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.