For centuries, Edinburgh, Scotland’s elegant and lively seat of power, has been admired by native sons and foreigners alike. “Half a capital and half a country town, the whole city leads a double existence,” Robert Louis Stevenson remarked.
Visitors of all stripes imagined themselves living there. Charlotte Bronte loved it. So did Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda minister, who wrote in 1938 that the city “will make a delightful summer capital when we invade Britain.”
Our visit in mid-June took advantage of Edinburgh’s location (It’s at 55.95 degrees north, closer to the North Pole than Canada’s most northerly city, Edmonton). At that time of year the light lingers long after 10 p.m. The weather wasn’t perfect – rain and sun competed constantly – but with the proper attire the damp climate isn’t uncomfortable. In winter it’s usually more like Seattle than Edmonton: drizzly and well above freezing.
To take advantage of Edinburgh’s excellent walkability we booked a historic town home in New Town, a master-planned neighborhood built between 1767 and 1850 just north of the medieval town center. It’s dotted with pocket parks and dominated by magnificent examples of neoclassical and Georgian architecture. We were a couple of short blocks north of Princes Street, the city’s most important commercial road, facing Edinburgh Castle and Old Town across the verdant gully of the former Nor Loch.
Princes Street would satisfy the most discriminating shopper, but we preferred the more authentically Scottish storefronts and funky bars along Rose Street, which parallels it a block to the north. At Robert Graham Whiskies and Cigars (194 Rose Street) we purchased a bottle of Dancing Stag, a product of Scotland’s famous Speyside whisky region. Aged for 21 years in sherry casks, it’s a collector’s item. The tattooed young gent at the counter promised us it would “taste like Christmas cake.” He was right.
A stop for cream tea at Cup Tea Lounge (9 South Charlotte Street, 7 pounds for two, a bargain) fortified us for the next leg of our journey.
We wandered down to Princes Street, where we took in the Scott Monument, the largest writer’s monument in the world (every self-doubting scribe should make a pilgrimage). You never lose sight of the long green lawns in the former loch and the long succession of statues and government buildings. Above everything looms the glowering bulk of Edinburgh Castle, perched on a precipice that was formed from a volcano.
The next morning was devoted to the city’s namesake fortress. Like many such bastions, Edinburgh Castle is composed of layer upon layer of history going all the way back to 1130 (actually, much earlier – it has been occupied since about 3000 B.C., and the Romans had a garrison there). It’s obvious why – the place is defensible from all sides. It’s an old volcanic plug, so to the north, south and west are cliffs. Only from the east can you approach it, up a steep incline.
Robert the Bruce was the first to engage in massive home improvement. After capturing the castle from the English – one of the first of more than 20 sieges there over 600 years – he ripped everything down with the thought that the Brits wouldn’t want it back if it was ruined. Robert spared only the small chapel, now the oldest building in town, which was named after Queen Margaret by her son, King David I, in her honor.
The place can be rather bleak: cold, drafty, subject to high winds because of its location (which explains why British monarchs, from the beginning of the 1600s, preferred to stay down the hill at Hollyrood Palace).
But Edinburgh Castle rewards you with its fascinating history. Mary Queen of Scots gave birth to James I there. American revolutionary sailors who were attacking British ports served time there, along with Frenchmen, Dutch and other supporters of the War of Independence. The dungeons, dug deep into the foundations of the castle, are fascinating. One homesick Yank even carved a little Stars and Stripes into the door of his cell.
Scotland’s Crown Jewels are also on the property, as is a magnificent hall constructed in 1511 by King James IV for grand entertaining. Very Hogwartian.
After lunch we walked slowly down the touristy but fascinating Royal Mile, the main artery of the medieval town, to Holyrood Palace.
This place is much more palatial. The British Royals have lavished attention on it since its 16th-century beginnings, but it’s also an important part of Scottish royal history. Mary, Queen of Scots kept her apartments here, in a loft of the south tower, and they’re perfectly preserved.
The castle was expanded by King James V and his successors to project the might and God-given right of the British monarchy. The rooms are almost Versailles-like in their majesty, culminating in the King’s Bed Chamber, which was more a symbol of his power than a room where he actually slept.
Next to the palace, the ruins of Holyrood Abbey are perhaps the most beautiful spot on the grounds. After an anti-Catholic mob attacked it in the mid-1600s it was more or less abandoned, and the demolition was completed when a bad slate job led to the collapse of the roof in the late 1700s. It makes a wonderful ruin and has inspired many artists, including Felix Mendelssohn, who was inspired to write his Scottish Symphony after seeing the place.
Our stay in Edinburgh was long enough for us to take in its excellent museums, highlighted by the Scottish National Gallery and the National Museum of Scotland. But if you’ve got only a couple of days to spend in Edinburgh, you could do no better than New Town, the Royal Mile, the castle and the palace. They represent the perfect distillation of this alluring and friendly place – small in scale, but crammed with enough history to keep inquisitive minds happy for one visit, or many.
Hogmanay is the ancient Scots word for the last day of the year, a time when the calendar’s turning is celebrated in a uniquely Scottish way. It is usually followed by more partying on the morning of New Year’s Day and even, in some cases, January 2, which is a Scottish bank holiday.
The origins of Hogmanay are shrouded in uncertainty, but many historians think it developed from Norse and Gaelic calendar observances. Hogmanay customs vary throughout the country, but it almost always involves the exchange of gifts and visiting with friends and neighbors.