The Royal Mile and beyond

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

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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Sights Featured in This Article

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 or 2.5 Miles
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.
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
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 most prominent of those additions is the northwest tower, which can be seen just behind the main gates, straight in front of you, and is the oldest remaining part of the palace. In this tower are the rooms once occupied by Mary Queen of Scots and many of the events of her dramatic reign was played out here, culminating in the famous murder of her secretary (and possible lover) David Rizzio in 1566.

When Mary’s son James IV was crowned King of England in 1603 he and his court moved to London. Holyrood Palace would however remain at the centre of Scottish history, as it was burned down, rebuilt, pulled down and rebuilt again, all in the 17th century. Bonnie Prince Charlie stayed here in 1745, and France’s King Charles X hid here for 4 years during the French revolution.

Since Queen Victoria’s reign however, the Palace has been the peaceful summer residency of the royal family, and one of Edinburgh’s most impressive and popular visitor attractions.
Image Courtesy of Christoph Strässler.
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 years overdue. Despite widespread criticism by Edinburghians about cost, disruption and design, it has become a contemporary landmark against the backdrop of Arthur’s seat and the old buildings surrounding it.

Miralles drew inspiration from the surrounding landscape and the art of Charles Rennie Mackintosh when he designed the parliament buildings out of steel, oak and Scottish granite, with the intention of creating a building which looked like it grew out of the land.

While ultimate power still lies with the Parliament of the United Kingdom,

Scotland has for the first time since the Act of Union in 1707 when the parliaments of Scotland and England merged, some control of its own destiny.

As you carry on up the Royal Mile, take a look at the quotes and poetry by prominent Scots carved into the wall of the parliament building.
Image Courtesy of Andy Hay.
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 was riding alone near Holyrood House when his horse was charged by a white stag which was about to gore the king. Between the antlers of the stag the unhorsed King suddenly saw a vision of the Holy Cross (or Rood), and the stag took flight. David I saw this as a sign and founded Holyrood Abbey. Almost 500 years later in 1688 King James VII founded Canongate Kirk, which was completed in 1690. The legend of King David I and the stag is, however, present throughout the building, an example of which you can see at the apex of the front wall.

A visit inside its bright interior also reveals the church’s crucifix layout, a memorial chapel, its military and royal significance and its historical links with the craft guilds that once flourished in the Canongate area of the Royal Mile.

Forever strolling down the Mile outside the gates of the church is Robert Ferguson, the 18th century poet born nearby. He died a tragic and allegedly brutal death in Bedlam, one of Edinburgh’s mental hospitals at the age of 24, and is buried in the Canongate Kirkyard.
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.

The style of the building with its clock and turrets is what is described as a "Franco Scottish". It reflects the good relations between Scotland and France, known as the Auld Alliance.

Today the building contains the People’s Story Museum, which gives a glimpse into the lives of the citizens of Edinburgh from the 18th century to the present.
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 their city, and that this house was owned by a prominent catholic during the same time. As such it is unlikely John Knox ever even visited the place.

Weather home to the prominent protestant or not, the house is one of Scotland’s greatest cultural treasures, and is one of the oldest surviving tenements in Edinburgh, dating back to 1490.

It was once owned by James Mosman, goldsmith to Mary Queen of Scots, who was of course another devout catholic who regarded John Knox as the single greatest threat to her reign and the catholic Scotland. Quite rightly so, as John Knox’s preaching was a powerful factor in the revolution that resulted in the Scottish reformation in 1560.
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 gather. This cross also became the focal point for many other events in the city, such as public announcements, royal proclamations, and frequent executions.

These days, with public hanging out of fashion, the Mercat Cross is only used to announce Scottish general elections and new monarchs.

Look down as we continue our walk up the mile…
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 tollbooth which had stood at the then very centre of the Scottish county Midlothian.

If you see locals spitting on it, don’t worry – this is to bring good luck. But it is considered very bad luck to walk across the heart, as those who do so will never find true love…
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 in 1572. But reformation did not go down easy with many and for the next 150 years worship was interrupted by disagreement and violence. This is how St. Giles’ briefly became a cathedral in the 17th century, when King Charles I appointed Scottish Episcopal bishops in Scotland. Before then, or after, St Giles’ is only actually a cathedral in name and not the formal sense of the word, and these days Scottish Presbyterianism is practiced here.

Most of the exterior was beautified and simplified in the 19th century with the aim to create “a Westminster Abbey for Scotland”. Some of the interior still dates back to the 14th century, though it has been greatly simplified since then and now consists of one large space. The austerity of the Presbyterian has been stretched by the addition of the beautiful stained glass windows.

Far into the church is also the small but exquisite Thistle chapel, added in 1911 for the Most Ancient and the Most Noble Order of the Thistle: 16 knights appointed by the crown.

There are plenty of more reasons to go inside: monuments to Robert Louis Stevenson and the marquises of Montrose and Argyll (both executed at the Mercat Cross you have just visited), a copy of the National Covenant of 1638, and a three legged stool thrown by a 17th century market woman…
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.

Here, during the wars of independence, after a 3 day siege, Edward I of England captured the Castle after invading Scotland in 1296. In 1314 The Scots, under the infamous Robert the Bruce, recaptured it.

The Scottish crown jewels, dating from the 15th century, have finally found a peaceful home here after decades in hiding from Cromwell who took the castle in 1650. Their fascinating story is told inside, as is the one of the Stone of Destiny, used in British coronations.

You can visit the dark, damp gaol and the bright royal apartments and even the small bedroom where Mary Stewart gave birth to the child who would grow up to unite the crowns north and south of the border, as King James VI of Scotland and James I of England.

The history attached to this site is endless, dating back to prehistoric times, and it is for good reason Edinburgh’s top visitor attraction.

These days the esplanade where you stand is home of the annual military Tattoo every August.

Take the 187 Castle Wynd Steps down to the Grassmarket and enjoy an impressive view of the black rock you are standing on.
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 many a public hanging, this is where John Porteous, the brutal captain of the town guard, was taken in his nightshirt and slippers and strung up by a mob. But not all famous people who came here died in the gallous: Robert Burns was a frequent visitor to the area and stayed at the White Hart Inn in 1791. The White Hart is also where the infamous 18th century ‘body snatchers’ come serial killers Burke and Hare would hang out in order to spot potential victims for the Edinburgh Medical College.

You will leave the Grassmarket at the southeast corner, up Candelmaker Row, the fire-plagued street where – you guessed it – candle makers used to work.

Where the street meets George IV Bridge sits a little terrier, which is our next stop.
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 master.

The statue itself happens to be Edinburgh’s ‘smallest listed building’ and was built a year after Bobby’s death as a drinking fountain, with one higher fountain for people and a lower one for dogs.

Gray’s grave remains unmarked, but a memorial stone dedicated to his dog stands just inside the gates of Greyfriars Kirk, just across the road.
Image Courtesy of Steve.
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 swore by oath to maintain religion in the Presbyterian state in which it existed in 1580, and to reject all introductions since that time.

The graveyard surrounding the church is a bit older, as it saw its first burial in 1561 when the graveyard adjacent to St Giles Cathedral was considered full.

The enclosed vaults on the south edge of the graveyard were created as a deterrent to grave robbing, which, as we have learned, had become problematic in the 18th century. Greyfriars also has two iron cages, called ‘mortsafes’. These could be leased to protect bodies long enough for them to reach such a putrid state that it would make them of no interest to those who supplied Edinburgh Medical College with corpses for dissection…

Also on the south side stands the tomb of the infamous 'Bloody' George Mackenzie, a lawyer who earned this nickname after his relentless persecution of the covenanters which led to the death of 18 000 of them. He was buried here in 1691 but that hasn’t stopped bothering late night visitors to the graveyard…

Leaving the graveyard we will stop near Bobby again, and take a quick look at the street on which he stands, George IV Bridge, before ending back on the Royal Mile.
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.

Just before the Scottish National Library George IV Bridge crosses Cowgate, the entrance to witch we could see from the Grassmarket. The street used to be even darker and gloomier than it is today, and was a notoriously overcrowded slum area in the 19th century. The bridge bases of George VI Bridge, and more famously the adjacent South Bridge, were hosts to extensive systems of tunnels and vaults where various poor tradesmen worked and lived, rarely seeing the light of day.

A brighter street, zigzagging its way down to the Grassmarket a few yards before George IV bridge crosses the Royal Mile, is Victoria street, perhaps the prettiest street in Edinburgh with its brightly coloured shop fronts, restaurants and elevated terrace with bars and cafes.
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 ‘closures’ which still exists along the street today.

Most of this medieval town was burned down in 1544 by the English, and the houses which now stand here date from 1591 and onwards.

By the middle of the 17th century additions to the stone structures had been built in timber, resulting in some buildings reaching an unstable 14 stories high, and at its most dense nearly 70 000 people lived in this small area alone, in incredible poverty. The now tranquil parkland of Prince’s Street gardens was then a stinking cesspit filled with the waste pouring down the streets from the hill. The overcrowded, unsanitary situation meant the plague would claim the lives of half of the city’s population in 1645.

It wasn’t until the 19th century that Edinburgh’s inner city was cleaned up, street cleaning was organized and further housing was built in New Town and surrounding areas to ease the pressure on the Old Town. Then, finally, the Royal Mile got to see some long-awaited regal splendor and attention, and has in its revival, and because of its past, become one of the most famous streets in the world.

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