EDINBURGH, Scotland — We were huffing and puffing our way up one of Edinburgh's streets when somebody summed up the Old Town.
"This place isn't on the level," he said.
He was right. The place is all hills, so ingeniously designed that only the Royal Mile seems to go downhill.
Every time we reached the top we would pause for breath, look around and find yet another winding street, its stone steps leading up to another undiscovered summit.
Old Town is really only one hill, a slope of volcanic rock that broods like a Sphinx over the Scottish plain, with Edinburgh Castle at its head and the Palace of Holyrood House at its tail.
Countless alleys and wyndes spill down its flanks. Stone stairways descend to hidden pubs and tearooms. Sun-splashed courtyards gleam at the bottom of dank closes.
From the castle ramparts other hills loom into view. To the west, behind Holyrood House, are Salisbury Crags and Arthur's Seat, with Firth of Forth in the distance.
Balancing Arthur's Seat to the northwest is Calton Hill, topped by strange monoliths and colonnades. To the north is the hill of Inverlieth, home of the Royal Botanic Garden. And to the south is Blackford Hill, site of the Royal Observatory and gateway to the Borders beyond.
Touring Old Town
A tour of Old Town begins at the castle, which is easily reached by climbing one of the winding trails from Princes Street Gardens or by marching directly up High Street.
Try to arrive for the firing of the 1 o'clock gun. Why a 1 o'clock gun? "We Scots are very frugal," the guide says. "A noonday gun would cost us 12 shots a day."
Once in the castle you'll find that the climb isn't over. The path winds farther up, through seven gates, until it reaches the oldest part of the castle.
Crown Square, the heart of the castle complex, is flanked by the National War Memorial, the Crown Room, Queen Mary's Apartments, the Banqueting Hall and the United Services Museum.
Here are memorials to Scottish regiments and soldiers who have died in various wars. Here too is the tiny alcove where in 1566 Mary gave birth to James VI, later to become James I of England.
The Banqueting Hall, with beamed and vaulted ceiling, was long the setting for state banquets, not all of which were cakes and ale and merriment.
Black Dinner of 1440
Consider the Black Dinner of 1440. The evening's entree was a black bull's head--the sign of death--a signal for the young Earl of Douglas to be slain with axes in the presence of the king.
(Dining in Edinburgh has always been an iffy proposition. At Holyrood House you can visit the room where Mary Queen of Scots' secretary, David Rizzio, was slaughtered while supping with the queen.)
Just after leaving the castle esplanade, look at the house on the right. This is Cannonball House. The cannonball, which lodged near an upper window, was lobbed from the castle in 1745 and was intended for Bonnie Prince Charlie at Holyrood House. It fell short.
Now you are on the Royal Mile, named for the procession of royals who trod its stones in their passages between the castle and Holyrood House.
On the right is Boswell's Court, named for the Edinburgh lawyer and biographer of Dr. Samuel Johnson. It houses the Witchery, a good restaurant for lunch or tea, though your digestion may be hindered by remembering that this is the site of the infamous Hell-Fire Club, whose cabalistic emblems adorn the walls.
Order the haggis we' neeps 'n' tatties. Neeps are turnips, tatties are potatoes, and haggis is a sheep's stomach stuffed with innards and oatmeal.
Brodie the Burglar
Below, the alleys branching off are Mylne's Court, Riddle's Close, Macmorran's Close and James's Court, all named for upstanding Scots citizens. When you reach Brodie's Close, however, you encounter a different sort of character.
Brodie's Close is named for Deacon William Brodie, a town councilor and cabinet maker by day and a cat burglar by night.
On March 5, 1788, he was arrested while robbing the excise office, and later hanged on a gallows he had designed. Ironically, his design failed him, and it took three "drops" for Brodie to die.
Brodie survives in three ways. First, there is Brodie's Close. Second, across the way, is Deacon Brodie's Tavern, a popular spot. And third, he became the model for Robert Louis Stevenson's "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde."
Across from Deacon Brodie's Tavern is a brass H set in the pavement, where the gallows once stood and where the last public execution was held in 1829.
The guest of honor was William Burke, the body-snatcher who gave us the verb burke: "to murder a person in such a way as to produce no incriminating marks, usually by suffocation, and with the intention of selling the body for dissection."