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Issue 57 - Capital Delights

Scotland Magazine Issue 57
June 2011

 

This article is 6 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

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Capital Delights

Charles Douglas takes us on a whirlwind tour of 'The Athens of the North"

How can you possibly take in Scotland’s capital in 24 hours? The answer is that you cannot. But you can certainly capture the essence. A fortress on a rock that spawned a village that grew into a town that became a city, Edwin’s Burgh (named after a long ago Northumbrian king), or otherwise Dùn Èideann, is skirted to the north by the Firth of Forth and was built on seven hills, hence its eponym “The Athens of the North”.
Recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995, the action centres on two distinct settlements, the mediaeval Old Town, which clings to the spine of the castle rock, and the 18th century New Town which sprawls across the open landscape below, the largest conurbation of Georgian architecture in existence. Today, Edinburgh is the proud Capital of an ancient nation whose influence has resonated around the world.
For the time being, however, the city centre, notably the picture postcard Princes Street, is being severely disrupted by the imposition of a tramway system which those locals who remember the comprehensive system disposed of in the 1950s consider both ironic and unnecessary. However, the council is pressing ahead, and a state-of-the-art service is promised from 2011.
Meanwhile, the majority of visitors have their point of entry at Waverley Station, beneath the castle walls, or Edinburgh Airport, west of the city. Be warned that the city centre is not the most welcoming place for cars, but there is an excellent bus service and most distances can be achieved by walking. To make the best use of time, however, it is perhaps best to differentiate between what people intend to do – go shopping, absorb the architecture and history, or simply enjoy the food and culture.
For the shopper, there are the elegant promenades of Princes Street, featuring such historic department stores such as Debenhams and Jenners; George Street, with Hamilton & Inches, Jo Malone and Escada, and the parallel, more intimate emporiums of Thistle Street and Rose Street. A recent addition to the east end is a Harvey Nichols store adjoining the St James Centre.
On the Royal Mile of the Old Town, a succession of streets sloping from the castle esplanade towards the Palace of Holyroodhouse, there are tartan dress shops galore. For connoisseurs of Scotch, there are the Scotch Whisky Experience, opposite the Camera Obscura, and Royal Mile Whiskies in the High Street. In the Grassmarket below is a mix of antique shops and clothes retailers of a more contemporary style.
For the majority who come to Edinburgh for the first time, their foremost priority is a visit to Edinburgh Castle which houses the National War Museum, and the Honours of Scotland (Crown, Sceptre and Sword of State) in the Crown Room. It is said that you can always recognise someone from Edinburgh anywhere in the world as on the stroke of one o’clock (UK time), they will automatically look at their watch. This habit comes from the famous one o’clock gun which is fired from the castle esplanade every day.
Next in order of precedence are the Palace of Holyroodhouse and the adjacent Scottish Parliament building, sited at the foot of the Royal Mile, and providing a striking contrast in styles between ancient and modern. On the one hand, you have the ruined nave of the abbey church, the centuries old palace with its romantic associations with Mary Queen of Scots and Prince Charles Edward Stuart, and its Queen’s Gallery; on the other, there are the Scottish Parliament building designed by Enric Mirrales, a Catalon architect, and the futuristic canopies of Our Dynamic Earth, a shrine to astrological science.
Looming over both disciplines in Holyrood Park is the crouching elephant of Arthur’s Seat and for those with the energy, a climb to the top of this volcanic outcrop is well worth the effort, affording as it does expansive views to the north to its Port of Leith and over the Firth of Forth towards the Kingdom of Fife; to the south towards the Pentland Hills; to the east along the coastline of East Lothian, and to the west across the spires and towers of the city landscape. It is only then that Edinburgh’s inspired location as a vibrant coastal city can be fully understood.
The timing of a visit to Scotland’s capital, however, is all important as throughout the year, Edinburgh hosts a series of festivals, most notably during the month of August which features the Edinburgh International Festival of Music and Arts, the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, the Edinburgh Jazz Festival, the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo, the Mela Festival. and the Edinburgh Book Festival. It is often observed that over the month of August, Edinburgh provides 5,000 things to do in a day.
Edinburgh is well served by the Edinburgh International Conference Centre in the Business Quarter, and several theatres and concert halls, notably the Usher Hall, and Festival, Playhouse, King’s, and Lyceum theatres. There is a wide choice of hotels, ranging from the five star Balmoral and four star Hilton Caledonian and Scotsman, to boutique hotels such as the Howard and Bonham, and a range of bargain, bed and breakfast and self-catering accommodation.
Be it on the cobbled streets and closes of the Old Town, or in the boulevards and crescents of the New Town, history confronts the eye at every turn. On the Royal Mile there is the High Kirk of St Giles where the Protestant Reformer John Knox dramatically changed the religious practices of his followers. Close by is Parliament Hall where the Act of Union between England and Scotland was sealed, and the elegant Signet’s Library, with its gorgeous painted ceiling.
On the east side of St Giles is the Mercat Cross, once a prison, and where public proclamations are still made.
This part of Edinburgh has its own underground city, a network of streets on different levels having been built upon over the centuries, and probably the best place to explore them is in Mary King’s Close, re-opened to the public for ghost tours, having been sealed off in 1645. In the same vicinity, it is well worth looking in on the Museum of Childhood, the Scottish Storytelling Centre, and Huntly House which houses the city’s principal museum of local history.
A popular place of homage at the top of Candlemaker Row is the little statue of Greyfriars Bobby, the loyal Skye terrier who faithfully visited his master’s grave in Greyfriar’s Kirk daily for fourteen years after his death. Running parallel to the Royal Mile is Chambers Street with the National Museum of Scotland and the Royal Museum of Scotland. While the magnificent Royal Museum is currently closed for renovation and scheduled to open in 2011, the National Museum, which has six floors of exhibition space, brings under one roof Scotland’s most important national treasures.
At the foot of The Mound, which connects the Old Town with the New Town, there are the National Gallery of Scotland and the Royal Scottish Academy, both containing remarkable collections of art.
Among them are works on loan from the Scottish National Portrait Gallery which is currently being refurbished. For lovers of modern art, there are the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art and the Dean Gallery over at Belford, west of the New Town, while others might want to explore the several small contemporary galleries of Dundas Street.
On Princes Street stands the spectral finger of the Scott Monument, commemorating the Scottish nation’s greatest storyteller, Sir Walter Scott. On Calton Hill, at the east end, is the National Monument honouring soldiers killed in the Napoleonic Wars and intended to be a full scale replica of the Parthenon in Athens until funds ran out.
On the summit nearby, is Rock House, once the home of the pioneer photographer Octavius Hill; the former City Observatory, and a monument honouring the distinguished academic Dugald Stewart. The Nelson Monument, erected in 1807, celebrates the great British naval victory at Trafalgar.
With only 24 hours, it would be impossible to fit enough time for a visit to the glorious Royal Botanic Gardens in Inverleith; to Edinburgh Zoo on Corstorphine Hill, or to the Royal Yacht Britannia, anchored in Leith. Even the suggestions above are only the tip of as ice berg.
There is only one possible solution to all of this. A return visit.