Edinburgh’s Old Town

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Edinburgh, the capital of Scotland, is a tale of two cities. Divided by the train tracks that lead into Waverley Station, are the New Town on the north side with its orderly city blocks, and the Old Town to the south, caught in its medieval past.

Up on Castlehill looking east.
Up on Castlehill looking east.

At the heart of the Old Town is Castle Hill, upon the highest end Edinburgh Castle is perched. Leading up to the fortress is the Royal Mile, a mile-long stretch of road comprised of multiple streets from Holyrood Palace: Castlehill, Lawnmarket, High Street, Canongate and Abbey Strand. In the middle are two bridges: the North Bridge which leads towards the New Town, and the South Bridge, which as the name implies, crosses Cowgate to the south. A third overpass, the George IV Bridge, also spans Cowgate further west. And in between are dozens of narrow lanes, called closes, that cascade down the hillside, winding between towering stone structures.

Gladstone’s Land is a six-storey tenement, home to the successful merchant Thomas Gladstone and his business. On the ground floor (first floor for us North Americans), was space for retail, protected by an arched stone entrance. A golden hawk with a mouse in its talons, is perched outside above this entrance. The first and second floors are occupied by a museum, complete with 17th century furnishings. It’s a very dark and cramped living arrangement: no electricity, no running water, and rudimentary heating. As space was limited, the only way to build was up, which made for narrow floors and staircases.

Greyfriars Kirkyard.
Greyfriars Kirkyard.

South along the George IV Bridge is the famous Greyfriars Kirkyard. Outside the gate at with the intersection of Candlemaker Row, is a bronze statue of the Grayfriars Bobby, a Skye terrier who reputedly guarded the grave of his master, John Gray, until his death in 1872. The faithful dog himself is supposedly buried just inside the gates of the graveyard, steps from his master’s final resting place. Many other residents of Edinburgh are interred at Greyfriars Kirkyard, including the alleged haunted mausoleum of Bloody George Mackenzie, known for imprisoning over a thousand people for their religious beliefs, many of whom died. Also visible are a couple of metal grates which were used to protect fresh burials from graverobbers, who would dig up the recently deceased to sell the corpses to medical schools. Some of these stories are immortalized by the actions of the criminal duo Burke and Hare; they retrieved bodies from their graves for sale; when the supply of deceased ran out, they resorted to murder.

Opposite of Greyfriars Kirkyard is the Royal Museum of Scotland. This assemblage of buildings is home to a collection of artifacts from around the world, including an impressive selection of items from Ancient Egypt — mummies, coffins, ushabti, statues, necklaces and other jewellery, stone reliefs, and tablets. In addition to the ancient world, there’s exhibits of our natural world, with dinosaur skeletons and other displays. Like most museums in Scotland, admission is free, but they do encourage donations.

Back on the Royal Mile, on High Street, is the former church the Tron Kirk. Completed in 1647, it was an active place for worship until 1952 when its congregation moved out. Since owned by the city, excavations inside have exposed foundations and walls thought lost when the church was built. Now open to the public, it serves as a tourist information kiosk; the excavated groundwork is still visible.

A view of Cowgate to the east.
A view of Cowgate to the east.

Leading off High Street is the South Bridge, a massive masonry overpass spanning the ravine occupied by Cowgate. Supported by multiple arches, it’s here that many of Edinburgh’s ghost stories take place. Buildings abutting South Bridge have different entrances than those on Cowgate; many of the vaults under South Bridge were used for storage and shelters. Nefarious activities including theft, bootlegging, and even murder. Though these vaults were cleaned up, their stories remain, and tours are available for those brave enough to venture into underbelly of Edinburgh.

Looking up Cockburn Street.
Looking up Cockburn Street.

Headed north off High Street and towards Waverley Station is Cockburn Street. This narrow (by North American standards, but not as slim as some closes) street winds its way down towards Market Street in the shape of an “s”; many closes from High Street open up here. It’s near here that the infamous Mary King’s Close is located, a spot that earned its notoriety during the black plague in 1645 where supposedly 300 people were sealed up and left to die. Today, it’s now a tourist attraction.

Scottish Parliament Buildings
An aerial image of the Scottish Parliament Buildings on Canongate.

And the eastern end of Canongate where it transitions into Abbey Strand are two important structures: the first being the Scottish Parliament Buildings on Canongate and Holyrood Palace on Abbey Strand. The former is a very modern building, completely out of character for the neighbourhood, utilizing bright metal, warm wood, gleaming glass, and bare concrete — here, members of the Scottish legislature meet . The latter is a classical manor, the official residence of Queen Elizabeth II when she visits to carry out her official duties (the favourite royal retreat being Balmoral further north in the highlands). Tours are available when the Queen isn’t in town, and photography inside is restricted. Adjacent to the palace are the ruins of a former abbey, from which Abbey Strand draws its name. The once grand church is left in a state of disrepair following a cave-in of its stone roof sometime in the 18th century.

There’s plenty of history and activities to take advantage of in the Old Town. Entertainment, dining, walking tours and more, with many being family-friendly. Take a stroll and see what’s around, there’s always something happening in Edinburgh.

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