Beneath the plaid in Old Town

Tartan and shortbread are big business in the Old Town. Edinburgh Castle, the Palace of Holyroodhouse, and the Royal Mile that connects the two draw thousands of tourists daily, so it’s no surprise Scottish tchotchkes are ubiquitous. Like an archaeologist, I worked to excavate history from behind the kilt shops, ghost tours, and haggis stalls lining the way. Here’s a synopsis of the major sights:

Edinburgh Castle
Edinburgh Castle

Edinburgh Castle

The castle complex sits strategically high on the core of an extinct volcano, surrounded by sheer cliffs on all sides. The site was first used as a fortress by King Edwin in the 500s CE. (Edinburgh was named after Edwin.)

Since then, the castle has also served as royal palace, military garrison and prison. The surviving structures date from the 1300s through the early 1900s.

Key sights within the castle are:

  • The palace, dating from 1430: Mary, Queen of Scots gave birth here to James VI, future king of England, in 1566. Scotland’s parliament met in the great hall until 1639.
  • Scotland’s crown jewels, specifically the crown, sword, and scepter as well as the Stone of Destiny (Stone of Scone) upon which every king of Scotland has been crowned, are lovingly guarded here. The crown incorporates a gold circlet worn by Robert the Bruce. The jewels were successfully hidden from England for over a hundred years, following the abolishment of Scotland’s parliament in 1707. Scotland just got the Stone of Scone back from England in 1999.
  • Margaret’s Chapel was built in 1130 by King David I in memory of his mother. (I am always amazed buildings this ancient still stand and appreciate the opportunity to step inside of them.)
  • The National War Memorial commemorates those Scots who gave their lives in the world wars and since.
  • The One O’Clock Gun fires daily from the castle. (Apparently, firing at noon takes too much ammo.)
  • The National War Museum of Scotland proudly covers the last four hundred years of military history and honors Scotland’s various kilt-wearing regiments.
St. Giles Cathedral
Saint Giles Cathedral

The Royal Mile

The only access to the castle is the narrow ridge that is the beginning of the Royal Mile. Branching out from the main street like fish bones are numerous closes (skinny alleys) and wynds (winding lanes), all entered through pends (low archways). Downhill, at the other end of the mile, is the Palace of Holyroodhouse. 

Along the Royal Mile are several historical sights. Gladstone’s Land serves as an example of a tall, narrow tenement, built in 1617 to house multiple families. The poor lived on the top and bottom floors and the wealthy in the middle, all sharing the same stairway.

When building the City Chambers in 1753, a section of tenements on the Royal Mile was leveled in order to build on top of their foundations. Due to the steepness of the slope falling away from the main street, numerous rooms and back alleys were left intact and sealed below the first floor of the new building.

Now, Mary King’s Close tour explores these subterranean rooms and alleys, entombed by the newer construction above. The tour, both corny and fascinating, takes advantage of the spookiness of the underground setting with stories about the wretched living conditions, treatment of plagues, and famous murders of the times. There’s even a ghost story.

John Knox, a leader of the Reformation and founder of Scottish Presbyterianism, directed his cause from Saint Giles Cathedral, built in 1495. A chapel inside houses the Most Ancient and Most Noble Order of the Thistle, where Queen Elizabeth II presides over present-day knightings when in town. Outside, I found John Knox’s burial site in the parking lot behind the cathedral at space number 23. I wonder who parks on him.

The Scottish parliament last met in the great hall of the old Parliament House in 1701 before it was abolished by England. Today the building houses the civil law courts where robed and wigged attorneys confer.

John Knox’s House dates from 1450. Before he lived there, it was the residence of goldsmith James Mossman who refashioned the crown of Scotland for James V and minted coins for Mary, Queen of Scots.

The Writers’ Museum commemorates Sir Walter Scott, Robert Burns, and Robert Louis Stevenson, Scotland’s three great lions of literature. (It has been said the Scots invented English literature.)

World's EndHalfway down the Royal Mile, the street name changes from High to Canongate. Once, a wall and a gate separated the two neighborhoods, slummy Edinburgh and upper-crust Canongate, a community associated with Holyrood Abbey. A pub, World’s End, now marks the border.

The Museum of Edinburgh showcases an interesting collection of random artifacts from Edinburgh’s history, including the National Covenant declaring religious freedom in 1638. It is signed in blood on deerskin. Across the street, the People’s Museum portrays the daily life of Edinburgh’s working class over the centuries.

Cadenhead’s Whisky Shop bottles cask-strength whisky on demand after an explanation of its superiority over water-diluted commercial brands. For me, they bottled 20 centiliters (about seven ounces) of Campbeltown Blended Malt, 57.1% alcohol by volume. Yikes!

The Scottish Parliament was reestablished in 1999 and began meeting in its contemporary and controversial new home in 2004. Its design reflects the natural landscape of Scotland. The Debating Chamber is open to the public.

Palace of Holyroodhouse
Palace of Holyroodhouse

Palace of Holyroodhouse

At the end of the mile stands Holyrood, still a working palace. The royal family stay here when in town. Most of the rooms on the second floor, including the throne room, dining room, and various reception rooms, are open to the public.

Adjacent to the palace are the ruins of Holyrood Abbey, dating to the 1200s.

The palace was built in 1498 by James IV. In 1566, Mary, Queen of Scots, witnessed the murder of her male secretary, David Rizzio, by the henchmen of her jealous husband, Lord Darnley. In her chambers, Rizzio was dragged from her dinner table and stabbed fifty-six times. Mary was six months pregnant at the time. Within a year, Darnley himself was murdered. Mary’s involvement in Darnley’s death was suspected but never proven.

Along the mile, tourists may buy Loch Ness-monster plush toys. Not to be outdone, the palace has its own gift store selling royal memorabilia, including fine china, jewelry, and even queenly oven mitts.

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