Wednesday, 17 July 2013

A walk round Arthur's seat and Holyrood Park

Swans on St  Margaret's Loch
Not many cities have a volcano in their centre, if only a dead one, but Edinburgh is multiply blessed In this regard. The most famous is Arthurs seat, not far from the Holyrood end of the Royal Mile.

Holyrood Park is a group of hills of which Arthurs Seat is the largest. It is also the largest of three parts of the Arthurs Seat Volcano SSSI. It is geologically special and holds important grasslands and unusual insect and animal species. Arthurs seat also cam in at number 9 in the 2013 Lonely Planet list of best treks. 

Apart from tourism the park is used for exercise, relaxation and some events during the festival. When I walked round it recently I saw a boys boxing club training outdoors, a group having an outdoor gym session and rock climbers on Salisbury Crags. For those not interested in such hard exercise or new to the area a walk round the park (I take a camera) takes about 90 minutes. Get the timing right and you will be rewarded by great views and sunsets.

St Margarets Loch And St Anthony's Chapel
St Anthony's Chapel

This small man made Loch to the south of Queens Drive was created in 1856 from marshland as part of Prince Albert's plans to improve the area near Holyrood Palace. It was used as a boating pond but is now merely home to a horde of opportunistic swans trying to convince visitors to ignore the notice saying white bread can make swans ill. There are also loads of ducks and geese, and on a warm day it is popular with visitors

At the back of a loch is a path leading up to the ruins of St Anthony's chapel. The chapel was certainly round in 1426 when the Pope gave money for its repair. It is not clear what is was doing here. Only the North wall and part of the West Wall. In the 18th century it was described as a beautiful Gothic building with a tower about 40 foot high.

The walk up to the chapel is fairly gentle but I would not want to come down this path after sunset, and I recommend making sure you have appropriate footwear. The path is narrow and uneven with a steep drop off to the lake. If you want to take photographs from the chapel get their about 30 minutes before sunset and leave while there is enough light to see the path.


From St Margaret's Loch take the road that leads uphill. After about 15 minutes the trees on the left and the raised banks on the right open up and you will come to Dunsapie Loch, another artificial loch formed when the road was made. It is the home of a range of bird species. There are the remains of a farmstead and a 2000 year old fort on the hill over looking the loch. On the other side of the road is the gentlest and safest path leading up to Arthur's seat. You need proper shoes and to be reasonably fit. If you are 18 stone and have not exercised for years forget it. The last few meters before the top are the toughest going up and coming down. Come down the way you came up unless you like taking risks. I went down another way once and it was fun but I needed my wits about me. It was also less interesting visually.

Arthur's seat

Arthur's seat is the highest point of the park and gives an amazing panorama of Edinburgh. Even in Summer there is likely to be a chill strong wind at the top, perhaps strong enough to blow a small child off the cliff edge.
The Rock itself was formed by an extinct volcano eroded by marauding glacier that exposed rocky crags to the west and a tail of material swept to the East, which became the basalt cliffs of Salisbury Crags between Arthur's seat and the City Centre. There are the remains of a hill fort on the summit and a neighbouring hill. Some of the Hill forts nearby are prehistoric: it is a very defendable place. An epic Y Goddodin of around 600AD mentions a tribe called the Votadini who may have had their seat of power and may include a reference to King Arthur. There are the remains of a hill fort on the East side of the hill and also a series of cultivation terraces, most obvious from the village of Duddingston to the East.

In 1836 while hunting rabbits found 17 miniature coffins with small wooden figures inside them in a cave on the crags of Arthurs Seat. Their purpose and origin will remain a mystery for ever: they could have been made for magical purposes or be related to the Burke and Hare murders of 1832. Te coffins and figures can now be seen in the Royal Museum.

Legend has it that in the 12th century King David I encountered a stag at the foot of Arthur's seat while hunting. He fell off his horse and the stag was about to gore him when he had a vision of a cross between its antlers and the stag turned away. Convinced this was divine intervention the king founded Holyrood Abbey on the spot.


Duddingston Loch
Coming down from Arthur's seat and continuing on the road there is panoramic view of Duddingston Loch, which is a Bird Sanctuary and Duddingston Church and village. Until around 1136 this area was known as Treverlen but then the King gave it to Kelso Abbey who feued it to one Dodin de Berwic who called himself Dodin of Dodinestoun.

The Loch itself is not artificial and is a wildlife reserve. From Holyrood Park an area of what looks like marshland can be seen at one end of the loch, which was used for ice-skating and curling.

One of the more interesting characters in Duddingston was the eccentric Dr James Tytler who contributed greatly to the early versions of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. In 1774 he was seeking sanctuary in the Holyrood Abbey lands to avoid his creditors. In 1775 his wife left him and their children and he was then known to be cohabiting with one or two women, one a washerwoman from Duddingston. Eventually he had to flee to Berwick, leaving both women, to avoid being tried for bigamy ( or perhaps he had to flee the women as well). He was a keen but poor businessman and while he was Britain's first balloonist his success was overshadowed by others.

Finishing the walk
Further down the road a small flight of steps takes you to a point where a number of well maintained paths branch off. One takes you along the foot of Salisbury crags then back down to the main road. This is known as the Radical Road and on a good day you can see people climbing or bouldering. There are notices warning against falling rocks including one far enough from the path that you are right in the danger zone before being able to read the notice. If you are in this area around sunset you can photograph a panorama of Edinburgh. Unlike the path to St Anthony's Chapel this is broad and easy to negotiate, but take a torch anyway. If you want to climb you need a (free) permit.

When you get back to the main road you should see St Margaret's Well on your right and the Scottish parliament on the left. The area between here and St Margaret's Loch is used for some Fringe events but is otherwise uninspiring. But by now you should be tired enough not to want inspiration.

The easiest way to get to Arthur's seat from the Badjao Bed andBreakfast is by car. An alternative is to take a bus to the Scottish Parliament and then a short walk to the park.

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