Nestled at the base of the eastern side of Holyrood Park, behind Arthur’s Seat, is the charming and historic former-village of Duddingston. The neighbourhood is one of the oldest in Edinburgh, with some buildings dating back to the 12th century. Despite its history and being within walking distance from the city centre, it often suffers from a case of ‘out of sight, out of mind’, and is overlooked by both visitors and locals.
On the other hand, this may have helped Duddingston retain its more rural village atmosphere, unlike other Edinburgh neighbourhoods like Morningside or Stockbridge. In my opinion, Duddingston Village is the perfect location for a short-day trip without travelling too far.
From a 12th century kirk and a nature reserve to one of Edinburgh’s best secret gardens and one of the oldest pubs in Scotland, the neighbourhood is perfect for anyone who fancies a change of scenery or a break from the hustle and bustle of the city centre.
Duddingston is spread out over a considerable area but for the purpose of this blog post, we’ll be focussing on Duddingston Village and I’m looking forward to sharing one of my favourite walking routes with you.
A few fun facts about Duddingston Village
How to find Duddingston Village
When I think back to when I first heard of Duddingston, I remember making a mental note to visit it as soon as possible. However, since I don’t drive, it took me a while to get around to visiting as I imagined it to be a considerable distance from the city centre. I’ve since learnt that it’s surprisingly close to Edinburgh’s Old Town and it’s quickly become one of my favourite places to visit whenever I’m in need of a bit of peace and quiet.
If you have access to a car or would prefer to travel by taxi, it’s a quick and scenic drive to Duddingston Village from the city centre. However, I’d recommend making a day of it and opting to walk, as there are several lovely routes. Here are just a few of my favourites:
What to see and do
Unlike some of Edinburgh’s other neighbourhoods, Duddingston’s main street isn’t filled with independent shops and various places to eat, rather the area has an almost country village atmosphere and is filled with beautiful buildings, tranquil gardens, and various historic sites. Despite its humble size, each time I return to the neighbourhood, I find myself discovering yet another aspect to its charming character.
We’ll start our walk at Duddingston Loch which spans an impressive twenty acres and is the largest of the three lochs within Holyrood Park. Unlike many of Edinburgh’s lochs, such as Nor Loch which once filled Princes Street Gardens, Duddingston Loch has survived and is the only example of a natural freshwater loch in the City of Edinburgh.
If you’d like a closer look at the loch, there are a set of stairs next to the entrance to Duddingston Village, on Duddingston Low Road, which lead down towards the water’s edge. It’s a particularly lovely spot for a picnic or a peaceful wander as it boasts views out across the loch featuring a picturesque white boathouse. Having experienced Edinburgh’s relatively mild winters, I still find it hard to picture the loch in the harsh winters of the 18th-century. I think you’ll agree with me, that it would be lovely to travel back in time to witness the loch filled with skaters wrapped up in their winter garments. Some of you may be familiar with Henry Raeburn’s famous painting ‘The Skating Minister’ which features the Reverend Robert Walker, skating on none other than Duddingston Loch.
As well as skating, Duddingston Loch became a popular curling site when Nor Loch in Princes Street was drained and a group of gentlemen formed the Duddingston Curling Society, the oldest of its kind in Britain. If we were to travel even further back in time, let’s say around three thousand years ago, the loch was also home to a Bronze Age lake village and in 1778, a collection of Bronze Age swords, spears and other objects were found in the loch and is now part of the National Museum of Scotland’s collection. Nowadays, the loch leads a pretty quiet life and is part of the Bawsinch and Duddingston nature reserve which provides a haven for various forms of wildlife. If you’re fortunate, you may even spot otters swimming along the shore in winter!
Next to Duddingston Loch is the equally historic Duddingston Kirk, a beautiful example of Scoto-Norman architecture that dates back to the 12th century. The reason the church was built in this style was that it was commissioned by Dodin, a Norman knight who Duddingston is named after. The parish church is one of the village’s oldest surviving buildings and is one of the oldest places of worship still in use in Scotland! The church has also had several famous attendees such as Sir Walter Scott, who was an elder and is reported to have worked on his novel Heart of Midlothian there.
The churchyard is usually open at the same time as their Garden Room Café, but I’d recommend checking beforehand just in case. Guided Tours are also available by appointment if you’d like to hear a little more about the history of Duddingston Kirk. However, if you’re just passing by there’s still plenty to see.
As you pass the front entrance to the church, there are a few interesting features to keep an eye out for such as the Gatehouse which was built in the early nineteenth century and was used as a watchtower for body snatchers. During this time, Edinburgh was rampant with the illegal body-snatching trade and it’s said that elders of Duddingston Kirk and the relatives of the recently deceased would take turns to guard the graves for three weeks to prevent the theft and trade of bodies to Edinburgh’s Medical School for anatomy studies and dissection. I came across one incredible story while doing a little research for this blog post which features a young lady who was presumed dead and buried in Duddingston Graveyard. However, while two men were attempting to rob her grave, they were startled by a loud sneeze, followed by hysterical screams. Thankfully, the story has a happy ending as the woman recovered fully and even married in the Kirk.
On a wall near the Gatehouse, you’ll notice a collar and chain made of iron called ‘jougs’ that was used from the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries to punish locals who were thought to have been misbehaving. Next to the jougs, you’ll notice a curious set of steps which lead upward and appear to go nowhere. Well, unlike the previous two dark reminders of the past, this is called the ‘loupin-on stane’ and was simply built to help churchgoers mount their horses.
To the left of Duddingston Kirk lies the Manse house which came with extensive gardens that led down to Duddingston Loch. This leads us to our next Duddingston landmark, Dr Neils’ Garden, which was built on the grounds of the Manse’s second garden and built by Doctors Andrew and Nancy Neil.
Dr Neils’ Garden (free admission, donations welcome)
In my opinion, Dr Neils’ Garden is one of Edinburgh’s best-kept secrets and one of my favourite places to visit. Whenever anyone asks me where I’d recommend visiting that’s off the beaten track, I can’t help but think of this charming and tranquil garden that sits on the banks of Duddingston Loch. Despite its relatively humble size, the well-tended garden is bursting with flowers and foliage of all colours and sizes. There are various paths which lead you to hidden nooks with beautiful views of the loch, a commemorative garden, a 19th-century tower designed by renowned Edinburgh architect William Playfair, and more. You never know what you’ll come across! As you walk around the garden today, you can’t imagine it not being here, however, it took a lot of work to get the garden to its current state. The garden sits on a slope and for this reason, it was unsuitable for growing crops so had not been cultivated until 1963 when Doctors
Andrew and Nancy Neil began work on the garden. What was once a wilderness known as The Calves Field, as it had been used for grazing, was transformed into an enchanting oasis. Along the way, the Doctors had help from some of their patients and to this day the Garden is maintained with the help of a wonderful group of volunteers.
As you explore the garden, you’ll eventually come to a Physic Garden which was created in the memory of both Andrew and Nancy Neil who passed away in 2005. For this reason, the garden is laid out to highlight the Doctors’ life-long interests both medically and horticulturally. One half of the garden reflects Dr Andrew’s special interest in ear, nose and throat medicine; and the other half is dedicated to Dr Nancy’s interest in gyno-urinary medicine.
Nestled away in the eastern corner, near the Physic Garden, lies the octagonal-shaped Thomson’s Tower, designed by renowned architect William Henry Playfair. The tower was designed in 1823 as a curling house for the Duddingston Curling Society to both store their curling stones and provide a cosy room to watch the game in or warm up in after. Unfortunately, as I mentioned above, Duddingston Loch no longer hosts any form of winter sports due to the weather so Thompson Tower fell into disrepair until 2009 when the Trustees restored it to its former glory. I’ve yet to step foot inside the building but I believe it’s open during the summer or for events such as Doors Open Days and houses a small event space on the upper floor and a museum dedicated to curling on the ground floor.
I could go on and on but I’ll leave a few surprises for you when you explore the garden for yourself, all I’ll say is, the garden personifies charm and peacefulness.
Local Coffee Shop Stop
Unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of places to eat and drink in Duddingston but just before you enter Dr Neils’ Garden, you’ll spot Duddingston Kirk’s café called the Garden Room which is normally open from March to October.
Sheep Heid Inn
As you leave behind Dr Neils’ Garden, head back towards Duddingston Kirk and cross the road to The Causeway. A short walk down the road will bring you to one of Scotland’s oldest surviving public houses, the Sheep Heid Inn, and local historians claim that there was an inn licensed on this spot as early as 1360! You might be wondering where the inn’s unusual name came from? Well, sheep grazed on the slopes of Holyrood park until the 1970s, and as Duddingston was traditionally known as a hub for butchers, they would have been brought down to the village before being sold in Edinburgh. Therefore, many of the residents of Duddingston became experts at using the head of the sheep in many different dishes and this is where the Inn gets its name from. Despite being located in a small village, the Sheep Heid Inn has had a long history with royalty. Mary Queen of Scots was fond of stopping here while travelling between the Royal Palaces of Craigmillar and Holyrood. Apparently, she was fond of playing a game or two at the Inn’s skittles alley. Her son, James VI, continued with this tradition and was said to have had such a good time playing skittles in the yard, that he presented the innkeeper with a richly embellished ram’s head snuff box as a thank you. More recently, regulars at The Sheep Heid Inn were left stunned as Queen Elizabeth II visited from Holyrood Palace to dine in 2016! To this day, you can still pop in for something to eat or drink, and if you’d like to follow in the footsteps of royalty you can even play a game of skittles in the, albeit more modern, 19th-century skittles alley.
As you’re leaving the Inn, look to your left and you’ll spot a narrow-walled lane which was once the original entrance into the village for pedestrians from town.
Village Community Land
Across the road from the Sheep Heid Inn lies an unobtrusive gate with a path between two houses that leads to Duddingston’s Community Land. I’d visited Duddingston quite a few times and even walked past the entrance before I noticed the ‘welcome’ notice and tentatively passed through the gates to explore what lay beyond. Despite the notice, I still had the sneaky feeling that I was trespassing and was startled when I spotted a local walking towards me, thankfully, they couldn’t have been more welcoming and told me a little about the project. I even lent a helping hand with guiding one of their escaped chickens back into its safety pen!
The community land is spread out over the lower slopes of Dunsapie Hill and once belonged to the McEwan family, known for their brewing industry in Edinburgh, who lived in the nearby Bellavista House. Some of you may be familiar with the University of Edinburgh’s McEwan Hall which was built by the family. As you walk up the path, you’ll arrive at what once was the McEwan family’s tennis court and is now a large grassy space with benches under a leafy canopy of trees. During the warmer months, the grassy recreation area hosts several events such as barbecues, musical evenings, bonfires, and birthday parties. Towards the end of the grassy space is a kitchen garden which has been has been turned into a community vegetable garden and maintained my local volunteers.
The path continues to the upper terrace and along the way you’ll pass through ‘the paddock’, which comprises of several sheds, a composting area, and is used as a workspace. The path opens out into a large field where horses once grazed. We have a group of local volunteers to thank for this beautiful green space as they raised funds to save the land from being developed for housing. Today, you’ll be greeted by the sight of a flock of friendly chickens and an orchard comprising of forty-eight native Scottish varieties of apples. From the orchard, it’s possible to follow the path up to Arthur’s Seat.
All in all, I find Duddingston’s Community Land heart-warming and it’s so lovely to see the garden being used as a social focal point for the community.
A wander around the village
As you leave behind the Community Land and return to The Causeway, I suggest continuing along the road and making a loop back to Duddingston Kirk, along Old Church Lane, to complete your walk of Duddingston Village. Along the way you’ll spot various lovely cottages, Georgian Villas, and keep an eye out for a house with a plaque above its door reading:
“In this house on 19th September 1745, PRINCE CHARLES EDWARD STEWART held his Council of War before the battle of Prestonpans.”
As is mentioned on the plaque, Bonnie Prince Charlie set up his military camp in Duddingston village on the eve of his most significant victory at the Battle of Prestonpans, a key moment in the Jacobite Uprisings of the 18th century.