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Edinburgh's Murky Secrets

A stroll through the atmospheric streets of Edinburgh's Old Town.

Distance 2 miles (3.2km)

Minimum time 1hr

Ascent/gradient 197ft (60m)

Level of difficulty Easy

Paths City streets, some hill tracks

Landscape Atmospheric ancient city and brooding castle

Suggested map AA Street by Street Edinburgh

Start/finish NT 256739

Dog friendliness Keep on lead, watch paws don't get trodden on by crowds

Parking Several NCP car parks in Edinburgh

Public toilets At Waverley Station


© AA Media Limited 2015. © Crown Copyright Licence number 100021153

1 From the main entrance to Waverley Station, turn left, go to the end of the street, then cross over and walk up Cockburn Street to the Royal Mile, where you turn left and walk downhill. Continue to the black gates of Holyroodhouse. Turn right and walk to face the new Parliament visitor centre.

2 Turn left and follow the road to the right, then turn right again past Dynamic Earth (the building looks like a huge white woodlouse) and walk up into Holyrood Road. Turn left, walk past the new buildings of The Scotsman, and walk up to St Mary's Street, where you turn right and rejoin the Royal Mile. Were you to continue ahead you would join the Cowgate, some parts of which were devastated by fire in December 2002.

3 Turn left, stroll to the main road, then turn left along South Bridge. When you reach Chambers Street turn right and walk past the museums. At the end of the road, cross and turn left to see the little statue of Greyfriars Bobby, the dog that refused to leave this spot after his master died.

4 You can now cross the road and make the short detour into Greyfriars Kirk to see where Greyfriars Bobby is buried close to his master. Or simply turn right and walk down Candlemaker Row. At the bottom, turn left and wander into the atmospheric Grassmarket - once the haunt of Burke and Hare, it's now filled with shops and lively restaurants.

5 When you've explored the Grassmarket, walk up winding Victoria Street (it says West Bow at the bottom). About two thirds of the way up look out for a flight of steps hidden away on the left. Climb them and when you emerge at the top, walk ahead at the top to join the Royal Mile again.

6 Turn left to walk up and visit the castle. Then walk down the Royal Mile again, taking a peek into the dark wynds (alleyways) that lead off it. You eventually pass St Giles' Cathedral on your right, which is well worth a visit.

7 Next on your left you pass the City Chambers (under which lie mysterious Mary King's Close). Continue until you reach the junction with Cockburn Street. Turn left and walk back down this winding street. At the bottom, cross the road and return to the entrance to Waverley Station.

Edinburgh is often thought of as an extremely respectable, rather genteel city. But as you'll find out in this walk through the city's ancient heart - the medieval Old Town - it has a darker, more mysterious side to its nature.

The Old Town was the original city and was enclosed by city walls, which protected it from the ravages of conflict - but also stopped it from expanding. This meant that as the population grew, the city became increasingly overcrowded - and was at one time the most densely populated city in Europe. The only solution was to build upwards. People lived in towering tenements known as 'lands', with the wealthy taking the rooms at the bottom, the poorer classes living at the top. Its main street, the Royal Mile, became a complicated maze of narrow 'wynds' or alleyways, which gradually deteriorated into a slum. Cleanliness wasn't a priority and residents habitually threw their rubbish into the street - as well as the contents of their chamber pots. When Dr Johnson stayed in the city with his friend James Boswell, he wrote that they had been 'assailed by the evening effluvia' while walking home from a tavern one night.

Eventually the tenements became so overcrowded that the decision was made to burrow into the soft sandstone beneath the Royal Mile and create a new network of underground streets and dwellings. It was a subterranean slum. People lived here until the 19th century, when social reforms finally improved conditions in the Old Town and many of the tunnels were sealed. Gradually the secret city disappeared from memory. It wasn't until late in the 20th century that one of these old habitations was opened to the public. Called Mary King's Close, it is full of atmosphere and, as you might expect, is said to be haunted.

There are more dark secrets in the Grassmarket, where the body-snatchers Burke and Hare used to lure their victims before murdering them. They then sold the bodies to a local surgeon who used them in his research. Then there was Deacon Brodie, the seemingly respectable town councillor who had a secret nocturnal life as a criminal and gambler - and was eventually hanged. He was the inspiration for Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr Jekyll - who turned into Mr Hyde, the vicious werewolf, at night. With a history and atmosphere like this, it is hardly surprising that crime writer Ian Rankin sets his Inspector Rebus novels in Edinburgh. He often uses gory historical events in his tales, and has plenty to choose from - even an act of cannibalism which took place in the old Scottish Parliament (Set in Darkness, 2000). As Rankin says of Edinburgh - 'It's a very secretive place.

While you're there

Edinburgh Castle dominates the city. Built on an volcano plug, it dates back to the 12th century, although there was a hill fort there long before that. You can see the Honours of Scotland here, the name given to the Scottish Crown Jewels, as well as the Stone of Destiny. The castle was the birthplace of Mary, Queen of Scots' son James - who became James VI of Scotland and later James I of England.

Where to eat and drink

You're spoilt for choice in the city. There are lots of atmospheric pubs dotted around the Old Town so you certainly won't get thirsty. If you prefer tea and cake then try Plaisir du Chocolat (they've got umpteen types of hot chocolate and gorgeous cakes) or Clarinda's, an excellent traditional tea shop - both at the Holyrood end of the Royal Mile. Also good is Elephant House, a relaxed, studenty café on George IV Bridge.

What to look for

It's well worth stopping to explore St Giles' Cathedral, the main cathedral in Scotland. It was here that John Knox launched the Reformation in Scotland. Look out for the plaque to Jenny Geddes, who threw a stool at the minister during a service. She was furious because he had tried to introduce the English prayer book into Scottish services.


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