Jenny Southan is spooked by skeletons, wowed by whiskies and in awe of the art in Scotland’s capital
1. Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh
Start your tour at the museum of the Royal College of Surgeons – one of Scotland’s oldest, it opened to the public in 1832 and is a fascinating alternative to the more touristy attractions on the Royal Mile. If you go to the college reception, a member of staff will direct you to the museum. It’s only open from 12pm to 4pm during the week, so make sure you timetable it in. There are several permanent exhibitions on topics such as sports surgery and dentistry, but must-sees are “The history of surgery in Scotland since 1505” and the Pathology Museum.
If you’re squeamish, this latter stop might be best avoided – exhibits include skeletons of human foetuses, plaster casts of dissected bodies, brains and eyeballs in formaldehyde, and rusty saws and tourniquets once used for amputations. “It is better to live with three than die with four,” said Pierre Dionis in 1707, but without the anaesthetics invented in the 1800s, these barbaric operations, meticulously illustrated in the old prints on display, hardly bear thinking about. Look out for a notebook made from the skin of hung criminal William Burke, who, along with his accomplice William Hare, murdered 17 people and sold them to the anatomy department at the University of Edinburgh in 1828 for dissection. Entry £5. Nicolson Street; tel +44 (0)131 527 1649; museum.rcsed.ac.uk
2. The Witchery by the Castle
Provided you haven’t lost your appetite, head up South Bridge and turn left on to the High Street, in the centre of the Royal Mile. Close to Edinburgh Castle, this historic venue houses two restaurants – the dim, atmospheric Witchery (named in remembrance of the many people who were burned as witches on Castlehill), and the newer, more airy Secret Garden, which has an outdoor terrace and is accessed by a sloping alleyway and stone staircase. The menus are the same, offering a rich selection of Scottish and European fine cuisine – try the Lindisfarne oysters (from £13) or haggis, neeps and tatties (£9) to start, followed by Loch Duart organic salmon with roast chicory (£20) or steak tartare (£22).
To celebrate 30 years since James Thomson established the Witchery, a special three-course menu is available for £30, and the amenable sommelier will be happy to recommend a bottle of wine from the 900 or so vintages on offer. Lunch 12pm-4pm, dinner 5.30pm-11.30pm. Castlehill, the Royal Mile; tel +44 (0)131 225 5613; thewitchery.com
3. St Giles’ Cathedral
A short walk down the road is St Giles’ Cathedral, dedicated to the medieval patron saint of cripples and lepers. The edifice features vast, luminous stained-glass windows, and to one side of the cathedral, set high between the elephantine stone pillars of the south transept, is an awe-inspiring red and silver organ – services are held five times a day, so you may be lucky enough to hear it.
Over the centuries, numerous altars were added – by the mid-1500s, there were about 50. The ornately carved gothic-style Thistle Chapel is “the spiritual home of the most ancient and most noble order of the thistle, Scotland’s highest order of chivalry”, and was added in 1911. Once you’ve had a look around, take a seat and absorb the serenity of your surroundings. Open Mon-Sat 9am-5pm (7pm Mon-Fri in summer), Sun 1pm-5pm. Entry free, donations appreciated. Royal Mile; tel +44 (0)131 225 9442; stgilescathedral.org.uk
4. Royal Mile Whiskies
Across the road from the cathedral is Royal Mile Whiskies, specialist sellers of the fiery stuff. As it is in such a central location, it does get busy, but the selection is excellent. One point to consider when choosing a whisky is the age – the time it has spent maturing in the cask – as it’s this that indicates quality. Another factor is whether it is a blend or a single malt – singles come from an individual distillery, while blends are a mixture of malt and grain whisky from more than one distillery.
Scotch can be a blend or the more sought-after single malts, and comes from one of five main regions, including Campbeltown, Speyside and Highland. So whether you are after a smoky, medicinal Islay malt or something fruity, dry and subtle from the Lowland, you should find something to suit your palate. 379 Royal Mile; tel +44 (0)131 225 3383; royalmilewhiskies.com
5. Voodoo Rooms
From the Royal Mile, take the North Bridge over Edinburgh Waverley station and Princes Street to the Voodoo Rooms, which sits above the Café Royal Circle bar (also a good stop). The Scottish capital may be famed for its whisky shops and bars, but for those who fancy something different, the Voodoo Rooms stocks more than 120 types of tequila and rum.
The award-winning cocktails must also be sampled – take a seat at one of the brass-topped tables and try a Cash Jar (£6), a “violent shaking of Beija Flor Velha Cachaca, Voodoo Bitters No 2, rock candy and home-made rhubarb and ginger jam”, served in… a jam jar. Open Mon-Thu 4pm-1am, Fri-Sun 12pm-1am. 19a West Register Street; tel +44 (0)131 556 7060; thevoodoorooms.com
6. Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art
If you have time, jump in a taxi and head to the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, ten minutes away. In 2002, the lawn in front was strikingly re-landscaped by Charles Jencks, and the parkland around is home to sculptures by artists such as Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth.
On the ground floor of the gallery is a series of works by Damien Hirst – as well as the customary pickled lamb in a vitrine, there is an interesting series of posterised screen prints of fake medicine packaging, redesigned to feature the name of a food product instead of the drug, and the dazzling Beautiful C Painting, made by pouring vibrant gloss paints on to a spinning circular canvas.
Another thought-provoking conceptual piece to look out for is Douglas Gordon’s List of Names. In 1990 Gordon started writing the names of all the people he could ever remember meeting on a high white wall, and today the lists exceeds 1,400. Open daily 10am-5pm; free entry. 75 Belford Road; nationalgalleries.org n
See visitscotland.com for more information.