Around Europe – Exploring the Gusty Heights of Edinburgh, Part 3

The fumes and cobwebs of murky tradition dissipate in the keen, vigorous air of Calton Hill. Breezes from over the level shore-sands of Leith taste sharp of salt and excite bracing thoughts of the sea. Like a map, the whole environ of Edinburgh lies exposed from the Pentlands to the Firth. There is the steepled city, rising over its ridges and dropping down its valleys like billows of a troubled ocean, and there, too, is the enveloping sweep of suburbs dotted with villas or cross-thatched with streets of workingmen’s cottages, and farther still the Meadows and their archery grounds, “the furzy hills “of Braid” and their golf links, Blackford Hill whence “Marmion” and his bard looked down on “mine own romantic town,” and, on the southern horizon, the heathery Pentlands, low and shaggy, with the kine that graze over them low and shaggy too. To the northward, away beyond the cricket greens of Inverleith Park, the blue Firth sparkles in the offing, dotted with fleet steamers and the white spread sails of stately ships laying courses for the Baltic. In the distance, over Leith, looms the tall lighthouse of the Inchcape Rock that Southey made famous with a ballad. Beyond the west end of the city a wavy blue line marks the course seaward of the bustling little Water of Leith, where “David Balfour” kept tryst with “Alan Breck,” and many a sturdy little “brig” leaps across it as it hurries along, “brimmed,” wrote Stevenson, “like a cup with sunshine and the song of birds.”. Still farther to the westward, where the old Queens Ferry Coach Road appears as a faint white tracing, within many “a mile of Edinborough Town,” thin vapors of smoke rise from the chimneys of white cottages on peasant greens by brooksides; and one knows that the rowans there are white with bloom and the meadows flecked with daisies, and that bees are droning in the foxglove and blackbirds singing in the hawthorn.

Calton Hill itself scarcely improves on acquaintance, but loses rather. Its meagre scattering of monuments would barely excite a passing interest were it not for their conspicuous location and that suggestion of the Athenian Acropolis. A paltry array – a tall, ugly column to Nelson, a choragic monument like the one to Burns on a hillside near Holyrood, an old observatory with a brown tower and a new one with a colonnaded portico and a dome, and, most mentioned of all, the so-called “ruin” of the proposed national monument to the Scotch dead of Waterloo and the Peninsula, which got no farther than a row of columns and an entablature when funds failed and work stopped. Many a bitter shaft of scorn and mockery has this ill-starred undertaking pointed for the dispar.agers of Scotland. However, in its present condition it has done more than any other agency to stimulate the pleasant illusion of the “Modern Athens.” The hill itself is a favorite resort, lofty, and with a broad, rounded top. The eastern slopes are terraced and set with gardens, and the western and northern sides are steep verdant braes. One yields the palm for reckless daring to Bothwell; not every one would care to speed a horse down such a course even to win attention from eyes so bright and important as Queen Mary’s.

It was on Calton Hill I had my first experience of the old school of Scotchmen, in the person of a dry and withered chip of Auld Reekie, combative, peppery, brusque and sententious, and abounding in that peculiar admixture of braggadocio and repression so characteristic of the class. He had evidently been nurtured from infancy on Allan Ramsay’s collection of Scotch proverbs, for he quoted them continually, giving the poet credit for their origin. He was sitting in the shade of Nelson’s column in shirt sleeves and cap, absorbed to all appearances in a copy of “The Scotsman,” though I suspect he had been regarding me for some while with quite as much curiosity as I now did him. He was a grim, self-contained old party, as dignified as the Lord Provost himself, with gray, shaggy eyebrows and a thin, wry mouth that gripped a cutty pipe; and he looked so much a part of the surroundings, so settled and weatherbeaten, that one might almost have passed him over for some memorial carving or, at least, an “animated bust.” Him I beheld with vast inner delight and gingerly approached, giving “Good day” with all the cordiality in the world. The reward was a curt nod and a keen scrutiny from a pair of hard and twinkling blue eyes that had an appearance under the grizzled brows of stars in a frosty sky. I observed upon the fineness of the day; he opined “There had been waur, no doot.” I noted what a capital spot it was for a quiet smoke; he allowed I might “gang far an’ find nane better.” Here I made proffer of a cigar and, presumably, with acceptable humility, for he took it with an “Ah, weel, I dinna mind,” of gloomy resignation – and so we got things going.

The conversation that followed I venture to give in some detail as illustrating, possibly, the peculiarities of a type to be encountered on every Edinburgh street corner – whimsical, conservative, witty, cautious in opinion, and surcharged with local pride.

“A man can take life pleasantly here,” said I, when we had lighted up.

“Aye, aye,” said he; “even a hard-workin’ one like mysel’, as Gude kens. But a bit smoke frae ane an’ twa o’ the day hurts naebody, I’m thinkin'; an’ auld Allan Ramsay was richt eneuch, `Light burdens break nae banes.”‘

” You will never be leaving Edinburgh, I’ll warrant.” “Na, na. Ye’ll have heard tell the sayin’, `Remove an auld tree an’ it will wither.”‘

“There’s more money to be made elsewhere, perhaps.” “I’m no so sure o’ that. Forbye, `Little gear the less care.”‘

“One would n’t find a handsomer city than this, at all events.”

“Aweel, aweel, a’body kens that. Ye’ll no so vera frequently see the bate o’ it, I’m thinkin’. Them that should ken the best say sae.”

“How many people are there here, sir? ”

“Mare than three hunner an’ fifty thoosan’, I’m telt.” “No more? It is small for its fame. Why, Glasgow must be three times as large,” I ventured, resolved to stir him up a little.

“Glesgie, is it! Think shame o’ yersel’, mon, to say the same! A grippie carlin, Glesgie ! Waur than the auld wife o’ the sayin’, `She’ll keep her ain side o’ the hoose, and gang up an’ doon in yours.’ Ye canna nay-say me there. Gae wa’ wi’ ye!”

” But you must admit it is a great port. The receipts are enormous, I’m told.”

“Aye, an’ it’s muckle ye’ll be telt ye’ll never read in the Guid Buik! Port, are ye sayin’? Hae ye na thought o’ Leith? Or the bonny sands an’ gardens o’ Portobello? Or Granton, forbye, wi’ the three braw piers o’ the Duke o’ Buccleuch? Ye’ll no be kennin’ they’re a’ a part o’ Ed’nboro, maybe.”

“But how about the shipbuilding on the Clyde?” “An’ what wad ye make o’ that? How ony mon in his senses could gang to think sic jowkery-packery wi’ the gran’ brewin’ ayont the Coogait is mair than ever I could win to understan’. It’s by-ordinar, fair! .An’ dinna loup to deecesions frae the claver an’ lees aboot muckle things. ‘T was Allan Ramsay himsel’ said,

`Mony ane opens their pack an’ sells nae wares.’ It’s unco strange that a body should tak nae notice o’ the learnin,’ an’ the gran’ courts, an’ the three hunner congregeetions, an’ a’ the bonny kirks we hae in Ed’nboro, but must ever be spairin’ o’ the siller. Do ye think, noo, it’s sae vera wonderful to `Put twa pennies in a purse, an’ see them creep thegither’? Glesgie may ken a’ sic-like gear, I’m nae sayin'; but there’s no sae muckle worth in that, as ye’ll be findin’ oot, though ye read in the books til the morn’s mornin’. It’s a fair disgrace to hae sic thochts. Mon can sae nae mair.”

“At any rate, there’s a fine university there.”

“It’s easy sayin’ sae. Muckle service is it! Gude kens a’ they learn there! Gin it’s cooleges ye’ll be admirin’, maybe ye’ll no be so vera well acquaint wi’ our ain toun? There’s nane in a’ Glesgie like the ane ye see the day. Mon, it’s fair dementit ye’ll be.”

It took time and diplomacy and many a round compliment on Edinburgh to bring him out of his sulk; but eventually he yielded.

“Aye,” said he, “I believe ye’ll be in the richt the noo. It’s gran’ up here, dinna misdoot it. Mony’s the braw sicht to be had, that’s a fac’, an’ I ken them a’ like the back o’ my hand. Sin lang afore yon trees were pIantit, mare than ane fine dander hae I taen mysel’, bonny simmer days, lang miles o’er the heather. Ye’ll believe me, I’d gang hame and sleep soun’. It’s na sae pleesant, maybe, in winter, wi’ the dour haars an’ the fog an’ the east winds. But I aye like it fine in simmer, wi’ a bit nip o’ wind betimes an’ then fair again. At the gloaming it’s quaiet an’ cauller, and then aiblins I bide a blink an’ hae a bit puff o’ my cutty, an’ syne I’ll gang to my bed wi’ an easy hairt. But, wheesht, mon! It’ll be twa o’ the day by the noo, I’m thinkin’? Is it so! Be gude to us! Weel, weel, I’ll gang my gait. I maunna be late to the wark; it’s a fearsome example to the laddies. `A scabbed sheep,’ says auld Allan, `smites the hale hirsel’.’ Guid day to ye; an’ keep awa’ frae Glesgie.” And with many a sigh and rheumatic hitch he shuffled off to the steps.

The old man was right. “Frae ane an’ twa o’ the day” a blither or more inspiring spot than Calton Hill would be hard to find. What more could possibly be desired, with a city so fair and famous at one’s feet and the air tonic with the sweetness of the heather and the brine of the sea! Fancy plays an amiable role and adds to one’s contentment with shadowy illusions of the Canongate of bygone days acclaiming Scotland’s kings and queens as they ride forth in pomp and pageantry, with trains of fierce clansmen from the furtherest Highlands, with pibrochs screaming, bonnets dancing, and axes and claymores rattling. And Montrose may pass with his Graham Cavaliers, or Argyle leading the Campbells of the Covenant. With our eyes on Holyrood, pathetic visions float before us of fair Mary of many sorrows, over whose gilded gloom the poets have loved to linger. One moment she looms in the heroic martyrdom conceived by Schiller, and the next we see her as Swinburne did in “Chastelard,” with “lips Curled over, red and sweet; and the soft space Of carven brows, and splendor of great throat Swayed lily-wise.”

Welcome apparitions of later days throng about us on the hill: Ramsay and his “Gentle Shepherd,” young Fergusson and his wild companions, Burns with his jovial cronies, the scholarly Jeffrey, the learned Hume, the inspired Sir Walter, the delightful revelers of the “Noctes Ambrosf anae,” the gentle Lady Nairne, the eager, brilliant Stevenson, and Dr. Brown with the faithful “Rab” and Ollivant with “Bob, Son of Battle.” The crisp sunshine lies golden on Princes Street and all her flowered terraces; it glints the grim redoubts of the Castle and lingers on the crooked gables of High Street. From the brown heather of the Pentlands to the distant sparkle of the Firth stretches a vigorous and comely land. What man so callous as to feel no joy in “Scotia’s Darling Seat”!