Of all of Britain’s cities, perhaps Edinburgh has the most picturesque views – from Calton Hill to Edinburgh Castle and Arthur’s Seat. Any of those places presents an opportunity to take in panoramic vistas, so as to include the two other high points and the city below with much history visibly contained within it.
That history begins with early human settlements in the area through the Bronze and Iron ages which eventually became home to a Brittonic Celtic tribe known as the Gododdin, who by the 7th Century AD had built the hill fort of Din Eidyn or Etin and therefore provided the basis for what would become the name of the city. Upon being attacked by King Oswald of Northumbria in 638, the fortress and much of the Lothian region around it along the Firth of Forth was absorbed into the Anglian kingdom for the next three centuries until 950, when it was captured by the Kingdom of Alba in the reign of King Indulf. About two hundred years later in 1125, David I of Scotland granted Edinburgh its royal burgh charter; it gradually gained status as Scotland’s capital city and James III described it in the 15th Century as “the principal burgh of our kingdom.” The city became the center for the Scottish Reformation and the religious conflicts of the 17th Century, which helped to lead to the Wars of the Three Kingdoms and the downfall of the House of Stuart with the execution of Charles I, whose father James VI had succeeded to the English throne in 1603 as James I and therefore became the first man to rule all Britain in a personal union known as the Union of the Crowns in which England and Scotland remained separate kingdoms. Scottish support for restoring Charles II (the son of Charles I) resulted in the occupation of Edinburgh by the New Model Army of Oliver Cromwell.
Following the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, Edinburgh continued being the capital of an independent Scotland until the Acts of Union was passed by the English and Scottish parliaments in 1707, which united England and Scotland into the Kingdom of Great Britain and thus merged the two parliaments into the British Parliament in London. Throughout the 18th Century, it continued to prosper and became an increasingly important banking center, though it remained densely populated and crowded due to staying largely within its medieval boundaries. Following the defeat of the Jacobite armies of Bonnie Prince Charlie which had occupied it during the Rising of 1745, the city embarked to stimulate economic activity and affirm its loyalty to the Union and the Hanoverian monarch George III with the development of the New Town to the north – which included elegant Georgian and neoclassical architecture and extensive planning (and was put on display for George IV during his historic visit in 1822). This, along with the city being at the heart of the Scottish Enlightenment and home to intellectuals such as Adam Smith and David Hume, gained Edinburgh the nickname “Athens of the North”, and among the lasting impacts of the Enlightenment was the Encyclopædia Britannica, which was designed in Edinburgh by Colin Macfarquhar and Andrew Bell.
Through the 19th and early 20th centuries, Edinburgh continued to grow within the county of Midlothian (also known as Edinburghshire for its county town) and it was granted city status by Queen Victoria in 1889. Compared to other urban areas of the United Kingdom, it industrialized little and was overtaken by Glasgow as Scotland’s largest city and the second city of the British Empire. Nonetheless, it still had some industry in the form of printing, brewing, distilling, engineering, and rubber works, and the central area in the New Town developed into a significant center for business activity and shopping, while the Old Town was given a Victorian make-over and further improvements. In the latter half of the 20th Century, the city went through a decline with the loss of some traditional industry, but has undergone several regeneration projects, as well as taken other steps into the present to solidify its position as the UK’s second largest financial and administrative center after London.
Today, the city is also the seat of the devolved Scottish Parliament, which was established in 1999 with some exclusive areas of responsibility for domestic policies affecting the people of Scotland within the United Kingdom. With a population of 492,000, Edinburgh is Scotland’s second-largest city and seventh-largest in the UK, and is home several internationally-recognized landmarks and institutions, many of which are located in the Old Town and New Town sections, which together have been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site. It is also a center for education, law, arts and sciences, medicine, and engineering, as well as cultural attractions such as the Edinburgh International Festival and Edinburgh Military Tattoo and still further, various historic sites which help to make the city the UK’s second-biggest tourist destination after London.
Among those historic sites is the Palace of Holyroodhouse (or Holyrood Palace), which has its origins in the 12th Century when David I of Scotland established Holyrood Abbey on the present site and the abbey guesthouse became the foundation for the royal residence which from the 16th Century forward had become the principal residence for Scottish monarchs and subsequently British monarchs when carrying out official duties and activities in Scotland, including Queen Elizabeth II, who moves her court there for one week in the summer known as Holyrood Week.
Located opposite of Edinburgh Castle at the foot of the Royal Mile in Edinburgh’s Old Town, the building is set in a quadrangle arraignment and the exterior of the palace as it is known today was largely built in the Baroque style of Sir William Bruce between 1671 and 1678 following the restoration of Charles II. The northwest tower was built over a hundred years earlier by James V, but Bruce provided for a matching tower to the southwest and the two were linked together within the overall plans which blended the palace into an overall coherent design, especially with regard to its front façade.
Inside, the palace presents some of the most stately and well-appointed rooms in Britain, and they reflect that tastes of successive monarchs over the centuries, with a rich variety of interior styles, artwork, and other furnishings. In terms of rooms still in use today by the Queen and other members of the Royal Family, there are the State Apartments which include the Throne Room, which is used for receptions and ceremonies such as the installation of new Knights and Ladies of the Order of the Thistle, the highest order of chivalry in Scotland and second-highest in the UK. There’s also the Royal Dining Room and the Morning Drawing Room, where the Queen receives the First Minister of Scotland and other dignitaries, including foreign ones, for private audiences. On the other side of the building to the north is the Great Galley, which is the largest room in the palace and most notable for the Queen carrying out investitures for Scots bestowed with knighthoods and other honours, as well as other banquets and ceremonies. Within this room are portraits of Scottish monarchs, including legendary and real ones, and indeed, there are many more portraits of monarchs and other royals up the present throughout the building. Of particular interest are portraits of both the deposed and defeated Stuarts such as Bonnie Prince Charlie along with those of their Hanoverian cousins who emerged triumphant in the struggle for power during the 18th Century, which is emblematic of the complicated and extraordinary history of the UK.
That history is seen in the form of the chambers and apartments of kings and queens from long ago. Among them is the suite of rooms designed for Charles II, including the King’s Bedchamber, which – per the tastes of the Merry Monarch – is the most lavishly decorated room of the palace with richly carved woodwork and plastering, along with tapestries and the luxurious State Bed. In addition, there is the King’s Ante-Chamber, Wardrobe, and Closest. From here, the rooms are connected via the Great Gallery to the northwest tower, which is where the apartments of Mary, Queen of Scots and her husband Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley are located. These historic areas are among the least changed since Queen Mary’s time and because of that, they give a sense of the tumultuous events which enveloped her short reign. The first floor features the Darnley rooms, which are linked via a spiral stair to the identical set of rooms occupied by Mary, including her Outer Chamber, where she received visitors and which now features a collection of Stuart and Jacobite artifacts. This leads to her Inner Chamber, which is said to be the most famous bedroom in Scotland. Many of the paintings and other features date from Mary’s time and before that, including the oak ceiling which bear the monograms MR and IR for her parents, Mary of Guise (Maria Regina) and James V (Jacobus Rex). Other items, such as the Flemish tapestries, are more recent but still add to the mystique of this room and the infamous woman who occupied it.
Elsewhere in the palace complex is Holyrood Abbey, which is attached to the palace, but has been a ruin since 1768 when its roof collapsed but still stands as a beautiful piece of Medieval architecture. The forecourt features a fountain installed by Queen Victoria (which emulates a similar one at Linlithgow Palace), as well as a nearby statue of her son, Edward VII, which was unveiled by his son, George V, who brought the palace into the 20th Century by overseeing extensive improvements during his reign, including the installation of central heating and electric lighting. In addition, the Queen’s Gallery is located to the west of the palace and exhibits works from the Royal Collection; next door to it in the Mews Courtyard is the Café at the Palace, which serves mostly light meals and – so quintessentially British – tea in the afternoon, and the palace gift shop is also nearby to collect mementos. Furthermore, there are the overall grounds and gardens of the palace – where the Queen hosts garden parties – which expands into the vaster Holyrood Park (aka Queen’s Park) and includes Arthur’s Seat and Salisbury Crags, whose peaks contain some of the best views of the area.
Back at the palace, audio tours are available via a device which allows visitors to listen to commentary on Holyroodhouse and the people who have lived there as they make their way through the building. Admission is available for different levels of access to the palace and its surrounding areas, and in this year until October 16th, it includes access to a special exhibit in honor of the Queen’s 90th birthday entitled Fashioning a Reign: 90 Years of Style from The Queen's Wardrobe. For larger groups, bookings are available for private and personally guided tours by Scottish Blue Badge Guides, and there are special accommodations and features for school groups, children, and those with disabilities (except for Queen Mary’s apartments, which cannot be accessed by wheelchairs).
Holyroodhouse is open year-around save for Christmas and Boxing Day, but it is still a working palace, so one ought to be mindful of any comings and goings by the Queen, other members of the Royal Family, and still others who are allowed use of the building, such as the Lord High Commissioner to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, which may affect the palace’s availability to visitors. Even in such circumstances however, it will be good and fascinating to witness the palace being used for its stated purpose in the service of its Queen.
Indeed, Holyroodhouse is royal treasure of Scotland and the whole United Kingdom on par with Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle. It is a must see for anyone visiting the country and in particular, can serve as a foundation for touring and getting to know the great city of Edinburgh.