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Edinburgh World Heritage/Sense of Place

Sense of Place


A selection of Edinburgh's most iconic landmarks, all within easy walking distance.

Starting Point: Calton Hill

Number of stops: 6

Distance: 3.2 miles

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Edinburgh’s iconic landmarks

Find out the fascinating history of Edinburgh’s public spaces – squares, parks and gardens. You can download the trail or click ‘play’ on the audio player underneath each image to hear Charles McKean, Professor of Architectural History at Dundee University explain the significance of each stop.

Calton Hill

Image via Ad Meskens

“Of all places for a view, this Calton Hill is perhaps the best”
Robert Louis Stevenson, 1889

In 1724 the town council bought Calton Hill, making it one of the first public parks in the country. The famous philosopher David Hume lobbied the council to build a walk ‘for the health and amusement of the inhabitants’, and you can still stroll along ‘Hume Walk’ to this day.

The National Monument was modelled on the Parthenon in Athens, and was intended to commemorate Scots who had died in the Napoleonic Wars. Funds unfortunately ran out in 1829 and the building was never completed.

Look out for…

Observatory House on Calton Hill is one of the few buildings you can still see designed by James Craig, the architect who planned the first New Town.

Parliament Square

“The busiest and most populous nook of the ancient capital”
Daniel Wilson, 1848

In the 18th century Parliament Square was the hub of the Old Town. There were booksellers, watchmakers and goldsmiths shops, merchants meeting to do business at the Mercat Cross, and lawyers heading for the courts. In 1750 an English tourist remarked, “Here I stand at what is called the cross of Edinburgh, and can, in a few minutes, take 50 men of genius and learning by the hand”.

Statue of King Charles II: This is one of the earliest lead statues in Britain, and dates from around 1685. Nothing like it had been seen in the city before, and some believed it represented “…the pale horse in the Revelation, and he that sate theiron was Death.”

Look out for…

The heart shape and brass markers in the pavement show the site of the notorious town prison, the Tolbooth.

The Grassmarket

“Celebrated as a place of bustle and life”
Robert Mudie, 1829

The Grassmarket was traditionally the place where cattle and horses were sold, but its wide open space also made it a suitable venue for public hangings. It was here in 1736 that the captain of the city guard, John Porteous, was hung from the pole of a barbers shop by an angry mob.

In 1674 the city’s got its first piped water supply, with wells designed by the King’s Master Mason Robert Mylne. The system worked with gravity, and water flowed through wooden pipes from a cistern higher up near the High Street.

Look out for…

The Martyr’s Cross at the east end of the Grassmarket which marks the location of the public gallows, where in the 17th century many Covenanters were hung for their religious beliefs.

St Andrew Square

“All built in the modern style…free from the inconveniencies of the old city”
Thomas Pennant, 1769

St Andrew Square was one of the first parts of the New Town to be completed, and in the 1780’s it was one of the most fashionable addresses in the city. Residents included the famous philosopher David Hume who lived at No. 8, and entertained Benjamin Franklin as one of his first guests.

The Melville Monument: At the centre of the gardens is a monument to the man once described as ‘the uncrowned king of Scotland’, Henry Dundas 1st Viscount Melville. The 150ft tall column caused many concerns, and so the lighthouse engineer Robert Stevenson (grandfather of author Robert Louis Stevenson) was consulted about the foundations.

Look out for…

In the entrance hall of the Royal Bank of Scotland at No.36 St Andrew Square, a plaque on the floor marks the point from which the New Town was planned by James Craig in 1766.

Princes Street Gardens

“…that beautiful, fairy-like tower…”
Sir John Steell, 1846

In the early 19th century Princes Street Gardens were private, and unless you were a resident a key could cost as much as four guineas a year. The first public opening came in 1851 at the request of the Scottish Society for Suppressing Drunkeness, who believed the gardens would tempt people away from the pub at Christmas and New Year.

George Meikle Kemp was the son of Border shepherd, and a self-taught architect inspired by gothic architecture. When a competition was announced to design a memorial to Sir Walter Scott, he entered under the name of John Morvo, the medieval master mason who worked at Melrose Abbey. Kemp unfortunately died before the building was completed, drowning in the Union canal on his way to visit contractors one foggy night.

Look out for…

The Monument is decorated with 64 statuettes representing characters from Scott’s books, from Mary Queen of Scots and John Knox to Friar Tuck and Rob Roy.

St Bernard’s Well

“The chief ornament of this delightful valley”
Alexander Campbell, 1801

A natural spring was discovered near the Dean Village on the Water of Leith in 1760, and was soon a visitor attraction as at that time ‘taking the waters’ was thought to be very good for the health.

Some claimed that the water could cure everything from a bruised leg to ‘total blindness’, but others described the taste as having the ‘odious twang of hydrogen gas’ or even like ‘the washings from a foul gun barrel’.

The building was designed by the painter Alexander Nasmyth in 1789, and the statue inside represents Hygieia the Greek goddess of health.


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