Edinburgh's Royal Mile takes in hundreds of years of history and drama
- Edinburgh Guide
- 16 February 2011
A haven for tourists and the centrepoint of historic Edinburgh
The Royal Mile runs from Edinburgh Castle down to Holyrood Palace – taking in hundreds of years of history and drama along the way
The Royal Mile begins as you leave the castle. On the right is the Scotch Whisky Experience – the perfect introduction to the history and alchemy of Scotland’s national drink – complete with a dram at the end.
On the left, the tower with the black-and-white dome is the Camera Obscura, a tourist attraction since the 1800s. It uses lenses and mirrors to capture moving images from across the city.
High above the rooftops rises the spire of the Highland Tolbooth Church, the highest pinnacle in Edinburgh. It was co-designed by AW Pugin, master of the gothic revival, who went on to design the Houses of Parliament in London.
Beyond the Tolbooth is the Lawnmarket, one of the best-preserved sections of the street, flanked by old buildings and hidden alleyways. On the left is Gladstone’s Land, a merchant’s house from the 1600s. It is one of Edinburgh’s most authentic old houses, lovingly maintained by the National Trust for Scotland, and offering a glimpse of life in the city during the Renaissance.
Off the street behind Gladstone’s Land is a warren of passages and irregular courtyards. Here you can find the little Jolly Judge pub, which boasts its own painted Renaissance ceiling in the bar, and Lady Stair’s House, an eccentric-looking building which contains the Writers’ Museum, dedicated to the lives and stories of three Scottish authors – Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson.
Now we enter the oldest part of the city, and we see St Giles’ Cathedral, a church that has grown and changed over 900 years of history. In the 1100s, its revenues aided Crusaders suffering from leprosy, while its unusual crown-shaped spire was built around 1495 and symbolises the independence of Scotland. In 1560, St Giles’ became the mother church of the Presbyterian revolution, with a guillotine in the churchyard and the thunderous John Knox preaching from the pulpit. Today, the interior is more peaceful, used for private prayers and public concerts as well as church services, with a café in the vaults.
Behind the church is Parliament Square, with a statue of Charles II in the centre and the supreme court on the far side. Although the façade dates from 1810, the building behind was built in 1633, and was Scotland’s first purpose-built seat of government, originally housing the parliament and administration and as well as the law courts.
A little further down, the street narrows at the Netherbow, the site of the old city gate. On the left is John Knox’s House, a 15th-century pile with squared stonework, white timbers, and painted carvings. It is now thought the preacher really lived further up the road, but it is still one of the oldest and prettiest houses in Edinburgh.
At the back, John Knox’s House opens out to the Scottish Storytelling Centre, a new building dedicated to the spoken word. Almost opposite lies the Museum of Childhood. The closes on either side are worth a look. Tweeddale Court has been a grand town house, a bank and a publishing company. The shed with the grey doors is the last surviving sedan-chair garage.
Beyond the Netherbow, the High Street of the royal burgh gives way to the Canongate, once a separate town serving Holyrood, with its own town hall, the Tolbooth. Behind the impressive exterior, this ancient building now contains The People’s Story, a museum which recreates the lives of Edinburgh’s ordinary inhabitants from the middle ages to the modern era.
Opposite the Tolbooth is Moray House, dating from 1618. The elegant Canongate Church and the former coaching inn called White Horse Close also date from the 17th century, as does the imposing white-harled Queensberry House.
Adjoining this last edifice is something very different: the new Scottish Parliament, designed by the late Catalan architect Enric Miralles, with its dramatic grey concrete and green turf surrounding an oak-ribbed debating chamber. Behind it lies the striking museum of geology and science known as Dynamic Earth.
Finally, at the very end of the Royal Mile, you enter the Abbey Strand, and reach the venerable gates of Holyroodhouse, with the royal palace rising beyond them, and behind that, the ancient rocky heights of Arthur’s Seat.