Edinburgh Marries Old and New
Edinburgh is love at first sight. Even in its misty haze.
We traveled by train from London to Edinburgh. As you enter the city, you’re immediately struck by its old-world beauty. Then you realize it’s more than skin deep. There’s just as much substance as you get to know the people and history of Scotland’s capital city with just under 500,000 residents.
Feel Royal Presence of Edinburgh Castle
The Edinburgh Castle beckons from atop a rocky hill overlooking the city. It’s a great place to get your bearings and a historical orientation of the city.
As you enter the medieval fortress, its arch is flanked by stone sculptures of Scottish heroes Sir William Wallace (“Braveheart” fame) and King Robert the Bruce with a Latin inscription overhead that translates roughly into “no one can harm me unpunished.” Message received.
While inhabitation on this fortress dates back to 900 B.C., the oldest building of the castle and in all of Edinburgh is St. Margaret’s Chapel. King David I built it in 1130. In front of the church is some impressive artillery. Cutting-edge technology at the time, the Mons Meg cannon could fire 330-pound balls up to two miles.
During our visit, we were luck enough to stumble upon an instructive demonstration in the Great Hall of what it took to wear women’s fashion. Let’s just say my worn jeans and T-shirt ensemble never felt so free and liberating.
Scotland has a long history of struggles and turmoil. A visit to the castle’s National War Museum gives you an appreciation for multiple centuries of warfare by putting you in the shoes of the soldiers. See the evolution of the soldier, from uniforms and weaponry to recruitment tactics and potential punishments for bad behavior.
In the Royal Palace, you’ll find the oldest crown jewels in the British Isles first used together for the coronation of Mary Queen of Scots in 1543. They later were hidden and locked away at different times in the country’s evolution until the Treaty of Union between Scotland and England in 1707. Sir Walter Scott finally uncovered them in 1818.
Stroll Old Town Streets
After touring the castle, walk the Royal Mile and explore its “closes,” or alleyways leading to some interesting courtyards and adjacent streets. There are many interesting stops along the way, including St. Giles’ Cathedral. While its facade had a 19th century refreshing in Neo-Gothic style, its Scottish crown steeple and interiors are from the 14th and 15th centuries.
Another fun stop to get a feel for 16th century living quarters is the John Knox House. I found the recording of a John Knox re-enacted discussion on the merits of Reformation a nice complement to the experience. While there’s a cape, hat and feather pen for photo ops on the top floor, I decided to leave the disguise to my imagination.
Take Time to Explore New Town
With only a few days in Edinburgh, it wasn’t until our last evening that we broke away from Old Town and entered New Town. We quickly realized that was a mistake. There’s so much more to see that’s equally enthralling.
Passing the impressive Victorian Gothic monument to Sir Walter Scott, we headed into new town as sporadic rain goaded us to open our umbrella. As we passed multiple monuments stationed in roundabouts, we stumbled upon an inventive art installation, Field of Light by Bruce Munro, in St. Andrew Square Gardens. The artist lined up clear spheres of light throughout the green quadrants leading to the Melville Monument. It was dusk when we saw it, but we could imagine its beauty illuminated at night.
Both considered UNESCO World Heritage Sites, Old Town showcases medieval, Gothic architecture while New Town features neo-classical and Georgian styles of the 1700s and 1800s. Get a better feel for the architectural development of old and new through this video created by University of Nottingham School of Architecture students.
We missed seeing the modern Scottish Parliament Building constructed in 2004. It was a long wait between the parliament’s dissolution in 1707 and its reintroduction by Queen Elizabeth in 1999. For now, Scotland is free to rule on domestic matters with the exception of defense, foreign policy and taxation.
While we enjoyed a farewell drink in the Balmoral Bar, a bright light projecting Election 2014 beamed on a building across the street and reminded us that Scotland faces another historic crossroads. On September 18, Scottish citizens will have the opportunity to vote on becoming fully independent.
The topic of independence is just as divisive as the new parliament building’s aesthetic merits. While one person we talked to spoke with excitement about independence, another said it would be a big mistake.
We’ll be watching to see which road Scotland takes in this next chapter of its history.