The Royal Mile and beyond

Scotland, Edinburgh Guide (A): The Royal Mile and beyond

Edinburgh’s ‘Royal Mile’ is one of the most romantic and action packed streets in the world, with royal buildings at each end, steeped in medieval history and punctuated with the buildings where Scottish identity was forged.
Starting at the bottom of the Mile at Holyrood Palace, taking you to the top at Edinburgh Castle and ending with a graveyard and a famous terrier, this walk should be any visitor’s first encounter with Edinburgh’s old town.
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Walk Route

Guide Name: The Royal Mile and beyond
Guide Location: Scotland » Edinburgh
Guide Type: Self-guided Walking Tour (Article (A))
# of Attractions: 14
Tour Duration: 1.0 hour(s)
Travel Distance: 4.0 km
Sight(s) featured in this guide: Holyrood Palace   The Scottish Parliament   Canongate Kirk   Canongate Tolbooth – The People’s Story   John Knox House   The Mercat cross   Heart of Midlothian   St Giles Cathedral   The Castle   The Grassmarket   Greyfriars Bobby   Greyfriars Kirk   George IV Bridge   The Royal Mile  
Author: lisa pettersson
Author Bio: I was born in Sweden 1976 but moved to the UK in 1995 and have remained here since. I have with my husband Mike, from Wales, also spent nearly 3 years in Asia: traveling, working and writing. We are currently based in Edinburgh, where I work as an artist and graphic designer, and also write occasional travel related articles. We both still enjoy traveling and spend much of our free time abroad.
Holyrood Palace

1) Holyrood Palace

We are beginning our tour here at Holyrood Palace (or Holyrood House), at the bottom of the Royal Mile. The palace, the official Scottish residence of the Queen, was founded as a monastery by King David I in the 12th century and has played a central role in Scottish history ever since.

David I also built the now ruined Abbey which sits just behind the palace. The Abbey has seen the marriages, coronations and burials of many Scottish royals.

In 1528 James V began adding to the palace. The...
Image by Christoph Strässler under Creative Commons License.
The Scottish Parliament

2) The Scottish Parliament

Following a referendum in 1997 the momentous decision to devolve power from Westminster to Scotland began the journey that ended with the completion of the building in front of you.

Officially opened in 2004 the Scottish Parliament is one of the Old Town’s newest buildings, and also one of the most controversial ones. It was designed by Catalan architect Enric Miralles, who died before the project was completed. The cost escalated by ten times its original budget and the building opened 3...
Image by Andy Hay under Creative Commons License.
Canongate Kirk

3) Canongate Kirk

You are on the section of the Royal Mile called ‘Canongate’, and standing in front of the Canongate Kirk. This is the parish church of both Holyrood Palace, the Scottish Parliament and Edinburgh Castle and belongs to the Church of Scotland. Originally the church of Canongate had two buildings: This one here in the heart of Canongate, and the Abbey of Holyrood House, which now lies in ruins behind the palace you have just visited.

The story of Canongate Kirk begins with King David I who...
Canongate Tolbooth – The People’s Story

4) Canongate Tolbooth – The People’s Story

Just a few paces up the road is the Canongate Tolbooth, which dates from 1591 and is the oldest remaining building on this part of the Royal Mile.

The Canongate Burgh was separate to the City of Edinburgh until the two merged in 1865. The Burgh of Canongate therefore had its own council, and it was here at the Canongate Toolbooth they met, where the administration of the Burgh was carried out, and where public tolls or dues were collected. The building also held a jail and a court.

John Knox House

5) John Knox House

You are now on the part of the Royal Mile called the High street, and at this end was once the medieval gateway that separated the Canongate and the city of Edinburgh. It is also the halfway point between Holyrood palace and the Castle.

The small house where you stand has since the mid 19th century been known as being the 16th century home of the visionary reformer John Knox. However, records show that the Victorians were more enthusiastic than accurate in naming the quaint old buildings of...
The Mercat cross

6) The Mercat cross

Here at the back of St. Giles Cathedral is the Mercat cross, built in 1885 with the arms of Scotland, Leith, Canongate, Edinburgh, the University, England, Ireland and Britain surrounding it. The original cross was twice as tall and dated back to the 14th century. The spot where it stood is marked on the ground just a few yards down the Mile, past the statue of Adam Smith.

A Mercat cross, or a market cross, can be found in many Scottish cities and it was here the city merchants used to...
Heart of Midlothian

7) Heart of Midlothian

Don’t step on it! Here on the ground, just before you turn left to face the front of the cathedral, is the very modest ‘Heart of Midlothian’. It marks the spot where the 15th century Edinburgh tollbooth once stood, being the centre for city administration as well as containing a prison and yet another site for public executions.

The building was pulled down in 1817, and in 1818 Sir Walter Scott published his 7th novel ‘The heart of Midlothian’, the title referring to the old...
St Giles Cathedral

8) St Giles Cathedral

St. Giles, the patron saint of Edinburgh as well as lepers, beggars and cripples, was, unsurprisingly, a very popular saint in the Middle Ages when the church in front of you was named.

The first Catholic Church on this site was built in the 1120s, and it would be the focal point of religious upheaval for many centuries to come. At the forefront of the reformation, John Knox led the Lords of the Congregation into Edinburgh in 1559 and subsequently served as a minister here at until his death...
The Castle

9) The Castle

You have reached the end of the Royal Mile and stand on top of an extinct volcano at Edinburgh’s most recognizable landmark: the Castle. This is the impenetrable imposing heart of Edinburgh, and a constant reminder to those on the streets below of the great span of Scottish history. Sheer drops on all but one side made this a formidable site for fortification and this grey solid fortress has been at the very core of the bloody struggle for liberation and independence from the English.

The Grassmarket

10) The Grassmarket

At the south side of the castle, and with neck-breaking views of it, is the Grassmarket, designed in the 15th century to accommodate horse and cattle markets, as well as farmers selling hay, corn and seed. For almost 5 centuries cattle were driven in weekly from the surrounding fields through the street known as the Cowgate, in the south east corner of the Grassmarket. The area grew to become an important business centre with printers, tanners, brewers and tobacconists.

Yet another site for...
Greyfriars Bobby

11) Greyfriars Bobby

The life size statue of ‘Greyfriars Bobby’ has become one of the most famous images of Edinburgh.

Bobby was a Skye terrier, belonging to John Gray. After the death of the old man, Bobby sat by and guarded his grave for fourteen years, until his own death in 1872. It is reported that at the daily sound of the 1 o’clock gun from the castle, Bobby would leave the Kirk yard though the gates and go for his lunch, returning fed and watered by locals stunned by his unwavering loyalty to his...
Image by Steve under Creative Commons License.
Greyfriars Kirk

12) Greyfriars Kirk

Though Bobby (and Disney, who made a film about him) put Greyfirars Kirk on the map internationally, the Kirk has been the site of somewhat greater events, and its graveyard hosts some of the most notable Edinburghians of the last 4 centuries (and in some cases, their ghosts).

The church dates back to 1602, and a few years later it played an important role in the history of the Scottish Covenanters when the 1638 National Covenant was presented and signed here. The subscribers of the Covenant...
George IV Bridge

13) George IV Bridge

On the opposite side of the street from Bobby is the Scottish National Museum, which stretches along most of Chamber Street. The modern part nearest to you is linked to the older internally and was opened in 1999. As with all the museums in Scotland entry is free.

As you carry on north towards the Royal Mile you will on your left past ‘The Elephant House’, the café where a certain single mother penned some books about a child wizard before reaching international superstardom.

The Royal Mile

14) The Royal Mile

Finally, back on the Mile, a few last words on the street itself. Here on Castle Hill was originally a small town supplying goods to the soldiers, noble men and monks at the fortress which existed here in some form for around 2000 years.

In 1128 King David I felt inspired to remodel the area, and began setting out the Via Regis – meaning Way of the King and later called the Royal Mile. Grand timber buildings were erected, with courtyards housing livestock, accessible by the narrow...

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