architecture was such that it could be converted to a hospital ship in times of war. But this capability was never needed. In the event of nuclear war, it was intended that the Queen would take refuge aboard Britannia along the North West coast of Scotland.
The motion to decommission it was put forth in 1994 by the Conservative government of Tony Blair following through on a promise to bring “austerity” to the running of the country. Another historic icon of the British Monarchy to go was the Royal Train.
If anything, this ship is defined by “attention to detail”. For example, from the outside there are no visible rivets holding the metal hull panels. Above the waterline, it is painted a solid dark blue except for a thin yellow line just below the level of the main deck. In order to keep the look of the ship clean and sleek, there is no lettering on the hull at all – not even the name of the ship. One of the more interesting features is that the ship has its own automobile garage. It took the crew the best part of a day to move the Royal Rolls Royce into or out of the garage and onto dry land, so it was not all that convenient. Especially as the bumpers had to be removed in order for it to fit inside the garage.
The engine room is spotless with polished brass fixtures, painted machinery and perfectly wrapped piping. When a visiting dignitary was being given a tour of the ship, after being shown the engine room remarked, “That’s a fine museum, now show me the real engine room”.
For all practical purposes, the ship interior is a downscaled Buckingham Palace with grand dinning room, lavish sitting room and well appointed bed chambers. Even today, all the silver dining and serving pieces and all the brass on the ship is polished by hand daily. When in service, in addition to the regular crew was a full platoon of Royal Marine musicians that played everyday at meals and for formal events.
The tour of the ship is self guided with a hand held listening device and is quite well done. You tour 5 of the decks starting at the top on the bridge and working your way down to the engine room. Along the way you see both crew areas as well as Royal Family areas and both are exquisite. It is one of the best ‘museum’ type audio augmented tours I think I’ve experienced and well worth a trip down to the Leif area to see it. They limit how many people can enter each quarter hour but once on the ship you can go at your own pace, including a stop in the “tea room” for a light lunch or just some tea and cake. Timed reservations should be acquired ahead of time to avoid long lines.
Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh
The RBGE is 70 acres in suburban Edinburgh with over 13,000 different plant species. It is one of 4 Royal Botanic Gardens (Edinburgh, Dawyck, Logan, and Benmore). Founded in 1670 this botanic garden has been quite mobile, as far as botanic gardens go. It was originally founded at St. Anne’s Yard near Holyrood Palace and as such is the second oldest botanic garden in the UK (the one at Oxford is the oldest). It was initially populated from the collection of Sir Patrick Murray (2nd lord Elibank) after he died. This site was only a 40 by 40 foot square and by 1676 was crammed with 800 to 900 plants.
Due to the cramped space at the Holyrood site, in 1676 it was moved to grounds leased from the Trinity Hospital where it was called the “Old Physick Garden” as many of the plants grown there were for medicinal purposes. But progress marches on and this site was taken over by the Waverely train Station of the North British Railway. So, in 1763 it was moved again to a 5 acre site site on the west side of Leith Walk covering an area now called Bellevue.
But, once again it outgrew its area and in the early 1820’s was expanded and moved again. This time it was moved to its current location. It was then expanded again in 1881 with the addition of an adjacent estate.
Like many such attractions in Scotland, the botanical gardens have no entrance fee which is quite nice. There is a lovely new visitor center with interesting displays and a cafeteria with both indoor and outdoor seating. But mostly there are manicured grounds featuring domestic and exotic plants ranging from desert succulents to Giant Redwood trees – and everything in-between. Some of the more notable areas include the Rock Garden, the Alpine Houses, Woodland Garden, Pond, Arboretum or tree collection, Chinese Hillside, Rhododendron Collection and the Scottish Native Plants Collection. On our visit they were doing an extensive remodel of the glass conservatories where the tropical plants were kept so those buildings were not open. But the rest of the area was accessible.
Walkway to the vegetable garden area
A little pond near “The Botanical Cottage” (an education space)
The Royal mile is a series of city streets that run between Edinburgh Castle and Holyrood Palace an imperial mile away (slightly longer than a regular mile). Today the Royal Mile looks like one boulevard from point A to point B, but in fact it is made up of several different streets (5 to be exact). In the olden days it was not even a contiguous route as one had to navigate around non aligned streets, toll gates and the walls surrounding different jurisdictions. But however you slice it, it forms the main thoroughfare of the Old Town and is ground zero for tourists.
The upper end starts at Edinburgh Castle and the road descends 1 mile away to Holyrood Palace. The slope is a modest 4.1% (a bit steeper than most mainline railroads). It doesn’t look like much, but if you are on foot, going up takes significantly more effort than going down. So, most people take transportation up to the Castle and then walk down instead of the other way around.
The term “Royal Mile” was first used descriptively by W M Gilbert in 1901 where he said "...with its Castle and Palace and the royal mile between". The term was further popularized as the title of a guidebook published in 1920,
As is the case for many cities with castles in the middle, the castle is built on a butte. These buttes are the remains of ancient volcanic plugs. When glaciers came along during the ice age, they tended to flow around both sides of these plugs (sometimes sheering off the tops of the plugs leaving a flat top). As they flowed around the sides they carved the sides of the plug into steep vertical cliffs making the top a very defensible place to build a castle. However on the downstream side of the plug the glacier deposited debris into what is called a “crag and tail” formation. This can be seen as a thin ridge that slopes down from the top of the butte to the bottom of the valley gouged out by the glacier – in this case a mile away and 228 feet lower.
The Royal Mile follows the top of this ridge as it descends from the Castle to the Palace. As one walks the Royal Mile, one can look down steep little alleyways on either side of the main road called “Closes”. These closes descend down the steeply sloped sides of the crag and tail.
Today, the Royal Mile is an eclectic mix of shops, restaurants, pubs and visitor attractions. For the most part the stores are tacky overpriced tourist stores selling cheap trinkets. But every once in a while there is a shop selling quality locally made goods. In addition there are several historically significant establishments along the mile in addition to the castle and the palace. And there are some well known pubs. Some interesting stops are a museum dedicated to whisky, the John Knox house, the old Canongate toll house, St. Giles’ Cathedral, and the Socttish Parliament.
Royal Mile – Tourist Central for Edinburgh
John Knox House
Toll Booth Clock Tower
Canongate Kirk (church) - where the queen attends services when in town)
The Witchery Restaurant and Hotel
The Palace of Holyroodhouse, commonly referred to as Holyrood Palace or Holyroodhouse, is the official residence of the British monarch in Scotland. Holyrood is pronounced “holly-rude” – like Hollywood but with an “R” rather then a “W”. It is located at the bottom of the Royal Mile with the Edinburgh Castle at the other end, Holyroodhouse has served as the principal royal residence in Scotland since the 16th century, and is a setting for state occasions and official entertaining.
Back in the 12th–15th centuries this location was an Augustine Abbey named Holyrood, founded in 1128. “Hollyrood” is a concatenation of two words, “Holy” meaning very religious and “Rood” meaning a cross or crucifix symbolizing the cross on which Jesus Christ died
With Edinburgh recognized as Scotland's capital, her kings chose to live in Holyroodhouse, surrounded by parkland rather than in the bleak and drafty Edinburgh Castle, high on a rock and exposed to the elements. And, as Kings tend to do, they made their accommodations somewhat more to their liking than one would normally associate with the living conditions of monks in the 13th century. In 1501 James IV cleared the ground close to the Abbey and built a Palace for himself and his bride, Margaret Tudor – the sister of Henry VIII. His successors continued to add towers and wings as time went on and that even continued after Scotland became part of the UK. So far this palace has been a Royal Residence for over 500 years.
Mary Queen of Scots spent most of her turbulent life in the Palace and married two of her husbands in the palace. Her private secretary David Rizzio was murdered in her private apartments by a group led by her husband Lord Darnley, who was jealous of Rizzio's influence over Mary.
Currently Queen Elizabeth II spends one week in residence each summer, where she carries out a range of official engagements and ceremonies. Due to health issues, this year (2022) no one expected her to come all the way up to Edinburgh so they were quite surprised when she showed up, right on schedule.
The 16th-century historic apartments of Mary, Queen of Scots, and the State Apartments, used for official and state entertaining, are open to the public throughout the year, except when members of the Royal Family are in residence.
Grand Entrance to Holyrood Palace
State Dinning Room in Holyrood Palace
Kings bedchamber at Holyrood Palace
Holyrood Palace front courtyard
The ruined Augustinian Holyrood Abbey was founded in 1128 at the order of King David I of Scotland. A Papal legate was received here in 1177, while in 1189 a council of nobles met to discuss a ransom for the captive king William the Lion. Robert the Bruce held parliament at the abbey in 1326, and by 1329 it may already have been in use as a royal residence. In 1370. King James II was born at Holyrood and was crowned, married and laid to rest at Holyrood becoming the first king buried there. James III and Margaret of Denmark were married at Holyrood in 1469.
The early royal residence started out in the abbey guesthouse, before the building of a proper palace. Over time though the Abbey itself fell into disuse and has since become a ruin.
As mentioned, Edinburgh Castle was built on the top of a butte (or mesa) which is called Castle Rock for obvious reasons. The exterior walls of the castle flow right into the sheer cliffs of Castle Rock making it hard to see where one ends and the other begins.
Castle Walls flow right into sheer cliffs
Indigenous peoples occupied Castle Rock well before historical records and over time there had been various forts built on Castle Rock including by the Romans. However, the area wasn’t called Edinburgh until 638 AD when an invasion by the Angles forced out the Romans.
The structure on Castle rock became Scotland’s main royal castle in the Middle Ages, and was the center for local law enforcement as well as the military not to mention being where the crown jewels were stored. But, it wasn’t until 1130 AD that King David I first built some of the structures we see there today. The chapel, dedicated to his mother, Queen Margaret, still stands as the oldest building in Edinburgh even though it was damaged many times during various wars and conflicts – mostly at the hands of the English.
Going through the back and forth of the castle changing hands between the Scots and the English is like watching a tennis match. The first was when Edward I took it after a 3 day siege in 1296. Then in 1314 it was taken back by 30 men under the command of Sir Thomas Randolf Earl of Moray acting for the benefit of Robert the Bruce. Twenty years later the English took it back again and seven years after that the Scots took it back once more with soldiers disguised as merchants.
Over the years, a succession of various monarchs made additions and alterations to the castle. For example, David’s Tower was built in 1370 by David II, the son of Robert the Bruce as part of a reconstruction after the Wars of Independence. But then the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots married James Hepburn which didn’t go over well with the nobles of the time and forced Mary to flee to England. But even though Mary left, a battle ensued which lasted a year. A year into this battle, David’s Tower was destroyed which cut off the only remaining source of water for the castle. A few days later they surrendered the castle and the battle ended. After the siege, the tower was replaced by the Half Moon Battery that is still there.
Before she became married to James Hepburn, Mary gave birth to James VI (in 1566 to her previous husband, Lord Darnley) who also became James I of England in the “Union of the Crowns”. It was then that the Scottish court departed from Edinburgh for London, which left the castle with only a military function. The final monarch to reside at the castle was Charles I in 1633 before his coronation as King of the Scots.
But even this did not protect the castle. The Jacobite rebellions in the 18th Century caused much unrest. Jacobitism was the political movement fighting to reinstate Stuart monarchs to their thrones in England, Scotland and Ireland. In Edinburgh it was to return James VII of Scotland (aka James II of England). The 1715 rebellion saw the Jacobites come dramatically close to claiming the castle in the same style that Robert the Bruce’s men did over 400 years before; by scaling the north facing cliffs. The 1745 rebellion saw the capture of Holyrood Palace (at the opposite end of the Royal Mile to the castle) but the castle remained unbroken.
Main gate to Castle over ditch (a moat with no water)
Playing the Hurdygurdy in the castle courtyard
Socttish National War Memorial across the courtyard from the Great Hall
St. Margaret’s Chapel
Stained Glass in St. Mararet’s Chapel
Mons Meg is a super canon with a 20” diameter barrel designed to smash castle walls. It was built in 1449 by the French Duke of Burgundy and given to James II of Scotland as a wedding present in 1457. Ironically, shortly after receiving this gift, King James II was killed by an exploding cannon during the siege of Roxburgh Castle. Mons Meg was only used a few times in battle before it became apparent that the time and effort needed to move it to where a castle was being attacked was just not worth the effort. However it continued to be used for ceremonial purposes. One such event was to celebrate the marriage of Mary Queen of Scots in 1558 when the “gunstone” it fired was later found in a field over 2 miles away. The final firing was in 1680 during a visit by the future King James VII when the gunpowder charge burst the barrel.
Edinburgh Fringe and Military Tattoo
Each August since 1947, they hold a month long celebration called the “Edinburgh Fringe”. The 2020 festival was cancelled due to COIVD-19 and the 2021 version was scaled way back, but during our visit in July they were quite busy setting up for the full scale return of the festival scheduled for August 2022.
The Edinburgh Fringe is the world's largest arts festival, which in 2018 spanned 25 days, featured more than 55,000 performances at 3,548 different shows in 317 venues and attracted over 430,000 people. It is surpassed only by the Olympics and the World Cup in terms of global ticketed events and has placed Edinburgh in the forefront of world cities more than anything else.
During the Fringe, the esplanade of Edinburgh castle is used for the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo performed by British Armed Forces, Commonwealth and international military bands, and artistic performance teams. Normally the esplanade is just an asphalt area where tour busses park, but in July each year they set up massive grandstands which can seat 8,800 people. Through much of August they host performances including performances with hundreds of bagpipes played by military bands marching in formation.
While we were there they were putting the finishing touches on the grandstands. As it turns out, the upper rows of these grandstands extend out over the edge of the cliffs upon which the castle is built proving to be quite a vertigo inducing experience.
Esplanade of Edinburgh Castle, set up for the Royal Military Tattoo
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(All images by Dan Hartford unless otherwise stated. Info from Wikipedia, other web sources, and pamphlets gathered at various locations along the way)
Keywords: blog, dan hartford photo, DanTravelBlog, dantravelblogscotland2022, Edinburgh, Edinburgh Castle, Edinburgh Fringe, Edinburgh Military Tattoo, HMY Britania, Holyrood Abbey, Holyroodhouse, Leif, Mons Meg, Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, Royal Mile, Royal Yacht, Scotland
Absolutely wonderful and well written! It's detailed and succinct at the same time. I enjoy reading your blogs over the professional ones in travel magazines. Thank you for sharing.
I really enjoyed this. I have not been to Scotland and now have a good sense of some of the highlights. Your photos are always great, but I also enjoy your ability to summarize the background. Love the tennis match analogy.
is the guy playing the hurdy-gurdy looking like that because he’s trying to not hear the noise coming out?
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