London has Hyde Park, New York Central Park and Paris the Bois de Vincennes. Edinburgh has the equally impressive Holyrood Park . There are acres of green space sitting proudly surrounded by the hustle and bustle of urban life, with the city streets unfurled around them. These are places where residents and visitors can go for a weekend stroll, office workers can go for a lunchtime jog and families can lay out a picnic on a summer’s day.
Edinburgh, Scotland’s capital city, is no different with its own wide-open space set within the city boundaries. Yet for many visitors to Edinburgh, the delights of Holyrood Park are unknown. Instead they flock to the well-known sites along the Royal Mile or taken in fabulous shopping on Prince’s Street. When venturing to the eastern end of the Royal Mile to visit the Scottish Parliament or Holyrood Palace, they may be oblivious to the little piece of countryside hidden just around the corner.
Yet Holyrood Park is no normal municipal park. There are no elaborate gardens with colourful flower beds. There are no tinkling fountains as a reminder of when it might have been a pleasure ground for the nobility. There are no boating lakes where you can lay back floating on the water with an ice-cream in hand. This park is a wild and rugged landscape of hills and crags, with a fascinating history, that rewards further exploration.
Edinburgh has a mini mountain
Most visitors will head towards Arthur’s Seat, a large volcanic plug, that dominates not just the park but the whole city skyline. It is a diminutive 251 metres in height but the steep paths, leading to the sharp rocky summit, gives it a real mountainous feeling. You are rewarded with a panoramic view of Edinburgh, the surrounding Lothian countryside and across the waters of the Firth of Forth to the Kingdom of Fife.
No two days are the same on the summit. I’ve spent one day in a howling gale as grey rain-leaden clouds skid across the sky. And the very next sat in basking sunshine and short sleeves. So, go prepared for a sudden change in weather conditions. From the summit you will appreciate why this is the site of a Dark Age fort. It is a perfect location for a strong fortification – there are three other such sites scattered across the park. Archaeological finds of stone and flint tools suggest human activity here dating back to 5,000BC.
The hill’s fiery past is remembered in the legend that it is the resting place of a fierce dragon that terrorised the villagers in this area. The dragon snatched children and livestock as tasty morsels. This continued until growing too fat and lazy, the dragon settled on the summit of the hill never to move again. Eventually it was transformed into the stony summit we see today.
A radical history of revolutionaries and scientists
You can walk in the footsteps of industrial revolutionaries or gentlemen geologists beneath the mighty Salisbury Crags. The long diagonal footpath that shoots up below the crags is known as the Radical Road. Built at the suggestion of the Scottish novelist Sir Walter Scott. Its construction kept a group of rabble-rousing weavers, who had led a National Strike demanding better pay and housing conditions, occupied. It was an attempt to turn their thoughts away from further revolutionary uprising. One of the fathers of the modern science of geology, James Hutton, saw the momentous processes that formed the landscape of Earth appear before him in the rock formations of the crags themselves.
Follow in the footsteps of monks…
Elsewhere, you can discover the park’s religious and royal links. It has been linked to the nearby Holyrood Palace, and the older Abbey, for at least a thousand years. At one time the land was owned by both Holyrood and Kelso Abbeys. There are two holy wells located in the park. These must have attracted pilgrims or those seeking their healing properties from many miles around. The evocative medieval ruins of St Anthony’s Chapel perched above St Margaret’s Loch provides a stunning photo opportunity. Or just the chance to clamber among its weathered stones and sit to complentate the view.
…and in the footsteps of royalty
Look carefully. You may see the remnants of a wall encircling the park, a stretch here and a few metres there. It’s a reminder that this was a royal pleasure ground. A stone wall built on the orders of James V in the 1500’s formed an enclosure allowing the Stuart monarchs to enjoy hunting whilst staying at the adjacent palace. During the period when Queen Victoria, and her consort Prince Albert, led a revival in all things Scottish, parts of the park were landscaped. Then new roads laid and artificial lochs introduced. Fortunately, the Victorianisation did not ruin the inherent wild appeal that the park still has to this day.
There’s so much to explore within the 650 acres of the park, which is just a stone’s throw from the city centre. It’s definitely worth a walk on the wild side.
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Arthur's Seat (Journeys and evocations) by Stuart McHardy provides many stories about the folklore and mysteries surrounding this iconic hill.
Fairy Trails Of Arthur's Seat: Maps, Trails & Tales of Edinburgh's Hill by Tartan Outlaw is a short Kindle book with good hand-drawn maps showing the various trails through the park alongside the associated tale.
And if you are after a map of the area – not that I think you will need one – I recommend the OS Explorer Map for the Edinburgh area.