A distant siren wailed down towards the High Street…
From Ian Rankin’s Black & Blue (1997)
Royal Mile is the oldest street in Edinburgh and most probably the one you will walk most of any other. The street connects the Edinburgh Castle that is situated at the top of the hill and goes down to the Palace of Holyroodhouse. That’s why I booked a hostel room right on Royal Mile because I wanted to be right at the heart of Old Town. From there I could explore many attractions on either side of the Royal Mile, not only the impressive ones at both sides but many others in between them, among them are some interesting churches (St Giles Cathedral, Tron Kirk), museums (Peoples’ Story was one of my favorite in town), the Scottish Parliament, the Courts, Cannon-ball House, pubs, restaurants and of course numerous souvenir stores and hordes of tourists that walk up and down but not packed (unless you are there during the Edinburgh Festival).
As you may have guessed already it is about a Scottish mile long (about 1973yards, the English mile is 1760yards) and in reality it is a succession of four different distinct streets (Castlehill, Lawnmarket, High Street, Canongate) + the small Abbey strand. Although it slopes gently down the hill you may find some difficulties during the summer heat, I had no problem of course as I was there during February :) As you may expect nature is responsible for this ridge actually, million years ago volcanic activity formed what geology calls Crag and Tail with the tail being the base of what later became the Royal Mile).
First impressions of the Royal Mile might lead you to the conclusion that the most famous thoroughfare in Scotland is just one long street encouraging swarms of tourists to part with their hard earned money on buying ‘Tartan Tat’, but scratch below the surface and it will soon become apparent why this spinal chord that joins Edinburgh Castle with Holyrood has played such an important part in Edinburgh’s - and Scotland’s - history.
The history goes back a long way too - about 340 million years in fact. This was around the time when volcanic activity, followed by glaciers during the ice age, helped to form a classic example of what geologists call a ‘Crag and Tail’. Obviously the crag is where the castle sits, and the tail is the ridge that has become known as the Royal Mile.
This famous artery is not just one street but five - Castlehill, Lawnmarket, High Street, Canongate and Abbey Strand, and if you’ve not been here before it helps to know where each one is and what it has to offer.
It’s worth mentioning though that the city grew down from the castle, and up from the Abbey of Holyrood and eventually met somewhere in the middle. This will help to explain how the different streets evolved.
The busiest end is the top half from the High Street, through the Lawnmarket and up to Castlehill. Excluding the Castle and the Palace of Holyrood House, there are still plenty of places to visit up and down here, so it’s best to try and work out in advance what interests you most before you start out.
Each of the streets are lined with tall tenement buildings interspersed with ‘Closes’. These courtyards and alleyways are an integral part of old Edinburgh and abound with stories that will make your hair curl and a dream location for ghost tours.
The Royal Mile has everything from history, architecture, attractions, shops, and pubs, so don’t expect a quiet time here. You probably won’t have time to see everything so it’s worth having a bit of a plan to make sure that you see what you want to - and then head for the shops, pubs and ‘Tartan Tat’.
The Royal Mile, as the name suggests is about a mile long and runs downhill from the castle (where the monarch used to live) to Holyrood Palace, one of the official residences of the queen. The Royal Mile runs through the old town and is also known as the High Street but actually it is a succession of five streets called Castlehill, the Lawnmarket, the High Street, the Canongate and Abbey Strand. The name ROYAL MILE was first used in 1901 by W M Gilbert who published a book called "Edinburgh in the nineteenth century" and the name has stuck since then.
For me this is the most interesting street in the country as many of the buildings in the old town are dated from the 17th century and before. Walking along here could take you all day as thereare museums, churches, closes, markets, souvenir shops, statues, restaurants and pubs, not forgetting Edinburgh Castle and Holyrood Palace at each end.
I found this plaque on a wall of the Kilderkin Pub towards the bottom of the Royal Mile and was amused at the story it told. There used to be a tenement building on the site but it was demolished in 1960 but the interesting point is how the tenement was built. The Duke of York (later James VII) needed a golfing partner for a game of foursomes so he chose a shoemaker, John Paterson as his partner against two noblemen. John was an accomplished golfer and he did more than his fair share when he and the Duke won the game and as a reward the Duke gave him all the money from the wager. It must have been quite a lot as the shoemaker constructed the tenement building with the reward and called it GOLFER'S LAND.
In Parliament Square a statue of James Braidwood (1800-61) was unveiled in 2008, but who was he?
In 1824 he was the founder of the Edinburgh Fire Brigade, which was the first municipal fire service in the world. He was originally a cabinet maker and builder before concentrating on fire-fighting. Later on he became director of what was to become the London Fire Brigade and he actually died fighting a fire at Cotton's Wharf in Tooley Street, London in 1861 and was rewarded with a great turn out at his funeral for his heroism. He was killed when a wall fell on top of him. The Tooley Street fire was one of the biggest in the 19th century and destroyed many buildings while it raged for two days, and it eventually was extinguished two weeks later.
The bronze plaque on the statue says--
1800 - 1861
Father of the British Fire Service
This statue is dedicated to the memory of James Braidwood, a pioneer of the scientific approach to fire-fighting. It also recognises the courage and sacrifice of fire-fighters, not only in Lothian & Borders Fire and Rescue Service, but all over the world.
In Parliament Square, just in front of Giles cathedral is a rather grand statue of the 5th Duke of Buccleuch that was erected in 1888. Walter Francis Montagu Douglas Scott (1806-84) stands on top wearing the Order of the Garter Robes. Underneath there are several panels that illustrate episodes in his life and his family history. Take a look at the battle scenes as they are particularly well sculpted. He was a politician, nobleman and landowner whose political career came to an end after supporting PM Peel.
Walking along the Royal Mile you can see at least 4 wellheads., Lawnmarket, Netherbow, High Street and Canongate which was the only way locals could obtain water until 1820. On each structure you will find a plaque which explains their use and where the water supply came from. In 1681 the water came from Castlehill Reservoir near the castle, but was replaced by a 2 million gallon tank at the same place in 1851, which was fed from springs in the Pentland Hills. In the olden days the locals would meet at the wellheads and gossip to each other.
Water was delivered by 'caddies', men who strapped a bulit barrel to their back, or of course people could collect it themselves by using a stoup (narrow necked bucket) and a girr was used as a means to provide stability to the water carrier. Sometimes water was rationed during the summer months so the locals started queueing at 3 am and quite often fights would begin as the people became impatient.
In front of the High Court building in the Royal Mile stands a statue of David Hume (1711-76) who was a famous a famous philosopher who was one of the most influential thinkers of that time. The sculptor was Sandy Stoddart and the bronze statue was unveiled in 1995. Hume looks extremely serious in the statue, probably he is contemplating something or other.
Along the Royal Mile there are many closes that lead to tenement buildings that were built many years ago. Lady Stairs Close is one such close and it boasts that the famous Scottish poet, Robert Burns lived there at one time. if you walk down the close you will come to Lady Stairs House that was constructed in 1622 for Sir William Gray of Pittendrum who was a Baronet. It was once called Lady Gray's House after the widow of the owner, but it was purchased in 1719 by the widow of the Earl of Stair and that is how it got its present name.
In the close you will find the Scottish Writers Museum which contains memorabilia from the three great Scottish writers that lived in Edinburgh, Robert Louis Stevenson, Sir Walter Scott and Robert burns.
MUSEUM OPEN Mon - Sat 10.00 to 17.00
Fri and Sat you can have a free tour at 1 pm or 3 pm.
This building was constructed in 1699 by Thomas Fisher who was the first chamberlain of Edinburgh. I have no idea what the building was used for before 1953 but HRH the Duke of Edinburgh opened the Scottish Central Library here after some renovation and restoration took place. There is an impressive crest above the door but i believe that it is no longer a library according to what i saw through the two windows. Two Scottish flags were flying on flagpoles outside the building so i guess it must be of some importance. It is next to the Whisky Trail in the Royal Mile
It is amazing what some people get up to in order to earn a few pounds. I came across the street artist on three consecutive days when i was walking along the Royal Mile. He usually hangs around by St. Giles Cathedral but on the other side of the road. Although it is a clever idea i would certainly not dream of throwing a few coins his way, and by the looks of his meager collection in his plastic box most people thought the same way as me.
At the top of the Royal mile in Castle Hill it is well worth visiting the Tartan Weaving Mill, just to see how the tartan is weaved. It looks like a small building but when you enter there are 4 more floors beneath street level. The 5 storey building really consists of shops that sells tartan kilts, bags, scarves and other clothes and souvenirs and the working mill occupies the ground floor. Geoffrey Taylor Kiltmaker runs the building. You can see the whole process of kilt making from shearing sheep to the finished product---a kilt. On the basement floor you can see the looms in action and you can also look down from the floor above. on one of the floors their is a loom which you can view at close quarters.
OPEN from 9.00 am to 5.30 pm.
The building was originally Castle Hill Reservoir which supplied fresh water to all the residents in the Royal Mile. Water was first piped from Corniston Springs to Edinburgh in 1676, but in 1849 a 2 million gallon tank was built at Castle Hill to supply the New Town but it was withdrawn from service in 1992 and now the mill occupies the building where the reservoir used to be.