Edinburgh, the capital of Scotland, is known for many things. There’s whisky, which I don’t partake in, but I can vouch that tastings are a popular activity on offer for those who want to sample a beverage that is practically synonymous with the country. There’s its architecture: the “newer” parts were built during the Scottish Enlightenment of the 18th and 19th centuries, when architects looked to classical Greece and Rome for inspiration; this saw the city nicknamed the Athens of the North because of the proliferation of columns, urns, and porticos. There’s its place in literary history, with its brooding medieval castle serving as J.K. Rowling’s muse for the creation of Hogwarts; further back, it was the birthplace of Robert Louis Stevenson and the haunt of Robert Burns.
One thing, however, is not on this list: good weather.
I have been four or five times before and each of the previous visits had rain, high winds, cloud cover, or a combination of all of the above. Either way, the results were the same: the city was bathed in shades of grey. Don’t get me wrong: Edinburgh is the type of city that looks good no matter the forecast. When overcast, it is moody and looks suitably ancient, perfect for the setting of a noir film or Ansel Adamsesque black-and-white photography.
However, I was fortunate to have both sun and blue skies during a recent visit, and they showed the city to me in a whole new Technicolor light. I was able to take a day just to wander from one landmark to another, which is an inefficient way of travelling as I occasionally doubled back on myself, but having no particular aim meant I was able to pinball through the city to take in both new and familiar sights.
I began by setting off towards a place I had never visited before: Calton Hill. This is one of three outcrops of volcanic stone that have shaped Edinburgh through the millennia, and on a clear day the climber is rewarded with views across the whole of the city: you can look at the shops down Princes Street, see the Firth of Forth and its bridges, and look up to the second volcanic ridge, Arthur’s Seat. The hill itself is home to a number of distinctive monuments that perfectly illustrate why Edinburgh received the Athens of the North moniker.
There’s the National Monument, a replica of the Athenian Parthenon that was dedicated to soldiers lost in the Napoleonic Wars. Unfortunately the city ran out of money, so only half of the monument was ever built, but in many ways this makes it an even more poignant memorial to those whose lives were likewise cut short and left unfinished. One of the more unusual monuments is the one dedicated to Dugald Stewart, a philosopher of the Scottish Enlightenment. It is based on the Choragic Monument of Lysicrates in Athens and takes the form of a round temple with Corinthian columns (i.e. columns with leafy tops) and a central urn. Classical Greece is well and truly represented within the Scottish capital.
Yet when gazing across the city from Calton Hill, it was Oxford I found myself thinking of. It’s known as the city of dreaming spires, but Edinburgh is quite pointy as well. Church towers, random bits of Victorian Gothic architecture, and elevated statues all contribute to a very distinct and rather sharp skyline.
After descending Calton Hill I headed in the direction of the Royal Mile. This street covers the 5,280 feet (give or take) between Edinburgh Castle and the Palace of Holyroodhouse. In the past, parts of the street formed a market place for linen, yarn, and cloth, and in many ways its use hasn’t changed much over the years. Today it is one of the main tourist thoroughfares, with numerous shops hawking souvenirs ranging from shortbread to cashmere. There are, however, little architectural and historical gems if you keep your eyes open.
Like Advocate’s Close. The entrance is a bit hidden—indeed, I only stumbled across it because a tour group disappeared down it—but it is one of the oldest of the narrow, winding streets that snake off from the Royal Mile. It is thought to date to the late 16th century and offers lovely views down to Princes Street and the Scott Monument.
A bit easier to spot is the distinctive crown of St. Giles Cathedral. This is the High Kirk of Edinburgh, and much of the modern church dates to the late 14th century, with its famed steeple being added a century later. The Victorians also did a bit of restoration in the 19th century, with the aim of creating a Westminster Abbey for Scotland. They succeeded, with St. Giles continuing to play a central role in the religious life of the nation.
The end of the Royal Mile brings the visitor to the third volcanic outcrop. Edinburgh Castle was originally built here in the 12th century, but with such incredible views over the surrounding landscape from the top, it’s no surprise that its occupation goes far further back. Archaeological evidence shows that humans were exploiting the area at least a thousand years beforehand, with Iron Age artefacts dating back to the 2nd century AD.
However, its slightly more modern history is one being a royal residence, at least until the first half of the 17th century. It then became a military barracks, and the 19th century saw the start of a daily castle tradition: the firing of the One O’Clock Gun. This was a time signal to the ships moored on the River Leith so that they could set the clocks that were vital for navigation. While this original purpose has long passed, the gun continues to be fired daily. Which, despite being aware of it, still made me jump in surprise!
From the castle I went down Granny’s Green Steps (I am still trying to figure out the reason for this apostrophe placement and, according to this article, I’m not the only one!) and into Grassmarket. This is a lovely area with pubs, cafes, fun shops, and incredible views looking up at the castle. A previous trip to Edinburgh saw me visit the local cat café, but this time I headed off to a place that is has gone to the dogs. Well, one dog in particular.
Greyfriars Kirkyard has some interesting architectural details, with funerary monuments built against the neighbouring houses and, in a few cases, blocking the windows (on the bright side, the neighbours are at least quiet). The church’s main claim to fame, however, is due to a Skye terrier named Bobby. The story goes that after Bobby’s owner died, the dog spent the next 14 years guarding his master’s grave. He became a local celebrity during that time, and after his own death the legend only continued to grow. A water fountain topped with a terrier was built nearby and a local pub bears his name. I certainly found it touching that people are still making offerings of sticks and chew toys at Bobby’s grave.
From Greyfriars I returned to the centre of the city and found myself thinking about Harry Potter along the way. It was hard not to: every corner seems to offer a connection to the boy wizard. The Elephant House advertises that J.K. Rowling wrote the early novels there. There’s the obvious castle that dominates the skyline as well as a joke shop that could easily be the inspiration for Weasleys’ Wizarding Wheezes (or vice versa). And I found the Victorian architecture of Edinburgh’s New Town to be rife with random turrets and narrow passageways that made it easy to imagine Diagon Alley had come to life.
But you don’t have to escape into a fantasy novel to get away from the hustle and bustle of Edinburgh. Princes Street Garden is a sunken park that stretches alongside the city’s main thoroughfare, but walking down into it is a bit like entering another world. It is a fantastic oasis of green in the shadow of Edinburgh Castle, with rose gardens, fountains, and poignant war memorials, and I found it an ideal place to cool down on what was turning out to be a hot autumn afternoon.
As I finished my circuit of the gardens, my time in the city was drawing to a close but there was still one more thing I wanted to do. During previous trips I had visited the castle, Holyroodhouse Palace, St. Giles, and the main museums, but I had never climbed the Scott Monument. It seemed a waste to venture to the top on such grey days but if I was ever going to climb it, today was going to be the day.