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Issue 14 - Edinburgh – So much more than a castle

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 14
May 2004


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Edinburgh – So much more than a castle

Roddy Martine has spent most of his life in Edinburgh and loves it. Here he explains why.

When I first arrived in Edinburgh as a 12-year old schoolboy, my first impression of the Scottish capital was of skylines.

I had never really noticed the skies in England where I had previously lived. They were there, of course, watery and pale, but in Scotland, it is different. The further north you go, the stronger they become.

More often than not they appear swollen and leaden, but they can also be silver streaked or azure blue puffed with white. When the sun sinks to the west, they become gold or even scarlet. Scotland’s skies are big, even in the cities.

Edinburgh, like Rome, is built on seven hills, and that is what enables it to stand sentinel over the surrounding landscape.

At its heart is a mediaeval castle on a volcanic rock, separating the cobbled uniqueness of its Old Town from the glories of a spacious three centuries old New Town; to the south, there are glimpses of undulating hills; to the north and east, the Firth of Forth and distant shores of Fife.

It is only then that you remember that the capital of Scotland sits on an inlet of the sea.

And Edinburgh has its own river too, the Water of Leith, which flows unseen through its midst, curling a distance of 22 miles from its source in the Pentlands to the Port of Leith.

Long neglected, for some decades silted up with effluent from the various grain, paper, snuff and flax mills, tanneries, and glue works along its course, this sparkling stream has been brought to life again by the creation of a pedestrian footpath which travels its length.

From far away Samoa, where he ended his life, Robert Louis Stevenson, one of Edinburgh’s more famous sons, wrote that this ribbon of water made music in his memory.

Stevenson was born in Howard Place at Canonmills, and the Water of Leith flowed past his family’s back garden. Then as now, and unusual in the centre of a metropolis, there is an abundance of wildlife to be found – trout and minnows, the occasional otter, water rats, foxes, squirrels, grey and red, and pipistrel bats in the Dell at Colinton.

It was through the pass at Colinton, to the south west of Edinburgh, that Bonnie Prince Charlie’s Highland army came on its way to capture the town, the Prince staying overnight at Graysmill, downstream.

At the exit of Colinton Dell at Slateford, two waterways almost converge upon one another.

Long stretches of the Union Canal can be followed from central Edinburgh westward to the Forth and Clyde Canal, that pre-railway link for passengers and goods, by horse-drawn barge between the capital and Glasgow, 40 miles away.

My favourite Water of Leith walk on a summer afternoon is along the footpath which is accessed from Murrayfield on the Glasgow Road, through the Dean Village, hidden away below Thomas Telford’s lofty Dean Bridge at the west end of Edinburgh’s New Town, to Stockbridge.

The rumble of traffic, although close by and on all sides, becomes distant. The leafy paths, the tinkling water, the gardens and back elevations of residential housing create a curiously voyeuristic and detached insight into city life.

It is hard to imagine that the hub of everything here is less than a mile away.

En-route is the rear entrance to the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art at Belford, then a totally unexpected temple-like structure known as St Bernard’s Well.

Circular, with 10 pillars and a domed canopy, this encapsulates a statue of Hygieia, daughter of Asclepius, the Greek God of Health. As long ago as the 12th century, the French saint visited Scotland to recruit soldiers for the Second Crusade.

What makes this more fascinating still, is that the health-giving spring he blessed on this spot originates from a layer of rock in the gorge on which the temple stands and remains independent of the river flowing below.

Edinburgh is full of such surprises. Twelve years ago Norrie Rowan, an Edinburgh publican in the High Street, began tunnelling under the Tron Tavern, which he owned, and pretty soon he had unearthed an astonishing network of tunnels and underground rooms and passages, the original streets of mediaeval Edinburgh which had been built over.

A visiting consultant from Disneyland was so astonished when shown around them that he exclaimed: “Every city in the USA has a theme park. What you have here is for real.”

Just to add to the intrigue, the Guinness Book of Records in 2002 included the vaults as the most haunted place in Britain.

On the corner of George IV Bridge and Candlemaker Row is the well-known statue of Greyfriars Bobby, the little Skye terrier who so faithfully visited his master’s grave in Greyfriars Churchyard every day for 14 years and who was immortalised in the Walt Disney film.

On his death in 1872, he was buried near his master, just inside the entrance to the kirkyard. In the Calton Cemetery at the east end of Princes Street stands a statue of the American president Abraham Lincoln with a freed slave kneeling at his feet, an unexpected memorial to Scottish soldiers killed during the American Civil War.

Not usually on the tourist map, Edinburgh’s cemeteries are a fascinating diversion. Beside the Canongate Kirk in the High Street is a tomb said to be that of David Rizzio, the murdered Italian secretary of Mary Queen of Scots.

Close by is the grave of the mid-18th Century poet Robert Fergusson, marked by a plaque commemorating the three literary Roberts – Fergusson, Burns and Stevenson.

Robert Louis Stevenson has another memorial in Princes Street Gardens taking the form of a child’s garden, a circle of trees with a paved pathway in the centre.

In a letter to a friend, the author of Treasure Island asked that no monument be raised in his memory, so instead the Scottish artist Iain Hamilton Finlay has devised a more subtle, yet fitting tribute.

At the west end of these gardens, adjoining St Cuthbert’s Kirk, is the grave of Thomas de Quincey, author of Confessions of an Opium Eater.

In the minds of most visitors, Edinburgh is intimately associated with its past; the romance of Mary Queen of Scots, the uncompromising shadow of that religious colossus John Knox, and the Enlightenment, that golden era of intellectual creativity which flowered between the mid-18th and 19th centuries.

Those were the Scottish capital’s moments of glory, but with the reinstatement of a Scottish parliament in 1999, there are many who believe that it is once again the beginning of a golden age.

Recent additions to the cityscape are the glorious rotunda of Edinburgh International Conference Centre, the glass-fronted Edinburgh Festival Theatre, and the Museum of Scotland, opened in 1998, a striking landmark in handsome coexistence with the adjoining Royal Museum of Scotland, a classic legacy from the Victorian age.

At the foot of the Mound on Princes Street, the National Gallery of Scotland and the Royal Scottish Academy have been awarded Heritage Lottery Funding to create a spectacular subterranean exhibition space for the nation’s not inconsiderable collection of world art.

In close proximity to the mediaeval Palace of Holyroodhouse, the Scottish Parliament building, for all of its Catalonian provenance, is an intriguing and startling newcomer.

This overall, burgeoning self-confidence can be seen with the arrival of prestigious department stores such as Harvey Nicholls, the upgrading of Edinburgh’s old retailing institutions such as Jenners, and the rash of upmarket boutiques and restaurants that have been infiltrating the fashionable promenades and side streets. Edinburgh is today an international destination.

The Port of Leith too, once a separate town, but incorporated with Edinburgh in 1929, has come into its own with the building of the waterfront Ocean Terminal leisure resort and, not least, as the final anchoring place of the Royal Yacht Britannia which for more than 40 years served the British Royal Family and has become a major visitor attraction.

With their restaurants, bistros, art galleries, historic locations and individual boutiques, Leith and Edinburgh march side by side in unison.

And overlying all of this, of course, there is the Edinburgh International Festival, now in its 58th year, and the largest cultural event of its kind in the world.

For at least three, if not four, weeks of the year, Edinburgh can be said to be open all night and to offer every kind of entertainment from classical music to street performance art.

With seven festivals taking place concurrently over the month of August, the population swells to capacity. Aside from the “official” festival, there are now fringe, film, book, jazz, television, and comedy festivals, not forgetting the dazzling Edinburgh Military Tattoo, performed on the esplanade of Edinburgh Castle.

Most Edinburgh folk such as myself take a benign stance on this annual invasion. We either participate to the full, or make a hasty retreat. But that does not really matter overmuch.

Either way, it gives us pride in our city and immeasurable pleasure to show off just a little. So why not come and see for yourselves.