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Portfolio: Travel Feature

Following History’s Footprints in Edinburgh, Scotland

Story & photos by Hugh C. McBride

How can you not love a city that dedicates a museum to writers and builds a monument to a dog?

I didn’t travel to Edinburgh because of the Writer’s Museum or the statue of Greyfriars Bobby, but these two “discoveries,” I learned, were completely in keeping with the character of a city that celebrates its culture and cultivates a sense of the sublime.

A city of contrasts

The capital city of Scotland, Edinburgh is a study in contrasts. Described by one guide book as “venerable, dramatic … cosmopolitan and cultured,” it also seems to take a perverse pride in its historic nickname of “Auld Reekie” (earned thanks to the sewage – and accompanying smells – that seeped for centuries out of its Old Town section).

Home to three universities, an 800 year-old castle and the largest arts festival in the world, Edinburgh seems content (joyous, even) to perpetually straddle the gap between past and future.

For example, as it has for centuries, the “Royal Mile” funnels visitors up a brick-laden street toward the towering Edinburgh Castle. The bricks remain, yet, unlike the day in 1724 when Daniel Defoe described the street as “the largest, longest and finest street … not in Bretain only, but in the World,” weary travelers can now find respite en route in a Starbucks, an Internet café, or any number of souvenir shops.

The Royal Mile and the castle are part of Edinburgh’s Old Town, a medieval area that dates to the early years of the previous millennium (and which, for the first six centuries or so of Edinburgh’s existence, comprised the entirety of the city).

On the other side of the Princes Street Gardens lies the New Town, a carefully planned 200-year-old addition whose wide, straight-edged streets stand in stark contrast to the zig-zagging maze of narrow alleys that make up much of the Old Town. With the Gardens (and nearby bus stops and train station) as a starting point, visitors literally have the best of both worlds within walking distance.

The Old Town

Even in the brightest daylight, a walk through the Old Town evokes images of rough men, loose women, and the physical and metaphorical darkness in which they lived their presumably sordid lives.

This sense is reinforced by attractions such as Deacon Brodie’s Inn, which is named after an upstanding member of 18th century Edinburgh society who devoted his evenings to drinking, gambling and burglary (and whose double life may or may not have inspired fellow Edinburgher Robert Louis Stevenson to pen “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”). Another stop with a sinister connotation is the Last Drop Inn, which is named not for the emptying of a bottle, but for the gallows that once stood nearby.

Even the more uplifting aspects of the area are tinged with the maudlin. A few hundred meters up a winding street from the Last Drop stands the statue of Greyfriars Bobby, which was erected as lasting tribute to one dog’s faithfulness to his master. Unfortunately for Bobby, though, the majority of that faithfulness was exhibited post-mortem.

Bobby was the pet and working partner of police constable John Gray. When Gray died in 1858, Bobby began a 14-year vigil beside his grave, leaving the cemetery in Greyfriars Kirkyard only long enough to be fed by neighboring merchants.

Bobby became such a celebrity that he was given a special collar (which can now be viewed in the Huntly House museum) to ensure that he was not picked up as a stray. When he died, he was buried in a prominent location just inside the cemetery, and his statue was place a short walk away.

From past to present

Across the street from Bobby’s statue is the Museum of Scotland, a six-story structure that offers a sweeping overview of Scottish history (starting with the glaciers that carved the land and ending with a look at modern-day Scotland – though the 20th century section on Level 6 will be closed for renovation until 2007).

In addition to the expected artifacts and historical portraits, the museum also features multimedia displays, interactive exhibits and a hands-on section designed especially for children.

The history-minded tourist could easily dedicate an entire day to this museum, which boasts the added attraction of being free of charge.

Connected to the Museum of Scotland via a wide glass-domed hallway is the Royal Museum, which has displayed a variety of art and artifacts from around the world for more than a century. (As one guide book explained, the Museum of Scotland shows Scotland to the world, while the Royal Museum shows the world to Scotland). The Royal Museum also has no entrance fee – though particular exhibits (such as the current feature on “Nicholas and Alexandra: The Last Tsar and Tsarina”) may require the purchase of tickets.

For those who prefer their museums to be a bit more focused, the Writer’s Museum (in Lady Stair’s House, a few steps off the Royal Mile) is dedicated to the three great names in Edinburgh letters: Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson.

Exhibits range from the professional (Burns’s writing desk) to the personal (Scott’s chess set) to the perhaps too personal (locks of hair from each).

A second-floor room features temporary exhibits of other individuals of local literary significance, and the Makar’s Court area outside the museum is paved with stones bearing inscriptions from a range of writers – though nothing yet from Edinburgh resident J.K. Rowling, who created her ubiquitous boy wizard and his companions in the city’s cafes.

In history’s footsteps

Tourists who prefer to “experience” history rather than merely view it will also be pleased with the range of opportunities available in Edinburgh.

The most popular destination for those who wish to follow in history’s footsteps is likely Edinburgh Castle, portions of which have overlooked the city since the 1100s. With its most recent upgrades having been made in the 1920s, the castle not only houses much of Edinbugh’s history, but also exemplifies the evolution of Scottish military architecture.

Highlights of the castle’s many attractions include St. Margaret’s Chapel (which may be the oldest building in all of Edinburgh), the National War Museum of Scotland, and the Honors of Scotland (a scepter dating to 1494, a Renaissance-era sword, and the Stone of Destiny, which many believe to have been used in coronation ceremonies for Scottish kings since the 800s).

Travelers who were touched by the story of Greyfriars Bobby will likely also be moved by the small, well manicured cemetery for soldiers’ dogs that lies near St. Margaret’s Chapel.

At the current exchange rate, the entrance fee of £8.50 will set U.S. residents back almost $15 – all the more enticement to explore every nook of the “city within a city” that lies behind the castle walls.

Outside the castle, a number of walking tours take tourists through specific aspects of Edinburgh’s history. Participants in the Edinburgh Literary Pub Tour will be both educated and entertained by guides “Clart” and “McBain,” who traipse through various sites of historical significance whilst engaging in a spirited debate as to the true genesis of the city’s literary greatness.

(Not to give away too much, but McBain advocates for the nobler aspects of man’s – and woman’s – psyches, while Clart is convinced the truth likely lies inside bottles and brothels.)

Other tours promise glimpses into medieval life in the Old Town, information about the area’s more notable “Saints and Sinners” and potential encounters with the otherworldly inhabitants of city’s supposedly haunted regions.

Prepare to pay

“Free” is not a foreign word in Edinburgh – in addition to the museums mentioned above, the Royal Botanical Gardens and People’s Museum are among the attractions that charge no admission – but even the most cost-conscious traveler should be prepared to return home with a decidedly lighter wallet.

In addition to the inflated prices that are to be expected in large tourist-attracting cities, the dollar-to-pound exchange rate (1.74 to 1 on July 22) is decidedly unfriendly at the moment. Though down from a 2005 high of 1.92 to 1, the rate still means that most food, drinks, souvenirs and admission fees will be nearly twice as high as U.S. consumers are used to paying.

Searching the Internet for lodging that won’t break one’s budget is a good way to limit the fiscal damage – as is being willing to reside a bus-ride away from the main attractions. If five-star treatment (or, to be completely honest, two-star treatment) isn’t a priority, hostels abound in the city, and the University of Edinburgh also rents dorm rooms to travelers of all ages when school is not in session.

Making flight arrangements as early as possible (and being flexible with arrival and departure days) is another excellent way to reduce costs. For the most hardcore savers, RyanAir offers bargain-basement flights from Frankfurt (about two hours from Stuttgart) to Glasgow (about 45 minutes from Edinburgh).

Regardless of one’s budget, though, the charms and idiosyncrasies of Edinburgh make the city a worthy destination – and promise to repay the visitor with a lifetime of memories

[This travel feature originally appeared in The Citizen, the official newspaper of U.S. Army Garrison Stuttgart.]