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Issue 34 - The view from above

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 34
August 2007

 

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The view from above

Sometimes the best way to see a city is from up high. Gary Hayden picks out the best vantage points from which you can look down on Edinburgh

Edinburgh is a city of hills, and has some wonderful viewpoints. No visit is complete without taking in some of its high spots. Here are four of the best.

Arthur’s Seat At 251m, Arthur’s Seat is the tallest of eight peaks in Holyrood Park, a 650-acre chunk of the highlands situated in the heart of the city.

No-one with more than a day to spend in Edinburgh should miss out on Holyrood Park. With its crags, lochs, moorland, cliffs and peaks, it’s unlike any other urban park. A wee taster of the Scottish wilderness.

The origin of the name Arthur’s Seat is unknown, it may be named after King Arthur of Camelot, or perhaps a sixth-century hero, Prince Arthur of Strathclyde. Some claim that it’s a corruption of the name ‘Archers’ Seat’.

We do know that Arthur’s Seat is an extinct volcano. Its summit marks the spot where the core erupted about 350 million years ago.

The walk to the summit takes about an hour if you’re moderately fit. It can be approached from almost any direction but most tourists begin by taking the steep path alongside Salisbury Crags (a remarkable and unmissable 45m-high series of cliffs), and then climbing some steep steps towards the peak.

A more gentle, and perhaps more scenic, route begins at the path near St Margaret’s Well. This route takes you past St Anthony’s Chapel, a pretty ruin perched high on crags above St Margaret’s Loch.

It’s also possible to drive into Holyrood Park, leave your car at Dunsapie Loch, and take a 20-minute hike to the summit. The views are spectacular. Aplaque near the trigpoint helps identify the major sights of the city and its surroundings, including the Forth Bridges, the Pentland Hills and the Bass Rock.

Calton Hill
Beyond the eastern end of Princes Street, close to the St James Shopping Centre, lies Calton Hill, one of Edinburgh’s main peaks. Its ravishing skyline is characterised by an eccentric collection of buildings and monuments mostly in the Greek neoclassical style, which earned 19th-century Edinburgh the epithet ‘Athens of the north’.

Most striking is the colossal National Monument, a partial replica of the Parthenon in Athens, built to honour the Scots killed in the Napoleonic Wars.

Construction began in 1822. Some say that money ran out partway through, with only 12 of the gigantic Doric columns complete.

Hence it’s one-time nickname, ‘Edinburgh’s Disgrace.’ Others say that it was designed to look like an incomplete structure, and was always intended to look the way it does today. In any case, it’s an awesome sight.

On the south-western corner of Calton Hill, is the small but perfectly-formed Dugald Stewart monument, built in 1831 to honour an Edinburgh University philosopher whom history has forgotten. It is modelled on the Monument of Lysicrates in Athens. Its picturesque situation overlooking the city makes it one of Edinburgh’s mostphotographed objects.

Other notable buildings include the Nelson Monument, a 30m tower built to resemble an up-ended telescope; and the City Observatory, which consists of three separate buildings bounded by a retaining wall.

You can walk up Calton Hill via a stone staircase from Waterloo Place, or simply drive to the car park on the summit. Once there, you’ll enjoy magnificent views of Arthur’s Seat and Salisbury Crags to the south; Princes Street and Edinburgh Castle to the west; and the Fife coast and the Forth Estuary to the north. Each evening, tourists and locals gather to watch the sunset from what Robert Louis Stevenson considered the city’s finest viewpoint.

But a word of warning: historically, Calton Hill has been a hang-out for some of Edinburgh’s shadier characters. This holds true today. It’s perfectly safe – and surprisingly serene – during the day, but best avoided after dark.

Castle Rock
Edinburgh Castle is simply magnificent. It’s the second most-visited ancient monument in Britain (after the Tower of London), and boasts 1,000 years of history.

You can spend a half-day there without nearly exhausting its possibilities: the Scottish Crown Jewels; the medieval siege-gun, Mons Meg; the Stone of Destiny, the Scottish War Memorial, the 12th-century St Margaret’s chapel; and much more. And, of course, it boasts some truly glorious views.

The castle is built upon the plug of an extinct volcano. Castle Rock is the crag of a glacial crag-and-tail formation; the tail is the Royal Mile, which slopes eastwards towards Holyrood House. The northern, southern and western slopes are almost vertical, rising 80m above their surroundings.

As you wind your way up Castle Rock onto the Castle Esplanade, you’re treated to spectacular views of the north of the city. The Princes Street Gardens (formerly the Nor’ Loch) lie below, and can be reached by following a steep, zigzagging pathway and crossing a railway bridge. It’s well worth the trip down, not only to enjoy the gardens, but also to admire the views of the castle perched atop its rocky peak.

The view of the castle from beside the Ross Fountain provides one of Scotland’s best photo-opportunities.

From inside the castle itself, you’re treated to panoramic views of one of the world’s most beautiful cities. There are plenty of viewpoints along the battlements, and there are signs to help you identify the major sights of the city and its surroundings.

Scott Monument
Rising up from the Princes Street Gardens like some medieval space-rocket, the 61m Scott Monument seems strikingly and gloriously out of place. Awinding staircase of 287 steps leads to the pinnacle, which boasts a fine panoramic view of the city.

The monument was built during 1840-46 to commemorate one of Edinburgh’s greatest sons, the novelist Sir Walter Scott, who died in 1832.

The designer, George Meikle Kemp, was a joiner and largely self-taught architect. Sadly, he never got to see the building completed.

On a foggy day in 1844, he fell into the Union Canal and drowned.

Admission to the monument costs just £3 but before venturing inside, it’s worth taking some time to stroll around the exterior. The statue at the base shows Sir Walter Scott in the company of his beloved deerhound, Maida. The sculptor, Sir John Steell, was also responsible for the statue of Walter Scott in Central Park, New York. The 64 statuettes placed on niches around the monument mostly represent characters from Scott’s novels, including Ivanhoe, Madge Wildfire and John Knox.

Once inside, the only way is up. But you can stop en-route at the Museum Room, which is beautifully illuminated by coloured light filtering in through stained-glass windows. It’s a good place to catch your breath and learn a little about Scott’s life and work.

Then it’s on to the pinnacle, with brief pauses at two small viewing platforms.

There’s no better way to end a stay in Edinburgh. There are superb views of all the major sights, including the other high spots: Arthur’s Seat, Calton Hill and Castle Rock.

It’s the perfect place to remind yourself of everything you’ve seen and done – and say a fond farewell to Scotland’s glorious capital city.