Edinburgh is a beautiful city. It’s got food, it’s got shopping, it’s got history, it’s got museums, it’s got literature, and it’s got looks. It’s a very well-rounded city. Sometimes, though, you need a break from the hustle and bustle of big cities, even one as diverse as Edinburgh. Luckily for people of this disposition, Edinburgh is diverse enough to have a solution in store for them.
The Holy Rood
If you find yourself in Edinburgh, chances are you’ll visit the beautiful and wonderfully historical Holyroodhouse, or Holyrood Palace. Holyroodhouse used to be on the outskirts of the city. It was in a quiet, forested area, popular with the royals as hunting grounds.
The story goes that one day, one of the royals was out hunting on the grounds. Suddenly, a wild stag went on a rampage. The crazed deer was about to charge the young royal, when a cross miraculously appeared between the stag’s antlers. The young prince grabbed the cross, the deer ran away, and he was left with a piece of the Holy Cross – the cross upon which Jesus died – in his hands.
He founded a monastery on the site of this miraculous delivery, and named it after his saving grace: Holyrood Monastery. (rood is the Old English word for cross; ergo, the name of the monastery is Holy Cross, after the cross that appeared above the deer.) The monastery was such a lovely, quiet, remote place that the royal family of Scotland later built themselves a palace nearby. This being the more pleasant abode, they lived there instead of Edinburgh Castle. Aptly, they named their house Holyroodhouse after the monastery. To this day, it’s still the official residence of Her Majesty the Queen when she’s in Scotland.
Holyroodhouse has lovely gardens, which are well worth taking a stroll through. However, it’s the park behind the palace grounds that provides the true solace for the city-tired traveler.
Holyrood Park is in the middle of the city of Edinburgh, much in the same way Central Park is in the center of New York City. That is, it used to be way the heck out in the boonies, but due to urban expansion, it now serves as a pastoral retreat for city dwellers. On one tour through Edinburgh, I was informed that Holyrood Park is slightly smaller than Central Park. However, there’s a dormant volcano in the middle, which makes it taller than Central Park. This seems to be a point of pride with the people of Edinburgh.
Along one side of the mountain is the Salisbury Crags. According to another tour guide, Queen Victoria, during one of her stays at Holyroodhouse, was particularly annoyed with the Duke of Salisbury. She made a jab that the side of the mountain was ‘as craggy as Salisbury’s soul.’ At this point my tour guide pointed out that “Queen Victoria was amused sometimes.” The Internet disputes this particular etymology, but I rather enjoy it.
King Arthur in Edinburgh
Above the Salisbury Crags, though, is a more impressive viewing point. The top of the mountain is called Arthur’s Seat. In addition to being absolutely beautiful to look at – and difficult to climb – Arthur’s Seat is connected to the very man, King Arthur himself. At least, if you put any stock in the local lore it is.
According to one story, King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table climbed this mountain in order to get a better perspective of an ongoing battle below. According to another story, this mountain was the location of the actual Round Table. That’s right, you could climb a mountain in Edinburgh and (maybe) stand on what’s left of the legendary Round Table! (Note: The people of Wales dispute this strongly – we may never know where Camelot actually was!)
When I climbed Arthur’s Seat, I was a bit unprepared for the whole experience. Luckily, I had worn good walking shoes, but I had also simply stopped at the park on my way to another attraction. I thought, hey, forty-five minutes or an hour in the park would be a nice break. Besides, a friend told me that the views from Arthur’s Seat were spectacular. He told me it was a ‘little outcropping.’ That turned out to be a bit of an understatement, but the views were everything that was promised and more.
How could you resist snapping a picture of that view? Lovely green hills, a beautiful city, and deep blue water in the background. Shopping bags in one hand, a camera in the other, short of breath, hair going every which way, and I took in the splendor of Edinburgh from the top of a mountain fit for a king.
Visiting Holyroodhouse Palace:
Getting there: Holyroodhouse is situated at the bottom of the Royal Mile, literally one (Scottish) mile down the street from Edinburgh Castle. You can walk to it from any point in Old Town. It’s also well-serviced by bus routes.
Admission: Tickets can be purchased for either the palace or for both the palace and the art gallery.
- Adults: £16.50 / £21.90
- Concessions: £14.90 / 19.20
- Children: £9.50 / £12
- 1 November to 31 March: 9:30 am – 4:30 pm, with last entry at 3:15 pm
- 1 April to 31 October: 9:30 am – 6 pm, with last entry at 4:30 pm
Good to know: Please note that this is a real royal palace, and sometimes the queen needs to use it – be sure to check that it will be open to the public on the day you want to visit!