On a breeze,
Catch the past.
A cobble mile
Of trodden path.
Feel its life
You’ll never leave.
All will stay.
The Number 11’s brakes squealed and let out a whoosh as the bus jerked to a halt on Edinburgh’s busy Princes Street. The driver opened the door and two people who had never before crossed an ocean now found themselves about to step out into the heart of Scotland’s capital city. We bubbled with anticipation. Excited about the day ahead, we climbed off of the red and white double-decker and took our first tentative steps onto the bustling street. Buses, cabs, cars, bicycles, pedestrians…all were players in the well-organized chaos around us. Ahead, the Scott Monument-very Gothic and very impressive-pointed sharply toward the sky. The squeal of a bagpipe cried in the distance. It was May, the weather was fine, and we had a destination in mind. Edinburgh’s Old Town and the Royal Mile.
The Royal Mile is best described as the beating heart of Edinburgh’s Old Town. A “Scots Mile” long and stretching through its center, it is composed of a series of four connecting streets that begin on the west end at Edinburgh Castle (on the site of an extinct volcano) and slopes steadily downward to the east, ending at the Palace of Holyrood House.
The Royal Mile is a fascinating walk, full of centuries-old history, incredible medieval and Reformation era architecture, loads of shops (some a wee kitschier than others-ha), restaurants, cafes, museums, walking tours, and much more. The old cobbles are a bit uneven and the road can feel steep, so grab a good pair of walking shoes and let’s see what each section of the Royal Mile has for us.
After heading away from the castle’s esplanade, the first stretch of road is Castlehill. According to The Scotsman, “With its name recorded in text as early as 1484, the settlement at Castlehill is thought to be one of the oldest in the city – perhaps pre-dating the royal burgh itself.”
This area once served as a place of residence, education, worship, entertainment, processions, and tragically, the site of hundreds of witch burnings. At the entrance to the castle esplanade, on the west wall of the Tartan Weaving Mill, a cast iron wall fountain (The Witches Well) and a plaque commemorates the atrocities that took place at this location.
Other sites of interest in this area are:
- The Scotch Whisky Experience
- Camera Obscura: a curious 19th century pinhole camera that projects a live image of the city onto a screen; also a rooftop terrace with expansive views of the city
- Highland Tolbooth Kirk: boasts the tallest spire in Edinburgh; now home to The Hub, Edinburgh’s festival center
After passing through the Castlehill section of the Royal Mile, you enter Lawnmarket.
This area gets its name from the large cloth market that flourished here until the 18th century. It was the poshest part of the Old Town and home to many of Edinburgh’s finest. A couple of popular sites here are:
- Gladstone’s Land: a restored 17th century merchant’s house, showing life in the Old Town
- Writer’s Museum (A personal must-see for a future trip): a museum of memorabilia from Sir Walter Scott, Robert Burns, and Robert Louis Stevenson
High Street is most definitely the beating heart of Old Town. You’ll likely find the largest crowds here (especially in August during the Edinburgh International Festival and the Edinburgh Fringe Festival) and also some wonderful, well-visited sites.
(*Note: These two arts festivals are renowned as the world’s largest and draw enormous crowds. The Fringe alone drew 2.5 million people in 2016! With that said, if large crowds are not your cup of tea, then you may not want to visit in August. But if people and street performers are your thing, then rock on.)
Places of note on High Street:
- St. Giles Cathedral: also called the High Kirk of Edinburgh and founded in the 1100’s; the church of John Knox during the Reformation; the Mother Church of Presbyterianism
- Mercat Cross: a former place of proclamations, burnings, and punishments
- Parliament House: built in 1639 and served the Scottish Parliament until 1707
- Real Mary King’s Close (I highly recommend this tour): streets frozen in time since the 17th century, located below ground underneath the Royal Mile (I’ll definitly be coming back to this topic later)
- The Tron Kirk: built in the 17th century; the former principal parish church in Edinburgh
- John Knox House (also on my future list): home of Protestant Reformer John Knox during the 16th century
- Museum of Childhood: a museum about growing up through the ages
Finally, we come to Canongate, the last stretch of the Royal Mile leading to the Palace of Holyrood House. From the 16th century, this area was home to aristocrats associated with the Palace. It was actually an independent burgh until 1856 when it became part of Edinburgh.
A few things to note here are:
- Museum of Edinburgh: a museum dedicated to Edinburgh’s past
- Our Dynamic Earth: a discovery of the forces that shaped our planet
- Scottish Parliament: home of the Scottish Parliament at Holyrood
- Canongate Kirk: 17th century; the parish church of the Canongate
- Old Tolbooth/People’s Story Museum: possibly as old as the 14th century; a medieval structure that served as a meeting place for Parliament as well as a jail and a place for torture and executions/now serves as a museum to Edinburgh’s people from the 18th century to present day
Edinburgh. A photographer’s paradise. A history lover’s mecca. An artist’s inspiration. And beyond that, it’s just a really cool place to be!
Today we saw the Royal Mile. Hope your feet aren’t too sore. Next time we’ll take a peek at the closes and wynds and take a walk down Victoria Street to Grassmarket.
See ya next time.