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Cities in the Spotlight: Edinburgh, Scotland

Updated: Mar 11

Today we will be traveling to Europe again. This time we will be exploring Edinburgh, Scotland.


Edinburgh City Information

Edinburgh is the capital city of Scotland and one of its 32 council areas. The city was historically part of the county of Midlothian (formally called the "county of Edinburgh" or Edinburghshire until 1947) but was administered separately from the surrounding county from 1482. It is located in Lothian on the southern shore of the Firth of Forth. Edinburgh is Scotland's second-most populous city, after Glasgow, and the seventh-most populous city in the United Kingdom. The city is the annual venue of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. It is home to national cultural institutions such as the National Museum of Scotland, the National Library of Scotland, and the Scottish National Gallery. The University of Edinburgh, founded in 1582 and now one of three in the city, is considered one of the best research institutions in the world, most recently placing 15th in the QS World University Rankings for 2023. The city is also known for the Edinburgh International Festival and the Fringe, the latter being the world's largest annual international arts festival. Historic sites in Edinburgh include Edinburgh Castle, the Palace of Holyroodhouse, the churches of St. Giles, Greyfriars, and the Canongate, and the extensive Georgian New Town built in the 18th/19th centuries. Edinburgh's Old Town and New Town together are listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which has been managed by Edinburgh World Heritage since 1999.


Edinburgh Historical Significance

The earliest known human habitation in the Edinburgh area was at Cramond, where evidence was found of a Mesolithic camp site dated to c. 8500 BC. Traces of later Bronze Age and Iron Age settlements have been found on Castle Rock, Arthur's Seat, Craiglockhart Hill and the Pentland Hills. When the Romans arrived in Lothian at the end of the 1st century AD, they found a Brittonic Celtic tribe whose name they recorded as the Votadini. The Votadini transitioned into the Gododdin kingdom in the Early Middle Ages, with Eidyn serving as one of the kingdom's districts. During this period, the Castle Rock site, thought to have been the stronghold of Din Eidyn, emerged as the kingdom's major centre. The medieval poem Y Gododdin describes a war band from across the Brittonic world who gathered in Eidyn before a fateful raid; this may describe a historical event around AD 600.

In 638, the Gododdin stronghold was besieged by forces loyal to King Oswald of Northumbria, and around this time control of Lothian passed to the Angles. Their influence continued for the next three centuries until around 950, when, during the reign of Indulf, son of Constantine II, the "burh" (fortress), named in the 10th-century Pictish Chronicle as oppidum Eden, was abandoned to the Scots. It thenceforth remained, for the most part, under their jurisdiction. The royal burgh was founded by King David I in the early 12th century on land belonging to the Crown, though the date of its charter is unknown. The first documentary evidence of the medieval burgh is a royal charter, c. 1124–1127, by King David I granting a toft in burgo meo de Edenesburg to the Priory of Dunfermline. The shire of Edinburgh seems to have also been created in the reign of David I, possibly covering all of Lothian at first, but by 1305 the eastern and western parts of Lothian had become Haddingtonshire and Linlithgowshire, leaving Edinburgh as the county town of a shire covering the central part of Lothian, which was called Edinburghshire or Midlothian (the latter name being an informal, but commonly used, alternative until the county's name was legally changed in 1947).

Edinburgh was largely in English hands from 1291 to 1314 and from 1333 to 1341, during the Wars of Scottish Independence. When the English invaded Scotland in 1298, King Edward I chose not to enter the English-controlled town of Edinburgh but passed by with his army. In the middle of the 14th century, the French chronicler Jean Froissart described it as the capital of Scotland (c. 1365), and James III (1451–88) referred to it in the 15th century as "the principal burgh of our kingdom". In 1482 James III granted the burgh the right to appoint its own sheriff and coroner, making the burgh administratively independent from the surrounding county, with it becoming a county of itself. Despite the destruction caused by an English assault in 1544, the town slowly recovered, and was at the centre of events in the 16th-century Scottish Reformation and 17th-century Wars of the Covenant. In 1582, Edinburgh's town council was given a royal charter by King James VI permitting the establishment of a university; founded as Tounis College (Town's College), the institution developed into the University of Edinburgh, which contributed to Edinburgh's central intellectual role in subsequent centuries.

In 1603, King James VI of Scotland succeeded to the English throne, uniting the crowns of Scotland and England in a personal union known as the Union of the Crowns, though Scotland remained, in all other respects, a separate kingdom. In 1638, King Charles I's attempt to introduce Anglican church forms in Scotland encountered stiff Presbyterian opposition culminating in the conflicts of the Wars of the Three Kingdoms. Subsequent Scottish support for Charles Stuart's restoration to the throne of England resulted in Edinburgh's occupation by Oliver Cromwell's Commonwealth of England forces – the New Model Army – in 1650. In the 17th century, Edinburgh's boundaries were still defined by the city's defensive town walls. As a result, the city's growing population was accommodated by increasing the height of the houses. Buildings of 11 storeys or more were common, and have been described as forerunners of the modern-day skyscraper. Most of these old structures were replaced by the predominantly Victorian buildings seen in today's Old Town. In 1611 an act of parliament created the High Constables of Edinburgh to keep order in the city, thought to be the oldest statutory police force in the world.

Following the Treaty of Union in 1706, the Parliaments of England and Scotland passed Acts of Union in 1706 and 1707 respectively, uniting the two kingdoms in the Kingdom of Great Britain effective from 1 May 1707. As a consequence, the Parliament of Scotland merged with the Parliament of England to form the Parliament of Great Britain, which sat at Westminster in London. The Union was opposed by many Scots, resulting in riots in the city. By the first half of the 18th century, Edinburgh was described as one of Europe's most densely populated, overcrowded and unsanitary towns. Visitors were struck by the fact that the social classes shared the same urban space, even inhabiting the same tenement buildings; although here a form of social segregation did prevail, whereby shopkeepers and tradesmen tended to occupy the cheaper-to-rent cellars and garrets, while the more well-to-do professional classes occupied the more expensive middle storeys.

During the Jacobite rising of 1745, Edinburgh was briefly occupied by the Jacobite "Highland Army" before its march into England. After its eventual defeat at Culloden, there followed a period of reprisals and pacification, largely directed at the rebellious clans. In Edinburgh, the Town Council, keen to emulate London by initiating city improvements and expansion to the north of the castle, reaffirmed its belief in the Union and loyalty to the Hanoverian monarch George III by its choice of names for the streets of the New Town: for example, Rose Street and Thistle Street; and for the royal family, George Street, Queen Street, Hanover Street, Frederick Street and Princes Street (in honour of George's two sons). In the second half of the century, the city was at the heart of the Scottish Enlightenment, when thinkers like David Hume, Adam Smith, James Hutton and Joseph Black were familiar figures in its streets. Edinburgh became a major intellectual centre, earning it the nickname "Athens of the North" because of its many neo-classical buildings and reputation for learning, recalling ancient Athens. In the 18th-century novel The Expedition of Humphry Clinker by Tobias Smollett one character describes Edinburgh as a "hotbed of genius". Edinburgh was also a major centre for the Scottish book trade. The highly successful London bookseller Andrew Millar was apprenticed there to James McEuen.

From the 1770s onwards, the professional and business classes gradually deserted the Old Town in favour of the more elegant "one-family" residences of the New Town, a migration that changed the city's social character. According to the foremost historian of this development, "Unity of social feeling was one of the most valuable heritages of old Edinburgh, and its disappearance was widely and properly lamented." Despite an enduring myth to the contrary,[80] Edinburgh became an industrial centre with its traditional industries of printing, brewing and distilling continuing to grow in the 19th century and joined by new industries such as rubber works, engineering works and others. By 1821, Edinburgh had been overtaken by Glasgow as Scotland's largest city. The city centre between Princes Street and George Street became a major commercial and shopping district, a development partly stimulated by the arrival of railways in the 1840s. The Old Town became an increasingly dilapidated, overcrowded slum with high mortality rates. Improvements carried out under Lord Provost William Chambers in the 1860s began the transformation of the area into the predominantly Victorian Old Town seen today. More improvements followed in the early 20th century as a result of the work of Patrick Geddes, but relative economic stagnation during the two world wars and beyond saw the Old Town deteriorate further before major slum clearance in the 1960s and 1970s began to reverse the process. University building developments which transformed the George Square and Potterrow areas proved highly controversial.

In 2023, Edinburgh became the first capital city in Europe to sign the global Plant Based Treaty, which was introduced at COP26 in 2021 in Glasgow. Green Party councillor Steve Burgess introduced the treaty. The Scottish Countryside Alliance and other farming groups called the treaty "anti-farming."


Travel to Edinburgh

*taken from Lonely Planet*

Edinburgh is a city that begs to be discovered, filled with quirky, come-hither nooks that tempt you to explore just that little bit further. Edinburgh is one of Europe’s most beautiful cities, draped across a series of rocky hills overlooking the sea. It’s a town intimately entwined with its landscape, with buildings and monuments perched atop crags and overshadowed by cliffs. From the Old Town’s picturesque jumble of medieval tenements piled high along the Royal Mile, its turreted skyline strung between the black, bull-nosed Castle Rock and the russet palisade of Salisbury Crags, to the New Town’s neat grid of neoclassical respectability, the city offers a constantly changing perspective. The Athens of the North, an 18th-century Edinburgh nickname dreamed up by the great thinkers of the Scottish Enlightenment, is a city of high culture and lofty ideals, of art and literature, philosophy and science. It is here that each summer the world's biggest arts festival rises, phoenix-like, from the ashes of last year's rave reviews and broken box-office records to produce yet another string of superlatives. And it is here, beneath the Greek temples of Calton Hill – Edinburgh's acropolis – that the Scottish parliament sits again after a 300-year absence.

Edinburgh is also known as Auld Reekie, a down-to-earth place that flicks an impudent finger at the pretensions of the literati. Auld Reekie is a city of loud, crowded pubs and decadent restaurants, late-night drinking and all-night parties, beer-fuelled poets and foul-mouthed comedians. It’s the city that tempted Robert Louis Stevenson from his law lectures to explore the drinking dens and lurid street life of the 19th-century Old Town. And it’s the city of Beltane, the resurrected pagan May Day festival, where half-naked revellers dance in the flickering firelight of bonfires beneath the stony indifference of Calton Hill's pillared monuments. Like a favourite book, Edinburgh is a city you’ll want to dip into again and again, savouring each time a different experience – the castle silhouetted against a blue spring sky with a yellow haze of daffodils misting the slopes below the esplanade; stumbling out of a late-night club into a summer dawn, with only the yawp of seagulls to break the unexpected silence; heading for a cafe on a chill December morning with the fog snagging the spires of the Old Town; and festival fireworks crackling in the night sky as you stand, transfixed, amid the crowds in Princes Street Gardens.


Must See Sites

Edinburgh Castle; Edinburgh Castle has played a pivotal role in Scottish history, both as a royal residence – King Malcolm Canmore (r 1058–93) and Queen Margaret first made their home here in the 11th century – and as a military stronghold. The castle last saw military action in 1745; from then until the 1920s it served as the British army's main base in Scotland. Today it is one of Scotland's most atmospheric and popular tourist attractions. The brooding, black crags of Castle Rock, rising above the western end of Princes St, are the very reason for Edinburgh's existence. This rocky hill was the most easily defended hilltop on the invasion route between England and central Scotland, a route followed by countless armies from the Roman legions of the 1st and 2nd centuries AD to the Jacobite troops of Bonnie Prince Charlie in 1745.

Royal Yacht Britannia; Built on Clydeside, the former Royal Yacht Britannia was the British Royal Family's floating holiday home during their foreign travels from the time of her launch in 1953 until her decommissioning in 1997, and is now permanently moored in front of Ocean Terminal. The tour, which you take at your own pace with an audio guide (available in 30 languages), lifts the curtain on the everyday lives of the royals, and gives an intriguing insight into the Queen's private tastes. Britannia is a monument to 1950s decor, and the accommodation reveals Her Majesty's preference for simple, unfussy surroundings. There was nothing simple or unfussy, however, about the running of the ship. When the Queen travelled, with her went 45 members of the royal household, five tonnes of luggage and a Rolls-Royce that was carefully squeezed into a specially built garage on the deck. The ship's company consisted of an admiral, 20 officers and a 220-strong crew.

Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art; Edinburgh's gallery of modern art is split between two impressive neoclassical buildings surrounded by landscaped grounds some 500m west of Dean Village. As well as showcasing a stunning collection of paintings by the popular, post-Impressionist Scottish Colourists – in Reflections, Balloch, Leslie Hunter pulls off the improbable trick of making Scotland look like the south of France – the gallery is the starting point for a walk along the Water of Leith

Royal Botanic Garden; Edinburgh's Royal Botanic Garden is the second-oldest institution of its kind in Britain (after Oxford), and one of the most respected in the world. Founded near Holyrood in 1670 and moved to its present location in 1823, its 70 beautifully landscaped acres include splendid Victorian glasshouses (admission £6.50), colourful swaths of rhododendrons and azaleas, and a world-famous rock garden. There's a second entrance to the gardens at 20a Inverleith Row.

Palace of Holyroodhouse; This palace is the royal family's official residence in Scotland but is more famous as the 16th-century home of the ill-fated Mary, Queen of Scots. The highlight of the tour is Mary's Bedchamber, home to the unfortunate queen from 1561 to 1567. It was here that her jealous second husband, Lord Darnley, restrained the pregnant queen while his henchmen murdered her secretary – and favourite – David Rizzio. A plaque in the neighbouring room marks the spot where Rizzio bled to death. The palace developed from a guesthouse attached to Holyrood Abbey that was extended by James IV in 1501. The oldest surviving part of the building, the northwestern tower, was built in 1529 as a royal apartment for James V and his wife, Mary of Guise. Mary, Queen of Scots, spent six turbulent years here, during which time she debated with John Knox, married both her second and third husbands, and witnessed Rizzio's murder.

Arthur's Seat; The rocky peak of Arthur’s Seat (251m), carved by ice sheets from the deeply eroded stump of a long-extinct volcano, is a distinctive feature of Edinburgh’s skyline. The view from the summit is well worth the walk, extending from the Forth bridges in the west to the distant conical hill of North Berwick Law in the east, with the Ochil Hills and the Highlands on the northwestern horizon. You can hike from Holyrood to the summit in around 45 minutes.

National Museum of Scotland; Elegant Chambers St is dominated by the long facade of the National Museum of Scotland. Its extensive collections are spread between two buildings: one modern, one Victorian – the golden stone and striking architecture of the new building (1998) make it one of the city's most distinctive landmarks. The museum's five floors trace the history of Scotland from its geological beginnings to the 1990s, with many imaginative and stimulating exhibits. Audio guides are available in several languages. Fees apply for special exhibitions.

Real Mary King's Close; Edinburgh's 18th-century City Chambers were built over the sealed-off remains of Mary King's Close, and the lower levels of this medieval Old Town alley have survived almost unchanged amid the foundations for 250 years. Now open to the public, this spooky, subterranean labyrinth gives a fascinating insight into the everyday life of 17th-century Edinburgh. Costumed characters lead tours through a 16th-century townhouse and the plague-stricken home of a 17th-century gravedigger. Advance booking is recommended.

St. Giles Cathedral; The great grey bulk of St Giles Cathedral dates largely from the 15th century, but much of it was restored in the 19th century. One of the most interesting corners of the kirk is the Thistle Chapel, built in 1911 for the Knights of the Most Ancient & Most Noble Order of the Thistle. The elaborately carved Gothic-style stalls have canopies topped with the helms and arms of the 16 knights – look out for the bagpipe-playing angel amid the vaulting.


Must Try Food & Drink

Glayva; Glayva is an award-winning Scottish whisky liqueur. The drink hails from Leith, Edinburgh, where it was created in 1947 by a local whisky merchant Ronald Morrison. The liqueur is a blend of the finest Scotch whiskies, honey, tangerines, cinnamon, and other spices. Glayva has an appealing golden color, a smooth, subtly sweet flavor, and aromas reminiscent of honey and spices. It is best served straight or on the rocks. The name glayva is a transcription of Gaelic gle mhath, meaning very good.

Drambuie; This Scottish liqueur is a created with a secret blend of aged Scotch whiskey, honey, herbs, and spices. Its history dates back to the 18th century when allegedly Prince Charles Edward Stuart passed down his secret recipe to Clan Mackinnon. In 1914, the secret recipe was obtained by Malcolm MacKinnon, who first registered it as a trademark and established The Drambuie Liqueur Company in Edinburgh. Drambuie, whose names derives from Scots Gaelic an dram buidheach meaning the drink that satisfies, is a full-bodied drink, characterized by its unusual combination of herbal, spicy, and sweet flavors. It can be enjoyed neat or on the rocks, but it also blends well into cocktails and long drinks. The most popular is Drambuie-based cocktail is Rusty Nail—an American classic dating back to the Prohibition era.

Parlies; Parlies are small shortbread biscuits that originated in the 18th century Edinburgh and were first supplied to the gentry and members of the Scottish Parliament from a shop in Waverley, owned by a certain Mrs. Flockhart, who was also known as Luckie Fykie. Parliament cakes, in their full name, are heavily flavored with ground ginger, while their color comes from the addition of either the tangy black treacle or golden syrup. Originally square-shaped and served with a tot of whiskey, parlies are today more similar to other typical biscuits and are most often paired with tea.

Edinburgh Fog; The peculiar name of this dish is said to recall the Victorian era Edinburgh which was nicknamed Auld Reekie or Old Smokie because of the coal fires that plagued the city with an intense, dark smog. Often described as a Scottish take on the traditional Eton mess trifle, Edinburgh fog is a decadent dessert made with ratafia biscuits or macaroons, double cream, toasted almonds, and whisky. It was originally conceived to make use of the leftover scones, but most modern recipes use any kind of almond-flavored biscuits, while whisky can be substituted with the Drambuie liqueur.

Magnum; Magnum is a whisky-based cream liqueur produced and bottled in Edinburgh. It combines fresh cream and Speyside single malt Scotch whisky. Apart from its excellent flavor, this Scottish concoction is also distinguished for its bottling—it is sold in reusable stainless steel flasks. Magnum is creamy, smooth, and richly flavored. It has a good balance of sweet, caramel-like notes and bold and warming whisky nuances. The liqueur is created with Dutch cream, while the whisky is sourced from BenRiach. It is bottled at 17% alcohol by volume. The stainless steel bottle chills quickly so the liqueur can be served neat, but it also works great served over ice. It can also be an excellent addition to desserts.

Cranachan; Originally a harvest festival version of a much simpler oatmeal gruel, cranachan is a traditional Scottish cream cheese dessert that became prominent in the late 20th century. It is made with the addition of local soft cheese and often fresh fruits such as raspberries. The basic modern version of this dessert is based on lightly toasted coarse oatmeal and whipped cream, sweetened with either honey or sugar. In restaurant versions, cranachan may be made with a whole variety of different ingredients, including the beloved Scotch whisky.

Partan Bree; This seafood specialty hails from northeastern Scotland, where most of the country's fishing fleet is based, which makes fish and seafood regular staples. Partan bree is essentially a traditional Scottish crab bisque whose name is derived from the Scots Gaelic word for crab - partan, and bree (lit. brew), a Scots term for soup, referring to the broth in which the crabs were cooked. This creamy, luscious Scottish crab soup is typically served garnished with fresh, finely chopped chives.

Millionaire's Shortbread; Millionaire's shortbread or caramel shortbread is a classic Scottish dessert and one of the country's favorite treats whose main appeal lies in its different textures: the crumbly shortcake base, soft caramel in the middle, and the crisp chocolate top. For the best millionaires' shortbread, a sprinkle of unrefined sea salt can be added to the sweet caramel as it brings out its creamy richness and at the same time complements the pure, smooth dark chocolate.

Rumbledethumps; The delicious fry-up of vegetables that is Scottish rumbledethumps is made with shredded cabbage and onions, sautéed and mixed with mashed potatoes, then baked in the oven until golden brown. Rumbledethumps can be topped with some cheddar, and it is served either as an accompaniment to various meat dishes or enjoyed on its own. This traditional dish hails from the Scottish Borders, while the alternative version from Aberdeenshire is called kailkenny.

Bishop Kennedy; Bishop Kennedy is a Scottish cheese that was created in 1992 by Howgate Creamery. It's named after the bishop who was a founder of St. Andrews University. This soft cheese is made from cow's milk. Its rind is washed in malt whiskey, resulting in a distinctive orange-red crust and creamy, strong, and tangy flavors. The texture is velvety smooth, while the aroma is very powerful, often described as reminiscent of warm gym socks. It's recommended to serve it on a cheeseboard, grate it over mashed potatoes, or melt it on top of a succulent rare steak.


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