Arthur's Seat is one of the extinct volcanoes that make Edinburgh what it is. Rising way above the city, this vast basalt mound is visible for miles around. Its silhouette has been compared to a sleeping elephant, and when Edinburgh wears the haar like a shroud, it sometimes feels like you are living in that elephant's dream.
To get up there is a fairly difficult walk, or a relatively easy climb - there are paths most of the way up through the hills around it, with just a short scramble to reach the very top. Nothing that is out of the reach of any but the least confident climber, but plenty to challenge the heart and lungs of all but the fittest hillwalker. The view from the top is astounding - Edinburgh is an extraordinarily beautiful city whether viewed from street height or above, and you can see almost the whole thing from up there. Calton Hill, which seems so tall when you are up it, is seen way below, and beyond it spreads the whole of Leith and the Firth of Forth. The view of Castle Hill from there is perfect, with Edinburgh Castle and The Hub at the peak and much of the Royal Mile's gentle descent visible below. On the other side, past a few miles of Edinburgh streets, is Blackford Hill with its gorse-strewn slopes and observatory.
A little way below the peak to the east - the angle of easiest ascent - is Dunsapie Loch, an oddly elevated reservoir attracting many wildfowl. To the south-east is a secondary peak known as Crow Hill, or, for those who think of Arthur's Seat as a lion rather than an elephant, the Lion's Haunch. To the west the jagged lines of the Salisbury Crags tell a story of geological upheaval, ancient volcanic flow over even older sedimentary rock, knocked askew by ancient shifts of the land, stripped bare by the passing of glaciers. Indeed this spot is considered the birthplace of geology, where James Hutton hit on some of the science's foundational insights. Off to the north can be seen the ruins of St. Anthony's Chapel, and the swan-strewn St. Margaret's Loch.
The peak is probably named after the legendary King Arthur, like so many ancient sites in Britain, both natural and man-made - and like so many, it is considered a possible location for Camelot. There are traces of hill forts and signs of prehistoric cultivation here. The 650-acre park that Arthur's Seat dominates (and sometimes, misleadingly, lends its name to) is officially known as Holyrood Park, named after a vision of a holy rood, or cross, that King David I of Scotland saw at the foot of the hill, between the antlers of a stag that miraculously decided not to gore him. In those days much of the area was covered by forest, a rich private hunting ground for the royals, but few trees remain now, and the biggest wild animal you are likely to see is a raven.
Among the oldest surviving Beltane traditions is the washing of one's face in the May Day dew, on the slopes of Arthur's Seat, at dawn. They say it will make you magically more beautiful. Maybe it will, maybe it won't, but I can tell you for sure that it is amazingly refreshing.
- Photos I've taken of Arthur's Seat from various spots around Edinburgh
- My other photos from around that area
- More photos and engravings
- Holyrood Park Geology
- Scottish Mountaineering Club Journal article, from 1897
- A running-focused map of the park (Arthur's Seat's coordinates are 55°56′39″N 3°09′43″W)
- Up My Street (A Quest for Local Knowledge)