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Issue 85 - Edinburgh & Midlothian

Scotland Magazine Issue 85
February 2016


This article is 2 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 & Midlothian

Charles Douglas and Ian Gardner explore the sights of Edinburgh and Midlothian


Charles Douglas explores the historic city

Recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995, Scotland's capital city historically comprises two distinct settlements: the medieval Old Town, which clings to the spine of the castle rock and the 18th-century New Town, which sprawls across the open landscape below and is 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.

A fortress on a rock that spawned a village, that grew into a town and 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”. The point of entry for most visitors is 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, a smooth-running tram service that also connects to the airport and most distances in the centre can be achieved by walking. Squatting above Waverley Station, the Royal Mile of the Old Town slopes east from the castle esplanade towards the Palace of Holyroodhouse. Here there are tartan dress shops galore. For connoisseurs of Scotch, there are the Scotch Whisky Experience (opposite the Camera Obscura) and Royal Mile Whiskies on the High Street. In the Grassmarket below is an eclectic mix of antique shops and clothes retailers of a more contemporary style.

For the majority of tourists, the 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 (GMT), 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.

At the foot of the Royal Mile is the Palace of Holyroodhouse and adjacent Scottish Parliament building, providing a striking contrast in styles between ancient and modern. On the one hand, you have the ruined nave of the abbey church; the Queen's Gallery and a centuries old palace with its romantic associations with Mary Queen of Scots and Prince Charles Edward Stuart. On the other, the Scottish Parliament building designed by Enric Mirrales, a Catalonian architect and the futuristic canopies of Our Dynamic Earth, a shrine to natural history.

Looming over both in Holyrood Park is the crouching elephant (some call it a lion) of Arthur's Seat; for those with the energy, a climb to the top of this volcanic outcrop is well worth the effort. From its summit, one is afforded expansive views north to the 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. 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 five thousand 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 the Festival, Playhouse, King's and Lyceum theatres. In April, the city hosts the Edinburgh International Science Festival; in June, the Edinburgh International Film Festival and over Christmas and Hogmanay, an Edinburgh Winter Festival with concerts, a torch light procession, a funfair and Christmas Market and a firework display.

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 a nation. Cobbled into the pavement here is the Heart of Midlothian, marking the spot on which stood the old Edinburgh Tolbooth. Close by is Parliament Hall, where the Act of Union between England and Scotland was sealed and the elegant Signet 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 made to this day. This part of Edinburgh has its own underground city, a network of streets on different levels having been built upon over the centuries. Probably the best place to explore them is in Mary King's Close, now re-opened to the public for tours, having been sealed off in 1645. While in the same vicinity, it is well worth looking in on the Museum of Childhood, the Scottish Storytelling Centre and Huntly House, 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. The magnificent Royal Museum and the adjoining National Museum of Scotland, with six floors of exhibition space, bring 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 displaying superb collections of fine art. The Scottish National Portrait Gallery on Queen Street houses an equally dazzling collection. 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.

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.

North of the city centre is Inverleith and the historic Port of Leith. Highly recommended are visits to the glorious Royal Botanic Gardens; to Edinburgh Zoo on Corstorphine Hill, or to the Royal Yacht Britannia, anchored at the Ocean Terminal.


Ian Gardner journeys into the surrounding countryside

The county area of Midlothian is often overshadowed by the neighbouring capital city, but visitors can enjoy a taste of the countryside and discover some fascinating heritage sites by going there. It is a relatively small area, so easy to travel around and, perhaps unlike the cities, you will often find a more personal touch, as many of the attractions maintain long-standing family connections and accommodation doesn’t solely consist of the big brands. Whether visiting in mid-summer or mid-winter, it’s worth taking another look at Midlothian.

Wherever you explore in Midlothian, you are never far from the countryside and so the area is a favourite for walkers. The Pentland Hills Regional Park offers over 100km of signposted routes available across the hills and, for the less adventurous, Lord Ancrum’s Wood at Newbattle Abbey provides some attractive riverside walks in its 50-acres of woodland. Midlothian’s Country Parks - Roslin Glen and Vogrie – also offer some great walking routes and opportunities for nature watching, with roe deer, badgers, buzzards, herons and otters all calling the area home. There’s more wildlife to see at both Dalkeith Country Estate and Penicuik Estate; the excellent Ranger Services help visitors to get the most from their visit by operating a variety of walks which will introduce them to the area
s wilder residents. Even if the weather is bad, Midlothian has the answer with free-flying butterflies and insects to enjoy indoors at Butterfly and Insect World.

Midlothian has a fine array of built heritage and here you will find the largely 15th-century Crichton Castle, which was built as the residence of the Crichtons and later home to the Earls of Bothwell, an influential family among whom James, the 4th Earl, married Mary Queen of Scots in 1567. Another family residence, the wonderful William Adam country house at Arniston, by Gorebridge, has been home of the Dundas family for over 400 years and boast artworks by Scottish artists such as Sir Henry Raeburn and Alexander Nasmyth and fascinating period furniture.

Newbattle Abbey is one of Midlothian’s hidden treasures. Originally the site of a medieval Cistercian Abbey and founded in 1140 by the monks at Melrose Abbey, who created Newbotil (meaning ‘new dwelling’), the building’s monastic life ended at the time of the Reformation in 1560. Today, the undercroft and crypt of the original Abbey remain and are part of the main house, which was built largely in the 18th and 19th centuries and presented to the nation by the Marquis of Lothian. The Lothian family motto “Sero Sed Serio” – Late but in Earnest – dates back to the Battle of Ancrum Moor in 1545 when family members changed allegiance to bolster the Scottish troops ‘late but in earnest’. The motto could equally apply to the building today as it houses a college for adult education.

Elsewhere, the elegant architecture of Dalkeith Palace dominates the Country Park, owned by the Duke of Buccleuch and Old Penicuik House, damaged in a devastating fire in 1899, is a stunning focal point in Penicuik Estate. The house was built between 1761 and 1769 although the connection between the Clerk family and the Penicuik Estate stretches back to 1654. Penicuik House is described as being ‘in a state of conserved ruination’ after an 8-year programme of consolidation and conservation, which has also included training in skills of traditional building and stonemasonry.

Celebrating Midlothian’s long and rich mining heritage, the National Mining Museum in Newtongrange is located within the immense Lady Victoria Colliery. The Colliery opened in 1895 and stopped production in 1981; the museum charts the story of mining and the life of miners over this period. There is more industrial heritage, albeit on a smaller scale, at the fascinating Cousland Smiddy, where there has been a working smiddy (blacksmith) for over 300 years.

Churches, too, play their part in showing Midlothian’s heritage. Next to Crichton Castle is the picturesque Crichton Collegiate Church, founded by Sir William Crichton, Chancellor of Scotland, in 1440 and dedicated in 1449. Mass was sung here for the rich and powerful family of Lord Crichton, who lived a few hundred yards away in the castle. From the same period, but different to any other church, is the renowned Rosslyn Chapel in the village of Roslin. Still family-owned, Rosslyn Chapel was built as a family chapel for Sir William St Clair, who lived in nearby Roslin Castle next to the River North Esk. The name ‘Rosslyn’ is derived from ‘ross’, meaning a rocky promontory and ‘lynn’, a waterfall. He was a wealthy man and clearly was determined to make his chapel more ornate than any other that anyone had seen before.

Masons and craftsmen are said to have travelled here from Europe and the result – still standing remarkably intact despite the Reformation, the danger of Cromwell’s troops and the perils of the Scottish climate - today attracts visitors from far and wide. Inside and outside, nearly every surface of the sandstone is intricately carved; the mysterious symbolism and numerous interpretations have led to the intriguing theories and legends that have grown up over generations. A leading role in the book and film of
The Da Vinci Code propelled Rosslyn Chapel to international prominence and it still manages to balance roles as a popular visitor destination and working place of worship, now part of the Scottish Episcopal Church.

While in Roslin, it is well worth taking a walk through the Glen, alongside the River North Esk. Among the landmarks here is Hawthornden Castle, which was home to poet William Drummond (1585–1649) and remained home to the Drummond family until 1970. Although the castle is not open to visitors, appropriately, part of the building is now a writers’ retreat. You will find a variety of places to stay in Midlothian but don’t expect to find many chain hotels – like its attractions, Midlothian’s accommodation tends to retain that personal link, through its B&Bs, self-catering houses or hotels set in some of the area’s historic buildings. Reminding us of the area’s strategically important location, a number of former castles now provide a more comfortable welcome as hotels and venues.

Dalhousie Castle is described as ‘Scotland’s Oldest Inhabited Castle’ as the Ramsays of Dalhousie occupied it for longer than any other family has retained possession of a castle in Scotland. The stronghold dates from the 13th-century, however the main parts of the present building (built around 1450) are of red stone quarried from the opposite bank of the South Esk River on which the Castle stands. Dalhousie now boasts 35 bedrooms and one of its most memorable features is the Dungeon restaurant, which offers a unique dining experience in their ancient barrel-vaulted dungeon.

Near Eskbank, Melville Castle is a grand mansion built in 1788 by Henry Dundas, first Viscount Melville, who is commemorated in a 150-feet high monument in St Andrew Square, Edinburgh. A one time hunting seat of Mary Queen of Scots, Melville Castle now has 32 bedrooms and has become established as a popular wedding venue. On the southern fringe of Midlothian, Borthwick Castle was built in 1430 by Sir William de Borthwick and is now an exclusive use venue. Midlothian is easy to reach and travel around by car, bus and now train, following the opening of the Borders Railway, which links Edinburgh, Midlothian and the Borders. Three stations – Eskbank, Newtongrange and Gorebridge – provide convenient entry points and, of course, provide quick links to Edinburgh's city centre.


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