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.

Monday, 23 July 2012

The Edinburgh Military Tattoo

The Edinburgh Military Tattoo, The Tattoo for short, is a series of military tattoos held in Edinburgh Castle every August with military bands from all over the world performing. It is part of the Edinburgh Festival, which is a set of festivals taking place in August.

The word “Tattoo” has nothing to do with body art, the drumbeat of a military band or the sound of a trumpet. It comes, from the Dutch “Doe den tap toe” which literally means “Close the tap” referring to a beer tap, and is better translated as “last orders” after British licensing laws which required ringing a bell ten minutes before closing time to allow customers to buy a final drink before the bar closed. This contrasts with Belgium where whoever rings the bell above the bar indicates they are willing to buy a drink for everyone in the place. Soldiers in the British Army first came across the term “Tap toe” when stationed in Flanders during the War of the Austrian Succession from 1740 to 1748. The British adopted the practice of playing the Taptoe signal each night to tell tavern owners to turn off the taps in their bar to ensure the soldiers returned to their billets at a reasonable hour. Later, when soldiers lived in barracks, the Tattoo referred to the last duty call of the day and to a ceremonial evening entertainment played by military bands and musicians.

An unofficial Tattoo in Edinburgh took place in Princes Street Gardens in 1949 followed by the first official tattoo in 1950 and the tattoo has grown almost every year since. Over 200,000 people a year watch it from the temporary stands on the castle esplanade (also used for concerts) and the time for their eraction has shrunk from two months to one. The Tattoo takes place every weekday evening and twice on Saturdays in August whatever the weather and the later Saturday performance includes a fireworks and a Son et lumière element projected onto the façade of the Castle. 

There are free samples of the Tattoo in Princes Street Gardens and in Glasgow. The Tattoo has also toured outside Britain, and is televised in 30 countries which means a further 100 million people see it on television.

The Tattoo itself is run for charitable causes but also contributes a lot to Edinburgh's economy. It has its own magazine and has a number of corporate sponsors. In its 60th Year it was renamed the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo to celebrate its longevity.

The first non British regiment to take part in the Tattoo came from the Netherlands in 1952 and by 2012 over 30 countries have taken part, including the Swiss Top Secret Drum Corps, a group of drummers with diverse day jobs. In 1972 a Norwegian contingent adopted a penguin from Edinburgh Zoo as a mascot. There is no truth in the rumour they taught it to ski. 

There is a different theme for each year and the military services take turns in “leading” the Tattoo but the highlight is the music of military pipe and drum bands from all over s the world. There are also mock battles and a series of events which may include stunt driving and exotic dancers (my preference). A pair of binoculars may be a good idea but check with the Tattoo office if they are allowed.

The Castle and hence the Tattoo is a single, normally short, bus ride from the Badjao Bed andBreakfast and not far from the Grassmarket, formerly the place where criminals were hung, which now has a number of traditional Scottish pubs including the ambiguously named “Last Drop” bar.

The Tattoo almost always sells out well in advance. From 2013 we are considering a package deal which includes tickets for the Tattoo. If there is enough interest we will proceed further with this. 

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

What to see in The Old Edinburgh Fishing Village of Cramond

Cramond, a former fishing village in northeast Edinburgh has been one of the most desirable areas in the region since about 8500BC when nomadic hunter gatherers came to where the River Almond (of course they did not call it that) joins the River Forth (They did not call it the Forth either) to feast on the oysters and mussels. Nothing much seems to have happened till 142AD when the Romans arrived and built a fort and then built the Antonine Wall across Scotland, leaving a gap between the wall and the fort. The six acre fort took 500 men to build and included a harbour. Military planning was the same then as now and a decade or so later the fort was abandoned and the troops ordered to retreat south to Hadrian's wall, which was easier to defend. The Romans came back briefly around 208AD and left in 211AD. They would have stayed longer but Emperor Septimus Severus who ordered the reoccupation died in 211 and the next year one his sons killed the other (So much for family values), became Emperor and ordered the troops back to Hadrians Wall. The outlines of the buildings comprising the fort can be seen just off Cramond Glebe Road on the way to the seafront. Perhaps the most interesting find from here is the Cramond Lioness, a sculpture of a lioness eating part of a man. Excavation of the fort is ongoing so if you visit two years in a row the chances are the information displayed will be different.

Again not a lot happened for a while but Cramond Kirk claims to be the site of the oldest church in Scotland, dating to around 600AD, though the earliest surviving part of the church dates to the 1400s. Gravestone spotters will note the prevalence of Masonic insignia on the older tombstones. The kirk was rebuilt several times, starting around 1656 when the renewal would have taken account of the differences between Presbyterian and Catholic forms of worship. The church nearly lost its bell in 1651 when Oliver's Army (Cromwell that is) removed it and the congregation appealed successfully for its return.

The third attraction in the area is Cramond Tower, a tower house dating to the 15th Century, abandoned for a while then restored and now  apparently occupied by a work from home taxidermist.

From the harbour you can walk inland up the River Almond past the remains of the old iron mills and enjoy the mirror like surfaces of the old mill ponds to Old Cramond Bridge. At the time of writing this is the only crossing point since the ferry is out of action. Keen anglers have also been spotted fishing the weirs.

If you do not want to walk inland you can check the safe crossing times and walk the ¾ mile long causeway to Cramond IslandAbout half way across the condition of the causeway deteriorates and you need to be careful.
The Causeway to Cramond Island with wartime anti submarine defences 

The tide rises faster than you might expect, and it is not uncommon for visitors to be stranded on the Island once the tide starts rising, especially as the Island is larger than it looks from the mainland However some people plan ahead in order to have a party on the island, with perfect privacy, when the tide is high. Given that the weather can change rapidly warm clothes, if only carried in a backpack, are essential.

Although Cramond Island is uninhabited today , the earliest evidence of humans found anywhere in Scotland turned up on the island in the form of discarded hazelnut shells, carbon dated to 8,500BC. These are though to be the remains of a meal enjoyed here by a band of mesolithic hunter-gatherers. Surprisingly there is no trace of Roman occupation of the Island. It has been intermittently occupied and, during the first world war part of the island was taken over by the War Department as part of the defences of the Forth, and the entire Island was requisitioned in the Second World War and the military left a lot of traces, though the neighbouring island of Inchmickery is almost covered in military defences. The concrete teeth next to the causeway were military defences designed to stop anything that floated passing south of the island at high tide.

Cramond is a fascinating area. It is about 30 minutes drive from the Bed and Breakfast but if you wish to go by bus you have to take a bus from the centre of town. Once you arrive it is about ten minutes walk to the shore. The main place to eat is the Cramond Inn which has recently (2012) been receiving very bad reviews. There is however a small coffee shop, which closes at 1630, at the harbour.

For photographers the sky can be impressive and makes a great complement to the sea or the sand-flats exposed at low tide. The buildings in the village and the walk up the Almond also offer opportunities.

View Larger Map
Finally note the Scottish sense of humour. The public toilets (non smoking!! and closed at 6pm) include a disabled toilet but our party failed to find any means of access other than steep stairs. But it was a rainy day so we may have missed something.