Towns / Cities Visited: 128
Countries Visited: 20
Steps Taken Today: 21,069
Steps Taken Around the World: 3,219,141
Alright kids, strap yourself in for the story of our third castle visit in as many days. I know, it all seems a bit monotonous, but if there’s one thing that the UK has in abundance it’s castles with fascinating histories. Our day began alarm free, but with one of Scotland’s most visited attractions to cross off our list, we were up and out the door soon enough. After a brisk walk in the crisp morning air and beneath the uncharacteristically blue skies, we soon found ourselves standing at the foot of the rocky crag atop which sat our destination; Edinburgh Castle.
The grey stone walls are so akin to their foundation that this majestic fortification seems as though it was whittled into existence by some crafty giant. Heaving our way upwards, we arrived at the front gate, flanked stoically by two massive bronze statues; one of Robert the Bruce, the famed warrior and former king of this proud land, and also, funnily enough, someone who once attacked this very castle; and one of William Wallace, the equally as famed freedom fighter who had the misfortune of both being executed by the barbaric practice of hang, draw, and quartering, and having his life story played out by Mel Gibson.
This strategic location has been occupied since at least the 2nd century, and the first royal stronghold was erected here in the 12th century by David I. It remained a royal residence until 1633, whereafter it was mainly used as a military barracks. Like most castles in Scotland, this one has been in the crossfire of many a battle, from the Wars of Scottish Independence to the Jacobite Uprisings; in fact, research has shown evidence of 26 different sieges, making it the most besieged place in Great Britain, and one of the most attacked places in the entire world. No wonder the front gate is guarded by the likeness of two great warriors.
Filtering in through the portcullis along with everyone else, we decided the best place to start was at the top, and thus we headed up to the half moon battery to stand amongst the cannons and bask in the breathtaking view over the city below.
Now, with this being such a battle-hardened place, it seemed sensible to visit the Regimental Museum next, which resides within one of the buildings in the upper section of the castle. It contains an impressive collection of artefacts, medals, uniforms, and weapons which date back to the worlds wars, and beyond. It was fascinating to learn about the Royal Scot Dragoons, and in particular, the fact that Tsar Nicholas II of Russia had actually been appointed the colonel-in-chief of the 2nd Dragoons (known as the Royal Scot Greys) after he married one of Queen Victoria’s granddaughters. He was fiercely proud of that appointment, and held the position until he and his family were murdered during the Russian Revolution.
By this point it was nearing one o’clock, and we shuffled in behind everyone else to see the firing of the one o’clock gun. Much like the ball drop in Greenwich, this tradition was started to allow sea captains to synchronise their clocks before leaving port; you know, back when timekeeping was far less accurate. Given that the weather up here is often dreary and misty, a visible cue was not particularly reliable, and thus the unmistakable sound of the cannon fire was used instead.
Next up it was time head to one of the oldest parts of the castle, which dates from the 12th century. There is a few tidbits to learn here, with the most gruesomely fascinating being about the Black Dinner. Back in the November 1440 the 6th Earl of Douglas had just been named at the ripe old age of 16. The Chancellor of Scotland at the time, Sir William Crichton, feared that the Black Douglas were becoming too powerful and posed a threat to the current King James II, who was 10 years old at the time, courtesy of the murder of his father. Therefore, the Chancellor invited the Earl and his younger brother to dinner with the King. After the meal, legend has it, that the head of a black bull was placed on the table, signifying the death of the Black Douglas, and the two young Douglas boys were dragged outside, given a mock trial in which they were found guilty of high treason, and were subsequently beheaded. I’m sure it will not surprise any Game of Thrones fans to discover that this even gave inspiration for The Red Wedding. Seriously, there is very little in that book series, no matter how cruel and horrifying, that wasn’t based on our own despicable history as a race.
From here we headed on through to visit the Honours of Scotland, the oldest Crown Jewels in Britain. Unsurprisingly, you are unable to take photos of them, but before you reach them you pass through an exhibit about the fascinating history of the jewels since their creation in the 15th and 16th centuries. From being hidden at Dunnottar Castle to protect them from Oliver Cromwell’s forces, to being locked in a chest and sealed away behind a wall at Edinburgh Castle in 1707 after the Act of Union between England and Scotland. They weren’t uncovered again until 1818 when the Prince Regent George IV commanded historian Sir Walter Scott to break down the wall in the Crown Room and find them. After our crash history course, we headed in to view them. They are your usual collection of ornate ceremonial sword, crystal topped sceptre, and mildly over the top crown complete with plush red velvet, the standard white fluffy base courtesy of a few skinned ermine, and a handful of precious gemstones that scream ‘pay attention to me, I’m important, you can tell because I have placed shiny things on my head’. That’s not to say that they are not entirely stunning to behold, and do not exude a certain undeniable vibe of longstanding tradition. Funnily enough though, the most fascinating addition to the collection here is an even older, and even more famous, addition; the Stone of Scone (or the Stone of Destiny, depending on who you ask). This block of ancient red sandstone has been used in the coronation of Scottish rulers for centuries, and it’s been around so long it’s origins are unknown. It resides here for the most part, but does make the occasional trip to Westminster Abbey in London, to be placed beneath the throne for the crowning of each new monarch. This does beg the question though, that if Scotland were to become independent from England, would they take back the Stone indefinitely?
We took a quick break at this point to eat our packed lunch, before we wandered into the Royal Apartments. Now don’t go thinking these are like those of Buckingham Palace; remember this hasn’t been a royal residence in a few hundred years. Instead they are a relatively empty, save for a collection of royal portraits, including that of Mary, Queen of Scots; a number of painted family crests, and a rather impressive coat of arms above one of the fireplaces. The main draw card here though, is the relatively tiny room in which Mary gave birth to her son, James VI, who was crowned at just 13 months old after his mother was forced to abdicate given some poor choices in partner. He would be the last King of Scotland, as the country went on to merge with England, and he became the King of both nations. The ceiling bears the initials of mother and son, and the wall proudly boasts the year 1566. It’s funny to think in such a grand place, that the Queen was relegated to such a small room for the birth of the future king. They really had some strange reservations about childbirth back then, but then again, with birth often came death in those days, and I guess a place of cosy sanctuary, and not public display, would be preferable.
From here we crossed the courtyard and entered the National War Memorial; a sombre but peaceful place to reflect on the sacrifice of the Scottish men and women who fought alongside my own countrymen in so many battles. It is almost church like with its vaulted ceiling, and delicate stained glass; but there was something much more stirring about the inscriptions on the walls giving such heartfelt honours to those who have fallen. These people were, and are no more, for king and country, and I hope that we never forget their gift of freedom to us.
To lighter locations, we stepped into the grandeur of the Great Hall. It’s bright red walls a stark contrast to the War Memorial, but it’s plethora of wall mounted weapon displays no less telling of a country which has struggled with its desire for freedom for so long. It’s dark wooden ceiling gives the feeling of being cradled in the embrace of an unturned viking ship, and the stands of armour act as silent sentinels to the history of a room which has served not only as the location for many a great medieval banquet, but also as a military hospital. The entire affair is watched over by a striking painting depicting a Royal Dragoon snatching the French flag from an enemy during the Battle of Waterloo.
Back out in the castle grounds we flitted between the stunning buildings to a few other sights, including catching a glimpse of the quiet resting place of a number of soldiers dogs, which was strangely sadder than the war memorial. Such loyal creatures that they would follow us into the crossfire of battles of our own design.
We also stopped to see Mons Meg. This massive cannon was built in Mons, Belgium, and gifted to King James II in 1454 by Philip the Good, Duke of Burgandy, who was looking to help Scotland fight for freedom against England. It weighs 6.6 tonnes, and it’s 20 inch calibre makes it one of the largest cannons in the world, able to shoot cannonballs up to 175kg in weight. Mons Meg is so heavy, in fact, that a team of oxen were not able to move it more than 5km per day, and so powerful it could shoot a cannonball up to 3.2km. It was used in sieges until the mid 16th century, after which point it was only fired on ceremonial occasions until its barrel burst in 1680 while firing a salute to welcome the future King James VII and II. It remained at Edinburgh castle until 1754 when it was moved to the Tower of London, and only returned in 1829 where it has been restored and displayed.
Just a few steps away was our next location, the oldest building in Edinburgh; St Margaret’s Chapel. This rather small and unassuming stone building was erected around 1130 by King David I who named it after his mother Queen Margaret, who was later canonised in 1250. It has not always been a chapel however, and was used as a gun powder store in the 1500’s at which time it acquired its bomb proof roof; its origins being forgotten until 1845. Although none of the original furniture remains, and the stained glass windows are relatively new, the ornate carved arches, including the one over the altar, hark back to its beginnings. It is a serene and peaceful place to visit, if only for a moment.
Next it was time to step into the first of the two prison museums. This one, which has now been restored and has life sized figured posed in the cells, tells the story of those officers who found themselves in trouble and locked up in the Military Prison. From deserters to drunks, it was a look into the real life stories of some of Scotland’s finest in their lowest state of disgrace. Back in the 1800’s punishments were severe, including two months of hard labour and two months of solitary confinement for being caught drunk while on guard duty. The defeated poses of the mannikins capture quite well the feelings of those convicted.
It is not until you enter the second prison exhibit though, that you realise that the military prisoners were basically treated to a life of luxury compared to those who spent time in the vaults below Crown Square back in the 18th and 19th centuries. These vaults were used first to house Caribbean pirates who had been captured off the west coast and had come to retire, but instead most were hung below the high water mark off Leith. The space eventually transitioned to housing prisoners of war, mainly sailors, and has been restored to show how they would have been set up during its use. The youngest prisoner to be held here was a 5 year old drummer boy captured during the Battle of Trafalgar, and many of the other prisoners included American’s captured during the War of Independence. As you walk amongst the replica beds crammed in one after the other, and hung above with hammocks for those who would not fit in said beds, its hard to imagine how that many people could fit in such a crowded space; the air foetid with the smoke of the meagre candles and kerosene lamps which illuminated the semi-subterranean holding cell where the slivers of external light could not reach, and the stench of a hundred unwashed bodies in unwashed clothes. Upon the walls hangs a reprint of the rules for the prisoners, by order of the King. The most fascinating addition to the exhibit however, is a collection of original wooden cell doors, which bear the doodlings and names of those prisoners who whittled away their time by whittling away the doors. From names, dates, and initials to some rather impressive images of ships, and even an early version of the American flag, its amazing to think the marks of these forgotten men live on.
Our last stop was the National War Museum, to wander through another large array of war memorabilia, uniforms, medals, and artefacts. There are a few interesting little pieces, like an old water sterilisation kit, and a box of iron rations for the undernourished soldiers. There is also a collection of old recruitment posters, which I will say kind of concern me how they made joining the army look like an awesome option to travel and spend time playing football with mates, whilst simultaneously glossing over the bit where you will, in fact, be shot at and quite likely killed or maimed. The exhibit finishes with a small display on the use of the poppy as a symbol of remembrance and how it has changed over time. Upon the wall here also sits a pressed poppy picked from Flander’s fields on 13th June 1918; a frozen reminder of all those who lost their lives during WWI.
The sun was sinking low, and we had in no way expected there to have been so much to see and do within the castle walls. We’d been there for more than five hours by the time we ducked back out the gate and headed down the most famous thoroughfare in the city, the Royal Mile; a succession of streets that makes up the way from Edinburgh Castle at one end, to the site we would be visiting tomorrow, the Palace of Holyrood House. As we traversed the streets in the dimming evening light, it was the first time we got a sense of the immense history alive and well here. The shop fronts might we new, and occasionally punny, but the majority of the buildings that hold them are built of centuries old stone. A look to the left may find you looking into yet another souvenir store, but a glance to the right will see your eyes fall on the towering spire of a gothic cathedral. Its a strange but beautiful juxtaposition, and proof that progress does not always have to be at the cost of heritage.
Normally at this point, we would have headed home for dinner and a quiet night, but for once we had planned something to fill in our evening hours. Firstly, however, we were famished and on the hunt for food. We, rather uncharacteristically, had not organised somewhere to eat, and realising that it was Friday and prime eating time, we found most places to be a crush. Our wanderings saw us venture towards the theatre district, and ended up settling on, and don’t judge us here, a cheeky Nandos. Now, I know there are probably a million amazing places to eat in a place like this, but to be honest, sometimes when you have limited time, and are too tired to bicker about where to go, you just head to the familiarity and reliability of a chain restaurant. To be fair, the food was good, the service prompt, and the ciders cold.
Satiated, we headed off to the nights activity; the Real Mary King’s Close. We had, before dinner, managed to locate the entrance after a little hunting, no thanks to Google, and thus saved ourselves the panic of trying to find the entrance close to our time slot, which FYI is on the Main Street despite the internets insistence otherwise. Before long we were inside, placed with our tour group, and met by our guide for the evening; a friendly woman dressed in 17th century garb and taking on the persona of Mary King’s daughter in order to walk us through our experience.
Now, the name may not give much away, but this is actually a really fascinating attraction should you ever find ourself with time to spare. Our guide began by giving us some background on the site, so allow me to share a little with you now. Mary King’s Close, like many, was a narrow street in 17th century Edinburgh, towered over by precariously stacked tenement houses up to eight storeys high, then built atop with makeshift wooden structures to accommodate even more homes, all of which often housed up to 12–15 people per room. The poor would live at the bottom, closest to the squalid streets, or on the top storeys which were the most dangerous and structurally unsound; and the richer families would live in the middle. Top, middle, or bottom, it is unlikely any of them would pass a safety inspection these days. The street would also have been rank with the smell of the buckets of human refuse dumped in the steep street and allowed to trickle down towards the river in a time before sewers were a thing here. Furthermore, the already narrow passage was made even thinner by the addition of stalls set up along one side to sell goods to the residents, and the towering houses meant very little light reached the ground, leaving the place damp and dank. It was named, like many minor streets of the time, after one of its most notable residents, Mary King, an affluent merchant burgess and widow; something that was rare in a time where women were rarely independently successful or influential. To be honest, I kind of love the idea of naming streets after people who have actually lived and worked on them.
What remains of this Close, and a few of the others running parallel to it, are now located beneath the bustle of the streets above, time capsuled for centuries, and standing almost as they would have been when they were built some 400 years ago. So how did something like this survive the expansion of such a thriving metropolis? Well, the steep gradient of the city was not particularly suitable for the construction of the large exchange building they had wanted to erect here to allow merchants to trade off the streets, thus, in 1753, with the Close falling into a state of dilapidation, is was decided to use it as the foundations of the building, and therefore the bottom storeys of the buildings which had housed Mary and those before and after her, became sealed off below, untouched. It wasn’t until 2003 that the close was cleaned out and opened to tourists.
As you descend into the first room of one of the other Closes, it is then you first realise how crowded the living conditions were. This bare room, surely not much larger than 4m x 4m and lacking in any amenities, would have housed more than a dozen people, all sharing the tiny chamber pot in the corner, which would be dumped out the window into the streets at 7am and 10pm.
Next you make your way through to a room which has been set up with mannekins in freeze frame amidst a refurbished room. The scene depicts the murder of Alexander Cant, a real past resident of the street who was bludgeoned to death by his wife and her mother with a pair of fire tongs after he tried to sue the mother over not paying the daughters full dowry. The mother ended up being executed by drowning for the heinous crime.
The gruesome stories continue as you are led to a room filled with replica furniture and mannikins to tell the storey of the carnage the bubonic plague reaped here during the mid 1600’s. In such a cramped and squalid environment, rats, and the bacteria carrying fleas they transported, were everywhere, and its not surprising to find that many here died. The display, although creepy in its dim light, is wonderfully educational, as the guide explains the story of the mannequin family residing here. A grave digger father who had caught the plague from those victims he was charged with burying, and his children and wife who subsequently became ill when the disease ridden fleas rode on his clothes home with him and killed them all. The guide explains the three types of plague; bubonic plague (think puss filled lymph nodes which needed to be drained with a red hot poker but had the highest rate of survival, although still less than 50%. Symptoms of this type appear within 2–6 days of infection.); septicemic plague (think blood infection from the bubonic or pneumatic plague spreading to the bloodstream in a time before antibiotics, and unsurprisingly almost always causing death. This type can cause gangrene and thus is often know as the Black Plague as it causes the extremities to turn black. Symptoms appear with 2–7 days but death can occur before any symptoms surface); and pneumatic plague (think the infection spreading to the lungs, and being able to be spread from person to person through the expelling of spittle when coughing. It is the most deadly and the only kind contagious from person to person, thus spreading the fastest. Symptoms from this type can appear within a single day).
Beside one of the beds stands the creepy silhouette of a plague doctor. The heavy full length hooded coat, and the mildly demonic beaked mask is an image we almost all associate with the plague in medieval times. It was fascinating to learn about the methods they used to prevent themselves from catching the illness from their patients, and how, despite being undertaken for the wrong reasons, they were still effective. Many people at the time believed with the plague was carried by rats, and thus the heavy jackets, boots, and gloves, were designed to protect them from rat bites whilst treating the ill. Although we now know this is not the case, and that it was in fact the fleas, this protective garb kept out those little critters too. Many also believed that the illness was spread through foul air, hence the full face mask filled with fragrant herbs was designed to prevent contraction of the illness. Again, through the discovery and study of bacteria we know this to be untrue, but such apparel both kept out the fleas, masked the smell of the dead and dying, and protected from the cough of those with pneumatic plague. They also used to burn herbs like sage to cleanse the air and exorcise bad spirits, which, once again, was obviously useless, except that the smoke happened to also chase out the rats and the fleas causing the spread. Its amusing to think that the effectiveness of it would have bolstered their belief in the methods, despite the scientific inaccuracy of them in hindsight.
The tour guide also leads you to one of the the most unchanged parts, that being an old home, much of the wattle and daub plastering crumbling away to reveal wooden beams which have survived more than four centuries, and the grout of the brickwork worn and uneven. Here there sits a somewhat strange sight; a chest of toys, old and new. Unsurprisingly there has been many a ghost story told about Mary King’s Close and many have claimed this time capsule of a place to be haunted. This room is no exception, and it is believed by a Japanese psychic who visited in the 90's, that this house was haunted by the spirit of a small child named Annie, who was seperated from her parents and couldn’t find her doll. The psychic bought a doll and placed it in the room, stating that as long as it remained, the room would no longer be haunted. This shrine of playthings has been collected, and is often added to by guests, to help console the child who has lost her family and is seemingly traversing the afterlife in solitude.
Eventually, you make your way to the last section of the tour; a walk into the famed Close itself. Naturally, it is made a little cheesy by the obligatory posed photo that they attempt to sell you at the end after your visit in which you are banned of all personal photography; hence all photos I have placed here are from other sources. Photo aside though, it was surreal standing in the street and looking up at the strategically placed lines of washing pitched between the towering buildings; a narrow alley most certainly living up to its title of ‘close’. It’s strange to look up and think where now sits a building was once open sky. If you stand very still, and use a little imagination, its not hard to imagine the bustle in this street, and the call of ‘Gardyloo!’ echoing down the street as another bucket of refuse sloshed out onto the cobblestones.
The time had come for us to leave, through the gift shop of course, and although we did not splurge to buy our poorly posed tourist shot, we did however find a couple of illustrations by a local artist, Ross MacRae, which we took a fancy too. One of these depicts a plague doctor and we were so entranced by it that it has actually become the inspiration for part of the fantasy novel series we are in the midst of writing. With our brains running overtime with story ideas we decided to head back to Nando’s. Now I know what you’re thinking, ‘You’ve already had dinner!’, but we were going there not for chicken, but to indulge in the bottomless frozen yoghurt they offer, which we had not had time to have before. It’s true what they say, there is definitely a seperate stomach for dessert, and before we knew it we were deep in conversation and six cups of frozen yoghurt down. The truth is, I will admit a little guiltily, that we only stopped our gluttonous gorge because the machine literally ran out of product. It was probably for the best, and we made the long waddle back to our accommodation.
As I collapsed into bed after our enthralling but tiresome day, I mused once more on the plague doctors of old, and how it is amusing to consider how the way we treat illness has changed over time. I couldn’t help but fall into deep thought over how many times we must have done things we thought to be correct because the result was as desired, whilst also simultaneously being scientifically incorrect as to the reason for our successes; it really is the epitome of correlation not equalling causation. The trial and error of the medical field over time is a truly fascinating subject, and in times before we understood or knew of the existence of bacteria and viruses it is easy to see why practitioners of old believed illnesses to be due to bad air, or problems with the blood. I mean, to be fair, bad air isn’t entirely wrong, given the spread and destruction of airborne illnesses at the time, like tuberculosis, small pox, and measles, hence sending people to the country and out of smoke filled and overpopulated cities to heal was often effective. Likewise, look at something as widely used as bloodletting back in the day, and the belief that draining the blood removed bad humours and thus cured mental illnesses. This is of course untrue, and most patients became more docile and less aggressive simply because they had lost blood, but when looked at from their medical belief it did, in fact, work for the purposes they’d hope, although it was in no way a cure. It is the curiosity, research, and trials of the doctors and scientists of old which has brought us to the wealth of knowledge we have today, and just as there are things we believe to be true now, it is more than likely many of those will end up being correlation and not causation as our bank of knowledge grows into the future.