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Visiting Old Town Edinburgh, Scotland with a Context Travel Walking Tour

by Suzanne Fluhr on August 4, 2016 · 20 comments

Edinburgh Castle as seen from the 6th floor observation deck of the new wing of the Scottish National Museum

Scottish bagpiper

You’ll find this same piper in lots of people’s photos of Edinburgh.

Our six night visit to Scotland gave us two full days in Edinburgh, a/k/a “Auld Reekie”. Edinburgh’s nickname was acquired back when the stench and smoke of numerous coal fires, garbage and untreated sewage, combined to cast a smokey, noxious haze over the city. Fortunately, today “Auld Reekie” is merely an affectionate anachronism for Scotland’s capital. Indeed, before he decamped to Hawaii and the South Seas, Edinburgh native, author Robert Louis Stevenson, somewhat hyperbolically wrote of his home town, “Edinburgh is what Paris ought to be”.

For our first full day in Edinburgh, we were happy to be invited to experience a three hour Context Travel walking tour of Old Town Edinburgh, part of a UNESCO World Heritage site composed of Old Town and New Town Edinburgh. Context Travel’s ethos is “deep travel for the culturally and intellectually curious”. (Mr. and Mrs. Excitement are nothing if not culturally and intellectually curious. 😉 )

Private Context Travel customized tours can be arranged and groups are guaranteed to have no more than six participants. The tours are lead by guides (docents) who are masters and doctorate level experts in their respective fields. Fifty-three percent of  Context Travel tour participants are repeat customers, including us. We are happy to know that Context Travel now provides these in depth guided walking tours in over 37 cities on four continents, including tours of our home city in the United States—Philadelphia.

Context travel guide Alex Collins, Edinburgh walking tour

Our Context Travel docent, Alex Collins, was infinitely patient with my incessant questions and agreed to this photo outside Edinburgh Castle

Since our visit to Edinburgh in late April was before the start of the busiest tourist season, we were the only two people on our tour. Our Context Travel tour guide, Alex Collins, was a Ph.D. candidate in Art History at the University of Edinburgh where he also teaches. His particular interests are in Medieval and early Renaissance British and French art and architecture. Alex was very well versed in the history of Edinburgh and the intricacies of the Protestant Reformation in Scotland. He patiently answered my questions about Scotland’s often fraught relationship with England. I was in history geek heaven.

We met Alex outside the Scottish National Museum from where we could look uphill to Edinburgh’s Royal Way which developed as a defensible spine to the medieval city, starting at the imposing Edinburgh Castle, a complex built over a span of more than 1,000 years atop Castle Hill. Castle Hill is a bluff of old volcanic rock that remained when glaciers scoured away the surrounding softer sandstone. Alex started our tour by giving us a birds’ eye view of Edinburgh from the roof top terrace of the new wing of the National Museum.

The three hour Old Town Edinburgh Context Travel walking tour is an excellent way to be oriented to the oldest part of the city. On our tour, we did not enter buildings, except for St. Giles’ High Kirk, but we learned where we would want to return to visit in greater depth.

Greyfriars Kirk and Kirkyard

Greyfriars Kirkyard The early spring daffodils were almost fluorescent against the slate gray of the sky.

Greyfriars Kirkyard The early spring daffodils were almost fluorescent against the slate gray of the sky. (PS: Americans and the British don’t agree on how to spell “gray”. I’m a American.)

Our first stop was Greyfriars Kirk (church) and Kirkyard (graveyard) which was established as the city graveyard in 1551 because the Kirkyard near Edinburgh Castle was running out of space, and apparently, was offensively odoriferous during warm weather. Some of the graves still have locked iron grates over them. Alex explained that these were installed to foil grave robbers looking for fresh corpses to sell to Edinburgh’s famous medical school. Greyfriars Kirk also has historical significance because Presbyterian fundamentalists signed a “covenant” there in 1638, vowing their violent opposition to the Church of Scotland which they considered insufficiently orthodox – a depressingly familiar theme in world history and current events.

Grass Market

From Greyfriars, we walked through what was once the Grass Market where livestock was bought and sold and which also served as the site of gruesome public executions. Alex explained that living conditions in many of the tall tenements in Old Town were horrific. Although there have been attempts to clean Edinburgh’s yellow sandstone buildings, the remains of centuries of coal soot are still visible.

The Royal Mile and Edinburgh Castle

Edinburgh Castle and back of Royal Mile

Buildings behind the Royal Mile in the setting sun from across the ravine at the edge of New Town Edinburgh.

We started our walk down the Royal Mile at the esplanade (parade ground) just outside Edinburgh Castle, still the site of military reviews and pageantry. Our Context Travel tour did not include time in Edinburgh Castle. If you want to visit Edinburgh Castle, buy the somewhat pricey tickets online in advance to avoid the lines (queues).

Edinburgh Castle, Edinburgh, Scotland

Edinburgh Castle photographed from the rooftop terrace of the new wing of the Scottish National Museum.

The Royal Mile is actually made up of several streets that string together down the hill to the Palace of Holyroodhouse, also once the location of what is now a ruined abbey. We made several stops as we walked down the Royal Mile.

The Scottish Writers’ Museum

We visited the Scottish Writer’s Museum, in a little close just off the Royal Way near Edinburgh Castle, mostly so I could prove to both Alex and Mr. Excitement that Robert Louis Stevenson had indeed lived in Hawaii. For bibliophiles and writers, this small museum covering the lives of authors Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson in a restored house from 1622 is worth a visit.

The High Kirk of Edinburgh (Saint Giles’ “Cathedral”)

St. Giles Cathedral or St. Giles Kirk, Edinburgh, Scotland

Edinburgh’s St. Gile’s Kirk with its distinctive crown steeple.

Then, it was onto Saint Giles’ Kirk, Edinburgh’s “cathedral”, about a third of the way down the Royal Mile. I was happy to come upon this church as its distinctively shaped “crown” steeple dating from the late 15th century is visible from many places. There has been a church on this site since the 12th century, but the core of the current structure is from the church that was reconstructed following a fire in 1385. Saint Giles is the patron Saint of Edinburgh and Saint Giles’ Kirk is considered the Mother Church of Presbyteriansim. It has borne witness to the sometimes violent inter-religious struggles over the centuries.

John Knox House

As we made our way down to the part of the Royal Mile known as Canongate, we passed what was once the home of John Knox, the founder of Scottish Presbyterianism. This house and the one next to it are the only original medieval houses on the Royal Mile. John Knox’s Presbyterianism was a more “no frills” Calvinist approach to Protestantism than that practiced in the Church of England, another Protestant denomination. If you are struggling to understand how there can be such enmity between the Shia and Sunnis, two sects of Islam, consider that in addition to the fighting between Scottish Protestants and Catholics, Scottish Protestant sects also managed to engage with each other in a bloody civil war in the 17th century. When I travel and learn about the history of other places and cultures, I sometimes despair for the human race because it seems we are hard-wired for murderous conflict and our dichotomous better angels often don’t prevail.

The “New” Scottish Parliament Building

The New Scottish Pariliament building in Edinburgh

The back of the controversial “new” Scottish Parliament building. I think the back is more interesting than the front.

The old Scottish government buildings are clustered around St. Gile’s Kirk. Just before reaching the Palace of Holyroodhouse (not a typo) at the end of the Royal Mile, we arrived at the controversial new Scottish Parliament building completed in 2005. Plans for the new Scottish Parliament building began after 1998, when the Parliament of the United Kingdom in London “devolved” rule making authority over many areas of local law to Scotland. Perhaps not surprisingly, some Scots were unhappy when a Brazilian architect’s design was chosen and were further outraged by the fact that it diverges so much from Edinburgh’s graceful old, sandstone buildings. As an architectural historian, our Context Travel tour guide, Alex, seemed unfazed by the modern design. Tours of the new Scottish Parliament building are available.

The Palace of Holyroodhouse, Edinburgh, Scotland

The Palace of Holyroodhouse, residence of the British royal family when they are in Edinburgh.

Our tour ended at the Palace of Holyroodhouse at the end of the Royal Mile, a palace that once sheltered Mary Queen of Scots and is still the home of the British royal family when they visit Edinburgh. After saying good-bye to Alex, and being quite chilled, I relented on my downsized empty nester rule that we can only collect refrigerator magnets as souvenirs of our travels. We set off back up the Royal Mile to invest in woolen scarves which came in very handy for the rest of our late April visit to Scotland.

Our Context Travel Tour was complimentary with no promise of a positive review. Opinions expressed here are my own.

Have you visited Edinburgh? If not, do you have any interest in doing so? Are you “culturally and intellectually curious” enough to consider a Context Travel walking tour? 😉

{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

Jacqueline Gum August 4, 2016 at 7:43 am

How lucky to get a private tour with Context, given the time of year. Not sure about the back of The “New” Scottish Parliament Building, though! But I enjoyed the pictures immensely. I’ve not made it to Scotland… yet! Certainly plenty of fodder for future tangles!


Madaline Resendes August 5, 2016 at 2:30 am

I enjoyed vicariously joining you on your Context Walking Tour! I love history, especially with visual aids to bring it alive: castles, graveyards, churches, museums, etc., and a knowledgeable personal guide with a small group – that would be heaven! I was the child who, when traipsing through museums with the fam, stopped to read every single plaque under every artifact, painting, sculpture, etc. So thank you for this post. Very interesting and I appreciate your inquisitiveness! I am sure your guide earned his dime! (Even though you didn’t pay, hopefully someone from the company did!!


Anita Oliver August 8, 2016 at 4:08 am

As self-avowed history geeks we also love keeping our tour guides on their toes and are gravitating towards small and private tours more and more (a good way to avoid dirty looks from those not quite so interested!) Loved your post’s beginning because I had a vivid image of what a visit to Auld Reekie might entail in times past – sounds like things had improved greatly by Robert Louis Stevenson’s time. I also loved the story of the iron grates over the grave to foil the grave robbers and preserve the dignity of the “fresh” corpses! You’ve given me some great ideas of what to see when we visit Edinburgh and sold me on the Context travel tour as well. Thanks, Suzanne!


Rebecca Hall (Bex) August 8, 2016 at 5:10 am

Oh yes – I agree with you re: the new Scottish Parliament building. I quite like it!
And did you see the statue of Greyfriar’s Bobby – the loyal little Scottish terrier dog that used to sleep on his master’s grave until he died too? It’s such a heartwrenching story!
I’ve never been to Edinburgh, but would love to go one day.


Marcelle Simone Heller August 8, 2016 at 7:36 am

We were in Edinburgh but unfortunately not for pleasure as we struggled to get a visa for my partner George. He is a South African and we needed a Schengen visa for our further travels. 300 km drive to Edinburgh twice but not much of sightseeing unfortunately. Great to see what we missed anyway 😉


The GypsyNesters August 8, 2016 at 7:39 am

Both of us have Scottish heritage (James and Stewart being two of the most common names for Scots) yet we have not made there. Must fix this! Thanks for the inspiration.


Donna Janke August 8, 2016 at 9:33 am

I would definitely do a Context walking tour! I love getting historical background on what I’m seeing. I’ve been to Edinburgh, but that was several decades ago! I’d love to visit again.


Shelley August 8, 2016 at 5:27 pm

I love this part of the world, with endless history everywhere you look. We only had a day to visit Edinburgh several years ago…definitely too short. I think I’m “culturally and intellectually curious” enough to take a Context walking tour, so why haven’t I yet? Next time I have the opportunity I’ll have to seize it!


Carol Colborn August 8, 2016 at 6:23 pm

Didn’t he take you to the Sir Walter Scott Monument? or the Camera Obscura?


Carole Terwilliger Meyers August 8, 2016 at 10:23 pm

It was a delight to revisit Edinburgh with ye. My souvenir was beautiful, soft turquoise gloves that I still use all these years later.


Suzanne Fluhr August 10, 2016 at 8:20 pm

There’s an Edinburgh souvenir theme here. We acquired woolen scarves and we were happy to have them there and in the highlands—at the end of April.


Michelle da Silva Richmond August 10, 2016 at 4:59 pm

Such a beautiful, historic city…and what a wonderful way to see it via our article. Thank you for sharing with us!


Jo August 12, 2016 at 7:43 pm

I’m also a fan of small tours offering a historical context, particularly walking tours. Looks like you learned a lot and enjoyed Edinburgh immensely. I’d love to see Holyrood house – I’m such a romantic Royalist 🙂


Betsy Wuebker August 14, 2016 at 9:00 am

What a heavenly development to have your docent all to yourself. This would be a bucket list activity for me as I’ve long wanted to visit Scotland. Of particular interest to me would be Greyfriars. It’s supposed to be the most haunted place of just about anywhere. Any inkling?


Sue Reddel August 14, 2016 at 3:56 pm

Scotland looks like a delightful place to visit. It’s definitely on our radar. The Context Travel Walking tour would be perfect for us. We love to walk and see everything when we travel. Makes up for all that eating!


Irene S. Levine August 16, 2016 at 7:26 pm

Sounds like you had a wonderful tour of Edinburgh. We have been very impressed with the quality of Context tours, too.


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