Arthur’s Seat inspired modern geology

If you like hiking you should include a visit to Arthur’s Seat during your time in Edinburgh. I was recommended to visit the place when I was in Glasgow. As I was staying next to Edinburgh Castle, I had to walk the entire Royal Mile to the other end, where Holyrood Palace is located. This 1 mile (1.6 kilometer) journey took me about 25 minutes. Next to the palace is Holyrood Park with 640 acres (258 hectares).

When I went in November, 2019, several of the routes were closed because of rocks falling. Access was not allowed as it was considered unstable.

I did the longest route, which took me about 30 minutes up and 15 minutes down. For the descent my body was already hot and I could go faster. I like to think that I am in quite good physical condition, but the cold had my nose dripping like a faucet. Luckily, when I went there was no breeze, but it is usually very strong. You must wear a coat, even if you go in the summer. The prettiest season is spring when Arthur’s Seat is filled with wild flowers. If you like nature you must visit the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh.

It is advisable to wear comfortable shoes, boots or closed shoes. I saw some women walking up in high heels and I thought they were a little crazy. It rains a lot in Scotland, so there was mud on the road. While you climb Arthur’s Seat you can stop to observe the view. Your reward for reaching the top are the 360 degree views of Edinburgh and the Lothians.

Arthur’s Seat

At 251 meters above sea level, Arthur’s Seat is the highest point in Holyrood Park. This hill used to be an extinct volcano that exploded 350 million years ago. The volcano was so large that it also included what we now know as ‘Calton Hill’ and ‘Castle Rock’. The entire Arthur’s Seat volcano complex was designated as a site of special scientific interest by the British government.

Many of the current theories of geology were formed in this place. James Hutton was a Scotsman with many talents who contributed to what was later called uniformitarianism. He explain that the earth’s crust changes through natural processes throughout geological time. To get to this conclusion, he studied the erosion caused by a glacier two million years ago, exposing rocky cliffs to the west and sweeping a tail of material to the east.

He realized that this deposition of sediments and the formation of igneous rocks must have occurred at different times creating different forms. His theories served to prove that the earth was much older than previously thought. Besides, it influenced Darwin.

Geological processes can be seen especially well in ‘Salisbury Crags’ which has an area called the Hutton Section. Magma made its way through the sedimentary rocks forming 150-foot dolerite cliffs. If you don’t like walking, you can take the route that goes through Salisbury Crags. Another easy route is to climb from Dunaspie Loch.

Human history

The stone and flint tools found in Arthur’s Seat reveal that there was human activity since 5000 B.C. The documented history begins in 600 A.D. with a poem called ‘Y Gododdin’. It tell about the Votadini, a group of Celts who lived in Britain during the Iron Age. Arthur’s Seat was one of four forts in the hills dating back 2000 years ago.

Look for the Chapel of San Antonio that can date from 1300 or earlier. There are references to a grant for reparations paid by the Pope in 1426. It is believed that it fell into disuse after the Reformation in 1560. In reality, it does not look like a church; it looks like the ruins of some medieval fort.

To celebrate the safe return of James VI of Scotland and Anna of Denmark on May 1, 1590, a bonfire was lit in Salisbury Crags fueled with ten loads of coal and six barrels of tar. Young women still climb the hillside of Arthur’s Seat on that day to wash their faces in the dew. According to legend this would keep them young and beautiful.

The last major change to the area was made by Queen Victoria and her husband, Prince Albert. They were in love with Scotland. But he was worried about the swamp at the foot of Arthur’s Seat that was contaminated with debris from the old town. He created a program to drain it, building Queen’s Drive so that the untamed Arthur’s Seat could be seen from a carriage. St Margaret’s Loch and Dunsapie Loch were also created.

Miniature coffins

In 1863, five young people hunting rabbit found 17 miniature coffins buried in three layers in a cave. They contained small wooden figures with different clothes. This finding became a mystery and theories emerged, including witchcraft. However, it is believed that it had to do with the murders committed by Burke and Hare in 1828. In a period of 10 months, this duo killed 16 people. These bodies were sold to Robert Knox for dissection at his anatomy conferences.

Edinburgh was an important European center for anatomical study at the beginning of the 19th century. Scottish law required that the bodies used for medical research come from those who died in prison, victims of suicide, or orphans. Hare had a pension in his house and sold the body of a guest who died, with the help of his friend Burke. They were paid so well that they decided to start looking for victims.

They were eventually discovered and Burke was hanged. His body was dissected and his skeleton is still displayed in the Anatomical Museum of the Edinburgh School of Medicine. The surviving coffins are now displayed in the Royal Museum of Edinburgh.


An old Celtic legend says that a dragon used to fly around the sky, terrorizing the region and eating all the cattle. He eventually ate so much that one day he went to bed and went to sleep, and never woke up again. This became Arthur’s Seat.

There are many rumors about the name ‘Arthur’s Seat’ but the truth is that nobody knows where it originated. The place is known by that name since the 1500s. Some say it was the site of the legendary Camelot, the home of King Arthur and his noble knights. Another version comes from William Maitland, who suggested that the name was from the Gallo Scotsman, ‘Àrd-na-Said’, which means height of arrows.

Although Edinburgh is currently known for the Harry Potter series, it has also been the protagonist of a lot of literature. The famous hill has appeared in many novels over the years. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, One Day by David Nicholls, The Underground City by Jules Verne and in countless novels by Ian Rankin.

When you finish climbing Arthur’s Seat, reward yourself with a glass of Scotch whisky in one of Edinburgh’s many pubs.

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