Edinburgh Day 3: Holyrood House, Holyrood Abbey and Mary King’s Close

The Palace of Holyrood House is the official residence of the Monarchy in Scotland. Before The kingdoms of England and Scotland were joined in 1603 by the accession to the throne of King James I of England and VI of Scotland, Holyrood House was the home of the Scottish royal family.
Palace of Holyrood House 1
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Holyrood House started off as an Augustinian Abbey in 1128. The oldest part of the palace, the north-west tower (on the left hand side of the photos below), dates back to 1501.

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Over the years, the palace was enlarged, renovated and modernised with its rooms arranged around a classical-style quadrangle. The Royal Family’s private apartments are situated on the upper floor. The palace is open to the public all year round except when the Royal Family is in residence.
We made our way to Holyrood House on a bright and sunny day in late August. Needless to say, this place has been on by bucket list for many years because it was here that Mary, queen of Scots, spent most of her turbulent life. I found her bedroom and private apartments, located in the north-west tower, the most interesting. Mary married Henry Stewart, Lord Darnley and James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell, at the palace and it was from the small dining room just off of her bedroom that David Rizzio, her private secretary, was dragged and murdered by her husband, Lord Darnley, who was jealous of Rizzio’s influence over her. Mary, who was heavily pregnant at this time, witnessed the brutal murder. A lock of  Mary’s hair and a few personal belongings are on display in her private apartments. Unfortunately, no photographs are allowed anywhere inside the palace.
An audio guide is provided with the entrance ticket. Apart from Mary’s private apartments, the tour takes the visitor through the State Apartments, the King’s Bedchamber, the Royal Dining Room, the Throne Room and the Great Gallery, that is hung with portraits of real and legendary Scottish kings. For a few virtual tours of the palace go here.
Holyrood Abbey
The ruins of Holyrood Abbey are adjacent to Holyrood Palace. Founded in 1128, the abbey was used as a parish church until the 17th century. It is said that a fragment of the true cross was preserved in a golden reliquary at the abbey. Rood is an old word for the cross on which Jesus was crucified. Thus Holyrood is equivalent to Holy Cross. The reliquary fell into the hands of the English in the 14th century and disappeared during the Reformation.
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Due to a series of historical events that are too complicated to go into here, a mob broke into the abbey in 1688 and desecrated it. It was abandoned and, around 80 years later, the weakened structure could no longer support the roof, which collapsed in two stages, leaving the abbey a roofless ruin.
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A small number of coronations and royal weddings were held at Holyrood Abbey. It was also the site of many royal internments. I always find Gothic architecture to be awe-inspiring – perhaps because it is so very different to anything I am used to – but when the structure is in ruins, I find it irresistible and end up taking way too many photos. The startlingly blue sky acted as a perfect foil to the gloomy ruins and the play of sunshine and shadows added to the remarkable atmosphere of the place. Had we visited on a grey and gloomy day I am sure that I would have found the ruins to be eerie and slightly foreboding.
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Holyrood Palace Gardens
The gardens are typically British. There’s nothing too formal about them. There’s a certain nonchalance about the landscaping, as if everything happened to just grow and flower in a particular spot without too much thought and effort. The abbey ruins in the background just enhance the experience of the place. It gives the visitor a slightly mystical and magical experience.
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Clearly visible from the palace gardens is Arthur’s Seat, the remains of an extinct volcano that is a popular hiking area due to the panoramic views of Edinburgh that are visible from its peak. We did not find the time to hike to the top but will definitely do so on our next visit (there has to be a next visit). Anybody wishing to undertake the walk to the peak may find this guide to climbing Arthur’s Seat useful.
Arthur's Seat
More views of the abbey exterior can be seen from the garden and allow the visitor to appreciate how much larger the building used to be since parts of the foundations are still visible in the grass.
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Mary King’s Close
Mary King’s Close is a historic series of closes (narrow streets with tenement buildings, sometimes up to eight stories high, on either side) that were buried due to the building of the Royal Exchange in the 18th century. Mary King was a merchant burgess who lived in the close during the 18th century. Not only was it unusual for a woman to be a successful merchant at that time but being a burgess meant that she was a member of the city council and had voting rights.
The Real Mary King's Close
Tours of the Real Mary King’s Close take place every day of the year except Christmas. A guide in period costume narrates the colourful history of these subterranean closes while allowing visitors to experience what life was like in the tenements all those centuries ago. Sometimes, families of up to 12 people shared one or two tiny rooms. With no running water or bathrooms - people shared one pot for their needs which was emptied twice a day into the street outside - the houses of the poor suffered from unhygienic conditions that led to the rapid spread of disease. Rats were a common sight and outbreaks of serious illnesses such as the bubonic plague were not uncommon. People died in their hundreds in such crowded and unsanitary conditions and rumours that people were buried alive abound. This led to the rumours that the close is haunted but each visitor should decide this for themselves.
The Real  Mary King’s Close tour is more historical than ghostly but be warned that it is not for the claustrophobic since it takes place underground in dark, confined spaces and I had to stop myself from thinking that the huge edifice of the Royal Exchange was sitting squarely on top of our collective heads. For me, that was a scarier thought than any potential encounter with some ghostly being. Photos were prohibited (for security reasons, we were told) so I am sharing this short promotional video that I found which I hope will give you an idea of what this tour is all about.
Location: Edinburgh, Scotland (August 2018)
This post concludes our adventures in Edinburgh. Next up: Inverness and the Highlands.
Gattina said...

Sweet memories ! I only have seen the castle from outside but it is really beautiful and the ruins I haven't seen at all. Good to know, because I want to go back to Edinburgh !



Debbie Nolan said...

Loree - this was wonderful to see. Mary's Close looks like an almost eerie place to visit. When you expressed the horrible conditions people lived in during this time period...made me so grateful for all the blessings I have known - we don't get to choose where we are born and what privileges we are given. Loved seeing your gorgeous pictures of the ruins. Thank you friend for sharing. I am so enjoying these posts of Scotland. Hugs!

Loree said...

I hope you get to go back soon. It's a really lovely city.

Loree said...

Yes, she was one of the lucky few. Edinburgh really is fascinating. I can't wait to go back.

Loree said...

Yes, sometimes we forget how lucky we are and how the things we take for granted are really a blessing. The ruins of the abbey are lovely. Sadly, ruins of abbeys and churches are dotted all over the British Isles.

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Sincerely, Loree. Theme by STS.