Built on the spine of volcanic rock, Edinburgh (pronounced Ed-in-burr-uh) has a city history that dates back to the middle ages. The city layout we are able to tour today can be rooted back to at least the 16th century, with the fort on top of the hill and small paths, or closes, that branch off of the main road down the hill - the High Street, also known today as The Royal Mile. Edinburgh was once bordered by a wall on Chambers Street, the Nor Loch and later Princes Street and gardens to the north, and a city gate called Netherbow Port to the east, lower on the hill. Today The Royal Mile extends beyond the former gate location to Holyrood Palace, which marks the end of the stretch and the bottom of the hill. Most references to early Edinburgh that remain today are from the 17th century, a time when within this maybe a 2 square mile area, approximately 21,000 people lived. With the stability of the volcanic rock as a foundation, buildings were built up to 10-14 stories high to accommodate the crowded city. The closes between these tenement buildings were steep and narrow. Many of them remain in the city for exploration, assuming you like walking up and down hills while on vacation.
To get an idea of the city's layout and history, as always I took a walking tour. I could have opted for the Sandeman's free tour, as I have in prior European cities, but this time I chose a Secrets of the Royal Mile tour offered by Mercat because it included a guided walk through Edinburgh Castle. Unfortunately, I was visiting during the Edinburgh International Festival, so The Royal Mile was loud and crowded - made even worse because it was surprisingly sunny in Scotland. The guide had to alter her route to not include the lower mile and to find quieter spots off the main street.
The tour started by the Mercat Cross, located next to St. Giles Cathedral. This was prime festival area, so we quickly moved behind St. Giles to talk about Parliament, then went down Advocates Close, and over to find ourselves in front of the Writers Museum in Lawnmarket.
Part of the castle we can visit today dates back to the 12th and 15th centuries. Many years of wars and sieges led to repairs and additions to the castle. After being a prison for the 18th century and early 19th century, the castle was finally declared a national monument. Much was changed during Victorian times to the interior and exterior to make the castle more aesthetically pleasing to the city skyline, including the redesign of the gatehouse and the Great Hall. Today, it is primarily a tourist attraction, but it also functions as home to a ceremonial military garrison as well as a military museum and war memorial.
While in Edinburgh, another tour to consider is the Mary Kings Close tour. As I mentioned earlier, Edinburgh was designed with these narrow closes, or wynds, to separate the tall tenement houses. These lanes and alleys were named after the most prominent citizen resident of the close or a common business on the close. Mary Kings Close was named after Mary King, a businesswoman who inherited her shop from her late husband and expanded its success. King owned several properties on the street. Houses along Mary Kings Close and the neighboring Stuart Close were demolished to make room for the Royal Exchange building, now the City Chambers across from St. Giles Cathedral. Many of the walls of the tenements on the two closes were used to form the foundation of this large Royal Mile building. As a result, you can go "underground" to see examples of original rooms and apartments, look at examples of the disparate living conditions of the poor and the upper middle classes, and learn about the plague that was unaffected by class distinction. And, you will hear the worst story of all, the 7am and 10pm "gardyloo" calls, where refuse buckets were emptied onto this, maybe, 10 foot wide close - draining down the hill into the Nor Loch. Though the city's nickname of "Auld Reekie" started a few hundred years ago because of the chimney smoke from all the apartments, it's understandable that the name could also cover all the other foul stenches, including the once-a-year bathing regimen on top of the gardyloo.
Now that I have probably thoroughly disgusted you, don't forget about the modern history you can find in Edinburgh. And by that, I mean the Elephant House cafe where J.K. Rowling wrote her Harry Potter series! Make sure to check out the toilets!
And finally, if you have something big coming up that needs a sharp mind, give the big toe of David Hume a wee rub. Hume is a Scottish philosopher, historian, and economist whose thoughts published in are considered to have influenced the construction of the United States Constitution. Rubbing his toe is thought to bring good luck for exams or reviews.
City ViewpointsWho doesn't love a cityscape photo? While most of the time you're in Edinburgh you will feel like you are constantly going uphill, there are some advantages to that. If you are in Edinburgh Castle, you will be able to find many views, especially of the north side of the city, though not as pretty as a castle-facing view.
Getting Out of Edinburgh
These castle ruins were once home to the Scottish King and Queens. Throughout the 15th and 16th centuries, the palace was consistently used and improved upon by the royals. Mary Queen of Scots was born in the palace and would continue to visit in her later years. In the early 17th century, after James VI moved his court to England with the Union of the Crowns, the residence was rarely used and fell in to ruin until James VI had it repaired years later. The Earl of Linlithgow occupied the residence, but it once again fell into disrepair, until finally it was burned in 1746 by the Duke of Cumberland.