Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Edinburgh: What It Looks Like

In 1884, Beatrix Potter had this to say about Edinburgh: “As to the old town, it is a most wonderful and interesting place. It is like being taken back at will into whatever century you please to walk along those streets, and look down the dark silent wynds and courts peopled by strange legends, historical or ghostly, and by very dirty but contented and lively human beings.”

I never noticed the people of Edinburgh being particularly dirty, but I agree with the rest. Even though my first impression was formed in December, when it's very dark and unimaginably cold, Edinburgh has become one of my favorite places. I'm talking about the old town, of course, because I've never had a chance to explore the rest of the city. According to Beatrix Potter, the new town has "fine public buildings, solid and in good taste for the most part," but apparently some of the statues are "not commendable." I can neither confirm nor deny this, but certainly she's right about the old town. It feels fictional.

The main part of the old town is the Royal Mile, a long, sloping street that has Edinburgh Castle at one end and the Palace of Holyroodrouse at the other. This is the castle.

Not too shabby. It will get its own post later. Holyrood is the official residence of the Queen, and somewhat irritatingly, Prince Charles was in town, so we couldn't go in. We did stop in the shop where I bought a copy of Rare Amazing Things: The Art of Natural History in the Age of Discovery, which was indispensible during the remainder of the train and plane time we had. I recommend it. It has great pictures. Anyway, here's a picture of Holyrood from a previous visit:

And the courtyard inside:

The back yard is decent:

That lump of land is called Arthur's Seat. I am almost certain it has nothing to do with Arthur. If you walk down the Royal Mile from Edinburgh Castle to Holyrood, it looks pretty much like this.

That body of water you can barely see beyond the end of the street is the Firth of Forth.

Perhaps the coolest thing about Edinburgh is that it's full of closes and wynds. A close is a passage that takes you from the street to a courtyard or enclosed space. Lady Stair's Close, mentioned in the previous post, is one of those. This is what it looks like inside:

A close might also lead to a contained garden, as in Dunbar's Close Garden (my favorite place). The farther in you go, the quieter it is.

Travel Buddy and I had a nice rest here on our second day. It was glorious. I think I read about half of Amazing Rare Things here. Really, look at this cover, who would not want to read this?

Whereas a close tends to be a dead end, a wynd leads from one street to another, and usually involves going up or down stairs. The only example I have is this one, which doesn't seem very representative to me because I think of them as darker and creepier.

If you want a much larger and louder place to enjoy some greenery, the Princes Street Gardens are right below Edinburgh Castle. (In fact, you can see them in the picture of the castle above.) They, too, used to be under water before Nor Loch was drained.

Speaking of Dorothy Dunnett (we always are), I should also mention St. Giles' Cathedral. This is an important place for two reasons: (1) There is a little cafe on the side that sells amazingly delicious rhubarb tarts. (2) A terribly dramatic scene from the third book in the Lymond Chronicles takes place in it. You can see now why I didn't label this post "Edinburgh: Architecture." My focus here is clearly not that educated. At any rate, it has a very pretty outside...

...and a very pretty inside.

And that's basically all I know. I can, however, tell you that the statue outside is of a guy named Walter Francis Montagu Douglas Scott, 5th Duke of Buccleuch, 7th Duke of Queensberry. To this I say, (1) Are all those names included to disguise the fact that his name is essentially Walter Scott, the same as his more famous relation? (2) I am embarrassed that it never occurred to me that Dorothy Dunnett CLEARLY named her character Wat Scott, known as Buccleuch, after the writer. I tell you, the Scots love that man. I myself love Wat Scott. (Buccleuch, by the way, is pronounced Buh-KLEW.)

Last but not least: it wouldn't be Edinburgh if there weren't horrible stories to go along with the fairy tale-like atmosphere. Travel Buddy enjoys ghost walks, so we went on two, and learned a lot of really disturbing and disgusting things about what life used to be like here. Honestly, I'm not sure why they feel the need to get you to scream once per tour by having some jerk in a hood come up behind you - plain old history is plenty scary on its own. For example, on the first tour we were taken into the bowels of the city, through damp, narrow passages into nasty little chambers underground known as the Edinburgh Vaults. I won't go into their history, but it's fairly interesting and I recommend a visit to Wikipedia. It is a genuinely creepy place, and being slightly claustophobic, I did not particularly enjoy being there; however, we were never out of reach of the sound of dance music from the pub next door, which reduced the creepiness factor by half.

Anyway, we were told in graphic detail about how many dirt-poor people used to live in those tunnels, and how whenever there was a fire they'd literally get roasted or steamed or something. They don't like to spare you any possible grossness on those tours. We were also told there was something called THE ENTITY living down there and we weren't to be alone in the dark for the next 48 hours because THE ENTITY could still come after us. You almost have to admire those tour guides for having the audacity to lie to your face like that. I found THE ENTITY very funny and I had a hard time not giggling every time THE ENTITY was spoken of.

On the second tour we were shamelessly lied to about ghosts in the Greyfriars Kirkyard, and told really, really disgusting stories about people falling into crypts and having to swim through pools of human decay. Yeah, whatever. I would be very surprised if there were a mass burial in that cemetery large enough to provide that much goo and recent enough to still be gooey. The more upsetting thing, because it's more likely to be true, is how a rapidly growing urban area has to treat dead bodies. (Maeve, our resident expert on medieval death, should feel free to chime in here!) Basically it involves all kinds of desecration and is generally unseemly. This particular graveyard is apparently a favorite of ghost hunters and is supposedly haunted by "Bloody" George Mackenzie, who causes visitors to leave the graveyard with scratches and bruises they don't remember getting. Reports of this date all the way back to... 1998. I guess he had been sleeping rather well because he died in 1691.

I didn't take a lot of pictures during these tours because it was usually too dark, but here's a bit of Greyfriars, no doubt haunted from here to Sunday and full of pits of flesh-soup that are sentient and want to drown you.

And on that note, I leave you. Isn't Edinburgh delightful?


Maeve said...

I wish I did have something to add to that inspiring tale of supernatural goo. I am assuming that the desecration you mention is the removal of decomposed bodies from the ground and the placement of their bones in ossuaries? Cause really, it's so much more space-efficient.

Simon said...

Well, as a matter of fact, what he said was grosser than that. Things like, they started piling graves on top of graves, raising the surface of the cemetery to like 12 feet above street level, and then the graves had to be so shallow that bones would wash up when it rained. And sometimes they'd have to bury people vertically, and they'd dump them in head-first. And I could swear there was some destruction of bones involved somehow. Basically it was all rather distasteful (and possibly untrue). Ossuaries would be quite preferable. If I weren't pretty much set on cremation, personally, I wouldn't mind being in an ossuary. I don't see the harm. It's like a commune. That just happens to be for dead people.

Maeve said...

Oh yes, piling people on was quite common, I think. And it's pretty apparent, too, because whereas medieval buildings appear "sunken" (the ground level has risen a few inches), the land in graveyards still bulges over the current ground or street level. I can't speak to the grave-diving, but I shouldn't be surprised if it was practiced in times of extreme need.

Simon said...

The one thing I wonder is, why head-first? Was that really necessary? Or even remotely true? I wish those tours had come with bibliographies. So many times I wanted to raise my hand and say, "That's a very interesting sentence that you just threw out there as an irrefutable fact. Could you please refer me to your source material?" but I felt that might detract from the experience of the other suckers. I mean tourists. Oh, what's the difference.

Actual Education said...

Hey there - interesting to see a 'tourists' perspective on the old Greyfriars ghosty tours. The real shame is there is such a wonderful amount of well sourced history which the tours could cover...but seldom do. I've done quite a bit of research on the old place (long story) but never once heard about people being 'planted' head first. I have seen archaeologists photographs from the Kirkyard and there are bones and things just centimetres under the top soil - including one fascinating skull which shows the damage caused to the teeth and bones from constantly using a pipe on one side.
Hope you get to visit again and enjoy the better stories!

Simon said...

Hello, thanks for commenting! I knew those graveyard stories were a lot of hooey... I agree, I think those tours could make better use of actual history. Who needs ghost stories - I'm quite alarmed enough to know there are bones that close to the surface!

As for the tooth damage - noted. My new year's resolution will be never to start smoking a pipe.