On Monday, with my back still a little sore from the moving, I decided that I would go to Edinburgh instead of starting the West Highland Way and do the touristy thing. This was about the 18th that I’d been to Edinburgh, but in terms of the sights that I had seen, they consisted of Arthur Seat, Scott Monument, National Gallery, the Castle, Calton Hill, and the Zoo. Mind you, I’d visited the Guildford Arms on West Register Street most every time I’d been.
I got the early afternoon train from Queen Street to Waverley, and headed down the Royal Mile to Holyrood Palace, something which had been highly recommended to me by Alison. I could immediately see why. First off, it was an absolutely gorgeously sunny day, which made strolling around the grounds a delight. The palace itself is a splendid piece of 17th century neo-Classical architecture. The interiors are just as breathtaking as it was designed for, and indeed is still used as a royal residence. Interestingly enough, it’s use as a royal residence is a relatively recent innovation.
The earliest part of the palace, the northwest tower, dates from the reign of James IV. He used the palace as an alternate to the draughty and wet castle at the top of the Royal Mile. The palace was used by Mary Queen of Scots as well, and her son James VI. After 1603, royal visits to Scotland became a rarity, with one significant event, the ‘popish’ coronation of Charles I which would spark off conflict in Scotland which would eventually spill south of the border and become civil war. During the Cromwellian invasion, the palace was badly damaged, and after the Restoration of 1660 King Charles II decided it would be rebuilt as a grand royal residence. He died before he could enjoy it, and after that no monarch would use the palace again until George IV in 1822.
Now at the risk of this becoming a history lesson (although I think we passed that point a while ago) George IV’s visit to Scotland was absolutely crucial in preserving, and indeed reviving, Scottish culture, and is worth noting here. After the 1745 Jacobite uprising – Bonnie Prince Charlie, Culloden and whatnot – harsh restrictions on Scottish culture were imposed. Speaking Gaelic was banned, so too was the wearing of tartan and the playing of the pipes. This remained the case until 1822, when George IV visited, a visit organised by perhaps the first great PR man, Sir Walter Scott.
The fact that a monarch was visiting Scotland for the first time since the 17th century was important enough, but imagine the symbolism of George appearing in Edinburgh, in full highland regalia. Kilt, bonnet, tartan fly, the works. The outfit, complete with gilded basket-hilted sword (similar to the ones carried by the Jacobites) cost £1300. And, to add to the symbolism, George IV was presented with the Honours of Scotland, which had been recently rediscovered by none other than Sir Walter Scott. Scottish culture saw a revival from this point onward. The modern kilt and clan tartans as we know them today came into being, Gaelic was once again legal to speak, and George IV’s niece Queen Victoria made regular trips to Holyrood Palace before she acquired Balmoral Castle in Deeside. Indeed, such was her interest in Scottish culture that every year there would be a huge pageant in Braemar, known as the Braemar Gathering, the first modern highland games.
So, to make a long story short, Holyrood Palace has witnessed some events that have made Scotland what it is today. There were some other interesting events that the audio guide recounted as well. One of which was the murder of David Rizzio, close personal friend of Mary Queen of Scots. Too close, it seemed for her then husband, Lord Darnley.
One night, while Mary was entertaining Rizzio in her chambers (get your mind out of the gutter) Darnley and a number of other conspirators climbed a small spiral staircase, opened Mary’s chamber door, and dragged Rizzio out, and stabbed him. 56 times. He died clutching a shred of Mary’s dress which had ripped as he was dragged from the room. The tour follows the same staircase, up to the same room. Rather eerie. Lord Darnley himself was then murdered, a man believed to be the same man who shortly thereafter became Mary’s third husband. All this scandal occuring at the same time as the Scottish Reformation meant that Mary was forced to give up the throne in favour of her 18 month son James VI. She would spend the next 19 years of her life in prison, until England’s Queen Elizabeth, decided her to be too much a threat to the English throne, and had her executed at Fotheringhay Castle outside of Peterborough. This may all seem a little boring to those who might not share my passion for history, and indeed written out it isn’t much different from a textbook, but actually being there, being in the room where all these things happened is quite different, and marvellous.
Holyrood Abbey, which is just next to the palace is, as described aptly by my guidebook, an evocative ruin. Legend has it that King David was walking in the woods when an enraged stag blocked his path. Fighting off the stag, he grabbed one of its antlers but instead found himself holding a cross. Believing this to be a sign from God, he built the Augustinian monastery, and gave it the name Holyrood, a holy rood being a fragment of the original cross. That was in the 11th century, but most of the present abbey, or ruined abbey, dates from the 12th and 13th centuries. It was badly damaged in the Reformation, but rebuilt in the 17th century, but the rebuilt roof collapsed in the 18th century and it has been ruined ever since. It really is quite a stunning ruin.
After a walk through the gardens around the palace, I walked up the Royal Mile to the High Kirk of St. Giles. Many people know it as St. Giles Cathedral, but this is a misnomer. It has been a Cathedral twice – first when it was built up to the Reformation, and second from 1660-1688 when the Scottish kirk was episcopalian. However, Cathedral refers to the catherdra, the bishops seat, and as Presbyterianism does not have any bishops (they’ve fought wars over this) it is known as a High Kirk. Just a word of warning in case you come across a Scot easily offended by this sort of thing.
St. Giles really is quite a magnificent building from the outside, and I had walked past it many times, so finally I decided to go in a take a look around. There are a number of interesting tombs, including the 8th Earl of Argyll, and a plaque on the floor marking the approximate spot where Janet Geddes threw her stool at the minister when he began to read from the English Book of Common Prayer introduced to the Scottish Kirk by Charles I and sparked the so-called Prayerbook Riots – a copycat riot happened in Glasgow Cathedral as well. (Note: I have know idea why Glasgow Cathedral is known as a Cathedral. I shall have to find this out)
The organ was playing as I wandered through the kirk, and the sun was streaming in through the stained glass windows, creating a rather nice scene. I learned something about the history of the building too. Now while I know a fair bit about the history of what went on in the building, I didn’t actually know how old it was. Well, the guide said they just got back a date from the columns supporting the main tower - 900 AD. That’s old.
After finishing up in the Cathedral, I headed up to the castle, where I took in the view of the city. I was going to see the Royal Honours of Scotland, but the castle was closing so I headed back down the Royal Mile. Now I was stopped by some people handing out brochures for a tour of Mary King’s Close. I had meant to go on one of these tours before, and since this was perhaps my last trip to Edinburgh on this exchange (I will be back) I figured I might as well go now.
Now mediaeval Edinburgh had many houses on narrow side streets branching off the Royal Mile named closes. Now as the city grew in size, and the buildings along the Royal Mile became bigger, gradually these mediaeval closes were bricked over so as to provide a level surface for the buildings above, in the case of Mary King’s Close, the City Chambers. Essentially this created an underground city, which although noone lived there after it was covered, a few did work down there, and it has essentially preserved a piece of mediaeval Edinburgh.
The tour itself wasn’t overly impressive, compared to some others that I’ve been on. There was the requisite ghost story, and a room where there is supposedly the spirit of a little girl who’d lost her toy so people bring her toys, and other nonsense. But there are some fascinating bits and pieces too. The butchering slab, complete with drain grooves can be found in one of the old rooms. Remenants of a 17th century block printed wall; a common practise where paper was expensive was for the less well to do to simply paint patterns directly onto the wall. And various little things like that. It was a nice tour, and interesting, but not one that I would highly recommend for people to go on. And if the tour guides were right in telling me that this was the most historical of all the Edinburgh tours, then don’t expect to learn much, that’s all I can say.
After the tour I headed down to Waverley to catch the train back into Glasgow where I went to bed in preperation for the following two days adventures.