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Issue 76 - Edinburgh and the Lothians

Scotland Magazine Issue 76
August 2014


This article is 4 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 and the Lothians

Local history, where to go, what to do...

Scotland’s Capital sits proudly and defiantly on the southern shore of the Firth Forth, making it both strategic and, despite the haars, those seasonal sea mists which envelop the streets in a diaphanous cloak of secrecy, is sheltered from the unpredictable weather of the North Sea.

Over a thousand years ago, the region's volcanic outcrops – North Berwick Law, Traprain Law, Arthur's Seat and Salibury Craggs and Edinburgh Rock, provided defensive outlooks against coastal invaders: the Vikings from the north, and the Saxon English from the south.

In the middle ages, coastal settlements along the Firth of Forth – Leith, Portobello, Musselburgh, Prestonpans and Port Seton, Aberlady, North Berwick and Dunbar – became profitable trading ports with the Low Countries of mainland Europe. Wedged in to the west by the Lammermuir Hills, the soil rich farmlands of East Lothian, formerly Haddingtonshire, became an invaluable asset to Edinburgh's burgeoning population and status. Largely thought of nowadays as commuter retreats from the Capital, this is Edinburgh's playground providing not only sandy beaches but no less than twenty two golf courses.

The name Lothian is traditionally associated with King Loth, whose ancient kingdom was appropriated by the Angles in the seventh century. In 1018, Lothian was annexed by the Kingdom of Scotland, and in the centuries thereafter it became a continual battleground between the English and the Scots, before, during, and after the Scottish Wars of Independence.

From 1216 onwards, English incursions into Haddingtonshire, now known as East Lothian, took place with predictable regularity bringing with them wave after wave of carnage and burning as successive monarchs on either side of the borderland sought to impose their supremacy upon one another. It seems amazing than anyone living there survived.

The greatest amount of carnage took place in the fifteenth century during the period known as the Rough Wooing when Henry VIII of England sought to marry his son Prince Edward to the infant Mary Queen of Scots). For eighteen months, the market town of Haddington was seized and occupied by English soldiers while under canon bombardment from the Scottish army and its French allies.

However, possibly the most emotive confrontation took place two hundred years later in 1745 between the Jacobite army of Prince Charles Edward Stuart and Hanovarian Government troops at Prestonpans. This battle lasted less than fifteen minutes with the English forces being totally overwhelmed, allowing the Jacobites to march south into England. Had the Jacobite Army not turned back at Derby, the history of the United Kingdom would have been entirely different.

It is nevertheless important to understand that the majority of Lowland Scots at the time supported the status quo, the majority of Jacobite supporters being from the Highlands. A memorial cairn to those who died stands on the battlefield site. Today, Prestonpans has been designated "Scotland's Mural Town", its many exterior wall paintings reflecting the town's colourful past.

Every August, Scotland's capital city becomes an epicentre of world culture. There is an Official International Festival; the Edinburgh Festival Fringe; the Edinburgh Art Festival; the Edinburgh Jazz & Blues Festival; the Edinburgh International Book Festival, and the Edinburgh Mela Festival, not to mention the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo, and now a Festival of Politics centred on the Scottish Parliament at Holyrood.

August is the month when this most glorious of medieval cities, dubbed “The Athens of the North”, springs to life. For four frenetic weeks spilling into September, Edinburgh becomes a genuinely cosmopolitan and international destination.

Of course, that is not to say there is little on offer the rest of the year. Far from it.

For a start, there is the city itself, with its awesome skyline of castle, church spires and volcanic outcrops; seven hills in total creating a series of levels as the Old Town at its centre drops down into the lower New Town with the castle looming over the populated coastline of the Firth of Forth. On sunny days, residents and visitors alike are dazzled by glimpses into the distance: south onto the green and undulating Pentland Hills and north across the Port of Leith to the Kingdom of Fife and beyond.

Edinburgh enjoys the split personality of Old Town and New Town, the former a warren of medieval cobbled streets snuggling onto a spine of volcanic rock which travels east from the castle esplanade into Holyrood Park with its palace, ruined abbey, and the Scottish Parliament buildings.

The New Town, so-called because it largely dates from the eighteenth century, lies below and between this and the Firth of Forth, and is made up of splendid Georgian/Victorian
squares and terraces thrown up over the period known as the Scottish Enlightenment.

Visitor attractions of the Old Town are many and varied. The Royal Mile (incorporating the High Street and Canongate) running between Edinburgh 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. Edinburgh's City Chambers stands on the north side opposite Parliament Hall, the Advocates' Library and the Signet Library, next to the High Kirk of St Giles. Further along the pedestrianised street can be found John Knox's House, alleged to have been the great reformer's home; the Museum of Chilhood; the Scottish Storytelling Centre, and the Scottish Poetry Library in the Canongate. In the Grassmarket, which is situated at the end of the Cowgate below, is a mix of picturesque restaurants and shops selling antiques, curios and clothes. Long ago it was the setting for public executions.

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, Her Majesty the Queen's Scottish residence, or the futuristic Scottish Parliament building opposite.

Alternately, you might just prefer to set off into open spaces of Holyrood Park and climb Arthur's Seat, the central hilltop, which provides glorious vistas over the city and surrounding countryside.

On Chambers Street, parallel to the Royal Mile, stands the National Museum of Scotland, an amazing interconnecting exhibition space shared between the merger of the Museum of Scotland, with its collections of 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, a one-time haunt of the grave-robbers Burke and Hare, 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 up when the plague struck the city over four hundred years ago.

Edinburgh boasts a remarkable collection of international art accommodated in three splendid public galleries – the National Gallery of Scotland, at the foot of The Mound; the refurbished Scotish National Portrait Gallery in Queen Street, and the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art on Belford Road.

For those interested in purchasing contemporary art, the New Town has its very own commercial gallery quarter in Dundas Street, to some extent immortalised in Alexander McColl Smith's 44, Scotland Street novels. Stockbridge, which lies at the foot of Howe Street, provides an eclectic mix of curio, fashion and food shops.

Having only recently reintroduced a tram service from the city centre to Edinburgh Airport, the is an international hub of financial and banking services, superbly served by its business quarter centred on the Edinburgh International Conference Centre which provides spacious, state-of-the-art facilities at the West End. Within walking
distance are superb theatres and concert facilities, such as the Usher Hall and the Queen's Hall, and the Festival, Playhouse, Royal Lyceum and King's theatres. There is a wide choice of luxurious hotels ranging from the five star Balmoral, Missoni, Sheraton Grand, Caledonian- A Waldorf Astoria Hotel, and The Scotsman Hotel to boutique hotels such as the Atholl, the Howard, the Hotel du Vin, and the luxurious out-of-town Prestonfield House.

A unique opportunity for enjoying the skyscape of the city can be found at 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 forty four 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.

The Port of Leith itself is a vibrant and colourful district, with its waterways reminiscent of Amsterdam. In centuries past this was a busy trading hub for the Low Countries, Belgium and the Netherlands.

Edinburgh Zoo, which is located at Corstorphine on the Glasgow Road, is the home 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.

Stylish restaurants and shops abound in both Old Town and New Town. It is possible to eat out in almost any language in Edinburgh, and the varied retail emporiums of George Street, Rose Street and Thistle Street, have much to offer.

On Princes Street there are historic department stores such as House of Fraser, Debenhams, and Jenners. There is a Harvey Nichols on St Andrews Square, and a John Lewis in the adjacent St James Centre. Rather more unusual shops are to be found in Causewayside, Bruntsfield, Canonmills and Leith, and there are tartan and tweed shops a-plenty in the High Street.

However, no visit to Scotland's capital is complete without a foray into the surrounding countryside.

Towards South Queensferry and the magnificent Firth of Forth road and rail bridges can be found Dalmeny House, home of the earls of Rosebery, and the magnificent Hopetoun House, ancestral home of the marquesses of Linlithgow. Further to the west is the House of the Binns, once home of the Royalist General Tam Dalyell and still occupied by his descendant.

On Edinburgh's western approaches are the satelite towns of Livingston, Linlithgow and Bathgate, with their complex mix of small industries. During the Industrial Revolution these districts flourished on the wealth of coal and shale mining, industries which have since dramatically declined but nonetheless celebrated in the re-working of the landscape and motorway statuary. At Wilkieston, in the grounds of Bonnington House, is Jupiter Artland, a spectacular and whimsical garden incorporating Charles Jencks' 'Life Mounds' and a creation by Jim Lambie. Both delight and astonish.

At Linlithgow, the ruins of the Palace date from the fifteenth century, a princial residence of the Royal Stewart dynasty and birthplace of James V and Mary Queen of Scots, but abandoned after James VI moved his court to England. The palace was largely destroyed in 1746 by the Duke of Cumberland's army marching north to confront the retreating Prince Charles Edward Stuart at the Battle of Culloden, but remains a tranquil beauty spot.

At Falkirk, is the conjunction of the Forth and Clyde Canals connected by the Falkirk Wheel, an astonishing piece of engineering, the only rotating boat lift of its kind in the world. Also to be found here are The Kelpies, two enormous sea horse sculptures unveiled last year as part of a £43 million re-development of around 350 hectares of land between Falkirk and the industrial complex of Grangemouth. They were designed by the Glasgow-born artist Andy Scot and inspired by the tradition of working horses in Scotland. South of the Capital, off the road to the small town of Penicuik, and sheltered by the Pentland Hills, is the 15th century Rosslyn Chapel. Here, a purpose-built visitor centre annualy welcomes admirers to this working church with its exquisite interior carving.

Where to Eat

The Dogs
110 Hanover Street

Edinburgh restauranteur David Ramsden has opened his latest venture at the heart of town.
Tel: +44 (0)1312 201 208

The Timber Yard
10 Lady Lawson Street

Created by Andrew and Lisa Fairlie, this truly is an award winning family business.
Tel: +44 (0)1312 211 222

The Dome
14 George Street

A spacious and elegant property which is a favourite meeting place for locals and visitors.
Tel: +44 (0)1316 248 624

Britannia Spice
150 Commercial Street, Leith

A critically acclaimed multi-ethnic award winning restaurant.
Tel: +44 (0)1315 552 255

Henderson's Vegetarian Restaurant
A ground breaking inititative renowned the world over for its healthy eating and farm produce.
Tel: +44 (0)1312 252 131

Fishers in the City
58, Thistle Street

Mixing the traditional with the contemporary to create a superb ambiance for fine dining.
Tel: +44 (0)1312 255 109

Martin Wishart
54 Shore, Leith

Founded by award winning chef Martin Wishart, this exemplary restaurant continues his tradition.
Tel: +44 (0)1315 533 557

The Kitchin
78 Commercial Street, Leith

Seasonal British produce influenced by French cooking techniques.
Tel: +44 (0)1315 551 755

Bistro Provence

The delicious menu is distinctively French in taste wines. A touch of the Auld Alliance.
Tel: +44 (0)1313 444 295

Ducks at Kilspindie House
Aberlady, East Lothian

Malcolm Duck lives up to his reputation at this award winning retreat.
Tel: +44 (0)1875 870 682

Chez Roux at Greywalls
Duncur Road, Muirfield, Gullane

Under the supervision of the legendary Albert Roux OBE.
Tel: +44 (0)1620 842 144

Archerfield Walled Garden
Direlton, East Lothian

A lovely sunny escape, close to the “golf” coast.
Tel: +44 (0)1620 388 588

Where to Stay

Crowne Plaza Edinburgh, The Roxburghe
In a prime location, this fine old hotel is luxurious, welcoming and comfortable.
Tel: +44 (0)8448 799 063

Princes Street Suites
Situated at the east end of Princes Street, with splendid views and a beauty spa. The rooms are spacious with contemporary design.
Tel: +44 (0)1315 581 600

The Chester Residence
Winner of the Serviced Apartments Quality Award 2014, these stylish suites at Edinburgh's west end are a delight to stay in.
Tel: +44 (0)1312 262 075

The George Hotel
Adjacent to St Andrew Square, you could hardly be more central. The Tempus Bar and Restaurant is a great favourite with locals.
Tel: +44 (0)1312 251 251

The Knight Residence
A series of award winning apartments on the south side of Edinburgh Castle, close to the Old Town.
Tel: +44 (0)1316 228 120

Scotsman Hotel
Superbly situated, former offices of the Scotsman newspaper have been luxuriously transformed, and includes a brasserie and spa.
Tel: +44 (0)1315 565 565

The Dunstane
Occupying two Victorian town houses, this luxurious hotel is situated in the Haymarket area.
Tel: +44 (0)1313 376 169

The Caledonian, A Waldorf Astoria Hotel
One of the great railway station hotels of the world. Sumptuous interiors and restaurants.
Tel: +44 (0)1312 228 888

Holiday Inn Express Edinburgh City Centre
Close to the Playhouse Theatre at Edinburgh's east end, this low budget accommodation is ideal for business travellers.
Tel: +44 (0)1315 582

Fraser Suites, Edinburgh
Stylish and elegant rooms with a restaurant, gym and self-catering facilities, ideal for families or couples.
Tel: +44 (0)1312 217 200

The Sheraton Grand Hotel & Spa
This fine building on Festival Square reflects the city at its most sumptuous, luxurious and reliable.
Tel: +44 (0)1312 299 131

The Glasshouse
This stylish hotel has a rooftop garden and there are fine views over the city. Excellent for that business trip or for a quiet rendez vous.
Tel: +44 (0)1315 258 200

Where to Visit

Edinburgh Castle
Castlehill, Edinburgh
Over 1000 years old, Edinburgh Castle towers above the Capital on Castle Rock.
Tel: +44 (0)1312 259 846

The Palace of Holyroodhouse
The Royal Mile
The official Scottish residence of Her Majesty the Queen.
Tel: +44 (0)1315 565 100

The Scottish Parliament
Holyrood, Edinburgh

Opened for business in 2004, an elected assembly of 129 members are housed within.
Tel: +44 (0)1313 485 200

National Museums of Scotland
Chambers Street

Two in one, the National Museum of Scotland and the adjoining Royal Museum of Scotland.
Tel: +44 (0)3001 236 789

National Galleries of Scotland
The Mound

The Royal Scottish Academy and the Scottish National Gallery house Scotland’s art treasures.
Tel: +44 (0)1316 246 200

The Scotch Whisky Experience
Castlehill, Edinburgh

This innovative attraction provides one of the best retail collections of Scotch.
Tel: +44 (0)1312 200 441

The Royal Yacht Britiannia
The Ocean Terminal, Leith

Tours provide a curiously voyeuristic insight into the British monarchy.
Tel: +44 (0)1315 555 566

The Royal Botanic Garden
Inverleith Row

A leafy oasis of over 70 acres centred on the elegant Inverleith House.
Tel: +44 (0)1315 527 171

Rosslyn Chapel
Rosslin, West Lothian

Celebrated for its exquisite carvings and a wealth of eccentric mythology.
Tel: +44 (0)1314 402 159

Hopetoun House
South Queensferry, West Lothian

One of Scotland's finest stately homes dating from the 17th century.
Tel: +44 (0)1313 312 451

The Falkirk Wheel
Falkirk, West Lothian

An extraordinary triumph of engineering as two waterways are connected.
Tel: +44 (0)1324 619 888

The Helix
Falkirk, West Lothian

Constructed of structural steel with a stainless steel outer skin, they reflect light, day and night.
Tel: +44 (0)1324 590 900


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