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Edinburgh – the tale of two cities

On Saturday morning, we left Glencoe for Edinburgh. It had been raining all day on Friday, ending our lucky spell of eight days of perfect sunshine. Rain just stopped long enough in the morning for us to put our luggage in the car and take a few photos of the surrounding hills.

The drive to Edinburgh was beautiful. As soon as we left Glencoe, we were greeted by lush green valleys, hills with countless waterfalls, and green-carpeted pastures dotted with white sheep. At one place, water was gushing out from the earth, a natural spring. At other places, lakes would appear out of nowhere.

There were several stops to admire the view, but we resisted at most of them. The car we hired was due for return at mid-day, and if we stopped frequently, we wouldn’t have made it in time.

At Edinburgh, we deposited our luggage at the bus stop locker and went on to find a petrol station to fill the car. The Google map took us around the whole city but couldn’t get us to a petrol station. Finally, half an hour later, we spotted one.

After returning the car we made out way to a café close to our accommodation and had coffee and the best salad on the whole trip.

The accommodation we were staying at was our first ever Airbnb. It turned out to be a great choice. Walking distance from the city center, Calton Hill and many good restaurants it had sunny rooms and a good selection of books.

After resting for a little while, we went on to explore the city. It seemed like the tourists had invaded the city. Where ever we went, there were crowds.

We walked up the Royal Mile, which had Holyrood palace on one end and the fortress of Edinburgh Castle on the other. 

Totally a touristy place, the Royal Mile had bagpipers playing and street artists performing all the way to the Edinburgh castle. The platform was being prepared in front of the castle for a military parade of some kind.

Signboards told us that it was the site of execution for hundreds of women charged for practicing witchcraft.

Edinburgh Castle

I was not too much off the mark in thinking that Edinburgh architecture is both enchanting and striking at the same time. The Little Book of Edinburgh, which I found in the bookshelf of our accommodation, had the following account on the very first page.

It is spectacularly beautiful, combining a dramatic natural landscape of hills, valleys and the cone of an extinct volcano with an architectural heritage so glorious that it has more listed buildings than anywhere in the UK outside London.

At the same time, there is grimness to the place, a secret, gritty history of dark deeds and squalor. It is this combination – beauty and the beast, if you like – that makes Edinburgh so utterly fascinating, so beguiling.

One of Edinburgh’s most famous sons, Robert Louis Stevenson, knew this better than anyone. His novel Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, about two conflicting personalities inhabiting the same body, is a virtual metaphor for his native city. Edinburgh is a ‘tale of two cities or rather many different tales. – Geoff Holder, The Little Book of Edinburgh

In the evening, we went up the Calton Hill. Calton Hill, together with Arthur’s Seat and Castle Rock, was formed by volcanic activity about 340 million years ago. Around two and a half million years ago the first of many Ice Ages began in Scotland and Edinburgh was buried under a massive ice sheet, hundreds of meters thick. Throughout each Ice Age when the glaciers were at their heaviest, the weight of ice carved and gouged out many of the hills we see today. 

Calton Hill has a very interesting history. In 1724, the Town Council of Edinburgh purchased Calton Hill making it one of Britain’s first public parks. It has monuments and buildings dating back from 1760 to 1820 relating to the period known as ‘Scottish Enlightenment,’ a time of great artistic, literary and scientific advances. 

One of the leading figures of the Enlightenment was the philosopher David Hume. In fact, he was responsible for lobbying the Town Council to build public walks or roads for the health and amusement of the inhabitants on Calton Hill.

Calton Hill houses a number of buildings including the Scottish National Monument, Nelson Monument, and an Observatory.

Scottish National Monument

Scottish National Monument was intended to be another Parthenon and to commemorate Scottish Soldiers killed in the Napoleonic wars. Its construction started in 1826 but was stopped in 1829 when the building was only partially built due to lack of money. It has never been completed. 

For many years this failure to complete led to its being nicknamed “Scotland’s Disgrace” but this name has waned given the time elapsed since the Napoleonic Wars and it is now accepted for what it is.

Nelson Monument

Nelson monument is the most interesting building I have ever seen. Build to commemorate the victory of Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson, over the French and Spanish fleets at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, the tower has a time ball on it.

A wooden mechanized ball was added at the top of the telescope-like building to give a time signal to ships in Leith harbor. It was a great idea until they realized that the ball is not visible on a foggy day.

This led to starting another time signal tradition — firing an 18-pound loaded canon known as ‘one o’clock gun.’

The time ball is synchronized with the One O’Clocks firing from Edinburgh Castle.

Neither the gun nor the time ball is needed by the ships today but both still sound every day telling the Edinburgh people it is lunchtime.

Observatory House

Calton Hill Observatory is considered the birthplace of astronomy and timekeeping.

The Observatory houses a refractor in its dome and a 6.4-inch transit telescope for astronomical and naval observatories to measure star positions in order to compile nautical almanacs for use by mariners for celestial navigation. 

The telescope is used to observe star transits to set extremely accurate clocks (astronomical regulators) which were used to set marine chronometers carried on ships to determine longitude, and as primary time standards before atomic clocks. (Source: Wikipedia).

Arthur’s Seat

The next morning we started the day by climbing Arthur’s Seat. As the main peak of a group of hills made from an ancient volcano Arthur’s Seat has panoramic views of the city. 

It was relatively easy to climb except for the top part which was slippery, rocky, and spiky. Needing a bit of challenge for the day, I decided to go to the top and have my photo taken. 

Arthur’s Seat — Images by the author

Holyrood Palace

Just next to Arthur Hill is Holyrood Palace which the official residence of the Queen when she visits Scotland. It has been the principal royal residence of the Scottish monarch since the 16th century and used for state occasions and official entertaining.

The Queen spends one week at Holyroodhouse at the beginning of each summer and throws a lot of parties in the lovely gardens. 

The inside of the palace is open to the public throughout the year and is very interesting. We watched the 16th-century historic apartments of Mary, the Queen of Scotts including the chamber where her private secretary David Rizzio ware murdered.

Also worth mentioning are the ruins of the Augustinian Holyrood Abbey, which was founded in 1128 at the order of King David I of Scotland. It is a burial site of many kings.

Holyrood Palace — Images by the author

We spent the last day in Edinburgh roaming the streets, visiting the Edinburgh museum and art gallery, and having a wonderful breakfast at a local cafe. 

For dinner, one night we went to a Turkish restaurant which had the most sumptuous kabab platter I have ever had.  

Edinburgh streets — Images by the author

This is part 7 of the 13 part series. If you want to read the previous article of this series, here are the links:

Inverness And The Monster Of The Loch Ness

Windsor Castle, Bath, and the Stonehenge

Buckingham Palace, Trafalgar Square, and the National Gallery

The London Eye, Palace of Westminster, and Westminster Abbey

Buckingham Palace, Trafalgar Square, and the National Gallery

Tower of London and St Paul’s Cathedral

London — The First Impression

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