Edinburgh is a UNESCO site and a beautiful city. I came here for a short visit at the end of March 2015, my first ever trip, and from the moment our train pulled into Sir Walter Scott’s ‘medievalist’ Waverley station I was blown away by its beauty – and the bitter wind. The city is not for the faint-hearted or even those with heart conditions; you need all your strength to climb its tiers and terraces and take in the spectacular views: the walled castle, the imposing Georgian buildings, the Crown Spire of the lovely Norman St Giles cathedral, the amazing Arthur’s Seat brooding high over the city, the Palace of Holyrood and its ruined Abbey, and those views from Calton Hill all over the Firth of Forth and the city’s treasures large and small. I loved too its herringbone-patterned wynds and alleyways, its cobbles and steep steps tracking you all over the place.
Edinburgh Castle, Edinburgh Castle is Scotland’s leading attraction, the most famous Scottish icon in the world and a World Heritage Site. Once an Iron Age fort, built high up on Castle Rock, the oldest remaining part is the medieval 12th century St Margaret’s Chapel. An ancient Scottish poem tells how a band of warriors feasted in the castle for a whole year before riding out to meet their deaths in a fierce battle. Robert Bruce’s nephew, Thomas Randolph, took the castle back from the English in a daring night raid in 1314 in the Wars of Scottish Independence. Edinburgh Castle is home to the Stone of Destiny, the Crown Jewels of Scotland; the famous 15th century gun Mons Meg – and the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo.
Read more: in World War II, the Crown of Scotland was hidden beneath a medieval latrine in David’s Tower.
My top 3 in Edinburgh:
St Margaret’s Chapel
This lovely little chapel tucked inside the castle walls is the oldest surviving building in the city. King David I of Scotland built it in 1130 as a place for the family to worship. He dedicated it to his mother Queen Margaret who died in 1093, and who later became a saint. Much of it has been reconstructed but the decorated chancel arch is part of the original structure. For me the castle attraction itself was too military and crowded. But the chapel still has atmosphere and charm. Don’t miss it.
St Giles Cathedral
You can’t miss the Crown Spire of St Giles’s Cathedral right at the heart of the Royal Mile. We were lucky enough to wake to it every morning with a fabulous view from our hotel window and to sleep with its back-lit stones illuminated by the string of globe lights that stretch down the Mile throughout the night. The cathedral is also known as the High Kirk of Edinburgh and is home to the Chapel of the Order of the Thistle, Scotland’s company of knights.
The bishop of St Andrews dedicated a church here in 1243. He named it after St Giles, the patron saint of Edinburgh, a 7th century hermit and later an abbot in France. Legend tells how Giles was accidentally wounded by a huntsman during a chase after a hind, an iconic image which is repeated in the relief over the west (main) doors of the cathedral where Giles protects the deer from the arrow only to take it in his own body instead.
What did I like about this place? Outside it’s unprepossessing, even dirty and a little faded. Crowds scurry past it stopping only to watch the street artists, the fire-eaters, the Most Pierced Woman in the World who will tell your fortune for a sum of gold, the Invisible Man, Yoda floating in mid-air, the Scottish pipers and those touting for Graveyard tours. Inside it’s brimful of light and warmth – from the upturned golden cups of chandeliers, candles in every corner, and the magnificent windows lit by that clear northern light your only see this far north.
It’s not the biggest or the most ‘medieval’ cathedral you’ll see. Most of what’s here today was rebuilt after a fire in 1385; just a handful of pieces remain from this time and even fewer twelfth century originals in the stonework. And much of its glorious stained glass is modern. Or rather it is medievalist, medieval in spirit, from Burne-Jones’s window at one end to the beauty of the glass over the main doors. The place is all the better for it.
King David’s Tournament Ground
You will miss this one, not least because there is literally nothing to see, just a small copse and a fretwork of train tracks. The tiny sign is the give-away. Right next to a small group of trees, it tells how these were planted as reminders of what would have been there when King David I of Scotland set up the lists and celebrated his tournament ground in what is now the Princess Road park area linking the Old and New towns – oak, birch, Scots pine, cherry, alder, elm. These saplings sit beside Waverley train tracks to remind us that this magnificent natural bowl was the home to medieval spectacle and knightly prowess. I liked it just for that.