As much as I love being a tourist, there are times when I’m tired of crowds. While Edinburgh is not a particularly crowded city, if you visit during the right time of year, after an extended stay, you may want a small escape, without going on a full-on day trip.
A half day spent at Craigmillar Castle and The Sheep’s Heid Inn can be the perfect respite.
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*Post updated, May, 2019
If you're reading this, then you'll probably end up at Craigmillar on purpose, as it's amazing. However, if you're like me, as much as I research before a trip, sometimes there's still a bit of planning needed in the moment! We packed so much into our trip to Scotland, including the Scottish Highlands, St. Andrews, and a trip to Stirling, but even after all of that traveling, we ended up with a free day. It came down to hopping over to Glasgow or staying in Edinburgh and, experiencing a bad case of travel fatigue, we decided to stay close to home (we were staying in New Town in Edinburgh).
So, like any good travel blogger, though I wasn't one at the time, I googled "best castles near Edinburgh" and wow did I luck out. The New York Times had actually done a "36 Hours in Edinburgh" (subscription required) recommending Craigmillar and the Sheep's Heid, we saw it was easy to get to, and off we went!!! I can honestly count our trip to Craigmillar among our best days in the U.K., and there have been a lot of those, so that's certainly saying something!
Hop into your time machine and off we go!
How to get to Craigmillar Castle from central Edinburgh
Craigmillar Castle is accessible on the public bus from Edinburgh.
It’s not a short ride, but it’s a simple one and from the bus stop, you can walk to Craigmillar Castle. That said, it is not at all clear how to get to the Castle from the bus stop, unless they've updated it between when I saw it and when I wrote this post. There are no signs. After a bit of walking around randomly in a neighborhood, we finally got brave and asked locals, who kindly pointed us in the right direction.
As we learned, you want Craigmillar Castle Road which, though obviously named, is a bit difficult to find. Additionally, there's a walking path beside it, which we didn't realize until our descent.
If I could do it again, I would recommend making a map on your phone and taking a photo beforehand, as the bus drops you in a subdivision, so you can’t exactly pound down doors asking for directions. If you find the path right away, it's a quick walk, though it is largely uphill.
History of Craigmillar Castle
Craigmillar has a long and tortured history, the most famous part of which, is the the infamous “Craigmillar Bond” - the arrangement to dispose of Mary, Queen of Scots’ troublesome husband, Lord Darnley.
Did Mary know about it? That *essential* aspect is lost to history.
As time passed, Craigmillar had various owners; ultimately being purchased by Sir John Gilmour, who incorporated the Castle as a type of amusement on the estate of his more modern home - Inch House (which, sadly, is now a community centre).
By the 1700s, the site was already attracting droves of Romantically inspired tourists. Follow in their footsteps - I love the double layer of history. For those of us in the U.S., something that happened in the 18th century - the tourism alone - would warrant its own Ph.D. dissertation.
Visiting Craigmillar Castle
Once you walk up the hill, you’ll be gradually greeted by the Castle looming majestically on a hill - a bit like Brigadoon. Check the website for opening times - they are restricted in off-season. That said, grab your ticket at the little ticket house upon your arrival - adults are 6 quid - definitely the cheapest tourist attraction we’d hit in a while. Continue into the Castle. There is a bathroom available on your way in - I was worried about that.
Spend some time exploring the stunning Castle. The main, and best preserved, portion of the castle is the tower, begun in the 14th Century. Crawl through all the nooks and crannies (and feel your heart drop when you, lost in some forgotten room, when you are are surprised by another tourist). The Castle is safe (some parts have been discreetly reinforced. Other parts are blocked off). As the Castle is not generally crowded, you can stand, completely alone, in rooms forgotten by time and ravaged by weather. Fun fact: Craigmillar Castle was featured in Outlaw King, with Chris Pine as Robert the Bruce (Fall, 2018).
After you’ve had your fill of imagining medieval ramparts, intrigue, and sword fighting, it’s obviously time for a drink. (You could also hop on the bus and go back to Edinburgh…) If you’re in for the walk, turn left out of the Castle’s entrance, and go down the hill. Again, I would take a picture of a map, or (gasp!!) bring a real map, because it’s a mile and a half walk (on largely unmarked roads).
The Sheep's Heid, Duddingston
From the craggy, forgotten beauty of the Castle, though the gritty reality of the surrounding area, you’ll walk past a small loch, and emerge in Duddington - a former independent village, now subsumed into an Edinburgh suburb. On the sweetest little street (left off the main road), you’ll find The Sheep’s Heid Inn - which many believe to be the first of many, many, many pubs in Scotland.
Famous visitors have included Mary, Queen of Scots, and her son, James VI of Scotland (James I of England) - as the pub is situated exactly halfway between Holyrood Palace (home base of Scottish Royal Family) and Craigmillar Castle (where Queen Mary lived, for a time).
The Sheep’s Heid is gorgeous - perfectly updated, yet charmingly historic. They’ve added a lovely outdoor drinking area and offer a full menu (more than just "pub" food). We stopped by on a Saturday afternoon, and the pub was in full swing. We ended up cramming into a small table with strangers, which was completely worth it.
When you've wrapped up your time at the pub, go right out of the pub, back down the little street, then turn right again toward the main street that got you to Duddington, left and there’s a bus shelter (you’ll see it). The bus will take you back to the main parts of Edinburgh (make sure you get on going the right way!!), but be warned - it doesn’t come extremely often. Another option would be to have the Sheep’s Heid call you a cab, if you aren't able to use your phone.
You don't have to wear a tweed vest, but I'd highly recommend it.
Thanks for stopping by - enjoy and happy travels! xx
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