Edinburgh, capital of Scotland, is almost unrivalled amongst the great cities of the world for history, culture, architecture and beauty. It really is the city that has it all (apart from the weather!). I was lucky enough to do my Masters degree at Edinburgh University, and then lived and worked in Edinburgh for 5 years. I know the city like the back of my hand and even though I moved away 7 years ago, I still miss it sometimes – there’s nothing like feeling inspired every time you walk around your home city. I still visit family and friends there frequently, and never tire of the blast of bagpipes from the piper on the corner of Princes Street and Waverley every time I exit the train station.
Edinburgh’s tourist attractions are world-renowned – the Royal Mile, an ancient cobbled street leading from Edinburgh Castle to Holyrood Palace (the Queen’s residence in Edinburgh – you can tell she’s home when the Royal Standard flag is flying); Prince’s Street; and the Edinburgh Festival to name a few. So I thought I’d take you off the beaten track for a behind-the-scenes look at Edinburgh’s better kept secrets.
Walk along the Royal Mile and you’ll be hit by a wave of tourist honey traps – traditional pubs and shops selling wool, tartan and fridge magnets. But hidden away behind this are countless historic alleyways and cobbled closes. My favourite is Advocate’s Close, which dates back to the 15th Century and won the RIAS Andrew Doolan Best Building in Scotland Award in 2014. Cockburn Street, which winds down from the Royal Mile, and nearby Victoria Street, are gorgeous examples of 1800’s Scottish architecture. Victoria Street in particular has some fascinating and eclectic shops, including the Old Town Bookshop and the wonderful I.J. Mellis, Cheesemonger. At the bottom of Victoria Street, enter the Grassmarket and sample some of its many bars – try The Beehive, Biddy Mulligan’s and The Last Drop for a great, atmospheric night out.
If you’re brave enough, another thing you should do in Edinburgh is go on one of the many historic, ghost or literary tours (watch out for the jumper-ooters! I spent a night doing this once and genuinely felt guilty for terrifying innocent folk). Although there are so many great choices, my two all time favourite tours are Mary King’s Close and The City of the Dead.
Mary King’s Close is an old street beneath the Royal Mile, dating from the 17th-19th centuries, which has been buried underground for hundreds of years, and has had a reputation for hauntings since at least the 17th century. Over the years, a number of urban legends and part-truths have sprung up about the close, the most horrifying of which involves plague victims being walled up and left to die. Mary King’s Close is believed to have been the last badly infected plague area of the Old Town. In a desperate measure to reduce contamination, over 300 plague victims were allegedly entombed alive, when the close was bricked up until the plague had passed. Whether this is true or not, it’s a very weird feeling as you descent down in the underground street and pass the dark and silent shop fronts and houses.
The City of the Dead tour takes you through Greyfriars Kirkyard, past the statue of Greyfriars Bobby, the loyal dog who guarded his master’s grave, and through this incredible, historic graveyard to an area known as the Covenanter’s Prison, normally under lock and key behind high iron bars. This avenue of vaulted tombs was used in 1679 as a prison for over 1,000 supporters of the National Covenant who had been defeated by Government forces at the battle of Bothwell Brig. For over 4 months men were held here without any shelter, each man being allowed 4 ounces of bread a day. Kindly citizens were sometimes able to give them more food. Some of the prisoners died here, some were tried and executed for treason, some escaped, and some were freed after signing a bond of loyalty to the Crown.
But the real fascination of this tour is due to Bloody Mackenzie (A.K.A the “Mackenzie Poltergeist”). Bloody Mackenzie was a Scottish lawyer, Lord Advocate, essayist and legal writer (c.1636-1691); and suffice to say he was not a nice chap. He was responsible for imprisoning the Covenanters in the Kirkyard, and allegedly took rather too much enjoyment from his day job of killing and causing suffering. The really, really interesting part of the story takes place from 1999 to the present, during which time there have hundreds of documented poltergeist ‘attacks’ in the Black Mausoleum (Mackenzie’s tomb) and the Covenanter’s Prison. Bloody Mackenzie’s anger at having his tomb visited by tourists was probably not helped by the bizarre 2003 case in which two teenagers forced their way into the burial chamber, cut the head from a corpse and played with it in the grounds of the Kirkyard. They were charged under ancient legislation used to prosecute Edinburgh’s notorious 18th and 19th century grave-robbers. It was the first time for over a hundred years that anyone had been accused of “violation of sepulchre”.
I went on the tour with some friends a few years ago. As we stood inside the Black Mausoleum, I made sure that I had my back to the wall and that we all held hands as we were more than a little on edge. As the guide turned off his torch for a few moments and we were plunged into darkness, I felt a violent hard yank on my ponytail. True story, and one of the most terrifying moments of my life.
“One of the most CONVINCING SUPERNATURAL CASES Of all time” – Richard Felix, Most Haunted.
After you’ve had a drink in the Grassmarket to steady your nerves, if you’re feeling flush then head to The Witchery for dinner, a beautiful (expensive) and iconic restaurant on the Royal Mile.
There are many, many great (and some not-so-great) accommodation choices in and around Edinburgh. I recently stayed at the Norton House Hotel and Spa, which has gorgeous rooms and really good food as well as a luxurious spa – check out the Hydrotherapy pool (and the mysterious bucket set high on the wall, with a rope to pull…if you dare). Built in 1840, Norton House is a 20-minute drive from Edinburgh city centre and 10 minutes from Edinburgh Airport.
I was also lucky enough to be bridesmaid at a wedding held at Carberry Tower Hotel recently. A Category A listed building, Carberry Tower is a baronial castle set within 35 acres of peaceful parklands, seven miles from Edinburgh. The hotel has some really quirky features, and is such a fun place to explore.
After as being greeted by a suit of armour next to the huge Inglenook fireplace, wander around the maze of rooms and you might come across the barrel-vaulted bar, snooker room with full-size table, library, or music room complete with pipe organ. Carberry Tower also has a fascinating history – In June 1567, on Carberry Hill, Mary, Queen of Scots faced an army assembled by a confederation of her lords. She surrendered and was then imprisoned.
For lunch the next day, head to The Old Chain Pier, overlooking the Firth of Forth at Newhaven. This renowned local pub, formerly a ticket office for steamer services departing from the chain pier (lost in a storm in 1898), has some great choices including the traditional Cullen Skink, and 5 types of poached egg (including Balmoral, with haggis or veggie haggis!).
After lunch, go for an unusual walk to Cramond Island, located in the Firth of Forth (about 10-15 minutes by car from Newhaven) – a tidal island about one mile out to sea, connected to the mainland at low tide. A paved path allows fairly easy access. Once on the island, explore its beaches and World War II stores, shelters and gun emplacements. At high tide the path is covered by several feet of seawater which cuts the island off from the mainland. Make sure that you check the tide tables before you set off, and leave enough time to return to the mainland before the tide comes in (which happens pretty quickly – I once saw a group of Festival performers wading to shore so that they didn’t miss that night’s performance!).
I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface of what Edinburgh has to offer – but that’s the point I guess – there are so many places to explore that you could never see them all, and so you must return…