This post was most recently updated on January 20th, 2020
Old Edinburgh is famous for its ‘Royal Mile’. It’s the main street that begins at the Edinburgh Castle and ends at a palace. Taking a Palace of Holyroodhouse tour is a wonderful way to learn about the “royal” in that Royal Mile.
The Palace of Holyroodhouse has played an integral part of Edinburgh history since 1128, when it began as an Abbey built by King David I. It’s been the home of royalty for over 500 years and is still the official residence for The Queen, in Scotland.
I would like to express my gratitude to the Royal Collection Trust for sponsoring my visit so I could share my first-hand ‘royal experience’ with you.
Early history of the Palace of Holyroodhouse
The story is that King David I was hunting in the forests of Edinburgh and was thrown from his horse after it had been startled by a stag. He was saved from the charging animal when a golden cross appeared between the stag’s antlers (rood = cross). As an act of thanksgiving, David I founded Holyrood Abbey on the site in 1128.
An Abbey guest house was built, and it was often used as a residence for Scottish Kings when they came to visit the Edinburgh castle. Between 1498 and 1501, King James IV constructed a royal palace at Holyrood, adjacent to the abbey cloister. King James V enlarged the palace a few years later.
Famous people associated with Holyroodhouse
mary Queen of Scots
The most well-known resident of the palace was Queen Mary of Scots, who lived in the palace from 1561 until 1567 when she was forced to abdicate the throne. Here she ruled Scotland and engaged in lively debates with Protestant minister John Knox. Queen Mary’s chambers were located in the north-west tower, which has been preserved as it was then, to this day. This is also where the murder of Queen Mary’s private secretary, David Rizzio, took place. The bloodstains from Rizzio’s body can still be seen on the Outer Chamber floor.
Bonnie Prince Charles
Prince Charles Edward Stuart (better known as Bonnie Prince Charles) landed in Scotland in July 1745 to claim the throne of Great Britain for his father. He was greeted by cheering crowds. He set up court at the Palace of Holyroodhouse for six weeks prior to waging a successful battle against General John Cape’s men. After the victory at the Battle of Prestonpans, Charles and his army attempted to continue to London. They were forced to retreat back to Scotland and Prince Charles became a hunted man until he eventually escaped into exile in Europe.
In 1850, Queen Victoria visited Holyroodhouse and a few years later, it was opened to the public for tours. She first used the palace as a residence in 1871.
Today, the Palace of Holyroodhouse is Queen Elizabeth’s official residence in Scotland. In fact, The Queen has an official Royal Week at the palace, from the end of June to the beginning of July. The Queen hosts dignitaries, and accepts the key of the City of Edinburgh from the Lord Provost. Up to 8000 guests are entertained during this week at an annual garden party on the grounds, a tradition that has been followed since 1928.
Why you should go on a tour
It’s one way to see a real working palace, and Holyroodhouse Palace is open to public tours whenever the Queen is not in residence. It’s also the only way you can visit the palace gardens and the Abbey ruins (unless you get a royal invite!).
The history of Holyroodhouse extends from 1128 AD to today, and the stories are so interesting. As you take your self-guided tour, you will learn many of those stories and stand in the rooms in which many of them occurred!
You will also see many beautifully decorated rooms with a rich collection of art, portraits, tapestries, and ornate embellishments. Additional artifacts are displayed in exhibit cases, such as the Darnley Jewel or the dining tray made for the brother of Bonnie Prince Charlie.
Wondering if a Palace of Holyroodhouse tour is just for adults? Think again! The self-guided tour is easily adaptable to children, and the tour can be taken at your own rate. There’s even a Family Room at the end of the tour with costumes, stories, games and activities for your children. You can download some fun activites like this one, so the kids can decorate a room in the palace or color pictures of Queen Victoria.
What can you expect on a Palace of Holyroodhouse Tour?
Everyone is given a self-guided tour device (a small electronic device with headphones that has both audio and video). With this device, you have complete control of how quickly you walk from room to room, how much information you want to receive while in each room, and if you’d like to hear comments and stories from members of the royal family as well.
You will not be allowed to take photos inside the palace, but you are welcome to photograph the abbey ruins and gardens. These interior photos were provided for me by the Royal Collection Trust. You can see many more photographs at their website.
On a Palace of Holyroodhouse tour, you are guided through much of the palace without actually taking you into the private apartments of The Queen and her family. You WILL get to see the thrones and reception rooms, historic bedrooms of former monarchs, the apartment and tower where Mary Queen of Scots lived, and where her private secretary, David Rizzio, was murdered. One of my favorite rooms was the Great Gallery, where portraits of Scottish monarchs line the walls.
You’ll learn some very interesting facts, such as these:
All of the royal portraits in the Great Gallery were painted with the same nose, so they would look more related to each other! And one of the portraits was slashed with a sword and later repaired. Another was thrown on the ground and trampled (I tried to find the footprint but could not!)
As you walk from room to room, you will also learn important details about the art displayed, the dishes and vases, commissioned furniture pieces, and Stuart and Jacobite relics.
How is this a ‘Royal Experience’?
First of all, you are warmly welcomed as you begin your tour. Then, as you work your way through the palace, you will seem to step back in time. The generations of royalty almost blend seamlessly as you imagine all the different kings, queens and family members who have lived here and contributed to Holyroodhouse.
I personally find it difficult to imagine what it would be like to be a part of the United Kingdom royalty, with all their traditions, history, protocol, and regalia. But visiting the Palace of Holyroodhouse begins to give you a hint. After hearing the comments and stories from living royalty, I realized they aren’t so different from the rest of us, but they do have an important role that deserves respect.
I’ve included here a video from the Royal Collection Trust about the Palace of Holyroodhouse tour. so perhaps you can imagine it with me!
Touring the Gardens and Abbey ruins
As much as I loved the grandeur of the palace rooms, I also enjoyed touring the beautiful gardens and abbey.
The manicured lawns, the beautiful flowers and trees, and the abbey ruins all create a very peaceful scene. And in the background, an extinct volcano (Arthur’s Seat) towers over it all.
There are even traces of other medieval building foundations in the gardens. If only these old stones could tell their stories!
Anything else on a Palace of Holyroodhouse tour?
You really could spend an entire day at Holyroodhouse, as there is so much to see and do. At the end of the tour, I browsed a well-stocked gift shop with all kinds of royal trinkets and souvenirs. The Café at the Palace caters to guests’ appetites with many tasty offerings, and they serve afternoon tea. You can add an additional fee to your Palace of Holyroodhouse tour and see the Queen’s Gallery — a rotating exhibit from the Royal Collection. Here you can also take photos.
If you should take the Palace tour, be sure to check out any special visiting exhibits. I really enjoyed seeing ‘A Royal Wedding: The Duke and Duchess of Sussex’. This exhibit featured the couple’s wedding outfits from May of 2018. I found the details about the wedding dress design and veil to be fascinating. Did you know it took a team of embroiderers hundreds of hours to create the flowered border on the veil? They also had to wash their hands every 30 minutes to keep everything white!
The Palace of Holyroodhouse tour is an absolute must-see while visiting Edinburgh. I hope my experience has inspired you to visit as well.