The Story of Edinburgh in Three Museums

Edinburgh is more than a city. It is civilisation – both beautiful and brutal – writ in stone. With over 2,000 years of history it is a great open-air museum, in which you can study art, architecture, philosophy, literature, sociology and history simply by going for a walk. No wonder writers from Robert Louis Stevenson and Charlotte Brontë to GK Chesterton and Hugh MacDiarmid have sung the praises of the city that resembles a “mad god’s dream”, to quote the latter, over the centuries.

 

Edinburgh from Calton Hill
Residents and visitors alike are fortunate to have places that help unravel Edinburgh’s secrets – the city’s museums. Most will know of the National Museum of Scotland, and rightly so, yet there are a great many others that offer unique local perspectives on our precipitous city. Some are museums in the guise of monuments, such as the iconic Scott Monument or the Nelson Monument on Calton Hill. There are three in particular that I regularly visit, sometimes while researching an article or other times simply to steep in the history: Lauriston Castle, The Writers’ Museum.

 

Lauriston Castle

Any excuse to visit a castle, right? Located in the west of Edinburgh not far from Cramond, which together with Lauriston Tower makes for a history-filled day out, it’s worth seeing even just to say that you found one of Edinburgh’s secret castles. The exterior sets the tone immediately; entering the grounds takes you past stone carvings and statues that would feel at home in a Greek villa. From there you might choose to wander the patches of woodland scattered about, some containing enigmatic remains of old structures, or to go and contemplate the serene beauty of the Japanese Garden. Dogs and their people criss-cross the field in front of the castle, and it’s obvious that this is a place treasured by the local community.

 

 

For all that, you’ll not have paid a penny. You can freely wander the castle grounds and examine the peculiar details on the tower itself. Lauriston Castle started as a medieval towerhouse, but this was destroyed during the Rough Wooing in the1544. The castle we see now was largely the work of the Napiers, and it was once home to John Napier, the inventor of logarithms. A number of other brainy individuals graced its halls over the years, including Sir Walter Scott who complemented it as being comfortable and in very good taste. The castle was extended into a Jacobean-style chateau by Thomas Allen in the 19th century. It was then acquired by the Reids, who upon passing bequeathed it to nation on the condition that their extensive collections be preserved and made open to the public.

 


And what a collection! Mosaics, Italian furniture, a library and home office fit for a bard, and countless other curiosities are found inside. One of the most intriguing is the Blue John ornaments, which come alive with colourful and almost otherworldly ripples when illuminated by a guide. The interior is by guided tour only and is highly recommended – on my several visits over the years I found the guides to be passionate and extremely knowledegable without exception. Lauriston Castle also hosts a series of lectures throughout the year, and I’ll be giving two of them in 2019, one on the history of fortifications in Scotland and another about my upcoming book on Game of Thrones and Scottish history! You can find details about tours, talks, accessibility and more here.

 

 

The Writers’ Museum

Athletes and actors are fine and all, but it is writers perhaps above all that Edinburgh really elevates. Edinburgh is, after all, the UNESCO City of Literature, and simply by strolling down the Royal Mile you are in the footsteps of Adam Smith, David Hume, Arthur Conan Doyle, Muriel Spark, Irvine Welsh, JK Rowling and many more.

 

Writers Museum

 

Turn off the Royal Mile near the intersection of George IV Bridge into Makar’s Court and you’ll find one of the Old Town’s most beautiful buildings: Lady Stair’s House, home to the Writers’ Museum. You are primed from the first to get in the literary mindset, with quotes from Scottish literature engraved in the very stones under your feet. A few of my favourites include Nigel Tranter’s “You wish to abide here? To be sure, can you think of anywhere better?” and, more mischievously, James Boswell’s “I rattled down the High Street in high elevation of spirits” (we all know what that really means).

 

 

Inside are three major sections, one each for three titans of Scottish literature: Robert Louis Stevenson, Sir Walter Scott, and Robert Burns. These names, so often raised to lofty heights, become fully fleshed out people thanks to the exhibitions which contain deeply personal items from all stages of their lives. Seeing Walter Scott’s childhood rocking horse is quite the moment, as is the touching tale of the tortoise shell ring crafted by a Samoan chieftain for Robert Louis Stevenson. There are also temporary exhibitions, and right now they have Storyworlds, a display of stunningly crafted paper sculptures based on scenes from Scottish literature created by local students.

 

Even if you have never read Rob Roy or Treasure Island or sang Auld Lang Syne on New Year’s Eve, the Writers’ Museum is a beauty in its own right both inside and out. Makar’s Court is eminently Instagrammable, and Lady Stair’s House is one of the architectural masterpieces of the Old Town. Learn everything you need to know before visiting here.

 
Museum of Edinburgh

Where to even begin? This museum tells the story of Edinburgh, and there are few stories as epic as that. Located just across from the Canongate Kirk, the Museum of Edinburgh both contains and is surrounded by fascinating historical artefacts. The closes nearby were home to publishing houses in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, including Bakehouse Close which has been launched into international stardom since being used as an Outlander filming location. Adam Smith is buried just across the road, and nearby Acheson House used to be one of Edinburgh’s best-known brothels – it was certainly a favourite of Robert Louis Stevenson, a nifty connection with the Writers’ Museum up the road!

 

 

Kids in candy shops have nothing on me inside the Museum of Edinburgh. There are medieval grave slabs, including one from Turkey; original wooden pipes that brought the first splashes of fresh water into the city in the seventeenth century; models that allow you to take in an aerial view of the warren of closes around the Royal Mile; an entire exhibition on everyone’s favourite pup, Greyfriars Bobby; and something from just about every era of Edinburgh’s story. A particular favourite is the courtyard out back, which is packed with carved masonry fragments from noble houses, castles, and civic buildings. It’s cliched to say, but there truly is something for everybody – including dress-up stations for the kids and less-restrained adults amongst us.

 

 

Be sure to leave plenty of time, an hour and a half at minimum, to explore the Museum of Edinburgh. Its dimensions are truly Tardis-like, with an astonishing number of rooms and corridors packed with artefacts that in no way seem possible from the size of the museum’s exterior. I find myself coming back again and again to revisit old favourites and, more often than not, discover something new.
 

 

This is far from a complete account of Edinburgh’s museums. Many more can be found through Museums & Galleries Edinburgh, who manage 14 venues and 200 historic monuments throughout Edinburgh. They have itinerary recommendations for your time in Edinburgh and regularly run photography exhibitions, workshops, family events, and more.

Disclaimer

This post, and my visit to all three locations featured within, were sponsored by Museums & Galleries Edinburgh. I previously worked with them to promote the Scott & Nelson monuments, and am planning on more collaborations with them in the future. I believe that they play an integral part in making Edinburgh the world-class repository of knowledge that it is, and I unreservedly recommend visiting their museums and venues. I regularly do just that in my own time, and I’m especially fond of Lauriston Castle – big surprise there!