It’s been a while since I’ve done one of these, but I’m trying to get back into the swing of things. I figured a good way to get back into things was to turn some of my tour guide stories into blog posts. I don’t think I’ll be a tour guide for much longer (more on that in another post), but I love sharing these stories with people, and you’re all people, so why not write them here? (Logic).
This, therefore, is part 1 of an Old Town Edinburgh series I will (hopefully) create.
The Royal Mile is the heart of Edinburgh’s Old Town, and the perfect place to begin our walk. Right up until the 1760s all of Edinburgh was based around this one long street. Even now, when most of Edinburgh’s population live outside the confines of Old Town, the Royal Mile is still one of the main centres of the city (even though many locals try to avoid it at all costs).
If we’re being technical (which I think it’s always good to be) the Royal Mile is actually 5 connecting streets that run between Edinburgh Castle and Holyrood Palace. From the castle down, we have Castle Hill, Lawnmarket, High Street, Canongate, and Abbey Strand. Until 1856, Canongate, Abbey Strand, and Castle Terrace were technically part of a separate burgh (the burgh of Canongate) rather than incorporated into Edinburgh. Now, however, ‘the Old Town’ encapsulates all 5 streets of the Royal Mile, as well as a lot more of the city (more on that another time).
The name ‘The Royal Mile’ appears to be rather straightforwards, however, like a lot of things in the city, it is slightly misleading. The ‘Royal’ section is obvious. These five streets connect Edinburgh’s two royal residences: Edinburgh Castle and Holyrood Palace (again, more on them later). It’s the ‘Mile’ part that’s a bit tricky. If I asked you how long you think the Royal Mile is, you’d probably respond with “a mile long, duh.” This is both correct and incorrect. The Royal Mile is in fact one Scots mile long (1.81km/1.24miles). Scots miles are between 120 and 170 yards longer than standard English miles (depending on who you ask). They were one of the primary units of measurement in Scotland for centuries, and had to be abolished three times before people actually stopped using them (1685, 1707, 1824). Although the Scots mile is no longer an official unit of measurement here in Scotland, its name stuck (because let’s be honest, ‘the Royal Mile and 123 yards’ sounds ridiculous).
These days, the Royal Mile is primarily known for its ‘Tartan Tat’ shops, stores selling all sorts of kitschy, cheap trinkets to passing tourists. Most of these stores are absolute trash (although great if you need a cheap keyring), but there are still a few gems where you can buy beautiful quality cashmere and lambswool scarves, wonderful tweed and tartan outfits, and gorgeous leather handbags. You just have to know where to look. Oh, and also pipers. The royal mile is most definitely known for pipers.
Despite the crowds of tourists and excessive number of Tartan Tat shops, I think the Royal Mile still has its place in Edinburgh. There’s something wonderfully atmospheric about wandering up the cobbled streets, past old stone buildings, narrow closes, and tartan-clad pipers. There are still wonderful shops, if you know where to look. There are also so many museums, important old (and new) buildings, wee eateries, and even a decent pub or too. If you’re out late enough at night, you can almost imagine what the streets were like before the rush of the 21st century. Of course, the Royal Mile was hardly a romantic fairy-tale street in the Middle Ages, but that’s another story for another time.