Scotland | Edinburgh Castle and Museums

by Jim and Melanie

So far, the focus of our Scotland vacation blog posts has been on the holiday barge trip we enjoyed the first week. Our travels also included several days in Edinburgh. Our first day was upon arrival before heading north by train to Inverness. After the barge trip, we returned to Edinburgh for three days. Lastly, we enjoyed one more day after our whisky distilleries tour. This post presents some highlights of all three of those occasions in the marvelous city.

First Impressions

We arrived mid-day at the airport and made our way to where we would spend the night. It was only a few blocks from the Royal Mile in the Old Town. The Royal Mile is a series of streets running downhill from the Edinburgh Castle to Holyrood Palace to the east. The descent is from 109 meters above sea level at the castle, to 42 meters at the palace. The thoroughfare is the busiest tourist area in the city. The street was built upon the glacial debris behind the volcanic plug upon which the castle sits. (See more about the Royal Mile and its geology and history here.)

After getting settled into our room, we ventured out to explore and find a place to eat. We walked up the Royal Mile and back again. We explored a few side streets and narrow passages called closes. More about closes in this post. Tourist shops were everywhere, with tartans, kilts, whiskies, and shortbreads in abundance. People from all over the world enjoyed the sights and sounds. Bagpipes could be heard. Street performers (buskers) gathered crowds. The old gray stone buildings rose up with a wide variety of ornamentations. Statues and public memorials were everywhere.

Our train for Inverness was scheduled late the next morning. We packed our bags and rolled them toward a place where we could get breakfast. Afterward, we crossed the Royal Mile and headed toward the train station. This was our view across the tracks. Click on either picture to open them in gallery.

 

Losing Each Other

After the barge trip, we were eager to explore the city more. Before doing that, we had a little adventure while traveling by train from Fort William to Edinburgh. We had to change trains in Glasgow. When arriving at the Glasgow station we saw a train on the next platform for Waverley Station, our final destination. We were surprised, as we thought we had several minutes before boarding. Jim rushed over to ask if it was the train we needed. After he stepped on, the doors closed behind him. He could not get off. Melanie could not get on, as she sadly waved good-bye to the departing train

Fortunately, there was another train scheduled a few minutes later. Helpful rail employees made sure we found each other on arriving in Edinburgh.

Edinburgh Castle

The centerpiece of Old Town, and one of our high priorities for visiting, is Edinburgh Castle at the west end of the Royal Mile. The castle perches above the rest of the city on the cone of the extinct volcano. The cliffside position provided protection for the fortresses, military barracks, and royal residences that have used that location over at least eight centuries. The Google video below gives an overview of the area now.

As we bought entrance tickets, the clerk recommended we enjoy one of the free tours of the site. Our tour guide, a young woman, told lots of stories with great humor and patience. After the tour we were free to wander the castle grounds, with the exception of buildings currently used by the military.

The castle complex was built and rebuilt over several centuries. The oldest part still standing is St. Margaret’s Chapel, which still hosts religious celebrations such as weddings and baptisms. Newer sections include the Scottish National War Memorial for veterans of the first and second world wars, and campaigns since then. There also is a cemetery for military dogs, visible when overlooking Princes Street Gardens and New Town. Click on any photo below to open them in gallery.

 

Once inside the Portgullis Gate…

This video  (taken by Jim) views to the north over the New Town district built in the late 18th century.

A view around the Crown Square within the castle. It was laid out in the 15th century. It starts with the Royal Palace where the Scottish crown jewels are kept. To the left of the starting point is the war memorial building.

Our tour guide pointed out a docent’s demonstration of ancient arms. He displayed cross bows and long bows, as well as the accompanying armor. Click on any photo below to open them in gallery.

 

Museums

Edinburgh has more museums than we could visit in a week, if that’s all we did there. Should we visit the Surgeons’ Hall museum? Or the Camera Obscura? Or the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, or Gallery of Modern Art? These are a small sample of those available. We chose two, the National Museum of Scotland and the Scottish National Gallery.

After returning from our barge tour, we spent several hours in the National Museum of Scotland. This beautiful museum was one of the finest we’ve ever visited. It houses the country’s diverse collections of natural history, technology and innovation, and Scottish history. The well-composed exhibits are interesting to view and provide stories often not found in museums of similar scope.

As we entered the central, glass-roofed atrium, we were greeted by the jewel-like facets of an enormous lighthouse Fresnel lens. (Jim has written about these lenses here.) It shimmered in the light-filled space.

Our great good fortune allowed us to view a special exhibit on the thousands of years’ of history of the Celts. No photos were allowed of the Celts exhibition, and we did not take many elsewhere. Most of the photos below are in the National Museum; the final one, with busts on the wall (and Jim lecturing to them) is from the National Gallery. We visited the National Gallery on our last day in Edinburgh.

The Scottish National Gallery includes a fine collection of art created by Scottish artists, and other art with relationship to Scotland. The museum sits in the middle of Princes Street Gardens. After a fine lunch in the dining room, we exited the building into the park. Music floated through the air on the level above. When we made our way to the plaza outside the main doors, we were treated to the joy of a swing dance festival. Take a look at the short clip below.

Though the city is full of museums and monuments, it also has smaller-scale attractions. We found throughout our Scottish travels that the food was wonderful. Whether in the breakfast diner down South Bridge Street, the Turkish-Kurdish restaurant near the laundromat, or the pub around the corner from the Royal Mile, Edinburgh exceeded our expectations.

In addition, the people are kind, generous, and good-natured. As noted above, the rail employees were especially helpful when we got separated in Glasgow. We also experienced that generosity from others including random-man-on-street who made a phone call for us, and then doubled back to find us when our party called him back; the laundry lady who patiently showed us how to work the machines in her shop; and the barkeep who helped us find our Airbnb host, among others.

Our final post about Scotland will show you some highlights of our three-day tour of the whisky industry in the Speyside region north of Edinburgh. Join us again then.

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28 thoughts on “Scotland | Edinburgh Castle and Museums

    1. Melanie McNeil

      The panic was surprisingly muted and momentary. By the time it was clear the train would leave without me, I knew I’d just have to deal with it. I also knew panic was a choice I could make, but it didn’t seem like it would help! There were accents I had trouble with. The folks from the west (like Ft Williams) were more difficult for me. Those from Edinburgh and Aberdeen were relatively easy.

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    2. Jim Ruebush Post author

      At first the dialect was very hard to follow. It got better with time.

      The post was a joint effort. Unfortunately, only one of us gets the official credit. So, we add the first thing ‘by Jim and Melanie’ or ‘by Melanie and Jim’. It was a team effort. I told Melanie to be sure to start the next post so her name gets linked to it. 🙂

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  1. shoreacres

    On the one hand, it seems incongruous for their to be a swing dance festival in Edinburgh. On the other, it delights me no end to see a part of my growing up still being appreciated — and with a good bit of skill, too.

    The museums sound wonderful, but the castle would be my first stop. Your mention of the stonework from various eras was particularly interesting. Of course, the line between castle and museum no doubt blurs — the buildings themselves are incarnations of so much history.

    Anyone who’s had the experience of a barbed fishhook embedded in flesh would appreciate that exhibition of the barbed arrows. It’s the same with the barb on a stingray’s tale. Getting the barb out can cause more damage than the initial wound.

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    1. Melanie McNeil

      Absolutely the castle complex is a museum, as well as the other functions it still serves. The stonework, which we didn’t capture carefully in pix, was really amazing. It reminded me of geological strata — different colors, differently sized rocks, different mortars, etc. I could have spent a lot more time just looking at it, without all the rest to distract me.

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    2. Jim Ruebush Post author

      The day was so gorgeous when we encountered the swing dancers. We were walking along the gardens and heard the music. We climbed the stairs and found all these people having a great time. Fun.

      The architecture and building materials of the castle and town indicated a mix of times and materials. Some layers of the castle were much older and had different stones. City buildings were subject to fires in certain parts near the Royal Mile. The worst was in 1824. Urban renewal in the late 1700s brought a lot of change as they tried to encourage a higher status resident in the New Town district.

      The archer at the castle was excellent and very interesting. He described the medieval weapons well and had funny interactions with the small crowd. He even got me up front as a victim of an arrow through my side. Nasty weapons.

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  2. Mrs. P

    I am so enjoying this series! The castles and stonework are beautiful. A friend of mine visited over the summer but I am not sure where they were exactly. They did get to stay in a castle though!.Sounds exciting but at the same time, I can imagine the heating arrangements weren’t the best. So glad you kept your cool when you got separated, Melanie. I was wondering if you had cell phone service while you were there?

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    1. Melanie McNeil

      We did not have our phones with us, as getting service set up was awkward and not expected to be reliable. We made the assumption that if we needed to make a call, we could get someone to do that for us. And in fact, that worked out well! Thank you for reading and commenting.

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  3. melissabluefineart

    I’ve always had the sense that it is a very human city, and represents humans at their best. Your posts seem to reinforce that impression. I love it that there was a swing festival, and that so many people were joining in and knew what they were doing! I took lessons more than once and cannot get the hang of it, sadly.

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    1. Jim Ruebush Post author

      I agree about the city. It is cultured and seems to be thriving. The university adds to the diversity and free thought. We saw memorials and art at every turn. In addition to those things today, the city and country has had its share of tribal and barbaric past. True of most places.

      We wished we knew how to swing dance. Someone would have been hurt if I got out there to try it. 🙂 I need lessons.

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