That’s probably going to look like some real funny syntax going on in the title there, but it makes sense if you’ve been following the series I’ve been doing for the past week, in which I recreate a walking tour of Edinburgh. You can see yesterday’s post here (a great one). Reading the posts in the right order isn’t especially necessary as it’s just the order they would come on a walking tour.
Edinburgh Castle often has the best weather in the entire city. On a sunlit day, we get more of them than a lot of people think, it’s the one part of the city which is always bright. On a windy day, however, it’s the worst. Here’s a verbatim quote from me on one of my tours on a particularly windy day.
“In Ancient Greece, the orator Demosthenes, famous for his speeches against Philip of Macedon, used to put pebbles in his mouth and shout over the sea to practise the volume of his voice. The modern Edinburgh street orator’s sea is the Edinburgh Fringe. My voice is louder than wind, stronger than chainsaws. Let’s go.”
Here it is. This is a castle, and it’s in Edinburgh. Therefore it’s called Edinburgh Castle because we are very literal people. The first thing to know about Edinburgh Castle is that it looks very castle-y. You might think that’s a flippant comment, of course a castle is going to look like a castle, but you’d be surprised. Queen Victoria came here in the 19th-century with high hopes but found herself disappointed. “is that it?” she asked a footman, “Can you make it look more castle-y for me?”
And because she was Queen, that’s exactly what they did. Some of the external features of the castle are anachronistic and ahistoric, neither original features from back in the day nor very similar to how the place would have actually looked. But it please the Queen so there we are.
Victoria was good at some things, but not imagination, too. She looked at a wall and asked why it was full of holes.
“Those holes are for cannons, ma’am”
“Well, why aren’t there cannons in them?”
“We don’t have cannons, ma’am.”
“That’s ridiculous, find cannons for them.”
They sent an officer out to go and fetch some cannons, but he was on a budget. He went to the cannon makers and it was far beyond his price range. This officer was clever and tried at the scrap yard. He got some old cannons from a ship and brought them back to the army base to do some reconstruction work.
Totally ahistoric cannons, but they pleased the Queen and that story has been charming visitors ever since.
The Castle wasn’t particularly ancient before that, anyway. It seems every couple hundred years it got a redesign to fit the military needs of the day. The site itself has hosted a fort for about 3000 years, the oldest continuously occupied site in the UK. It’s never fallen in a direct assault, only by sieges where thousands of soldiers wait outside for months for the food to run out.
It’s still an army base now, but these days the only real military function it has is as the site of the Edinburgh Military Tattoo. The Tattoo is a show of military marching bands from around the world, Army bands come here from around the world to perform for a 6000 people arena. I’m a pacifist but I’m in favour of the army just because otherwise there won’t be marching bands as good as these guys.
One year I worked at the Tattoo and on the day they were filming, a cameraman tripped. Right in front of an enormous column of soldiers. Before the show the cameramen had one instruction.
The guy was lying there, arms pressed into his body for dear life, as the entire column daintily stepped over him. While playing instruments. They didn’t even break rank, their shoulders remaining in a clean line. Now that’s discipline. Must have been quite a show for the cameraman looking up all those kilts.
If you’re back in Summer, not this Summer but the next one, it’s a good idea to book tickets for the show in advance. If you do it several months before you can get them for about £30 a go, on the day it could be hundreds.
Here’s a different story because you can see it from the castle.
This right here is Arthur’s Seat. Do I have a story for you.
This story goes back four and a half thousand years. To a time before the castle itself. The people who lived here were simple farmers until a dragon came up to visit them. The dragon was hungry for gold and human flesh and he began a reign of terror not to be repeated for thousands of years.
He ate the parents of a pagan wizard. The wizard went to the dragon to pay homage.
“Oh, great and noble creature. You have killed my parents. Some poor defenceless farmers who neither meant you nor anyone else any harm. I thank you.”
The dragon sneezed a plume of smoke, as if to say, “Get on with it, peasant, I have a hundred other tributes to extort today.”
“In recognition of your accomplishments,” continued the wizard, “I’d like to present you with the final harvest of my parents farm.”
The wizard pulled out a wooden bowl containing a type of beige paste.
“Scottish oats are the finest oats in all creation, and they make great porridge,” the wizard pitched, “I noticed your meat-heavy diet lacked fibre so this would be good for your breakfast and the continued health of your bowels, that your tyranny might live on for a thousand years.”
The dragon was stunned. The wizard had looked into his heart and provided him with his greatest desire – easier poop.
“I humbly accept your gift, peasant”
The dragon took several hurried bites of the porridge, in betwixt moaning pleasure at his satisfaction with the dish. When he’d finished and burned the bowl to ash, the dragon yawned. As he yawned, he curled his back into a pronounced hump and rested his head on the ground.
The dragon’s scales turned into solid rock and he remained like that forever.
The wizard had been clever. He had laced the dragon’s porridge with whisky and raspberries, also the origin story for the Scottish dessert porridge cranachan.
It’s a myth, but a pleasing one, and it’s somewhat close to the truth. Arthur’s Seat was a volcano until about 350 million years ago. Castle Rock, the hard jagged rock which the castle sits atop, is also a former volcano. Edinburgh has a fascinating natural heritage and that’s why geology was invented here. (I’ve already said you’re welcome for that).
Queen Victoria came to Edinburgh and had some interest in walking up a hill.
“Why, certainly, ma’am. Arthur’s Seat is one of the most beautiful hills in all creation and said to be a possible site of Camelot, ma’am.”
“Yes, but it’s rather steep, isn’t it? Do you have any shallower hills?”
The Queen’s hosts had to admit that they did not.
“Can you make a shallower hill?”
The Queen’s hosts had to admit that they could.
That’s why Calton Hill is so easy to climb up. It has proper paths. Staircases to avoid it getting too steep. It takes only about half an hour to get to the top. If you come to Edinburgh and want to do a hill without it taking out your whole afternoon, Calton Hill is the one to do.
After all, it’s good enough for the Queen.
Right, that’s north of a thousand words. Back for more tomorrow. It’s going to be on cool things to eat and drink around Edinburgh and will serve as a kind of after-quarantine-I’m-doing-this list.
It’s annoying being inside all the time. Especially at the minute because I’m rapidly running low on whisky. There’s maybe only 3 drams left in there. And though nobody in my house is showing any symptoms of the virus, the local shop isn’t really big enough to enforce social distancing so I’m not keen to go in there. If anyone has any ideas on that front, let me know.
Hurriedly set up that Patreon account some time last year when I heard they were changing their rules around and you could get grandfathered in if you got one on that day – let’s see if it works, I can’t remember what I set the tiers at but I’m sure you’ll work it out because only clever people read what I write. I believe I said I’ll write limericks for money, and that offer still stands. I’m also willing to list patrons on ever post from here on out, so it’s a decent time to get involved.