Audio Point Three – The Royal Mile, Mercat Cross, St Giles Cathedral.

A short sample from Edinburgh Audio Guide – Audio Point Three.

The Royal Mile

The next part of the tour takes us to the Royal Mile – one of the most colourful and beautiful streets in Edinburgh.

The Royal Mile is so named because it is approximately one Scottish mile long, and it runs between Edinburgh Castle and the Palace of Holyroodhouse – the residence of the Kings and Queens of Scotland.

The street is also called the Royal Mile because it was once the main route taken by Scottish kings and then British monarchs when they travelled between the two Royal Residences.

Edinburgh’s Old Town is known for its unique ‘fishbone’ street pattern of narrow closes, wynds, and courts leading off the spine formed by the Royal Mile.

The winding streets, steep staircases and the narrowness of the closes, make the Old Town a fascinating place to explore and gives you a sense of what it would have been like to live in medieval Edinburgh.

Exploring the wynds and closes of the Old Town you can discover some hidden gems, like quiet courtyards, gardens, and open spaces with magnificent views.

Mercat Cross.

The Royal Mile is literally lined with various tourist attractions. One of them is the Mercat Cross. It is located just off the High Street on Parliament Square, near the St. Giles’ Cathedral.

The Mercat Cross or Market Cross is an octagonal stone monument, about 10 feet high, with a high column in the middle, topped with a unicorn – the heraldic national animal of Scotland.

Most medieval cities and towns around Scotland had a structure that marked the location of the marketplace. It was also a symbol of the trading rites of Scottish market towns and burghs.

The Mercat Cross was the place where merchants and traders met, deals were made, and criminals were punished or executed. Some lesser punishments carried out at the cross were ‘scourging, branding, ear nailing, nose-pinching, and tongue boring.’

It also served as a place where people would gather to hear important public announcements such as royal and parliamentary proclamations.

In Edinburgh, royal and parliamentary proclamations are still publicly read from the Mercat Cross. The accession of a King or Queen is announced in this fashion.

Edinburgh Mercat Cross was first mentioned in a charter of the 14th century and it was rebuilt in the 17th century.

The original Old Mercat Cross was a wooden structure that was located further down the Royal Mile. The location of the original wooden cross is now marked out in cobblestones, which outline the footprint of the original structure.

The Mercat Cross – which you see today – was erected in 1882 and the unicorn at the top of the column dates back to 1869.

Parliament Square.

Located right behind the Mercat Cross is Parliament Square.

The complex of buildings on the square was home to the old Scottish Parliament from 1639 to 1707. The Parliament House was built on the old graveyard behind St Giles’ Cathedral.

It was the world’s first purpose-built parliament building.

These elegant buildings in the square were home to the Scottish Parliament until its dissolution with the Act of Union in 1707 when the Kingdom of Scotland merged with the Kingdom of England to form the United Kingdom of Great Britain.

Now these historic buildings house the Supreme Courts of Scotland.

In the referendum of 1997 Scottish people voted to re-establish a Parliament. In September 2004, this Scottish Parliament moved to the newly constructed building at the foot of the Royal Mile opposite the Palace of Holyroodhouse.

St Giles’ Cathedral.

St Giles’ Cathedral with its magnificent 15th century imperial crown spire is one of the most important historical buildings along the Royal Mile.

The site where the cathedral is located has been a religious focal point for over 900 years.

The present church dates back to the late 14th century. The church has undergone several significand alterations over the centuries, but it still retains many of its original features. The oldest feature of the church is four massive central pillars that date back to the early 12th century.

St Giles’ was at the heart of religious turmoil in Scotland it the 16th century. John Knox – a prominent leader of the Scottish Reformation, marched an army of followers into St Giles’ and preached there for the first time.

After the Scottish Reformation it the 16th century partitions were built inside the church and parts of the building were used as a police station, school, fire station, even a coal store. The guillotine known as the ‘Maiden’ was also stored within the church.

The main features of the cathedral are its tall spire, its ornate crown steeple and its beautiful stained-glass windows. The interior of St Giles’ is also notable for its beautiful stone carvings, intricate woodwork, and an impressive collection of medieval tombstones.

St Giles’ Cathedral is open to public and is well worth a visit. You can admire beautiful stained-glass windows, listen to one of the finest organs in the UK, and visit the famous Thistle Chapel – home of the Knights of the Order of the Thistle.

The Heart of Midlothian.

In front of St Giles Cathedral, closer to High Street, there is a granite mosaic heart set in the cobblestones – this is the Heart of Midlothian.

It might appear as if the hearthas something to do with a romantic tradition. But in fact, it’s quite the opposite.

The Heart of Midlothian marks the spot where the Old Tolbooth Prison stood for more than 400 years.  Countless people were held in this prison in horrendous conditions. Many of them were tortured or executed near the Mercat Cross.

The building was hated so much that locals would spit in disgust at the entrance to the Tolbooth whenever they passed it.

Those people who were lucky to get out of the prison spat at the place where the heart is for ‘good luck’ hoping never to see the hated building again.

It is customary for locals to spit on the mosaic as a sign of contempt for the injustices that occurred at the Tolbooth prison. The custom is said to have originated in the 18th century, and although it’s not encouraged by the city council, it is still observed by some visitors today.

Mary King’s Close.

Just across the street from the Mercat Cross you will find one of the most popular tourist attractions in Edinburgh – Mary King’s close.

A rather modest entrance leads to a labyrinth of ancient streets and abandoned houses hidden underground beneath the Royal Mile.

Between the 17th and 19th centuries many residents of overpopulated Old Town lived, worked and died in a maze of dark and damp underground streets.

During the epidemic of 1645, known as the “Plague of Edinburgh,” Mary King’s Close was one of the areas of the city that was most heavily affected by the outbreak. The close was a densely populated area with a high number of residents, merchants, and artisans living and working in close quarters. This made it a perfect breeding ground for the disease to spread rapidly.

As the outbreak worsened, the city council decided to seal off the entire close with all its residents to prevent the disease from spreading further. Families were trapped inside their homes, with little or no food and supplies, and many of them died from the disease.

The close remained sealed for over a year. It’s estimated that around a thousand people died within its walls. After the outbreak subsided, the close was abandoned, and its residents never returned.

Mary King’s Close is considered one of the most haunted places in Edinburgh because of the many ghost stories and legends associated with tragic events that took place there. One of the storiesis about a ghost of a small girl called Annie who cries inconsolably because she lost her doll hundreds of years ago.

The close remained sealed and forgotten for centuries, and it wasn’t until the 20th century that it was rediscovered and opened to the public as a tourist attraction.