Edinburgh, capital city of Scotland, maybe a small city (the population is just under half a million)) but is one brimming with history. From medieval Old Town to elegant Georgian New Town complete with gardens and neoclassical buildings, it rolls out into Victorian and modern suburbs. Its parks and open spaces such as the Links, the Meadows, and Princes Street Gardens contrast with Arthur’s Seat, the extinct volcano in Holyrood Park, and the Castle which broods on it hilltop, watching over its city, protecting Scotland’s crown jewels and the Stone of Destiny.
Like its Old Town, Edinburgh’s New Town was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995. It was built between 1767 and 1850, with the arrival of the Age of Enlightenment when the city’s elite determined to remove themselves from the overcrowding of the Royal Mile into more appropriate surroundings. Between Old and New lay the Nor Loch, its pollution leading to the decision to drain it which was done by 1817.
The New Town’s most famous street is Princes Street, though today’s architecture reflects little of the neoclassical or Georgian and rather more of mid 20th century architectural brutality. But it and George Street, which runs parallel to it, are the streets where all the big name retailers are to be found.
The shops in the Old Town are more quirky and, dare I say it, more touristy. Chips of modernity amongst the stones of history. Scots often lament the tartan and whisky image bestowed on us by the rest of the world, but we have to acknowledge the part both of these have played in our economy and in the social fabric of the country.
It used to be morning suits or tails that were the outfits of weddings, but those have long been banished for the kilt. Today, weddings without kilts, worn by male members of the bridal party and guests, are something of a rarity.
So lots of shops in the Royal Mile selling tartan, whisky too, though you will also find wonderful treasure chests with designer knitwear, leather goods and tablet for Scots always had a sweet tooth. Even today, those fundraising for various causes often resort to selling dinkie bags of home made tablet in various flavours.
But lest these commercial attractions hide the real gems of the ancient mile between Castle and Palace of Holyrood House, here’s a wee reminder of some of the old mile’s people and institutions.
Deacon William Brodie was a cabinet-maker, deacon of a trades guild and Edinburgh city councillor. His respectability by day was countered by his evening burgling activities to fund his gambling, his mistresses and his raft of children by them.
Robert Louis Stevenson, fascinated by the contrast between Brodie’s respectable façade, and his true nature used him as the inspiration to write The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Deacon Brodie is commemorated by Brodie’s Close, a close off the Royal Mile that contained his family home and workshops, and by a pub in the Royal Mile.
The Signet Library was completed in 1822 in time for the visit to Edinburgh of King George IV. The library is home to the Society of Writers to her Majesty’s Signet, an association of Scottish lawyers and one of the oldest professional bodies in the world. The Society’s origins lie in the 15th century as the ‘writers’ of documents sealed with ‘the Signet’, the private seal of the Scottish kings. Members are known as ‘Writers to the Signet’ or ‘WS’. Today both the upper and lower libraries can be hired for weddings and other receptions, and you can even have a special afternoon tea in the lower library.
While we’re on the subject of food, the buildings which host The Witchery, one of Edinburgh’s prestigious restaurants, date back to 1595, with much of the old paneling lining the interiors coming from St Giles Cathedral when ‘modernised’ in Victorian times. Other nearby Witchery buildings, Jollie’s Close and Sempill’s Court, date back to 1635 and were built on the site of the Palace of Mary de Guise, French mother of Mary Queen of Scots.
So even if the weather isn’t Mediterranean (it’s not what you came here for anyway!) the Royal Mile boasts plenty historic buildings and eating (and drinking) places to provide shelter. Enjoy.