I can’t breathe out of my nose, and it feels like I swallowed a spoonful of gravel at some point in my sleep. I haven’t been sick in years, and now I’m sick.
As the sun rises late the outline of a castle appears outside my window…A CASTLE. Moreover, the sky is brilliantly clear. It’s as if the gods were rewarding us for the previous day’s painstaking journey. I don’t care if I’m not feeling well, I’m pressing through.
By the time I’m ready everyone’s waiting. And we decide to kick off the day by popping one of the bottles of prosecco we brought to drink on the train. It’s just enough to keep my sore throat at bay.
Even with nary a cloud in the sky Edinburgh is a damp place. It feels mildewed in the way of a deep mystic cave, or a dank basement in an old house. The castle looms over the town as an ancient reminder that, once upon a time, all one needed was elevation and stone to rule a land. We make our way up a series of steps to the esplanade in front of the castle. It commands a 360 degree view of the region. I found it reminiscent of Quebec City, a town with a distinct “upstairs” and “downstairs” surrounded by an intruding body of water. The Firth of Forth in Edinburgh’s case vs. the St. Lawrence in Quebec City’s case.
The castle is appropriately ancient, a chapel on the grounds dates back to the 12th century. There are more stories here than an entire state back home. A cold, raw wind whips up the hillside as we walk around the castle grounds. We work our way inside to see the Scottish crown jewels, including the Stone of Destiny.
How awesome is it to have something called the Stone of Destiny?
It’s a rectangular piece of rock about the size of a microwave. Behind the glass it looks as if it’s been through a millennia of drama. The stone carries with it the symbolism of Scottish independence and resistance. It was taken by the English in the 13th century and embedded in the coronation chair in Westminster Abbey until about 20 years ago. That’s when it was finally returned to Scotland as part of a recognition of a growing Scottish tide. Now it sits behind glass.
Royalty is an odd thing to me, and something I never had much interest in. I saw it as a tabloid phenomenon, incestuous and ancient. I think American history is sometimes so easy to study that the complexities of foreign systems become overwhelming, and in the process we let the surface level arguments excuse us from studying episodes like royal succession. That being said, I’ve turned a corner on this recently. I’ve started studying the English civil wars, which has ignited an interest in the characters that played a role during, and leading up to, that era. Point being, that as you walk in to see the Scottish Honors, you’re also walking through the history of Scotland, and through key moments in the civil wars. It was a crystallizing moment to bring some of my studies into tangible reality. Travel. I’d love to get into it, but I’ve already digressed enough.
Back outside the crisp air hits. Standing atop a castle we map out the day. I want to climb to the top of Arthur’s Seat, Jon and I look at that compared to some of the other landmarks. It looks far away, and high, but doable. Even at 10 a.m. the sun hangs low enough in the sky that it seems it’ll disappear at any moment. We’re still awe-struck at the crystal clear skies.
Our gameplan is to head down the Royal Mile, sneak into some shops, grab lunch and then climb the mountain, cold be damned. And one great way to damn a cold is with some good Scotch whiskey. After a lap up and down the mile we stop for lunch at a place called the Jolly Judge. It’s Sunday so they open late, which means we just stand outside on the steps looking as sad and cold as possible until they open the doors. It works, and we have the bar to ourselves for all of 15 minutes.
I’m not sure which is warmer, the Scotch whiskey or the fireplace. There’s no need for competition, it’s all pleasant. The bartenders are young guys, but full of whiskey knowledge. Somehow the conversation circles to our plan to climb Arthur’s Seat, I mention off-hand that I’m in no shape to climb a mountain.
“A mountain?!? That’s no mountain…that’s just a little hill.”
There’s no comeback. I want to tell them every mountain I ever climbed, but I know that’ll only make things worse. And so I acknowledge my lack of manliness, shoot the rest of the whiskey and walk out the door determined to climb a mountain, that’s not really a mountain.
It really isn’t that big of a climb, it looks much bigger from a distance. The initial path is paved, but as you step up the pavement becomes a well-worn path. For today, though, it’s a creek. All of the rain that’s fallen over the last few days continues to run off the mountain (that’s not really a mountain). Ten minutes in and Lauren is livid. She wasn’t prepared to hike/wade up a mountain (that’s not really a mountain) and so we determine to split off for the remainder of the day. Jon and I continue up, as Emily and Lauren head back into town.
The hike isn’t especially difficult, and as such it is crowded. Especially on an off-chance day of sunshine. Speaking of the sun, its low station in the sky casts a constant golden glow on the landscape. There’s something called the “golden hour” in photography, in Scotland in the winter the golden hour lasts all day. So, for every step I take, I snap another photo. As we push past the switchbacks and up to the first false summit the wind is pushing back with enough force that hang-gliding using only my coat seems a realistic possibility.
This sub-summit is covered in a bed of stubble-length grass. It’s the image of Scotland that I’ve always conjured up, the moment when stereotype meets reality. We press on up a rocky crag too narrow for most Americans, and then we’re at the top. The wind speed picks up by a factor of ten. Jon and I don’t say a word, we split up and immediately start taking pictures.
To the east is the sea, to the south is another range of mountains pushing back against the low-hanging sun, to the west is a castle atop a mountain and the rest of Edinburgh. This is a magical, surreal location. In places like Sedona, Arizona they talk about vortices of energy atop rocky formations. There is a feeling like that here, but instead of a spiritual portal this is a door to an ancient world when iron and bronze were first forged and blocks of sandstone determined kingdoms. Arthur’s Seat itself is a geologic remnant of another epoch, an extinct, plugged volcano. In another age Scotland was soaked not in rain, but in molten earth.
Everything we dealt with the day before…the trains, the buses, the cabs, the hassle…I’d do it all again in a heartbeat for this precise moment. This is one of those rare moments that combine place with circumstance to create perfection.
We take our time at the top, and we take our time heading back down using the low winter sun as a backdrop for the hero shot.
Back down the mountain we walk through the campus of the University of Edinburgh on our way to meet up with Lauren and Emily. Edinburgh is strangely layered upon itself, streets crisscross streets at different levels. This makes it confusing when you’re trying to find something on GPS. The dot shows us at the bar where we’re supposed to meet up, but there’s no bar here. A few minutes of investigation reveal that there’s a street below us.
That street is predictably dark and damp. It’s lined by hostels and backpacker joints and, logically, an Aussie bar. We’re not going there. The bar we’re heading to feels subterranean. It’s Sunday, so soccer (football) is on every television. It feels late in the evening, but it’s barely 4 p.m. Meeting Emily and Lauren we’re sure that they’re going to be envious of the adventure that took us atop Arthur’s Seat. But, alas, they are not. You see, it seems that as we went high, they went low.
When they went back into town they stopped inside a church that had been converted into a market of sorts. While shopping they started talking to one of the employees, who was apparently the son of the guy who runs the place. The kid took our wives on a tour beneath Edinburgh, deep into the guts of the city and 500 years into the past. This city, like most, has progressively built upon itself, burying history in the process so that a few centuries later a pair of American women can stumble upon this anachronistic landscape. I’ll let Lauren tell the full story…I’ve already butchered it enough.
After a drink we make the call to head toward the Christmas markets along the Princess Street Gardens. The markets are terraced into the landscape along three levels bottoming out with a festival of rides. I don’t ride rides at county fairs, and I don’t ride rides at Christmas markets. It’s one of my guiding rules never to be violated.
Nevertheless, my cold is back (or rather the whiskey’s worn off) and with a vengeance. I do my best to press on as we weave along the hundreds of booths hawking many of the same wares that you’ll see at just about every market. Not to diminish the phenomenon, it’s quite the holiday spectacle…and Lauren is in heaven.
We walk up to another market in St. Andrew’s Square. It’s, thankfully, far less crowded. At the center of the market is a bar encircled by a moat of frozen ice. It’s an ice-skating rink race track that you have to walk over using elevated stairways. This’ll be another idea I’ll be stealing.
After a bit more shopping and some delicious hot chocolate we’re back on the Royal Mile for dinner. The plan was a place called the Devil’s Advocate. The name comes from the street it’s on: Advocates Close. Think of a close the same way you’d think about an alley, except narrower, older and with stairs and archways. The restaurant looks amazing, but I can’t say anything about the taste…they’re booked out for the evening.
Plan B. We ended up at another restaurant that filled our bellies, but not especially memorably. So it goes. After dinner we ended up back at the Bow Bar where I fell into the trap of drinking beers with locals.
It was quite accidental, a compliment about the beer I ordered turned into a conversation about beer and that became a conversation about the “troubles in Northern Ireland” and that turned into a conversation about food and that turned into a conversation about Washington, D.C. and that turned into a phone conversation with their friend who lives in Arlington, Virginia and that turned into a conversation about American politics and that turned into last call.