I am a huge lover of British and Scottish history. I love the Medieval history, the art and the Royal stories of these places. My son shares this love with me. Nothing is more exciting to a 12 years old boy than knights, battles and castles. Since I am a guide at The Cloisters, the Medieval building of The Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC, the Middle Ages is a period I adore. Needless to say, we were both excited to plan a trip to explore Medieval sights and Scottish history. So, we packed our bags and headed to Edinburgh, Scotland for four days.
The Balmoral Hotel
The Balmoral Hotel is the place to stay! It combines luxury, history, and art. This Rocco Forte Hotel sits right between Edinburgh’s Medieval Old Town and New Town. The view of Edinburgh Castle and the Old Town from this grand hotel is gorgeous! The hotel is a landmark in itself located on prestigious Prince Street. The location is perfect for exploring all that Edinburgh has to offer. The building began as a large railway hotel. (The train station is located a short walk away.) The historic building along with its grand clock are an indelible part of the skyline.
More than just a historic location, The Balmoral provides the ultimate in luxury, Scottish style. Rooms are spacious and fashionably decorated. If you are a Harry Potter fan, request the JK Rowling Suite. Rowling finished writing the Harry Potter Book, The Deathly Hallows, in this suite. The room contains her writing desk, a marble bust of Hermes, the God of Travel (which Rowling signed), and a brass owl as the door knocker.
The hotel features several restaurants including one that serves a delicious afternoon tea. We loved Hardrian’s, a fun brasserie which presents a lighter fare of classic dishes as well as Scottish favorites. For a fine dining experience, enjoy a dinner at Number One, the hotel's one Michelin Star restaurant. It has received one Michelin Star for the past 14 years. In addition to spectacular food, you will be wowed by the art decorating the walls. A large triptych print of a Scottish Oak Tree by Adam Ellis and artwork from the Royal College of Art in London are displayed throughout the restaurant. The food and art make for an incredible dining experience. The Philosophy Spa, features a pool, gym, and an extensive list of spa services. Nice way to end a long day of sightseeing! The Balmoral provides the ultimate in luxury and sophistication with a marvelous Scottish flair. Staying at the Balmoral is a wonderful experience.
The most obvious sight to see in Edinburgh is the castle fortress. Nestled high above part of the city, the castle dominates the skyline. It doesn’t disappoint! When you arrive at the entrance located at the end of the Royal Mile, you are immediately transported to the Middle Ages. The castle complex houses many different buildings. The must-see buildings include St. Margaret’s Chapel (built in the 12th century and the oldest building in Scotland), the Royal Palace and the Great Hall. Don’t miss the Scottish Crown jewels (the crown, scepter, and sword of state) which are on display as well as the Stone of Destiny. This stone has been used since the 14th century to knight kings of Scotland and later, the monarchs of the United Kingdom. Walking around castle rock also affords you spectacular views of the city. You can imagine the castle soldiers peering through the battlements for enemy invaders.
Old Town is the oldest part of Edinburgh. The Medieval street plan is so well preserved and centered on the Royal Mile. This main road slopes steeply down from Edinburgh Castle to Holyrood Palace. Walking the “Mile” follows in the footsteps of kings, queens, knights, nobles and peasants of many past centuries. You will truly feel like you have stepped back in time.
St. Giles Cathedral occupies a prominent spot on the Royal Mile. From most locations in Edinburgh, the towering, crown-like peak of this Gothic cathedral is visible. The Gothic stalls have canopies with the coat of arms of 16 knights. The proper name for the cathedral is actually the High Kirk of Edinburgh. It has been an important place in the Church of Scotland for over 900 years. St. Giles is the patron saint of Edinburgh as well as of cripples and lepers. During the Middle Ages, Giles was a very popular saint. The oldest part of the church dates to the late 14th century and was restored in the 19th century. During the Reformation, Protestant leader John Knox was named its minister. The church is sometimes referred to as the “Mother Church of Presbyterianism.” Make sure to check out The Thistle Chapel built in 1911. The chapel and its ceiling were built for The Most Ancient and Most Noble Order of the Thistle, Scotland’s famous Order of Chivalry. The order was found in 1687 by King James VII and still exists today. Only the monarch can appoint someone to the order.
Real Mary King’s Close is a spooky but cool tour to go on. A close is the Scottish term for an alley way. There are many located off the Royal Mile. They are incredibly narrow and typically surrounded by tall buildings. Most slope downward allowing for water and waste to flow out of the Old Town. This crazy underground labyrinth is built under the 18th century City Chambers. Costumed educators guide tours through a 16th century plague stricken home as well as a 17th century home of a grave digger. This 250 years old underground area is so well preserved since it had been sealed off when the City Chambers were built. Be prepared for scary stories and the dark!
The Writer’s Museum is located at the Lady Stairs House and Close. The house built in 1622 is a cool little museum to visit. It presents the lives of three important Scottish writers: Robert Burns, Walter Scott, and Robert Louis Stevenson. The collection includes personal artifacts and other works. It doesn’t take long to see the whole museum but the winding staircase and architectural features of the house are so intriguing!
Harry Potter Locations
J.K Rowling wrote most of the Harry Potter Books in Edinburgh. The city’s influence on the stories is obvious as you walk around. Look for these spots around the city. Visit The Elephant House and The Spoon, two small cafés where Rowling wrote the books over coffee and cake. Take a scroll through Greyfriar’s Graveyard, directly below The Elephant House which was the inspiration for Tom Riddle’s graveyard. Pause at the gate of George Heriot’s School, which stands just beyond the graveyard. Looking at this school you will feel like you have just transported to Hogwarts. Rowling based the Hogwart’s house system on the house system of Heriot’s. Finish your walk by traveling down Victoria Street, also just below The Elephant House. This curved street is the original Diagon Alley. Rowling transformed the shops here into the magical shopping street of Harry Potter world.
The Royal Yacht Brittania
For anyone who is a lover of boats or a lover of the Royal Family this is a MUST visit! Her Majesty’s Royal Yacht Britannia is Queen Elisabeth II's former yacht. The Queen loved Britannia so much she often said it was where she truly relaxed. It was in service from 1954 until 1997. The yacht is the 83rd boat to be in service to the Royal Family since 1660 when King Charles II ascended the throne. The boat is 412 feet long with three masts. It is a gorgeous boat. The Britannia is moored in the Port of Leith, a short ride from the Balmoral. Its a very easy to tour the yacht. A guided audio tour is available to each visitor. It’s easy to follow and provides excellent descriptions of the rooms and different areas. The tour takes visitors through the various decks highlighting the Bridge, The State Apartments, the crew areas, and the engine room. It is a mini city! It’s really cool to walk though out the rooms and hallways that The Queen, the Royal Family, and notably dignitaries like Winston Churchill roamed. Before your visit, make a reservation for tea in the Royal Deck Tea Room. The scones and tea were delicious!
Renting a car can be a challenge for anyone who doesn’t normally drive in the United Kingdom. But it is worth the trip to visit Stirling. (Of course, you can hire a guide and driver too!) We decided to explore on our own. The hour drive from Edinburgh to Stirling is very easy.
Battle of Bannockburn
Our first stop was the Bannockburn Battlefield. Normally, I stay away from seeing an empty field that was once a bloody battlefield. Bannockburn, however, is amazing.
First a little history. The Battle of Bannockburn occurred in June 1314. It was a pivotal battle in the 1st war of Independence in Scotland. Stirling Castle, the Scottish Royal fortress, was under siege from the English troops led by King Edward II. A small group of Scots were led by Robert the Bruce, King of Scots. The English troops were 3 times the amount of the Scots. This battle was unique in that it actually lasted 2 days; typical medieval battles were much shorter. The Scots were able to defeat the English due to their knowledge of the land and outmaneuvering the English troops. The large English troops and their formation style of fighting had no room to maneuver in the terrain. The Scots fierce fighting resulted in many English deaths and King Edward II retreating. This decisive battle allowed the Scots to hold onto Stirling Castle. Robert Bruce’s victory still inspires ideas of freedom and patriotism in Scotland today.
The visitor center provides several great activities. One room allows people to try on armor, shields, and clothing that would have been worn by the Scots in 1314. From that room, we entered a large space surrounded by screens and weapons. A 3-D film helps to bring the battle to life. Visitors feel like they are a part of the action- what it felt like to prepare for battle and to be on the battlefield. This led us to the battle room, where a strategic war game is played. Each person is assigned a country (we were Scots!) and gets to make a move in a simulation battle of Bannockburn. The outcome depends on the visitors. Tickets for this are timed so must be bought in advance. This was such a cool experience!!
The National Wallace Monument
William Wallace is a national hero in Scotland. This landmark commemorates his life and is set on an overlook that gazes at the scene of his greatest victory at the Battle of Stirling 1297. There are several exhibits in the building but the real treat is climbing to the Crown at the top of the monument. The views are gorgeous!
Stirling Castle is one of Scotland’s most important historical centers. It was a royal residence as well as fortress for many centuries. Countless Scottish kings and queens lived here, died here and were crowned here including Mary, Queen of Scots in 1542. The castle was under siege at least 8 times, the last being in 1746. Today the castle is an extraordinary place to visit. The castle can be a bit overwhelming because it has so much to offer. The Royal Palace is essential to see. The décor today brings a visitor back to the 1500s when King James V was king and Mary Queen of Scots was a child. Following along a self-guided tour of the rooms, costumed educators talk with visitors and discuss life in the castle. After visiting the palace, stop into The Chapel Royal, one of the last royal buildings created by King James VI in 1593. The Palace Vaults offers a unique perspective and has interactive activities (excellent for kids!)
But by far my most favorite part of visiting Stirling Castle was the The Stirling Tapestries. As a Medieval guide, I love the famous Unicorn Tapestries exhibited at the Cloisters. The Stirling Tapestries are based loosely on the Cloister set. During the 1500s tapestries were an important art form. Royals and nobles loved to have tapestries in their castles for several reasons- for warmth, for decoration and as a symbol of their wealth. In the 1500s, King James V had many tapestries made for Stirling Castle. In the castle logs, a set of tapestries detailing the Unicorn Hunt is listed. Present day Stirling Castle decided to commission a set of Unicorn Tapestries to hang in the renovated Queen’s Royal Chamber. The project took a total of 13 years. Each tapestry took about 2 years to complete. Weavers used the medieval methods of weaving. A cartoon (or drawing) was made copying each of the Cloister tapestries. This was then placed under the loom and the weaving was done accordingly. The finished tapestries now hang in the renovated Royal Palace in the Queen’s Inner Hall. It was incredible for both of us to see these knowing the originals so well.
For any lover of the Middle Ages, Royal History, Harry Potter or even the new show “Outlander,” Edinburgh and Stirling are a must visit. Make sure to pack a rain coat and lots of layers because Scottish weather can be unpredictable. Spring and summer are incredible times to visit. Edinburgh hosts many, many festivals throughout the year. In August, The Fringe Festival and Military Tatoo are held. These two festivals are the most famous. No matter what season you visit, Edinburgh provides a trip filled with luxury, history and intrigue!
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