Today was a pretty leisurely day in Edinburgh. The only thing on the schedule was a tour of Edinburgh Castle so I slept in, had a leisurely breakfast and then walked to the Grassmarket Saturday morning market. Unfortunately, the market was not worth it, but I did enjoy the walk in the sunshine.
My tour did not start until 1:30, so I ended up sitting at a café on High Street (part of the Royal Mile) and watched life pass by. Now I have to say I saw more interesting and wacky sites in the hour I sat there than I have in I don’t know how long. First there were multiple weddings taking place at the City Hall across the street. Then I saw some wacky dude wearing a Batman suit sporting a Mohawk. This was followed by a row of stormtroopers walking by (I think it was a bachelor party). Then there was a group of people who started dancing around a tree. I am not making any of this up and fortunately I took pictures of it all.
Sadly, my incredible people watching came to and end and at 1:15, I walked over to the statute to meet my guide for the Edinburgh Castle tour. Now I have to say with each day in Edinburgh my tour guides have gotten better, but today’s guide, Angus (don’t drop the “G”. … get it??) was absolutely over the top spectacular and hilarious. Exactly what you would envision a Scotsman to be like. Angus was able to mix humor and education all at the same time. He was wonderful. (If you are going to Edinburgh I cannot recommend Little Fish Tours enough. Kind of pissed I did not use them for the Edinburgh old town tour as opposed to Mr. Lecturer.) I knew I was going to love the tour when Angus started by telling us that Edinburgh Castle is the 4th most visited site in the UK and then did a “we’re #4 chant”. (He was pissed that they were beaten out by Stonehenge which Angus claimed was nothing more than a pile of rocks you could see from the freeway. Classic.)
Anyway, Angus gave us a brief history of the castle, telling us that the site was occupied as a royal castle beginning in the 12th century until the 17th century when it became a military barracks for a large military regiment and over the years, England and competing royals periodically destroyed parts or all of the castle. This explains why the castle is a bit of a hodge podge of styles.
Following the brief intro, Angus led us on our walk up the Royal Mile to the entrance of the castle. Once inside the castle we walked through the Portcullis Gate, constructed between 1574 and 1577, and then stopped so that Angus could tell us all about the myriad of times that the castle had been under siege (26 based on recent counts making it the most attacked castle in the world).
We then walked down a small hill to a little square and the site of the castle infirmary. Now, as Angus pointed out, many of the present buildings on the site are relatively new in comparison to how long the site has been occupied and the hospital was no exception with the present incarnation dating to 1897. While there was not a lot to see at the hospital, the real reason we had come to this spot was to hike up a staircase and take in what is arguably the best view in Edinburgh. The view was so spectacular that they even provided a written guide to the buildings and sites below. There were churches and parks and on and on. I’ll let the picture speak for itself.
Once we had our fill of the view, we reversed course and started the hike up hill to the older sites passing the Governor’s House on the way. Fortunately, while the old stone pavers were a tad uneven, the hike up was not too bad because the incline was a winding, gradual walkway, but make no mistake, we were really high up on Castle Rock.
Now, as Angus mentioned to us, most of the buildings on site are not that “old”. (Angus and I clearly have a different idea of old, because most of the building were “only constructed after the 16th century when the last great siege took place, with the exceptions being St Margaret’s Chapel, the oldest building on site dating to the early 12th century, the Royal Palace dating to the early 1500s, and the Great Hall also dating to the early 1500s. Angus also warned us that the interior of the Great Hall had changed greatly over the years, with only the ceiling retaining its original architecture.
So once at the top of the hill, we crossed through a narrow alley and into what is known as the Crown Square, which contained the four most important building: the Queen Ann Building, the Great Hall, the Royal Palace and the building now housing the Scottish National War Museum. Angus then gave us a brief history of each building and what to look for inside.
Sadly, at this point our tour with Angus came to a conclusion and we were cut loose to explore the site on our own. I decided to opt for the Royal Palace first, which houses the old Scottish crown, scepter and sword used to crown Mary Queen of Scots in 1543 and the Stone of Destiny, an ancient stone symbolizing the Scottish monarchy and used for centuries in the inauguration of its monarchs. The stone was in the hands of the English for centuries, but was finally returned to Scotland in 1996. (Angus told us the hilarious story of John Major – then PM of the UK – deciding to return the stone to Scotland in hopes it would garner him votes in the upcoming election against Tony Blair – it did not. The stone was then transported up the Royal Mile through the gates of Edinburgh Castle while a bagpiper played the them from Mission Impossible. I kid you not!). Anyway, the stone will only leave Scotland again when the next monarch of the UK is crowned.
Now I am not sure what I was expecting, but there was little more than a display case with the crown, scepter and sword, and the revered rock. (Sorry no pictures allowed, although the sign accurately depicts what the Stone of Destiny looks like.) Nothing else. And because the Royal Apartments in the palace are closed, I was in and out in less than a couple minutes. (Sorry Scottish people, but that rock was underwhelming, although that crown was spectacular.)
Anyway, I took a wander through the Great Hall with its truly magnificent ceiling and then walked through the Scottish National War Museum which houses a registry for every Scottish soldier to have died in battle since WW I. The name of each soldier, their date of birth and where they died, is carefully transcribed in a book and when a book is full a new book is started. There were hundreds of books spread throughout the museum.
Now at the entrance to the museum was a stone lion (the symbol of England) and a stone unicorn (the symbol of Scotland). And this unicorn was a little different because the sculptor was concerned the horn would be broken off, so the horn is folded backwards and into the the nape of the unicorn. (Question – doesn’t this just make it a horse??)
Anyway, after the tour of the Crown Square buildings, I walked back through the narrow alley and took in St. Margaret’s Chapel and the prison, where a desperate captured American prisoner from the American Revolution carved what is believed to be one of the earliest depictions of the Stars & Stripes flag into the wooden door. And fyi – you did not want to be a prisoner in Edinburgh Castle. No light and nothing more than hammocks to sleep in. Yikes!
Anyway, by now it was 4 and I had pretty much seen all there was to see. I decided to go grab a bite to eat and head back to my hotel to pack. I was off to Glasgow tomorrow.