An old travel diary, part 2

I begin to fear my hair will never be dry again.

Not because it rained – though it did rain, sort of, off and on for much of the afternoon, interspersing patches of wet with some extraordinarily lovely golden sunlight – but because Edinburgh is even on bright, sunny days sort of quietly damp; no amount of brushing is sufficient to tame the frizzy halo I acquired almost immediately upon stepping outside.

Ah well. There’s a lot to talk about today so I’d better get on it.

Breakfast was…well, I hesitate to say “the full English” for obvious reasons, but yes: the return of the English Breakfast that so haunted Mark during our walk in Cornwall that by the end of it I think he might’ve stabbed someone for a pancake. Still, time dulls all such things, and both of us tucked in rather happily. (We beat the Whitings to breakfast – quite a rarity! They must’ve been very tired indeed.)

Had a chance to talk a bit further with our landlady as well; she’s Hungarian. And there’s been a good bit more talk of the Brexit, as well, as a number of people are sounding a bit panicky over the result. (In the news, anyway; the actual local Scots are uniformly enraged to varying degrees.)

Anyway. Our first stop for today was Edinburgh Castle, at the top of the Royal Mile. Although it was early, the buskers were out in force; a young, hipsterish man made a puppet play the cello, and there was of course the ubiquitous bagpiper. (Something I forgot to mention yesterday: our time to first piper on day one was a whopping…two hours.)

The castle was relatively thronged with visitors today, and I heard a remarkably huge array of languages as we wandered through it. There’s an audio tour that guides you through the various buildings and exhibitions, and it’s surprisingly well-produced – also very informative. Lots of it is of course tangles of dates and times and military actions, but all the same I feel I came away with some highlights. A little cemetery for dogs – the beloved pets and mascots of a variety of regiments, officers, and governors. The remnants of a war prison, including some rooms hung with the hammocks the prisoners would have slept in and some spectacular ships and boxes made of bone and wooden scraps…and even some bone dies meant to be used to forge money, for the very enterprising captives.

A tiny but interesting museum devoted to the Royal Scots regiment, who I think I can say were some remarkably hardcore motherfuckers. The whole place was full of stories like “one of them fell at the Battle of Waterloo while carrying the regimental standard. A comrade tried to take the flag, couldn’t pry it from his grip, and eventually resorted to just carrying bearer and standard both. So impressed were the French by this act of gallantry that they withheld fire until both men were behind their allies’ line.”

There’s also rather a lot of fuss over a gentleman I’d never heard of named Charles Ewart, whose claim to fame is capturing the French standard at the Battle of Waterloo. (Literally, capturing the flag.) For this he’s earned himself a painting hung in the great hall at Edinburgh Castle, with its unusually well-preserved medieval hammer-beam ceiling and a built-in spy hole for the laird to keep an eye on his nobles.

It is rather easy to forget, living as I do in modern day Canada, exactly how heavy the emphasis once was on war and soldiering as intensely honorable, even honor-bound, but good lord is it impossible to escape in the UK. Edinburgh Castle contains a pretty remarkable reminder or two, the aforementioned museum included of course, but there’s also an extraordinary war memorial the size of a small cathedral, a really rather beautiful example of 20s/30s design which honors, of course, the men who died in “The Great War.” It is both sort of poetic to see, and also sort of tragic, knowing as I do that less than twenty years later another conflict along even grander lines would come along.

A huge block of green marble holds a silver casket containing a register of the honoured dead, with St. Michael above with his nets, and each panel of the walls of the place is elegantly inscribed with a variety of the war dead (chaplains, the naval men with “no grave but the sea,” etc.) above a bronze relief showing them in action. Below that, a “register of honor” – a list of names, bound in red leather on a lectern.

Also housed in Edinburgh Castle are the “Honours of Scotland” – the Crown Jewels. Yes, Scotland has its own and here they are, displayed alongside the Stone of Destiny, upon which Scottish monarchs sit to be crowned. Unlike England’s Crown Jewels, these escaped destruction at the hands of Cromwell – there are a variety of stories about how they got smuggled out of the Lord Protector’s reach, including ‘stashed under someone’s dress’ and ‘disguised in a bundle of seaweed.’ When Scotland joined the United Kingdom, the Honours Scotland were placed inside a giant chest – easily large enough to hold a refrigerator – and sealed away until, many years later, Sir Walter Scott spearheaded an effort to go dig them up.

Astonishingly, they were in pretty great shape and all the pieces were still there. Even more astonishingly, there was a piece there that wasn’t there before: a wand, tipped with crystal and made of the same precious materials as everything else. To this day nobody has any idea what on earth this was for or how it got there. Paging Kenneth Hite.

What else do they keep at a castle? Guns, of course. There is, of course, “the one o’clock gun,” first conceived as an auditory signal for the boats in Leith harbour to accompany a visual one. (Why one and not noon? Well, as the guide says, the Scots are famous for their thrift, and ammunition is expensive.) The one o’clock gun is still fired today, though the modern artillery piece is a far cry from the cannon that must once have served this function.

Speaking of cannons, there’s an epic example at the castle as well: “Mons Meg,” a bloody HUGE thing that fired stones about the width of my torso and weighed something like six tons. Somewhat impractical to use, of course, and so as armament technology improved she was increasingly only fired on special occasions until at last a charge blew a hole in her side; too heavy even to smelt down, she was left to rust for some time. After some time away in England for display she was eventually welcomed home – literally, with some degree of pomp – to the castle battlements, where she’s still on display, hole in the side and all.

At around this point it was lunchtime, so we stopped at a small cafe (haggis, again!) before stopping in at the Writers’ Museum.

This small but fun for book people museum is nestled into the former home of a wealthy lady, and features exhibitions on Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott, and Robert Louis Stevenson. All of them are fascinating little collections of paraphernalia of the lives surrounding each author: Robert Burns’s sword cane, Scott’s canes (he was lame from a childhood illness), Stevenson’s ring inscribed with the name given to him by the Samoans among whom he passed his last days (I forget the word, but it translates into “Teller of Stories.” If I were to swipe, Nathan Drake-like, a ring from a museum, this would be the one.)

There was also a cabinet on display. Unremarkable in itself, but the plaque revealed that this cabinet had once stood in Stevenson’s bedroom…and that it had once belonged to Deacon Brodie. Brodie was a model deacon by day…but by night, a dissipated man of many vices. Sound familiar? If it does, it’s because he’s the probable inspiration behind Stevenson’s tale of Jekyll and Hyde.

Also in the room? A cool little diorama of the Jekyll and Hyde tale, left anonymously at the museum by some interested patron. Better still, it’s one of many that this person left anonymously at different literary sites around Edinburgh, with inscriptions on the back that these items were meant to honor libraries, books and reading. Awesome, anonymous artist. I hope that whoever you are you’ve seen that the museum has your work on display.

Our next stop was all the way down at the other end of the Royal Mile: Holyrood Palace, the Queen’s home when she’s in Scotland. This will, incidentally, be in about a week, so it’s probably a good thing we happened along now.

Holyrood is an intensely symmetrical place. Lots of pains taken to present balance – and, in the apartments open to the public, to present an avenue of increasing opulence and impressiveness for visitors to be escorted through on their way to meet the monarch. Plaster ceilings and painting after painting after painting of James and Charles (both Jameses and Charleses, really) and tapestries of increasing impressiveness eventually culminate in…the King’s Bedroom, a room in which the King almost certainly did not actually sleep, but rather conducted very small and intimate meetings in the presence of a preposterously elaborate and expensive bed. Odd choice of a meeting room but I suppose that is the 1700s for you. Amusingly, the king who designed it also had it done up with paintings that liken the monarch to various mythic heroes, including Hercules.

Beyond that is a long gallery. Which is…exactly that; a long, long gallery full of paintings. These have a certain similarity of style to them, and as the audio guide explains this is because they were all painted by the same Dutchman, who was commissioned to do a portrait of all of the king’s ancestors going all the way back to the 300s. That’s a lot of kings and queens; enough that he was banging these out at about a painting a week. (Part of me wishes I could see the writeup of that job on Clients From Hell.)

Also in the palace are the apartments of Mary, Queen of Scots, who as we know had a hard time picking a good man and suffered greatly for it; his ambitions are shown plainly in a heart-shaped bauble on display in the chambers, along with many other trinkets of the time. Lots of memento mori jewelry, a lock of Mary’s hair, hand-embroidered purses and such by the queen, etc. (One item was labeled only “Memento mori of the Winter King.” What a Feylord was doing there I’ve no idea, but it seems something like that should be less unassuming.)

The special exhibition this time was absolute Karen Nirvana by the way: an exhibition of gowns and hats worn by the Queen at various times throughout her reign, accompanied by an array of fashion plates and such. As a costume fan myself I also enjoyed these, though maybe not AS much as my mother in law. (I have to say, though, NOBODY’s hat game is as good as Her Majesty’s.)

On our way to dinner we stopped for an unusual errand: locating the grave of Adam Smith so Mark could add him to the list of philosophers at whose grave sites he’s been photographed. As it happens, we took the wrong turn to start with, and a long rainy few minutes were spent hunting up the grave – but we did find it and the photo was taken; amusingly, people have scattered a good bit of money at the gravesite, as though so doing might bring economic mojo to the one making the offering. (We added a Canadian nickel to the collection.)

A quick dinner at a Mediterranean restaurant later it was time for the ghost walk. This too was amusingly touristy, if well-presented; our guide was a young lady from Surrey named Amandine who regaled us over the next few hours with gruesome tales of torture (Mark got to serve as demonstrator for her digression on flogging), local ghosts, and the body snatchers…well, serial killers…Burke and Hare.

We toured the “vaults” in the process, demonstrating one of Edinburgh’s most curious features: the place is built in layers. Here, the vaults that supported a massive bridge were eventually walled in as the city grew (and the bridge is indistinguishable in most places from an ordinary street.). These, naturally, became havens for all sorts of unsavoury types, and are reputedly haunted by all manner of things, from lost children to a mysterious angry thing they simply called “The Watcher.”

I don’t think we saw anything in the way of actual manifestations or anything, but it was a diverting evening, and it concluded with a drink in a rather cute little cellar-pub at the end, where more stories were told for a time before they turned us out into the night (and we promptly discovered that you can’t simply go south if you want to go south, as going south and down might mean you end up below the level of the street you want to be on.). Eventually we returned home for an hour and some of writing (for me) and for Mark watching the Brits be conflicted about Brexit, some terrible game shows, and a bit of Predator 2.