Saturday, 15 June 2013

Calton Hill Edinburgh's Faerie hill and the Fairy Boy of Leith

Edinburgh from Calton Hill

Like Rome Edinburgh, sometimes called “The Athens of the North” has seven hills, Arthur's seat is acknowledged as the first and Calton Hill spawned from Arthur's Seat by a geological fault is the second. A walk to the top of Calton Hill is less challenging than the walk up Arthur's seat but in some ways more rewarding with panoramic views of Edinburgh and Fife and then chance to visit the National Monument and Nelson's tower.

Calton Hill has always seemed to me like a place outside Edinburgh, and to some extent outside the universe. Walk up the hill and the city seems an eternity away. If you are on your own it may be best not to be there after sunset for human and non human strangeness can take over: it could have been a model for Mussorgyky's Night on Bare Mountain where good fun is had, by all who can stand it, till dawn.

The Name

Trying to find how a place got its name is a minefield for the unwary. In London the Saxons left clues even a layman can spot with a bit of training. In Scotland things are less clear. In 1456 James II gifted land to Edinburgh that included Calton Hill as “Cagingalt” the rock or Hill of the Hazel, pointing to “Calton” coming from “Cailtunn” the Gaelic for “Hazel Grove or copse”. Given the magical associations of the Hazel it is possible the hill was regarded as a place of mystery even then. Other possible derivations are from the Gaelic for “forested hill” or “Black Hill”. It accquired the modern spelling in 1804.

A short History

Some 350 Million years ago The volcano of Arthur's seat died and then a geological fault split it into two giving rise to what is now Calton Hill. Nothing much happened in this time, the pace of life being slower then. Finally in 1546 James II gave the hill and the land round it to Edinburgh for informal military training: in those days there were no standing armies and citizens had to know how to fight. The next year he banned Golf and football and ordered Archery practice every Sunday. In the eighteenth century philosopher Robert Hume lobbied for the creation of a public walkway for the citizens of Edinburgh and saw it come into being shortly before his death.

Modern development hid the ravine at the southern edge of the hill, which held the village of Low Calton and was bridged from 1816, with many of the old houses destroyed in the process (they were less sentimental about the past then) and the remaining old houses removed in the 1970s. I recall visiting the council offices at ground level from Regents Place, which bridged the ravine, and noting there were seven floors below that level, descending into the former ravine.

The National Monument and Nelson's Tower

The National Monument on the hill was intended to be a copy of the Parthenon and celebrate Scottish soldiers killed in the Napoleonic Wars. Unfortunately it was funded by donations not tax and the money ran out too soon. It has never been completed and that is now part of its charm. Nowadays people love to scramble up the eight foot high walls ( there are no steps), and enjoy the view. With a few bottles of beer. Warning: there are no toilets there either.

The Nelson Monument, at the highest point of the hill, commemorates Nelson's victory over the French and Spanish in 1805. A timeball is dropped from the monument every day as a time signal to shipping and is synchronised with the one o'clock gun fired from the Castle. The tower was funded by public subscription and this time the money almost lasted till the monument was completed. You can go up to the top for a fee but there are 143 spiral steps so be careful.

The Fairy Boy of Leith
Around 1648 a captain Burton met a ten year old boy of unusual intelligence who claimed that every Thursday night he would go to a hill, presumed to be Calton Hill, and, entering into underground rooms through a pair of gates invisible to all without fairy sight, play the drum for a large assembly of people [1] . His account is more like the accounts of a medieval Witches Sabbat without the diabolic element: and lacks, obviously, the time lapse element of Faerie encounters, where a night in Faerie can be decades in this world. However it is possible there are caverns under the hill, for there are caverns, now sealed off, under Arthur's seat, and in fact an entire Lothian cavern system [2]. I recall reading that the last sighting of the fairies in Edinburgh was on Calton Hill in 1930, the year the Calton Jail, formerly on the hill, was demolished. Perhaps they did not like the noise.

The Beltane Fire Festival
Every year since 1988 on 30th of April a number of ritual dramas and participatory art events inspired by the Ancient festival of Beltane that marked the start of summer. It is also the date of Walpurgis night, a start of summer festival celebrated in Northern and Central Europe, often with dancing and bonfires.

The Festival draws on a number of influences but is not claimed to be anything other than a modern and evolving Beltane celebration, and was originally intended to be held on Arthur's seat the site of earlier Beltane celebrations but proved more practical on Calton Hill. Over the years it has grown and is now a ticketed event.

The Firth of Forth from Calton Hill

The wrap

Calton Hill is a must for the visitor, if only for the spectacular views of Edinburgh and the Firth of Forth, especially just before sunset. The buildings on the hill, the National Monument, Nelson's Tower, The governors house, the Dugald Stuart Monument are worth visiting, and children will love playing on the cannon and it is a good place to watch the fireworks at the end of the festival and at Hogmanay.

During the Edinburgh  Fringe some of the more bizarre acts tend to take place on Calton Hill. Please check the programme to see if they are suitable for children or nervous adults. This is in keeping with what I heard, that at one time the hill was used for the Lord of Misrule celebrations in Edinburgh.

The hill is one bus ride and a short walk from the Badjao B&B and a welcome rest after shopping in Princes St

[3] Beltane Fire Society website

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