Getting High in Edinburgh

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Getting High in Edinburgh

August 9, 2020 Scotland 0

Edinburgh’s undulations are often first experienced on two walks: from accommodation to The Royal Mile; then The Royal Mile itself. That the city’s most famous thoroughfare connects a hilltop castle and a parkland palace means exercise is an unavoidable portion of tourism.

Yet Edinburgh punishes locals and visitors alike. Often the gradient is slight, but steeper climbs litter the city centre. Residents in northern and southern neighbourhoods, such as Granton and Marchmont, are perennially climbing. It sounds traumatic, and a fierce Scottish winter’s night makes those hills grim.

Effort, however, is vital to greatness. Whereas a flat stroll is easy and easily forgotten, each rise and dip of ‘Auld Reekie’ ingrains in the walker its World Heritage status. You feel Edinburgh as you explore it, in the slight sweat and thigh ache. The history, whether heroic, dark, modern or hopeful, matters more when your body appreciates you are walking it.  

Start at the top

A common visitor’s walk begins at the centre’s highest point, the castle. Getting there is a warm up: Princes Street Gardens, directly against its northern face, is 40 metres below, and the southern approaches are merely choices of how swiftly you wish to climb.

Yet these ascents are important, for they are where battles have surged. Across history 23 attacks on the castle were advanced on these slopes, made with arrows, boiling liquids, gunshot and cannonballs raining down. The Scots and the English have successfully fought to swap ownership of this extinct volcano several times, and they did so by going up this hill.

A cannon looks out from Edinburgh Castle [Photo: Jamie Wills]

Today, the castle is the most visited attraction in Scotland. People of the world stomp up the slope for the medieval spirit, the jewels, the replica of the Mons Meg cannon, and the one o’clock gun. The elevation gives a great view. To quote author Ian Rankine, voice of the castle’s new audio guide, “For many people around the globe, Edinburgh Castle is Edinburgh”. However, it requires no more publicity. By putting one foot in front of the other, the capital has far more to see.

Advantageously, starting a walk at the castle means all else is downhill. Descending the Royal Mile, famous spots include St Giles’ Cathedral, John Knox House, the Scottish Parliament, and the Palace of Holyroodhouse. But before rolling into any of those, another piece of history occurred directly outside the castle’s gates. A small fountain called Witches Well marks the site to which over 300 women accused of witchcraft were dragged to be burnt alive in the 16th and 17th centuries. Any valour at the castle is replaced here by appalling cruelty within a few steps.

St Giles Cathedral on the Royal Mile [Photo: Jamie Wills]

Streets fall away either side of the Mile. Some are major traffic arteries, such as The Mound, a bent descent built on strategically placed dirt excavated during the formation of Princes Street Gardens. Conversely, the quiet residential closes are pedestrianised and pleasant. Lady Stairs Close, home to the Writers’ Museum, has paving slabs inscribed with quotes by Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson, as well as its own detour’s detour through the nicely hidden James Court. Away from the cameras, locals in a hurry utilise the Playfair Steps, Advocates Close, or the brutally vertical The News Steps.

Princes Street Gardens at Christmas, viewed from the Mound [Photo: Jamie Wills]

Yet even before leaving the Mile there are elevations not every local knows. At St Giles’, the 12th century Presbyterian cathedral, rooftop tours are rarely advertised and hard to secure. The tours cater to a maximum of four people, only run at weekends, and not when the cathedral is hosting an event (it is a popular wedding venue). One could admit the view is not classically beautiful, but standing on a 900 year old church in the city centre, when many living there are unaware they could, is an enlivening oddity.

Deliberate versus accidental

St Giles’ is not the only unannounced rooftop within eight minutes walk. The Hutton Roof, a terrace atop the Museum of Scotland, offers small sculptures by Andy Goldsworthy and a relatively big view of the castle, all free of charge. There is also the satisfaction that so many in the museum don’t know it exists. However, locating it does not require walking, but rather finding the correct lift or asking a top floor attendant to highlight the door to a single flight of stairs. That so easy as to be cheating.

Edinburgh also has conspicuous challenges. The Scott Monument is a deliberate climb, 287 stairs above the shoppers on Princes Street, and visciously narrow at the top. Honouring Ivanhoe and Waverley writer Sir Walter Scott, it was officially opened in 1846. The council’s decision to organise ascents into tours is a minor grumble; the freedom to loiter and reach impasses with others on the impossible staircases were very much part of the fun.

The Scott Monument [Photo: Jamie Wills]

Similarly, proper hiking can be done at Arthur’s Seat, Edinburgh’s second extinct volcano. Erect in the parkland behind the palace, it is 251m and a half hour to the top. The yellow flowers of gorse bushes light up the sides all the way to the rocky top, where the wind blows merry. It is in the city, but not the city, and the most liberating views of all – clear to the coast – are here.

These sites should be visited, because they are great. However, they are deliberate. Instead, most exercise is far more accidental. The crests and falls of Edinburgh are part of its structure. If one were to walk from Morningside, in the south, to Granton, in the north, the hour would be long down, flat, up, down, quick down, flat, quick down, long up, down. To go from Tollcross to Newington is uphill all the way. The city council says it intends to improve its cycle infrastructure, but often one’s sturdy feet are simpler.

View from Arthur’s Seat [Photo: Jamie Wills]
Going downhill fast

Hiking the contours of uneven cities elicits a sense of achievement. It may come from a particularly zesty climb, or arise when finally stopping for a tea, beer, or upon a bench. But the variation of altitude also emphasises the contrast between open-air liberty and the claustrophobia of diminished light caused by historic stone buildings overhead. To counter the highs of the castle or the rooftops, Edinburgh has many a macabre dip.

The most claustrophobic of all is The Vaults. Originally a space for business, poverty and outrageous crime beneath South Bridge, leaks forced a general abandonment in the early 19th century. The Vaults were duly filled, covered and forgotten, a community lost beneath the city, until the 1980s.

Entrance to these areas is by ghost tour only, but their low, murderous and perverse air makes a wonderful night time activity. There are tales of Burke and Hare, the murderers who sold bodies for the medical slab, and ghostly girls wanting to find their doll. But it is the story of Mr Boots, ‘The Watcher’, that haunts the most. When the lights go off he whispers in an ear ‘Get out’, and does not seem open to negotiation.

Death can also be found in a valley at the Grassmarket. This bar and restaurant street situated directly below the castle’s southern wall racked up religious hangings in the 17th century, with a particularly fruitful era nicknamed ‘The Killing Time’. Authorities were still stringing people up as late as 1784, during the Scottish Enlightenment. It was public entertainment, in its way, but today only a few tour groups stop to consider something wicked this way came. Many inebriated revellers never notice the coloured cobbles at the street’s end that draw out a gibbet.

The gibbet in the Grassmarket [Photo: Jamie Wills]

The contrast between the high road and the low road is beautifully evident when leaving the Grassmarket via the climb up Victoria Street. With coloured facades and an artisan cheese shop, Victoria Street is Instagram Edinburgh, and hundreds of people a day attempt to capture their picture despite the slope and curve. That Victoria Terrace, immediately above it, grants a superior angle, is completely ignored.

Yet the low road has airy highlights if the legs are still willing. The walk is not far to Dean Village, off the west end, but the destination is akin to locating Middle-Earth. There are green trees beside a fine stream, and stonework structures befitting an old mill town, which is exactly what it was. The capital’s expansion wrapped this hamlet rather than smothered it, leaving an enclave out of an old man’s watercolour picture. It is an excellent pre-breakfast walk for a jet-lagged visitors awake early on their first full morning.  

Victoria Street, as seen from Victoria Terrace [Photo: Jamie Wills]

To head further, and then back, would be exertion. The stream that cuts through Dean Village’s valley is the Water of Leith which flows, albeit often without paths, all the way to the dock in which the Royal Yacht Britannia is moored. Along the way is residential Edinburgh, and often new Edinburgh, where old railway lines have been converted into cycle routes and community parks, such as Starbank Park, sit amidst the big houses. Eventually everything flattens out at the waterfront, and the city ceases.

Walking Edinburgh is a joy, and a small physical examination, and while history lives around the hills, life is felt on them. A person in town for a single day may experience well-being in stomping all over the capital’s centre; a long-term resident can escape into the rolling districts. Nobody should be put off Edinburgh because of the climbs, but rather embrace the soreness. Alternatively, the city does have an extensive bus network.