I'm the first to admit that Edinburgh's New Town has never featured highly on my previous stays in the city. Like most other tourists that visit Scotland's Capital, I'm guilty of spending too much time wandering the cobbled streets and narrow closes of the Old Town and rarely venturing far beyond the famous Royal Mile. However, the centre of Edinburgh is very much a tale of two distinct architectural halves, separated by the greenery of Princes Street Gardens.
The medieval Old Town was never the most pleasant of places to stay and the smell caused by the insanitary conditions led to it gaining the nickname 'Auld Reekie'. By the mid-1700s, overcrowding and deteriorating living standards prompted the City of Edinburgh to hold a competition in 1766 to design a new residential suburb for the wealthier inhabitants of the Capital. The winning bid came from 21 year old James Craig and his grid-iron design inspired the ordered layout of Edinburgh's New Town that still exists today.
On my most recent visit to the city I decided to give the Old Town a complete miss and uncover some of the hidden gems that lie around the grand Georgian setting of the New Town and here are 9 of the great things I discovered...
1. Get a bird's eye view from The Nelson Monument
Calton Hill sits to the east of Edinburgh's New Town and is a popular spot for those seeking out panoramic views over the city. Littered with historic buildings, including the unmissable Greek style columns of the 'National Monument' which was intended as a replica of the Parthenon in Athens but never completed due to funds running dry, Calton Hill is a must visit in Edinburgh.
For even better views over the city, head to the highest point on the hill at the top of The Nelson Monument. For £5 you can climb the 143 steps to the viewing platform and enjoy possibly the finest 360 degree vista of Edinburgh and its most iconic landmarks.
The Nelson Monument was completed in 1816 to commemorate Admiral Lord Nelson and his victory at the Battle of Trafalgar. Designed to resemble an upturned telescope, in 1852 a time ball was installed to drop at one o'clock each day, providing a visual signal for ships which was critical for navigation at that time. Due to good old Scottish weather, the ball could not always be seen and in 1861 it was decided to also fire a cannon from Edinburgh Castle ramparts at one o'clock to coincide with the ball drop and provide an added audible signal. Both traditions still take place today. There is also a small exhibition on the ground floor explaining more about Nelson, the monument and the Battle of Trafalgar.
The tarmac road and occasional car snaking through the winding glen is the only reminder that I'm still in 21st Century Scotland. For long periods the silence lingers and I feel overwhelmed by the beauty of the timeless sprawling mountain landscape before me. Glenshee might mean the 'Glen of the Fairies' but I can't help thinking it could comfortably house a small army of giants without any trouble.
This glen has been used as a route north to the Highlands for thousands of years, and like numerous travellers before me, my journey is destined to end at a 'Gathering'. From cattle drovers to Kings and Queens, I wonder how many of them have also stood here in the same awe.
Before reaching my terminus at Braemar, I have to navigate the highest main road in the UK over the ear popping Cairnwell Pass, a route surprisingly well frequented in the winter thanks to those flocking to the largest ski and snowboard resort in Scotland. A further 9 miles of twists and turns through the wild terrain of the Cairngorms National Park brings me to its heart at the village of Braemar and the end of my journey.
Thanks to its geographical position, Braemar has been the ideal location for various 'gatherings' throughout the centuries. A strategic place in the days of clan warfare, a meeting point of cattle droving roads, the centre of the biggest deer forest in the country and a place frequented by Scottish Kings. The current Braemar Royal Highland Gathering is just the latest in a long list of local meetings.
According to tradition it is said the original Braemar Gathering dates back to the time of King Malcolm Canmore who would call the clans to the Braes of Mar and have members compete against each other to find the strongest and quickest soldiers.
Gatherings at Braemar continued until after Culloden and the failed 1745 Uprising, when they were banned by law for over 30 years and were not up and running again until 1800.
In 1815 the Braemar Wrights Society was formed to organise a welfare and social insurance system. The Wrights Society subsequently became the Braemar Highland Society, with aims to preserve the kilt, language and cultural interests of the Highlands, values which continue to this day. The Society's Annual Procession laid the roots for the current Braemar Gathering which has enjoyed Patronage of successive Monarchs since Queen Victoria.
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