Arthur's Seat: the stone heart of Edinburgh's soul

EDINBURGH is a city best enjoyed on foot. From the medieval Old Town to the gracious New Town, it is full of visual surprises. Not least is the imposing mass of Arthur's Seat – an extinct volcano that has been home to man and beast, flora and fauna, intrigue and murder for thousands of years.

The history of Arthur's Seat began some 350 million years ago when an enormous volcanic eruption splattered molten rock and ash across what is now Holyrood Park. Back then the summit would have been double the height that it is now; millions of years of erosion have brought it down to size.From extreme heat Arthur's Seat then experienced extreme cold as various Ice Ages sliced through the rock face. When the ice began to melt around 10,000 years ago, the Stone Age man followed closely behind.

"Very little has been left by Stone Age men," explains Scottish archaeologist Caroline Wickham-Jones. "There is plenty evidence showing that there were people there, but they probably used it as a hunting ground and only camped there overnight."

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The Iron Age that followed was better chronicled. Tools and weapons from this period were found in Duddingston Loch in the 18th century, which suggests a blacksmith operated nearby. Later archaeological finds illustrate how much harder life was becoming for those who had settled in the area. A number of fortifications dating from around 2,000 years ago give testimony to the arrival of the Romans and of tribal fighting.

It could be from this time that the name of Arthur's Seat was created. The origins have been hotly debated, with some enthusiasts determined to attribute the name to King Arthur himself, while a less prosaic account has it as Ard-na Said – the height of arrows – which could allude to the fortifications at the summit.

The area supported habitation for millennia, but by the 12th century it had become predominantly a Royal park. It was from Royalty that the land surrounding Arthur's Seat derived its name. In 1128 King David was hunting when a stag attacked him. At the moment when he thought he would lose his life, he saw the sign of a cross between the stag's antlers. In gratitude to his survival he signed the land over to the church – who named it after the Holy Rood (Cross).Industry blossomed under the Abbey of Holyrood, which supported farms and a brewery. Sometime during the 13th century St Anthony's Chapel was built – the ruins of which can still be seen on the hill today. It became known as a place of pilgrimage.

With such a strong religious element to the park it also became a place of sanctuary. Initially providing safety for all of criminals it latterly existed purely as a place of protection for debtors.

"There were tenement houses all round the bottom of the park, probably bordered by a ditch," says Wickham-Jones. "The idea of sanctuary was that people could keep their business going and pay off their debts. The interesting thing is that the law has never been repealed."

Our understanding of the area is supplemented by its illustrative place names. No-one can be left in any doubt about the hard life faced by the visitors to the Wells O' Wearie – where until 1845 women came to do their washing. Geology is brought to life in Samson's Ribs – part of Salisbury Crags made by dolerites (coarse-grained basalt) during the eruption. Then there is the Pipers March, where in 1778 a band of Seaforth Highlanders mutinied against being sent for duty overseas.Places were also named for how they look. Take Dunsapie – Gaelic for the hill of the wispy grass, or the Guttit Haddie, a rock shaped like a gutted fish. Running round the park is the Radical Road, built at the behest of Sir Walter Scott who took pity on unemployed weavers and commissioned them to build a road up the side of the hill.

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A more macabre history is also recorded in the place names. Skulking above Duddingston Loch is Hangman's Crag, where in 1769 Mungo Campbell killed an excise officer and then committed suicide. The townspeople first buried him below Salisbury Crags before a change of heart saw them digging him up and hurling him from the top. Just beside the loch is Murder Acre, a grim reminder of a 1677 riot by trade apprentices, which resulted in many injuries and deaths.

Even more recently the park has been the place of murder. In 1972 Ernst Dumoulin pushed his young bride to her death from the crags in search of a life insurance payoff. He had married her that morning, Friday 13 October.Less gruesome visitors to Arthur's Seat come in response to its geological importance. James Hutton, known as the Father of Modern Geology, discovered and improved his theories at Arthur's Seat and it still attracts geologists the world over.

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The park and the hill are deeply entrenched in the psyche of Edinburgh residents. They come here for rest and recreation or to bathe their faces in the dew on the first of May. It is so much part of the skyline that it is easy to forget that it is a sleeping reminder of our complex past.

"It is very important both archaeologically and geologically," says Wickham-Jones. "But it is also quite remarkable because few capital cities have anything like this at their heart."

• If you enjoyed reading this, you may want to read: Discover where geology turns the world on its head

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