Scottish nationalism is one of the more intriguing phenomena in today’s headlines. Here, look beyond the news reports to investigate Scotland’s two great cities: Edinburgh and Glasgow. While giving you a tour of the cities, Professor Allitt also introduces you to some of Scotland’s most famous figures, including Walter Scott, Adam Smith, and David Hume.
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The Royal Mile
The obvious place to start a visit to Scotland is in the capital, Edinburgh. The Royal Mile is old Edinburgh’s main axis, a mile-long road that climbs from Holyrood Palace at the bottom to Edinburgh Castle at the top.
As you begin to climb the royal mile, you’ll come first to the Scottish Parliament building, a structure famous for its architectural daring … and for its breathtaking delays and cost overruns. The cold grey exterior is unremarkable, but go inside and things improve. The theme is pale wood, raw concrete, and exposed metal. Unusual angles keep you slightly off-balance—oblique diagonal patterns on the doors are intriguing.
Continuing up the Royal Mile from Parliament, tenement buildings on either side rise sharply from the street.
On your right, you’ll see the graveyard of Canongate Church. Go inside, turn left, and you’ll at once come upon the grave of Adam Smith, the moral philosopher, and pioneering economist who, in 1776, published An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations.
Just across the road from Adam Smith’s grave is a statue of his near contemporary, the philosopher and historian David Hume. Hume is dressed in a toga despite the whipping wind that keeps temperatures low on most days of the year. Remember those winds when you visit, by the way: even in July and August, the average high temperature in Edinburgh is only 66 degrees Fahrenheit.
Edinburgh Castle and Other High Points
At last, you emerge onto a great, gently sloping plaza in front of the entrance to Edinburgh Castle. The castle itself has the perfect defensive location, unapproachable from most sides because of daunting cliffs, and towering over the more manageable access points.
Edinburgh Castle is one of the city’s great high points, worth the effort of climbing for the great view it affords.
Yet another high point for views of the city is Arthur’s Seat, an extinct volcano that used to be part of the royal estates but is now open to everyone. It’s wild country, yet it’s right next to the capital. Easy to climb from most directions, it’s also adjacent to the jagged Salisbury Crags, a cliff face into which a track called the “Radical Road” was hewn by unemployed workmen in 1820.
The saddest thing about Edinburgh is how dirty most of its grand buildings remain. When the whole of Britain was coated in soot, Edinburgh looked just like all the rest. Now that the great cleaning has taken such strides, however, Edinburgh stands out, in the wrong way, as the dirty laggard.
Blackest of all the great sooty structures is the 200-foot-high Sir Walter Scott Monument. Scott was the most popular novelist in the English-speaking world in the early 19th century. Immensely influential, he was a key figure in literary romanticism, and helped make the idea of Scotland fashionable among the English.
Among Scott’s many works were the “Waverley” novels, published anonymously at first, but acknowledged by him in the mid-1820s, and including several of his best-known books, such as Ivanhoe and Rob Roy. When railways came to Scotland, the central station was named “Edinburgh Waverley” as a tribute to Scott.
There are many fine museums and galleries in Edinburgh. In the National Museum of Scotland, ghoulish visitors are drawn to an early version of the guillotine called “the Maiden.” Used between 1564 and 1710, the Maiden claimed over 150 victims, mostly in public executions. Another, very different, attraction at the National Museum is “Dolly,” a sheep (now stuffed) that played a vital role in the development of genetics. She was the first mammal to be cloned from an adult cell, and lived from 1996 to 2003.
Exploring the Scottish National Gallery
Let me particularly encourage you to visit the Scottish National Gallery, centrally located on Princes Street Gardens. The building itself is superb, its ground floor rooms all decorated in a sumptuous red. Highlights of the collection include paintings by Rembrandt, El Greco, Goya, Botticelli, Vermeer, Reynolds, Turner, Cezanne, and many other stars.
Alexander Nasmyth’s 1825 painting of the Scottish Royal Institution on Princes Street is superb. First, it’s local; the artist’s easel was set up only a few yards from where the painting is now on display. Second, it shows Edinburgh in the early 1820s, when many of the principal buildings were already there, but with conspicuous exceptions (no Scott Monument, obviously, and no railway).
Another irresistible painting, at least to me, is John Duncan’s 1913 depiction of Saint Bride. Bride, or Bridget, was an Irish abbess and saint of the 5th century, but somehow she was also able, nearly 500 years earlier, to visit Bethlehem and witness the birth of Christ.
Riding the Scotland Railway
When I’m in Scotland, I always take a short train journey from Edinburgh to North Queensferry, nine miles Northwest of the city. It’s a wonderful ride because you start out under the looming walls of the castle. But the highlight comes near the end with a crossing of the Forth Bridge. Begun in 1882 and opened in 1890, it was built in response to a recent tragedy.
A long iron bridge over the Firth of Tay, 40 miles further north, had collapsed in a night storm in 1879, only a year and a half after opening. It carried a train full of travelers to their deaths and occasioned a great scandal. The engineers of the Forth Bridge, begun just three years after this disaster, wanted something that not only was strong but looked strong, to reassure passengers that they would be safe as they crossed the estuary. Engineers who subjected it to stress tests in the 20th century reported that it’s overbuilt many times over.
Continuing Your Tour of Scotland—Glasgow
West of Edinburgh stands Glasgow, Scotland’s other great city. Through the long era of the British Empire it was the ship-building capital of Britain, and a seafaring city that made fortunes out of slavery, sugar, and tobacco.
The University of Glasgow is itself an attractive hilltop structure, with an iconic tower visible from all across the city. Though the university was founded in the 15th century, the main building of the current campus was designed by George Gilbert Scott in the 1870s, and is the second largest neo-Gothic building in Britain, after the Houses of Parliament. Another Victorian edifice, almost too big and too decorative to be believed, is the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum that stands nearby.
The second superb museum in Glasgow is the Riverside Museum, located on the banks of the Clyde in a dramatic new building by Zaha Hadid. Made of glass and stainless steel, it shimmers and seems to draw a zig-zag line across the landscape. It opened in 2011 and now draws over a million visitors per year.
A third outstanding Glasgow museum is the Burrell Collection, in Pollok Country Park, away from the city center. It closed down for a major upgrade in 2016 with the promise of re-opening in 2020. Sir William Burrell was a shrewd businessman who built a shipping empire. Amassing a fortune, he devoted himself to spending it on art, specializing in works from Medieval and Renaissance Europe, particularly tapestries, along with Chinese ceramics, Persian rugs, and Indian textiles, but also in works by such modern painters as Whistler. He gave the whole lot—9,000 items—to the city of Glasgow, specifying that it should be housed outside the city and away from what was then a severely polluted environment.