One of our favourite sheltered walks at this time of year goes through Hermitage of Braid and Blackford Hill and is steeped in history…
We start at the west entrance to the Hermitage Local Nature Reserve beside the lodge at Braid Road. In winter days gone by we could have stopped to watch the curlers on the Greenbank pond across the road where Mortonhall Tennis club now resides. The lodge itself has an interesting story – originally a toll booth sited near Tollcross in the days before Morningside was built. It was moved to its present location apparently as a result of protest by Morningsiders who then had to pay a toll to go to work
Over the sturdy stone bridge and down the glen by the tarmac path alongside the Braid Burn which always seems to be in spate ( in winter or summer) – look out for antique water pumping systems on the far bank which fed the 18th century Hermitage House. Here we are reminded that not so long ago this was private land and the city’s gratitude to John MacDougal who gifted the house and estate to the city in 1938 is recorded on a sun-dial nearby. The house was then used as a home for the City Parks Superintendent and later by the Scouts Association.
Today it hosts the visitors centre of the Friends of the Hermitage of Braid and Blackford Hill and also the City of Edinburgh Council Countryside Rangers Service. A few paces away along the path we can find the remains of an ice-house – important to life in a 18th century mansion. From here the glen gets narrower and craggier, the trees even taller and it is not difficult to image that it was carved by a glacier’s slow descent towards Liberton. Near the now truncated wooden Scout’s bridge is the Agassiz Rock named after the 19the century Swiss geologist who, noticing how it was polished and grooved, went on to prove that Scotland had endured an ice age. Here we turn left up the hill and then right along a rougher path after a few metres to climb up past the remains of Blackford quarry bearing left up the grassy slopes to the top of Blackford Hill with the iconic domes of the City Observatory nestling on its shoulder. Here the remains of a hillfort with parts of its stone ramparts are clearly visible.
The view from the trig point, with panoramas to the north and east, is one of Edinburgh’s best. A cairn points out far flung hills to be viewed on the clearer days. For the descent we have choices –either retracing our steps a couple of hundred metres and descending the steep slope to the path we left near the bridge or a gentler descent down the north side of the hill to inspect Blackford pond and the Midmar allotments and sweeping round on another path to the same point. As we head back towards the burn we can find a gap in the stone wall on our right and discover a series of well defined informal paths high above the tarmac – perhaps the land was not so private after all? On this part of the walk – amongst twisted stumps of long ago foraged timber and high up in the canopy of trees that cling to the side of the glen – we must be as far from city-living as it gets.
The Hermitage is indeed steeped in history and much more can be gleaned from Charles J Smith’s book Historic South Morningside. For a slightly different perspective there is a book of press cuttings relating to the Hermitage held in Morningside Library which includes yarns of sightings of a 19th century ‘hermit’ and accounts of highway robbery right outside the entrance. Both the ‘Friends’ and the Ranger Service have excellent webpages to refer to also.
Moving along the perimeter path we emerge from the trees into the walled garden beside the very substantial doocot which serviced the kitchen of the House and is said to sit below the site of the ancient castle of Henri du Brad. The walled garden is in the process of restoration We step down through the garden and turning right, now on the opposite side of the burn, to our starting point. The walk should take no more than 1 hour (or all afternoon if we stop to explore!)