Greetings once again, my stalwart readers! This week I’ve done a couple of touristy things, that you might like to try as well if you come to Edinburgh in the future. So, for your surrogate globetrotting delectation, here are my thoughts on two of Edinburgh’s most famous attractions: the Royal Mile (through the eyes of a free walking tour) and Edinburgh Castle. There will also be an ‘in other news’ paragraph at the bottom.
As those who’ve been reading my blog from the beginning will already be aware, when I was in London I came across a company that does walking tours, with a free tour, presumably to draw people into paying for the other ones they offer. The one in London was of New London, which included a wide variety of places around Westminster (for more on this, check out the post ‘I’m in London’). I very much enjoyed it, so when I found that the same company also offered a free tour in Edinburgh, I was keen to head out and get into that. Joining me also was one of my flatmates, along with a fellow Melbourne Uni exchange student, part of a group which rendezvoused two days before to get to know each other and speak with Australian accents for once in a while (certainly a relief). Also a whole lot of Europeans, Canadians, some unaffiliated Australians and a Vietnamese guy. And our tour guide. Here he is.
The tour itself wound up and down the Royal Mile, which for those who don’t know is sort of the famous, cobbled, fancy old-fashioned tourist strip in Edinburgh. It’s got the Queen’s official palace at Holyroodhouse at one end and the Castle at the other end, an old Scottish mile apart (hence the name), with lots of little picturesque buildings and closes off the side.
We started in a courtyard off the street, at a Town Hall built with four stories on one side and eleven on the other, due to the steep hill it stood on. From there, we visited the old market square, where there stood an ornate central noticeboard-tower thing (mercet cross I believe it was called), where people who were caught cheating in their trade would be nailed up by their ears (you could stand there and deal with the mocking and rotten vegetables for 24 hours and then they’d let you out, and you wouldn’t have a scar and you could get a job afterwards; or you could pull away and have a big scar and everyone would know you were a coward as well as a cheat). Proclamations, such as the coronation of a monarch in London, were read from the top of the tower (apparently this is so important that they still have someone stand up there three days – the time it took to ride up – after something important happens in London and proclaim it to everyone, who read about it the minute after it happened on Facebook). Next to this stands St. Giles’ Cathedral, which everyone is quick to tell you is not actually a cathedral as Scotland is Presbyterian and thus has no bishops; and the carpark under which John Knox, known as the father of Presbyterianism in Scotland, is buried (parking space number 23).
Next up was a foray into one of Edinburgh’s famous closes, which are like little alleyways or squares tucked away inside the rows of buildings with only a little passageway that leads to the main street. We were told about trick steps, certain steps built significantly narrower to catch people not familiar with the building (ideally robbers) and send them bumping down to certain dismemberment and probable appointment with the authorities. Here’s a shot of the oldest building in the Royal Mile, and a pretty awful shot of a close (they’re cooler than this looks).
Next, we went off the actual Mile to stand under the most impressive defensive end of Edinburgh Castle, where the crags are exposed and it’s a vertical climb to attack the arsenal (as opposed to the other end, where an easier but less strategically viable road leads up to the entrance), and marvel at how high it is and hear a little history. I took a selfie at a ridiculous angle, but there’s no need to post that here and anyway there’s a better one from today, when I actually went inside. Those who are interested, I will mail a signed copy upon payment of £9.95 (just for postage and handling of course). Anyway, the castle was rather impressive and I enjoyed the anticipation of seeing it close up.
Down some stairs, and into Grassmarket, which was once a bustling market square (funnily enough) but now plays host to a large number of restaurants, pubs and cafés; including Scotland’s smallest pub and another named for a woman hanged for adultery who survived the noose, woke up, got out of her coffin, married the bloke she’d been hanged for canoodling with (it’s not adultery any more if you’re legally dead, and you can’t be tried again once you’ve been punished anyway) and opened a pub next to the gallows, so she could heckle the criminals. Lovely. I also enjoyed a plaque commemorating the hundred or so people who were hanged for objecting to the imposition of Episcopalianism (i.e. bishops) on Scotland, which I had just been learning about in my history class. Mirroring this, I found in the next stop, Greyfriars Kirkyard, the grave of James Douglas (who was regent for James IV of Scotland and I of England, again in the period of my historical study). Now, at the bottom of this list of notables, we see William McGonagall, apparently the inspiration for Professor McGonagall in Harry Potter; also in the graveyard are a Pettigrew and even Tom Riddle! Old J.K. wrote a good part of the series while living in Edinburgh, and used to wander through graveyards for inspiration. Fun times.
The tour rounded off via Old College and ended just above my place of education while here in the city, the University of Edinburgh, at a plaque showing where Charles Darwin stayed as a student of medicine at the University from the (apparently typical) ages of 14 to 17. From there, our trio departed, taking a detour at the university shop, which we had heard held the graduation cap, made from the breeches of John Knox and with a bit of cloth on it that has been to space with a graduate. Excellent.
Hopping over a day where I just did uni stuff, we find ourselves on Friday, ready to follow my maiden voyage to the great Edinburgh Castle. Attempting to wake up extra early and failing, I arrived at the castle about 10:30. It was cold, and it got colder the higher I went. I’m a member of Historic Scotland, the organisation that runs the castle, so I didn’t have to pay to get in – perhaps this was what possessed me to spend the extravagant sum of £2.80 for an audio guide. It turned out to be a mixed blessing – it yielded a whole wealth of new information that I enjoyed, but every track seemed to lead into a new track so I ended up spending quite some time standing out in the cold hearing about James IV and his battlements, which I might not have otherwise. And when I convinced myself that I could keep walking and listening, I would invariably tune out the sounds in my ears and miss everything. Here’s a picture of the gatehouse I would have seemed to a casual observer to have been contemplating for a good half an hour. Don’t laugh at me, look it at it, I’m sure you would have done the same. But seriously, the signs are quite sparse out in the open so if it’s good weather and you want to hear detail the audio guide is good.
So, following the whims of the audio guide, I meandered past the warden’s house and the Imperial War Museum, before alighting at the Prisons of War exhibition. I must say, this was educational and enjoyable. Apparently the Castle was used as a military barracks and then later as a prison camp for soldiers during the American Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. There was a basic reconstruction of the soldiers’ holding cells, but far more exciting were the atmospherically darkened dungeons across the way, set up so that you could pretty much walk between the hammocks and bunks where American, French and Spanish prisoners were kept during the wars. They had set it up extremely well. There was even a room where you could look at the original prison doors, complete with revolutionary and/or obscene graffiti; and see the amazingly intricate basketwork and woodwork done by the prisoners to sell; and enjoy the tale of how forged banknotes made by prisoners led to the creation of unforgeable banknotes, complete with a comparison of a real and forged one (I couldn’t tell the difference, but they were just fancy writing on a bit of paper so it can’t have been that difficult for someone with a decent amount of time on their hands).
I continued up and up, winding around the castle road, through the Scottish crown jewels exhibit (which I was happy to stand in for an extended period of time for a history of the jewels on my audio guide, as it was deliciously warm), the regimental museums for the various military detachments that have been in the castle, and finally to the summit of the tower, where stood the vast 6-ton cannon Mons Meg (which would fire 150kg cannonstones, generated so much heat that it could be fired only 6 times a day, and weighed so much it could only move 4 km a day pulled by a team of 100 men), and the oldest building in the castle, the 13th-century chapel of St. Margaret. It was really strange to stand inside a building that old, that was still standing (and being used for weddings and baptisms by the resident soldiers). Very cool. Also, every day at 1pm, the castle fires off a cannon. So that was cool.
I noticed a track down into the bowels of the tower, which turned out to be the ruins of the old David’s Tower, which stood high from the 14th century until 1573 when it was destroyed in a siege. Like the prisoners of war, it was atmospherically lit and had something of a recontruction going on, but it seemed less gaudy and the stories (such as the Black Dinner, where two nobles named Black were fed well and then accused of treason, dragged from the room and executed) were bloodier. What really struck me was how small this part was – the doors were lower than my head, and the ‘Great Hall’ was barely 4 meters wide and 6 long. It wouldn’t have sat more than 10 or 12 people around a table.
Next up were the royal apartments, one part of which was refurbished for James VI and I’s only visit to Scotland after he became king of England as well and moved to London; and the other part which was Mary Queen of Scots’ bedchamber, where she would sleep, as well as conduct affairs of state (apparently it was pretty normal to have beds in regular rooms), and a little room off it where she gave birth to James, who would become the monarch I just mentioned. All very grand and scrupulously restored after years of neglect, while the monarchs lived in London or Holyroodhouse.
Next door was the likewise restored Great Hall (this time it actually was very big), walls covered with antique weapons and some ornate but Victorian wood-panelling.
Finally, I decided that it was time to take my leave. But not before I visited ALL the gift shops, found a £3,600 bottle of 70-year-aged whisky, and found a collection of clan memorabilia that had stuff for what I believe to be my Scottish antecedents’ clan, the MacKays. I was so chuffed that I bought myself a clan pin! (Shouts something indecipherable in Scottish). Then it was time to get to my lecture, and tourism time was over.
As promised – in other news! I got into the musical, as a chorus member, and rehearsals are already in full swing for a show in the last week of March. Apparently visiting the castle is very bad luck for uni students, and I will never graduate from the University of Edinburgh (wasn’t planning to, but now it seems I know for sure!). I have tried Irn Bru, a Scottish drink, and it is just like slightly odd creaming soda without the foam, though I did enjoy the fact that it contains quinine, traditionally used to treat malaria, and has a disclaimer saying, verbatim, ‘may have an adverse effect on attention and activity in children’ (it doesn’t tell you what the effect will be, just that it will be bad). I’ve joined a church and a cell group at that church, both of which were really great. Ceilidhs are just like bush dances, but all the dances are different, except for Strip the Willow, which made me feel right at home.
Right, well that’s all I can think of for the time being. Anyone who wants to ask me questions, or send me heartfelt declarations of love and affection for my writing and/or hair style, please do so in the comments. Arrivederci for now! Here’s a couple of shots of the view from the castle battlements to send you off 🙂