Edinburgh: Introduction

  • © scottishviewpoint.com, marcopolo.de

    © scottishviewpoint.com, marcopolo.de


As a small capital city on the edge of Europe, Edinburgh cannot play first fiddle in the global city orchestra – at the most, it could play first bagpipe. Many visitors often consider the city as the gateway to the Highlands. But, with its reputation as a capital city fully restored following the partial autonomy of Scotland in 1999 and the establishment of a regional parliament, this sleeping beauty started to awaken from its years of slumber.

Its cultural festivals have now been joined by new restaurants with Michelin stars, fashion houses and boutiques, the revamping of the port and one of the most sensational parliament buildings in Europe. Direct flights from many European airports have made Edinburgh a perfect destination for an urban holiday.

This city is a real natural talent. Volcanism and the Ice Age left a dramatic hilly landscape behind them in this inlet on the Firth of Forth; but that would not really have such an effect without the city in the middle of it. A royal castle from the 7th century, perched like an eyrie on a hill, marked its beginnings, and the city started to develop around Edinburgh Castle – which rises high into the sky above the city. Seen from one of the three hills in the city, the dramatic skyline of the Old Town at sunset, or looming up out of the fog, creates one of the most atmospheric portraits of any European metropolis.

Bloody battles, wild legends and the cult of the kilt

Edinburgh – and Scotland – have one man in particular to thank that this remote beauty on the edge of the Highlands did not remain a place known only to insiders over the past 200 years. In the 19th century, the author Walter Scott took a story of a not terribly imposing man-at-arms and wove legends, bloody battles between the English and the Scots, and tragic love stories from the Highlands into a web of historical novels.

The prose that flowed from Scott’s pen is possibly not the most refined, but readers throughout Europe couldn’t get enough of it. As a result, they started travelling to Scotland. Writers from the Continent felt that Edinburgh’s Neoclassicist architecture invested it with the aura of an ‘Athens of the North’. Scottish tourism and Hollywood’s Highlander films would be inconceivable without Scott. The same applies to the cult of the kilt. Scott turned the skirt-like piece of clothing worn by the Highlanders – that had become scorned after an inglorious defeat by the English – into a fashionable garment when he invited King George IV to Edinburgh in 1822 and put him in a kilt, too. 

Edinburgh’s plus points are not limited to its magnificent location, historical novels and tartans. The authoritarian church reformer John ‘Killjoy’ Knox brought Calvinism to Catholic-oriented Edinburgh in 1560 and subjected the nation to his ‘Book of Discipline’. Edinburgh became the epicentre of a Scottish moral earthquake that made the church more independent from the Crown – in contrast to England where the Reformation was more of a grass-roots affair. Edinburgh’s Protestantism created institutions such as autonomous churches,
law courts and schools. 

The city with two faces – Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde

Of course, the city, with around 50,000 inhabitants living in cramped conditions in ten-to-twelve storey buildings in the 17th century stank to high heaven. If you threw your tankard at the wall of a pub, or so it is said, it would stick to the filth on it. In spite of this, an increasing number of poets and philosophers met in such pubs for a heated exchanges of ideas. The new Protestant philosophy created a resident of Edinburgh who, as a hot-headed Highlander, could never resist joining in a bar room brawl but still racked his brains over God and the world around him.

The Scottish Age of Enlightenment resulted in the first faculty of medicine in Great Britain being established in Edinburgh in 1726, followed by a philosophical society in 1739. In Voltaire’s opinion, the city was one of Europe’s main intellectual centres for a time. Edinburgh was the home of many great intellectuals including Adam Smith, the father of economic theory – even though bankrupt Scotland had become almost powerless, and the kingdom united with England in 1707.

City planners with a World Heritage Site and a thirst for the future

If you plan a romantic evening picnic on Calton Hill, you will have Edinburgh and its (hi)story spread out to your left. In the background, the old castle with the densely populated medieval Old Town sweeping down from the hill top to the Palace of Holyroodhouse. On the right, a ‘new’, completely different and surprisingly well-ordered city comes into view – even though it is also a good 200 years old now.

The Georgian New Town represents the non plus ultra of city planning of the period: uniform, precise, spacious and fashionable – a wonderful place for a stroll and to see what is going on. Enormous windows and high rooms. Terrace houses and palatial façades. When Walter Scott invited the English king, George IV, to Edinburgh, he came into the New Town.

This is where the better-off citizens had settled to get away from the overcrowding in the narrow streets and houses on the other side of town that had been there for centuries However, there has been little architectural development of note in Edinburgh since the construction of the New Town around 1800 and the draining of the sewage-filled lake where Princes Street Gardens are today. A triumph like that was good enough for centuries.

With a population of approximately 450,000 - Edinburgh is Scotland’s second-largest city today. While the largest, Glasgow – only an hour away by train – appears postindustrial and shirt-sleeved, the bankers and civil servants in the capital seem to prefer suits and ties. The millennium politics of the London Scot Tony Blair made it possible for Scotland to break away from its political union with England.

The Catalan architect Enric Miralles, now deceased, was allowed to build a fascinating parliament building in the Old Town; this created an eastern boundary to the already-existing row of houses when it was completed in 2004. Many of the people of Edinburgh complained that the building was too expensive but the architectural world was enthralled. 

The Scottish Parliament is located near the Baroque Palace of Holyroodhouse, the Queen’s residence when in the Scottish capital. The contrast between the two buildings makes one aware of the difficulties involved integrating contemporary design in a homogeneous environment.

The building, in which the Scottish National Party (SNP) – with their sights firmly set on Scottish independence – still only swings the sceptre of partial autonomy, is not intended as a house for Scotland as a new state. At the moment, it seems that it has also provided the incentive for the extensive redevelopment of the area between the Royal Mile and Calton Hill. 

Glasgow has already fought its way out if its industrial decline but Edinburgh still appears to be carefully working on plans to develop a more contemporary profile in the coming years. City planners have to steer a course between demolition and the demands of a World Heritage Site seeing that both the New and Old Town bear this coveted UNESCO title.

It come as no surprise that the Scottish capital with its two hearts is always on the brink of a cardiac arrest during the cultural festival month of August, when more than 2 million visitors make the city burst at the seams. The creative urge to foster the human spirit which has not let the people of Edinburgh come to rest since the Enlightenment, erupts with full force in the Edinburgh International Festival, the Fringe Festival and the Military Tattoo. The International Festival has been the highlight of the summer in Edinburgh since 1947 and has been imitated by many other cities around the world.

It is fairly easy to explore the Scottish capital on foot – if you don’t get lost. You will find yourself continuously going up and down hills and steps, and over rough cobblestones. Take sturdy shoes with you. Strolling around the carefully laid-out streets in the New Town is an easy affair but the Old Town is almost reminiscent of one of the impossible staircase constructions in drawings by the Dutch artist Maurits Cornelis Escher.

Don’t hesitate to ask locals the way – this could lead to a shortcut through a romantic cemetery. In conversation with the residents of Edinburgh, you will be able to listen to the delights of the Scottish accent with its almost uncontrollable rolled vowels – an accent that has stumped many a foreigner. It has a lovely ring to it and is nowhere nearly as difficult as Glaswegian. However, if you arrive in a pub while there is a music session in full swing, it might be that you will not understand anything at all. In that case, you will have hit on Gaelic singing. And what a stroke of luck. You will have come across the true Scottish soul of Edinburgh somewhere in the catacombs of the capital. 

The magic of Edinburgh never fades

This metropolis, which is both grotesquely Gothic and classically hip, has an enchanting air about it unlike virtually any other. And just when you start thinking about leaving this magic behind you, you will hear the sound of bagpipes echoing down the streets. So don’t even try to entertain such thoughts: you can pack your bags whenever you want, check out of your hotel and set off for home – but Edinburgh will never really let you out of its spell!

    © 2015 Marco Polo Travel Publishing | Pinewood | Chineham Business Park | Crockford Lane | Chineham | Basingstoke | RG24 8AL | Great Britain