It has been a few years since I last visited Edinburgh during the festive season and this year I was excited to see how much it has grown. More rides, more market stalls, a bigger ice-rink, themed zones and the Street of Light project have turned Edinburgh into a competitive European destination for a Xmas break.
With a full day to get into the Xmas spirit this is what I got up to on my Edinburgh Christmas adventure...
I took the short train journey from Glasgow and exited Waverley train station to a welcome of blue skies and a burst of colour. I immediately realised I had put on far too many layers in my anticipation of a typically cold winter's day. Scottish weather problems!
I decided to start my day with a bit of ice-skating and despite not having skated for 15 years, I had romantic images of myself and Mr Adventures Around Scotland gliding effortlessly around St Andrew Square. Blame all those Xmas films set in Central Park featuring glamourous couples ice-skating hand in hand for putting this daft notion in my head! If you watched my Instagram story you would have seen the reality of me wobbling unsteadily across the ice although I did manage to remain upright so that's a win in my book! There were lots of people shuffling along precariously and desperately grabbing on to the side who no doubt had their romantic notions shattered too but at least everyone looked like they were still having fun!
Incidentally make sure you are following me on Instagram if you want to follow my stories and get a peek behind the scenes of my travels.
Next on my list was a shot on the Star Flyer which is nearly 60 metres high so not ideal for those scared of heights. Personally I loved it and the 360 degree views as you soar over the city were incredible. As soon as I got off I wanted to go up again but my long list for the day meant time wasn't on my side. I'd really love to see the views over the city at night so hopefully I can fit it in on my next trip to Edinburgh.
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!
After Dumfries and Galloway I had to cross the country from the west coast to the east coast and as my mum and husband were going to join me for a few days, I broke the journey with an overnight stay at my parents in Glasgow. After almost a week camping I was very appreciative of a comfy bed and hot bath!
The following day we set off towards the Scottish Borders and made an impromptu stop at Crichton Castle, which isn't on the coast but seemed a good place to take a break before lunch. This was the first time I had visited the castle and was immediately wowed as we approached. An impressive spot and an impressive ruin, it must have been some spectacle in its day.
The interior was unique to anything I have ever seen in a Scottish castle before which made it really stand out for me. A diamond-faceted facade inspired by Italy and in particular the Palazzo dei Diamanti in Ferrara, makes Crichton Castle that bit more unusual. I've visited many, many (many!) castles in Scotland over my lifetime and this is definitely one of the more memorable ruins and now added to my favourites.
As there were now 3 of us (and Willow), we decided it was more practical to get an apartment rather than camp and found a fantastic 2 bedroom flat on Airbnb in the historic town of Greenlaw in the Scottish Borders. At only £50 per night, dog friendly and 30 minutes from the coast, it was ideal. It turned out to be a great little apartment and the village was nice and peaceful, I would highly recommend it as a budget base for exploring the southeast of the country.
It was then time to start exploring the east coast and after temporarily crossing the Border to England, I was back on my Scottish coastal adventures and enjoyed a lovely evening in Eyemouth.
As a Glaswegian I'm meant to hold some historic inter-city rivalry towards Edinburgh which apparently all started over a loaf of bread several hundred years ago, however I'm quite comfortable to admit that this Weegie is a big fan of Scotland's capital and it's baked goods!
Separated by less than an hour on the train, I have made the journey to 'Auld Reekie' countless times over the years and still get over excited every time the train pulls into Waverley Station and I catch the first glimpse of the Castle towering overhead.
When London City Airport invited me to post some of my unfiltered images of Edinburgh for their #NoFilter project, I was keen to take part and share some of the things that make Edinburgh special for me and some tips on how best to capture the authentic natural beauty of the city. I should point out that I'm not a photographer and I took all these images on my Panasonic Lumix, which proves you don't need training or an expensive camera to take a good shot.
You can find out more about the innovative #NoFilter campaign to showcase unedited images of European cities here.
What I love about Edinburgh
The Royal Mile and the Old Town
When I visit Edinburgh I am technically a tourist and like most tourists I am inevitably drawn to the bustling Royal Mile and the historic Old Town. The Royal Mile runs from the magnificent Edinburgh Castle to the splendid Palace of Holyroodhouse and is lined with an eclectic mix of shops, pubs, restaurants and attractions.
Venture in to the many darkened closes and mysterious wynds that lie concealed between the 21st Century businesses and you quite literally feel like you have stepped back in time. Look out for the close names above the maze like passages which are associated with their former use or a notable resident.
When I visit Edinburgh I love nothing more than spending a day exploring the hidden history of the Old Town and of course enjoying a dram or two at the characterful pubs along the way!
#NoFilter Tip - Take time to think about the composition of an image. Move your camera around, zoom in and out and only press the button when you're happy that your subject is nicely framed.
The Street Performers
The Edinburgh Fringe Festival takes places every August and is the largest arts festival in the world. The Royal Mile is taken over by a sea of tourists and global street performers demonstrating their craft. From living statues and fire acts to break-dancers and magicians, you could easily spend a whole day mesmerised by the mind boggling and often strange talents that some people make a living from.
If you can't make the Festival then you can still enjoy the many street performers that have taken to entertaining the people of Edinburgh on a year round basis. However, this is Scotland, and as impressive as their skills may be, I've yet to see an act that is as popular as a kilted bagpiper!
#NoFilter Tip - Street performers can make great subjects and for a small donation they will happily pose for that perfect photo.
The Story Behind the Details
When exploring the Old Town it is easy to be swept along in the tourist buzz and miss the smaller details hiding in plain view. Every now and then I like to just pause and fully take in my surroundings, it's amazing what historic features start to pop out between the people and the modern street furniture. In these details you can find the stories of the ordinary people and their everyday life in Old Town Edinburgh which in my opinion is even more fascinating than the stories of the grander attractions that punctuate each end of the Royal Mile.
The image below is of the Netherbow Wellhead and until 1820 stone wellheads like this were the only way that thousands of local residents could access water and were a great place to meet and exchange gossip.
By the 1780s the population of the city had grown so much that the system was unable to cope and the water was only turned on from midnight for three hours, this caused queues and fights and those with money would pay water caddies to save them getting up during the night.
This is just one of many stories that can be uncovered by paying that extra little bit of attention to the details.
#NoFilter Tip - Don't just take the obvious shot, look for the smaller, interesting details
There's nothing like going on a Scottish road-trip, cruising over hills, along coasts and through glens. However, if you are one of the growing number of electric vehicle owners wanting to take off on a journey along the highways and byways of Scotland you might have to plan a bit more carefully. particularly when it comes to finding accommodation as few overnight stops currently provide the facility to charge your vehicle.
For those wanting to seek out the delights of Edinburgh and the surrounding area you will be pleased to know that you can now make use of new free twin charging points at The Edinburgh Marriott, handily situated near the city airport.
Having no experience of the logistics of taking an electric vehicle on such a road-trip, I was intrigued to take up an invite to stay at the hotel with the use of an electric car to explore the area during my stay and find out just how far I could go on battery power.
Here is how my 2 days went...
The Edinburgh Marriot is a large and functional hotel mainly used for business travel, coach tours, corporate events and airport stopovers. As you would expect from this size and type of hotel it has facilities such as a leisure club with swimming pool, business suites, beauty salon and hairdresser.
The rooms are more functional than luxury although they provide all the extras you would need. A couple of nice touches I appreciated were the sculpted swan towels on the bed (a dying art in my opinion!) and rather nice L'Occitane toiletries. Unfortunately WiFi is only free in public areas with a charge applied to access it from the bedroom, not ideal for someone like me who needs frequent online access.
I stayed in one of the deluxe bedrooms which had a huge and comfy bed and after a good nights sleep I enjoyed a tasty breakfast from a large buffet selection. I can also highly recommend the bar snacks as the pork belly bites were totally delicious!
My Nissan Leaf vehicle was provided by eCorporate Travel, who offer a professional and discreet 'green' chauffeur service, based in Edinburgh Their concept is to provide environmentally sustainable travel at competitive prices and after chatting to them I was impressed at how passionate they are about their business and their vision to provide a more environmentally friendly travel service, something we should all be embracing.
After some quick tuition in driving and charging the vehicle I was ready to set off on my first electric adventure in my silent, green machine!
Where did I go?
The Edinburgh Marriott is situated on the outskirts of Scotland's historic capital and this is a bonus if you are driving and don't relish the thought of navigating the one way streets or rush hour traffic going in and out of the city centre, not to mention finding an affordable parking space! With plenty of free parking and sitting next to the city bypass, this is ideal accommodation for those wanting to explore the gems that surround Edinburgh.
With over 100 miles of charge and the sun shining I was firstly drawn towards Edinburgh's own coastal suburb and a proper Scottish road-trip to visit the seaside delights of Portobello Beach. A 32 mile round trip wasn't too much of a drain on the battery, however I found it easy and convenient to top it up in the hotel car park whilst I checked in to my room and planned my next adventure.
On the second day I again opted to avoid the hustle and bustle of the city and made my way to Castlelaw Iron Age Hillfort in the Pentland Hills near Penicuik. At just over 10 miles from the hotel this makes an interesting alternative to the historic city centre attractions. There are also walking routes for those wanting to explore more of the outdoors and I highly recommend heading a few miles along the road to visit the famous Rosslyn Chapel while you are in the area.
Have you ever been to The Edinburgh Dungeon? If you have then you will know that it is the ultimate experience for scary fun in the capital. If you haven't then I suggest you add it to your must do list for a funnily frightening time in the city.
I bet as you wandered around in the semi-darkness your adrenaline was pumping far too hard to think about the huge amount of work that goes in to running such a spookily busy attraction. To be honest I hadn't either until I received an invite to a fun blogger night to get an exclusive look behind the scenes and it was a real eye opener, well I might have closed my eyes once or twice!
First we were given a make-up demonstration and a lucky volunteer had the opportunity to have a less than glamorous make-under as we learned the tricks of the trade including the use of eyelash glue to create boils, nice!
I was surprised to learn the rigorous auditioning that a potential Dungeon actor has to go through and I didn't realise that they have to play a number of characters which means perfecting several parts and scripts. I have always been impressed at how convincing the actors are and even though we met a few of them out of character at the beginning, their creepy and humorous performances during the show previews had me believing every word.
Stumbling around in darkened rooms definitely helps create a spooky tension and as we found out also handily hides technical spoilers such as speakers and wires. We got the rare opportunity to explore with the lights on and find out more about the work, props and preparation that goes into designing each set.
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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