Scotland's capital city is a visitor-friendly showcase of history and culture

click to flip through (4) PHOTO BY JACK SOUTHER - Edinburgh Castle from Princes Street Gardens.
  • Photo by Jack Souther
  • Edinburgh Castle from Princes Street Gardens.

The red-eye special to Glasgow lifted off from Vancouver at ten past midnight and I braced myself for a night of solid discomfort. The ad-man who wrote – "Getting there is half the fun" – was either a midget or had never compressed his body into the economy class seat of a chartered jet.

From the moment we arrived in Scotland's capital city I was struck by its unique blend of big city sophistication and small town accessibility. It is among the five most important financial centres in Europe yet downtown Edinburgh, from the medieval tenements of Old Town to the eighteenth century buildings of New Town, is small enough to be explored on foot and the city clearly welcomes visitors.

From Waverly Station we rolled our baggage up a short ramp to Princes Street and paused to get our bearings. Although it is the city's main east-west thoroughfare Princes Street is developed on one side only. Its northern side is a mix of stately old buildings from the last century and a few modern shops and department stores. The south side faces Princes Street Gardens. Originally a shallow lake, this six-block-long park now features lawns, gardens, walkways and shady resting areas tucked in among the trees. And south of the park the crowded skyline of Old Town slopes up to Castle Craig where Edinburgh Castle, the city's signature landmark, dominates the city skyline. Half a block to my left the Scott Monument, a massive spire resembling a miniature Eiffel Tower rises above the trees of Princes Street Gardens. At its base a marble replica of Sir Walter himself gazes eternally across Princes Street at the Old Waverly Hotel.

Long before the first humans settled here the site where Edinburgh stands was destined to become a great city. Four hundred million years ago a volcanic eruption formed the plug of basalt that is now Castle Craig. Later, eastward-moving regional glaciers, unable to move it, flowed around the mound of tough basalt, carving out steep cliffs on three sides and leaving a long tail of glacial debris in its lee. Despite the centuries of human development that followed the classic "Craig and Tail" topography is still obvious and the Craig, where Edinburgh Castle now stands, is where the city began.

No one knows when the first people settled on the Craig but archeological records go back at least a thousand years to the mid Bronze Age. Protected from attack by un-scaleable cliffs on three sided and with a clear view across the lowlands to the Firth of Fourth and beyond, the Craig was an obvious place for a fortress. By the 3rd century AD the Picts had established a stronghold there and in the centuries that followed the English and Scots fought countless battles for its control.


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