Around Europe – Exploring the Gusty Heights of Edinburgh, Part 1

Up there on the gusty heights of Edinburgh no one ever inquires the time at one o’clock in the afternoon. Precisely at the second, a ball flutters to the top of the Nelson flagstaff on Calton Hill and a cannon booms from a battery at Castle Rock; and watches are then set by merchants all over town, by shepherds on the shaggy Pentland Hills, and sailors on ships in the lee of Leith. And one o’clock is the very best time Edinburgh could have fixed upon to encourage her people to look up and about and behold her at her finest. It is luncheon-hour, and when the sun is kindly, “Auld Reekie ” is just about as garish and stimulating as it is possible for a town of such dignified traditions and questionable climate ever to become. The air freshens in from blustering Leith, and fair Princes Street wears its most beguiling smiles. One thrills with the joy of being alive in so brave and bonny a world, with the bluebells and heather of Old Scotland about him and this town of song and story at his feet. He gazes at the cheerful crowds moving leisurely along the valley gardens elegant with statues and flowered lawns, or across at the frowzy heads in rickety garret windows away up among the palsied gables of ancient High Street, and he knows that over there is the Canongate of stern tradition and the storied St. Giles’ and black Holyrood, and beyond them he sees the Salisbury Crags, a gaunt palisade halfway up to lofty Arthur’s Seat. He has just arrived, perhaps, with the glow on his face of all he has read and heard of this famed place, and the bugles are singing on Castle Hill and the Edinburgh bells are ringing.

There is little opportunity for preliminary impressions while arriving. The train darts up a valley before you have finished with the suburban cottages of the laboring men, and with an ultimate shriek of relief abruptly dives into its cave, as it were, and deposits you unceremoniously in the esplanaded Waverley Station, with flowered walks above and a market just at hand. The wise traveler gathers up his luggage and fares eagerly forth to Princes Street, as a matter of course. There, on the way to his hotel, he finds a good part of Edinburgh idling pleasantly after luncheon, for Princes Street is the dear delight of the loiterer be he old or young, Robin or Jean. He is studied as he passes through the crowds, curiously, smilingly, critically, tolerantly. His clothing may excite disapproval, his baggage amusement, and his intentions speculation. Curiosity “takes the air” at noon. Arrived in a moment at a Princes Street hotel and duly registered, he is handed a curious disk of white cardboard the size of an afterdinner coffee-cup’s top, upon which is blazoned the number of the room to which he has just been assigned. Preceded by a chambermaid gowned in black and aproned in white and followed by a porter with his traps, he advances grandly to his quarters, according to the tag, and hurries to a window for his first keen impression of the “Modern Athens.”

Just why it should be called an “Athens” would scarcely be apparent from a Princes Street hotel window. The literary rights to the title might be conceded, but the stranger will need to view the town from some neighboring height to appreciate the physical similarity between the two cities and to observe the suggestiveness of the Castle and the reminder of the Acropolis in the “ruin”-crowned summit of Calton Hill. What he does see from his window is sufficiently inspiring. At his feet stretches Princes Street which he has heard called the finest avenue in Europe, and along its other side terraces of vivid turf, set with shade trees and statues and flowered walks, drop down in graceful steps to the lawns in the bottom of the valley that was once the North Loch’s basin and where now, to Edinburgh’s chagrin, are the railroad tracks. Across these gardens vaults a boulevard styled “The Mound,” and on their farther side is the gray old Castle on its precipitous crag with a soft sweep of green braes at its base. On the Castle side of the valley the far-famed High Street turns the venerable backs of its tall, tottering, weatherblackened rookeries on the frivolity of Princes Street, and scornfully gives its laundry to the breeze in hundreds of heaped and crooked gable-windows. Centuries before any of us were born those fantastic and whimsical family nests were lined up as we see them to-day. One could fancy them a row of colossal, prehistoric giraffes with their tails all our way, nibbling imaginary tree-tops on High Street. The stranger will lean out of his window and look down Princes Street and start with delight to see that “sublimest monument to a literary genius,” the lace-like Gothic spire to Scott, where, under a springing canopy of arches and aspiring needles studded with statues of the immortal characters he created, sits the great Sir Walter himself in snowy Carrara, with his favorite hound at his feet. And one’s heart warms’to this romantic Edinburgh so beloved of him and of the fiery Burns, the passionate Chalmers, the gentle Allan Ramsay, and Jeffrey of the brilliant “far-darting” criticisms. Here, in their time, mused Robert Fergusson and David Livingstone and Smollett and Hume and Goldsmith and De Quincey and “Kit North” and Carlyle; and but yesterday has added the name of Stevenson, not the least loved of them all. What inspiration this region must have kindled to have given to Art such sons as Gordon, Drummond, Nasmyth, Wilkie, Raeburn,and Faed ! Could the roster of old Greyfriars BuryingGround be called, one would marvel at the number of great names there memorialized that are familiar and beloved to the remotest, out-of-the-way corners of the earth. And so the new arrival closes his window more slowly than he raised it and steals reverently down into the street to meet this Edinburgh face to face.

You might think, to hear Americans talk at home, that every other Edinburgh man carries a dirk or a claymore under a tartan and wears a ferocious red beard like the pictures of Rob Roy; that people go about in plaid shawls and tam o’shanters, and that most society functions end up with a Highland fling. One may see at wayside railroad stations, as in our own country, wild, hair-blown lassies with flaming cheeks running in from the hills to have a look at the train; but with some such mild exception, if it is one, the Scots on their native heath are, of course, precisely what we are used to elsewhere. Types apart, the man of the streets of Edinburgh looks entirely familiar – shrewd and combative, rugged and perhaps hard, slouchy and indifferent in the matter of dress, hobnailed and be-capped. There is something tremendously genuine and wholesome about him. He is merry and brisk and lively, often; but you would not call him ever quite gay – at least with that sparkle that dances in the eyes you look into on the Paris boulevards. You could scarcely, for instance, imagine a Scotchman singing a barcarolle!

Best of all they are honest and sincere, and one takes to them at once. Here are the lassies and laddies you have long sung about, fresh-faced and debonair. Cheerful fearlessness shines out of their frank blue eyes, and they look to dare all things and be utterly unafraid. The square foreheads of the older men, the austere cheek bones and strong chins, unscroll history to the observer and make him think of savage broils along the border, of fierce finish-fights throughout the wild Highlands, and of the deathless Grays of Waterloo. You may defeat a Scotchman, but he will never admit it, and if he is all-Scotch he will not even know it. They are brave, witty, and devoted, and many a person will take issue with Swift for finding their conversation “hardly tolerable,” and with Lamb for pronouncing their “tediousness provoking” and for giving them up in despair of ever learning to like them.

The new arrival plunges into Princes Street, accepts inspection good-naturedly, and soon feels entirely at home. He may even find the day bright and cheerful, in spite of apprehension over the dictum of Stevenson that this climate is “the vilest under heaven.” The street is quite unusual-one side a terraced valley, the other a splendid line of shops, clubs, and hotels, with gay awnings. Paris and London novelties fill the windows. A throng of vehicles bustles up and down – motor-busses, double-decked trolley cars, taxicabs, hired Victorias, two-wheeled carts, brewery wagons, station lorries, tourists’ chars-a’-bancs with drivers in scarlet liveries, private carriages and bicycles. The stream of people on either pavement is of the holiday cheeriness that comes with the luncheon recess from office and shop, though here and there one may occasionally discover some “sour-looking female in bombazine” that recalls R. L. S.’s “Mrs. McRankin” and who appears as ready as she to inquire whether we attend to our “releegion.” The restaurants are plying a brisk trade, contenting their tarrying guests, speeding the parting and hailing the coming. Whole coveys of pretty shop-girls with brilliant cheeks, wholesome and vivacious, come chattering and laughing out of tea- and luncheon-rooms and flutter back to work with frequent enthusiastic stops before alluring windows. Workmen in tweed caps and clerks in straw hats pass by, to or from their occupations, and always with lingering looks toward the Princes Street Gardens, so that one can accurately guess whether they are coming from or going to office by applying the reliable Shakespearean formula.

“Love goes to Love as schoolboys from their books, “And Love from Love to school with heavy looks.”

The air is rhythmic with the up-and-down slur of this speech of “aye” and “na.” Curious faces flash past. Threadbare lawyers argue pompously as they saunter back arm in arm toward Parliament Close, and the ruddy-cheeked girls, by contrast, seem so distracting that a foreigner rages at the sentiment that “kissing is out of season when the gorse is out of bloom.” Occasionally, even at so early an hour, there is evidence of the passion for drink. “Willie brew’d a peck o’ maut” flashes to mind, and one fancies the unsteady ones are trying to hum, “We are na fou, we’re no that fou, but just a drappie in our ee.” When night comes on, sober men in the streets have reason to frown censoriously; and if it be a Saturday night, they may even feel lonesome.

A passing regiment is a welcome interruption and a brave spectacle. It is always hailed with shouts of joy. All Edinburgh turns in its bed Sunday mornings at nine to see the Black Watch come out from the Castle for “church parade” at St. Giles’s. Nothing stirs Princes Street on any week day like a military display. It is a thrilling moment to a stranger, perhaps, when he has his first glimpse of a young Tommy Atkins, and he stops stock-still to take in the bright scarlet, tailless jacket, the tight trousers, the “pill-box” perilously cocked over an ear, and the inevitable “swagger cane” with which he slaps his leg as he braves it along. But what is that to the passing of a company of Highlanders! Along they come, kilts and plaids, sporrans swinging, claymores rattling, and jolly Glengarry bonnets poised rakishly to the falling point. Ten pipers are droning and three drummers are pounding; and one watches, as they pass, for the holly sprig, or what-not, they wear in their bonnets as a badge of the clan. The best show is made by the King’s Highlanders from up Balmoral way; and splendid they are in royal Stuart tartan, with the oak leaf and thistle in their bonnets and each man carrying a Lochaber axe. If there is anything more inspiriting than cheery bagpipe music at such a time, no one to laugh foolishly at it and every one to love it, and the men stepping proudly and the crowd applauding, – I, for one, do not know it.

Keenness of impressions, as we all know, may depend on the most trivial circumstances of time and place. I recall, for example, a sharp and thrilling musical experience in Scotland, with the instrument nothing more than the despised and humble mouth-organ. Perhaps it was the mood, perhaps the setting, perhaps the unexpectedness *of it; there was so little and yet so much. At all events, I shall not soon forget the sparkle and stir of “The British Grenadiers” as it ripped the sharp night air of quiet Melrose to the approach of three English soldiers, one with the mouth-organ and the others whistling in time as they marched briskly along. I shall always remember the rhythmic beat of their feet as they swung across the murky, deserted square, the loudness, the thrill, and the lilt of that historic melody, and the flicker of a lamp in a window here and there and the pleasant sting of the keen night air.

There is no better place for a stranger to “get his bearings” in Edinburgh than out on that valley-spanning boulevard they call “The Mound.” He then has the Old Town to one side and the New Town to the other, and on opposite -‘corners, as if to maintain the balance, the Castle and Calton Hill. He also takes note of the several bridges that clamp the town together, as it were; and he may look down into the gardens before him and watch the children playing as far as the promenadecovered Waverley Station, or he may turn and look the other way and see quite as many more all the way along the pleasant green to the old battle-scarred West Kirk of St. Cuthbert’s where De Quincey lies in his quiet grave. Thus he will find himself of a sunny afternoon between the pleasant horns of a most agreeable dilemma. He must choose whether to spend his first hour in the New Town or the Old. If he remembers what Ruskin said he will fly from the New; but then he may go there, after all, if he recalls the opinion of the old skipper cited by Stevenson, whose most radiant conception of Paradise was “the New Town of Edinburgh, with the wind the matter of a point free.” He must decide whether his present inclination is for latter-day city features, like conventional streets lined with substantial gray stone buildings looking all very much alike, for the f-ashionables of Charlotte Square and Moray Place and the bankers and brokers of St. Andrew Square, or the historic ground of crowded old High Street and the Castle and Holyrood. He would find in the New Town some old places, too, for it is one hundred and fifty years old, and there are the literary associations of the last century and the house on Castle Street where Scott lived more than a quarter-century – “poor No. 39,” as he called it in his Journal – and wrote the early Waverley Novels, and rejoiced along with his mystified friends in the tremendous success of “The Great Unknown.” He would find it a rapidly modernizing city; no longer may the children salute the lamplighter on his nightly rounds with “Leerie, Leerie, licht the lamps!” But he would find the most interesting things there the oldest things, and they all in the Antiquarian Museum – and what a show! John Knox’s pulpit, the banners of the Covenanters, the “thumbikins” that “aided” confession and the guillotine “Maiden” that rewarded it, the pistols Robert Burns used as an exciseman, and the sea-chest and cocoanut cup of Alexander Selkirk, the real Robinson Crusoe; and there, too, is Bonnie Prince Charlie’s blue ribbon of the Garter and the ring Flora Macdonald gave him when they parted. If historic paraphernalia is alluring, however, the scenes of its associations are much more so; and our friend would doubtless hesitate no longer, but turn to the Old Town and trudge up the steep, way to the Castle.

“You tak’ the high road And I’ll tak’ the low road, And I’ll get to Scotland afore ye”;

and if the song had kept to geography it would probably

have added, “And we’ll meet at the bonny Castle o’ Auld Reekie.” Such, at least, has been a Scotch custom for thirteen hundred years; and with every reason. Through the long and cruel centuries it has gathered to its flinty gray bosom memories of every possible phase of national mutation, desperate or glorious, gloomy or gay. One approaches it with awe. So long has it gripped the summit of that impregnable rock, half a thousand feet sheer on three of its sides, that it has blended into the life and color of its foundations, like a huge chameleon, until one could scarcely say where rock leaves off and castle begins. A stern and pitiless object, tolerating only here and there a grassy crevice at its base, and a clinging tree or two. In the great “historic mile” of High Street, lifting gradually from Holyrood to this rugged elevation, one feels the illusion of an enormous scornful finger extended dramatically westward toward the traditional rival, Glasgow. There is no need to see Highland regiments drilling on its broad esplanade, or to enter its sally-port or penetrate the dungeons in its rocky depths to have confidence that the royal regalia of “The Honours of Scotland” are safe enough here, on the red cushions in their iron cage. One enters, and there settles upon him a feeling of sharing in every grim tradition since the doughty days “when gude King Robert rang.” It is not a visit; it is an initiation.

Quite worthy of this savage stronghold is the inspiring outlook from its parapets over hills and rivers and storied glens. One turns impatiently from “Mons Meg,” which may have been a big gun in some past day of little ones, to gaze afar over the earse of Stirling and the trailing silver links of the Forth to where the snow shines in the clefts of Ben Ledi, or out over the Pentland Hills where the “Sweet Singers” awaited the Judgment. The sportsman will think of the grouseshooting at Loch Earn; the sentimentalist will refleet that when night settles over Aberdeenshire the pipers will strike up. their strathspeys and there will be Scotch reels by torchlight. Scotland seems unrolled at your feet and Scottish songs rush to mind until you fairly bound the region in verse and story: To the north and northwest, “Bonnie Dundee,” the glens of “Clan Alpine’s warriors true,” Bannockburn and ” Scots wha hae wi’ Wallace bled,” and “The Banks of Allan Water”; to the north and east, the Firth of Forth where the fishwives’ “puir fellows darkle as they face the billows”; to the west and southwest, “The banks and braes o’ bonnie Doon,” “Tam o’Shanter’s” land, “Sweet Afton” and “Bonnie Loch Leven” whence “the Campbells are comin”‘; and to the south, “The braes of Yarrow,” “Norham’s castled steep, Tweed’s fair river, broad and deep, and Cheviot’s mountains lone,” and, most sung of all, “The Border”: –

“England shall, many a day, tell of the bloody fray When the blue bonnets came over the border.”

The afternoon_ sun rests brightly on the pretty glen in the foreground where lie the dismal, bat-flown ruins of Rosslyn Castle, loopholed for archers and shadowed in ancient yews that have overhung the Esk for a thousand years, and on the delicate chapel of stonelace where the barons of Rosslyn await the Judgment in full armor with finger-tips joined in prayer. And there, too, are the cool, dark thickets of Hawthornden, recalling the ever-popular

“Gang down the burn, Davy Love, And I will follow thee.”