48 hours in ‘The Athens of the North’

Edinburgh Castle

Earlier this year, we set off to ‘The Athens of the North’ to visit some of my old haunts, see the key sights once again – and watch a rather important rugby match.

In the early 1800’s Edinburgh re-branded itself ‘The Athens of the North’ to reflect its growing importance.  It has been the capital of Scotland since 1460, when Edinburgh Castle became the main royal residence of the Scottish kings.  However, the rock dominating the centre of Edinburgh has been inhabited for over 3000 years – and there are the remains of iron age hill forts all around the area.  It’s an easy flight or a train journey – by day or overnight sleeper from Kings Cross, London.

Edinburgh Castle

One of the most visited sites in the UK, Edinburgh Castle sits above the city at the high point of a natural volcanic rock.  The rock runs down from the castle for 1 km towards Holyrood Palace and the Scottish Parliament (the so called ‘Royal Mile’).  James VI of Scotland (who also became King James I of England in 1603) was born in Edinburgh Castle.  Highlights of your visit will be the views over Edinburgh, the Stone of Destiny (upon which all Scottish Kings were crowned since medieval times) and the Honours of Scotland (Scotland’s crown jewels) – the principal items pre-date those of the United Kingdom that were destroyed during England’s Puritan ‘experiment’ of 1649-60.  Also visit St Margaret’s Church, the oldest building in Edinburgh and ‘Mons Meg’ – a 1450 cannon and the largest in Britain – also used to celebrate the marriage of Mary Queen of Scots and the Dauphin (Francis II) of France in 1548.

For ‘refreshments’ head for Victoria Street, the Grassmarket, George Street, The Royal Mile – or Bruntsfield and Morningside to mix with the locals.


The Royal Mile from Edinburgh Castle
The Royal Mile from Edinburgh Castle

The Real Mary King’s Close

Imagine creating foundations using housing in three streets that once came off the Royal Mile, building the Royal Exchange and City Chambers on top and closing off access to the area for 250 years. That is the experience that takes you underground to visit ‘Mary King’s Close’, two additional closes (i.e. streets) and the tenement buildings built in the mid 1600’s – each housing up to eight people per room. These were once bustling city streets in Edinburgh’s old town.

It’s not often that a prime residential space like this is mothballed, allowing us a peak into the untouched past.

The tour is led by actors, each playing a part in the history of the place.


Royal Yacht Britannia

Around 2 km from the centre of Edinburgh, Her Majesty’s Yacht (HMY) Britannia is moored at Ocean Terminal in Leith.  She was operational from 1954 to 1997, playing a key role in building and maintaining the Commonwealth and travelled over 1 million miles whilst in service.  The Yacht would also to be a refuge for the monarchy in time of nuclear war.

The stand out rooms are the State Dining Room and State Drawing Room, helping to explain why a visit on-board was the hottest ticket in town.   The bedrooms are interesting – Charles and Diana spent their honeymoon on board.

The last service for HMY Britannia was a return trip from Hong Kong with the former Governor in 1997 (when UK returned HK to China after our 99 year lease ran out).

This is no ordinary yacht, a point made certain when you see the on-board garage for the shore-based transportation – complete with a Rolls-Royce Phantom V state car.


HMY Britannia State Dining Room
HMY Britannia State Dining Room

By the way, mentioned at the start, the ulterior motive of the 48 hour trip was to watch Scotland play England at rugby at Edinburgh’s Murrayfield Stadium.  It resulted in a 25-13 win for Scotland – the best win against England for ten years!

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