The Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh

Holyroodhouse is to Scotland what Buckingham Palace is to England

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The Palace of Holyroodhouse

Holyroodhouse is to Scotland what Buckingham Palace is to England – but it is much older, dating from a time when England’s kings still lived in the Tower of London.

Holyroodhouse is to Scotland what Buckingham Palace is to England – but it is much older, dating from a time when England’s kings still lived in the Tower of London.

Holyrood Park was originally a royal hunting preserve beneath the towering crags of Arthur’s Seat. King David I built a monastery here around 1130, which also acted as a residence for Scotland’s kings and queens. By the end of the middle ages, the royal accommodation had been enlarged into a great palace.

The palace was rebuilt in its current form for Charles II in the 1670s, designed by Sir William Bruce as a grand classical setting for the formal events of the royal court. Its centrepiece is the Great Gallery, lined by a hundred portraits depicting all Scotland’s ancient kings (most of them completely fictional). Bonnie Prince Charlie set up his court here briefly in 1745.

The massive tower on the left side of the façade is the only part of the older medieval palace which survived burning by English troops in 1544 and 1650. This contains the ancient royal apartments where Mary Queen of Scots lived, and where her handsome secretary David Rizzio was murdered by her jealous husband Lord Darnley .

Beyond the tower are the ruins of the original abbey church, dating from around 1200. Parts were pulled down by the English in the 1540s, effectively ending Holyrood’s role as a monastery. It was sacked again by the Edinburgh mob in 1688, but it was only truly ruined after a botched restoration in 1758. A heavy stone roof was built, which collapsed ten years later, crushing the building beneath its weight.

One aspect of Holyrood’s religious past that survived the destruction was its role as a sanctuary for criminals, especially debtors. By the 18th century, they could even rent rooms in the palace. The most famous of these paying guests was Charles X, the deposed king of France, who spent long years of exile living in the royal apartments – a home fit for a king, and safe from the bailiffs.

Today, Holyrood is still used by the Queen and the royal family as their home when they are in Edinburgh, but the petty criminals are long gone. Modern visitors can hire audio headsets as they stroll around the buildings and gardens, and special guided tours are offered in the evenings.

The Queen’s Gallery, which hosts art exhibitions from the fabulously rich Royal Collection, is based in the gatehouse complex, which stands between the Palace and the Royal Mile. In the diary for 2011 is a show of work by royal photographer Marcus Adams, running from February to June, followed until New Year by paintings and drawings from the Northern Renaissance of the 15th and 16th centuries.

Also in the gatehouse, in the courtyard of the old stables, is the Café at the Palace. This offers a range of straightforward but high-quality snacks and meals, many of them home-made. The scones truly are fit for the Queen.

The Palace of Holyroodhouse
Canongate, The Royal Mile, 0131 556 5100, www.royalcollection.org.uk
Open: daily, Nov-Mar, 9.30am–4.30pm; Apr–Oct, 9.30am–6pm. £10.25 (£9.30); under-5s, free

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