Reliving History in Edinburgh

Georgina Wilson-powell
Filed on January 1, 2010

Sherlock Holmes is about to come back to life, courtesy Guy Ritchie, Robert Downey Jr, Jude Law and a Hollwood blockbuster budget.

His original creator Arthur Conan Doyle might have based the groundbreaking detective in London but the character was conceived and inspired by Conan Doyle’s training in Edinburgh’s world-renowned medical school, and in particular by one professor — Joseph Bell — who impressed his student with his quick powers of deduction.

Reliving History in Edinburgh (/assets/oldimages/travel_311209.jpg)The Scottish city of Edinburgh has always had a mysterious power over its writers and its visitors. The castle-adorned medieval place hides many secrets, including some pretty special museums that have exhibitions dedicated to Conan Doyle’s finest creation, who has delighted readers for nearly a 100 years. Conan Doyle even used to receive letters addressed to Sherlock Holmes, as his fans thought he was real. The detective went on to star in 56 short stories and four novels and can be seen as a statue outside where Conan Doyle used to live in Picardy Place.

So, if you’re going on the trail of the famous detective’s beginnings, get off the beaten track and visit the Surgeon’s museum, which provides a grisly and gruesome history lesson of the city, complete with information on the notorious body snatchers William Burke and William Hare, exhibitions on the pioneering medical minds at the medical school and barbaric practices of ancient surgery.

Edinburgh also has a long history with writers of note, including Robert Louis Stevenson (Treasure Island, Kidnapped), the famous poet Robert Burns and author Sir Walter Scott. All are celebrated at the small but interesting Writers’ museum, which is secreted in a private castle-style folly off the Royal Mile. Authors are also celebrated in the city’s literary pub tour and the Ian Rankin tour. The latter follows in Conan Doyle’s footsteps — his own Detective Rebus novels have proven modern global bestsellers. The city’s rich contribution to literature has been recognised — it was the first city to become a UNESCO City of Literature.

The Balmoral Hotel, meanwhile, is the place to stay in Edinburgh. Its grand clock tower sits right on the top of the train station, within viewing distance of the castle and the old town. Well, it would be, had Victorian pea soup-style fog not blocked out everything further than 10 yards away all weekend.

The hotel is also close to the largest monument to a writer ever erected (to Sir Walter Scott), the Gothic structure on Princes Street looks more like the top of cathedral than a monument, but is well worth a look. Although Edinburgh is a manageable, walkable city, it’s full of ancient steps that crisscross the steep hills, its buildings cling to and after a day of exploring, why not retire to the splendour of the hotel?

Treat yourself to proper afternoon tea whilst a pianist tinkles the ivories or if you prefer something more modern, check out the spa. The bottom floor of this five star hotel (in which JK Rowling finished her final Harry Potter) has been converted to a large swimming pool, spa and steam room, which compliment a range of treatments, but the Thai infused Karala signature 90 minute package which includes a facial with a lemongrass poultice and herbal cushions across the backs of your legs and stomach, means that no matter what the weather outside, you’ll emerge shiny and new.

Not just a pretty face and a clever mind, Scotland is a deep well of culinary talent. Ignore the predilection for deep battered mars bars (which seems to be more of a put on for tourists) and head to one of the city’s main fine dining restaurants. The Balmoral itself not only has Hadrian’s, a modern fusion eatery, it also has Number One, a Michelin starred, elegant restaurant. However, the newest place making waves and broadsheet reviews is 21212, which has turned an elegant townhouse into a luxurious modern place with a twist. Diners are offered five courses, two of which are house soup and cheese, which are nowhere near as dull as those words sound. Despite the menu cramming in the ingredients, dishes are small, delicate and interesting, and top chef Paul Kitching does his best to astound and amaze your taste buds with classic food reinvented.

Once you’re fed and freshened up, go back in time once again and visit Edinburgh’s murky past with the Adam Lyal (deceased) Witchery Tour. An hour and a half will see you led around the old town, below the castle by some rather enthusiastic ‘dead’ highway robbers and witches who bring history to life as they reveal the grim secrets of what happened to witches (drowned) and traitors (hung and quartered).

No matter whose history you’re tracing in the Scottish capital, from writers to witches, real kings or imaginative detectives, you’ll find plenty worth exploring all year round.

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