Edinburgh (pronounced "Edinburrah" due to its Gaelic origins) is the historic capital of Scotland and its second largest city after Glasgow. Edinburgh was the home of the Scottish monarchy before joining together with England as part of the United Kingdom, and the city still retains a strong independent cultural identity. The city's historic and cultural attractions have made it the United Kingdom's second most popular tourist destination (after London) attracting 1.75 million visits from overseas on an annual basis. I had visited Glasgow on a previous trip to Britain and I very much wanted to see Edinburgh while I had the chance on this study abroad venture. This was the top remaining destination on my to-do list within the United Kingdom.
Getting from London to Edinburgh proved to be relatively easy. I found that I could purchase a roundtrip bus ticket for as little as £25 (in 2009 prices) which would carry me from London's Waterloo station up to Edinburgh and back again. In order to save further on costs, I timed my trip so that I would leave on a bus in the evening, sleep overnight during the lengthy 11 hour trip up to Scotland, and then return that same evening to sleep again on the bus on the way back. This allowed me to avoid spending any money on lodgings in Edinburgh itself, albeit at the cost of two uncomfortable nights sleeping on a bus seat. The ride north on the bus provided to be uneventful, mostly taking place under cover of darkness. I tried to take some pictures of the Scottish countryside when I woke up in the morning, only for them to come out as a blurry mess. There were a lot of low stone walls enclosing pastures of sheep amid treeless rolling grassy hills. Edinburgh is situated in the Lowlands portion of Scotland where the climate is a bit milder, but it still seemed like a tough place to scratch out a traditional living from the soil.
I arrived in Edinburgh early in the morning, between 7:00 and 8:00 AM local time. There wasn't much of anything open yet at this early hour and I decided that the first thing to do was to get a sense for how the city was laid out geographically. There was a convenient high ground area located near the bus station in the form of Calton Hill, a gently sloped mound that rises about 100 meters / 330 feet above the rest of the city. Calton Hill is located on the eastern end of the historic part of downtown Edinburgh, and it's topped by a series of monuments including one that looks like a Greek temple known as the National Monument. I took a quick look only to find it deserted on this early morning. From the top of Calton Hill, I looked to the west where I could just see Edinburgh Castle atop its own taller hill. Off to the south was the city's most prominent geographical feature, the 250 meter / 800 foot tall hill known as Arthur's Seat. I would be visiting all of these places before the day was finished, and this viewpoint helped me to plan out my path around the city.
Railroad tracks and the train/bus station cut right through the middle of Edinburgh and divide the city into northern and southern sections. These pictures were taken on the northern side of the divide, in the area known as the New Town, which was built at a predictably later date than the medieval Old Town. The buildings in the New Town mostly date from the late 18th and early 19th centuries and reflect the Georgian style of architecture that was popular in that period. This was where the wealthy lived in an escape from the cramped quarters of the Old Town, and essentially represented an early version of the flight to the suburbs that took place in American cities in the mid-20th century. While poking around this area I came across the Walter Scott Monument, a Victorian Gothic memorial to the Scottish author. This thing looks like a cathedral tower minus the cathedral itself, standing 60 meters / 200 feet in height. It's possible to walk up a series of stairs to the top, something that I did not know at the time and definitely would have done if I'd had that knowledge. There's a statue of Walter Scott at the base of the monument, which commemorates his lifelong association with the city of Edinburgh as part of the Scottish Renaissance.
A public park runs through the middle of the city along the divide between Old and New Towns, and these pictures were taken while walking alongside that span of greenery. I was heading towards Edinburgh Castle, which continued to rise up above the Old Town from its perch atop a steep hill. Closer to me was another large building with a Neoclassical design full of pillars. That was the National Gallery of Scotland, the city's top art museum dedicated to showcasing artwork from the beginning of the Renaissance up to the start of the 20th century. The understandable focus of the galleries was the collection of pieces from Scottish artists, and I would return to the National Gallery later in the day when the place opened. There was some artwork from Scottish artists associated with Tipu Sultan, the focus of my dissertation research, on display here and I wanted the chance to see the original paintings. This was a tenuous research justification for a trip to Edinburgh but it was my cover story and I'm sticking to it.
Eventually I reached my first major destination: Edinburgh Castle. This is a historic fortress that dominates the city's skyline, the residence of the Scottish kings and queens prior to the Stuart monarchs claiming the throne of England as well as Scotland. There's been a royal castle of some kind on this spot since the 12th century, and the very name of the place - Castle Rock - indicates the long association with rulership. Edinburgh Castle is old enough that it has a naturally defensive location, and it's clear that this place was intended for use as a fortification, not simply as a palace for leisure. Castle Rock is only approachable from the eastern side, with tall cliffs falling away in every other direction, and even the main entrance at the eastern gate had a retractable drawbridge over a tall crevice. Wikipedia claims that Edinburgh Castle was the subject of 26 different sieges, giving it a claim to having been "the most besieged place in Great Britain and one of the most attacked in the world". Not surprisingly given that history, most of the current castle dates from the 16th century due to the fact that the earlier castles built here were destroyed in various forms of battle. The rough, blunt exterior of hard stone bricks felt like a reflection of the tough Scottish people who had made this place their home. (The Latin motto "Nemo me impune lacessit" over the entrance translates as "No one cuts me with impunity" which more or less sums up Scotland's history in four words.)
I arrived at Edinburgh Castle about an hour before it opened and killed time for a bit until the place was ready to open its doors. On the plus side, this allowed me to get some the pictures of the castle above at a time when there weren't a lot of tourists around. Edinburgh Castle is the city's most famous attraction and draws over two million visitors annually. When the gates opened for the day, I was one of the first into the castle and had a chance to start exploring its expansive grounds. The pathway sloped sharply upwards from the gatehouse, taking me up cobblestone pathways to the castle ramparts at the summit of the hill. The views from up here were simply amazing, and the overcast skies from earlier were even clearing up to add a few shades of blue to these images. Off to the north I looked out over the New Town to the open waters of the North Sea. The west held a steep drop off the side of the cliffs down to a historic church named St. Cuthbert, with the newer buildings of the West End neighborhood running off into the distance. The best views were the ones looking east out over the Old Town, with Arthur's Seat off in the distance. I could see the parking lot outside the castle, now rapidly filling up with cars and tourist buses, as well as the spires of St. Giles Cathedral further downhill along the Royal Mile. This was an even better place to see the city than Calton Hill earlier.
Edinburgh Castle contains the Scottish National War Memorial and the National War Museum of Scotland, and there was quite a bit of military history on display inside. I found to my surprise that there was a section on Tipu Sultan and the storming of his palace at Seringapatam, an East India Company campaign in which Scottish soldiers played a prominent role. There were swords captured from Tipu's palace on display here as well as a helmet believed to have been worn by the sultan. See, this was totally a research trip and not a sightseeing venture! It was fun to see these artifacts even if I was very familiar with the events of the Mysore Wars by this point in my dissertation research. Up on top of the castle walls there was another military artifact of interest: Mons Meg, one of the few surviving early cannons. Mons Meg was built in 1449 on the orders of Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy, and it saw use in a series of sieges over the next century. Early cannons like this were known as "bombards" and they were the main reason why medieval castles became obsolete. Mons Meg fired absurdly large 20 inch / 510 millimeter balls that weighted about 175 kilograms / 385 pounds apiece, and it could take as long as an hour between shots due to the need to clean the gun and wheel it back into place. We actually discussed Mons Meg as an example of a bombard in my military history class and I had no idea that it was located at Edinburgh Castle; I particularly enjoyed the sign that read "Please do not climb on Mons Meg".
Visitors to Edinburgh Castle also have the opportunity to visit the Royal Palace of the Stuart monarchs. These former royal apartments were mostly constructed during the 16th century and the modern restoration has chosen to recreate them as they looked during the reign of King James I/VI. He was the first Stuart monarch of England, and therefore James I in England, while also being James VI as King of Scotland. The English and Scottish thrones remained separate (albeit held by the same person) until the Act of Union of 1707. The royal apartments had the feeling of a luxurious hunting lodge, lots of wood paneling on the walls and various weaponry mounted for decorations. The modern restoration hadn't filled the rooms with furniture and had instead left them empty, which might have been the reason why this place felt like less of a home than many of the other palaces that I've toured. The Stone of Scone, upon which the monarchs of Scotland were traditionally crowned, has been kept here in the royal apartments since it was returned to Scotland in 1996. (I'm sure it will come as a shock to hear that the English captured the Stone of Scone in 1296 under Edward I and held it in Westminster Abbey for seven centuries before returning it.) There was an excellent audio tour here for the visitors, and I highly recommend the whole experience.
After finishing up at Edinburgh Castle, I left via the eastern gates and continued strolling further downhill along the street known as the Royal Mile. This is the main thoroughfare that runs through the Old Town, connecting Edinburgh Castle at one end at the top of the hill to the Palace of Holyroodhouse at the bottom. Unlike the narrow and twisting streets that predominate in most of the Old Town, the Royal Mile is a broad avenue that runs in (mostly) straight fashion through a series of historic buildings. This is the heart of the tourist district and there were shops everywhere selling different kinds of scarves and kilts when I visited. Anything that you might want with a Scottish tartan design on it can be found for sale here. Even though it's pretty touristy, I still enjoyed strolling along the street and checking out some of the various monuments along the way, like the one dedicated to Adam Smith pictured above. There's also a series of churches and small museums to explore along the way, and you would think that the tall Gothic building in the last picture above was one of them. Nope! It's not a church at all but instead a cafe and restaurant known as The Hub. I definitely did not see that coming and was pretty shocked to find people eating lunch when I went inside.
About a third of the way down the Royal Mile from Edinburgh Castle was this church, St. Giles Cathedral. This place is more officially known as the High Kirk of Edinburgh because it is not a cathedral (since the Church of Scotland doesn't have bishops or cardinals) but the local name for the church is typically just St. Giles. It is the historic seat of the Church of Scotland and has been the center of religious life in the city of Edinburgh since the early medieval period. St. Giles has been dubbed the "Mother Church of Presbyterianism" due to the major role that it played during the Reformation and the Wars of the Three Kingdoms. Protestant theologian John Knox, the founder of Presbyterianism, delivered sermons here during the 1550s, and it was a revolt in St. Giles in 1637 over the adoption of the English Book of Common Prayer that triggered the start of the English Civil War. I was delighted to find that there was an original copy of the National Covenant on display in St. Giles, the document that launched the Scottish religious rebellion against the English crown in the 17th century. It was faded and almost illegible but it was still extant.
The current church at St. Giles largely dates from the late 14th century. It had the basic elements of Gothic architectural design, but was constructed much lower to the ground, probably due to the hilly terrain and Scotland's harsh winters. The building does not use the familiar cruciform layout of other Gothic cathedrals, instead having a blocky square design. It was also considerably smaller than some of the other big cathedrals I'd seen, only a fraction of the size of Canterbury Cathedral for example. This was another place where I wish that I'd had a better camera for taking indoor shots with dim lighting.
Down at the base of the Royal Mile is the Palace of Holyroodhouse, the official residence of the British monarchy in Scotland. This palace dates from the 16th and 17th centuries and was constructed in an Italian Renaissance style that looked strikingly different from the medieval setup of Edinburgh Castle. Whereas the castle at the top of the hill looks ready to fight another war, Holyroodhouse was designed for luxury and style. Modern visitors to Holyroodhouse can tour the apartments of Mary Stuart, the infamous "Mary Queen of Scots", which have been restored back to their historical appearance in the late 16th century. Or at least they can do so when the royal family isn't in residence, which is most of the year aside from an annual visit at the beginning of each summer. I ended up not touring Holyroodhouse because it had a fairly steep entrance fee and pictures weren't allowed inside. This was a mistake and it's a place that I intend to visit the next time that I'm back in Edinburgh.
The Royal Mile also contains the location of the Scottish Parliament Building down at the base of the hill, not far from the Palace of Holyroodhouse. This is where the legislature of Scotland meets each year, a relatively new creation dating back only to 1999 when the government of the United Kingdom agreed to devolve some of the functions of local government to its constituent parts in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. The Parliament of the United Kingdom in Westminster still remains sovereign over Scotland, but the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh has limited tax powers and the ability to pass laws on subjects such as education, health, and justice. It's a bit of a tricky situation and not everyone is satisfied with this federalist setup; if Scotland ever does become independent, this will be the national legislature.
Scotland's parliament had 129 members as of this writing, each elected to four year terms to a unicameral legislature in the typical British model. Unlike the normal linear architectural setup of a Westminster-style parliament, the Scottish Parliament uses the semicircular design more common in American legislatures. The building itself looked brand new when I visited, only having opened five years earlier in 2004. The architectural design can only be described as postmodern, some kind of weird combination of different forms of stone and wood and plastic. The wood paneling outside the main entrance looked somewhat like a bundle of twigs, leaving critics to derisively compare the parliament building to an ugly bird's nest. The "trigger panels" that look like upside-down "L"s have been said to represent everything from anvils, hairdryers, guns, question marks, to even the hammer and sickle insignia of the Communist party. I'm not a huge fan of this design and I do think it looks a little bit too weird for the surrounding historic buildings in Edinburgh's Old Town. There are ways to do new and postmodern building designs without getting this eccentric.
Having reached the bottom of the hill, I turned around and started heading back up it again, away from the Royal Mile, to explore some more of the Old Town. I walked past something known as Dynamic Earth, a nature and science museum that could have been interesting to see if I'd had more time. Eventually I wound up at the National Museum of Scotland, the culture and history museum designed to tell the story of the Scottish people. I spent about an hour inside, in part because admission was free, and found it to be a pretty solid museum overall. The National Museum of Scotland holds the collections of the Scottish antiquities society and has some impressive stuff on display, everything from ancient Egyptian artifacts to the stuffed body of Dolly the sheep, the first successfully cloned mammal. The museum underwent a major renovation in 2011 after the time of my visit and has now restored its original Victorian Venetian Renaissance facade and grand central hall of cast iron. I also enjoyed the views from the rooftop, looking back towards Edinburgh Castle and downhill at Arthur's Seat.
That was where I was heading now, off to close out the day by climbing atop Arthur's Seat. The sun was setting in the west as I started the walk up the gravel path of the hill, casting deep shadows behind the Palace of Holyroodhouse down below. This was my best view of Holyroodhouse all day due to its close proximity. Up at the top I was treated to a sweeping vista of the city laid out below me. Edinburgh Castle was once again the most prominent landmark, rising up above the rest of the city perched atop Castle Rock. Off to my left I could see the campus grounds of the University of Edinburgh and more hills sloping away to the south. In the opposite direction, I could see all the way to the waterfront where the city touched the waters of the North Sea. This was the perfect way to close out my day in Edinburgh, and I stopped here to rest and watch the sun go down before beginning the walk back to the bus station for my return trip back to London. What a fantastic, if exhausting day.
The trip to Edinburgh was the last one that I took in Britain during this study abroad semester. (I went on other trips elsewhere in Europe that are detailed here on this travel website.) Fortunately I was able to get through all of the materials that I needed to research in London by the time that my semester came to an end, with my return flight taking me back to the USA in May of 2009. It was a wonderful experience to live abroad for a semester, as well as to live in the downtown area of a major city. I always wish that I'd been able to do some more traveling during this period when I was living in Europe, but at the same time I think that I did about as much as I realistically could have managed given the need to get my dissertation work done and while also working within a minimal budget. During my four months abroad, I traveled to visit Portsmouth, Bristol, Bath, Cambridge, Canterbury, Edinburgh, Stockholm, Kiruna (Arctic Sweden), Berlin, Frankfurt, Paris, Rome, and Venice while also taking part in the soccer and fencing and rock climbing activities that Goodenough College had to offer. Although there's always the chance to see and do more, I'm pretty content with how things worked out.
Thanks for reading, and if you're ever interested in the finished product of my dissertation, feel free to contact me for more information.