Beyond the whisky


Beyond the whisky

The moment the word ‘Scotland’ is uttered, what first strikes many people’s mind is whisky! It’s a big part of Scottish life, culture and economy, and surely acts as a tourism cliché for some. But no need for teetotallers to get disappointed. The destination has many other things to offer, many of them regal splendours, particularly when visiting Edinburgh, which has been home to the region’s kings and queens for over a millennium.

So, like London, Edinburgh is packed with royal memorabilia, most of which are tucked in a mile-long section famously known as the Royal Mile. Located in the Old Town sector of Edinburgh, this UNESCO World Heritage site is unquestionably the first stop for all visitors.

At one end of the stretch is the 12th century Edinburgh Castle. Sitting on the basalt core of an extinct volcano, this medieval citadel is a proud symbol of Scotland’s royal and military heritage. Comprising several buildings, it’s a complex that has served, over centuries, different purposes — from being a fortress and palace to a military garrison and state prison. Many royals lived here until the 16th century, most notable being Mary, Queen of Scots, who gave birth to James VI here, who later ruled England and Ireland as James I.

Inside the vaults

Her living quarters are now open for public viewing. The Great Hall displays arms and armours while the Crown Room vaults wealth of treasures including the Honours of Scotland, comprising the crown, sceptre and the sword that once adorned a Scottish monarch. The other notable exhibit in the Crown Room is the Stone of Destiny, a relic of ancient Scottish rulers that was seized by the English and returned only two decades ago. The oldest building in the complex is St Margaret’s Chapel, which is still used for weddings and baptism. Because of its small size, guest numbers are limited to 20, but many locals still prefer the venue to earn prestige by associating their special occasions with royalty.

At the other end of Royal Mile stands the Palace of Holyrood. Built on the grounds of a 15th century abbey, it’s a great venue to catch up on Scotland’s regal lifestyle during its heyday. Many monarchs have marked their footsteps here, however, the spirit of Mary, Queen of Scots, haunts the most. Legend says it was here she saw the brutal murder of her trusted Italian secretary David Rizzio, conspired by her jealous husband Lord Darnley.

Currently, it’s the official residence of Queen Elizabeth when in town.

In between the two key sites, the fishbone-patterned Royal Mile is home to many little-altered medieval buildings which include the well-known St Giles’ Cathedral, Old Parliament House, National Museum of Scotland, The Writers’ Museum and the Camera Obscura building from the top of which the bird’s-eye view of the neighbourhood is breathtaking. Anything one can think of Scottish can be found in this strip — from kilt, tartans and Harris Tweed jackets to eateries serving the national dish haggis (a kind of savoury pudding that combines meat with oatmeal, onions, salt and spices) and an array of pubs pouring the best of whiskies. Visitors keen to know more about the golden spirit and taste a few exotic samples tour the Scotch Whisky Heritage Centre located close to the castle entrance.

Make way for the new town

Towards the end of the 18th century, the Old Town surrounding the Royal Mile turned overcrowded. As a result, New Town came into existence. It’s equally attractive with its spread of broad streets, expansive squares and world-class Georgian urban architecture. One of Edinburgh’s illustrious pathways, Princess Street, separates the old and the new quarters. This thoroughfare is packed with gardens, shopping outlets, art galleries and a plethora of restaurants, cafes and bars. Visitors regularly drop in there to meet kilt-wearing locals, hear Scottish jokes and listen to the melodious bagpipes music while sipping on single-malt whiskies. Waverly Station, the city’s main train stop, towering Scott Monument and Balmoral Hotel (famous for its clock tower) are all close by. Legend says that the hotel clock once set two minutes faster than the actual time to hurry passengers.

Incidentally, this Balmoral Hotel is now a place of pilgrimage for Harry Potter fans worldwide. It’s in this hotel that author J K Rowling finished her final Harry Potter book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. The room where she stayed has now been converted into a suite bearing her name, and contains her writing desk and a marble bust of Hermes, the Greek god of travel, signed by Rowling herself.

There is something for everyone in Edinburgh, even for cultural buffs. Every year in August, Edinburgh hosts a major arts event that draws attention from around the globe. It includes many performances­ — from musical soirées and dance routines to dramas, theatre, comedy shows, cabarets, operas, and even circus. It’s a great time to be in the city, provided accommodation has been arranged well in advance.

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