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Edinburgh: Metropolitan Energy Meets A Historic Past

By Rachel Jones

Posted: 1st August 2014 12:03

Edinburgh is a city that is richly decorated with its historic past, yet today bustles with a youthful, metropolitan energy.  From the city in which Harry Potter was brought to life over a cup of coffee at The Elephant House cafe, with its view from the window of the haunting and – dare we say it – magical Edinburgh Castle, to the infamous annual Fringe Festival that places Edinburgh firmly at the top of the charts for festivals and comedy alike, you will find culture at every corner and history in every cobblestone of this enchanting city.

At the heart of Edinburgh lies the Royal Mile, a succession of streets which form the main thoroughfare of the city, leading between the two important historic locations of Holyrood Palace and Edinburgh Castle.  It is one of the busiest tourist districts in Edinburgh, rivalled only by Princes Street (the main shopping area of the city).  During the Edinburgh Festival, the Royal Mile really comes alive, crowded with hordes of tourists, eclectic troops of street performers, and buskers.  Even if you’re visiting the city outside of the festival week, there are often impromptu performances from the likes of magicians, jugglers, and fire-breathers along here.

One of the best things about Edinburgh is how easily accessible it is.  You are able to see virtually the whole city on foot.  Many streets are pedestrianised, and although it’s a hilly city, there are little walkways and alleys leading you up and down between the streets.  Edinburgh also has a reputation as the most haunted city in the world – and with its dark Gothic architecture and bloody past, don’t be surprised if your imagination runs away with you.  If you’re feeling brave, there are several ghost walks which will give you an opportunity to explore the myths and legends associated with the city.

Edinburgh Castle

No matter which corner you turn or alley you explore, you can see breathtaking views of this historic fortress which dominates the skyline from its seat atop a great rock. It has its fair share of gruesomely delightful history, as is to be expected from all good castles.  Warriors defended a hill fort here as far back as the Iron Age; the nation’s oldest poetry tells of feasts eaten here before the war bands rode to their deaths in battle.  Hundreds of witches were supposedly burnt at the stake in the place where the Esplanade is today, Scottish royalty has lived and died within the castle walls, and a Jacobite force came within – literally – metres of capturing the castle during the Rising of 1715…but their ladder turned out to be too short to scale the walls.

The one o’clock gun is shot from the Castle at – you guessed it – 13:00, every day except for Sunday, and has since 1861 when it was required to provide ships in the Firth of Forth with an audible time signal, helping shipping to set the maritime clocks needed to navigate the globe.   Although the gun is no longer required in the practical sense, it has become a big tourist attraction, with thousands of visitors every day crowding to the castle and its surrounds in order to hear the famous shot fired. 

The Real Mary King’s Close

You might think you can get an impression of Edinburgh of times gone by from looking around you – you’ve barely scratched the surface.  Beneath the busy streets of the Royal Mile is an underground network of streets and spaces, which in the past would have made up Edinburgh’s liveliest and most populated area, once open to the skies, now covered over by modern day shops and restaurants.  The underground complex has become shrouded in mystery and rumour, and with good reason; stories of victims of the Bubonic plague being walled up in quarantine down here and left to die, along with folklore and legends of ghostly goings-on, add to the skin-crawl factor of these buried streets.

Today, the network of streets collectively known as Mary King’s Close are open to the brave among the members of the public, with The Real Mary King’s Close experience.  A costumed guide will take you through the narrow streets and tell their tales of the time when these streets were occupied by Edinburgh’s masses.  It’s a fascinating flash of the past, with a more than a hint of creepiness – and if it’s a real scare you’re after, head here around Halloween, when the supernaturally focused tours take place.  You may want to invest in a nightlight for the rest of your Edinburgh stay...

Palace of Holyrood

The official residence of the Queen when she is in Scotland, Holyrood started life as a monastery in 1128.  Today its primary function is as a place for state functions and entertaining by the monarch; the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh entertain about 8,000 guests during Holyrood Week, which is the week in summer that they spend in residence in the Scottish palace.

Having witnessed much of Scotland’s turbulent royal past, there are plenty of grisly myths and legends associated with the palace.  The naked ghost of Bald Agnes (Agnes Sampson) is said to roam the halls here, after being stripped and tortured in 1592 after an accusation of witchcraft.  Mary Queen of Scots is a former royal resident, living here between 1561 and 1567; David Rizzio, Mary’s private secretary, was killed here by Scottish nobles lead by the queen’s jealous husband.  The bloodstain could not be removed from the floor, and remains there today as a macabre reminder of the palace’s darker history.

The Edinburgh Dungeons

If Edinburgh’s grisly past has been hinted at elsewhere in the city, it’s about to get a lot more in-your-face with a trip to The Edinburgh Dungeons.  It takes horrific stories from 1000 years of Scottish history and throws in a twist of dark comedy, bringing the tales to life with costumed actors, underground rides, and special effects.  Part performance, part immersive storytelling, The Dungeons aim to evoke screams of both fear and laughter. 

From the Judge’s Courtroom to the Torture Chamber, visitors are invited to take part in the action, with actors who stay very much in character throughout the experience.  True stories of the grave robbers-turned-murderers Burke and Hare and warrior hero William Wallace are thrown in to the mix, so while the jumps, thrills, and rides can’t be considered strictly educational, there are enough facts to give you a grasp of Scotland’s more gruesome tales.  The Dungeons are one of Edinburgh’s most popular attractions and they do tend to get busy, particularly during peak season, so try to book this one in advance.

Edinburgh Zoo

The zoo is the largest wildlife attraction in Scotland and houses over 1,000 animals in a beautiful parkland setting on the outskirts of Edinburgh.  It’s open every single day of the year – including Christmas Day – and features rare and wonderful animals including the only koalas in the UK and the first giant pandas in the country for 17 years, as well as sun bears, chimpanzees, Asian lions, and hairy armadillos.  It was also the first zoo in the world to house and breed penguins.

Daily events at the zoo include talks on the meerkats, Indian rhinos, and penguins, and up close and personal encounters with reptiles and insects.  When you’re not looking at all the incredible animals that this zoo has to offer, you can see amazing views over the city from the zoo’s location on Corstorphine Hill.  Currently the zoo is in the middle of an ambitious 20 year expansion and development project, which will form four distinct areas based on biomes; grasslands, woodlands, oceans and wetlands, and tropical rainforest.   

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