A Brief History and Walking Guide to Edinburgh

Ancient History:

Her story begins at the dawn of time. A time when a slow-moving alien landscape, morphed and mutated, dislocating the human understanding of time and progress. The outcome of millions of years of glacial erosion, Scotland’s City of Edinburgh sits encased in the shadows of three extinct volcanoes – Arthur’s Seat, Castle Rock and Calton Hill – which ascend out of the earth, giving the city an aura of almost ethereal other-worldliness. Fast-forward some four-hundred million years, and today’s Edinburgh is the product of the seismic shifts in human progress. Layers upon layers of history are mapped within her infrastructure – you only need to take a stroll from the Royal Mile, down the marble Waverley Steps and you’ve transcended centuries of history. Take it slowly and forgo the pocket map – Edinburgh’s geography begs to be discovered on an amble that is not locked into a forward motion, but sidesteps into hidden closes and backtracks to climb up some curious steps or down into another world.

The City of Edinburgh from Calton Hill, 2017

A Modern City in Disguise:

Edinburgh is often hastily categorised as a somewhat whimsical ancient city, a curious glimpse through a looking glass into another time. A place that allows you to walk as if you were upon a stage, the cobbled streets and their resolute but dusty tenements serving as the backdrop scenery for some historic theatre play. While it is certainly not untrue, Edinburgh almost seems fantastical in her timeworn glory, to say this and this alone is to belie the fact that she remains a thriving thoroughfare, rich in contemporary relevance, talent and power. She continues forward, integrating her past with her present and her future. Walk her streets, and she opens her heart to you with the warmth of an old friend, revealing a millennium of stories that dance and swirl through her corridors like phantoms of a bygone age alongside bright apparitions of her future.

The New Town out to the Firth of Forth, from the Castle. 2013.

The City Zones: The Old Town and The New Town

The bulk of the city is split into two zones, the Old Town and the New Town, each listed as a Unesco World Heritage site. The Old Town exists as the medieval Edinburgh of postcards and imagination, whereas the oft-overlooked New Town is an austere Georgian grid-system adhering to the ideals of Enlightenment. Whilst the geography and architecture of the New Town is certainly not ‘new’ by the standards of today’s super-metropolises, the culture of her streets pulsates with modernity. Edinburgh’s bars, restaurants and galleries, in both sections of the city, rival those in her metropolitan counterparts, but with the added mystique of being set within hundreds of years of rich, enigmatic history. With every step, behold the seamless meshing of the old industries with the new. Once the playground for heavy industry, the warehouses and dockyards of Edinburgh give way to contemporary enterprises, adapting to the current trends of modernity – notably gin distilleries, microbreweries and artisan coffee houses, but also spaces of art and theatre. It is of little surprise that Edinburgh’s worst-kept-secret, the annual International Fringe Festival, thrives year upon year in this city that toes the line between old and new with a delicate finesse. Whilst the New Town sprawls forth to the outer reaches of the city, encompassing a wide scope of land, the heart of the City of Edinburgh arguably rests within the Old Town at the Grassmarket. The Grassmarket, which sits in a sunken hollow under the watchful eyes of the ancient castle resting high on her volcanic throne, is the hub of Edinburgh’s human activity throughout the centuries. Once the site of four hundred years worth of public executions, today’s Grassmarket exists as a base for curious travellers and natives to explore the city.

Edinburgh Castle, 2017

A Brief Walking Tour from The Grassmarket:

As you approach the far side of the Grassmarket, when the castle is but a glimmer of a fortress in the sky, the road forks and offers three paths to take. At night, go straight and plunge into the bedrock of the city, the Cowgate – where the foundations of the buildings sigh with the weight of the world above them. It is an area rich in contemporary subcultures, offering underground music venues with local artists and DJs offering a taste of the talent that this city nurtures. Furthermore, along this route, you can drink, dance or even marry in a network of eighteenth-century vaults once lost to time and only recently discovered. By day, take either street to your left or right, each a winding road that steeply yet subtly climbs to another level of the city. Go left and you will approach the Royal Mile from Victoria Street, arguably one of Edinburgh’s most picturesque vistas. A row of boutiques and restaurants with colourful facades trace the contours of the cobbled road. Despite their prominent location, the businesses of Victoria Street are not establishments with low quality, overpriced goods, which serve to lure unsuspecting tourists into their depths. Instead, these bright, welcoming spaces offer quality Scottish-made goods to flocks of locals and tourists alike.

The Harry Potter Trail:

Go right, and tumble into the imagination of Candlemaker Row. It is of little surprise that Edinburgh is a city of endless inspiration, igniting a spark of creativity in authors and artists throughout the decades. In this one street alone, dark echoes of grave robbers are at once banished by the warming tale of a loyal dog which gives way to a saga of brave witches and wizards (for those particularly interested in the Harry Potter side of Edinburgh, make your way through the graveyard to find some familiar names from the books, then enjoy coffee in the Elephant House, where J.K. Rowling reportedly spent time writing the early books!) At the top of this sweeping cobblestoned path, the city opens up again – offering more paths to take, with each one imploring you to discover its gold. In this regard, navigating Edinburgh by foot can quickly become a disorientating waltz upon a treasure map, like Alice traversing wonderland. Yet, it is never overwhelming. With each twist and turn, each ascent or descent through her layers, Edinburgh offers a semblance of calm – of feeling like you have just reached the warm comfort of home.

A Warm Goodbye:

You never really leave Edinburgh. As soon as the wheels of your plane leave the tarmac, or your train pulls out of the station, you realize that you are carrying her with you. She is a city that gives herself to you fully, imprinting onto your being and reminding you that no matter what, she’s always there.

Art Installation at the foot of the Royal Mile, facing Calton Hill. 2017.

Rebecca Hughes