The Royal Mile is an eclectic mix of shops, restaurants, pubs and visitor attractions. During the annual Edinburgh Festival, the High Street becomes crowded with tourists, entertainers and buskers.
The thoroughfare is, as the name suggests, approximately one mile long and runs downhill between two significant locations in the history of Scotland, namely Edinburgh Castle and Holyrood Palace. The streets which make up the Royal Mile are (west to east) Castlehill, the Lawnmarket, the High Street, the Canongate and Abbey Strand. The Royal Mile is the busiest tourist street in the Old Town, rivalled only by Princes Street in the New Town.
Parliament Square is at the heart of Scotland’s legal system, being the home of both the High Court of Justiciary and the Court of Session.
In January 2012, the City of Edinburgh Council held a summit with residents, traders and other interested parties to discuss the issue of tourist merchandise, described by some as ‘Tartan Tat’, taking over the street, and how the Royal Mile can be made into a five-star visitor attraction.
This street is the short approach to Holyrood Palace at the foot of the Canongate. One of the buildings on the north side was the house of Lucky Spence, a notorious brothel madam, remembered in Allan Ramsay’s poem, Lucky Spence’s Last Advice. On the south side is the Queen’s Gallery, used to exhibit items in the Royal collection, in the shell of the former Holyrood Free Church and Duchess of Gordon’s School. There are also the remains of the gatehouse of Holyrood Palace built by James IV, with a copy of the royal coat-of-arms of James V set in the wall.
The whole south side of buildings from St Giles to the Tron Kirk had to be rebuilt or refaced in the 1820’s following the Great Edinburgh Fire of 1824. This was done in a very simple but well-proportioned Georgian style, stepping down the hill.
The central focus of the Royal Mile is a major intersection with the Bridges. North Bridge runs north over Waverley station to the New Town’s Princes Street. South Bridge (which appears at street level to be simply a road with shops on either side—only one arch is visible from below) spans the Cowgate to the south, a street in a hollow below, and continues as Nicolson Street past the Old College building of the University of Edinburgh.
Between the Bridges and John Knox’s House is one of the only remaining buildings on the Royal Mile still used for the purpose for which it was built – Carrubbers Christian Centre.
Built-in 1883 to house the Carrubbers Close Mission, the building is still a lively church.
At John Knox’s House, the High Street narrows to a section of the street formerly known as the Netherbow, which, at its crossroads with Jeffrey Street and St Mary’s Street, marked the former city boundary. At this point stood the Netherbow Port, a fortified gateway between Edinburgh and the Canongate (until 1856 a separate burgh), which was removed in 1764 to improve traffic flow.
The recently rebuilt Netherbow Theatre is owned by the Church of Scotland and houses the Scottish Storytelling Centre. Following the English victory over the Scots at the Battle of Flodden in 1513, a city wall was built around Edinburgh known as the Flodden Wall, some parts of which survive. The Netherbow Port was a gateway in this wall and brass studs in the road mark its former position. On the corner of St Mary’s Street is the World’s End Pub which takes its name from the adjacent World’s End Close, whimsically so named because this was in former times the last close in Edinburgh before entering the Canongate.