Edinburgh: castles, history and the heart of Scotland

February 4, 2015

For people who have been to England but never traveled to the country’s northern neighbour, Edinburgh can be a bit of a surprise. The centuries-old buildings and winding streets of the city’s old town are more akin to continental Europe, and the parks and quiet back alleys off its main streets allow you to forget, if only for a moment, that you’re in the middle of the bustling capital of Scotland.

Edinburgh’s city centre is divided into two parts: the old town to the south and the new town to the north; although, to put things in perspective, the new town is still 200 years old. The city is steeped in history, and we attempt to tap into that by staying a few kilometres out of town in Melville Castle, a small castle dating back to 1786 that now houses a hotel and a brasserie.

The stunning building has, at various points, belonged to aristocrats tangentially related to royalty, lawyers, bureaucrats and others who could afford to buy into the property, the site of a former hunting lodge of Mary Queen of Scots.

After falling into ruin in the late 20th century, it was purchased and artfully restored to its current state, where it functions as a weekend getaway for residents of nearby Edinburgh, a wedding venue and a spot for tourists with a taste for the unique.

On our first night, we wander the estate, looking out at the magnificent fountain and nearby forest, and contemplating what this place must have been like during the Enlightenment, when just a few kilometres away in Edinburgh the likes of Adam Smith and David Hume were forever changing the way people would think about economics and philosophy, and the poet Robert Burns was building his legacy as a figure of worldwide influence.

But while the castle itself feels like a step back in time, the basement brasserie is decidedly more modern, serving contemporary arrangements of classic dishes.

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We start the dinner with an artfully presented goat cheese and honey tart, accompanied with balsamic onions and rocket leaves. This warm appetizer serves as a great choice for a chilly and rainy evening. For the main course, we opt for the pan-fried rump of Borders Lamb, paired with feta cheese, slow-dried plum tomatoes, mint and new potato salad, as well as the daube of Scottish beef, paired with creamed potato, roasted root vegetables and Rosemary jus. The portions are hearty and the service is friendly.

Our waiter cracks jokes, seeing our surprised faces on how large the desserts are. We opt for the lemon posset with raspberry coulis, summer berries and meringues, as well as the cheese plate, paired with fruit chutney and oatcakes. After all, how could we not opt for cheese when it is so decadent in Scotland?

After dinner, we retire to our room, where the mahogany four-post bed feels particularly welcoming after our large meal.

Edinburgh is rich in history, so like many tourists, we decide to start the following morning at perhaps the most historic site in the city: the Edinburgh Castle. After arriving in the city centre, we walk through the picturesque Princes Street Gardens, up the hill towards the fort that towers above much of the city.

Navigating the old town’s streets can be confusing at first, but you can easily get to the castle by just following the swarms of tourists. After waiting in line with many of them, we approach the ticket booth. The agent finds out we’re from Toronto and breaks into a smile.

“I lived there for about a year,” he says, with a warmth we’ve come to realize is characteristically Scottish. “On College Street. It’s a beautiful city.”

“Well, this is pretty nice too,” we say. “And you have a castle.”

“Well, you’ve got Casa Loma,” he replies, chuckling. He’s not wrong. However, Casa Loma was built in 1914 … which puts it about 900 years back of the castle before us (archaeologists have found evidence of settlements on the site of Castle Rock as far back as the Iron Age)!

Perched atop the city, the view from the castle is supposed to be incredible. It may very well be, but on the day we explore it, the fog is so thick that even seeing from one side of the castle to the other is impossible. Which isn’t as bad as it sounds: without the signs of modernity around us, the castle feels even more contained in its historical vacuum.

Exploring the grounds and walking through the exquisite chambers is like stepping into the Middle Ages, provided you can put the windbreakers and flashing cameras all around you out of your mind. Crowds can be an issue at Edinburgh Castle and much of the way down the Royal Mile, the strip between the castle and the Palace of Holyrood House (the official Scottish residence of the royal family).

Between the hordes of camera-pointers and shop after shop selling tartan-everything and “authentic Scottish cashmere” products, the Mile can seem like the exact place you don’t want to be. But there are opportunities to find quiet and beautiful sites, by ducking into the closes (narrow alleys that lead to squares, buildings and little parks) that are tucked into every block.

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As Scotland’s capital and financial centre, there is a bustle to Edinburgh that goes far beyond tourists. So we decide to head out and explore the city, the winding streets lined with buildings from various centuries that are so easy and tempting to get lost in. We set out for the Scottish Parliament building (which is one of the most jarringly new buildings in the city, a visual reminder that modern Scotland has only had its own Parliament since 1999) and Holyrood Palace. But instead touring the site, we turn our attention up, to Arthur’s Seat.

The hill in the east end of Edinburgh’s city centre doesn’t seem particularly imposing from below, but it’s still high enough to offer some breathtaking views of the city. It’s a fairly easy trek to the top—with only a few muddy patches to carefully cross and rocks to hop over—until about three quarters of the way up, when the trail narrows and takes you past the occasional cliff that, in North America, would be barricaded with railings, or grounds for closing the hill to the public altogether.

At the peak, the walk becomes more of a rocky climb, but soon the city opens up before you. The castle that seemed so grand now looks barely more imposing than any other part of the city. We admire the view and feel the warm breeze before heading back down. Continuing south through the University of Edinburgh, a stunning old campus that’s alive with students on this fall day, we end up in the Meadows.

It’s a large public park that, given its proximity to the historic university campus, seems perfectly suited for Quidditch practice, but can be and is used by locals for any number of recreational activities, including a free golf course. It’s here, among the fields and quiet rows of houses, that we find the antidote to the tour group-crammed quarters of the most popular parts of Edinburgh. It’s here, surrounded by joggers, a pickup rugby game and political pamphleteers, that one is reminded that, despite the frenetic pace of the city centre, this is still Scotland, and it’s a place where people live.

Walking through residential streets, we head out for a special bar experience: The Queens Arms in Edinburgh’s new town, a local favourite known for its atmosphere and creative twist on pub fare. Crowds of young locals surround the bar, watching soccer on TV and drinking cocktails or pints of ale. White and green bottles hang from the ceiling adding to the funky feel of the venue.

We settle into a side booth and notice a tall red candle that sits inside a large empty bottle of a single malt scotch. It’s not raining or foggy anymore, so we decide to opt for a slightly lighter dinner. We start with sweetcorn fritters, topped with tomato and avocado salad with harissa oil.

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Contrary to our original plan to “eat light”, we quickly change our minds and opt for large mains that feature traditional dishes: Fish & Chips (prime haddock fillet with beer batter, minted pea purée and tartare sauce) and the Pork, Apple and Black Pudding Burger (brioche bun, homemade tomato relish and chips—the latter referring to French fries). Instead of dessert, we opt for tea that arrives in a small and shiny red tea pot, accompanied by a dainty tea cup.

After some warm beverages and a few drinks, the pub fills up and we contemplate the faces of this city—living museum, business centre, quiet home, nightlife destination, before heading back to the Melville Castle and turning in for the night.

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By Brendan Ross (with files from Hannah Yakobi)
Photography by Brendan Ross, Hannah Yakobi & courtesy of venues

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