The Royal Mile

Running down an old volcano, having formed more than 300 million years ago during an ice age, the Royal Mile is the heart and soul of the old town of Edinburgh. It was initially created as a royal route for old monarchs, running from Edinburgh Castle to Holyrood Palace. This given birth to its now famous name- the Royal Mile.

A Royal Trail

The elegant steep and cobbled streets always provide a potent scene of culture. The street is not actually a street as there is four different areas that make up the Royal mile, they are (from top to bottom)- Castle Hill, Lawnmarket, High Street and Canongate. In between the Scottish Parliament at the bottom and Edinburgh Castle at the top, there is many notable attractions and places of interest- St Giles Cathedral, the Museum of Childhood, Scottish Whiskey Museum, Canongate Kirkyard, the Storytelling Centre, the Museum of Edinburgh, aswell as the Real Mary Kings Close- where a dark old world of Edinburgh is hidden.

Edinburgh Castle

Sitting on Castehill, overlooking the city, Edinburgh Castle is the biggest tourist attraction in Scotland. Built in the 11th century, the castle has been the scene of much warfare. In fact it is considered by many to be one of the most attacked places in the world. A long-time centre of the countless Wars of Independence of Scotland. Whoever held Edinburgh castle controlled much of Scotland.

It has always maintained its status as a royal castle- being home to the Royals of Scotland from its beginnings, right up to the Union of Crowns with England. The chapel within the castle grounds has been here longer than the actual castle. Around the time of 1093, following the death of Malcolm II, was when the chapel was established. Queen Margaret, who was married to Malcolm III, would be left so overwhelmed by the death of her husband that she would die herself just a few days later. Their son, David I built the chapel in honour of his mother- hence the name, St Margaret’s Chapel. The chapel is thus today the oldest building in Edinburgh, and one of the oldest in the world. Elsewhere, Scottish Kings and Queens of the past enjoyed a fair amount of eavesdropping, it would appear. Within the great hall in the castle there is a secret window-tunnel, known by the nickname of ‘the Lairds Lugs’. That means ‘Lords Ear’, but would be more suitably called Royal Ear. Through this, the Kings & Queens of Scotland past would spy on the room below, a key meeting room. The small tunnel is no longer there – Soviet Union chiefs insisted it be bricked up, as they regarded it as a security concern prior to their visit here in the 1980s.

Aswell as royals of the past, the castle has also been home to an elephant. In 1838, the 78th Highland Regiment decided to bring an adopted baby elephant to live with the troops in Edinburgh. The Elephant died ten years before expected, and was known to drink beer. The national war museum is within the castle grounds – and the elephants toe nails are among their collection. A brief introduction to a castle with much significant history.

Holyrood Palace

Officially The Palace of HolyroodHouse, it has been around for nearly one thousand years and has been a frequent presence in many of Scotland most important historical events. Founded by King David I of Scotland around the 12th century, it has been rebuilt several times over the years. It wasn’t until the third time the palace was rebuilt, by James V, that the glorious architecture that its known for today would become apparent. In what has been a long-time Royal household, there are many stories here – particularly surrounded the controversial times of Mary, Queen of Scots. David Rizzio, her secretary, was murdered here. The angry husband of the Queens of Scots, Lord Darnley, would stab him more than 50 times – infront of his Lord pals. It is said that the blood of Rizzio is still visible in the chamber. An extemerly disliked character, its claimed he was secretly buried over in the Canongate Kirkyard, but given his religious allegiances (catholic) this is unlikely.

Elsewhere is the palace, and there is a spectacular Royal Collection. This collection contains portraits of Scottish Kings and Queens from the past, having been commissioned as a project (called the Great Gallery) by Charles II. The work was done by artist Jacob de Wet, and he really brings these figures to life. The Queens Gallery is another spectacular show of art, and this is the official Scotland residence of the current Queen Elizabeth II.

St Giles Cathedral

First and foremost, despite the name – its not actually a cathedral. It has spent time as a recognised cathedral, but not since the 16th centruy. Also known as the High Kirk of Edinburgh, the building was established around 1124 – although the beautiful gothic architecture as seen today largely comes from a 1882 restoration. It is dedicated to St Giles, a christian missionary monk, and the Patron Saint of Edinburgh. Scottish reformer John Knox is buried at St Giles – having previously spent time as a minister here. A statue of Knox can be seen at the entrance.

The cathedral is also home to the Thistle Chapel, which was created by Sir Robert Lorimer in 1911. It is glorious in form, with unique carvings and paintings of the highest quality. Scotland’s old order of nobility, the Knights of the Thistle (order of the thistle), would often use the cathedral as a chapel. A Robert Burns memorial window was installed here in 1985, following complaints that there was no recognised tribute to Burns in Edinburgh.

Scotch Whiskey Experience

Allowing an experience of both Scotland’s whiskey past, aswell as the distillery process in how whiskey is made. First and foremost, looking at how the whiskey-Scotland relationship came about, this common told tale makes it very simple. While distillation of alcohol had long been practised in the world, this method of wine-making had become very popular in medieval Europe, but Scotland struggled. This was predominantly due to the Monks that used to live here- they were unable to access alot of grapes naturally, and being Monks they often lived as hermits. According to this legend, this lack of supplies led the monks to substitute grapes for grain mash- leading to the creation of the modern whiskey.

The Scottish Whiskey Experience should then be dedicated to monks, shouldn’t it? Its in fact a dedication to the general history of Scottish whiskey. These claims are widely disputed and these is various candidates to the whiskey founder title. You can taste and learn about the different whiskeys, aswell as the different whiskey producers that make them.

Canongate Kirkyard

It is said Charles Dickens was in Edinburgh for business purposes and went for a scroll down the Royal Mile. During this stroll he ended up in Canongate Kirkyard, and soon came across a gravestone by the name of Ebenezer Scroggie-Mealman. You might be surprised to learn that Charles Dickens suffered from dyslexia, and due to this he read the gravestone name as ‘Ebenezer Scroggle – Meanman’. Wondering what he must have done to deserve ‘meanman’ written on his gravestone – this was what led the writer to create the character Scrooge. One of many stories of the Kirkyard.

This is the resting place of several ministers and holy leaders, aswell as many great Scots including the Jacobite heroes John Mackenzie and William Wilson, the poet Robert Ferguson, and most famously the great Adam Smith. The Kirkaldy man spend alot of his time in Edinburgh, and their is various tributes the one of the most important people of the enlightenment era, the father of economics, the father of free trade, and the author of the wealth of nations. The poet Robert Ferguson, a idol of Robert Burns, is buried here with a gravestone installed that was specially made by Burns. This is the statement on that gravestone-

Here lies Robert Ferguson, Poet Born September 5th 1751 Died October 16th 1774 No sculptured marble here, nor pompous lay No storied urn, nor animated bust This simple stone directs pale Scotia’s way To pour her sorrows o’er her poet’s dust.

Robert Ferguson Gravestone

The church dates back to 1682, while the Kirkyard itself was established around a decade later. A little comically, the church was built in a more catholic style, despite it being built for Presbyterian services. The buildings were apparently bitter Catholics still reeling from the previous reformation (I think they are still bitter today).

The Real Mary King’s Close

Underneath the Royal Mile lies the secret history of Edinburgh – or should we say, the history of the hidden people of Edinburgh. Large parts of it frozen in time since the 17th century, these long abandoned houses and narrow underground streets served as home predominantly for the cities poorest families. The creation of the underground streets came about due to the cities rapidly increasing population in the early part of the century. Edinburgh was a walled city at this time- so the only way was down.

Mary King is a person. She lived near the close in the 17th century and was a well known merchant, though its unclear why the close was named after her- it was presumed that she financially supported the project in one way or another or maybe owned the property- but upon investigation it appears she was behind in her rent at the time of her death in 1664, so its more likely something to do with her husband, who was a burgess and would have held some authority in the Royal Burgh.

There is a tradition in the close of leaving flowers (and very creepy dolls apparently)at the walls of a specific room. It comes from the story of a girl called Annie. The youngsters family was annihilated by the plaque, and after spending several years alone and in despair, she would go on to be a victim of the Black Death herself. The story comes from a Japanese Psychic, who claims to have come across the ghost of a young girl – who said she was Annie and told him her story. Its not really credible to be honest, but hey-ho. Why we are on the subject of the plaque- there is a myth that the close came about after the streets were cleansed of plaque-ridden individuals, with those people being shoved into the close and the door locked. This is not true and laughable when you think about it.

Mary Kings Close was partially destroyed in the 1850s to make room for the expansion of Cockburn Street, and was completely closed off in the very late early 19th century as the Royal Exchange grounds (now the City Chambers) were developed and expanded. A saw-maker, Andrew Chesney, was the final resident of the close. He had operated his business from a workshop in the close and this workshop is still there for visitors today. He was notable as having the only toilet, but was turfed out around the mid 1890s. However, his ghost remains.

John Knox House

This 3-story house is one of the oldest in Edinburgh, with parts of it dating back to the 15th century. There is over 500 year old paintings within the museum, though it is most famous for being thew home of John Knox. Protestant Rebels had used the home for many years, but were considered traitors, and eventually the house was taken off them and lied empty until John Knox came calling. The window in the first floor was actually used by John Knox in repeated preaching to passers by, according to legend.

In the right corner of the building there is a sculpture of Moses, kneeling on top of a sundial. While in the far corner, the Scottish Storytelling Centre is located (its technically separate). It is generally a live storytelling centre, I’ve personally never been a fan but the word on the grapevine is that there is unknown oral stories told there, which could make it a very unique place. Although with tourists going in and out all the time, I’m sure that’s probably a lie. It is also home to a 100-seater theatre – the Netherbow Theatre. The venue will highly unlikely ever run out of stories, as the George Mackay Brown Library is also here.

The Witches Well

Just outside the castle walls sits the esplande, and the witches well. Hundreds if not thoudands of witches were burned here, mostly between the 15th and early 18th centuries. It is worth noting that most, if not all, were not burned alive. Various forms of execution would take place first, most popularly hanging and strangulation, in line with King Kames Daemonologie- the witch hunting manual of Scotland. They were primarily burned because of an old belief that the evil spirits in the witches could only be truly killed this way.

One of the most famous cases was that of a local shopkeeper by the name of Anges Finnie – braring the common witch name, she was accused of up to 30 cases of witchcraft. One of those cases involved a women by the name of Beatrice Nesbitt. Anges Finnie had believed that shop-keeping rival Beatrice had been the one that spread the lies about her being a witch, and subsequently she removed her tongue – rendering her speechless.

Charged with 14“the person being in continual society and company of the Devil”. The now convicted witch was strangled inside Edinburgh Castle, before being burned on the castle esplande. Speechless Beatice was in the crowd at the burning of her body, but its disputable whether she got the last laugh (given her tongue-less situation). On a serious note alot of people don’t really take the witchhunts seriously- but it was very serious and very real- the stories of the well are very true. The well was not here during those times, it was installed as a tribute to the lives lost by the sociologist Patrick Geddes, in the 19th century.

Scottish Parliament Building

Originally around from 1235, the Scottish Parliament returned in 1997. Based across the road from Holyrood Palace, the work on the building in its current form began around 1999, and was designed by Enric Miralles. He is the architecture behind many unique designs, notably the Santa Caterina Market, but tje Scottish parliement is considered his best, though he died before it was completed. Queen Elizabeth would formally open the building in September 2004, and it was not one without controversy either – everything from the modern design, to the location, was faced with much public criticism.

The costs were among the most controversial aspects of the building. So much so that in 2003 an investigation took place to find out what went so horribly wrong. Its was between 20 million and 40 million that was put aside for the construction- but this rose to over 400 million. In 2004, a book named ‘The Holyrood Inquiry: A Report by the Rt Hon Lord Fraser of Carmyllie QC on His Inquiry Into the Holyrood Building Project’ was released by the Lord who led the investigation. The Scottish Parliament building is regarded as exceptional by some- but a national disaster by others.

The Heart of Midlothian

Not the team, i’m talking about the giant heart on the pavement just outside the entrance to St Giles cathedral. It marks the spot of the entrance to the Old Tollbooth. The old tollbooth had a bit of everything – A jail, a court house, a temp parliament, a council office, and of course, the place where the people will pay their taxes.

Most famous as a jail- it was as notorious in its day for being easy to escape from, as it was for its extremely poor conditions and housing of city thieves. There are countless stories about prisoners escaping, but the one that sticks involves a lord. The lord had murdered a man who was interfering with his mistress, and was placed in the tollbooth jail. He would receive repeated visits from his sister, and one day changed clothes with her – and simply walked out. Simply.

People spit on the heart when they walk past, not the most welcoming site for tourists- who are likely unaware that it is a long tradition- which only adds to the general repulse of passers-by. It was a place that beared witness to many inhumane acts and its destruction in the early 19th century was a celebrated one- though the remaining heart means the ghastly stories were not destroyed with it.


It was the 18th century and a group of Edinburgh schoolkids had not taken well to news that they would not be afforded the public holiday that the other schoolboys were getting. As a protest they went on to barricade their rooms, and this led to an altercation with authorities, which in turn led to a riot. This all taken place on the Royal Mile. The military were called into to stop the mayhem when one of the boys snatched a soldiers gun and killed another soldier. Subsequently the boy was arrested and faced very serious charges.

Unknown to the authorities though is that the boy was a nephew of a famous and powerful Lord, and that Lord would soon see the charges against his nephew dropped. All this was then reported in England, causing much bemusement. In reference to the schoolboy going unpunished, a London journalist coined the term ‘getting off Scot free’ and here we are.So the royal mile – the home of Scot-free? Only they know but I hope criminals who’ve ‘got away with it’ don’t come here in celebration, as there’s still an active school – they might get shot.

Mons Meg

In 1457 two siege guns were presented to then Scottish King, James I. These monstrous canons were a present from his cousin, named Phillip the Good funnily enough, of the English monarch. Impressive, 300-pound cannonballs could be fired from the guns- reaching upto a two-mile distance. Make no mistake, this was the nuclear bomb of the ancient world. This weapon of mass destruction gave Edinburgh a significant advantage in any battle. There was simply no competition.

Only one remains today though, and it is displayed in the grounds of Edinburgh castle. It is most likely that the other meg was abandoned – it could only travel 3 miles per day, maximum, such is the weight of it. The remaining meg has not been in use since the early 16th century, though has been fired occasionally to mark a celebration. The marriage of Mary, Queen of Scots and the birthday of King James VI, are notable examples of this use.

Honourable Mentions: Camera Obscura, Parliament Hall, Museum of Childhood, Dunbar Close, Edinburgh Festival

25 Photos of the Royal Mile


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