Regular readers of my blog will know I love taking in the history of the places I visit around Scotland. When you live in a country that is littered with countless historical physical remnants spanning many millennia, it is only natural to acquire a curiosity about the past.
Edinburgh is a city woven with tales from bygone times and has more stories to tell than most places, from the characters that lived there to the events that have helped shape it as one of the most iconic cities in the world.
With so many historical layers, it can be hard to get to grips with all the elements that make up the fabric of Edinburgh which is why a unique 101 guide has been devised to help visitors and locals out. At the weekend I popped over to Scotland's capital to find out more and have devised a 1 day itinerary for those wanting to delve deeper in to Edinburgh's past.
The story of Edinburgh in 101 objects
How do you easily convey the history, culture, heritage and everyday life of a city as complex as Edinburgh? You create a unique visitor experience that captures the imagination of course!
In this case 101 objects and curiosities from across the city have been chosen to tell the story of 1000 years of Edinburgh's past. A handy map shows the location of each object and discovering them is a bit like a treasure trail, complete with a tick list to keep track. It is then up to you to delve a bit deeper and find out the significance of each discovery.
The project finishes at the end of March 2018 so the upcoming Easter weekend is a great time to explore the trail. This is Edinburgh website currently has a page dedicated to the Edinburgh 101 experience and maps can be picked up around the city. You can also upload your discoveries using #Edinburgh101 on social media.
I personally found it great fun and managed to visit 15 of the objects on my day out, some were easy to find and some took a bit more of an effort. If you fancy following in my footsteps, here is my suggested itinerary although I've deliberately not given too much away about the background of every object as doing your own research is all part of the fun...
My suggested #Edinburgh101 itinerary
Stop 1 - St Giles' Cathedral
First stop of the day is one of my favourite places to visit on the Royal Mile as it is an oasis of calm among the hectic hustle and bustle of the surrounding streets. St Giles' Cathedral was founded in the 1120s and is free to visit. It has some beautiful stained glass windows, ornate carvings and runs a rooftop tour on certain days. It is also home to the famous Thistle Chapel, home of the Knights of the Order of the Thistle.
There are 2 objects inside the cathedral, The National Covenant (object 77) and The Ceiling of the Thistle Chapel (object 85) which is stunning and a must see in my opinion.
Outside the chapel on the pavement is The Heart of Midlothian (object 1). The heart shaped mosaic marks the site of Edinburgh’s old Tolbooth where debtors were said to spit on the pavement at the main entrance as they left. Spitting on the heart is a tradition that continues today although I personally think it isn't the most pleasant of customs to keep going!
A complete guide to Hop on Hop off Edinburgh bus tours
I would always advocate walking as the best way to get to know a city but when you're on a tight schedule this isn't always the most practical way to make the most of your time. I often get asked about the best way to see Edinburgh in a day or a weekend and if this is your first visit to the city, I would recommend buying a ticket for the Edinburgh Hop on Hop off bus tours. Although it is a compact city, it is hilly, and pounding up and down the slopes, steps and cobblestones of the Old Town can be surprisingly energy sapping not to mention time-consuming. There are definite benefits to relaxing while being transported around and learning about the history of the places you pass on your journey. Your bus ticket will also give you a discount at some attractions (see below) which adds even more value.
I recently made a trip to Scotland's capital city and spent a couple of days trying out the different hop on hop off Edinburgh buses and routes and have put together this handy guide to help you plan your own visit. Below you will find -
What's the difference between the various Edinburgh hop on hop off bus tours?
There are three main Hop on Hop off Edinburgh sightseeing buses which can make things a little confusing so I have provided an easy explanation of each bus tour and ticket types below. Most people start their journey on Waverley Bridge, next to the Scott Monument, across from Edinburgh Waverley train station. There are always lots of assistants at the bus stop that will advise you on the different tours and sell you tickets - see the next section for ticket options and information.
Each full tour lasts up to 70 minutes and all the buses are fully accessible with dedicated wheelchair space. Each tour has its own unique benefits so I have listed the main points below so you can compare them and decide which best suits your needs.
WHAT EACH TOUR INCLUDES
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.
Steam trains must be one of the most iconic modes of transport to travel by, but despite watching many a steam train puff by me, I've never actually journeyed on one before. So when I was invited to experience a Sunday outing from Edinburgh along the Borders Railway to Tweedbank on the historic Royal Scot, I couldn't wait to be transported back to an era when train travel was much more of a refined and romantic way to get around than it is today.
I didn't even realise you could go on a steam train from Edinburgh until now but thanks to the recent reopening of the Borders Railway line, steam train trips have become a popular way to get a taste of Southern Scotland.
As Mr Adventures Around Scotland and I made our way to the departing platform at Edinburgh Waverley Station, we were met by excited fellow passengers and train enthusiasts all waiting for their first glimpse of the steam train pulling into the station. Built in 1927 by London Midland & Scottish Railway, the Royal Scot was originally used for their fastest passenger routes from London to Birmingham and Manchester to Glasgow.
She has an interesting history, including being shipped complete with carriages for an appearance at the 'Century for Progress' exhibition in Chicago in 1933 and touring the USA before being returned to Britain and eventually retired from service in 1962. After being a static attraction at both Butlins and a steam museum, she subsequently received a complete overhaul which saw her return to steam on a main line railway in 2015.
On her arrival, we were given time to take photos and admire the shiny green locomotive that was about to take us on our journey south. With all the buzz on the platform, it really felt as if we were about to do something special.
Just to add to the romance and luxury of the trip, we were booked in for the premier dining experience and as we got settled in our comfy seats at our own table, we were welcomed with a glass of Prosecco and I kept thinking, this is how all my Sundays should start!
1. Mercat Tours - The Edinburgh Outlander Experience Walking Tour
This seasonal 2 hour walking tour of Edinburgh takes place each Saturday and explores the history of the city during the period Jamie and Claire would have visited and stops at locations which either feature in the books or have inspired Diana Gabaldon in her research.
I was invited to experience the tour for myself and started off my weekend by joining an international group of fans keen to hear tales of life in 18th Century Edinburgh. Our guide Gillian started off with an interesting summary of the unfortunate generations of Stuart Kings and the events that eventually led to the Jacobite risings, an essential aid to understanding the background of the books.
Gillian then led us into atmospheric back closes, up to the Castle and back down the Royal Mile from the Canongate to the Palace of Holyroodhouse, stopping off at strategic points along the way to regale stories of witches, printmakers, pubs, wells, graveyards, herb gardens and the Tolbooth jail where the men of Lallybroch were imprisoned. Diana Gabaldon may have wrote a fictional series, however she has really done her research and much of the background is based on real events and places which would actually have existed in the city at the time and Mercat Tours are experts at not only finding them but also bringing them to life.
Just to make sure we didn't get lost or distracted, Gillian tempted us along like an Outlander Pied Piper by holding up photos of Jamie and occasionally Claire by demand of the men in the group!
I certainly learned lots of new facts about the city and discovered lots of nooks and crannies I hadn't noticed before and probably wouldn't have if it wasn't for the tour. Standing huddled together in quiet old closes hearing tales of the characters that lived there helps you to imagine the Edinburgh that Jamie and Claire would have experienced which certainly felt a world away from the bustling 21st Century crowds on the Royal Mile.
The tour ends at the Palace of Holyroodhouse, another location which fans will be familiar with and it is possible to visit this magnificent building which is the official residence of the Queen in Scotland, although being an official building it is occasionally closed to the public which was the case on the day I was there so it is advisable to check opening hours in advance.
I also recommend a visit to the National Museum of Scotland if you have time before the tour starts. Here you will find exhibits about the Jacobites and Bonnie Prince Charlie among their many interesting displays.
The majority of the tour centres around the books and in particular Dragonfly in Amber so be aware there may be some spoilers if you have not read it. Walking for 2 hours on cobbled stones is best done in comfortable shoes and I would also advise you also take a bottle of water along on warm days.
Visit the Mercat Tour website for more information and to book.
This is my second blog covering Scottish regional filming locations used in the the Outlander TV series and this time I will also be including some other Outlander themed activities available in the area.
Last weekend I went on an Edinburgh and Lothians Outlander pilgrimage which included a walking tour in the city and visits to nearby key filming locations from Series 1.
As part of my research I personally visit every location I include in my guides so I can give you the best advice and top tips to make the most of your experience. I recommend a minimum of 2 days if you want to briefly visit the places mentioned in this post although in reality 3-4 days would be ideal if you want to explore them properly. I managed to cover all this ground in a weekend so it is possible if you are short on time!
2. Bo'ness Railway Station
I spent the rest of my weekend visiting nearby Outlander filming locations which are all handily situated a short drive from Edinburgh, making it easy to travel to them all over 2 days.
Approx a 40 min drive brings you to the quaint little steam railway at Bo'ness. Transformed into a 1940s London railway and renamed Milford Station for episode 1 of Outlander, this is where Claire and Frank bid each other farewell.
I was lucky enough to pull into the carpark just as one of the trains was about to depart and quickly dashed up to the overhead bridge to take some photos. I really find steam engines quite romantic and it was a treat to see one pass directly under me with the steam wafting up into my face!
As I was on a mission to get to my next stop I didn't have time to fully appreciate this cute little station or visit the museum, however I hope to return and actually take one of the train journeys for myself as they look great fun,
Passenger trains run for a limited number of dates throughout the year, check out the online timetable and try and coincide your visit with a steam train departure to enjoy the sights, sounds and smells of bygone rail travel.
3. Blackness Castle
Just a 15 minute drive from Bo'ness back towards Edinburgh and you will reach the imposing Blackness Castle. Who could forget those scenes of poor Jamie being flogged in the courtyard when the 15th Century castle stood in as Fort William?
This is definitely one of the more interesting Scottish castles that I have visited and there is certainly a gloomy atmosphere that permeates the stone walls which is no surprise given it's dark history. In contrast the views from the curtain walls and towers across the Firth of Forth are impressive and momentarily distract you from the darkness of this formidable structure. I highly recommend exploring the inside and outside of this dramatic castle if you have the time.
Blackness Castle belongs to Historic Scotland and there is an admission charge to visit. If you are going to a few of their sites the costs can add up and I recommend investigating whether a membership works out cheaper.
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