On our first morning in Edinburgh, we wake to a full Scottish breakfast served buffet style in the Ibis hotel where we spent the night in brand new, very comfortable rooms. My only real complaint is that the windows are sealed shut, making it impossible to see the city streets below, or enjoy the cool Scottish evening temperatures, or hear the rain. Nothing like the night before in Yorkshire, where the trials of a fourth floor walk-up and spotty WIFI connections were balanced by a comfortable room with wide open windows, cool air, a steady drizzling overnight rain, the sound of three or four trains passing, and the voices and footsteps of people walking on the street outside the hotel late at night.
The Scottish breakfast is the same as the British breakfast (fried eggs, sausage links, bacon—which in Britain is more like ham than the thin sliced bacon we get in the U.S.—toast, tomatoes, pork and beans, blood sausage, and toast). The only real difference is the addition of deli-sliced luncheon meats and cheeses (much like we ate in Iceland and Norway), and potato scones. The hotel itself is located on the “Royal Mile,” a road falling from the brink of an ancient volcano, where Edinburgh Castle perches with cliffs falling away on three sides, down to Holyrood Palace, the current home of Queen Elizabeth when she comes to do business in Scotland. In between the former castle of kings and the current palace, the street has serviced the people of this area for approximately 3,000 years. The Royal Mile, officially Castle Hill Lawn at the top end, High Street in the middle, and Canongate at the bottom, was the backbone of the original city of Edinburgh and was once enclosed by the city walls. The ridge that the street climbs is so steep that narrow alleys called closes fall sharply away from the main drag, and because the need for living securely within the city walls was so essential, the city expanded up instead of out and the buildings on either side of the closes extended up to fourteen or so stories, with the poorest people living in cramped attics. There was no real sewage system at that time, so people poured their waste out the window and onto the streets below, raising the need to establish new laws that required them to call out a warning and give pedestrians a chance to get out of the way.
On the drive up from Yorkshire, England, the day before, we watched Braveheart on the bus’s DVD system. Most of the student’s hadn’t seen Mel Gibson’s version of William Wallace’s fight for freedom, and they seemed to be duly impressed when they weren’t dozing, which is difficult to avoid on a five hour bus ride that stretches into falling darkness. While the battle scenes were spectacular, the speeches moving, the Scots noble and brave, and the English the epitome of arrogance and evil, it’s just very hard to watch a Mel Gibson movie knowing what we know about him now. When we walk up the hill to Edinburgh Castle, the front gate is guarded by two statues: Robert the Bruce and William Wallace. I told Tyler that the statue, decked out in armor, looked nothing like Mel Gibson.
The people in these parts aren’t too happy with him either. As our guide in Yorkshire told us Sunday evening (after making some tongue-in-cheek derogatory remarks about the Scottish), the idea of William Wallace sacking Yorkshire was completely fictional. And our Scottish guide today, Kirsten, told us that there had been a sculpture of William Wallace erected at Stirling Bridge, a battle Wallace did win, but people were unhappy that the sculpture looked more like Mel Gibson than William Wallace. After Gibson’s anti-semitic bigoted rants went public, people began defacing the sculpture with graffiti, and after the graffiti persisted even after protective barriers were put in place, the sculpture was removed and returned to the artist. Kirsten said that he has been trying to find a new home for the sculpture, but so far no takers.
A more interesting piece of art, I thought, as I looked out the bus window to avoid watching Mel Gibson’s martyrdom onscreen, was the huge white horse on the hillside of a distant ridge, clearly visible from miles away. It turns out the horse is cut out of the topsoil and foliage of the hillside, which was stripped to leave the outline of a horse in the rock beneath. It was created in 1857 by a local Kilburn man named Thomas Taylor, who, according to Wikipedia, “decided that his village needed a white horse even more grand and exciting than established chalk figures in the south of England.” These chalk figures in the south have been estimated to date back to anywhere between the Iron Age (as early as 800 B.C.E) to the Anglo Saxon period (700 to 800 C.E.), and being made out of chalk are naturally white. The figure itself is roughly the size of one and a half football fields, and on a clear day can be seen from as far away as 28 miles. The problem with the Kilburn White Horse is that the sandstone isn’t white, and thus 6 tons of limestone chips had to be hauled up to make it white. Despite the fact that the horse doesn’t date back to prehistory, as I’d immediately hoped, the sight did gladden my heart and distract me from the bad history playing on the screen just above my head.
The castle was nice to walk through, and a lot of the history of Scotland and England that I’ve been discussing with my students in our humanities class this semester came to life. The castle offers a fine view of the “seven hills” of Edinburgh, The Firth of Forth (the estuary or firth of Scotland’s Forth River, where it flows into the North Sea), and the peaks to the east, namely Arthur’s Seat (to be discussed later). Most impressive were the crown jewels of Scotland, which I found impressive in their relative simplicity of presentation (compared to England’s crown jewels), and the Stone of Scone, the sandstone block that the first kings of Scotland sat upon during their coronation. To me, there’s something agreeable about a country that crowns its king while sitting on a block of sandstone, as opposed to the pomp of England. I went into the war memorial on the grounds and looked through the books listing Scotland’s war dead from WW I and WW II. The memorial is divided by units, such as the Royal Highland Fusiliers, the Royal Scots Fusiliers, the Highland Brigade, the Lowland Brigade, the Cameronians (Scottish Rifles), and others, and much like looking at the sea of ceramic poppies planted around the London Tower, each of the nearly 900,000 flowers signifying a United Kingdom or Commonwealth death in WW I, reading the names followed by the phrases “killed in battle” and “died of wounds” was chilling. At the base of the parapet holding “Mons Meg” a massive canon back to the 1400s, the oldest surviving canon in Europe, and St. Margaret’s chapel, the oldest dating “complete” building in Scotland, lies a small plot of green, green grass ringed by the graves of military service dogs.