The Royal Mile

The Royal Mile is the heart of the Old Town, a straight-line street which connects the Castle with the Palace of Holyroodhouse, the King’s official HQ in Scotland. It is the remains of a volcano which was shaped by the Ice Age, a classic “crag and tail”: as the ice pushed eastwards, it scraped up the land to get over the harder rock from inside the extinct volcano, and deposited it all, more gradually, on the other side. The Castle was built on the crag, and the Royal Mile runs down the ridge of its tail.

The Castle

There has been a fortress here for thousands of years, and parts of the present building complex goes back a thousand years. Try to get in when it opens in the morning — it tends to be busy all day. The last time I visited, it was at a private evening event connected to a conference, when twenty of us had a private tour of the Honours of Scotland and enjoyed a really good dinner in the Castle.

If you are on the Esplanade at lunchtime, look out for the One o’Clock Gun — if you are in Princes Street Gardens at the time, listen for it. The main purpose was to ensure good time-setting on the ships in the docks and out in the Firth of Forth, but of course ships’ electronics do the job better these days, but the daily firing remains. The famous Military Tattoo takes place on the sloping cobbled Esplanade, where even rain (and thus slippery cobbles) has not stopped the fixed-bayonet drills of the West Point Military Academy when they visit. Nowadays, the grandstands are more robust, but I remember when it was just scaffolding, planks and seats — with good views between your feet of the buses on Johnston Terrace far below.

At the foot of the Esplanade are steps which lead down to Johnston Terrace (if you need a punishing exercise routine, ascend and descend every set of steps to and from the Royal Mile). In 1971 I was with a group attending a conference during the Three Day Week period, when electricity was shut off every other night. A memorable experience, but negotiating the steps in the pitch black was something to be savoured once.


Directly downhill from the Esplanade is Castlehill. On the right is the Scotch Whisky Experience, a better bet than the new Johnnie Walker centre at the west end of Princes Street. On the left, the white tower is the Camera Obscura (really, only for a sunny day). At the mini-roundabout, the street-name changes.


This is where commerce (including tat-commerce) takes over. However there are two places of interest on Lawnmarket.

On the right, note the red sandstone portal to Riddle’s Court, and the building to its left, now offices for the National Library of Scotland. Recently, this was the site of some amazing social detective work. The message in a bottle was the star of the show, but the article showed me where, I believe, one of my great-great-uncles had his business!

Just across on the left, Gladstone’s Land is a museum which portrays the life and times of a prosperous merchant of the seventeenth century. It is managed by the National Trust for Scotland, so is free for NT members in at least their second year of membership.

Just beyond Gladstone’s Land is Lady Stair’s Close. In a building behind Lawnmarket is the Writers’ Museum, commemorating Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott, and Robert Louis Stevenson. Some years ago, I was at a black-tie (or, in my case, full Highland dress) concert and dinner in the City of London. After the concert, we arrived at our table to be introduced to our table-mates. The leader went round the table, ending with “and finally, Miss Maxwell-Scott”. I responded, “As in Sir Walter, I take it”. The lady was impressed that I knew of the connection between the two surnames, and was more impressed when I mentioned that I owned one of Sir Walter Scott’s plaid brooches (via my grandmother and the Surgeon to King George V in Australia). She was less impressed that I did not pass it to her (the future of Abbotsford, Scott’s home in the Borders, was at that time insecure). I told her that the Writers’ Museum would have it when I had no need for it.

At the major junction, look to your left to find one of Edinburgh’s most famous pubs, Deacon Brodie’s Tavern. William Brodie was an upright citizen by day, but funded his gambling as a house-breaker by night. The idea of the double life is a recurring theme in Edinburgh, with The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, by Robert Louis Stevenson probably the best-known example. Stevenson had earlier written a play about Deacon Brodie, and this was one of the seeds from which Jekyll and Hyde grew.

Just off to the right on George IV Bridge is Ondine, one of Edinburgh’s best seafood restaurants.

Continue ahead to where the Lawnmarket ends at Parliament Square on your right.

High Street

At Parliament Square, you have the High Court on your left and St Giles’ Cathedral ahead on your right. But look down before you reach the cathedral to see a heart-shaped mosaic picked out on the cobbles. This is the Heart of Midlothian, the site of the public gallows. It has given its name to a novel by Sir Walter Scott, set in 1737. The novel, now generally considered to be one of Scott’s best, includes the story of Jeanie Deans, who walked from Edinburgh to London to plead for her sister’s life before the Queen at Richmond Palace. More recently, it gave its name to one of the city’s football teams.

The cathedral is the “headquarters church” of the Church of Scotland (presbyterian), and was last in the news when the late Queen lay in state after her death at Balmoral and before being transferred to the Palace of Westminster.

Beyond the cathedral, the Mercat Cross marks the position of the old market, established by royal decree. These crosses are found throughout Scotland, and the design, with the Unicorn of Scotland on top of a column, is as standard as the Lutyens war memorials throughout Britain. The base would have housed the market’s administration. Opposite the cross is the seat of local government, the City Chambers.

Continue downhill to cross “the Bridges”, the main road southwards from the centre of Edinburgh. On the left, with its outside stairs, is John Knox House (better known as John Knox’s House). It is said to have been the dwelling of John Knox, who led the anti-Catholic religious Reformation in Scotland (and was a fervent misogynist) during the sixteenth century. Continue to the junction with St Mary Street (a name which Knox would have hated).


Cross St Mary Street to reach Canongate. Just beyond a blocky redundant church on the left is my favourite upscale restaurant in all of Edinburgh, Wedgwood, whose signature is seasonal Scottish cuisine with a light Asian influence.

The fine gateway on the right was the site of Moray House College of Education, which expanded from training teachers and is now Queen Margaret University, located at Musselburgh, to the east of the city. The buildings are now owned by the University of Edinburgh.

Opposite a large church, the Museum of Edinburgh showcases the city’s history. In the late 1980s, I worked with the Museum staff, first researching Robert Louis Stevenson’s journey in the Cévennes and then, having completed the walk, giving an illustrated talk on behalf of the Museum. I was booked to repeat the talk the following evening in French, but I was not sorry to find that the local French Institute had forgotten to advertise the event and book a hall. During my walk, I stayed in a charming bed and breakfast in Langogne, where Madame asked me (in French, of course) whether I knew Mr Hill — he was my key contact at the Museum.

The foot of Canongate is dominated by the new Parliament building.

Palace of Holyroodhouse

Ahead at the foot of the Royal Mile is the Palace of Holyroodhouse, the official home of the monarch in Scotland. This is where investitures and similar events take place in Scotland.

Arthur’s Seat

Arthur’s Seat is the name of the volcanic plug in Holyrood Park. Climbing the hill involves 300m of ascent over worn paths or rough ground. It is an exhilarating short climb with, on a clear day, immense views, but it must be taken seriously. Although I have seen people climbing in flip-flops or even high heels, the minimum footwear should be a stout pair of trainers which are new enough to have lost none of their tread. Lightweight walking boots are ideal. Carry a waterproof: you never know when rain, hail or snow will blow through.

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