Great Days Out: Arthur’s Seat, Edinburgh

Rising from the centre of the city, this dormant volcano is both a perfect walking escape and fascinating geological study, says Hermione Cockburn

EC0A4N Edinburgh city seen from Salisbury Crags on Arthur's Seat, Scotland.

The best thing about living in Edinburgh is having a favourite hill quite literally on my doorstep.  Arthur’s Seat, situated just a stone’s throw from the city centre in Holyrood Park, is the remains of an ancient volcano and, at 250m high, it dominates the city’s skyline. 

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Viewed from the east, its shape resembles a giant sleeping lion with the peak forming the Lion’s Head and an adjoining part of the old volcano forming the Lion’s Haunch. I love the wild and rugged terrain that offers some surprisingly varied walking and a place of real solace away from the
hubbub of city life.

Arthur’s Seat is known for its outstanding natural beauty and huge cultural significance. Over 200 years ago, its rocks and landscape helped James Hutton to develop his revolutionary ideas of how the Earth works – ideas that laid the foundation for the modern science of geology. 

Volcanic Past

A walk to the summit, taking in the neighbouring features of Salisbury Crags, Whinny Hill and Hunters’ Bog, reveals a dramatic history of explosive volcanic eruptions and scouring by ice sheets.
There are also signs of human occupation, with the remains of an Iron Age fort and terraced farming visible
on its eastern flank.

Arthur’s Seat can be climbed from almost any direction but I’d recommend starting out from Dynamic Earth, the visitor attraction on the north side. Cross Queen’s Drive and follow the well-marked path up past the ruins of St Anthony’s Chapel, keeping Whinny Hill to your left. The walk up takes no longer than an hour but becomes increasingly rough and slippery towards the top. 

Special skyline

As you reach the summit, the views across Edinburgh and beyond are a treat and are particularly good in the afternoon, when the sun sets behind the Old Town and castle of a city lucky enough to have a volcano at its heart.

Geology rocks

The rocks of central Edinburgh show us that this part of Scotland was once a tranquil tropical shoreline. 350 million years ago, that calm setting was shattered by violent volcanic eruptions. 

Arthur’s Seat is the best preserved remains of one of those ancient volcanoes. It spewed out clouds of ash and molten lava flows, which cooled to form hard, durable layers of basalt rock. Since then, a long history of burial, mountain building, tilting and erosion has shaped and preserved the inner workings of this long-extinct volcano.

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Hermione Cockburn is a geomorphologist and TV presenter who loves wild places near and far.