Edinburgh Castle sits 80 meters (260 ft) above Old Town Edinburgh on top of Castle Rock. Fortress walls encircle the edge of the imposing cliffs of this historic castle. The Royal Mile on the east is the only entry point.
Our train passed under the shadow of a cliff as it entered Old Town Edinburgh. I looked up to the top of an old volcanic plug and saw fortress walls lining the top of a looming monolith. It was the first time I set eyes on Edinburgh castle. As far as first glimpses go, this is one of the more arresting ones. It sits prominently with such grandeur, daring you to ignore it.
A Memorial to Die for
We disembarked from the train at the Waverly Train Station. As we emerged to street level, our eyes were immediately drawn to the towering memorial to Sir Walter Scott, author of the Waverly novels.
The monument stands over 200 feet high and is the second-largest monument to a writer in the world. In 1838, 46 of the most skilled masons were hired to carve the detailed artwork displayed within the stone monument. Half of the masons died from inhalation of the sandstone dust. Before the final inauguration of the monument, its architect and designer, George Meikle Kemp, fell into the canal and drowned. Today, the intricate gothic design and natural beauty of the sandstone are muted beneath a layer of black soot.
The Royal Mile
From the Scott Memorial, we wandered through the Princes Street Gardens. Old Town is dominated by the fortress on top of Castle Rock, but even more impressive was the Royal Mile.
The Royal Mile is lined with tall historic buildings that lead up to the east side of Castle Rock. For centuries this Scottish mile has been the procession route for kings and queens. It connects Edinburgh Castle to Holyrood Palace at the other end.
With its cobbled streets and medieval buildings, walking the Royal Mile feels like walking down a time warp. A man dressed in tartan and kilt plays the bagpipes in front of the High Court building. A couple, he garbed in a sharp-looking tuxedo, and she in a flowing wedding gown, walks down the middle of the royal mile, while strangers cheer and congratulate them as they complete their procession. We got the impression that this is an everyday occurrence.
Stone Destined for Edinburgh Castle
Castle Rock has been occupied since at least 600 B.C. or earlier and it has been used as a royal castle for 900 years.
The Stone of Destiny is an ancient sacred stone in Scottish history. It is used for the coronations of monarchs. Its origin is unknown, but in 1296 King Edward I of England seized the stone and moved it to London.
In 1950, four Scottish students removed the stone from Westminster on Christmas Day and returned it to Edinburgh. The stone was finally officially returned to Scotland in 1996.
Calton Hill just north of Holyrood Palace is a great place to climb above Old Town and view the Edinburgh skyline. Also visible from Caltn Hill is the escarpment named Arthur’s Seat that rises just behind Holyrood Palace.
Sir Aurthur’s Seat is a beautiful grassy hike along a cliffside directly in the middle of the city.
Castle in the Skye
A month later and 230 miles northwest we found ourselves in an entirely different kind of castle on the Isle of Skye. This one, not made by human hands, stands taller and is more mysterious.
In our first attempt to hike the Quiraing trail, we had to start on the north end of the Isle of Skye because of road closures. Pictures of the north end are in our “Spectacular Scotland” article.
The trail starting from the Quiraing road was even more magnificent. The path begins high on the side of mountains that rise from the sea (as seen in the feature image). The trail cuts midway across the steep mountain slope that overlooks Lock Leum an Luirginn and the River Brogaig flowing to the ocean visible to the east.
The day was forecasted to be rain-free and cloud-free. We knew that it was our best chance to get some sunshine, maybe. A clear sky in Scotland can seemingly turn overcast in moments.
As we rounded the mountainside the pinnacles of the table above and the spire called The Needle came into view.
Just below the needle, the trail wound steeply up to the mountain top. Frigid gusts of wind chilled us through our layers and roared in our ears. I clung to the grasses beside the trail as I pulled myself up the steep narrow path.
Near the base of the basalt towers, a narrow crevice opened. We pulled ourselves up over a giant step and squeezed through to the other side. Silence descended around us. Sound and wind were blocked by the black walls rising around us like a castle. Even our footsteps were muted by the spongy moss, a royal carpet laid out for those who make the effort to scramble up. Narrow gaps between the natural spires are windows that yield views of the sea outside this castle in the Skye.
There are places in this world that have taken our breath away – caves that were once thought to be enchanted, cerulean blue waters of Esperance, the spires of Torres Del Paine, or the remote pristine bays of South Georgia and clear ice in Antarctica. And now the Isle of Skye has taken its rightful place among the litany of majestic locations that fill us with overwhelming beauty. All are gifts designed to bring us joy.