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Edinburgh: Scottish capital is rich in history and tall on tales

Scottish capital is rich in history and tall on tales

SHARE Edinburgh: Scottish capital is rich in history and tall on tales

Many people in Scotland find it humorous that Mel Gibson was chosen to play William Wallace in the American movie, "Braveheart," since the real Wallace used a sword that was longer than Gibson is tall.

The Scots' national hero from the 13th century was at least 6-feet-6-inches, and probably more like 6-feet-9-inches tall, and his sword — on exhibition at the Wallace Monument in Stirling — is nearly 6-feet long. Wallace wielded it in one hand, hacking up English infantrymen from the back of a two-ton "heavy horse."

Gibson is 5-feet-11-inches and looks good in a kilt — on any horse.

Wallace's story is just one of many you'll come to know as you travel around Edinburgh, Scotland's capital and the site of rich history dating back to Roman times. (You'll also learn that armies from Rome were never successful in defeating the people of early Scotland, although they tried.)

In 1297, Wallace's forces defeated the English at the Battle of Stirling Bridge and effectively prevented England's King Edward I from taking control of Scotland until Robert the Bruce could unite the Scottish people and eventually win independence in 1314.

Captured by Edward I in 1305, Wallace was hung, disemboweled and beheaded, and his body was cut in quarters. His body parts were sent to the far corners of the kingdom as a warning that went unheeded by the Scots, for whom he became a martyr. His head was displayed on London Bridge.

But Scottish history began long before the giant Wallace lived. The earliest inhabitants of the country were tribes that survived by hunting and foraging and arrived in what is now Britain about 6,000 years ago. Then there were the Picts who defied the Roman invaders in 80 A.D. The Romans built Hadrian's Wall to separate conquered Britain from this hostile country in 122-28 A.D.

Castle Rock, the site of Edinburgh Castle, was inhabited as early as 850 B.C., and the Beaker People, who some say were the original Celts, constructed Stone Circles in the 1800s B.C. in the area where Edinburgh now stands.

The highlight of any visit to Edinburgh has to be Edinburgh Castle. The castle has been primarily a fortress over the centuries but at times has also been the home of royalty. There, Mary Queen of Scots gave birth to James VI of Scotland, who in 1603 also became James I of England, uniting the countries after so many generations of war.

The castle sits high above the city on a volcanic rock with an interesting geologic history of its own. Winding downhill from the top is the city's most intriguing area, a series of streets called the Royal Mile. It's a visitor's dream of shops, pubs, restaurants and museums. At the far end of the Royal Mile is The Palace of Holyroodhouse, the official residence of British royalty in Scotland.

Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles were staying at Holyrood Palace during the last week in May. On June 3, Queen Elizabeth II spoke to Camilla at a social gathering — a historic occurrence since the queen has never recognized her son's long-time companion. And so the British royal family continues to this day to be part of the Scottish landscape and a topic of conversation.

The castle is the dominant feature of the city in every way. If you spend your first day in Edinburgh from its vantage point, you'll get a thorough versing in history and a literal overview of the city. Admission is 7 (about $12), and hours are 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m.

The buildings that make up the castle today mostly date from the 17th, 18th and even 19th centuries, since the earliest fortress was destroyed several times over — usually by English invaders but at least once by the Scottish armies themselves to keep it out of English hands.

The oldest building on the castle grounds, and the oldest in Edinburgh, is St. Margaret's Chapel. Dating to 1130 A.D., the lovely little stone chapel is well worth the time it takes to pause and read its romantic story.

The chapel's simple wooden benches afford visitors a place to contemplate the life of its namesake. St. Margaret was a Saxon whose husband, Malcolm III, was the son of King Duncan, who was murdered by Macbeth. Queen Margaret, reared in a convent, was exiled from England by the Norman conquerors, and when her family landed in Scotland, Malcolm fell deeply in love with her.

She was also much loved by the Scottish people and appears to have had more influence over them than her husband had. They were parents of eight children, several of whom married into British and European royal households. It is said she died of a broken heart when she was told her husband and oldest son had both been killed in a battle.

Another highlight of a castle tour is the Palace, built during the 15th and 16th centuries. Here are the royal apartments where Mary Queen of Scots lived for a time and gave birth. Palace visitors can also see the Scottish "honors," including crown, scepter and sword and the Stone of Destiny, a sandstone block where early Scottish kings put their feet when they were crowned. (Please see accompanying box.) The Vaults, a former prison for foreign miscreants, houses a 15th-century cannon called Mons Meg.

Tours of the castle can be taken individually, with the help of headphones and audiotaped descriptions, or visitors can opt for a free guided tour. Either way, it's a pleasant day trip, with cafes and restaurants strategically situated and each landmark clearly marked by signs.

Things to include on a "must see" list for the Royal Mile are the Scotch Whisky Heritage Centre, Highland Tolbooth Kirk, the Writers' Museum, Parliament Square, St. Giles' Cathedral, John Knox's House, Abbey Lairds and, of course, Palace of Holyroodhouse (or Holyrood Palace) and Holyrood Abbey.

The Writers' Museum has some interesting stories and memorabilia from the lives of Scotland's three best-known writers: Sir Walter Scott, Robert Burns and Robert Louis Stevenson. The house itself, built in 1622, is a historical delight.

Holyrood Park near the palace and at the "bottom" of the Royal Mile is a wilderness area within the city with hills, lochs (lakes), paths and picnic areas. It was originally a hunting grounds for Scottish royalty but now is open to everyone.

The Kirk of Greyfriars is worth a visit and is an easy walk off the Royal Mile. The church was the first built in Edinburgh after the Reformation and was situated at a cemetery designated by Mary Queen of Scots in 1562. Its history is remarkable, but most visitors come to Greyfriars not for its historical significance but to see the grave of a tiny dog call Greyfriars Bobby.

In 1858, a transient resident of Edinburgh, John Gray, died and was buried in the old Greyfriars Kirkyard. He was poor, and there was no marker for his grave, but he had a little Skye terrier named Bobby who could not be kept away from his master's resting place.

The story is well-documented. Though people tried to take the dog away (since dogs were not allowed in the kirkyard) and care for him, every night he slipped back to the cemetery to sleep on John Gray's grave. This continued for 14 years in all kinds of weather, and when the little dog finally died at the age of 18, special permission was granted for him to be buried in the kirkyard near his master.

Edinburgh is a vacation in itself, but it can also be the jumping-off place for excursions to other parts of Scotland. Stirling Castle, the site of the Battle of Stirling Bridge and the William Wallace Monument are a short ride away through the remarkably beautiful Trossachs and past 26-mile-long Loch Lomond. Bus tours can be arranged in Edinburgh for this and other scenic and historic sites, including nearby St. Andrews, the birthplace of golf, and the Highlands and Islands in the far north.

Two things make a vacation in Scotland unique: the Scottish brogue and the Scottish weather. The first is delightfully rich and can be difficult to understand at times; the second can be delightful but is always difficult to predict. Though Scotland has a reputation for rainy, cool-to-cold summers and miserable winters, it's not always deserved. Few days are cloudless, but the summer (May through September) can be quite sunny.

E-mail: karras@desnews.com