Edinburgh and the Scottish Lowlands

I wasn’t sure how to split this one so it’s going to be long. For the final leg of my Scottish journey I based myself in Edinburgh and made various day trips out to a few other sites in the Lowlands. The Lowland landscapes are rolling hills without the drama of the Highlands, but they have more than their fair share of historical sites, so there is plenty of things to see. Edinburgh itself is a wonderful little city, full of quirkiness and historic charm. Be sure to join a walking tour or do some reading and get chatting with the locals to hear some of the wonderful stories about the place (fact and fiction).

Unfortunately, when I arrive in Edinburgh, I’m coming down with a nasty cold that I’ve been trying to deny for days. Determined to make the most of the place no matter how crap I feel, I decide to take a walk to Arthur’s Seat. It’s a gorgeous sunny day and the track has wonderful views over the city. It is quite a long climb however, and my body is really not on board for the climbing all the way to the top plan. I make it to a relatively high vantage point and then promptly pass out in a patch of grass. So much for that plan.

My nap revives me enough to stumble back to my hostel and the route back is a lovely stroll along the Royal Mile. The Royal Mile is the main road that runs between Edinburgh Castle and Holyrood Palace, two important historic sites from the medieval city. Even in my ill stupor, it’s hard not to fall in love with Edinburgh’s Old Town. My travels have taken me to some wonderful historic sites, but Edinburgh still feels like a living breathing medieval city (without the outbreaks of plague and excrement running through the streets thank goodness). Every building is pure history. I think I could easily spend days just roaming the little cobbled streets. There will be plenty more time to hang out here though so I take myself off to bed for an early night.

Edinburgh

The Royal Mile at sunset.

After a good night’s sleep I wake up feeling…absolutely rancid. Drat. Oh well, I don’t want to waste my time so I head off for Edinburgh Castle anyway. At least it’s close enough that I can bail and come back to my hostel easily enough if I feel too horrible (or run out of tissues). Edinburgh Castle is more of a fortress than a fairytale castle, with an array of different buildings contained within the castle walls. A lot of these have been turned into little war museums about various aspects of combat throughout Scottish history. There’s some interesting exhibits but I find the place a bit ruined by how popular it is. I guess the trouble with some sights that are a ‘must see’ is that EVERYONE goes, regardless of whether or not they’re actually interested in any of the history. Consequently, it’s not just full of people, it’s full of annoying people. I don’t know why people who are insistent on having loud conversations with their friends feel that they need to come into war museums in the first place, but apparently they do. One of the museums has a nice little video summarising Scottish military history but I can’t even hear half of it over a group of blathering French tourists. One woman actually carries her child, who is already screaming, into the main war memorial. How incredibly respectful.

Edinburgh

Markets and Edinburgh Castle

By this time, my cold plus all the excessively loud people has given me a horribly splitting headache, so I leave the castle and find a cute little market in the car park out the back. In an attempt to make myself feel better, I devour a whole carton of strawberries and then go for a leisurely stroll through Princes Street Gardens. It’s a beautiful sunny day and everyone is relaxing in the grass soaking up the rays. I mean to check out some more of the city before the day’s out, but my headache gets the better of me and I fall asleep again. At least it’s in a different park this time.

After another good night’s sleep I’m finally start to feel vaguely normal again. Well, my nose is still pretty much a garden hose and I cough all the time, but my headache’s gone and I think I have enough energy to do more than one activity without passing out in a park. Progress! To celebrate, I take a trip out to Rosslyn Chapel which is a short bus ride from downtown Edinburgh. It’s by no means the biggest church around and not particularly flashy from the outside but the sculptures throughout the interior are just gorgeous. No photography allowed inside I’m afraid, but if you look at the ones from the outside, the ones inside are kind of like that but better. The quality of the work is wonderful and the sheer scale of the decorations is so impressive. Every inch of the chapel has been adorned with something beautiful. Along with various religious sculptures, nature is a big feature of the place. A lot of the carvings are of various plants and the Green Man makes various appearances around the chapel.

Rosslyn Chapel

A section of the exterior of Rosslyn Chapel. The inside is even more beautiful.

After my trip to Roslin (yes, just to be confusing, the town and the chapel are spelled differently), I make it back to Edinburgh without plenty of day left so I do a tour of Mary King’s Close. This is a section of the city that is now underground. I’d put this as a ‘must see’ before Edinburgh Castle. As well as the novelty of going underneath Edinburgh, it ties in really well with the general history of the city. The tour goes through various subterranean buildings but Mary King’s Close is the name of the main underground street. You’ll undoubtably hear lots of stories about it. Not all of them are true, but the truth is still extremely interesting. The street originally would have been open to the air with narrow streets and buildings that stretched up seven stories, but it was partially demolished and buried when the Royal Exchange was built over top of it. It was one of the more densely populated areas in Edinburgh in its hey day, and also the area that was hit the worst by the plague. The rumours of plague victims being sealed in to their homes to die aren’t true, but there were a horrible number of plague deaths here which lead to the belief that the area was cursed. There have been a lot of rumours of hauntings since the place was sealed up. I didn’t see any ghosts, but it’s a really interesting place to visit. You can go inside some of the old buildings and even stroll down a section of the buried street. The tour guides give a really good impression of what the place would have been like when people still lived there.

The next day I’m feeling well enough to venture even further from the city, so I take the train to New Berwick for a trip to Tantallon Castle. The castle is mostly ruined and looks very imposing perched out on the cliffs. It was sunny in Edinburgh this morning but the sea fog around here shrouds the castle, making everything very atmospheric indeed. The castle itself isn’t the most impressive I’ve seen, but the location makes it well worth a visit.

Tantallon Castle

Tantallon Castle in the fog.

I take another great day trip down to Melrose to visit Melrose Abbey. This is one of the four Border Abbeys, which are near the border with England and have constantly been destroyed and rebuilt in various wars over the years. All of the abbeys are various states of disrepair but this just adds to their historic charm. I don’t have time to visit all of them so I choose Melrose as it’s supposed to be the prettiest and is one of the easier ones to get to without a car. Walter Scott was a big fan of the serenity of this place and donated a fair bit to the upkeep on the ruins. His grave is out the back of the abbey. I don’t have anything else to compare it to of course, but it doesn’t surprise me that this is the prettiest one, it’s absolutely gorgeous. The gothic architecture would make for an impressive building anyway, but somehow being slightly ruined makes it even more beautiful. I’m with Walter Scott on this one. The serenity of the place is just magical.

Melrose Abbey

The beautifully ruined Melrose Abbey.

All of these sights are wonderful, but one of the best things about visiting Edinburgh is the city itself. I love the quirky character of the place. Sightseeing is always amusing as well as interesting. Take a stroll through the New Town (which is still tremendously old) and you can see one of Bill Gate’s very expensive tantrums. He wanted Edinburgh to be Microsoft’s base in the North and made plans to build a big glass monstrosity in the New Town. Even the New Town is a world heritage site however, so he wasn’t allowed to change the exterior of any of the buildings. Refusing to give up on his plan, he gutted one of the buildings and built his big glass building…inside another building. So if you peer in the windows you can see a beautiful old Georgian exterior with a small glass sky scraper inside it.

Edinburgh

Street performer on the Royal Mile

Go for a stroll up Calton Hill if you want another chuckle. The National Monument of Scotland is a memorial to the Scottish casualties of the Napoleonic Wars. The design was modelled on the Parthenon in Athens, which is ridiculous enough in itself, but it gets funnier. Construction began 1826 but by 1829 funds had run out leaving Edinburgh with the only thing sillier than a copy of the Parthenon. Half a copy of the Parthenon! Rumour has it Glasgow was doing quite well at the time and offered to give Edinburgh the money to finish the thing but Edinburgh stubbornly refused to take Glasgow’s money.

Edinburgh

Half a Parthenon. How embarrassing.

All sightseeing aside, I could spend days just strolling up and down the Royal Mile and be quite content. The cobbled streets, cheery pubs and wonderfully haphazard array of historic buildings constantly bring smiles to my face. I’m not sure if its because Fringe is coming up or it’s just always in such good spirits, but the whole of Edinburgh seems extremely festive. The Old Town is littered with interesting street performers and everyone I come across just seems to be in a good mood. And when I finally tire of the Royal Mile for the day, there’s always room for another stroll up Calton Hill to watch the sunset.

Edinburgh

Edinburgh’s skyline from Calton Hill

Listening to: Hey Jude – The Beatles

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