The mood shift between last night and early next morning was drastic. I’d just walked back into the still dark room after getting out of the shower when Peter, still in bed, peeked out from under the covers and said, “They voted ‘no.’” I stopped for a moment, not entirely sure how to feel or react. I don’t live in Scotland, (sadly) and the vote doesn’t really have any affect on my life, but there was still a part of me that was crushed and disappointed, maybe even a little angry. I had been excited at the idea of being part of a turning point in history. Finally, after all these years, Scotland would have its independence! But not this year.
The melancholia had percolated through the whole city. The streets were still busy with people shopping or on their way to work but the general vibe from everyone was subdued and introspective, even brooding. But the three of us tried to have fun in spite of this. The circumstances were unfortunate but it wasn’t everyday that we all got to be in Scotland together. Mom and I attempted to get our phones fixed at Vodafone before digging into the day’s activities, but their system was down and wouldn’t likely be up until the following day. Thank goodness we had Peter!
We left the Vodafone store and crossed Prince Street to the Scott Monument. As the name suggests, it is a monument to the author Sir Walter Scott, who is most well known for his Waverly novels. It is the single largest monument ever built for an author, which I found inspiring but also rather sad. The designer was George Meikle Kemp and the sculptor of the Scott statue was Sir John Steell. The foundation stone was laid on the 15th of August in 1840 and construction was complete four years later in the autumn of 1844. The finished product is a mighty time-blackened spire stuck in the ground with Sir Walter Scott seated underneath. Charles Dickens had this to say on the monument: “I am sorry to report the Scott Monument a failure. It is like the spire of a Gothic church taken off and stuck in the ground.” An accurate description I’d say, but it’s still a lovely piece of architecture in my opinion. But then, I don’t know much about architecture. The height measuring to the top of the finial is 200 feet and six inches. In total there are 287 steps. And we climbed them all.
Our first obstacle, or I guess I should say my first obstacle, was getting through the right rotating gate. Even these were opposite of what I would’ve found in the States. I slammed my lower gut right into the metal bar, just to be sure that was the wrong way. I’m sure the man in the booth selling tickets was silently laughing at my stupidity, but Peter, mom and I just laughed about it openly and headed up the spiral stairs.
If memory serves, there are three levels to the monument in total. The first leg, and it really was a leg since that’s where the staircase is housed, was short. The passage was not exceedingly narrow and there was even the occasional handrail provided. We came to the first and largest of all the landings on our climb. It was a bit of a tight fit but you could at least pass each other rather than one person having to turn back and go the long way round to where you were (Ooo, foreshadowing).
At the center of this level there was a room lined with posters and pictures of historical facts about the monument’s history and creation. There were audio stations where you could listen to readings of Scott’s work. I listened to a sonnet. It was no Shakespeare but I guess it was alright.
Walking around the perimeter, I noticed all of the initials and messages carved into the walls of the monument. One set of initials caught my attention and I couldn’t help but snap a photo of it. The trio of letters was RAB. Every pillar, window frame and corner of the place was adorned with some sort of carving. There were the heads of dogs, there faces starkly divided in color, a clear illustration of what the building looked like when it was built and how it had been affected by time and the elements. The windows were rimmed with leaf carvings and the distorted, demented faces of men flanked some.
When we were all ready, we found the stairs again and began the longest section of our journey up the tower. Both the passageway and the steps were starting to get pinched. I slowed my pace so I didn’t slip off any steps, though I can’t imagine I would’ve fallen too far in such a slender gap. In front of me, Mom’s backpack would occasional brush the slanting roof that separated us from the stairs above. We reached the second landing. The difference in height from the level below was significant. The fog was thicker here, and despite our position above the city, we could not see any further than we had down below.
Finally, we quite literally squeezed ourselves back into the stairwell and reached the peak of the monument. The top level was so small that, had there been two other people with us, we probably could’ve formed a circle of linked hands around the spire. Up here there was no getting by each other. You had to turn around and go the long way if you wanted to get past. To get through the doorway to the stairs I had to angle sideways to fit. We enjoyed what we could of the fog-obscured view from the top, taking pictures of the slowly vanishing clock tower beside the North Bridge and the drizzled streets below. Another group came up after us and we quickly left to give them, and us, some room.
We made the whole trek without anyone of us slipping on the stairs. Hooray! Back down on the street, with all the room in the world, we took our last couple of photos of the Scott statue, most of them photo-bombed by Peter and me, then headed back towards the Royal Mile. I didn’t realize until looking back at the pictures, but the statue of Scott seated beneath the monument is clean and white, unlike the dark dingy stones of the monument. This, too, demonstrated clearly to me how differently the tower would have looked all those years ago. (Also, there was a random bagpiper…there were actually a lot around the city.)
Our next activity of the days was going to be the Writers’ Museum. My friend, Rebecca, told me I had to go during my visit, but I certainly didn’t need her to twist my arm about it. Before that, though, we found a café to stop in and get something to eat. The Saint Giles Café and Bar will always have a dear place in my heart for this was the first place in Scotland where I found chai. You may call it an addiction, and that’s probably pretty accurate so I won’t bother arguing with you. Mom and I had eaten more than Peter had before we left Maya’s so this stop was really for him. It was purely serendipitous that this was where I found my first chai of Scotland. But enough about my beverage desires. We finished up there and walked the short distance to Lady Stair’s close. By the way, if you don’t know what a close is (and that’s pronounced close as in, “Back up you are way too close to me.”) it is just a narrow alleyway.
The museum is in the former house of historic Lady Stair Elizabeth, Dowager Countess of Stair in the early 18th century. The house was actually built for her grandfather Sir Walter Gray of Pittendrum but was renamed after she purchased the place in 1719. Then, in 1907, it was gifted to the city and became the Writers’ Museum. The museum is specifically dedicated to three of Scotland’s most well loved authors: Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott, and Robert Louis Stevenson.
Before we entered, I stopped to read a sandwich board outside advertising The Edinburgh Book Lovers’ Tour. It’s a guided walking tour that visits unmarked, and for the most part unknown, sites and former stomping grounds of Edinburgh’s literary legends. It’s like the tour was made for me. Any of my friends or family will tell you I am obsessed with any kind of behind the scenes, little-known-fact kinds of things regarding my big interests. Books are definitely a big interest. The tour covered such greats as Arthur Conan Doyle, J.M. Barrie, Alexander McCall Smith, Ian Rankin and J.K. Rowling, as well as the three authors featured in the museum. Many of the writers I had never read before but I was familiar with their work and that fact didn’t really matter to me anyway.
The tour didn’t leave for another hour and a half. We couldn’t have unintentionally planned anything better. This gave us plenty of time to see the museum before leaving on the tour. The front door opened onto a single long room. A desk displaying various trinkets and holding a cash register sat to the right, with spinners of postcards to the left and bookshelves straight across from the door. The far side of the room was dedicated to an exhibit recreating a scene between Sir Walter Scott and his printer, complete with animatronics.
A flight of stairs covered in vibrant red carpet went off up to the left and the landing hugged the upper part of the wall of the main room. The museum was pretty small compared to what most people would think when hear the word “museum” but it was quiet and nearly empty so I was happy. I started up stairs first. There were three rooms here, each filled with glass cases of artifacts, furniture that belonged to the authors, and portraits or old photographs. Locks of hair, pipes, canes, old manuscripts, chairs, and a range of other personal effects (not all of them as creepy as locks of your wife’s hair) had been preserved in the museum. Downstairs was the display for Robert Louis Stevenson. Black and white photography lined the walls, creating a rough timeline of Stevenson’s persistently adventurous life. The museum also housed the printing press that Scott’s Waverly novels had been printed on.
Mom joked that if her ancestors had been famous, more of their things would’ve been saved and it would be much easier to learn about them. But alas, our family was poor then and we’re certainly not famous now. I purchased a few small things from the gift shop before we left the museum and waited around in the courtyard for the tour to start. I amused myself with reading all of the quotes etched into various stones around the building. They ranged much farther than I realized, taking me all the way down some stairs to the street parallel to the Royal Mile. I took pictures of all my favorites.
Soon a round-shouldered, older chap in a newsy cap entered the courtyard and positioned himself by the sandwich board. This was our guide. He had a goatee and white hair sticking out under his hat, a warm wool scarf wrapped around his neck and a worn messenger bag over his shoulder. More and more people arrived in the courtyard and joined the gathering around the sign. When everyone seemed to have arrived, our guide went around to each person and collected the fee for the tour. He introduced himself as Allan Foster then told us a bit about the literary history of Edinburgh, what we could expect from the tour, and roughly how long we would be gone.
Allan led the group back up Lady Stair’s close and onto the Royal Mile. Most of the tour would be taking place in Edinburgh’s Southside. According to Allan, the Southside was a much quieter area compared to the Royal Mile. It wasn’t far away from the popular tourist area but the atmosphere and crowd it attracted was just different enough to be attractive to writers looking for a quiet place to sit and write. The Southside is home to the University of Edinburgh, and the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh is not far away.
We saw where Sir Arthur Conan Doyle found inspiration for the most famous of consulting detectives, Sherlock Holmes. We saw where Stevenson’s Long John Silver was born and discovered how a young girl who hadn’t yet learned her Rs gave life to the name and character Wendy. And at long last I got to see the café where J.K. Rowling sat and penned pages of the story of my favorite boy wizard. It’s a place called Spoon on Nicolson Street, if you’re ever in Edinburgh and a huge Harry Potter fan.
It was a fantastic tour that took us to a part of the city we would never have discovered on our own.
We ended the tour at Greyfriar’s Bobby pub. It’s a rather interesting name for a pub and there’s a rather interesting story behind it. Greyfriar’s Kirk is located just behind the pub. It is said that John Gray is buried here, the former owner of a Skye Terrier named Bobby. Man and dog were nearly inseparable for two years before John died. After his death, it is said that Bobby never left his master’s grave except for food until he passed away at the age of 16. Allan assured us, however, that the whole thing was a fiction story and that the only thing buried in Bobby’s grave is a child’s goldfish.
It worked out in our favor that we ended our tour at the pub. Mom and I had planned to visit even before we left home. We thanked Allan for a wonderful time then parted ways and entered the pub. We were seated at a large round table by the front window. I was glad to see the menu had a vegetarian option and something that could easily be made vegan for Mom. Edinburgh very quickly dismissed my fears of it being less than veggie friendly. Many places had at least one or two things that I could eat. Peter did the honors of having the first and only meal of Fish n’ Chips during our time in Scotland.
When we had finished eating, we left the pub and crossed the street to the statue of Bobby. Mom and I knew from a post on the Edinburgh Facebook page that rubbing the nose of Bobby’s statue was frowned upon. The constant rubbing eventually wore away the outer gray layer of the statue and left it a bright shiny gold. The story is if you rub the nose you’ll get good luck. I’m often amazed by the things people will do because they think it will bring luck. The last one I encountered was kissing the Blarney Stone. I think I would have to be paid substantially to kiss that thing.
With our bellies full of lunch and having done a good deal of bad mouthing tourists who went up to rub Bobby’s nose, we walked the several blocks back to the Royal Mile to see St. Giles Cathedral. Mom and I don’t usually plan to go see things like cathedrals. They are sort of a ‘you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all’ kind of thing. But Mom had expressed an interest and we were all about being fair on this trip so we paid a visit. This cathedral visit was a bit different because you could go up on the roof if you wanted to, and I’d been in lots of cathedrals but never been on the roof of one.
St. Giles certainly didn’t disappoint. I’ve been in cathedrals before but this one left many of them behind. I walked in and thought, ‘holy gorgeous’ with the pun definitely intended. It was really the ceiling. It was high and domed and painted a radiant sky blue. Below the high vaulted ceilings were rows of stained glass windows, depicting saints and other important people in religious history. The scene outside was still gray and cloudy but enough light filtered thorough the windows to make them gleam. There were little nooks off the main body of the cathedral that held shrines and statues honoring other famous and noteworthy people.
Near the back was the entrance to a chapel area, which we didn’t bother venturing into. A pallet of candles flickered in the corner below a cluster of old tattered flags. I don’t know why but the flags are always my favorite things in churches or cathedrals like these. They are so old and still it seems they’ve never once been buffeted by the breeze. And maybe some never were. Some looked new and were possibly just decorative pieces protruding from the stone walls of the cathedral. Others, their history was splattered and torn right on their faces. Every rip and stain was a story of where it had been in years passed.
The circumference of the pulpit was intricately carved with various scenes and figures from the bible (or so I assume. I’m not the slightest bit religious so I’m woefully ignorant on these matters). There was a desk to the right of the entrance where you could pay for the rooftop tour. We wandered over. The man behind the desk took our money and had us read the safety and health notices for the climb. After climbing the Scott Monument, I felt more than able to climb the steps of St. Giles. It was a large building to be sure but just by looking it was clear it was not quite as tall as the Scott Monument. A younger, much cuter, man came over just as we were finishing up signing our respective waivers. He would be taking us up to the roof. Nice.
It’s terrible to write about these things. You always get a good deal of history and information dumped on you, and it’s all very interesting at the time, but I don’t remember a bloody thing usually. The most I remember is a bit of history of the building itself. Much of the cathedral as it was originally built is gone. Most of it is new, or at least new compared to when it was first made. The very first record of the church before it became the cathedral it is today was back in 854. What was once the parish church of Edinburgh was formally dedicated by the bishop of St. Andrews on October 6th 1243, reconstructed and named in honor of the patron saint of the town, St. Giles. There were signs of course that told you certain parts of the building weren’t as old as others, but you had to know where to look and know what you were looking for. It didn’t matter much to me. I just marveled at how, after so much time and decay, things still came together to create one cohesive building. I’m sure there’s a metaphor in there somewhere.
We left the main area and went down a few short steps to a side room where the winding stairs began. I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with spiral stairways. I like them very much from an aesthetic viewpoint, but boy are they a bitch to climb. Especially these old, narrow, uneven ones from hundreds of years ago. But we were all pros by now, so it wasn’t too much bother. We left the narrow stairs for a narrow metal walkway, perched crookedly between the door to the stairs and the door to the clock tower. Add to that it was misting, so the metal was wet and more slippery. We stopped here for a moment while our guide continued our history lesson (thank god there wasn’t a test) and pointed out features of the cathedrals roof. Naturally there was gargoyle ornamentation, though the guide called them something else that I can’t remember.
Then we walked up roughly hewn steps into the clock tower. High above were three different bells. To our left were the mechanisms that kept the clock ticking on time. There were so many moving pieces. My eyes darted from one to the other, captivated briefly by the constant, repetitive motions before moving onto the next bit. The bells were going to sound in just a few minutes so we decided to hang around until they did. Even being right inside the tower, the sound was not as much of a blast as you might have expected.
The bells’ ringing faded away, lingering only in my ear canal, and we left the tower behind and descended the stairs. We said our thank yous to our guide before moving on.
From St. Giles we meandered up the Royal Mile towards the castle. We had thought to check out a place called Camera Obscura but upon entering and getting a sense of the atmosphere and seeing the rather pricey entry fee, we decided we ‘d rather go get a beer.
We worked our way back to the Southside to a place called the Captain’s Bar, which Allan had pointed out on our tour. Right as we walked in the bartender told us they would be closing a bit early as there was a birthday going on. That wasn’t a problem for us. We still had about an hour to sit and drink, and we did so without needing to rush. The three of us took up seats by the front window, away from the other patrons at the bar who were all having a chat.
Once our glasses were empty we set them on the bar and moved on to find a place to eat. We’d been so busy with climbing stairs and sightseeing we hadn’t given much time to eating. My belly was just beginning to grumble when we got back to the High Street. Beer only keeps you feeling full for so long before the hunger starts to gnaw at you again. We scanned Maya’s list of restaurant suggestions for some ideas of where to go but nothing jumped out at us. The bartender at Captain’s Bar had recommended the Royal Oak as an alternative drinking spot, so we decided to give that a shot for dinner.
The place was bursting with people. A waitress came over and told us the wait would be upwards of 20 minutes to a half hour. About two minutes into the wait we decided to move on and try our luck elsewhere, so I snaked through the crowd to let someone know and then returned to the street. We stopped by World’s End, which was also full to the rafters, and I wasn’t sure they served food anyway. All of us were starting to get tired and irritable, and Mom’s feet were starting to ache badly. I could relate. Finally, we came across No. 1 High Street. This place was packed too, but the wait was only 15 minutes max and we were all done with searching. I stole a stool from someone’s table for Mom to sit on and we settled in to wait.
The hostess seated us at a booth, which I for one was extra grateful for. Mom took a bench for herself and Peter and I scooched into the other side. It took a minute or two for us to get our menus but I think we were happy enough just to be at the table. I wasted no time picking out my meal and some Scotch to go with it.
Spirits and energy definitely began to increase with every bite of dinner we took, and with every sip of our drinks. We stayed long enough for some live music to start in the other room. The singer/songwriter and her guitar floated to us around the corner and we continued to drink and talk. The evening had been saved just in the nick of time.
The sun had set completely by the time we left the restaurant. We caught a bus from the same stop as the night before and were glad of be able to sit again. One last set of stairs stood between our beds and us, but we climbed them like champions and took our fluffy down prize. I don’t even want to think about the total number of stairs we climbed that day.