Just as Edinburgh Castle looms over the Royal Mile, the same can be said of the hills Arthur’s Seat and Salisbury Crags over Edinburgh. Arthur’s Seat is the largest of a set of peaks in Holyrood Park, Salisbury Crags being its smaller sibling. Bereft of tall trees, they look majestic any way the sun hits them. After spending weeks touring cities and other places of bustling civilization, we decided to get some fresh air and climb them.
From the base of the Royal Mile at Holyrood Palace, the trails leading up to Arthur’s Seat or Salisbury Crags are just a stone’s throw. We walked…well, we walked a mile down the Royal Mile to get to the trailheads, but our energy for the hike was unfazed after stopping for a full Scottish breakfast at Clarinda’s Tea Room. Salisbury Crags is the hill closer to the Royal Mile, and looks to be the tallest peak, but Arthur’s Seat is deceptively hidden behind it and is in fact much taller. We were careful to choose the right path up as it is easy to get confused, although less so now that some considerate person has staked in a laminated signpost with “ARTHUR’S SEAT THIS WAY” for befuddled tourists like us.
The sky was overcast but not darkly so, and the day promised to be temperate. There were far fewer tourists than we expected given the popularity of the hike, but the early forecast had claimed rain all day, so thankfully that kept many indoors. We had a few sprinkles now and again, but happily nothing more serious. We enjoyed the scenery as we began to climb, watching out for rabbit droppings. The landscape was remarkably familiar to the Channel Islands off the coast of California – tan, windswept hill sides with pockets of deep green, craggy cliff faces, and no tall trees. The moss interspersed with the grass was incredibly soft and I began to believe that maybe characters in fantasy novels are able to get a good night’s sleep on a bed of moss, but Clayton didn’t have as much luck testing the cushiness.
About a quarter of the way up to Arthur’s Seat is the first point of interest. St. Anthony’s Chapel dates from no later than the early 15th century, and was part of Kelso Abbey. Not much else is known about it, except that the ruins look spectacular when hit with sunlight over the crags. (“Crag” is not a common word in the States, and it means a steep or rugged rock face.) After pausing to admire the view from St Anthony’s, already spectacular as it showed us an aerial view of Holyrood Palace and grounds, we turned and continued our ascent.
After a few steps, we overheard a gentleman recommending a very different path up the crag to two other tourists. We eavesdropped, naturally, and began to follow him as he veered off to the right. A sandy patch of earth followed him, finally sitting still long enough to be recognized as a scrappy border terrier in a blue harness. The gentleman noticed us following them and struck up a conversation. It turns out that ever since Robert retired, he comes walking in Holyrood Park everyday with his dog Alfie, and takes a slightly different path each time. He explained that the path most tourists take to the top of Arthur’s Seat is fine if crowded, and because it’s through a gully, you don’t get any views like you do if you climb the ridge itself. As we crested the ridge, we could see out across Edinburgh, and we paused as he explained to us what we were looking at. We asked what some Roman-like ruins were on a hilltop and he said that was Calton Hill. Everyday, a “time ball” drops from the top of Nelson Monument at exactly one o’clock. This was installed in the 1800s so that ships in the port could sync up their chronometers (aka clocks), and just a few years later they wisened up, added the firing of the one o’clock gun so that everyone could be on time despite fog obstructing the time ball. As Robert explained this to us, his dog, Alfie, sat patiently and quietly a few yards off, clearly very used to his chatty owner. Our impromptu tour guide was extremely friendly, but not without opinions, and as we entered onto the subject of Scots and golf he emphatically exclaimed “Och, it’s a waste of a good walk, isn’t it Alfie?”. His thick, melodic Scottish brogue was a pleasure to listen to. I must admit, Clayton and I enjoy the Scottish dialect more than any other. Clayton says that if English was a colorful picture, the Scottish brogue is as if someone slid the saturation way up.
We parted ways with Robert and Alfie as we approached the top. He wasn’t planning on going to the peak today, and we watched the pair continue on, Alfie never too far away from his owner despite no leash. Luckily, we can continue to enjoy Alfie’s walks since you can find Robert on Instagram as @holyroodparkphotos if you are so inclined – he takes wonderful pictures of the scenery!
We finished climbing the last few yards to the peak of Arthur’s Seat, stumbling over skree and delicately passing other climbers on narrow passageways. The view from the peak is stunning, and you get a sense for just how big Edinburgh really is. It’s easy to think of Edinburgh as just the Royal Mile and New Town, but in fact Holyrood Park and it’s peaks are in the center of a sprawling urban center. It’s not so large that you can’t see farms out in the distance, however, which I think makes for a perfect city size. We caught our breath with several other tourists, but soon moved on since the strong winds felt much colder now that we weren’t huffing and puffing up the crag.
We descended down a different way than we came up, using a mixture of careful foot placement and planned sliding in some places. We were taking a trail that Alfie’s owner had pointed out earlier, one that would lead us over to hike Salisbury Crags as well. About to turn onto this trail, we spied a flying chunk of earth. On closer inspection, we noticed an extremely thin white dog digging furiously into the side of the hill. The dog had a collar, but we believed that she was probably lost and a stray, poor thing. We watched as she determinedly dug further and further into the side of the hill, most likely after a rabbit. We pitied the dog, since it seemed like the rabbit was long gone. Every now and then, the dog would look out from the hole, her glorious white snout covered in dirt. Yet her tail continued wagging, and she persisted with her fruitless efforts. We left her to it and continued on our way. Perhaps five minutes later, we heard gasps from behind. Whirling around, we saw the white dog sprinting down the hill towards us, pleased as punch, with an absolutely enormous rabbit in her jaws. She shot past us and continued down the trail right through crowds of tourists, as if purposefully showing off her kill. It was almost comical, the way a wake of gasps and hands covering mouths followed her in her victory lap.
We left the throng of tourists and took the lesser traveled path between the peaks. I could say something about Robert Frost here, but I won’t. We passed some wild blackberries and tasted a few as we walked. They were tart and delicious, and breakfast already seemed too far gone. Several locals passed us at a dead run on their way up the mountainous crag, which honestly just made me feel pathetic, as happy as I was for them and their fitness levels. Salisbury Crags may be lower than Arthur’s Peak, but there is a lot more space to enjoy the view since the peak is more of a cliff’s edge that goes on and on. We hunkered down and ate some sea salt fudge we had purchased the previous day, until the biting wind convinced us it was time to move on. We did stop for a while to watch the crows at the cliff’s edge. There were several pairs of them, large and black as night. They sat on the cliff’s edge until some unspoken agreement led them all to catapult themselves off into the air. They danced on the air currents, tossing and turning for the joy of it. It was silent except for the sound of the wind and the flutter of their wings. They always seemed to fly in pairs, and it was hard to tell if it was out of camaraderie or competition for the most daring trick. We were hypnotized by the crows until our reverie was shattered by the sound of a gun from across the city – it was one o’clock.
We returned to the base of the crags just in time for a large, late lunch. We felt wonderfully exhausted, as only getting your heart rate up and a healthy dose of fresh air will do. Hiking the crags in Holyrood Park was by far one of the best things we did in Edinburgh, and it left us hungry for hiking the Highlands on a future trip to Scotland.