Thursday, 26 July 2012

A quick look at Strange Edinburgh

Edinburgh is the capital of Scotland, the second largest city in Scotland and the 7th largest in the UK in terms of population. To the North it is bounded by the Firth of Forth and to the South sheltered from snow by the Pentland hills (great for walking but treat them with respect) and to the East is the Sea.

The city was a major centre of the Scottish Enlightenment, and became know as the Athens Of The North. More prosaically it was known as Auld Reekie, because of its characteristic stink. It includes the Old Town and the Georgian New Town as well as Leith and the Southside, and a number of other areas. As befits a city at least as old as London it has many legends, ghosts and other mysteries.

The Founding of Edinburgh

On 14th September 1128 King David 1st of Scotland was hunting, in defiance of his personal priest who said it was the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, and should be spent in church not hunting. The king got carried away by the joy of the hunt and became separated from his companions. Then he met a huge white stag which threw him off his horse and was about to gore him to death. Accounts differ here. Some say he saw a cross between the stag's horns and then it mysteriously turned away, others say a hand appeared from nowhere and gave him a cross, the divine intervention scaring away the stag. Apparently St Andrew, Patron Saint of Scotland, appeared to the king in a dream that night telling him to show gratitude for his deliverance and found an abbey, which he did, Holyrood Abbey, (The word “Rood” meant a cross) the remains of which lie next to to Holyrood Palace at the Eastern End of the Royal Mile, right next to Holyrood Park.

The White Stag is a creature of numinous and mystical significance, In The White Goddess Robert Graves mentions the Cad Goddeu, or, as others call it, the Battle of Achren, which was on account of a white roebuck, and a dog; and they came from Annwm [the Underworld], and Amathaon ap Don brought them. The Celts believed the White Stag to be a messenger from the other world and would appear when one was breaking a taboo. White has long been known as a colour both of purity and in the Celtic tradition, is associated with the otherworld. The theme of the uncatchable White stag also appears in other mythologies, including Hungarian Mythology where a White Stag led two brothers, Hun and Magor, children of either Nimrod or Japet into Levedia where they founded the Hun and Magyar peoples.

With all this symbolism it is unsurprising that King David encountered a White Stag.

Arthur's Seat

Probably not named after the King Arthur of the stories, possibly named after a historical King Arthur in Scotland, possibly from a Gaelic term, though there is no traditional Gaelic name for it. this extinct volcano was somewhere a passing giant rested. In 1836 a group of schoolboys found 17 tiny coffins hidden in the area, each holding a carved figure. Their purpose is still unknown, though I note that in Guatemala people make tiny dolls: you tell them your troubles then put them back into their box and they will try to help you. Some claim Arthur's seat is the location of Camelot, but the only certain fortification there is a Hill Fort that may date from 600 AD and the remains of an Iron Age Hill Fort.

Calton Hill
Calton Hill is in some ways the other aspect of Arthur's Seat. One derivation of the name points to it as a grove of Hazel trees, the hazel being a major magical tree, other old names call it a forested hill or “black hill”. Unlike Arthur's Seat it has an atmosphere. It is the scene of the Annual Beltane Festival on May Day Eve, and the last recorded sighting of the Sidhe took place here in 1930. After dark you may see a fox, the British Trickster, going about its business. I recall reading that Calton Hill was the site of the Festivities hosted by the Lord of Misrule under his Scottish Title of “Abbot of Unreason” or “Lord of Inobedience”. More recently Calton Hill has been used by Robbers and Gays, not at the same time of course.

The Old Town
In one of his Rebus novels Ian Rankin mentions a legend of a vast serpent being buried under the Old town. It certainly has its darker side. When the North Moat of the castle was drained to form Princes St Gardens hundreds of bodies were found. Mary King's close, off the High Street, where many plague victims died is reputed to be one of the most haunted places in the UK.

At the age of 71 Thomas Weir, a strict and respected presbyterian became ill in 1670, and from his sick-bed began to confess to a secret life of crime and vice. The Lord Provost initially found the confession implausible and took no action. Later under questioning Major Weir expanded on his confession, and Jean Weir, seemingly having entirely lost her wits (even more than her brother), gave an even more exaggerated history of witchcraft, sorcery and vice. Whilst at first he was not believed, his own confession coupled by a witness, stating that they saw his walking stick walking down the street in front of him, sealed his fate. Both he and his sister were quickly found guilty at their trial and sentenced to death, Major Weir to be garotted and burned, and Jean Weir hanged. After his death his house was reputed to be haunted and stayed empty for some 200 years. His apparition would roam the streets at night and a phantom coach would sometimes collect him from the house 

The Wrap

Edinburgh feels as if it has more ghosts than people. Volumes have been written describing them. In addition Edinburgh has mysteries wrapped in riddles and enigmas. If you like the supernatural, it is your kind of town.

All the locations mentioned here are accessible by a single bus ride from the Badjao B &B, though it is quite a walk from Holyrood Palace to Arthur's Seat. Ghost Tours depart from Various locations along the Royal Mile, the road from the Castle to Holyrood Palace.

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