As lockdown 2021 restrictions eased in Scotland in the spring 2021, my friend Iain and I chose a city running challenge to celebrate. This article appeared in The Scots Magazine.
A capital challenge
Heading to a city for an outdoors adventure is rarely my number one choice – and, you might imagine, even less so on the first day of freedom after Covid lockdown 2021.
As a keen hill runner and after months of being restricted to my Scottish central belt region, you might expect to make plans to escape to the wildest parts of the country.
But there were several plausible reasons for choosing Scotland’s most famous city of Edinburgh for a new challenge.
Firstly, my friend Iain Todd and I figured that the capital could be the quietest we were ever likely to experience.
Without the usual summer tourists and with many locals choosing to leave the city rather than staying put, Edinburgh had the potential to be a place of tranquility.
Freedom day was also a Friday and we wanted a big day out, but with less time spent travelling from our homes near Glasgow. In addition, the weather was forecast to be better in the east.
The seven hills run
Our aim was to run a circuit of the fabled Seven Hills of Edinburgh. A challenge that was established as a race more than four decades ago, the route visits seven summits on the city limits.
It combines road, cross-country and hill running with urban orienteering and we expected it to be around 13 to 14 miles in length and some 2200ft of ascent/descent.
The race starts and finishes on Calton Hill and allows runners to choose what they believe will be the optimum course for a fastest time.
Iain and I had no plan to set any records – and we wanted to enjoy the outing and the views – so we set the course as we went.
We started at Waverley Staton after alighting a train from Glasgow, heading off along Market Street towards The Mound and winding through a quiet cobbled lane to reach Castlehill, which rises towards world-famous Edinburgh Castle.
Usually thronging year-round with visitors, the castle esplanade was eerily – but wonderfully – empty and we stopped to admire the dramatic fortification, located on Castle Rock at 400ft elevation, and the sweeping city-wide views.
Retracing our steps briefly, we ran downhill, and turned westwards into Princes Street Gardens.
Again, the lack of people in the beautiful parkland that lies to the south of the main thoroughfare of Princes Street was surreal. It felt like the rest of the world had forgotten Scotland’s most famous city and, instead, had given Iain and I a private invitation to tour.
We stopped to take a closer look at artworks and monuments and almost collided with a robotic lawnmower. A section of street running came next as we ran further west, charting a route that avoided as many of the busier roads as possible.
We ran through picturesque Dean Village and on to the Scottish Gallery of Modern Art. Occupying two buildings on either side of Belford Road, the galleries entertained us with several outdoors art installations.
We climbed Corstorphine Hill on country trails. The path passed the boundary fence of Edinburgh Zoo offering the bizarre opportunity to spot zebras.
Close to the summit, at almost 500ft elevation, lies a tall stone tower, which was built as a a memorial to Scottish novelist and poet Sir Walter Scott.
Having reached our furthest westerly point of the day, we turned south. We’d already run six miles on a day that was proving to be much warmer than expected and we rejoiced in a descent.
But the Seven Hills route is very undulating and before long we were starting another gentle but long climb.
More road running took us through the areas of Corstorphine, Carrick Knowe, along the edge of a rolling golf course, and Stenhouse before joining a quiet path alongside the winding Water of Leith. It amazed me how suddenly rural it could be so close to urban environs.
Road, trails and hills
More road running and then another hill path, including wooden steps, gave access to Craiglockhart Hill. But, we wondered, why could we see another hill summit close by? Was this Craiglockhart Hill East or West?
Rather than missing out what might be one of the Seven Hills, we decided to visit both. The rewards from the higher hill was an impressive 360-degree view over Edinburgh, with all of Edinburgh’s Seven Hills visible.
Hill summit four (or five) turned out to be the highest point in Braid Hills. Helpfully, an iron gateway signposted the way from Braid Road up a wide track. We were grateful to see a trig pillar marking an elevation at 682ft.
A delightfully undulating descent through a golf course took us to a crossing over the busy Braid Hills Road and then between large stone pillars marking the way to Lang Linn Path.
A wooden signpost then showed the route to Blackford Hill, surrounded by Hermitage of Braid nature reserve, where we spotted another trig pillar at 538ft.
A view of our next summit, Arthur’s Seat, was both superb, but also worrying. I remarked to Iain that it looked to be a long way in the distance.
By now we had run more than 13 miles – and I had consumed all my water and snacks.
Iain reassured me we would find a shop once we returned to the city streets and we consoled ourselves with thoughts of cold drinks and ice creams.
But, oh my goodness, the next stretch felt very tough as we passed the stunning Royal Observatory building and returned to the tarmac at West Mains. Running on low energy reserves and with temperatures rising, our pace slowed to a jog and then a walk.
Turning north through Newington, we finally came across a small supermarket. With ice creams in hand we strolled more streets, passing the Royal Commonwealth Pool, to Holyrood Park.
Again, it seemed very odd to experience the almost empty paths of the park and iconic Arthur’s Seat on a sunny summer’s day.
We had saved the highest summit, at 823ft, as the penultimate hill but we were in no rush and as we walked uphill we chatted about the many times we’d each ascended this ancient volcano.
The rocky top and trig was the busiest location we have visited all day but still unusually free of crowds.
Taking a northerly descent route we passed the Palace of Holyrood House and the unique building of the Scottish Parliament before pushing uphill again.
We were both fatigued and with leg muscles threatening to cramp we did our utmost to run the last hill. In some ways, we had saved the best for last because Calton Hill forms one of the capital’s most important landmarks.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, it’s home to a collection of historic monuments, including the National Monument, which was inspired by the Parthenon in Athens; the Nelson Monument; and the Greek- temple style building of the City Observatory.
Returning to Waverley, we realised we had run almost 20 miles and some 3200ft of total ascent.
The mystery extra hill
It turned out, too, that while Easter Craiglockhart is listed as one of the Seven Hills of Edinburgh, it is Wester Craiglockhart that is taller by 65ft.
Apparently Craiglockhart once had one summit, which has been eroded through time to create two peaks.
I had never experienced an urban adventure so big, challenging and deliciously peaceful.
Kit list for Edinburgh’s seven hills circuit
- Trail running shoes (with cushioning for the tarmac)
- Running clothes
- Smartphone loaded with a map app (and for taking photos)
- GPS sports watch to record route
- Running rucksack including:
- Lightweight waterproof jacket
- Hat and gloves (depending on the time of year)
- Emergency foil blanket
- Map & compass
- Food and water.
Further details of the race and challenge: seven-hills.org.uk.