Monday, January 18, 2010

Castle in the Sky

After walking around in Leith for a bit early on Saturday evening and finding no place that appealed to us for drinks or dinner, David flagged a taxi and we headed toward Old Town and Princes Street, sort of the main area of downtown in Edinburgh. The driver dropped us at the corner of Hanover and Rose Streets and as I exited the taxi I could see the glow of lights on the hill above us. I walked the half block down to Princes Street to have a look and there shining down over the city hovered the remarkable Edinburgh Castle.

The sky, covered with clouds, appeared black in the background. Likewise, the unlighted hill below and adjacent parks were dark by comparison. Disney could not have produced a better, more effectively presented image of medieval times. The castle loomed large over the city as if a ghostly presence of protection in the sky. (I am not sure what looming is but I know castles always do it.)

It was easy when looking at the gray edifice to understand why this location atop an extinct volcano was chosen as a position from which to defend the countryside. Just as the lighted castle was visible from miles around, the huge stone walls would have intimidated even the largest approaching army from any direction.

Edinburgh Castle is the home of the Blackwatch and the Argyle and Sutherland forces which still serve and protect in the UK. Rooms of memorabilia and historic weaponry, the French Prisons used during the Napoleonic Wars, and some living quarters can be viewed on a tour of the now largely ceremonial landmark. The siege gun, Mons Meg, given to James II in 1457 still sits, nonfunctioning, on the ramparts. Each day at 1PM a gun is fired from the battery lest anyone forget that the castle itself was first and foremost a weapon of war.

Like his father before him, our friend General Sir John Macmillan was the Commander of Edinburgh Castle until the turn of the century. (McMullen is the ancient Gaelic spelling of what is now the Anglicized, Macmillan.) We met Sir John and Lady Belinda when we lived in the 250 year old manse next door to their farm in central Scotland in 2000. In ratty sweater and dirty corduroys, John belied his former position. Belinda, however, continued to use the organization skills honed in years of service to country and organized a local community center and market in the little spare time she had between farming, canning, entertaining and ongoing philanthropic and service activities. David had written and published an article about the couple a few years before when John retired but we had not met them previously. John’s father, Sir Gordon, had been Chief of Clan Macmillan as well as Commander of the castle and John’s older brother, George, now holds the title of Chief and resides in the family home of Finlaystone outside Glasgow.

Finlaystone is a lovely huge old estate on the banks of the River Clyde. The wonderful garden on the grounds is open to visitors and included in Irvine’s list of 10 best outdoor places to visit in Scotland. The garden and adjoining Clan Center were the life’s work of George’s now-deceased wife Jane. When we visited Finalystone with T & T, Jane took the boys into the kitchen and the three of them baked griddle scones and prepared tea, a perfect example of Scottish openness to friends. While we were there Tavish identified a picture of himself among several pinned to board in the hall, an adorable three year old in his kilt, leading the clan at the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games.

In past years, groups of volunteer young people have lived and worked at Finlaystone each summer as what were jokingly referred to as slaves. For room, board, a wee bit of spending money and occasional weekend transportation into Glasgow, the teenagers maintained the house and grounds and seemed to have a lot of fun besides. John and Belinda met at the estate during a summer as slaves.

But I ramble….

As I stood looking up at Edinburgh Castle, a brilliant beacon in the night, I tried to imagine myself living there many generations ago. Actually, my ancestors were Jacobites and lived in Rose Castle at Kilravock outside Inverness in the highlands. Always opportunists, the Roses entertained Bonnie Prince Charlie on the eve of the failed Jacobite rebellion at the Battle of Culloden. On the night following the battle, the victorious Lord Cumberland dined with the leaders of Clan Rose at the castle, which is maintained as a retreat center in the midst of a large wooded expanse almost adjacent to the battlefield.

By contrast, Edinburgh Castle sits atop the city's Royal Mile looking down the hill at Holyrood Palace, the Queen’s formal Scottish residence, and at both the Old and New Scottish Parliament buildings. Here, in the Castle, Mary Queen of Scots gave birth to James VI of Scotland (who became James I of England), the Scottish Crown Jewels are housed and the Scone of Scotland/Stone of Destiny now sits in its rightful place after return from Westminster Abbey (where according to my favored version of Scottish history it was taken after being stolen by the English in 1296.)

On the highest point of Castle Rock is the exquisitely beautiful St Margaret’s Chapel, built by David I in the 12th century in memory of his mother. The Governor’s House, built in 1742, is used as the Governor’s official residence although I doubt anyone actually ever lives in the dark, damp place (who even knew there was a Governor?) The Great Hall alone is worth the price of admission. Oh yes, there is a charge to go inside now.

Just this week, the Castle got bigger. Medieval defenses that have been buried for more than 250 years were discovered by archaeologists during work to construct new stands for the annual Military Tattoo. The remains of a two feet thick wall, believed to be part of the perimeter boundary between the city and the castle and the foundations of a 16th century defense bastion which protected the entrance to the castle were unearthed. Apparently, both parts of the castle appear in 1647 drawing by Gordon of Rothiemay, supposed English spy for Henry VIII’s army, but their exact locations were not known until now. The findings are remarkable and certainly add to the history and mystique of the site.

But, for me, just looking up at this remarkably beautiful place that appears suspended over the city in the night sky, is enough.

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