Around Europe – Exploring the Gusty Heights of Edinburgh, Part 2

One cannot forbear a smile as he surveys the noble bridge that spans the Forth and recalls the insistent pride of Edinburgh in the same. Here is an achievement over which all visitors are expected to exclaim in amazement-and engineers, I presume, invariably do. On this point your Edinburgh man is immovable. He scorns to elaborate and he will not descend to eulogy. He merely indicates it with a reverent inclination of the head, and turns and looks you in the eye; you are supposed to do the rest. Personally, while I give the great structure its dues, which are many, I like what flows under it more.

And there is one thing about the Forth that Edinburgh people never forget, nor do the visitors who find it out: “Caller herrin’!” It must have taxed the resources of even such a genius as Lady Nairne, whose home one may see if he looks beyond Holyrood to the villas of Duddingston, to have written two such dissimilar songs as the heart-melting “Land o’ the Leal” and the cheery “Caller Herrin’.” There’s the king of all marketing songs. It really compels one to think with despair of what a dreary mockery life would be were this, of all harvests, to fail. For love of that song I could defend the Forth herring against all competitors whatsoever. Loch Fyne herring? Fair fish, yes; but really, now, you would hardly say they have that racy flavor we get in the Forth article. Caller salmon? Oh, pshaw, you are from Glasgow; you have been swearing by caller salmon for five hundred years; have it on your coat of arms; used to draw it on legal papers as other people do seals; – but, honestly, have you ever seen a salmon in the Clyde, anywhere near Glasgow, in all your life? And if you did, would you eat it? Certainly not! So “give over,” as they say in England. Certainly there never was such pathos and unction devoted to just such a subject. And the music, too! How it compels you with its appealing monotones and rebukes you with the brave huckster cries on high F ! So when you are passing near Waverley Market and encounter one of the picturesque Scandinavian fishwives, who has trudged in with her “woven willow” from her little stone house at Newhaven with the patched roof and quaint forestairs, unless you are willing to buy a herring then and there and carry it around in your pocket, run for your life before she starts singing:

“When ye were sleeping on your pillows, Dreamt ye aught o’ our puir fellows, Darkling as they face the billows, A’ to fill our woven willows!

“Wha’ll buy caller herrin’? They’re bonnie fish and halesome farin'; Buy my caller herrin’, New drawn frae the Forth.”

To stroll down High Street is to unscroll Scottish history and survey Edinburgh of today at one and the same time. “Hie-gait,” as the old fellows still occasionally call it, is the “historic mile” Par excellence of Scotland. In its independent fashion it assumes new names as it meanders along, first Castle Hill, then Lawnmarket, then High Street, and finally Canongate. Even the afternoon sun ventures guardedly among the nest of tall, gaunt lands that scowl at each other across its war-worn way. Bleak and glum to the peaked and gabled roofs, eight and ten stories above the sidewalk, they have resisted dry rot by a miracle of mortar and still hang together, doubtless to their own amazement, huddling a perfect enmeshment of tiny homes like some ingenious nest of boxes. It would be hard to imagine more drear and rickety domiciles or any more nervously overshadowed with an impending doom of dissolution. One looks anxiously, about to see some venerable veteran give it up with a dismal, weary groan and collapse in a vast huddle of domestic wreckage. Fancy living where you have to scale breakneck stairs to a dizzy height and then reach your remote eyrie by a trembling gangway over an air well! The closes or wynds that are engulfed among these flat-chested ancients are equally surprising. One passes in from the street through a dirty entrance with a worn stone sill and a rudely carven doorhead inscribed with Scriptural and moral injunctions, and finds himself in an inner court fronted by dirty doors and palsied windows full of frowzy women, a cobbled pavement littered with refuse and a patch of sky half-hidden by fragments of laundry. And, mind you, these retreats are not without pride of tradition; many of them have entertained riches and royalty – but that was not last week. Lady Jane Grey was once hidden in famous White Horse Close, which must have fallen further than Lucifer to reach its present condition. Douglas Tavern was in one of them, where Burns and his brethren of the “Crochallan Club” were wont to revel with “Rattlin’, roarin’ Willie, and amang guid companie.” Legends, of course, abound. There was the case of the two stubborn sisters who quarreled one night and never spoke to each other again, though they lived the remainder of their lives together in the selfsame room. There’s Scotch persistence! Deacon Brodie was another instance, the “Raffles” of his time. He it was who used to ply his nefarious trade by night on the friends who knew him by day as a highly respectable cabinetworker; and if you look furtively aloft at some dusty, closed shutter you can fancy the dark lantern glowing and the file rasping and the black mask drawn to his chin. Happily, they hanged him eventually; and, singularly enough, on the very gallows for which he had himself invented a very superior drop.

A close, therefore, is so cheerless a spot that you could not well be worse off if you were to dive down the steep, wet steps of a neighboring slit of an alley and come out on the old Grassmarket of sinister renown where they hanged the Covenanters of the Moss Hags. As you gaze about on this ill-omened slum, once the home of many a prosperous and respected “free burgess,” but now given over to drovers and visiting farmers, and peer suspiciously up the adjoining West Port where Burke and Hare conducted their murders to get bodies for the surgeons, you are very apt to beat a hurried retreat and cry out with Claverhouse, “Come, open the West Port and let me gang free!”

After one or two such explorations a stranger is content to pursue his investigation in the broad light of High Street. It seems delightful then to watch the barefooted boys in the street and the little girls in aprons and “pigtails.” And happily he may come across a shaggy steely-eyed old Highlander growling to a comrade in the guttural Gaelic, or perhaps a soldier in kilts and sporan. At this hour he will certainly see around Parliament Square groups of advocates and solicitors and “writers to the Signet,” and, it may be, some judge of the “Inner House” or “Outer House,” and possibly the Lord President himself. Otherwise he can take note of the uninviting shop-windows and the piles of merchandise on the sidewalks, and find entertainment in such unfamiliar signs as “provisioners,” “spirit merchants,” “bootmakers,” “hairdressers,” etc., with prices set forth in shillings and pence, or rejoice in a hostelry with so unusual a name as “The Black Bull Lodgings for Travellers and Working Men.”

There are pleasant surprises. For instance, you find in the cobbled pavement the outline of a heart -and you do not have to be told that you are standing on the site of the terrible old Tolbooth prison, at the Heart of Midlothian. And what rushes to mind and displaces all other associations if not the fine story Sir Walter gave us under that name! Here, then, the Porteous mob swarmed and raged in its struggle to burn this savage Bastile, and here they tried and condemned poor Effie Deans and locked her up while the faithful Jeanie turned heaven and earth to save her, and the heart of old David broke. “The Heart of Midlothian!” Why, it is like being a boy all over again!

Encouraged by this discovery, like a man who has just found a gold-piece, you keep a sharp lookout on the pavements, and presently comes a second reward in the shape of a brass tablet in the ground marking the last resting-place of stern John Knox. “There!” say you; “Dr. Johnson said he ought to be buried in the public road, and sure enough, he is!” What a man ! He dared all things and feared nothing. How many a long discourse did Queen Mary herself supply him a topic for, and how often did he assail even her with personal rebukes and virulent public tirades! Thanks to the Free Church, his dwelling stands intact, farther down the street at the site of the Netherbow; and a fine specimen it is of sixteenth-century domestic Scotch architecture, with low ceilings and stairways scarce two feet wide – but, like its former austere tenant, narrow, cornery, and unpleasant. ‘Implacable, unbending old John Knox! There is nothing in Browning more shuddering in imaginative flight than the quatrain:

“As if you had carried sour John Bnog To the play-house at Paris, Vienna, or Munich, Fastened him into a front-row box, And danced off the ballet with trousers and tunic.”

One makes a long stop before the far-famed church of St. Giles, half a thousand years old and the battleground of warring creeds. Its crown-shaped tower top is one of the familiar landmarks of Edinburgh. Within you may study to heart’s content the grim barrel vaulting and massive Norman piers and the tattered Scottish flags in the nave, but there is scope for, many an agreeable thought outside if one conjures up the little luckenbooth shops that once clustered between its buttresses, and imagines Allan Ramsay in his funny nightcap selling wigs, or “Jingling Geordie” Heriot, of “The Fortunes of Nigel,” gossiping with his friend King James VI over his jewelry counter. Nor would you forget Jenny Geddes and how she seized her stool in disgust when the Dean undertook to introduce the ritual, and let it fly at the good man’s head with the sizzling invective, “Deil colic the wame o’ ye! Would ye say mass i’ my lug!”

Old Tron Kirk, farther on, is still an active feature of Edinburgh;life, and particularly on New Year’s Eve when the crowds rally here as the old year dies. Beyond it the Canongate extends itself in a rambling, happy-golucky fashion, lined with curious timber-fronted houses with “turnpike” stairs. It is like sitting down to “Humphrey Clinker” once more; or better still, perhaps, to the poems of Fergusson; and we smile at thoughts of the scowling, early-risen housewives of other days who would and fancy how the convivial revelers would foregather by night.

But lingering along the Canongate is a negligible pleasure. There is nothing in the whole architectural world more jailish and pitiless than the gaunt Tolbooth and all its grim neighbors. It is as if the conception of anything suggestive of beauty or ornamentation had been harshly repressed, and ugliness and the most naked utility sternly insisted upon. One may, however, if he is interested-in slums, pause a moment to look down through the railings of the South Bridge on the screaming peddlers and flaunting shame of bedraggled Cowgate, and behold a district which stands to Edinburgh in the relative position of Rivington Street to New York, or Petticoat Lane to London, or Montmartre to Paris.

The end of the Canongate, a few steps farther on, debouches unexpectedly, and with a sudden unpreparedness for the stranger, on the great open square before Holyrood. There it stands, black and dismal; more like a prison than a palace! The Abbey ruins, in the rear, supply all the atmosphere of romance that the eye will get here. But the eye is better left as a secondary aid in comprehending Holyrood; history and imagination do the work. Cowering sorrowfully in its gloomy hollow, it has the look of a moody, forsaken thing brooding over a neglectful world. Its memories are of the dead. Its sole companionship is in the mosses and grassy aisles of the crumbling Abbey chapel, where lie the bones of Scottish royalty that ruled and reveled here its allotted time and left scarce a memory behind.'; It was here they slew Rizzio as he dined with Queen Mary; and perhaps that is romance enough.