I love Edinburgh.From the handsome and wealthy New Town (18th century) to the medieval buildings and dark wynds of the Old Town – both overlooked by that craggy, forbidding castle perched on its high rock – Edinburgh must be one of the world’s most alluring cities.It’s often called the Paris of the North but it is colder and more rugged than its French counterpart..With my youngest son now living and working there, I usually make a day of it when I go through to see him.For a dyed in the wool Glaswegian like me, going through to the capital can be like entering a foreign country – it all looks and feels so different; part of its charm.Vive la difference! I am a tourist in Edinburgh, always, despite it only being 40 miles away from home.
A cold but sunny Monday in late January saw me scooting through on a thin pretence to see Youngest Son. Traffic was more nightmarish than I expected and the usual hour’s drive took me 40 minutes longer, despite leaving after 9am to miss the worst of the commuter traffic.
Gallery of Modern Art
Ok not where most people start their city visit but there is method in my madness.It wasn’t until 10.40am that I pulled into the little car park of Modern Art(1) in elegant Belford Road. Popped £2 in the meter giving me all day parking – a bargain in Auld Reekie (and most other cities!) I like to sit in its downstairs cafe and just soak in being here, spending 20 minutes or so relaxing before I head for Princes Street and a busy day’s sightseeing. Plus, this cafe with its lovely (in summer) walled garden offers the best choice of home-baking I’ve seen anywhere. And after 10am is tea and cake time for me! (Or more accurately, a pot of tea and a warm apple and cinnamon scone.)
I’m not a huge fan of modern art but I had a quick look at the Paolozzi metal sculpture of Vulcan, the Roman God of Fire.Very impressive.
My next stop was a visit to the sister gallery in the city centre – the National Gallery – which had a Turner watercolours exhibition on plus two new exhibits: a MacTaggart seascape and one of Constable’s huge oil paintings of Salisbury Cathedral.I dabble a bit in oils so it’s always a joy to see how it should be done.
THE NEW TOWN
A 25 minute stroll through the beautiful New Town – Ainslie Place, Charlotte Square, George Street – brought me to the hub of Princes Street and the handsome National Gallery buildings.
THE NATIONAL GALLERY
Free entry as with most of our galleries and then I found myself standing in front of the two new oils – and they took my breath away.So much so , that tears began to well.I have such an emotional response to great paintings – Man does much damage on this Earth but by God, he contributes great beauty and wonder too.I was now standing in front of two fine examples of that.
Hauling myself away after some minutes of contemplation (how did they get those skies to look like that; look at that light; the scent and sound of the sea from the MacTaggart!) I wandered past many impressive works to the small back room where J M W Turner’s exquisite small watercolours are displayed every January.It’s an attempt to keep them from light/atmospheric damage.Loch Coruisk – the Himalaya – local rural scenes; perfection.
A quick look upstairs at the Impressionist/modern section and one of my favourites even amongst the Van Goghs and Gauguins – Lady Agnew of Lochnaw by John Singer Sargent, a striking portrait of a languorous society beauty whose eyes follow you around the room.
THE SCOTTISH CAFE
The cafe downstairs is quite pricey but has a lovely outlook over Princes Street Gardens and offers one of my favourite cakes – a little Banana and Almond Cake which is a thing of beauty. Then it was onwards and upwards to the Castle, via the Royal Mile.
THE ROYAL MILE/OLD TOWN
Now I was in the heart of medieval Edinburgh, a place of dark wynds (closes/alleys)and cobbled streets built upon the crag which is topped by the Castle itself. Every shop is either selling cashmere scarves or tartan tat or is a cafe or pub or restaurant. Tourist central it certainly is but for me, it is still a buzzing, atmospheric place to be with stunning buildings.Popping down the old wynds, often reveals exquisite architecture, hidden corners of medieval splendour; it’s like entering another world.
As ever, a piper – usually a good one – in full Highland regalia, was playing a lament ( or as its known, a Pibroch).You never fail to know you are in Scotland here! There are usually queues of people waiting to take selfies with him but it was quiet today.
THE WRITER’S MUSEUM
Unfortunately on a Monday, the Writer’s Museum is closed so I had a quick look at the lovely building it occupies, tucked down a small wynd.
This museum (free) is a must for anyone interested in Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott and/or Robert Louis Stevenson. The last time I visited, I caught the beautiful Burns’ song Ae Fond Kiss, playing over the speakers , had me wiping away a few tears.
Then it was a climb up the cobbles to the Esplanade in front of Edinburgh Castle, as fine a spot in the city as you could wish for. It is overlooked by Ramsay Gardens, elegant cream and red private apartments built in the late 19th century. They really do add something special to the city’s skyline.
As I’m a Historic Environment Scotland member, it’s always nice to simply walk up to the Castle’s ticket check point, dodge the queues and walk straight through the Portcullis Gate below the craggy walls of this near – impregnable edifice. No matter how many times I visit, it is a breath-taking sight, oozing military might. No fancy towers and prettiness here, as in Glamis or Inveraray or the Aberdeenshire castles but a solid, squat fortress lined with cannon and the 15th Century Mons Meg, the most powerful of its time and the world’s most famous military gun.
The thunderous BOOM of the 1o’clock gun resounded suddenly as I walked up through the entrance , so loud I could almost feel the ground shake. It is fired every day at this time, following an 1860s tradition which allowed sailing ships of the time to re-set their chronometers accurately. It is now a major tourist attraction and there’s always a crowd round it before it fires.
The view of the city from the castle ramparts are alone, to me, worth the hefty entrance fee (£15.50 for an adult). My favourite spot for photographs is from Half Moon Battery where tantalising views open up with the cannon in the foreground – in this shot, aiming directly at St Giles Cathedral!
Tiny 12th century St Margaret’s Chapel , sitting high on Castle Rock, is the oldest building within the walls.
It being off season, there wasn’t a queue to see The Honours – Scotland’s Crown Jewels – and worn only during a Coronation. They are the oldest in Britain. They are exquisite and ooze tales of bloody battles and deeds since Mary, Queen of Scots first wore them in 1540.The Stone of Destiny is on display here too. Stolen by Edward 1 of England in 1296, it was finally returned 700 years later. A great symbol of Scottish nationhood, it was the coronation stone of Scottish kings such as Macbeth. Oh, the history in that small, darkened room where the only light is that which shines on the precious objects within!
Within the same building, the Royal Apartments include the small wood panelled bedroom where Mary, Queen of Scots gave birth to King James V1 of Scotland and 1st of England in 1566. It is decorated exactly as it was at the time.
The National War Memorial is a tremendously impressive building, sombre – almost forbidding. I never miss a visit and inside, its high grey stone walls are bedecked with the flag of every regiment. Regimental books list the name of every soldier who died in the two World Wars. It’s a deeply moving place, the chatter of visitors always stops as they enter its cathedral like interior. I am often in tears here, looking at the names of two Great Uncles, both pipers, early twenties, boys from North Uist – Murdo and John Maclellan – who were killed at Ypres and in Mesopotamia. The islands gave up a disproportionate number of their young men to both conflicts. Despite never knowing either Uncle, the emotional connection even a century later is powerful. The pain my Great Grandparents must have endured, is unimaginable. Two sons lost. Lives cut short; the terrible cruelty of it all.
The National War Museum is well worth visiting too, a separate building at the lower end of the castle. There is one very poignant and moving exhibit which my husband and I often seek out as representative of some of the humanity which continued to reveal itself during the appalling conflict and bloodshed of the 1st World War. On display is a small Bible, distributed to all troops who went into battle. It belonged to a young Scotsman who was killed by a German soldier. But he found the Bible beside the boy and, given his address was inside, sent it back to his parents, himself deeply affected by the taking of the young man’s life on that battlefield. It was an act of remembrance and reconciliation.
Robert the Bruce and William Wallace Statues
A last look at the Gatehouse, at the statues of two of Scotland’s greatest heroes and a brief nod to them in acknowledgement and respect.
THE WHITE HART INN
I don’t always bother with lunch but this Inn, one of the city’s oldest, is an atmospheric place and tends to draw me inside. Frequented by the notorious body-snatchers Burke and Hare as well as Rabbie Burns, it is a low ceilinged , wooden beamed place of great character. Food is pretty average pub fare but tasty. And there is always Burns’ wise sayings and poetry to ponder , carved into the oak beams, over soup or nachos or steak pie. It’s a few minutes downhill from the Castle in the famous Grassmarket area.
Colourful old shop fronts grace this pretty street which winds its way uphill – Edinburgh has a lot of hills! – to the street which houses, 5 minutes away, the excellent Museum of Scotland. A must if the country’s history, especially ancient history, is of interest. But my description of its delights must wait until another post as time is running away with me and I want one last admire of the city from Calton Hill. Not quite as grand as from the Castle but it is finer than from Arthur’s Seat and involves far less time and effort.
It’s at the end of Princes Street , so it’s a good 20 -25 minute brisk walk from Grassmarket. There is a cluster of buildings on this high vantage point which give a fine view over the city below and out to the blue Firth of Forth. The Southern Highlands can be seen on a clear day too.Highly recommended.
Another 30 mins walk took me back to Mod 1 in Belford Rd and the car. On route, there was time to admire pretty Dean Village with the Water of Leith running past it.That is another good walk – along the river walkway all the way to Stockbridge, a smart corner of Edinburgh where lies a good Gastro Pub – The Scran and Scallie. With my son finishing work quite early, I didn’t want to miss a minute with him but at 4pm the day was still young for those with the time and energy!
Next day trip : The Botanic Gardens, Arthur’s Seat, Holyrood Palace, Museum of Scotland and the Royal Yacht Britannia.