Monday, October 1, 2007

5 July: Incredible Edinburgh

Robin asked us last night if we would like to sleep a little later this morning, because they had a full house and needed to serve breakfast in shifts. We happily agreed to an 8:30 breakfast call and slept soundly in our cozy bedroom. Breakfast was right across the hall, served family-style at a honey-wood table in a sunny, high-ceilinged dining room. We were seated with a full table of guests, including an extended family from North Carolina, Tennessee, and Florida and two elderly sisters from Wisconsin. (The southerners were the folks I mentioned way back at the beginning of the trip who expressed an interest in taking the Euro Tunnel to Calais, just for kicks. I think John’s description of the train ride, and the fact that you can’t even see the Channel once you arrive at the terminal in Calais, effectively blew the wind from their sails.) Robin and Nici proceeded to spoil us with what was by far the best breakfast we’ve had in Great Britain: locally-grown raspberries and strawberries drizzled with orange syrup and orange mascarpone cream, followed by today’s “special” of sinfully delicious eggs Benedict, accompanied by a selection of fresh breads and homemade chocolate chip muffins. The Hills also offer the traditional “full English breakfast” but they seem to recognize that not everyone wants to overdose on cholesterol on their British vacation! (OK, I recognize that eggs Benedict are not all that healthy either, but at least it was a change of pace.)

Thus satiated, we left the house armed with a map of the city, on which Robin had kindly marked the best walking route to Edinburgh Castle (about twenty minutes from the Elmview). We approached the castle from the south, looping around one side of the huge volcanic outcropping from which the massive stone structure literally appears to sprout. Far from a neat and symmetrical royal palace, the site of Edinburgh Castle has served primarily military purposes for more than two thousand years and the structure has grown more or less organically over that period to meet the strategic needs of the times. From the exterior, it appears as an odd array of mismatched stone ramparts, towers, and buildings all layered one on top of another with no apparent organization.

When we arrived at the broad Esplanade – the 18th-century forecourt used as a parade ground and home of the Edinburgh Military Tattoo every August – we were lucky enough to catch the tail end of a performance by a beautifully outfitted marching band (photo, right). We flashed our Historic Scotland passes at the ticket booth and purchased audio tours, then proceeded over the drawbridge, past the guards in their bright red uniforms and tall furry black caps, through the 19th-century outer gate, and into the Lower Ward, with the massive, curving wall of the Half-Moon Battery looming above us like the prow of a great ship. We proceeded through the upper gatehouse with its sharp-toothed portcullis and into the Middle Ward. From the wall beyond the long row of cannons guarding the Argyle Battery, we had a magnificent vista to the north and east, out across Edinburgh’s New Town towards the Firth of Forth (as viewed through a cannon port, right). Here we also saw the famous One O’Clock Gun, which is fired every day except Sundays, Good Friday, and Christmas – a tradition dating back to 1861. Why one o’clock you ask, and not noon? Well, so the story goes, if they fired the gun at noon that would require twelve shots for each hour of the clock. By firing the gun at one o’clock, the ever-thrifty Scots save money and valuable ammunition!

Listening attentively to our audioguide, we sat on a stone step near the battery and attempted to absorb a small fraction of the two thousand years of history witnessed by the walls of this massive fortress. First inhabited in the Bronze Age and used as a stronghold by the Picts in the 3rd and 4th centuries, the site saw innumerable battles over the next 1,300 years. In 1313 the castle was all but destroyed by Randolph, earl of Moray and nephew of Robert the Bruce, who recaptured the castle from the British in a stealthy nighttime attack and left only St. Margaret’s Chapel (dating from the late 11th century and the oldest structure on the site) standing. Subsequent Stewart kings rebuilt the castle piece by piece, only to see it change hands between the Scots and the English, the Catholics and the Protestants, countless times over the ensuing centuries. Mary, Queen of Scots gave birth here in the 16th century to the future James VI of Scotland, who also ruled England as James I. Edinburgh was the last stronghold to support Mary as the rightful Catholic Queen of Britian, for which offense the castle was largely destroyed yet again, this time by the English.

We followed the curving cobblestone road up to the left, past the 18th-century cartsheds, the Governor’s House, and the New Barracks and through another gatehouse to St. Margaret’s Chapel, named in honor of the Saxon queen Margaret (1046-93) who convinced her husband, King Malcolm III, to move his court from Dunfermline to Edinburgh. The small, understated stone structure stands all alone on the highest point of the castle rock, but was probably once part of a larger residential structure.

In front of the chapel sits Mons Meg, a six-ton Belgian-made siege cannon given to James II in 1457 (photo, right). The gun served nearly a century of Scottish kings – firing 330-pound stones that could travel a full two miles – before being retired in 1540. Sadly, it cracked in two when it was last fired for a salute to the duke of York in 1682, but was saved from the scrapheap because it was too enormous to melt down, and was eventually put on display at the castle in 1829.

From the Upper Ward we entered the Crown Square, which is enclosed by the Royal Palace, the Great Hall, the Queen Anne Building, and the Scottish National War Memorial (in the photo, the war memorial is on the left and the Royal Palace on the right). We arrived just in time to witness the changing of the guard in front of the war memorial. I was surprised to see how young the guards looked! They couldn’t have been older than eighteen. One of the superior officers was furious with one of the young guards about something and gave him a serious tongue-lashing, although we couldn't tell what he was saying. The war memorial is the newest major structure on the castle grounds, built on the site of the Castle Church of St. Mary, which was demolished in 1750 to make room for barracks. The memorial, which resembles a gothic church with beautiful stained-glass windows, was opened in 1927 and honors those who died in the service of Scotland in both World Wars.

At this point it was time for the One O’Clock Gun, so we went back out to the ramparts to get a good view down to the platform from which the gun is fired. A few minutes before one o’clock, a uniformed man marched somberly out onto the platform, raised the gun into firing position, armed it, and then, at precisely the stroke of one, set it off with a loud crack, to the thrill of the gathered spectators (this daily event apparently strikes fear into the heart of many an uninformed tourist in the streets below). John took a video; note the way his hand shakes when the shot fires and the audible reactions of the onlookers (including me laughing). If you listen closely at the end you can hear the Scottish girl who was standing with her grandfather next to us say, “It doesn’t sound like that on the telly.”

We were getting hungry by now so we returned to the Middle Ward to get some “bangers and chips” (that’s sausages and fries) at the castle café. Before returning to the Castle Square we toured the Military Prison and the Castle Vaults, which were once home to hundreds of French and American prisoners during the time of the Revolutionary War. They have done a fine job of recreating the stark living conditions in the prison and have a lot of artifacts on display, including various crafts made by the prisoners (such as intricately forged currencies used to bribe their way out of jail) and a wooden door sporting a rough carving of an American flag.

Next we toured the Royal Palace, which houses the Honours of Scotland (also known as the Scottish Crown Jewels): the Crown, Sceptre, and Sword of State, as well as the Stone of Scone, a stone slab upon which centuries of Scottish monarchs were crowned. The line to view the Honours was long, but we were entertained by the colorful and detailed display outlining the history of these five-hundred-year-old objects, including the amazing story of how they were secreted out of Edinburgh in the 17th century when Oliver Cromwell ordered all of the English regalia destroyed. The Honours were hidden first in Dunnottar Castle and later under the floor of a parish church in Kinneff, where a minister and his wife by the name of Granger played some role in their rescue. This is significant because John’s mother’s maiden name is Granger, so we were thrilled to discover that John’s relatives may have helped save the Scottish Crown Jewels! The Honours were restored to Edinburgh in 1660, but they were never again used to crown a Scottish sovereign. After the unification of England and Scotland, the objects were placed in a chest and locked away in Edinburgh Castle, where they were lost and forgotten until 1819, when Sir Walter Scott rediscovered them. They have been on display in the castle ever since, save for two exceptions: in 1941, when they were hidden away during World War II and in 1953, when they were presented to Queen Elizabeth following her crowning.

Other parts of the Royal Palace have been beautifully restored to give a sense of what the place might have looked like in the time of the Stewarts. Most notably, you can visit the wood-panelled chamber in which Mary Queen of Scots gave birth to James VI. Next door to the Royal Palace is the Great Hall, a sumptuous red-painted room built in 1511 and restored in 1886. The stunning wood-panelled and red-painted hall contains an impressive display of medieval arms, and once again we were in the right place at the right time, because we arrived in the midst of a lively weapons demonstration. Two men outfitted in period uniforms traded barbed jokes with each other while explaining the intricacies of various swords and guns. They finished their presentation with an impressive sword fight, which they explained would be much more realistic than anything we had seen in the movies. First they told us that it would be extremely fast, so we had to watch closely. They struck an attack pose for a second, then turned and bowed, saying, “Thank you very much. And now, we will slow it down for the children.” At this point they moved to the far side of the room, which I realized was a safety precaution, because they really went at each other, complete with flying sparks!

Finally, we returned to the Middle Ward to visit the National War Museum of Scotland, which is housed in the old Hospital and Ordnance Storehouse. This exceptional museum is divided into six exhibit areas following the themes of “a nation in arms,” “a grand life for a Scotsman,” “tools of the trade,” “Highland soldier,” “in defence,” and “active service.” Needless to say, we didn’t have time to visit the smaller museums of the Royal Scots Regiment and the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards, but by this point we had spent a full five hours at the castle and really needed to move on if we had any hope of seeing a glimpse of the rest of Edinburgh! All I can say is that if you have any interest in Scottish history or military history in general, Edinburgh Castle is an absolute treasure trove.

We retraced our steps out of the castle complex and headed off down the Royal Mile, the main street through Edinburgh’s Old Town. For me the name had always conjured images of a grand, tree-lined esplanade, but in fact the Royal Mile is a rather narrow, cobblestoned street that leads crookedly down the hill from the castle, lined with impressive buildings (some of which are also crooked) spanning many centuries of construction (photo, right). One of the first major landmarks we came across was St. Giles’ Cathedral, a beautiful gothic-style church founded in 1130, which has served as the spiritual heart of Edinburgh ever since. The church has a striking crown-shaped spire (which can be seen in the background of the photo above) and contains the splendidly decorated Thistle Chapel, completed in 1911 for the use of Scotland’s only chivalric order, the Most Ancient and Noble Order of the Thistle.

We continued on down the street and happened upon The Real Mary King’s Close, which I had read about in my Fodor’s guidebook. Close is the name given to the many narrow, steep lanes that extend perpendicularly from the Royal Mile and were once the lively residential areas of Edinburgh’s working classes (typical close, right). Mary King’s Close (named after one of its wealthier residents, Mary King), just happened to be sealed off, practically intact except for the buildings’ upper stories, when the city authorities decided to build the Royal Exchange (later the City Chambers) directly on top of the lane in 1753. What remains is a veritable time capsule, which has been transformed into a marvelous tourist attraction that mixes history and drama with ghost stories and mystery. Despite the rather steep entrance fee, we were intrigued, so we reserved two spaces for the 5:30 pm tour. This gave us an hour or so to continue or exploration of the Royal Mile. We walked all the way to the end of the street, where we saw the exterior of the Palace of Holyroodhouse, Queen Elizabeth’s official residence in Scotland (it was closed for a state function and it’s possible that the Queen was actually there at the time). Across the street is the new, strikingly modern Scottish Parliament building.

We walked back up to Mary King’s Close and waited in the small gift shop for our tour to begin. Our guide (dressed in period costume, of course) was Jonet, Mary King’s youngest daughter, who told us that she died in 16-something and has been living in Mary King’s Close ever since! Descending down into the permanently-darkened close was quite a spine-tingling experience. Our first view down the street was suitably eerie – they’ve hung laundry on lines between the buildings (the street is only five or six feet wide) and you really get the sense that you are walking down a 17th-century Edinburgh lane after dark. We proceeded to tour a series of damp, musty rooms that were once inhabited by typical poor and working-class residents of Edinburgh. Dim lighting and a few cleverly-conceived audio effects lend to the haunted house vibe. In one room we all sat on benches and listened to an old woman tell us a ghost story, at the end of which our guide exclaimed, “And that’s what happens when you take LSD before bed!” At another point she came up behind someone and screamed, saying she had seen a rat. The close is most famously associated with the plague of 1645; legend has it that the street was sealed off and the plague victims left there to die, but this is an exaggeration of the typical quarantine practices of the time. A Japanese psychic who visited in 1992 was, however, convinced that she felt the presence of a young plague victim named Annie, a story which has encouraged countless visitors to leave offerings of dolls, stuffed animals, and candy for the girl over the years. Another display represents the home of a gravedigger’s family who were struck by the plague. At the end of the tour we peered into the basement-level woodworking shop of Andrew Chesney, the last resident of the close. The entire tour lasted about an hour and was all good fun; while some people might say the experience is overly cheesy, we enjoyed it tremendously.

It was now getting on towards evening so we decided to make our way back to the Elmview and find someplace to eat. John just happened to point us down the George IV Bridge, which we didn’t even realize was a bridge at first because the buildings are so closely packed on either side. Along the way we spotted The Elephant House café, which is where J.K. Rowling wrote a good portion of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. (Robin told us that the café’s proprietor was rather rude to Rowling at the time because she sat for such long periods of time without ordering much, but they now have a sign on the window proudly proclaiming their establishment as the “birthplace” of Harry Potter!) A bit further down the street we happened upon one of the most photographed sculptures in Scotland, a Skye terrier named Greyfriars Bobby (photo, right). This little dog kept vigil beside his master John Gray’s grave in the Greyfriar’s churchyard for fourteen years after Gray died in 1858, leaving only briefly each day to be fed at the coffeehouse nearby. I hadn’t heard the story before, although it was made into a Disney movie in the 60s. Continuing on our “random and unplanned sightings” tour, we passed through Grassmarket square, bordered by sections of the Old Town wall and made famous as the site of the town gallows, where many a 17th-century religious protester met their death. We recognized the square because we spotted the pub called the Last Drop nearby, which Robin had told us about; this is where many of the condemned purportedly enjoyed their last mug of ale.

We got a nice view of the castle on our way back to the Elmview (photo, right), and then decided to eat dinner at a quaint little French restaurant called Jacques, just down the street. The place was mostly empty but the simple, classic food was great and reasonably priced. We both started with grilled goat cheese with pear chutney and honey dressing; John had a steak with green peppercorn sauce and I had salmon with béarnaise sauce, then we split a dish of chocolate mousse with vanilla ice cream for dessert.

We were thrilled with our brief but fascinating foray into Edinburgh and we know that we’ll have to come back again to explore more of this vibrant city. Of course we’ll almost certainly return to the Elmview, which is hands down the best B&B we have ever experienced!

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