If you haven’t been to Edinburgh yet, why not? It’s gorgeous. A beautiful city brimming with history, atmosphere and fun-loving locals. But you may not be aware that it actually feels like two separate towns facing each other across the green ravine of the Princes Street Gardens.
The Old Town to the south is a maze of steep and winding streets, staircases, alleyways and courtyards, known as ‘closes’ or ‘wynds’. Originally, the city walls meant that the population was packed into a small area, so the stone buildings rise high on either side. This gives an atmosphere of obscurity, bleakness and gloom, particularly on a cloudy day (there are a few of these).
The New Town to the north is totally different, built in the Georgian style with elegant townhouses, broad avenues and open squares. It’s not that new – construction started in the late 1700s! Rather than developing organically, this area was masterplanned and it shows.
If that wasn’t enough variety, Edinburgh is also a coastal city, and the seaside suburb of Leith has its own lively character. As a historic port, it has a dubious history, but is now undergoing gentrification, with some great waterfront pubs, bars and restaurants. The Royal Yacht Brittania is here, if you want to get an insight into how the Queen likes to travel. A walk along the shore to the Ocean Terminal is, shall we say, bracing!
I’ve been to the capital of Scotland seven times in person, but hundreds more in my imagination. Two of my favourite writers live and write there, and the city is their favourite subject. They illustrate perfectly the dichotomy of this complex city.
Ian Rankin’s grumpy policeman, John Rebus, shows us the seedier side of the city, using the alleyways and secret hidey holes of the Old Town and the rowdy waterfront pubs of Leith to build an atmosphere of danger and mystery.
Alexander McCall Smith, on the other hand, sets his novels in the altogether more genteel neighbourhoods of Edinburgh – Bruntsfield and Morningside – and the bistros and galleries of the New Town. He depicts Edinburgh as the ultimate in civilised living.
First impressions count with the places we visit, and my first trip to Edinburgh was with my sisters on a sunny Summer’s day during the festival. It was buzzing. The streets were full and the pubs were bustling. Gill, as the youngest, had been named designated driver that day. Apparently we’ve always been mean to her. I have great memories of that trip, even if Gill doesn’t.
So, why do I love this place? Well, Edinburgh has history emanating from every pore. The site of the city was chosen as this was the most easily defensible hilltop in the borderlands with England. The Castle is a brooding presence at the highest point of the Royal Mile, a cobbled road running downhill towards the Palace of Holyroodhouse and the Scottish Parliament. The city has been the royal and political centre of Scotland since the mid 15th century.
Edinburgh is also great to explore on foot, and I love to pound the paths and pavements. The city is not large for a capital, less than half a million people live here, and it has plenty of green spaces and coastline nearby for walking. Parks and gardens abound – you can take a flat stroll along the Water of Leith which snakes north of the city towards the coast, a brisk walk up to the classical monuments of Calton Hill which have led to the city being called ‘the Athens of the North’. You can even do a proper hike to Arthur’s Seat depending on your fitness levels and whether you remembered to bring sensible shoes.
Inevitably, I have to write about the pubs. Edinburgh has some fantastic watering holes, and we have sampled quite a few of them, in the Old Town, New Town and in Leith. The convivial atmosphere makes it hard to leave – those Scots are a bad influence! Along Rose Street is a favourite hang-out, and we may have been lucky, but we’ve sat outside in the sunshine in November.
And finally, I have to mention Greyfriars Bobby, the terrier who, according to local legend, sat by his owner’s grave for 14 years. The city erected a statue of him in 1873 and it’s now a landmark. A city that commemorates a loyal pet dog can’t go far wrong in my opinion.
No doubt we will head across the border again soon. Having great friends in the city, there’s always an excuse to visit…again. But you don’t need any particular reason, just go.