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Issue 62 - Edinburgh & The Lothians

Scotland Magazine Issue 62
April 2012


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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Edinburgh & The Lothians

In popular mythology, there lived, around 518 AD, King Loth of the Gododdin, a great Celtic ruler who administered his territory of Lothian from a compound on Traprain Law, one of a series of volcanic plugs which dot the landscape from North Berwick Law to Arthur’s Seat and the rock beneath Edinburgh Castle. Those who have explored the Scottish end of the Arthurian legends will know that Loth was allegedly the brother-in-law of King Arthur of the Britons. Sometimes magnanimous, but more often than not a ruthless tyrant, he ruled over his domain with an iron fist.

Following Loth’s death, the region was appropriated by the Angle Kingdom of Northumbria, but at the decisive Battle of Dun Nechtain around 685 AD, it reverted to the Picts and some three hundred years later, was annexed by the Kingdom of Scotland.

Fast forward one thousand and three hundred years, and today’s Lothian, divided into West, Mid and East, lies between the southern shore of the Firth of Forth and the Lammermuir Hills to the south, and embraces Edinburgh, Scotland’s burgeoning Capital city, and towns such as Dunbar, Dalkeith, and Haddington to the east, and Livingston, Linlithgow and Bathgate to the west.

Located on the lower south eastern shoulder of Scotland’s land mass, the region’s strategic position has throughout the centuries been both its fortune and its vulnerability.

Invading armies inevitably came by sea, or across the Border to the south. Thus, when on one of those occasions a Scottish army had invaded England and was decimated at the Battle of Flodden in 1513, a defensive wall was hastily thrown up around Edinburgh.

However, no immediate invasion took place, and the Flodden Wall was to prove relatively ineffective when the Earl of Hertford arrived with his Rough Wooing army 35 years later. Even so, parts of it can still be seen in the Grassmarket and on the west side of the Pleasance, where it originally enclosed the Blackfriars Monastery, itself dismantled during the Reformation.

The city of Edinburgh comprises a medieval Old Town, stretching from below the castle walls and the Grassmarket, up and along the Royal Mile, the street which leads from the castle esplanade to the Palace of Holyroohouse and the open parkland dominated by the extinct volcanic range of Arthur’s Seat and Salisbury Crags. Confusingly, because it is now over two centuries old, there is also Edinburgh’s New Town, created in the meadowland to the north of the castle walls in 18th century.

Renowned for its impressive range of Georgian architecture, the New Town remains largely residential.

The project originated from Lord Provost Drummond in 1752 and was embodied in an Act of Parliament the following year. His proposal was to create an urban viaduct, the North Bridge, to link the two towns, and the design for the rectangular layout for the New Town, considered a masterpiece at the time, was submitted by a 26-year old architect, James Craig.

The road sloping down from the Mound into Princes Street was officially opened in 1781, created by dumping 1,501,000 cartloads of excavated earth into the drained Nor Loch beneath the castle, which was henceforth transformed into Princes Street Gardens.

This was the time of the Scottish Enlightenment, with Edinburgh evolving into a city of medicine, academics, philosophers, lawyers and men and women of learning. In the 20th century, it further emerged as a capital of commercial expertise and finance. Little has changed.

In 1995, the Old and New Towns of Edinburgh were inscribed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.

In 2004, with its associations with such giant literary figures as Sir Walter Scott, James Hogg, Robert Burns, Robert Louis Stevenson, Hugh MacDiarmid, Sir Compton Mackenzie, and contemporary writers such as Alexander McColl Smith and Ian Rankin, UNESCO further nominated Edinburgh as its first World City of Literature.

Aside from top of the range shopping outlets (John Lewis, Jenners and Harvey Nichols among them), Edinburgh has many museums and galleries, including the recently renovated Royal Museum, an impressive early Italian Renaissance palazzo facade containing a great hall of wooden ribbed construction designed on Crystal Palace principles, together with smaller halls of similar design.

Housed here, and in the adjoining National Museum of Scotland, are rich international collections.

The National Gallery of Scotland and the neoclassical Art Gallery, with blind walls with shallow pilasters punctuated by Ionic porticoes, was originally designed as two buildings to house the Academy as well as the National Gallery. The recently refurbished Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Queen Street is a remarkable achievement and houses a magnificent collection including works by superior Scottish artists such as Sir Henry Raeburn, Alan Ramsay and Archibald Skirving.

Major visitor attractions abound throughout the city, including the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art and the Dean Gallery, housing the work of locally-born artist Eduardo Paolozzi, west of the city centre, and the Royal Botanic Gardens, a renowned scientific centre for the study of plants.

Holyrood House, the scene of many important events of Scottish history, was originally the guesthouse of Holyrood Abbey. It was transformed into a royal residence by James IV, and continues to serve as the official residence of the monarch in Scotland. You can always tell when Her Majesty of a member of her family are in residence, as the Royal Flag flies from its battlements.

A more controversial building, however, is the modernistic jumble of the Scottish Parliament which sits opposite the palace and which was opened by the Queen in 2004. It was designed by the Catalan architect Enric Miralles, who died before it was complete.

Since 1946, Scotland’s Capital has hosted the Edinburgh International Festival which takes place in August and embraces the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo, and its hangers-on, the now almost oversize Edinburgh Fringe, the Comedy Festival, the Edinburgh Jazz Festival, the Edinburgh Art Festival , the Edinburgh International Book Festival and the Edinburgh Mela Festival. For four, running into five weeks, the city is transformed into a hub of culture, with performance groups, actors, writers and musicians arriving from the four corners of the globe. Every available performance space within the Old Town and New Town is commandeered and the season ends with a spectacular fire work display from the castle battlements, accompanied by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra.

For that glorious period in the autumn, Edinburgh revels in its international status, throwing open its doors to welcome all comers. Bit it was not always so.

During the passage of four centuries, commencing in 1216, Scotland was invaded nine times by English armies, sweeping up through East Lothian.

It might seem a long time ago in the scheme of things, but many of the ruined fortifications remain, and memories are preserved in such unique artefacts as the Prestonpans Tapestry, created in 2009, which tells the story of the Jacobite Rising of 1745.

From the town of Dunbar in the south to Musselburgh and Inveresk, on the skirts of Edinburgh, East Lothian has it all - fertile arable fields on the coastal plain and the mixed livestock and agrarian farmland on the inland Rover Tyne Valley. There are thick coverings of mixed woodland, the sheep-filled slopes and grouse moors of the Lammermuirs and picturesque coastal and inland towns, interspersed with buildings of immense historic interest. Romans, Vikings and the Saxon English came here intent on conquest but, finding it impossible to impose authority over an evolving Lowland Scotland, melted back from whence they came.

Haddington, the market town of East Lothian, once lay on the Great North Road from London to Edinburgh and was ranked as the fourth largest town in Scotland.

Then in 1846 the railway arrived, bipassing the town, and Haddington slipped into a time warp, merciful in some ways since it has retained its elegant architectural beauty, its cross-bow shape and, on a bend of the River Tyne, the fine St Mary’s Collegiate Church where the great Scottish reformer John Knox began his career as an alter boy.

Almost forgotten is that Haddington once accommodated a palace, occupied in the 12th century by the mother of Malcolm IV (The Maiden) and William I (The Lion), and it was the birthplace of Alexander II. Abandoned in the following century in favour of Linlithgow and Dunfermline in Fife, nothing remains of it, although its existence is commemorated in the town’s expansive Court Street.

Not without reason is East Lothian known as the Golf Coast.

With its brisk sea air, large expanses of flat land with distant vistas of hills and sea, there can be no finer a location for enjoying the game which probably explains why there are now twenty two East Lothian golf clubs to choose from. Along the sandy coastline, former ports and fishing villages such as Prestonpans, Port Seton, Longniddrie, Aberlady, Gullane and North Berwick, have been transformed into havens for holidaymakers throughout the summer months.

At Pencaitland is the Glenkinchie Distillery, one three Lowland malt whisky distilleries still in production Skirting Lothian to the south, there are small towns such as Dalkeith, close to the mining villages of Newtongrange, Gorebridge and Penicuik, nestling against the Pentland Hills.

Here there is also the village of Roslin, whose celebrity has been meteoric since the book and film of The Da Vini Code brought its gemlike interdenominational Rosslyn Chapel to world renown. The semiruined Rosslyn Castle, ancestral home of the St Clair/Sinclair family, and the spectacular Roslin Glen, over which it looks, are equally worth inspecting.

To the north of Edinburgh, are the Firth of Forth estuary crossings of the Forth Rail Bridge and Forth Road Bridge, with a third crossing to be introduced in the not too distant future. Previously, ferry boats sailed to Fife from Edinburgh’s Port of Leith, or from South Queensferry where the lands of Hopetoun House and Dalmeny House, the two impressive stately homes of the marquises of Linlithgow and the earls of Roseberry march with the town. Both are seasonally open to the public, and the equally stately Dundas Castle nearby is available for conference and wedding lets.

From South Queensferry, the road and motorway runs along the Firth of Forth linking with the industrial towns of Bo’ness, Bathgate and Falkirk, and Linlithgow, dominated by its ruined Royal Palace, destroyed by the Duke of Cumberland’s soldiers during the 1745 Jacobite Uprising.

Up until 1921, West Lothian was known as Linlithgowshire, after its principal town. In political circles, the West Lothian Questions is attributed to Tam Dalyell, the former local member of parliament, who lives at Linlithgow in his ancestral home The House of the Binns, now owned by the National Trust for Scotland.

This addresses the dilemma of Scottish, Welsh or indeed Northern Irish Members of Parliament at Westminster having the same right to vote at Westminster as any English MP when large areas of policy are devolved to national parliaments and assemblies in areas such as health, housing, schools and policing.

In contrast to East Lothian, West Lothian’s economy is mainly dominated by industrial and IT investment centred on Falkirk, with its retail and manufacturing base, and Livingston, the fourth post- Second World War New Town to be built in Scotland, designated in 1962.

The area upon which it is located was historically dominated by Oil Shale Mining, which explains the bings which remain as decorations on the surrounding landscape.

Several multi-national companies have factories in the town and BSkyB here is the largest private sector employer in West Lothian.