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Achtung! Edinburgh’s Local Secrets Have Just Been Declassified
Sure, Edinburgh has more than its fair share of top tourist attractions. However, what I really love about my city is that the treasure trail doesn’t tail off at the bottom of the Royal Mile.
If you’re willing to go the extra mile, turn a couple of extra stones and leave your heels at home, you may want to extend your stay. Even the locals will discover something new!
In this article I will give you insider tips on a broad range of hidden gems. We will look at the architectural wonders that are Fettes College and Rosslyn Chapel, a beach and golf resort and a relatively unsung castle steeped in history.
We will find out about a rather unusual and exciting way to enjoy Edinburgh’s city-scape and learn about the city’s history.
We will also venture to little known spots like The Braids, Torduff Reservoir and a unique tidal island in the Firth of Forth estuary. You never know, you might even have them to yourself!
Today, you can have your cake and eat it. All of these hidden gems can be reached by taking either Lothian Buses or First Group buses!
Hermitage of Braid and Blackford Hill
The Braid Hills in the south of Edinburgh provide perhaps the most impressive views across the entire city.
A short hike up to the summit is rewarded with a panoramic view of Edinburgh due to the hills’ fortunate location between Edinburgh Castle and the Pentland Hills. It is my favourite spot for views across Edinburgh.
It is perhaps the only place in the city where you can view all points of interest at the same time without having to screw your eyes up. The 10 minute jaunt up the steep slope is worth it to be literally surrounded by Edinburgh Castle, Arthur’s Seat, The Pentland Hills and the coastline to the west and east.
Take the Lothian Buses service number 41 (see above) from Princes Street heading south towards Craighouse (this name will be on the front of the bus). Get off the bus at Cluny Gardens. It will take around 15 minutes to get to this stop.
From Cluny Gardens you will see the hills to your left. Keep an eye out for a gate and gatehouse with a sign that says ‘Hermitage of Braid’. From there it is a 10 minute saunter/sprint/crawl to the top of the Blackford Hill.
The hills themselves are very beautiful and covered in colourful bushes. It is a wonderful area for a stroll and a picnic. If you are interested in golf or astronomy you will find public golf courses in the area and an observatory at the summit of Blackford Hill.
This chapel of unquestionable architectural wonder was founded in the mid-15th century by William Sinclair. It is located in the village of Roslin about 30 minutes south of Edinburgh.
Unfortunately many people first became aware of the existence of Rosslyn Chapel around 2003 when Dan Brown’s novel The Da Vinci Code was published.
The chapel features in the closing stages of the novel as the supposed resting place of the Holy Grail. The release of the motion picture adaptation a few years later also gave Rosslyn Chapel a promotional boost.
Whether Dan Brown’s theories concerning Rosslyn Chapel are solid, thought-provoking or simply sensationalistic, what cannot be doubted is that Rosslyn Chapel is a work of art shrouded in mystery and packed to the brim with some of the finest architecture, masonry and intricate carvings you are ever likely to see.
There are various theories that the crypt, which houses the bodies of the Sinclair family, also contains the mummified head of Jesus Christ and the treasure of the Knights Templar.
Certainly for those who are interested in architecture and history, a trip to Edinburgh isn’t complete without a visit to Rosslyn Chapel. It is also a place very few locals have been to or even heard of and therefore a great idea for an afternoon out of the city.
Despite being a fair distance south of Edinburgh, Rosslyn Chapel can be reached by the taking the Lothian Buses number 15 (see above) service from St Andrew’s Square in the city centre of Edinburgh.
Buses leave roughly every 30 minutes. Get off the bus at the ‘Hotel’ stop in the village of Roslin and then walk along Chapel Loan. You will see Rosslyn Chapel after about 2 minutes.
Edinburgh’s Camera Obscura
One of the most fascinating and unusual ways to see the city and learn about its history is to visit Edinburgh’s Camera Obscura. Although it is one of the best attractions in Edinburgh, it is often overlooked in favour of more prominent attractions.
For those who don’t know what a camera obscura is….well, it can be a box or even a sizeable room with a hole in one of its sides (in Edinburgh, the hole is in the roof) which allows light to pass in, projecting the external scene onto a surface inside.
Edinburgh’s Camera Obscura is located next to the castle in a curious-looking Victorian tower. Light from the outside is reflected through a mirror into the tower which then passes through three lenses enabling a breathtaking 360 degree image of our city to be projected onto a large round table. Your guide will move the mirror around so you can see many different parts of the city in stunning detail.
Rumour has it you can actually pick up pedestrians in the street and manipulate the images you see in front of you. Don’t ask me how that works….go find out for yourself!
While you are engrossed in the panoramic views of Edinburgh, your guide will also tell you stories about the city’s past and present making it an excellent and unusual way to learn about Edinburgh in both a visual and historical sense.
The opening times for Edinburgh’s Camera Obscura vary throughout the year and there are a number of different ticket prices depending on age, employment status and party size.
Situated in the leafy, up-market neighbourhood of Inverleith roughly a mile north of the city centre is Fettes College, one of the three IB World Schools in Scotland.
Despite being one of the country’s leading independent schools, it is the outstanding architecture of the building which should draw visitors to the school gates. If one looks north from the elevated position of the city centre, Fettes College cuts an imposing and almost mythical profile on the skyline.
Construction of the building began in 1863 and was completed in 1869. Architect David Bryce was said to be inspired by a recent trip to the Loire Valley in France and decided to blend the Loire chateau style with elements of the 19th century Scottish Baronial style.
Fettes College is considered to be one of Scotland’s greatest buildings. Although one would hope that to be the case considering it cost £500,000 to build, a sum of incredible magnitude in 1863!
The school itself has a strong reputation in the UK having set many notable businessmen, politicians and entertainers on their path to success. Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, actress Tilda Swinton and business tycoon David Murray were all educated at Fettes College.
Getting to Fettes College is relatively straight-forward and can be done on foot from the West End of Princes Street. Heading north from the West End will take you through the attractive area of Dean Village which is worth seeing in itself.
From the elevated position of the city centre you will notice that the land slopes down towards the Firth of Forth enabling you to see the unmistakable edifice that is Fettes College. From the West End the walk will take around 20 minutes.
Those who have read Harry Potter may be surprised to hear that Fettes College was considered for the ‘role’ of Hogwarts in the motion picture adaptation of the novels!
There’s a second medieval castle in Edinburgh?! What?! You have to be pulling my leg.
Yes, Craigmillar Castle, situated 3 miles south-east of the city centre is one of the best-preserved medieval castles in Scotland. Begun in the late 14th century and extended in the 15th and 16th centuries, Craigmillar Castle is famous for its association with Mary Queen of Scots (the one Elizabeth the First didn’t like very much).
Mary stayed at Craigmillar twice in her life and it is suggested that the plot to murder her second husband Henry Stuart was hatched in the castle.
Craigmillar Castle has a courtyard, gardens and one of the oldest tower houses in Scotland with impressive views of the city. It is a castle that is great to explore as it has many ‘nooks and crannies’ (tight, dark areas) which, in a way, represent the dark and engrossing history of the castle.
Two Lothian Buses services go to Craigmillar from the city centre, the number 14 and the number 30 (see above). The number 30 can be caught at the West End or on Princes Street. The number 14 comes through the East End of Princes Street from Leith Walk and up North Bridge.
Whatever bus you take, get off in Craigmillar and follow the signs for Craigmillar Castle. If in doubt, ask someone to point you in the right direction!
You know what happened to Mary Queen of Scots in the end…..so behave yourself at the castle!
Torduff Reservoir and Pentland Foothills
The city of Edinburgh is flanked to the south-west by the Pentland Hills. These rolling yet imposing hills are home to golf courses, a Scouts centre, Hillend Ski Slope and a heck of a lot of sheep!
While being highly accessible, a 30 minute wander in one direction will take you into fairly wild territory where you might expect to find Cathy and Heathcliffe or maybe even Kate Bush prancing around.
There are also a number of reservoirs in this area which can give you the impression you are in a miniature version of the Norwegian Fjords. Torduff reservoir and the surrounding hills is my first choice when I want to get away from it all, breathe in the fresh air and enjoy views over the whole city.
The Lothian Buses number 10 to Torphin (see above) will take you from Princes Street out to the south-west of Edinburgh. Bonaly shops is the second last stop on the route and this is where you should get off. You will see the Pentland Hills rise up in front of you. From there, you are effectively free to roam and explore.
Around 50m beyond Bonaly shops is the bridge over the Edinburgh City Bypass. The roar of the traffic is unmistakable. Cross this bridge and take a sharp right. The road runs parallel to the motorway for 150m and then turns left up the hill towards Torduff reservoir.
In my opinion, it is a magical part of Edinburgh. You will see horses trotting around in the fields, golfers attempting to tame challenging hilly courses and a spectacular view of Edinburgh from the very edge of the city.
You never know, you might even see me up there!
Technically speaking, Cramond Island is actually a tidal island. This fact, together with its role in World War Two makes the island particularly interesting.
Cramond Island is the only island in the Firth of Forth that can be reached without use of a boat. Adventurers are able to make use of a paved walkway, which connects the island to the mainland, to reach the island.
As you may have guessed (clever clogs!) this should only be attempted at low tide. No, really, do not ever take the risk of getting stranded. It happens fairly regularly and the coastguard don’t find it very funny.
You can cross two hours before low tide until two hours after low tide. Bear in mind that it is a mile’s walk out to the island. I stress the importance of factoring that in to your calculations!
There isn’t a theme park on Cramond Island but it is a relatively interesting place due to the fact that it’s fairly barren, often windswept and has a number of deserted shelters, gun rooms and engine rooms from the second World War when the island was fortified to protect the mainland from enemy ships entering the Forth estuary.
I have been across to Cramond Island many times and it’s a very interesting experience mainly due to the macabre feeling of walking out to an island a mile off the coast. I will spare you the walking on water pun…
Rather unsurprisingly, Cramond Island lies off the coast of Cramond. To get out to Cramond you will need to take the Lothian Buses service 41 (see above – this is a very useful bus route!) away from the city centre (Princes Street/West End) towards Cramond. This name will be on the front of the bus.
Cramond is the last stop on the route so it will be very easy to find. Once you are there finding the path out to the island will be child’s play. The area is famous for its island. Remember folks – unless you’re a mermaid, get your timing right! Otherwise, enjoy your island experience!
Gullane Bay, East Lothian
If the sun is shining and you fancy an ice-cream and sand between your toes take the First Group bus number 124 heading for North Berwick from the west side of St Andrew Square to the picturesque town of Gullane.
Buses leave every half an hour and you will be able to beat the hustle and bustle of the city to relax in a seaside town which is over 1000 years old. The bus ride will take around 50 minutes. To make sure you get off in Gullane, speak to the bus driver!
Gullane is famous for two things. Golf and a beach. The beautiful and award-winning Gullane Bay is backed by sand dunes and sweeps round in an arch towards the north-east. It’s a cracking spot to put down your towel, soak up some rays and get yourself wet in the North Sea, if you’re made of tough stuff!
While Gullane Bay is probably the best beach in East Lothian and the Edinburgh area, Muirfield golf course is certainly one the best golf courses in the UK and is one of the courses in rotation for the British Open Golf Championship.
Jack Nicklaus was so fond of Muirfield he decided to build a golf course in Ohio, USA named after Muirfield, where he won the British Open in 1966.
There are many other great golf courses in the area which will delight even the most avid and difficult-to-please golfers.
Generally, Gullane is a great place to relax and take life with a pinch of salt. On a fine day it is possible to gaze out from Gullane Bay down the Firth of Forth towards Edinburgh, the Forth Bridges and Fife.
And get yourself an ice-cream or a snowball while you’re down there!
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