Exploring the Canongate in Edinburgh’s Royal Mile

Looking down the Canongate from the World’s End

Right in the centre of Edinburgh, on its famous Royal Mile, I’m at the World’s End. Sounds like a riddle? It isn’t. I’m actually outside the World’s End pub, named because it was here that the security of the medieval city ended and the great outside, in the shape of the burgh (broadly, a medieval Scots word for a town) of the Canongate began.

The walls have mostly gone, now, and the gate which sealed the citizens in at night was demolished some time in the mid-eighteenth century, having failed to keep out Bonnie Prince Charlie and his rebel Jacobites in 1745. But you can still see where it was: brass markers in the cobbles show just how narrow the way in – and out – used to be.

In Your Bucket Because…

  • You want to get a real feel for the city and its history.
  • Kings, killers, ghosts, triumphs and tragedies…the Canongate has seen them all – and still does.
  • Great for history buffs.

To the uninitiated the Canongate, which I’ve just entered, is nothing more than a continuation of the streets which sweep down from the Castle to Holyrood Palace forming the so-called Royal Mile. But it’s different. Less touristy, it contains some of the city’s oldest buildings and, with a little exploration, allows the thoughtful visitor a chance to get beneath this historic city’s old, old skin.

Exploring the Canongate

I suppose I should be honest here and say that walking down the Royal Mile can be a bit of a bore for locals in the summer. Traffic blocks the streets and crowds jam the pavement – and, indeed, at the margins the separate streams sometimes merge. Which is why, if you want to see a subtler side to Edinburgh’s ancient core, you’ll invest a bit of time, dodge the tour buses and the crowds and take a peep down some of the alleyways that lead off the Canongate.

The alleys (also called wynds or closes) are typical of old Edinburgh and take you from the narrow ridge of the Old Town down to the lower ground to the north and south, like bones off the spine of a fish. Some of them lead nowhere – or rather, nowhere that’s much use to you or me: many are now access to private residences and signposted as such.

Looking towards Arthur’s Seat from Bakehouse Close

Most, however, are publicly accessible. Wander down through some of them and see what you find – a kilt maker’s, a craft shop, even the Scottish Poetry Library, a modern building whose Mediterranean-style blue-glazed tiles somehow manages not to look jarringly out of place next to buildings that could easily give it 300 years.

Drop south to Holyrood Road by one alleyway – Bakehouse Close, say, or Reid’s Close – and back up via another to treat yourself to the views of Arthur’s Seat. Pop into some of the museums, too – down here you can set foot in some of the oldest properties in the city in the museums of Huntly House and the Tollbooth. Even the shops are subtly different as antiquarian booksellers, bagpipe makers and whisky shops try their best to resist the tide of tartan and shortbread.

What I like about the Canongate, and what you’ll scarcely fail to notice as you dip in and out, is that this World Heritage Site is no museum piece. It’s a living entity: many of the properties fronting the Canongate are residential and behind them you’ll be surprised to find extensive blocks of flats, from ancient to modern, where dogs bark and washing hangs out on the line.

Canongate Kirk and Dunbar’s Close

The burgh has maintained its social mix, too: the richer folk still jostle with the poorer. On one side, social housing and student flats: on the other the socially fashionable Canongate Kirk, with its clean-lined and beautiful interior, serves as the parish church for local residents who include the Queen when she’s staying at the Palace of Holyroodhouse.

I can’t pass the Canongate Kirk without paying my respects. Inside it’s light and airy. Outside, its graveyard teases you with real, famous people who lived and loved in the city. The economist Adam Smith found his last resting place here, as did Burns’ muse, Clarinda, ‘the fair sun of all her sex’. And don’t forget poor David Rizzio, secretary to Mary Queen of Scots and murdered in her presence. His body supposedly lies against the kirk wall, reinterred when the church was built.

The old buildings of the Canongate, from the churchyard

The big thing about spending a little time exploring the Canongate, I muse, as I turn my back on the love-it-or-hate-it architectural creation of the Scottish parliament building in favour of a quick peek into the picture-postcard peephole of White Horse Close, isn’t the ‘to do’ things – though there are enough of them. It’s the fact that it’s part of a living, modern, still-evolving city.

I glance at my watch and realise it’s time to go. But as always, I manage to make time for my favourite place in the Canongate. You’ll miss it, if you don’t watch out. Just downhill from the Canongate Kirk there’s a sign on your left for Dunbar’s Close. Follow it and you’re in what must surely be Edinburgh’s smallest public park.

It’s a garden. A recreated seventeenth century garden, to be precise, just like those which once ran back in long strips from the street before the need for housing filled most of them in. Just yards from one of the busiest places in town, I stand for a moment listening to the birds singing and the hum of the bees in the lavender, almost loud enough to drown out the noise of the traffic. And then, after this moment back in time, I plunge out again into the modern city.

Practicalities

  • Don’t even think about driving into the city and trying to park. It’s possible but just not worth the effort (the local traffic wardens are notorious). And Edinburgh’s buses are great.
  • Take your time and stop in at some of the numerous cafes or tea rooms – some are touristy but others are pretty good.
  • You pay for some of the attractions such as Holyrood Palace, but the local authority museums are free.