Two Hours on the Royal Mile: Part 1

Yes, you read that right: two hours. To add a bit of context, I wasn’t really in Edinburgh to sightsee. My family and I were there to see an afternoon performance of War Horse at the Festival Theatre and the two hours was really only a bit of spare time that I didn’t want to waste! Now obviously, it is impossible to see all the best parts of Edinburgh in two short hours, so I had to whittle it down slightly. In the end, while my mum and sister took on Harvey Nichols, my dad and I tackled the Royal Mile.

The Royal Mile is one of Edinburgh’s busiest streets and an entire tourist attraction in itself. At the top end of the ‘Mile’ sits Edinburgh Castle, with Holyrood Palace and the Scottish Parliament building at the bottom. Given the time restraints, I wasn’t able to head into Edinburgh Castle or Holyrood Palace (I could have spent a whole day in each!). I did briefly stick my head into the Parliament building but we’ll get to that later!

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It’s nearly impossible to miss Edinburgh Castle. It looms over the Old Town from the top of the Castle Rock. The site has been used since the Iron Age, but the Castle as we see it today dates to the 12th century, as far back to the reign of David I. Edinburgh Castle has seen an awful lot in its time, but I won’t go too much into it given that I never had a chance to go inside. It’s still pretty impressive from the outside if you can ignore the swarm of people milling around the Esplanade! From there, it’s a short walk down Castlehill to our next stop: St. Giles’ Cathedral and the Heart of Midlothian.

St. Giles’ Cathedral, a.k.a. The High Kirk of Edinburgh, is a key place of worship for members of the Church of Scotland in Edinburgh. It was founded originally in the 12th century, but following a fire, was rebuilt in the 1300s even bigger and better than before!

The Cathedral’s eponymous holy man was a sixth-century Grecian who left for France to live as a hermit. According to the tales, he befriended a deer in the forest where he lived. One day, this deer was shot by the King whilst he was out hunting. The King found the deer in the arms of St. Giles and was intrigued. He often went back to speak with Giles, eventually persuading him to return to civilisation and become an Abbot of a monastery which the King had founded for him. He is now the patron saint of the city of Edinburgh, as well as rams, spur makers, and the fear of the night. Strange collection but we’ll roll with it.

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The Heart of Midlothian sits on the pavement outside the Cathedral and can be missed if you’re not looking hard enough. It marks the position of the entrance to the Old Tolbooth which is remembered most commonly as the main jail for the area back in the day. During its time as a prison, the Tolbooth was a place of punishment, torture, and execution. Not very pleasant if you ask me. This prison held a number of key figures from Scottish history, but also some that were slightly more bizarre.

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Take, for example, Agnes Sampson. Agnes was a healer and midwife from East Lothian. Like many open-minded wise women of the time, she fell foul to the witch hunts which had encompassed the whole country, and Europe for around 300 years. Scotland was a notorious hotspot for witch-hunting due mostly to James VI’s mad ideas about magic and devil worship. James was obsessed with witchcraft from a young age, and this only grew upon his mother’s execution and then on his betrothal to Anne of Denmark. The story goes that whilst sailing back from Scandinavia after travelling there to collect his new bride, there was a violent tempest in the North Sea. James being James firmly believed that witches were responsible for this nearly lethal storm, and it couldn’t possibly be, you know, bad weather.

Upon his return to Scotland, he immediately set out to find the witches responsible and make them pay. Of course, the only place these witches could have come from was North Berwick in East Lothian (James’ logic never fails to amaze me). During these North Berwick Witch Trials, as they came to be known, more than 100 ‘witches’ were rounded up and tortured. One of these people was Agnes Sampson. She was seen as a key conspirator and as such was of keen interest to the King. He questioned her himself, finding her guilty upon her confession following long periods of torture. Agnes was then taken to the scaffold where she was garotted and then burnt at the stake. The ghost of ‘Bald Agnes’ is said to now roam the halls of Holyrood Palace. Spooky.

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But back to the main narrative. Following our stop at St. Giles’, my Dad and I nipped over the road to somewhere equally as creepy and haunted. Again, however, we didn’t actually go in. Short on time and all that! The Real Mary King’s Close is a great attraction in Edinburgh which takes you into some of the buried side streets which were hives of activity back in the day. There are a good selection of businesses in Edinburgh that capitalise on the city’s dark past, which I find quite fascinating, along with the whole ‘dark tourism’ phenomena. I’m also a sucker for a good ghost story, and Edinburgh has them by the bucket! I think that’s something I’ll write more about in part two. But for now, I’ll leave it! Who knew you can write so much about a measly two hours?!

As always, for more Holme & Away, you can like/follow me on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. I’ll be adding the remainder of my Edinburgh photos to Flickr after I’ve posted part two, but you can check out photos from my other trips over on my Albums page. See you next time!

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