Friday, June 18, 2010

Edinburgh Castle and More

By Chuck and Claire

Today was our second day in Edinburgh. We wanted to start with the Castle and then see what energy we had, if any, for further exploration. The bus ride, including the walk to the bus stop, takes about 30 minutes. We planned to be early to beat the crowds; we arrived at 10am. I forgot to bring our Rick Steves' guidebook; so, we decided to spring for the audio guides. We have had mixed experiences with these; but the docent reassured us that these were not hokey and they were factual and informative. We were glad we trusted her. The entrance fee, with senior discount was €12.24 each and the audio was €3.60.


We began with the included group tour, which was short but excellent. Rob provided a wonderful and informative overview with just the right amount of general interest humour. Edinburgh Castle has been a fort and a royal residence since the 11th century.

The highlights of the Castle, for me, were The Honors of Scotland, the hammer beam ceiling of the main hall, the cannon shot at 1pm, and the exploration of the POW cells in Queen Anne's House.

View from the Castle with the Firth of Fourth

The Honors of Scotland—The Crown Jewels of Scotland—were lost for about 100 years. They had been hidden away to keep them from Cromwell after he destroyed the English Crown Jewels. Antiquarian, poet and author Sir Walter Scott was credited with their discovery in 1818. The Stone of Scone (or The Stone of Destiny) has been used for the coronation of every Scottish King since about 800 AD. The English captured it and used it for coronations at Westminster Abbey; QEII agreed to return it to Scotland in 1996, provided that it be returned for all future coronations of the British Monarch.

When Robert the Bruce took the castle back from the English in 1314, he ordered that the Castle then be destroyed: He was aware that he did not have the resources to hold onto the Castle if the English were set on retaking it and was determined that it not fall back into their hands. The wooden hammer beam ceiling of the Great Hall is one of the very few structural components that has not changed since the 16th century; there are no nails, screws or glue used in this construction: It was secured with wooden pegs. This room had a very interesting feature: A peep hole in the upper right hand corner to permit the king to spy on his guests to see if treason was afoot.

Hammer Beam Ceiling

Curiously, Edinburgh Castle is relatively recent, as we see it today. Many of the finishing touches were prompted by a visit from Queen Victoria, who thought, for example, that it would look much nicer to have actual cannons at the Castle walls, rather than nothing. So, outmoded ship cannons were sent here, rather than being melted down and recycled into other military uses. The one obvious current vintage cannon is used by the military every day (except Sundays, Good Friday and Christmas). The purpose is to allow the ships in Leith Harbour in the Firth of Forth (the estuary of the river Forth) to set their clocks. The Scottish reason for choosing the 1pm time for the shot is to save money on powder and ammunion—they only have to fire one shot; other sites around the world, firing at noon, have to use 12 times the material resources every single day they fire.

Cannon from Old Ship

The crowd waiting for the timing gun to go off.

The timing gun, now ignored.

Other improvements to the Castle occurred early in the 20th century. By the way, the fort remains an active military installation today. There is an impressive war memorial on the site which was originally designed to honor Scottish dead from The Great War. Then, at the end of WWII, it was expanded to cover those fatalities. Sadly, the rolls continue to accumulate names, as Scottish soldiers serve in Afghanistan and Iraq. The building has areas for all represented units and has books listing the war dead—one for WWI and another for WWII and beyond. There is a silver chest in the building atop the highest point of the rock on which the Castle is built: It contains the names of each Scottish military death from WWI to the present. It goes on and on. Note that although Scotland has a strong military history she has probably provided far more than her share of war fatalities for Great Britain.

The oldest building in the Castle, indeed in Edinburgh, is St. Margaret's Chapel, completed in 1153. Queen Margaret had a close marriage and was very religious. The first fact caused her premature death: 3 days after receiving word of the death of her husband and one of her sons in battle she died of a “broken heart.” The second accounts for her sainthood; but, I don't know any of the details.

St. Margaret's Chapel - The Oldest Building

POWs from various times were imprisoned in Queen Anne's House. I was surprised to learn that colonial prisoners from the American War for Independence were housed here (not all, merely some of them). There was a display of graffiti carved in prison doors; more impressive were the various objects prisoners would make for sale to augment their meager allotment of food and money—prisoners of war were actually paid! Some of the small boxes were especially fine, especially considering that, often, their materials were limited to bone from their food and straw from their mattresses.

Prisoner of War Accommodations

POW: Table for eating and game playing.

One curiosity of the Castle was the Dog Cemetery permitted for deceased pets of military personnel stationed there.

Dog Cemetery

Lunch was Scotch broth, tea and shortbread in the Queen Anne Café. We were too tired to walk over to the vegetarian restaurant we had heard about from Scott and Cheryl and decided to go there for dinner, instead.


Scotland was seen as a romantic and ancient place during the reign of Queen Victoria (1837-1901). This view was supported by events such as Sir Walter Scott's rediscovery of the Honors of Scotland (Crown Jewels) in 1818 and the return to Scotland of Mons Meg (the Castle's large cannon) from the Tower of London in 1829.

The Carlton Cemetery has a tomb for David Hume, the Scottish Empiricist Philosopher. I was surprised to find him in consecrated ground, as I had always supposed him to be a consistent empiricist and agnostic, if not an outright atheist. Did someone pull strings to get him here; or, was he less consistent than I believe?

David Hume's Memorial and Burial Site

Our National Trust membership has really worked out well for us. Not only has it been a good bargain, it has also encouraged us to see many more properties around Britain than we would have. We decided to visit Gladstone's Land, a typical 16th to 17th century merchant's house. Land means tenement, and these multi-story buildings--where merchants ran their shops on the ground floor and lived upstairs--were typical of the time. Like all the other NT properties we have seen, this one was beautifully displayed with a friendly docent in each room, soft classical music playing in the background and bowls of potpourri in every room. All of these houses always smell good.

It's the house in the middle

We had the place to ourselves and each docent approached us and told us about the room we were in. There were also laminated sheets to read about the details of each room. I loved the child's wooden walker displayed in the kitchen. They were built to keep the child away from the fire or from moving through doorways. They even had a recipe for a tonic to prevent the plague. We found out that pigs were used as vacuum cleaners back then. Very efficient, I'm sure.

Just outside Gladstone's Land we found The Writer's Museum. Formerly Lady Stair's house, built in 1622, it is filled with well-described manuscripts and knickknacks of Scotland's three greatest literary figures: Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott, and Robert Louis Stevenson. Edinburgh high society would gather in homes like this in the 1780s to hear the great poet Robby Burns read his work. Burns' work is meant to be read aloud rather than in silence. In the Burns room, you can hear his poetry. This is a wonderful small museum. I love that they left one step higher on the staircase. This was a trick homeowners used to foil burglars, thinking they would be able to hear them stumble.

Writer's Museum

In the courtyard outside Lady Stair's house are the 17th and 18th century skyscrapers, which towered 10 stories and higher. No city in Europe was so densely populated or polluted as "Auld Reekie." Every morning and night at 10, people would throw the contents of their family's chamber pots out the window while shouting "Gardy Loo!" This was the Scottish version of the French garde à l'eau! look out for the water! If a drunk happened to be making his way home at that time, he might look up and ask, "wha?" This is where the term "shit faced" came from.

By now we were pretty exhausted and decided to try a vegetarian restaurant we had heard about called Henderson's (94 Hanover St.). It was everything I love in a restaurant. They serve local and organic produce and have their own craft bakery. There is an art gallery with an artist in residence and live music nightly. Henderson's consists of a deli, cafe and bistro. The service was great and the food fantastic and reasonably priced.

Risotto with broccoli and butternut squash

Chick pea curry with aubergine, chutney and rice

On a completely different subject, Chuck and I have both read 44 Scotland Street, by Alexander McCall Smith who is known for his #1 Ladies Detective Agency series. This is another series that takes place in an apartment house in Edinburgh. It is laugh-out-loud funny and we highly recommend it. We're both into the second in the series, Espresso Tales.

Such dusky grandeur clothed the height
Where the huge castle holds it state
And all the steep slope down
Whose ridgy back heaves to the sky
Piled deep and massy, close and high
Mine own romantic town
~ Sir Walter Scott

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