With a castle that sits atop a dormant volcano, countless historic places and spaces, Gothic cathedrals, amazing architecture, modern museums and galleries, and ghostly underground vaults, Edinburgh has a lot to offer!
The Royal Mile
The Royal Mile, which runs between the Castle at the top down to Holyrood Abbey, is geared toward tourists, and packed with shops selling tartans, shortbread and T-shirts. We enjoyed ducking down the Royal Mile’s many Closes (narrow passages, or alleyways connecting or providing entrance to tenements) for some exploring. Mary King’s Close, one of the most well-known, dates back to the 17th century. The story goes that in 1645 when the plague hit people were closed in to contain the disease and left to die. It was later used as the foundation for the Royal Exchange, built in 1723, but it’s still thought to be haunted. Some call it the Street of Sorrows. The names of the closes are interesting on their own. Some go back to early residents (like May King) while others give clues to original uses. The White Horse Close was near the starting point of the Edinburgh-London stagecoach.
Edinburgh Castle sits atop an extinct volcano. The views of the city below are spectacular. Highlights were the Great Hall with its cool hammer-beam roof from 1511; the Crown Room, which houses the Crown Jewels; the One-O’clock Gun, fired almost every day since 1861; the National War Museum; and Mons Meg, one of the world’s oldest canons.
At the Scottish National War Memorial,we were sure to look in the Book of Remembrance to see my ancestor McIlvenny’s name recorded in honor of his military service in WWI as an engineer, and the name of John Close, my grandfather’s brother, who died fighting in France during World War I, which is recorded there as well. In the basement of one building is a fascinating “Prisons of War” exhibit, the time when the castle housed enemies including American Revolutionary sailors! Taped reenactments of supposed conversations among prisoners play in the background as you walk through spaces set up as they would have been when prisoners lived and slept there.
Edinburgh Ghost Tours
Ghost Tours are another popular Edinburgh experience. There are a number of companies that run these tours, and most include a visit to the underground vaults, reportedly one of the most haunted places on the world, with crazy levels of paranormal activity. We went with Auld Reekie, which was fun, although WAY too crowded, with a group of about 80 for the 9 pm tour. The vaults were originally built as storerooms under the bridge for local merchants, but lack of ventilation and damp conditions meant they weren’t really good for that purpsoe. During the 18th century, Edinburgh became almost inhabitable due to overcrowding. Homelessness was illegal, so people needed to stay out of sight, as the penalty was death! Many people are said to have lived in the vaults, though habitation wasn’t really proven until the 1980s when they discovered concrete signs. It is said the vaults were overcrowded places, full of crime and poverty, violence and depravity, and stories of body snatchers, plague deaths and other horrors abound. Believer or not, the vaults are truly spooky, and if you find it at all fun to be scared, be sure to take one of these tours!