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Edinburgh and the Lothians

Edinburgh is to London as poetry is to prose, as Charlotte Brontë once wrote. One of the world’s stateliest cities and proudest capitals, it’s built—like Rome—on seven hills, making it a striking backdrop for the ancient pageant of history. In a skyline of sheer drama, Edinburgh Castle watches over the capital city, frowning down on Princes Street’s glamour and glitz. But despite its rich past, the city’s famous festivals, excellent museums and galleries, as well as the modern Scottish Parliament, are reminders that Edinburgh has its feet firmly in the 21st century.

Nearly everywhere in Edinburgh (the burgh is always pronounced burra in Scotland) there are spectacular buildings, whose Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian pillars add touches of neoclassical grandeur to the largely Presbyterian backdrop. Large gardens are a strong feature of central Edinburgh, while Arthur’s Seat, a child-size mountain of bright green-and-yellow furze, rears 822 feet up behind the spires of the Old Town. Even as Edinburgh moves through the 21st century, its tall guardian castle remains the focal point of the city and its venerable history.

Modern Edinburgh has become a cultural capital, staging the Edinburgh International Festival and the Festival Fringe in every possible venue each August. The stunning National Museum of Scotland complements the city’s wealth of galleries and artsy hangouts. Add Edinburgh’s growing reputation for food and nightlife and you have one of the world’s most beguiling cities.

Today the city is the second most important financial center in the United Kingdom, and regularly ranks near the top in quality-of-life surveys. In some senses showy and materialistic, Edinburgh still supports learned societies, some of which have their roots in the Scottish Enlightenment. The Royal Society of Edinburgh, for example, established in 1783 “for the advancement of learning and useful knowledge,” remains an important forum for interdisciplinary activities.

Take time to explore the streets—peopled by the spirits of Mary, Queen of Scots, Sir Walter Scott, and Robert Louis Stevenson—and enjoy candlelit restaurants or a folk ceilidh (pronounced kay-lee, a traditional Gaelic dance with music), but remember that you haven’t earned your porridge until you’ve climbed Arthur’s Seat. Should you wander around a corner, say, on George Street, you might see not an endless cityscape, but blue sea and a patchwork of fields. This is the county of Fife, beyond the inlet of the North Sea called the Firth of Forth—a reminder, like the mountains to the northwest that can be glimpsed from Edinburgh’s highest points, that the rest of Scotland lies within easy reach.

POINTS OF INTEREST

CRICHTON CASTLE

Standing amid rolling hills that are interrupted here and there by patches of woodland, Crichton was a Bothwell family castle. Mary, Queen of Scots, attended the wedding here of Bothwell’s sister, Lady Janet Hepburn, to Mary’s brother, Lord John Stewart. The curious arcaded range reveals diamond-faceted stonework; this particular geometric pattern is unique in Scotland and is thought to have been inspired by Renaissance styles on the Continent, particularly Italy. The oldest part of the work is the 14th-century keep (square tower). Note that there are no toilets at the castle.

CULROSS

With its Mercat Cross, cobbled streets, tolbooth, and narrow wynds (alleys), Culross, on the muddy shores of the Forth, is now a living museum of a 17th-century town and one of the most remarkable little towns in Scotland. It once had a thriving industry and export trade in coal and salt (the coal was used in the salt-panning process). It also had, curiously, a trade monopoly in the manufacture of baking girdles (griddles). As local coal became exhausted, the impetus of the Industrial Revolution passed Culross by, and other parts of the Forth Valley prospered. Culross became a backwater town, and the merchants’ houses of the 17th and 18th centuries were never replaced by Victorian developments or modern architecture. In the 1930s the National Trust for Scotland started to buy up the decaying properties. With the help of other agencies, these buildings were brought to life. Today ordinary citizens live in many of the National Trust properties. A few—the Palace, Study, and Town House—are open to the public.

JOHN MUIR COUNTRY PARK

Taking in the estuary of the River Tyne winding down from the Moorfoot Hills, the John Muir Country Park encompasses varied coastal scenery: rocky shoreline, golden sands, and the mixed woodlands of Tyninghame, teeming with wildlife. Dunbar-born conservationist John Muir (1838–1914), whose family moved to the United States when he was a child, helped found Yosemite and Sequoia national parks in California.

ANDREW CARNEGIE BIRTHPLACE MUSEUM

Scottish-American industrialist and noted philanthropist Andrew Carnegie was born here in 1835. Don’t be misled by the simple exterior of this 18th-century weaver’s cottage—inside it opens into a larger hall, where documents, photographs, and artifacts relate his fascinating life story. The collection includes art from a wide range of periods, from medieval to 19th-century Arts and Crafts and art deco, and displays on the species of dinosaur named after the great man—Diplodocus carnegii.

DUNFERMLINE ABBEY AND PALACE

The complex was founded in the 11th century by Queen Margaret, the English wife of the Scottish king Malcolm III. Some Norman work can be seen in the present church, where Robert the Bruce (12744–1329) lies buried. The palace grew from the abbey guesthouse and was the birthplace of Charles I (1600–49). Dunfermline was the seat of the royal court of Scotland until the end of the 11th century, and its central role in Scottish affairs is explored by means of display panels dotted around the drafty but hallowed buildings.

BRITANNIA

Moored on the waterfront at Leith, Edinburgh’s port north of the city center is the former royal yacht, Britannia, launched in Scotland in 1953 and now retired to her home country. The royal apartments and the more functional engine room, bridge, galleys, and captain’s cabin are all open to view. The land-based visitor center within the huge Ocean Terminal shopping mall has exhibits and photographs about the yacht’s history.

ROYAL BOTANIC GARDEN EDINBURGH

Britain’s largest rhododendron and azalea gardens are part of this 70-acre garden just north of the city center. An impressive Chinese garden has the largest collection of wild-origin Chinese plants outside China. There’s a cafeteria, a visitor center with exhibits exploring biodiversity, and a fabulous gift shop selling plants, books, and gifts. Handsome 18th-century Inverleith House hosts art exhibitions. Don’t miss the soaring palms in the glass-domed Temperate House and the steamy Tropical Palm House. The hilly rock garden and stream are magical on a sunny day. Daily tours (£5) take place daily from April to October, and you can book a private tour including afternoon tea (£45 for two people) at any time. Take a taxi to the garden, or ride Bus 8 from North Bridge, Bus 27 from Princes Street, or Bus 23 from Hanover Street. To make the 20-minute walk from the New Town, take Dundas Street (the continuation of Hanover Street) and turn left at the clock tower onto Inverleith Row.

CALTON HILL

Robert Louis Stevenson’s favorite view of his beloved city was from the top of this hill. The architectural styles represented by the extraordinary collection of monuments here include mock Gothic—the Old Observatory, for example—and neoclassical. Under the latter category falls the monument by William Playfair (1789–1857) designed to honor his talented uncle, the geologist and mathematician John Playfair (1748–1819), as well as his cruciform New Observatory. The piece that commands the most attention, however, is the so-called National Monument, often referred to as “Scotland’s Disgrace.” Intended to mimic Athens’s Parthenon, this monument to the dead of the Napoleonic Wars was started in 1822 to the specifications of a design by Playfair. But in 1830, only 12 columns later, money ran out, and the facade became a monument to high aspirations and poor fund-raising. The tallest monument on Calton Hill is the 100-foot-high Nelson Monument, completed in 1815 in honor of Britain’s naval hero Horatio Nelson (1758–1805); you can climb its 143 steps for sweeping city views. The Burns Monument is the circular Corinthian temple below Regent Road. Devotees of Robert Burns may want to visit one other grave—that of Mrs. Agnes McLehose, or “Clarinda,” in the Canongate Graveyard.

GEORGE STREET

With its upscale shops and handsome Georgian frontages, this is a more pleasant, less crowded street for wandering than Princes Street. The statue of King George IV, at the intersection of George and Hanover Streets, recalls the visit of George IV to Scotland in 1822. He was the first British monarch to do so since King Charles II, in the 17th century. By the 19th century, enough time had passed since the Jacobite uprising of 1745 for Scotland to be perceived at Westminster as being safe enough for a monarch to visit.

The ubiquitous Sir Walter Scott turns up farther down the street. It was at a grand dinner in the Assembly Rooms, between Hanover and Frederick Streets, that Scott acknowledged having written the Waverley novels (the name of the author had hitherto been a secret, albeit a badly kept one). You can meet Scott once again, in the form of a plaque just downhill, at 39 Castle Street, his Edinburgh address before he moved to Abbotsford, in the Borders region, where he died in 1832.

MORAY PLACE

With its “pendants” of Ainslie Place and Randolph Crescent, Moray Place was laid out in 1822 by the Earl of Moray. From the start the homes were planned to be of particularly high quality, with lovely curving facades, imposing porticos, and a central secluded garden reserved for residents.

THE MOUND

This rising street originated from the need for a dry-shod crossing of the muddy quagmire left behind when Nor’ Loch, the body of water below the castle, was drained (the railway now cuts through this area). Work is said to have been started by a local tailor, George Boyd, who tired of struggling through the mud en route to his Old Town shop. The building of a ramp was underway by 1781, and by the time of its completion, in 1830, “Geordie Boyd’s mud brig,” as it was first known, had been built up with an estimated 2 million cartloads of earth dug from the foundations of the New Town.

PRINCES STREET

The south side of this well-planned street is occupied by the well-kept Princes Street Gardens, which act as a wide green moat to the castle on its rock. The north side is now one long sequence of chain stores with unappealing modern fronts apart from the handsome Victorian facade that holds Jenners department store.

REGISTER HOUSE

Scotland’s first custom-built archives depository, Register House, designed by the great Robert Adam, was partly funded by the sale of estates forfeited by Jacobite landowners after their last rebellion in Britain (1745–46). Work on the Regency-style building, which marks the end of Princes Street, started in 1774. The statue in front is of the first Duke of Wellington (1769–1852). The recently installed ScotlandsPeople Centre lets you conduct genealogical research. Access to public records and the library is £15 per day.

EDINBURGH ZOO

Children love to visit the some 1,000 animals that live in Edinburgh Zoo, especially the star attractions: two giant pandas, Tian Tian and Yang Gaung (“Sweetie” and “Sunshine” in English). Free 15-minute panda-viewing sessions must be booked in advance.The ever-popular Penguin Parade begins at 2:15 (but since penguin participation is totally voluntary, the event is unpredictable). Also a surefire hit with kids is the Koala Territory, where you can get up close to the zoo’s four koalas—including Yoonarah, born in 2014, the first ever British-born koala. You can even handle some of the zoo’s tamer animals from April to September. The zoo spreads over an 80-acre site on the slopes of Corstorphine Hill. Take buses 12, 26, or 31.

NATIONAL GALLERY OF SCOTLAND

Opened to the public in 1859, the National Gallery presents a wide selection of paintings from the Renaissance to the postimpressionist period within a grand neoclassical building. Most famous are the old-master paintings bequeathed by the Duke of Sutherland, including Titian’s Three Ages of Man. Many masters are here: works by Velázquez, El Greco, Rembrandt, Goya, Poussin, Turner, Degas, Monet, and Van Gogh, among others, complement a fine collection of Scottish art, including Sir Henry Raeburn’s Reverend Robert Walker Skating on Duddingston Loch and other works by Ramsay, Raeburn, and Wilkie. The Weston Link connects the National Gallery of Scotland to the Royal Scottish Academy and includes a restaurant, bar, café, shop, and information center.

ROYAL SCOTTISH ACADEMY

Worth visiting for a look at the imposing, neoclassic architecture, this William Playfair–designed structure hosts temporary art exhibitions. The underground Weston Link connects the museum to the National Gallery of Scotland.

SCOTT MONUMENT

What appears to be a Gothic cathedral spire chopped off and planted in the east end of the Princes Street Gardens is Scotland’s tribute to one of its most famous sons, Sir Walter Scott, the author of Ivanhoe, Waverley, and many other novels and poems. The 200-foot-high monument, built in 1844, is centered on a marble statue of Scott and his favorite dog, Maida. It’s worth taking the time to explore the immediate area, including Princes Street Gardens, one of the prettiest city parks in Britain. Here is the famous monument to David Livingstone, whose African meeting with H. M. Stanley is part of Scots–American history.

LENNOXLOVE HOUSE

Just to the south of Haddington stands Lennoxlove House, the grand ancestral home of the very grand dukes of Hamilton since 1947 and the Baird family before them. A turreted country house, part of it dating from the 15th century, Lennoxlove is a cheerful mix of family life and Scottish history. The beautifully decorated rooms house portraits, furniture, porcelain, and items associated with Mary, Queen of Scots, including her supposed death mask. Sporting activities from falconry to fishing take place on the stunning grounds.

JUPITER ARTLAND

The beautiful grounds of a Jacobean manor house have been transformed by an art-loving couple, Robert and Nicky Wilson, into a sculpture park. With the aid of a map you can explore the magical landscapes and encounter artworks by Andy Goldsworthy, Anya Gallaccio, Jim Lambie, Nathan Coley, Ian Hamilton Finlay, and Anish Kapoor, among many others. A highlight is walking around Charles Jencks’s Cells of Life, a series of shapely, grass-covered mounds. Run by First Bus, the 27 and X27 direct buses depart from Regent Road and Dalry Road in Haymarket.

LINLITHGOW PALACE

On the edge of Linlithgow Loch stands the splendid ruin of Linlithgow Palace, the birthplace of Mary, Queen of Scots, in 1542. Burned, perhaps accidentally, by Hanoverian troops during the last Jacobite rebellion in 1746, this impressive shell stands on a site of great antiquity, though it’s not certain anything survived an earlier fire in 1424. The palace gatehouse was built in the early 16th century, and the central courtyard’s elaborate fountain dates from around 1535. The halls and great rooms are cold, echoing stone husks now in Historic Scotland’s care.

NATIONAL MINING MUSEUM SCOTLAND

In the former mining community of Newtongrange, the National Mining Museum provides a good introduction to the history of Scotland’s mining industry. With the help of videos you can experience life deep below the ground. There are also interactive displays and “magic helmets” that bring the tour to life and relate the power that the mining company had over the lives of the individual workers here, in Scotland’s largest planned-mining village. This frighteningly autocratic system survived well into the 1930s—the company owned the houses, shops, and even the pub. The scenery is no more attractive than you would expect, with the green Pentland Hills hovering in the distance.

NEWHAILES

This fine late-17th-century house (with 18th-century additions), owned and run by the National Trust for Scotland, was designed by Scottish architect James Smith (circa 1645–1731) in 1686 as his own home. He later sold it to Lord Bellendon, and in 1707 it was bought by Sir David Dalrymple (c. 1665–1721), first Baronet of Hailes, who improved and extended the house, adding one of the finest rococo interiors in Scotland. The library played host to many famous figures from the Scottish Enlightenment, including inveterate Scot-basher Dr. Samuel Johnson, who dubbed the library “the most learned room in Europe.” Most of the original interiors and furnishings remain intact, creating great authenticity.

ST. MARY’S PARISH CHURCH

The unmistakable red-sandstone St. Mary’s Parish Church, with its Norman tower, stands in the village of Whitekirk on a site occupied since the 6th century. It was a place of pilgrimage in medieval times because of its healing well. Behind the kirk, in a field, stands a tithe barn. Tithe barns originated with the practice of giving to the church a portion of local produce, which then required storage space. In the 15th century, the church was visited by a young Italian nobleman, Aeneas Sylvius Piccolomini, after he was shipwrecked off the East Lothian coast. Two decades later, Piccolomini became Pope Pius II. At one end of the barn stands a 16th-century tower house, which at one point in its history accommodated visiting pilgrims. The large three-story barn was added to the tower house in the 17th century.

SCOTTISH SEABIRD CENTRE

An observation deck, exhibits, and films at the Scottish Seabird Centre provide a captivating introduction to the world of the gannets and puffins that nest on nearby Bass Rock. Live interactive cameras let you take an even closer look at the bird colonies and marine mammals at Craigleith and the Isle of May. Kids will enjoy the “tunnel of discovery,” a new 3-D multimedia exhibit that simulates walking through an underwater passage, learning all about birds and sealife along the way. There are plenty of family-friendly activities, nature walks, and photography shows.

TANTALLON CASTLE

Rising on a cliff beyond the flat fields east of North Berwick, Tantallon Castle is a substantial ruin defending a headland with the sea on three sides. The red sandstone is pitted and eaten by time and sea spray, with the earliest surviving stonework dating from the late 14th century. The fortress was besieged in 1529 by the cannons of King James V (1512–42). Rather inconveniently, the besieging forces ran out of gunpowder. Cannons were used again, to deadlier effect, in a later siege during the civil war in 1651. Twelve days of battering with the heavy guns of Cromwell’s General Monk greatly damaged the flanking towers. Fortunately much of the curtain wall of this former Douglas stronghold, now cared for by Historic Scotland, survives.

ISLE OF MAY

This small island in the middle of the Firth of Forth is home to many interesting sights, from the ruins of a medieval priory to a Gothic lighthouse to a wartime signal station. But it’s the seabirds that really bring in the visitors. The Isle of May is the largest puffin colony on the east coast of Britain, and is home to a quarter of a million birds nesting on the cliffs during late spring and early summer, as well as seals basking on the shore. To visit the island, you’ll need to take a 12-seat RIB (rigid inflatable boat) across choppy waters, including a sail by Bass Rock—the world’s largest colony of gannets. Tours start from the Scottish Seabird Centre and last four hours, including two hours on the island. Book in advance online to avoid disappointment.

CASTLE CAMPBELL

With green woods below, bracken hills above, and a view that on a clear day stretches right across the Forth Valley to the tip of Tinto Hill near Lanark, Castle Campbell is certainly the most atmospheric fortress within easy reach of Edinburgh. Formerly known as Castle Gloom, Castle Campbell stands out among Scottish castles for the sheer drama of its setting. The sturdy square of the tower house survives from the 15th century, when the site was fortified by the first Earl of Argyll. Other buildings and enclosures were subsequently added, but the sheer lack of space on this rocky eminence ensured that there would never be any drastic changes. John Knox, the fiery religious reformer, once preached here. In 1654 the castle was captured by Oliver Cromwell and garrisoned with English troops. It’s now cared for by Historic Scotland and is part of the Clackmannanshire Tower Trail. To get here, follow a road off the A91 that angles sharply up the east side of the wooded defile.

ALVA GLEN

There’s a breathtaking gorge at Alva Glen, and walking paths (some are steep, so be prepared) that follow the gushing Alva Burn and pass many abandoned woolen mills.

OCHIL HILLS WOODLAND PARK

East of Alva is the Ochil Hills Woodland Park, which provides access to lovely Silver Glen, so-called because the precious metal was mined here in the 18th century.

ROSSLYN CHAPEL

This chapel has always beckoned curious visitors intrigued by the various legends surrounding its magnificent carvings, but today it pulses with tourists as never before. In the 2000s Dan Brown’s bestselling novel The Da Vinci Code made visiting this Episcopal chapel (services continue to be held here) an imperative stop on many a traveler’s itinerary. Whether you’re a fan of the book or not—and of the book’s theory that the chapel has a secret sign that can lead you to the Holy Grail—this is still a site of immense interest. Originally conceived by Sir William Sinclair (circa 1404–80) and dedicated to St. Matthew in 1446, the chapel is outstanding for the quality and variety of the carving inside. Covering almost every square inch of stonework are human figures, animals, and plants. The meaning of these remains subject to many theories; some depict symbols from the medieval order of the Knights Templar and from Freemasonry. The chapel’s design called for a cruciform structure, but only the choir and parts of the east transept walls were completed. Free talks about the building’s history are held daily.

HOPETOUN HOUSE

The palatial premises of Hopetoun House, probably Scotland’s grandest courtly seat and home of the Marquesses of Linlithgow, are considered to be among the Adam family’s finest designs. The enormous house was started in 1699 to the original plans of Sir William Bruce (1630–1710), then enlarged between 1721 and 1754 by William Adam (1689–1748) and his sons Robert and John. There’s a notable painting collection, and the house has decorative work of the highest order, plus all the trappings to keep you entertained: a nature trail, a restaurant in the former stables, farm shop, and a museum. Much of the wealth that created this sumptuous building came from the family’s mining interests in the surrounding regions. The estate also specializes in clay pigeon shooting; expert-led introductory sessions can be booked for groups of at least six; prices start at £45 per person.

DALMENY HOUSE

The first of the stately houses clustered on the western edge of Edinburgh, Dalmeny House is the home of the Earl and Countess of Rosebery. This 1815 Tudor Gothic mansion displays among its sumptuous contents the best of the family’s famous collection of 18th-century French furniture. Highlights include the library, the Napoléon Room, the Vincennes and Sevres porcelain collections, and the drawing room, with its tapestries and intricately wrought French furniture. Admission is by guided tour, for two months of the year only.

BLACKNESS CASTLE

Standing like a grounded ship on the very edge of the Forth, this curious 15th-century structure has had a varied career as a strategic fortress, state prison, powder magazine, and youth hostel. The countryside is gently green and cultivated, and open views extend across the blue Forth to the distant ramparts of the Ochil Hills.

FORTH BRIDGE

Opened in 1890 and at the time hailed as the eighth wonder of the world, at 2,765 yards long, this iconic cantilevered railroad bridge is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The bridge expands by about another yard on a hot summer’s day. Its neighbor is the 1,993-yard-long Forth Road Bridge, in operation since 1964.