I did an A-Z of Glasgow to open up the Commonwealth Games last year. Yet I spend more time in Edinburgh. It’s time to address the imbalance. Y? You’ll soon C.
Auld Reekie / Athens of the North – Fond nicknames for the Scottish Capital. The first, meaning Old Smoky, refers to the smoke that used to rise above the old town in the evenings, and which used to signal bedtime for children in the 17th century. The second is a moniker earned during the Scottish Enlightenment when intellectual light in Edinburgh burned strongly, and, of course, there’s that half-finished Grecian Temple on Carlton Hill, the monument to those who died in the Napoleonic Wars, The National Monument of Scotland.
The annual International Edinburgh Book Festival, which takes place in Charlotte Square, starts today. Accepted as the biggest and best literary festival in the world, for the next 10 days it will be the centre of my universe. (Yes, I know there’s a castle that sits majestically on its rock. You can’t miss it, but Charlotte Square is my home from home, especially when the sun shines and there are spare deckchairs.
The name Edinburgh is generally accepted to have derived from the Celtic word, Eidyn.
The Arts Festival, first held in 1946, to help the city regenerate from the woes of World War Two, was the first of many. Once the biggest arts festival in the world, it has now been dwarfed by The Fringe. The Food Festival and Retina, the fotography (sorry, but it had to been misspelt) festival are recent newcomers to the calendar. 2015 was the second year for both, Let’s watch them grow.
The Grassmarket is one of my favourite spots (mainly because of J). Steeped in history, it used to be the cattle market (its name is derived from the food that used to be munched in the cattle pens) and the public place of execution. It has always been filled with bars, and taverns and hotels. You can still drink in the White Hart Inn, where Robert Burns stayed in 1791.
The Heart of Midlothian on the Royal Mile marks the doorway of the old prison and another site of public execution. The custom of spitting on the heart, which people do for good luck these days, may shave originated as debtors, leaving the prison, showed their disdain for the place.
These days, my point of entry into the capital is the park and ride at Ingliston. Free parking with a tram connection straight into the city centre. It cannot be beaten.
The Jazz Festival in July marks the official start of my summer season in the capital. I always attend the free concert in the Grassmarket – come rain, shine or haar. (See W.) There’s also a free Mardi Gras in Princes Street for those not as vertically challenged as myself, (At 5′ 0″, I didn’t have a great view, the one time I attended.)
Greyfriars Kirkyard is an atmospheric graveyard just 5 minutes from the Grassmarket. Sections of the old city wall – The Flodden Wall – still stand. There is a monument to the Scottish Covenanters, religious martyrs from the C17th, and the graves of some very famous Scots, including Greyfriars Bobby and William McGonagall – the worst poet in the world.
Which reminds me – Edinburgh was the first UNESCO City of Literature, and when you consider its literary heritage, how could it have been otherwise? Edinburgh was the birthplace of Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson and Muriel Spark and many, many more. The city is now home to the Writer’s Museum, The National Library of Scotland, The Poetry Library, the Historical Fiction Festival, and the Edinburgh International Book Festival.
In addition to these literary meccas, there are museums in Edinburgh to cater for any interest: The Edinburgh Museum for a history of the city; the anatomical museum and the Surgeon’s Hall Museum for those interested in medicine. The diversity of the collections in the National Museum of Scotland should keep everyone happy. Edinburgh is also an art lover’s paradise, hosting the Scottish National Gallery, The Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art and the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. Perhaps though, you’d prefer a stroll through the green space that is the Meadows – a hectic space during the August festival – but it was glorious when I wandered through last spring.
First there was the old town and then there was the New Town, south of Princes Street. The neo-classical Georgian architectural marvel, the first section of which was designed by James Craig in 1768 .
The street names reflect the then recent union between England and Scotland, and St George’s Square, renamed to avoid confusion with an existing George Square, became Charlotte Square.
Three minutes walk from Charlotte Square is perhaps the most famous pub in Edinburgh: The Oxford Bar, Inspector Rebus’s watering hole. Pop in during the book festival and you might get to meet the author.
The Scottish Parliament and Holyrood Palace, home to Mary Queen of Scots, both sit at the foot of the Royal Mile. A walk uphill will lead you straight to Edinburgh Castle. (I advise you do this bit of sight-seeing in the opposite direction.)
I love the skylines in Edinburgh – whether it be the natural glories of the Salisbury Crags, the towers, turrets and tenements of the Old Town, or the sphinxes on the roofs of Charlotte Square. Looking up in Edinburgh is a worth-while activity.
I can never look at the Walter Scott memorial without thinking of Thunderbird 3. (Sorry Walter.)
As you walk through the city, you realise that Edinburgh is built on many levels. It slopes down from the heights of the castle to the port of Leith in the east. And beneath the Royal Mile is an underground warren of 17th century streets, Mary King’s Close,
Edinburgh’s villains are infamous. While the café and pub on the Royal Mile, which remember Deacon Brodie are quite cosy, the man himself, who served as inspiration for Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde, was not. Then there are the bodysnatchers, Burke and Hare. Well, they started off as bodysnatchers, before deciding that murder was much easier way of provisioning a human corpse.
Weather – Never travel to Edinburgh without a raincoat or a brolly. Chances of you needing them (particularly in 2015) are quite high, And should you arrive on the same day as an Edinburgh haar, you might not even see the castle.
X-rated content is located in the regions of the West Port. I know this only because that area also hosts Edinburgh’s fantastic second-hand bookshops.
Berthed in the Port of Leith is the royal yacht, Britannia. I must visit one day.
Zzzzzzzzzzzz ……. No chance of me dropping off while in Edinburgh. Mind I do sleep soundly whenever I come back from spending a few days in the city. Which I am about to do. The occasion? See B, C and D.
Source materials: Countless trips to Edinburgh / On Glasgow and Edinburgh – Robert Crawford ISBN 978-0-674-04888-1 / Look Up Edinburgh – Aidrian Searle, David Barbour ISBN 978-1908754776 / All photos my own except James Craigie’s New Town Plan sourced from Wikipedia
© Lizzy’s Literary Life (2007-2015)