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Issue 64 - Capital Delights

Scotland Magazine Issue 64
August 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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Capital Delights

Charles Douglas explores the medieval offerings of Edinburgh

Throughout August and running into September, visitors to Scotland's capital are spoiled for choice with Edinburgh's seven major festivals in full swing – the Official International Festival, the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, the Edinburgh Art Festival, the Edinburgh Jazz & Blues Festival, the Edinburgh International Book Festival, the Festival of Politics, and the Edinburgh Mela Festival, not to mention the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo.

However, not everyone comes to Edinburgh for the annual jamboree of culture and hedonism.

Not that I would in any way wish to denigrate the greatest show on earth which for 66 years has brought visitors and friends and family from across the globe to my front door.

Rather, I consider the purpose of this article is to confirm that the permanent attractions and treasures of this glorious medieval city are open throughout the year.

To start off with, there is the city itself, with its skyline of castle, church spires and volcanic outcrops, seven hills in total, creating a series of levels as the Old Town drops down into the lower Old Town, and the castle looms over the populated hinterland sloping north towards the Firth of Forth. On sunny days, residents and visitors alike are often dazzled by glimpses of the surrounding landscape, looking south onto the green and undulating Pentland Hills, and north towards the Port of Leith and across the sea estuary to the Kingdom of Fife.

Bear in mind that Edinburgh consists of an Old Town and a New Town, the former, a warren of medieval cobbled streets snuggling onto a spine of rock which travels east from the castle rock to Holyrood Park with its palace, ruined abbey, and the Scottish Parliament buildings. The so-called New Town lies below and between this and the Firth of Forth, and is made up of splendid Georgian/Victorian buildings thrown up in the 18th and 19th centuries, both before and after the period known as the Scottish Enlightenment.

The visitor attractions of the Old Town are many and varied. The Royal Mile (incorporating the High Street and Canongate) between the castle and Holyrood is punctuated with intriguing finds from the National War Museum (within the castle itself), the Camera Obscura, the Scotch Whisky Experience and the Writer's Museum, all situated close to the castle esplanade; Edinburgh's City Chambers opposite Parliament Hall and the Advocates' the Signet Library, the High Kirk of St Giles, to John Knox's House, the Museum of Childhood, the Scottish Storytelling Centre and the Scottish Poetry Library in the Canongate.

At the foot of the Royal Mile is the Queen's Gallery displaying treasures from Royal residences, and you have the choice of taking a tour of the Palace of Holyroodhouse, the Queen's Scottish residence, or the futuristic Scottish Parliament building opposite. Alternately, you might just prefer to set off into the park and climb Arthur's Seat, the central hilltop, which gives you glorious vistas over the city.

On Chambers Street, parallel to the Royal Mile, is the National Museum of Scotland, an amazing interconnecting exhibition space shared between the merger of the Museum of Scotland, with its collections relating to Scottish antiquities, culture and history, and the Royal Museum, its collections covering science and technology, natural history and world cultures. Across from the corner of Chambers Street and George IV Bridge, look out for the statue of Greyfriars Bobby, the loyal little Skye Terrier made famous in the Walt Disney film carrying his name.

From the Greyfriars Kirk there are daily ghost tours, and on the High Street, among the tartan gift shops, is the entrance to The Real Mary King's Close, a warren of underground streets which were closed when the plague struck 400 years ago.

Edinburgh boasts a remarkable collection of international art housed in three galleries – the National Gallery of Scotland, at the foot of The Mound; the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Queen Street and the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art on Belford Road. The recent and spectacular refurbishment of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery is a triumph and definitely not to be missed.

However, for those interested in purchasing contemporary art, the New Town has its very own commercial gallery quarter in Dundas Street, to some extent made famous in Alexander McColl Smith's 44,
Scotland Street novels.

A personal favourite for relaxing and enjoying the skyscape of the city is the Royal Botanic Gardens at Inverleith, with its rododendron walks, glasshouses, Chinese garden and recently modernised restaurant complex. Another very special visitor attraction is the decomissioned Royal Yacht Britannia, anchored at the Ocean Terminal of the Port of Leith. Launched at John Brown's Shipyard in Clydebank in 1953, the Royal Yacht proudly served Queen and United Kingdom for 44 years. During that time it carried The Queen and members of the Royal Family on 968 official voyages, from the remotest regions of the South Seas to the deepest divides of Antarctica.

Edinburgh Zoo, which is located at Corstorphine on the Glasgow Road, has recently hit the media headlines with the arrival of two Giant Pandas on a 10 year breeding loan from the government of China. The pair, Tian Tian and Yuang Guang, reside in the refurbished ape house, and by all appearances have adapted well to their Scottish home.

Forty eight hours is a tight schedule with such a wealth of options to explore in Scotland's Capital. For the younger generation, there are bars and clubs, some seasonably open into the early hours of the morning; bars in Leith are particularly popular for live music at weekends.

There are stylish restaurants and shops to be sought out in both the Old Town and the New Town. It is possible to eat out in most languages in Edinburgh, and the retail emporiums of George Street, Rose Street and Thistle Street, have much to offer. On Princes Street there are historic department stores such as Debenhams, and Jenners. There is a Harvey Nichols on St Andrews Square, and a John Lewis in the adjacent St James Centre. More quirky shops lie in Causewayside, Bruntsfield, Canonmills and Leith.

Although outside of the city centre, trips to the iconic Rosslyn Chapel (of The Da Vinci Code fame), on the south side, or the magnificent Hopetoun House, the ancestral home of the marquesses of Linlithgow at South Queensferry, are to be recommended. Otherwise those experiencing Edinburgh for the first time will have more than enough to occupy their time. Most likely they will want to return again soon to catch up on what they will have had to miss out on.