Edinburgh is possibly the most beautiful of all Scottish cities, and holds its own on the worldwide stage also! Each new visit will bring with it new discoveries and experiences…though part of Edinburgh’s charm is of course the traditional, the ancient, and the familiar. In this instalment of our blog, we look forward to sharing with you some of our favourite aspects and sometimes overlooked treasures of Scotland’s capital – the home of HeritageOfScotland!
Edinburgh is very lucky in that it has several beautiful and easily accessed public parks. Among these, Arthur’s Seat is often feted as the best place for a bracing walk in the city, and of course Prince Street Gardens is also popular as a place to enjoy some downtime from shopping. However, our favourite place to rise above the hustle and bustle and provide a good walk combined with the chance to enjoy several historic monuments, is Calton Hill. With its challenging slopes and beautiful views, Calton Hill is very popular amongst locals, who have used this area as freely accessed public land since 1456! It is home to such striking buildings as Nelson’s Monument, and the unfinished National Monument, sometimes also known by nicknames such as Edinburgh’s Folly. For many years the City Observatory also operated here, though this is currently closed for redevelopment the beautiful building can still be seen, and of course the elevated location makes the Hill ideal for even amateur star-gazing.
Another wonderful place to visit and experience a calmer aspect to Edinburgh, is the cities Royal Botanical Gardens, established in 1670 and now offering one of the world’s largest collections of living plants. With scientific research being at the forefront of the developer’s minds, this can be a brilliant educational experience for the whole family, and a great place to let the kids run wild for a few hours chasing squirrels and climbing trees! For the interested but inexperienced botanists, you can even booked guided tours to fully appreciate the beauty contained. This type of event is always best to tackle when the temperamental Scottish weather is co-operating of course, but even if your picnic arrangements go south, there is also a beautiful restaurant offering stunning views, and the adjoining Inverleith House, considered part of the Gardens, offers year round exhibitions by invited artists.
Coming back into the city centre though, let’s now look at some of Edinburgh’s famed architecture. St. Gile’s Cathedral and Holyrood Palace are very different indeed, but both have a rich history and an imposing and impressive aspect on the Edinburgh sky line. St. Gile’s Cathedral is also known as the High Kirk of Edinburgh, and is the principal place of worship for the Church of Scotland in the city. However, no matter your beliefs, this is a truly awesome place to visit, to tour and observe the amazing Gothic architecture, with vaulted ceilings, stained glass windows, and touching memorials. Special effort must be made also to view the Thistle Chapel, a small side chapel dedicated to the famed Order of the Thistle, a prestigious and historical chivalrous society. Further down the Royal Mile, Holyrood Palace is another wonderful example of an historic building still in use, this is the official residence of the Royal Family during their state visits to Scotland – though the Windsors are well known to love Scotland almost as if they were native, and to spend a great deal of time visiting other locations in Scotland also! Offering public tours of both the modern and historic apartments, the grounds including the ruined abbey, and even tales of its own resident ghost, the Palace of Holyroodhouse is second to none in showing how the historical and modern blend seamlessly in Edinburgh, we feel!
Finally today, we will look at one of Edinburgh’s many museums. There are of course literally dozens of public museums and art galleries in the city, small and large, and the ones most often visited are probably the wonderful National Museum of Scotland in Chambers Street, and Our Dynamic Earth near Arthur’s Seat. However, Scotland is famed not only for its kilts, bagpipes and scenery – Scots are also some of the world’s finest poets and writers, and The Writers Museum in Lady Stairs Close celebrates three of these; Sir Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson and Robert Burns, in their permanent collections – but also have frequent events and temporary exhibitions featuring other Scottish writers. This cosy little museum all fits neatly into an historic merchants house which was donated to the city so is also a wonderful trove of architectural features, and a lovely little sitting room upstairs has public access bookshelves so you can enjoy some fine Scottish literature during a break on your visit! This place really is a hidden treasure; even if you don’t have time for a full scale tour around the collections, you should definitely remember to at least search around the adjoining Makars’ Court, and find beautiful stones inscribed with quotes from Scottish writers throughout the ages.
There is so much to see and do in Edinburgh it would be impossible to cover everything in one short article, or even to examine in depth the attractions we have chosen to highlight! From the world renowned Edinburgh Festival and Fringe, to the International Book Festival, even to the Beltane Fire Festival, Military Tattoo, and Hogmany street parties – Edinburgh is a vibrant and larger-than-life city and you will never be bored there! Let us know in the comments your favourite aspect to this beautiful city – or if you would like more information about one of the topics discussed here let us know and we will do our best to come up with a blog post about it very soon!
After an enjoyable weekend at the Cowal Highland Gathering a few weeks ago, we thought now would be the perfect time to discuss the wonderful tradition of Scottish Highland Games, how they have changed over the centuries, and how they continue to contribute to the culture of this vibrant and modern nation, passionate to celebrate and share their heritage worldwide!
Highland Games have been a part of the Scottish life since before recorded history – though some say they originated in the Ireland around 2000 BC, crossing over to Scotland with the fourth and fifth century migrations of the Scotti people. The Braemar Games are known to have been among the first, in 1040, to formalise the events which took place, with the athletic challenges being used by King Malcolm III as a way to gather up Scotsmen and have them compete in feats of strength and speed to best select soldiers and couriers from among the clans. During Proscription of course, the Games were banned completely, but they received a resurrection during the Victorian era, along with a UK-wide craze for all things kilted and Scottish, and have remained popular ever since.
Nowadays, for most of us, the Games is just a fun day out with the family and an ideal excuse to perfect our casual or traditional kilt outfit – however, for Scottish athletes, dancers and musicians, the Highland Games are still a vitally important part of their training and careers. Highland Games can represent a place to prove themselves at a national, or even international, level, and continue on proudly with the traditions of their ancestors, while also representing a place for older people or Scottish emigrants to reminisce about their own kiltie upbringing and introduce these traditions to the new generations!
Athletic competitions still make up the core of Highland Games to this day, and though the exact events will vary from one Games to the next, some have become expected to feature at any Highland Games. The caber toss, is one of the best known, but the intricacies of the challenge are not always fully understood by casual observers. In this event, the stripped trunk of a Scots Pine is held vertically by the narrowest end by a single competitor, who then runs and tosses the caber into the air – with the aim of having it flip in mid-air and land vertically on the thickest end, whereupon it should then fall directly away from the competitor. Participants are judged on how successful their execution of this move is, and also on the overall length and weight of their selected caber (as this can vary widely from one trunk to another). The Scottish stone put and hammer throw events also appear frequently, and are usually familiar to attendees, as they are extremely similar to the modern versions of these events seen at the Olympics Games, but there are other more unique challenges also.
One of these, the sheaf toss, has a degree of controversy to its inclusion at Highland Games, as some people feel that as a common country fair event it is not uniquely Scottish enough to deserve a place at traditional Games, however it is very popular and is not likely to disappear any time soon! In this, a bundle of straw weighing 20 pounds for male competitors, and 10 pounds for women, is wrapped in a burlap bag and tossed vertically with a pitchfork over a raised bar, with each participant having three tries at each height. In each round the successful competitors from the previous round will attempt to throw the sheaf over a higher bar, until a winner remains.
The final feat of athletic strength we will look at is the Maide Leisg, The Lazy Stick, in Gaelic. In this two competitors sit on the ground facing one another with the feet pressed together. A strong stick is held by both of them, and the competitors pull on the stick until one of them is raised off the ground by the strength of his opponent. This game is particularly popular, as any well matched pair has a chance of a fun game trying to copy the athletes with little risk of injury as compared to some of the feats of strength and fortitude on show!
But of course, the Highland Games are not just about watching the athletes, Highland Dancing is a massively popular event as well, and many Games will have displays of dancing, or even competitions which the public can watch! The Cowal Gathering, for example, hosts the World Highland Dancing Championship each year to find the World Championship Highland Dancers of three ages groups, attracting dancers from around the world. Evidence suggests that Highland dancing began as sword dances performed by Highland warriors many centuries ago, indeed these war-like roots can still be seen today in dances such as the Bruicheath (Battle Dance) and the Highland Dirk Dance, and the combination of dexterity and strength required of the dancers can be thrilling to watch!
Music is also a popular part of the Games, and the massing of the pipe bands is very traditional, usually taking place at the opening and closing ceremonies of each Highland Games. These bands will also compete against one another during the Games itself, and other musical competitions will take place between smaller ensembles or solo pipers and drummers. Scottish and Celtic music makes up a large portion of the non-competitive entertainment as well of course, with fiddlers, harpists and singers all commonly attending. General entertainment may also include displays by clan societies, mock battles staged by historical role-playing groups, or exhibitions of traditional Highland weaponry, and perhaps even a traditional ceilidh with Scottish country dancing for all! Traditional food and clothing vendors are of course very popular too, and Highland Games can turn into a bit of a fashion show with attendees running the gamut from modern Utility style kilts with T-shirt and boots, to very traditional gentlemen displaying their classic day wear finery of tweed jackets, belts and waist-plates, tartan wool kilts and neatly turned out hose and brogues. Whatever your own personal style, you’re sure to find one perfect accessory you can’t resist!
So, as we come to the end of this year’s Highland Games season, I hope this post has allowed you to reminisce about some favourite moments from this summer, or inspired you to find a local Games to attend next year! Let us know in the comments if you have a special Highland Games moment you would like to share!