Edinburgh City, Crescent House Hotel & Malmaison – Travel Review
By Clare Jenkins, May 2023
There are many different sides to Edinburgh. There’s the Royal Mile side, all bagpipers, kilts and Princess Diana tartan. There’s the literary side – from Robert Burns and Walter Scott to Ian Rankin and J.K. Rowling (of whom more later). The Festival and Military Tattoo side. The political side. And the dark side – of ghosts, graverobbers, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.
There’s also the sea-side, which is where my husband and I had started our four-day break, in the port of Leith. Now we were devoting two days to the city centre – and, partly, to that more sober side.
At first sight, the main hall of Edinburgh’s Surgeons’ Hall Museums looks like a particularly stylish furniture store. Row upon row of sleek wooden shelves, all containing glass jars of wheat-coloured objects. Intricate, often beautiful and fascinating at close quarters, they’re full of swirls, lines and curious curves. But these aren’t objets d’art. They’re body parts.
Suffice to say, if you’ve ever wanted to see ‘the skull beneath the skin’, not to mention every organ, vein, node or cell, look no further. Mesmerising and macabre at the same time, the museums – housed in the stately Royal College of Surgeons building in Nicholson Street – comprise one of Edinburgh’s more unusual sights.
Unsurprisingly, many visitors are medical students, NHS workers and other members of the medical profession. But it’s open to anyone who has the stomach for it. Even so, after an hour of seeing ’The World Turned Inside Out’, as one poster puts it, you might well want to come up for fresh air.
One of the oldest museums in Scotland, its ‘natural and artificial curiosities’ dating back to 1699, it’s both instructive and absorbing. There are no trigger warnings for the sensitive, just a ban on photography out of respect for what are, after all, human remains.
Rare footage of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle shows him talking about his university tutor, the role model for Sherlock Holmes. Dr Joseph Bell could, says the author, detect a patient’s nationality, occupation, place of birth and more from cursory acquaintance. Conan Doyle’s own doctoral thesis focussed on syphilis – and there’s a section in the hall about venereal diseases.
Far from being fairground freak show voyeurism, however, the collections guide visitors through Edinburgh’s global importance as a centre for medical progress – in anaesthetics, the use of chloroform, developments in obstetrics, paediatrics and trauma treatments.
Somehow, it all fits in such a Gothic city, with its dour cliff-top castle, grey tenements, history of body-snatchers and, of course, its Harry Potter connection.
But, moving seamlessly from darkness into light, we were staying the night at the supremely elegant Crescent House Hotel in Claremont Crescent, a quiet, cobbled street on the eastern edge of Edinburgh’s New Town, celebrating its bicentenary this year.
The neo-classical house, with its high ceilings, sweeping cantilevered staircase and domed glass cupola, presented a totally different world to that of the Old Town: one of impeccable taste and flair. It’s all soft Farrow and Ball neutrals, gently glowing candles, soothing scents, calming music and bold artwork, much of it by co-owner Michael Worobec. He and his husband Paul Skrgatic, a former management consultant, returned to Edinburgh in 2019 after 20-odd years in London, and converted the top floor of the house into three guest suites.
As Paul carried our suitcase up the 53 stairs, he explained that the three suites were named after local hills – Calton, Pentland, and ours, Heriot. Exquisitely furnished, it offered much visual stimulation, not just the classical watercolours and style-statement ornaments but also the striking views across the city towards the hills. “And that’s the former Duncan’s chocolate factory,” he said, pointing to a building a couple of streets away. “Michael’s mother used to work there, putting walnuts on top of the walnut whips.” Michael, an ex-art teacher turned artist and interior designer, now has a studio there.
No wonder Crescent House hosts exhibitions, as well as arranging bespoke tours for guests, including visits to The Chocolatarium and the Johnnie Walker Whisky Experience. The couple are also a mine of information about the city, which is how we found ourselves the next day at the Talbot Rice Gallery in Edinburgh University’s Old College building on Nicholson Street.
One of Scotland’s leading public galleries for contemporary art, the Adams-style building is currently showing (until 27th May) The Accursed Share, an exhibition focussing on artistic representations of oppression and struggle. It includes Lubaina Himid’s powerfully moving Naming the Money installation – rows of life-size painted cardboard cut-out figures in colourful traditional African dress, accompanied by audio recorded by the artist giving each one a human story and value.
The next morning, we sampled one of Michael’s continental ‘Buddha breakfasts’: rows of white Buddha statuettes holding scented tealights, vases of flowers, soft birdsong playing. “It’s a creative experience,” he explained – and a meditative one. Our experience included fresh fruit salad and yogurts, orange juice and cereals, cheese and biscuits, crumpets, croissants and toast – and excellent, wide-ranging conversation.
From Crescent House, it was an interesting walk through the New Town to the ever-boho area of Stockbridge, with its Rare Birds Bookshop (all women authors), independent cafés and delis, Armstrongs fishmongers (smoked salmon specialist), and its tempting charity shops, including the crowded cornucopia of Shelter Scotland.
“Immersed in the history”
On our way, we passed the Royal College of Physicians in Queen Street and saw it had an exhibition called ‘Skin: A Layered History’. Intrigued – well, who wouldn’t be? – we went in and found ourselves immersed in the history of skin, its range of diseases, and the development of cures and treatments.
The exhibition covered fears about ‘working-class skin’ – unwashed, possibly diseased and infectious – and its use in experiments that helped develop dermatology. Beliefs about black skin being the result of ‘a biblical curse, the heat of the tropics and a humoral imbalance’ – theories used to legitimise the mistreatment of enslaved people. And the 18th Century nickname of ‘Itch-land’ for Scotland, due to regular outbreaks of scabies in the country.
An excellent way to further explore the dark side of Edinburgh – and, indeed, other sides – is on the open-top sightseeing buses. Armed with a 48-hour ticket covering all three Edinburgh Bus Tours, we started with one that included the graveyard just off Princes Street where ‘resurrection men’ like Burke and Hare lurked. When the duo were finally arrested, Hare turned Queen’s evidence, while Burke was hanged. Apparently, his partly dissected corpse was viewed by 25,000 people, and his skeleton is still kept at the Anatomical Museum of Edinburgh’s Medical School.
Given Edinburgh’s ongoing roadworks, the sight-seeing tours are also a wonderfully stress-free way to see the controversial Scottish Parliament building and its next-door neighbour, the Palace of Holyrood. Not to mention the Burke and Hare lap and pole dancing club, a church now hosting a Frankenstein bier keller, Greyfriars churchyard with its famous statue of the faithful dog Bobby, and another church where Agatha Christie married her archaeologist second husband Max Mallowan.
Andrew Rodgers, our onboard guide, provided lots of useful information about places we passed, including the spot in the Grassmarket where the last woman was hanged (and miraculously came back to life), Tollbooth Church where the Royal Family worship and John Knox’s house.
For Harry Potter lovers, there’s the Elephant Café where J.K.Rowling started writing her global super-novels, George Heriot’s School, reputed to be the model for Hogwarts, and the stately Balmoral Hotel where she finished writing Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.
We left the bus in St Andrew Square, just along from our next hotel, the handsome, Georgian Malmaison Edinburgh City. Our room – one of 72 – offered another wonderful panorama, this time over rooftops to the Firth of Forth. As with its sister hotel in Leith, where we’d stayed a couple of days previously, the over-arching colour scheme was grey – from dove to charcoal to tombstone. But there were also flashes of scarlet – perhaps hinting broadly at one of the former uses as a brothel – and, in our room, a midnight-blue city skyline frieze above the bed, and Miss Havisham-style drapes along the wall-to-wall window.
Throughout, the theme seemed distinctly Edinburgh noir – dark prints of women’s faces framed by words from Sherlock Holmes (Dr Joseph Bell once lived here) and Dr Jekyll: ‘a face a man might die for’, ‘evil…violent… penny dreadful…chained together in the soul…’
Meanwhile, the ground-floor Chez Mal restaurant boasted naked female torso lampstands. Very Male-maison. The food was less disturbingly imaginative – creamy spring greens mac’n’cheese and an excellent warm salad of mixed grilled vegetables, plus tomato hummus.
Before heading home the next day via the scenic East Coast Main Line (a travel experience in its own right), we dashed round the corner to the pinnacled and turreted National Portrait Gallery. We admired its beautiful friezes of the great and the good, its magnificent halls, and its dark-wooded library, with busts of Edinburgh notables, including – yes! – J. K. Rowling. Goblets of fire, anyone?
Crescent House suites range from £160 to £350, depending on type of suite and time of year, and with a special code, Curve10, available all year round for a 10pc discount. 13 Claremont Crescent, EH7 4HX, tel: 07768 270704, crescenthouse.scot
Malmaison Edinburgh City, St Andrew Square, EH1. Rooms are from £175 per night, room only; from £205 double B&B – malmaison.com
Edinburgh Bus Tours – edinburghtour.com
CrossCountry run regular train services to Edinburgh from all over the country: crosscountrytrains.co.uk
More info: visitscotland.com
top image: VisitScotland / Kenny Lam