Arthur’s Seat

Holyrood Park is a large nature area just on the edge of Edinburgh’s Old Town, complete with hiking trails, lochs (small lakes), an old ruin, a long row of scenic cliffs called Salisbury Crags, and an 800 foot peak named Arthur’s Seat. The peak and the cliffs can be seen from several places downtown, but the best views are to be had from Calton Hill at the east end of Princes Street.

Arthur’s Seat and Salisbury Crags as seen from Calton Hill

On my arrival in Edinburgh the whole place looked so imposing I wondered if I’d even be capable of hiking to the top of the “mountain.” But if I could, I felt sure I would at least need to take a taxi to the trail head, in order to have enough energy left for the nature area. This disheartened me somewhat as obviously taking taxis for frivolous reasons has been frowned upon lately.

Arthur’s Seat

My first time to the park I thought, “I’ll just try walking from my apartment to the base of the hill and see how far that is.” Well it only took about 10 minutes so that made me feel silly. The second time I thought “I’ll just walk up Salisbury Crags and come back,” but that turned out to be hardly more effort than I was already expending every day just to get groceries. In the months since I have been all over the entire park multiple times and it turns out on a good day I can transport myself by foot from my living room to the top of Arthur’s Seat in only 45 minutes.

As at Compiègne I have learned that distances can be deceiving. But no matter the distance, living in Europe – or living without a car generally – has greatly expanded my idea of what lengths are practical to traverse by foot.

Salisbury Crags from the summit of Arthur’s Seat

The peak, like nearby Calton Hill and the rock on which Edinburgh castle sits, is apparently formed by the remains of an extinct volcano whose present features were exposed and shaped by receding glaciers. No one seems to know exactly how it acquired the name “Arthur’s Seat” but I have read nothing that indicates a definitive association with the legend of King Arthur, who I should think was not living in Scotland anyway.

St Anthony’s Chapel

At the north end of the park, low down and easy to reach, are the ruins of St. Anthony’s Chapel. Little is known of the history of this building, not even who exactly occupied it or when it was built. A document from 1426 indicates the Pope provided some money for repairs, so it certainly dates to before the 15th century. When exactly it fell into ruin is also not known, but it is safe to suppose it happened sometime after 1560 when the Reformation finally achieved complete eradication of the Catholic church in Scotland.

Arthur’s Seat, May Day 1969

A tradition dating back centuries saw young women climb the hill at dawn on the 1st of May to wash their faces with the morning dew, a custom that would supposedly bring health and beauty. The origins of the practice date back to pagan times, though in later centuries Christian services became an added feature. The tradition was apparently quite popular even within living memory, but I saw no throngs of fresh-faced girls ascend the peak this May. And really, why indeed wake at 4 AM for beauty’s sake, and climb a cold mountain after, when you can just use a Snapchat filter?

Perched above the chapel ruins

There are perhaps other reasons still to go. The further we get into 2020, the more the world of man appears to me indistinguishable from the ninth circle of hell. Nature is quickly becoming the last refuge of the sane.

The hike up this hill is definitely a slog and each visit after the first has required greater efforts of self motivation to get me to go, but once on the mountain, sitting in solitude among the fragrant gorse, I find it easy, perhaps even natural to forget all about the coronavirus, the uncertain future, and all the ills of mankind generally. These cares are replaced by the wind, the exertion, the cold or the sun, and a scenery that begets internal stillness.

Sadly of course most people do not have a beautiful mountain in their backyard. For those billions of unfortunates I don’t know what to say, other than I shall rejoin your ranks soon and we can commiserate together.

Boris Says Open

It appears I have not written anything in several months. This is mostly because there has been little to write about during the lockdown, and also because I have been too busy watching all 121 episodes of Lost. As usual I do however have a lot of pictures, which in fact is the main reason I am even posting anything. Hopefully I can come up with enough rambling filler to pretend this is an actual blog post.

Four months ago I saw this message chalked outside the Tolbooth Tavern on the Royal Mile:

The sad face might appear to imply some dissatisfaction with the lockdown, however I am able to report with some authority that there has been far more complaining in Scotland when Boris started reopening things than when he shut them down. The nearly unanimous opinion in Scotland is that because Boris is a Very Bad Man a far wiser council with regards to reopening will be to copy exactly what England does, but only after waiting an additional two weeks after each step.

Springtime on Ramsay Lane

Are we in the midst of a global health pandemic or a political campaign? One can be forgiven for being unsure. But lest anyone think I am being judgmental of my gracious foreign hosts, I will point out the same confusion clearly exists in my own country.

As I am neither British nor Scottish I have tried to allow myself the luxury of not caring what they do, but I admit sometimes I can’t help having Gloomy Opinions on these and other matters.

Looking south from Calton Hill

Nevertheless, just this week we have seen in Edinburgh for the very first time some evidence of a partial resumption of human activity, after 100 days of desolation.

Recent guidance from the Scottish government permits “outdoor beer gardens” and cafes with outdoor seating to re-open, but maybe someone was confused about what country we’re in. This is not Germany, nor is it France. I have not seen any beer gardens or cafés with outdoor seating, so the short of it is, most restaurants are still closed (Edit: I have found some outdoor seating cafés since, mostly on Grassmarket).

However McDonald’s and KFC have reopened for takeout. And such takeout! The food is taken out to the public garden across the street in enormous quantity where the trash is carefully spread out everywhere across the lawns in a manner to create maximum unseemliness. (I can only assume that someone in Scotland has started a nasty rumor that Boris prefers to put his trash in a bin.)

East across Edinburgh, from Calton Hill

Restaurants aside, other shops have begun to open especially all along Princes Street. In the event the rain stops for more than five minutes the sidewalks become crowded once more with people carrying dangerous diseases, and I have noticed an increase in traffic as well. For the first time in four months I set foot in a store that sells something other than “crisps” and pre-packaged sandwiches, when I visited the Levi’s on Princes Street. What a surreal and wonderful experience to do something halfway normal again. I bought a pair of jeans and I was quite pleased to discover that Levi’s uses the American sizing system in their international locations, thus saving me the impossible maths of converting my corporeal dimensions into centimetres or light-years or whatever they use over here.

View east from the castle

I made a disparaging remark about the rain just then, but in truth I have been quite pleased with the weather so far. It is not quite a summer of perpetual winter as was my wish, but it has been close. With a few brief exceptions of scorching heat (note: I consider anything over 65° to be “scorching heat”), summer so far has been basically like fall would be in Oregon. That is to say, très agreable. On July 1st it was so cold here I actually walked several miles in my insulated wool overcoat. Such a thing would be unthinkable in July in the Midwest where I am from. To wear much more than a thong there in summer is to be thought suicidal. Actually, I sort of think to live in the Midwest at all at any time of the year is to have a death wish, but somehow some of us have managed it, for a time.

The unfinished “Parthenon” on Calton Hill

Life in confinement has been difficult for everyone. For sure the sidewalk bagpipe players have been out of work for months. But I have also thought of the supplicants (I am not sure what the British call them, but they call the homeless “rough sleepers” so whatever it is I am sure it is not the American term I am thinking of). To begin with these people no longer have a steady stream of happy tourists walking by to offer them money, but that is not the end of their troubles. The other day I spoke at some length to a friendly Croatian. I would have been happy to give him some money, but I realized in dismay that I had no cash on me, and in fact haven’t carried any for months since it has essentially been done away with. As he was not set up to accept Apple Pay I am afraid we ended the conversation with me having gotten a lot more from him in terms of interesting stories, than he did from me in terms of donations.

The Balmoral Hotel and statue of Wellington

The city of Edinburgh has offered free rooms at the Old Waverley hotel to rough sleepers during the confinement, an arrangement I believe is shortly to come to an end. To my knowledge there are no plans to set these people up with pocket credit card machines, but neither do I see any interest in promoting the use of cash for commerce; it is outright prohibited in many shops.

St Giles Cathedral

So life goes and some questions have no easy answers. For example, why are 14 year old girls walking around with open bottles of vodka? Why are British duvets square when my bed is so obviously rectangle? And whence in the name of all that is holy did this British obsession come to stuff every bread product with Goji berries and blackcurrants? Why just the other day, believing myself the master of detecting their comestible corruption schemes, I came across a benign looking loaf of whole grain bread, sprinkled on top with sunflower seeds. Surely this will be wholesome, I thought to myself, but what did I find when I got home? Rien d’autre que des morceaux de fruits inconnus à l’intérieur là.

Moon over Bedlam Theatre

Binge watching TV shows aside I have not been wasting my time completely. I have kept myself occupied clearing pigeon feathers from the couch in the morning and gluing my shoes back together in the evenings. Online French classes at the Institut Français d’Ecosse have been a life saver in terms of keeping my sanity and giving me something enjoyable and constructive to do. It is a real shame we haven’t been able to meet in person as the building is only a minute from my apartment, and they even have (had) an actual real French bistro on the ground floor. All the same I am grateful even for the online classes.

We shall see if my language skills fare any better on my return to France next month, but I have a suspicion I may have only acquired enough extra rope to better hang myself with.

Tolbooth Kirk at dusk