Tel: +44 141 258 1818

08:00 - 20:00 hrs daily

The Old Town

» Return to About Edinburgh index


The historical development of Edinburgh on the ridge between the Royal Castle and the Royal Palace in the old days has been described in the preceding pages. As the enclosures of the Edinburghers' tenements were built up in the post-medieval period, the name ''close'' came to be used to describe the passages or alleys which gave access to the rear buildings, and frequently became rights of way. There are well over 100 closes in the Old Town, and on those of particular interest to the visitor there are tablets at the entrance describing their historical significance.

Most visitors to Edinburgh enjoy exploring the Old Town first of all, beginning at the Castle and proceeding down to the Palace.

The Castle

The Castle Rock, like neighbouring Arthur's Seat, is of volcanic origin. The summit of Castle Hill is 135 m (443 feet) above the level of the sea and approximately 82 m (270 feet) above West Princes Street Gardens. For how long the Rock was in use as a place of refuge for the earliest inhabitants is not known; it is first recorded as a tribal stronghold in about 600 AD. The most reliable records, however, date from the 11th century, when King Malcolm III and his Queen Margaret made the Castle their residence. One of their sons, David II, was probably responsible for the beautiful little Norman Chapel in the Castle Citadel, later dedicated to his mother as St Margaret's Chapel. This is Edinburgh's oldest building still in use. Close beside the Chapel is Mons Meg, the Castle's famous 15th century cannon, which fired a salute when Mary Queen of Scots became engaged to the Dauphin of France; it was used on other royal occasions. Royal salutes are still fired at the Castle by more modern guns and daily, except Sundays, ''the one o'clock gun'' as generations of Edinburgh citizens and visitors know it, provides an unusual time check.

The Palace buildings in the Castle form three sides of a square which is enclosed on its fourth side by the magnificent and profoundly moving Scottish National War Memorial.

The United Services Museum occupies the building at the western end of the Palace Yard.

On the southern side of the Palace Yard is the Great Hall, built by James IV as the chief place of ceremony and state assembly, including sessions of the Scottish Parliament; banquets were given here to Charles I and later to Cromwell. It now houses an interesting collection of weapons and armour, and provides a majestic setting for Government receptions honouring distinguished visitors. The Royal apartments on the eastern side of the Palace Yard are entered through a doorway over which is the cipher, dated 1556, of Mary Queen of Scots, and her husband, Lord Darnley. The most interesting room is the tiny bedroom where the ill-fated Scottish Queen gave birth to a son who became King James VI of Scotland and I of England. This little room, which looks giddily down the rock to Johnston Terrace far below, holds the secret of many mysteries.

The Scottish Regalia, of which the most important are the Honours of Scotland, the Crown, the Sceptre and the Sword of State, are displayed in the adjoining stone-vaulted Crown Room. The Crown, of unknown origin, was remodelled in 1540 by order of James V. It is made of Scottish gold and is decorated with 94 pearls, 10 diamonds and 33 other stones.

The Royal Mile

The Royal Mile, which runs from the Castle down to the Palace of Holyroodhouse, was for many centuries before the building of the New Town the hub of Edinburgh life. The majority of the citizens lived and conducted their affairs on this busy crowded street. It is composed of the Esplanade, Castle Hill, Lawnmarket, Parliament Square, High Street and Canongate. Before leaving the Esplanade, the visitor should glance (to the right) at the house at the top of the Castle Wynd North steps. Beneath the central window and embedded in the wall is a cannon-ball which, it is traditionally believed, was fired from the Castle and aimed at the Palace of Holyroodhouse in 1745, when one end of the Royal Mile was anti-Jacobite and the other end was occupied by Prince Charles Edward. On the other side of the Esplanade is a small iron fountain commemorating the fact that near the spot many witches-''some evil, some misunderstood''-were burned at the stake. The picturesque houses nearby, in Ramsay Gardens, include Ramsay Lodge which is now a residential training college for bankers. This house was built by Allan Ramsay, a well-known Scottish poet. His friends in 18th century Edinburgh nicknamed it ''Goose Pie Lodge'' because of its unusual shape.

Outlook Tower

On the same side of the street is the Outlook Tower Visitor Centre which houses a camera obscura. On a fine day the camera throws a fascinating image of Edinburgh onto a circular table. As the camera sweeps round on its panoramic tour a guide tells the story of Scotland's capital. There is, in addition, a book and craft shop.

Mylne's Court

Continuing down the Lawnmarket, just below the Outlook Tower you come to Mylne's Court, an interesting reconstruction of 17th century buildings. John Mylne was Master Mason to King Charles II and was the architect who designed the extension to the Palace of Holyroodhouse for the King. He also supervised repairs to the Castle in 1689; but the court which bears his name, and where his family lived, was one of the first open squares created in Old Edinburgh. Its restoration by the University of Edinburgh, to provide study/bedroom accommodation centrally for students, won a Saltire Society Award in 1971.

James' Court

The eastern corner of James' Court nearby was the home of David Hume, the philosopher, until he moved to the New Town. The same building in James' Court provided accommodation for James Boswell who entertained Dr Samuel Johnson and Adam Smith there.

Riddle's Court

On the other side of the Lawnmarket, almost opposite James' Court, is Riddle's Court, where David Hume lived before he moved to James' Court. Riddle's Court, which is now used as an Adult Education Centre, under the auspices mainly of the Lothian Region Education Department, is noteworthy for its crow-stepped gables, its turret staircase on the outside of the southern building, its painted ceilings and its historical associations with Bailie John MacMorran, a wealthy Edinburgh merchant and one-time Burgh Treasurer. He came to an untimely end in September 1595 when trying to quell a riot of Royal High School boys who felt deprived of a holiday. One of the boys shot him. Bailie MacMorran's house, which passed to his brother's ownership, was thought to be of such distinction that the Town Council chose it to entertain King James VI, his Queen, Anne of Denmark, and members of the Danish nobility visiting Edinburgh, at a banquet there in the spring of 1598. History records-''The King and Queen were present with great solemnity and merriness''.

Brodie's Close

Near Riddle's Court, on the same side of the Lawnmarket, is Brodie's close, where Deacon William Brodie, a Town Councillor by day and a burglar by night, lived before being tried and hanged, ironically on a gibbet of his own invention, in 1788. Deacon Brodie was the prototype of Stevenson's Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

Gladstone's Land

Completed in 1620, this six storey tenement in the Royal Mile contains remarkable painted ceilings and was originally the home of an Edinburgh burgess, Thomas Gledstanes. Its main rooms have now been refurbished as a typical home of the period, and the original shop booths, now restored, display 17th century goods.

Lady Stair's House

Farther down on the left side of Lawnmarket is Lady Stair's House Museum. (Details in museums section of Guide. Page 51.) Continuing the eastward journey down the Lawnmarket the visitor will come to the High Street and Parliament Square. At the top of the High Street are the Sheriff Court (left) and the headquarters of the Lothian Regional Council at George IV Bridge (right). In passing and looking down towards the Palace of Holyroodhouse, on a clear day, you can glimpse the Firth of Forth beyond the grassland of Holyrood Park.

St Giles' Cathedral

St Giles' Cathedral, the High Kirk of Edinburgh, is the very heart of Scotland. It is the survival of churches that existed on the site before history was written. It has suffered fire and pillage, it has seen bitter religious dissension and dispute, abuse and desecration. During its long history it has served many functions, but today it is an imposing and lofty Gothic building with many interesting and historic memorials and monuments. In the south-east corner of the Cathedral is the Chapel of the Most Ancient and Most Noble Order of the Thistle. This exquisite little chapel, which has a superbly carved interior, was designed by Sir Robert Lorimer and built in 1911. It is the most ornate building of its kind to be erected in Scotland since the Middle Ages. There is now very little left of the original Cathedral building itself.

The oldest portions are the four octagonal pillars supporting the Tower, on which rests the spire or crown of St Giles. They are said to be part of the Norman building erected in 1120.

Heart of Midlothian

Close to the west door of St Giles' Cathedral a heart-shaped design is to be found in the cobblestones. It marks the site of the entrance to the Old Tolbooth or prison, originally built in 1466, and famed for the storming in the Porteous Riots of 1736. The Tolbooth was demolished in 1817. It became well known later as the scene of the opening of Scott's novel, The Heart of Midlothian.

Mercat Cross

Near the east door of St Giles' Cathedral stands the Mercat Cross. Besides fulfilling its function as the focal point for trade in olden days the Mercat Cross also served at various times as a place of execution, a centre of public rejoicing and entertainment, and the seat from which Royal proclamations were made. The first mention of it appears in the 14th century. The present cross was erected by the great Victorian statesman, Mr W. E. Gladstone, who wrote its Latin inscription. Royal proclamations in modern times are read by the Lord Lyon King of Arms, who stands with members of his Lyon Court on the high, octagonal platform around the shaft.

Parliament House

Behind the Cathedral is Parliament House, where the Scots Parliament met from 1639 until the Union of Scotland and England in 1707. Parliament House is now the home of Scotland's supreme courts, both civil and criminal, the Court of Session and the High Court. Adjoining Parliament House is the Advocates' Library belonging to the Faculty of Advocates. Parliament Hall, where members of the Scots bar and solicitors now pace as they discuss the business of the day, has a particularly fine hammer-beam oak roof and many portraits, including a number of Raeburns. There is also a statue of Sir Walter Scott, the novelist and poet who had a long and notable connection with Parliament House and Scots Law as an advocate and sheriff. The great south window of Parliament Hall depicts the inauguration of the Court of Session by King James V in 1532.

In the centre of Parliament Square is an imposing equestrian statue of King Charles II. This is Edinburgh's oldest statue. Of Dutch origin, it was erected by the Town Council in 1685. The king is represented, in cast lead, as a warring Caesar, his brow encircled by the laurel wreath of a conqueror. The square was built over part of the cemetery attached to St Giles' and John Knox is believed to have been buried there. A statue of the Protestant Reformer stands against the wall of the Cathedral.

City Chambers

Opposite St Giles' are the City Chambers, wherethe Lord Provost and members of The City of Edinburgh District council meet. The building was originally erected in 1753 as the Royal Exchange, the architect being John Fergus, working to the design of John Adam.

In the centre of the piazza is the statue of Alexander taming his horse, Bucephalus, by Sir John Steell. Beneath the central entrance arch is the city's Stone of Remembrance. One of the tallest buildings in the Old Town, the City Chambers is eleven storeys high from Cockburn Street level.

Tron Church

At the crossing of High Street and the ''Bridges'', the thoroughfare linking the North Bridge and South Bridge, is Christ's Church at the Tron, built in 1637 and named after a ''tron'' or weighing beam by which merchants' weights were checked. This stood outside the church. The merchants were nailed by their ears to the beam if their weights were wrong.

The Tron is, in the long term, to become a heritage centre for the City. During recent work on its interior, the remains of a former close and some of its buildings were uncovered under the foundations of the church.

Old St Paul's Church

Continuing down the Royal Mile, across the busy thoroughfare of North Bridge, you pass a narrow close on the left, Carrubber's Close, leading to Old St Paul's Episcopal Church. The church's congregation stemmed from those who left St Giles' Cathedral. with the Bishop of Edinburgh, Bishop Rose, in 1689, when the Episcopal (the Anglican) Church was disestablished for its Jacobite allegiance and refusal to accept William of Orange as rightful king in place of the Stuart line. The present church, built in 1883, stands on the site of the wool store where the congregation worshipped for nearly 200 years.

John Knox's House

A major item of interest in the High Street is John Knox's House, which juts out near the start of the Canongate. The identification of this property as the manse occupied by John Knox, the great Reformer, when he was minister of St Giles' Church, has been warmly debated by various authorities over the years. It is, however, believed by many people that he stayed in this house from approximately 1561 to 1572. The house itself, built in 1490, is the most picturesque of the historic dwellings of Edinburgh and the sole remaining example of which the timber galleries, once so common, are yet to be seen. The Oak Room, with its hand-painted ceilings, dates from 1600, and the items connected with John Knox are noteworthy.

The Netherbow

Beside John Knox's House is The Netherbow, the Church of Scotland's Arts Centre (details in art galleries section of Guide. Page 51.) The Netherbow takes its name from the gateway which in olden times stood at the road intersection nearby. This was the very edge of Edinburgh, and brass plates in the roadway record the fact. (The Canongate was a separate burgh.)

Museum of Childhood

Almost opposite John Knox's House is the unique Museum of Childhood, in Hyndford's Close.


Beyond John Knox's House, the Museum of Childhood and World's End Close is the Canongate, named after the canons of the Augustinian Abbey at the Palace of Holyroodhouse. The Canongate (founded as a burgh by a Charter of King David I in 1143) was the court quarter and residence of the aristocracy in old Edinburgh, so it has some notable big houses still preserved as museums and institutions. The civic authorities have recently undertaken much reconstruction and improvement work in the Royal Mile, while retaining the character and individuality of the old buildings. Notable examples of reconstruction in the Canongate are Bible Land, Morocco Land, Chessel's Court and White Horse Close.

Moray House

Continuing the journey down the Royal Mile on the sameside as the Museum of Childhood, Moray House, possibly the most famous house in the Canongate, may be seen. Charles I was a frequent visitor there. Cromwell made his headquarters there; and in a summer house in the garden the Treaty of Union between Scotland and England was signed in 1707. The house is now the location of the demonstration school of the Moray House College of Education.

Huntly House

A short distance farther down is Huntly House, a reconstructed dwelling of 1517, now the principal museum of local history.

Acheson House

Near Huntly House, on the same side of the street, is an interesting old house built in 1633 and restored in 1937 by the late Robert Hurd, a noted architect. It is now the headquarters of the Scottish Craft Centre, at 140 Canongate.

Canongate Tolbooth

On the opposite side of the street is the Tolbooth, easily recognised by its jutting clock and turreted steeple. When Canongate was a separate burgh from Edinburgh, the Tolbooth, rebuilt in 1591, was the civic centre.

Canongate Church

Farther down, on the same side as the Tolbooth, is Canongate Church, built as the parish church of the burgh of Canongate in 1688. In the churchyard Adam Smith, who wrote The Wealth of Nations and stayed in nearby Panmure Close; ''Clarinda'', friend of Robert Burns; and Robert Fergusson, the Edinburgh poet whose writings had a strong influence on Burns, are buried.

White Horse Close

At the bottom of the Canongate is White Horse Close, an original coaching terminus. It is a unique survival of the 17th century. A pleasant range of buildings encloses a long courtyard at the rear of which was the hostelry known as White Horse Inn. According to Scott's Waverley this was frequented by officers in Prince Charles Edward's army. The dwellings in White Horse Close, reconstructed by the City, were completed in 1965, and form an impressive feature of the Royal Mile Development Plan.

Palace of Holyroodhouse

Approaching the forecourt gates of the Palace of Holyroodhouse the visitor will notice a tiny, irregular building on the left. This is popularly known as Queen Mary's Bath house, although it was in reality a lodge or pavilion of Holyroodhouse.

The Palace is the official residence of Her Majesty the Queen when in Edinburgh and during the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland the Queen''s representative, the Lord High Commissioner, resides there.

The Palace originated as a guest house for the Abbey of Holyrood, now a picturesque ruin. The Abbey was founded by David I, King of Scots, in 1128. King James V began the earliest surviving buildings of the Royal Palace in 1529.

Most of the Palace, as seen today, was built for Charles II, beginning in 1671-though Charles never visited Holyrood. Mary Queen of Scots is the most famous historical figure associated with the Palace. She spent six tragic years of her reign there. Prince Charles Edward held a ball at the Palace during his brief autumn triumph of 1745 before his defeat at Culloden. He was the last Stuart to occupy the Palace. The revival of Holyroodhouse began when King George IV held a levee there in 1822.

The historic apartments are entered through the picture gallery, where there are 111 portraits of Scottish kings. On the floor of the Outer Chamber of Mary Queen of Scots, is a brass tablet marking the place where David Rizzio's body was left after his murder in the Queen''s supper room. The State apartments, containing French and Flemish tapestries and 18th century furniture, are particularly associated with Queen Victoria and the Prince Consort. The throne room, which the Queen uses for investitures when Her Majesty and H.R.H. the Duke of Edinburgh are in residence, and the dining room are the two most memorable rooms, the latter being decorated in a restrained Adam style in green and white.

A tearoom is open during the summer months in Abbey Strand, at the West Gate of the Palace.


The southern slopes of the city, south of the Royal Mile, also contain interesting places to visit.

Grassmarket, which can be reached either from George IV Bridge and Victoria Street or Candlemaker Row, or from the western end of Princes Street, by way of Lothian Road and the King's Stables Road, is a tree-lined square still containing echoes of the past. On the north side is the old White Hart Inn, patronised by Burns, Wordsworth and other writers. In the south-west corner of the Grassmarket is West Port, and on the northern side of this street, on the corner of Lady Lawson Street, used to be Tanner''s Close, the home of the notorious murderers Burke and Hare. Also on the south-west corner is a flight of steps leading to the Vennel. On the left-hand side of this passage is the Flodden Wall, which was hurriedly built around Edinburgh after the terrible defeat of Scottish arms at the Battle of Flodden in 1513. The wall serves as the western boundary of the grounds of George Heriot''s School, founded and endowed by George Heriot, goldsmith to King James VI. The building was begun in 1628 and followed designs by Inigo Jones.

The old Grassmarket saw many executions and at the eastern end, traced in rose-coloured cobblestones set in the roadway, is a cross, which marks the spot where more than a hundred Covenanters died rather than relinquish their religious beliefs.

Magdalen Chapel

Also at the eastern end is the Cowgate, once a fashionable quarter of Edinburgh, where the Magdalen Chapel, bearing records of charitable gifts made mostly in the 17th century, can be seen. The building was once used as a mortuary and in 1685 the body of the Earl of Argyle was taken there immediately after his execution. The pre-Reformation stained glass is of great interest and represents the only Scottish medieval example surviving in its original building. The steeple dates from 1618.

St Cecilia's Hall

Continuing eastwards along the Cowgate you come to St Cecilia's Hall. The hall can be more quickly reached from the High Street by going down the slope of Blackfriars Street. The University of Edinburgh Faculty of Music house, in St Cecilia's Hall, the Russell Collection of harpsichords and clavichords. The world-famous collection of over 30 keyboard instruments, including harpsichords, clavichords, fortepianos, spinets, virginals and chamber organs, can be seen.

Greyfriars Kirk

Leaving the Grassmarket at the eastern end, by Candlemaker Row, you can walk to the Kirk of the Greyfriars, situated in Forrest Road, at the southern end of George IV Bridge. This historic church is famous as the scene of the signing of the National Covenant in 1638. The graveyard is worth visiting for its range of stately monuments and ornate tombstones commemorating famous citizens of old Edinburgh. Near the north-east corner stands the memorial to the Covenanters.

The statue of Greyfriars Bobby, a small dog that lingered near the-grave of its master, John Gray, in Greyfriars Churchyard, from 1858 until its death fourteen years later, is to be found outside the gate, at Candlemaker Row. (Bobby's collar-suitably engraved in 1867 when the Lord Provost presented it to the dog and undertook to pay the licence-can be seen in Huntly House Museum, Canongate.)

On George IV Bridge, nearer the High Street, is the National Library of Scotland, and, almost directly opposite, the Central Library.

Chambers Street

In Chambers Street, which is across the road from the Greyfriars Bobby statue, there are the Edinburgh Dental College; Heriot-Watt University, formerly the Heriot-Watt College which has its origins in the United Kingdom's first true Mechanics Institute; The Edinburgh School of Arts (founded in 1821) and in 1852 became the city's memorial to James Watt who patented his steam engine in 1769; the Royal Scottish Museum and Adam House, Edinburgh University's theatre and conference halls.

South Bridge

Chambers Street leads to the South Bridge, where the main University building, the Old College, is situated. The present buildings of the Old College were erected between 1789 and 1834, the original design being by Robert Adam-it has been described as one of his best public buildings-though parts of the design were later modified by William Henry Playfair. Within the quadrangle is the Talbot Rice Art Centre (details in the Art Gallery section on page 53), based on Playfair's magnificent Georgian gallery which was the first home of the incipient Royal Scottish Museum. The pillared portico on South Bridge is among the most impressive of Adam's works. The dome, designed by Sir R. Rowand Anderson, was not added until 1884.

Also in this Section