Michael McLaughlin and Holyrood House Palace, Edinburgh, Scotland
Credit: Courtesy of Michael McLaughlin

When she visited Scotland for the first time in 1842, Queen Victoria recorded her impressions in her diary: “The view of Edinburgh from the road is quite enchanting: it is, as Albert said, fairy-like and what you would only imagine as a thing to dream of, or see in a picture.”

Edinburgh has much to offer, from the compact medieval Old Town and the buzzing port district of Leith to the imposing peak of Arthur’s Seat. Over the 2021–22 New Year holidays, I had the opportunity to travel to Edinburgh, Scotland, as a teacher-chaperone with the Independent Schools Cultural Alliance. The week-long tour provided an opportunity to explore the sites and stories of this enchanting place.

Edinburgh Castle-Fortress and royal residence

There has been a royal castle on the summit of Castle Rock since the reign of King David in the 12th century. Sitting high on a precipice, Edinburgh Castle is among the most besieged locations in the United Kingdom and now plays a largely administrative and ceremonial role.

Portcullis Gate, Edinburgh Castle
Credit: © Historic Environment Scotland

We passed through the fortified Portcullis Gate and made our way to the Argyle Battery. Students looked over the battlements for unrivaled views toward the Firth of Forth and the Highlands beyond.

At the highest point of the castle is Crown Square. Medieval buildings tell the story of the Scottish monarchy. As we entered the Royal Palace, we were treated to a private viewing of the Honours of Scotland, the glittering crown jewels first used for the coronation of Mary, Queen of Scots in 1543. Next to the crown, scepter, and sword of state is the iconic Stone of Destiny. This ancient symbol has been used in coronations for over a millennium. The stone will only leave Scotland again for a coronation in Westminster Abbey.

Honours of Scotland, Edinburgh Castle
Credit: © Historic Environment Scotland

After taking refuge from the rain with a hot cocoa and snack in the elegant tea rooms, we discovered the castle’s military heritage. The medieval Great Hall has a collection of armory and weapons on display. One museum recounts the campaigns of the Royal Dragoons. Prized among its artifacts is the French Eagle, the standard seized from Napoleon’s defeated troops at Waterloo. The Scottish National War Memorial was a solemn reminder of the sacrifices of war.

Ships in the Firth of Forth once set their maritime clocks by the One o’Clock Gun. The firing of the gun dates to 1861. While visitors to Edinburgh can listen for the sound, visitors to the castle can watch the ceremony of loading and firing this famous time signal each day at 1 p.m.

With our tour of the castle complete, it was time to head down the Royal Mile to see what more Edinburgh had to offer.

Britannia: See how the queen sailed

Logging more than a million nautical miles across the globe, Her Majesty’s Yacht Britannia was a floating palace for over 40 years. The Royal Yacht Britannia is now a visitor attraction and hospitality venue.

The Royal Yacht Britannia
Credit: Marc Millar, courtesy of HMY Britannia

A visit to the yacht offers students a unique opportunity to walk in the footsteps of the Windsors. The tour includes an informative audio guide about the ship, its stories, and its role as an ambassador of the United Kingdom.

The yacht offers a glimpse into the life of its principal passenger: Queen Elizabeth II. The monarch’s preference for simple, modest, but elegant, surroundings is evident in the 1950s décor. Personal family photos can be found throughout the interior.

Michael McLaughlin explores Britannia Credit: Courtesy of Michael McLaughlin

The State Drawing Room and Dining Room have been the settings for spectacular banquets. The table could be set for 56 guests! On the Shelter Deck, students were able to peer into the Royal Bedrooms, noting the difference between the style of the queen and her duke. Next door is the Sun Lounge, the queen’s favorite, where she and her royal family took tea at sea.

Britannia is truly two ships in one. Students explored the lives of the crew of 240 by touring the officers’ quarters and yachtsmen’s bunks and highlights like the galley, hospital operating room, and garage for the royal Rolls-Royce!

The yacht is berthed at the Port of Leith Ocean Terminal, which offers groups plenty of shopping and dining options as well as access to the newly expanded public tram line.

The Real Mary King’s Close: An underground experience

Medieval Edinburgh was a warren of streets and a patchwork of multistoried buildings that hugged the hilly landscape within the protective walls of the city. Mary King’s Close is a moment in time preserved for modern visitors in the historic Old Town. Named for a merchant who lived and worked on the close in the 17th century, the Real Mary King’s Close invites visitors to step below the Royal Mile and back in time.

Our one-hour visit followed in the footsteps of a costumed character actor depicting the poet Robert Fergusson, the literary inspiration to Scotland’s national poet Robert Burns. As we explored the labyrinth of lodgings, storerooms, and businesses, our guide shared a perspective rooted in the archaeological and historic record.

The Real Mary King’s Close, Edinburgh, Scotland
Credit: Courtesy of The Real Mary King’s Close

The cobbled streets and bricked vaults created a living backdrop for our guide to bring history to life. We learned plenty of colorful details about 17th-century life, from the disposal of sewage to witches, body snatchers, and the bubonic plague!

The entrance to the Real Mary King’s Close sits on the Royal Mile just opposite Saint Giles Cathedral.

Arthur’s Seat: A hike in Holyrood Park

Students were fascinated to learn that Edinburgh rests in the shadow of an extinct volcano that erupted 350 million years ago. Arthur’s Seat is the star of the 640-acre royal park that extends behind Holyrood Palace. The windswept crag rises 822 feet, providing a panoramic picture for those who make the ascent.

On New Year’s Day, we laced up our hiking boots and made our way to the summit. The hill is a relatively easy climb and offers several marked routes to the top.

Sturdy footwear, water, and an outer layer were essential as we traded the urban pavement for rugged, uneven terrain. During our hour-long hike, we took time to explore the ruins of St. Anthony’s Chapel which sits on a rocky outcrop overlooking St. Margaret’s Loch. As we hiked, we discussed the many legends associated with this landscape — from the mythical site of Camelot to the Celtic sleeping dragon — as well as the site’s geology and historic connections.

Students at Arthur’s Seat, Edinburgh, Scotland
Credit: Independent Schools Cultural Alliance

The peak itself presented an epic photo opportunity with phenomenal views of Edinburgh. We took our turns steadying ourselves against the gusts of wind to pose next to the elevation marker as a souvenir of our climb.

For nature lovers and adventure enthusiasts, Holyrood Park offers plenty to experience Edinburgh’s dramatic skyline.

Article by Michael McLaughlin

Main image: Edinburgh Castle; Credit: © Historic Environment Scotland