A tour guide’s all-time favourite UK places.
This autumn, Visit Britain, the marketing arm of the British tourist industry, is launching its ‘Great British Staycation Campaign’ to encourage people to holiday in the UK.
Soul City Wanderer (aka Frank Molloy) is one of the UK’s most accredited and experienced tour guides. Over three decades he has visited nearly every part of the country, touring many of the places that Great Britain and Ireland has to offer.
In a new blog series, he will list his all-time favourite five places by area (spiralling out from London*). These are personal choices, some obvious, some obscure.
This week, the Scottish Lowlands & Midlands, including Borders, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Stirling and St Andrews.
Edinburgh began to grow in the 1400s as a small town on a ridge between the ‘Salisbury Crags’ and the rocky outcrop of Edinburgh Castle. Its strategic position eventually saw it established as the capital of Scotland. Today it is recognised as an intellectual powerhouse and a world leader in medicine and finance. The metropolitan population of around 1.25 million includes the city population of about 500,000. It is the largest world heritage site in the world and has an unrivalled cityscape with magnificent views from various prospect points. The city is famous for its late summer comedy Fringe Festival. It’s a barrel of laughs, but this might be a time to avoid if you want to enjoy the city properly. As you would expect from this city of culture, there is so much to see and do, but space only permits the highlights here.
Many Edinburgh visitor attractions are peppered along the Royal Mile. Starting from the bottom of the hill, we have Holyroodhouse, a royal palace, and residence of the Queen when she is in Edinburgh. A guided tour takes about 1.5 hours and highlights include the Throne Room, Great Gallery and Abbey Chapel. The latter is where King James V is buried. Those with an interest in the tragic story of Mary, Queen of Scots, will discover plenty of ghosts. Opposite is the modern Scottish Parliament building designed by Enrique Morales.
John Knox House is a relic of an influential Scottish figure. Born 1515, in East Lothian, Knox attended St Andrews University and became a Catholic priest. He converted to Calvinism in the 1540s, preaching fiery sermons to congregations and rejecting Catholic practice in favour of pure faith and the Bible. His beliefs saw him tortured, imprisoned and enslaved. He persevered to promote Presbyterianism as Scotland’s main religion. He fought the practices of Mary, Queen of Scots, and Queen Mary I writing a tract entitled The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women arguing that rule by females is contrary to the Bible. His Presbyterian Kirk was finally fully established in Scotland in 1689, 117 years after his death.
St Giles Cathedral (13th century) holds an important place in Scottish history. John Knox often preached from the pulpit here. In the early 1630s, Charles I and Archbishop Laud planned a new doctrine to exert control over the power of Presbyterianism. A Catholic-style mass book was introduced, with Gothic typeface and images. Here, in 1637, worshipper Jenny Geddes famously threw a stool at the Bishop of Edinburgh as he began to preach from the new prayer book. Riots followed, and it led to the signing of a Covenant to protect Protestant worship in Scotland. Look out for the sculpture of Scottish novelist Robert Louis Stephenson (1850-94), the writer behind classics such as Treasure Island, Kidnapped and Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde. A stained-glass window depicts the world’s first recorded gun assassination by James Hamilton of Earl Stewart in Linlithgow in 1570.
Edinburgh Castle is built on the basalt rock of an extinct volcano. It was possibly first fortified as a base camp for the Celtic Gododdin tribe around 2,000 years ago. However, it wasn’t until the 7th century that it was first documented as Eidyn’s fort in the bardic epic Gododdin. The history of the castle reflects centuries of conflict with constant to-ing and fro-ing between rival power bases. In 1174, William the Lion lost the castle to Henry II of England. It was recaptured in 1186 by Scottish forces. In 1296, Edward I took the castle and its treasures to England. Robert the Bruce reclaimed it in 1314, but Edward III temporarily took control again in 1333. Henry V mounted an unsuccessful siege in 1400. In the 1530s, James V favoured Holyroodhouse and the castle lost prestige. However, Mary, Queen of Scots made it her stronghold on her return from France in 1561. She subsequently lost it to her opponents, but her son James IV retook control. In the 1650s, Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army occupied the castle before it was restored to the Crown. In 1745, it was captured by Bonnie Prince Charlie, but later became a prison for his Jacobite supporters. Today it has been captured by two things, the ghosts of history and the industry of tourism! Edinburgh Castle has a similar historic significance to the Tower of London, as it has comprised a fortress, palace, arsenal, archive, treasury and prison. Highlights include the Great Chamber, Great Hall (1503) and St Margaret’s Chapel (1130), the oldest building in Edinburgh. Also look out for the Scottish Crown Jewels, and Mons Meg, a huge cannon built almost 600 years ago.
The 15th century Grass Market was a place of public execution. Permanent gallows were installed here until 1785. The last public hanging in 1864 drew a crowd of 25,000. The name of the Last Drop pub is a clever play on words here. The Maggie Dixon pub name refers to a woman who was hanged for murdering a child. On the cart to her burial she apparently ‘woke up’ and walked home. The oldest pub on the Grass Market is the White Hart: Robert Burns spent his stag night here with William Wordsworth. Greyfriars Church (1620) was the first Edinburgh church built after the Reformation. In 1638, the ‘Covenanters’ sign their declaration here rejecting religious and tax reforms in the build up to the Civil War. Tour guides will also point out Harry Potter references in the churchyard (J.K. Rowling was an Edinburgh resident). Look out for the statue of Greyfriars Bobby nearby. People love the story of the faithful dog that kept a 14-year vigil on his master’s grave. The Society of Surgeons is the oldest such association in the world, but has dark connections with body-snatchers Burke and Hare. Sherlock Holmes writer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle studied at Edinburgh Medical School. His creation solved crimes using the powers of deduction taught by Doyle’s tutor and mentor Joseph Bell. Indeed, Doyle dedicated his first Holmes adventure, A Study in Scarlet to him.
Between 1707-50, the North Loch in Edinburgh was drained and the New Town developed in the 1760s with a street plan based on a grid system. The New Town represents the Enlightenment as opposed to the Old Town Romanticism, and the neo-classical architecture employed was the reason Edinburgh became labelled as the ‘Athens of the North’. Princes Street was the first completed Georgian street of the New Town, and was named after George III’s eldest sons. Along it you will find the famous Balmoral Hotel, the Walter Scott Monument and Waverley Station, the city’s main railway hub name after the Scott novel. Charlotte Square was named after George III’s wife, and features the Georgian House, a National Trust restoration of an original 18th century Robert Adam designed house. St Andrew’s Square features a statue of 18thc politician Henry Dundas who had this monument erected himself!
The Carlton Hill Follies are a series of 19thcentury monuments on a prominent mound to the east of the central area. Some were designed by local architect William Playfair who was also responsible for the surrounding Regency-style terraces. Among them is a reconstruction of the Athens Parthenon, a national monument dedicated to Scots lost in the Napoleonic Wars. However, the money ran out during construction, so only 12 of the proposed 46 columns were finished. Similarly, the Nelson monument took 10 years to build as they kept running out of funds. The Robbie Burns monument was built to house a marble statue of the poet, but pollution forced the council to move the sculpture inside a museum. So, it is empty. You can understand why these structures were labelled ‘Follies’. However, over time they have become quite distinctive.
Eric Liddell, aka the Flying Scotsman, was born in 1902 in Tientsin, China, the second son of Scottish missionaries Rev and Mrs Liddell. In 1920, he joined his brother Robert at the Edinburgh University to study maths. He gained a reputation for being the fastest runner in Scotland. Newspapers carried stories of his feats at track meets, with many citing him a potential Olympic winner. However, he refused to compete on a Sunday because of his religious beliefs. At the 1924 Paris Olympics, Liddell withdrew from the 100m heats held on a Sunday and was disqualified. However, he won the 400m gold medal, sprinting the entire distance and breaking the world record. Liddell also played for Inverleith Rugby club in Edinburgh and was capped seven times for the Scotland national team. After graduating in 1925, he decided become a missionary in China, like his parents. He made a famous farewell walk from the Congregational College in Hope Terrace to Waverley Station in Edinburgh cheered on by thousands of well-wishers lining the route. In 1941, his wife and children left for Canada after war broke out, but Liddell stayed on at his rural mission station in Xiaozhang. In 1943, he was interned by Japanese forces and died in a concentration camp in 1945 just months before liberation. Liddell is remembered in various forms including a statue and memorial plaque at Edinburgh University, a community centre named after him at his old church in Morningside, Edinburgh, a feast day on February 22nd in the American Episcopal Church, and of course, the 1981 Oscar-winning movie Chariots of Fire.
The city has gained a reputation as a foodie haven in recent years, but recommended eats include the posh Dome restaurant, once the head office of the Bank of Scotland; the Guildford Arms, for good pub food; and the Petit Paris restaurant on the Grassmarket, which does delicious authentic French country cooking (not exactly Scottish native dishes but perhaps you can eat there in the spirit of the ‘Auld Alliance’!).
Edinburgh – the eternal city of culture.
Note: All sites mentioned were operating pre-lockdown. Please check relevant websites before embarking on any potential visit. Another recommendation will appear tomorrow.
For the very best in guided private tours of the UK visit www.yourlondontours.com
*Operators in the UK tour industry often separate the areas of the country according to what touring can be achieved in a region in one day. As a London-based operator, my ‘map’ spirals outwards from the capital and is separated thus:
- Northern Home Counties (Beds/Herts/Cambs)
- Eastern Home Counties (Essex/Suffolk)
- Southern Home Counties (Kent, Surrey, Sussex)
- Western Home Counties (Ox/Berks/Bucks)
- South coast (Hants/Dorset)
- Western England (Somerset/Gloucs/Wilts)
- South West England (Devon & Cornwall)
- Wales (north & south)
- Welsh Borders (Worcestershire/Herefordshire/Shropshire/Cheshire)
- Western Midlands (Brum/Warks/Staffs)
- Eastern Midlands (Northants/Leics/Rutland)
- Northern Midlands (Notts/Derbys)
- East coast (Norfolk/Lincs)
- Yorks (all ridings)
- North West (Manchester/Merseyside/Lancs/Lakes/Cumbria)
- North East (Durham/Tyne & Wear/Northumberland)
- Southern Scotland (Lowlands/Midlands)
- Northern Scotland (Highlands/Islands)
- Ireland (Northern/Southern)