While I was finding ways to explore Edinburgh in the best possible way in a short time, I came across these amazing walking tours offered by different companies — and without any charge. So, I booked an almost five-hour walking tour through the Royal Mile and Grassmarket streets to capture the historic beauty of the Scottish capital.
The Royal Mile runs through the heart of the Old Town, connecting the city with the magnificent Edinburgh Castle perched high on a volcanic rock. The Mile is overlooked by impressive, towering tenements, between which cobbled closes and narrow stairways interlock to create a secret underground world. The Grassmarket, a small district with famous streets was part of the southwest bastion during the 16th century. Now home to loads of bars and restaurants, the Grassmarket once held a weekly market for more than 400 years in the shadow of the castle.
Forged in steel
The meeting point for the guided tour was near the City chambers, High street, where people of different nationalities but with the same aim — of grasping the beauty of the place on foot — gathered. A light drizzle made it a breezy day and gave me the opportunity to click some stunning photographs. Luca, our guide, introduced us all before taking us to our first attraction, the Adam Smith Statue. This bronze statue was made by John Steel who founded one of the first foundries dedicated to sculpture in Edinburgh. In 1838, he was appointed sculptor to Queen Victoria. Our next stop was the City Chambers, the home of the City of Edinburgh Council. Here is a prominent bronze statue of Alexander taming the steed Bucephalus — again by Steel — in the quadrangle. The City Chambers and the Alexander and Bucephalus statue are listed as Category A buildings by Historic Scotland.
Spitting for good luck
We continued on the High Street towards the almost 900-year-old St Giles’ Cathedral. Just outside the church lies the Heart of the Midlothian, a mosaic named after the historic county of Midlothian. The crest of the Edinburgh football team is based upon this mosaic. One can often see people spitting on it. Lore has it that a prison once stood on the site, and the heart marks its doorway and the point of public execution — although, the spitting has now evolved into a ritual to bring good luck. Besides the cathedral, stands the Mercat Cross of Edinburgh in Parliament Square. All the important civic announcements for the public were once made here.
Tripping on the toe
From here we came upon the statue of one of the greatest philosophers of Scotland, David Hume. It’s a big statue but one of its toe is bigger. It shines because of the discoloration caused by visitors rubbing it for good luck. It is a touchstone for philosophy students and for children hoping to gain knowledge. The practice was recently adopted by others too. While walking, we came across several bagpipers filling the historic street with music, entertaining tourists and residents alike.
Written in history
Enjoying the traditional tunes, we reached the Writers’ Museum which is housed in Lady Stair’s House at the Lawn market on the Royal Mile. The museum presents the lives of three of Scotland’s most famous writers: Robert Burns, Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson. Beside the museum lies the Makars’ Court, the country’s emerging national literary monument. Moving on, the guide showed us a historic house located not far from the Castle. It was great to learn how the people lived and worked in this area once. This property is preserved and run by the National Trust. One of the many interesting things here were blue doors, which appeared out of the “blue” while walking on the street.
The guide then introduced us to the rock holding the famous Edinburgh Castle. Once the Royal Residence (until 1633), it was later used for military purposes. A research undertaken in 2014 identified 26 sieges in its 1,100-year-old history, giving it a claim to having been “the most besieged place in Great Britain and one of the most attacked in the world”.
In life and in death...
We then descended the Granny’s Green Steps, which overlooked the castle, and reached the Maggie Dickson’s cafe in Grassmarket. The story behind Maggie Dickson is as interesting as the café itself. In 1723, Dickson was charged with the murder of her child whose paternity was questionable. The child’s body was found on the river banks and based on confusing medical evidence whether the child was stillborn or not, she was convicted and publicly executed on September 2, 1724.
This was followed by a near riot between her friends and relatives and medical students who were in possession of her body. Her family won and Dickson was being transported to Mussleburgh for burial. However, when the party stopped en route at a roadside pub, the lid of the coffin was seen to move, and Dickson was found to be alive. She was well enough to walk the rest of the way to Mussleburgh the next day. As the sentence of the court had been carried out, she was beyond further prosecution and she lived for a good 40 years, known universally as Half-Hangit Maggie.
After this interesting and somewhat spooky story we passed by the Memorial Gallow which is a memorial near the site once occupied by the gibbet, created by public subscription in 1937. It commemorates over 100 Covenanters died here between 1661 and 1688 during the period known as The Killing Time. Their names, where known, are recorded on a nearby plaque.
Dickson’s story however turned out to be not as spooky as our next halt: the Greyfriars Cemetery. Built in the 1560s, it has to this day had enough ghost encounters and strange happenings to attract a lot of ghost hunters, wizarding fans, television producers and writers. Haunting the cemetery is one George MacKenzie also known as the MacKenzie Poltergeist.
He is said to be one of the most aggressive and active paranormal figures around, as nearly 500 visitors have claimed to suffer mysterious assaults here in the last 20 years. Amidst the moss-covered gravestones of Greyfriars Kirkyard sit two large iron cages, each covering a grave, and secured with a chain and padlock. These cages are known as mort safes and they were installed in the early 19th century to deter resurrectionists, otherwise known as body snatchers.
Loyal, till I die
The Greyfriars Bobby Fountain, right outside the cemetery includes a life-size statue of Greyfriars Bobby, a Skye terrier, created by William Brodie in 1872. Greyfriars Bobby became known in 19th-century Edinburgh for supposedly guarding his owner’s grave for 14 years, till he died himself on January 14, 1872.
Through the Cemetery one can see George Heriot’s School, a Scottish independent primary and secondary school on Lauriston Place in the Old Town of Edinburgh which opened in 1659. It was, however, established as a hospital in 1628 because of a bequest by the royal goldsmith George Heriot.
A magical world
We then stepped into a place which literally made magic in muggle world: The Elephant Cafe. The simple but popular eatery with ceiling to floor windows overlooking the grandiose Edinburgh castle and George Heriot’s School, is fondly known as the birth place of Harry Potter. J.K. Rowling would sit in the back room, sipping coffee and creating the magical world of Harry Potter on her typewriter. Now The Elephant House is a massive tourist attraction, usually with a line out the door as people scramble to have their photo taken in Rowling’s old haunt.
Walk a little more
Other than the Royal Mile walking tour there are a few other attractions one can see around the same area such as the Scott Monument, which is the largest memorial to a writer in the world. It commemorates Sir Walter Scott. There are 287 steps to the top from where one can enjoy breath taking views of the city and the surrounding countryside.
The tour ended successfully at the Scottish National Gallery, presenting itself in all its neoclassical architectural glory. Exploring Edinburgh on foot gives you time to stop, think and rethink what the city really has to offer.