S C O T L A N D : D A Y 3
AUGUST 21 (Monday) -- Edinburgh
I awoke with a feeling of anticipation--today we would begin to see some of the places so prominent throughout the Scottish history I'd been reading for months. Our day would be spent along what is called the Royal Mile. This is the ancient road which climbs from Holyrood Palace and its abbey upwards past shops and hidden courtyards (called "closes") to the central landmark of the area, Edinburgh Castle.Holyrood Palace
Holyrood Palace had been around long before Mary Stuart, the doomed Queen of Scots, stamped it with her presence, but hers is the name most closely associated with it now. We began by strolling through the ruined abbey adjoining the palace, where the dates carved into the stones told of the burials of Scottish nobility beginning nearly a thousand years ago. The palace itself was an enclosed courtyard plan with tall corner towers (only one of which was open to the public). Our tour of the palace was very much a tribute to Mary; reminders of her occupation were everywhere, from the sumptuous bedroom with its rich and finely detailed wooden ceiling painted with the initials of her royal parents to the wooden-floored room filled with momentos of the period--the very room in which Mary saw her secretary David Rizzio brutally murdered at the command of her vain and jealous husband Henry Stewart, Lord Darnley, a cousin of Mary's.The Royal Mile
Leaving the palace for the bustling, sunlit shops of the Royal Mile felt like closing the covers of a sad, tragic novel and going outside to play. This spirit of being released seemed to have infected the other members of the group as well. Every time I tried to corral them so that we wouldn't lose one another in the milling crowds, I got the strangest looks. After a while I came to accept that we wouldn't all be lost forever if we got separated... but it took me several days, during which my fellow Lifestyles forum members each exercised the patience of Job with me. They were pretty patient while I found small gifts for my grandmothers, too.
Along the way we peered into the preserved home of the Protestant reformer, John Knox. We also investigated St. Giles Cathedral, whose name survived the Protestant purging of all things "papist" (such as bishops and cathedrals).John Knox's House St. Giles Cathedral
Eventually we wended our way upwards through the busy streets to the castle. Edinburgh Castle is an enormous stone pile built atop an extinct volcanic plateau; it is possible to see for miles from only part-way up the winding path leading to the summit. Most of the castle itself has been torn down and rebuilt several times over the centuries, but, as our guide was quick to point out, the castle proper has never been taken by force of arms (although it did get captured occasionally by deceit).Edinburgh Castle Edinburgh Castle details
We very cleverly managed to arrive in time for a tour which began just before 1:00 p.m., which is when the "One o'clock Gun" (an anti-aircraft artillery gun of WWII vintage) is fired. This marks the time for the city with a report that can be heard for several miles. As our guide pointed out with a sly gleam in his eye, "Now, you may be wondering why it is that this gun is fired at one o'clock, rather than the more customary noon. This is, of course, because firing the gun at noon would require the expenditure of eleven more rounds...."
There was far more to see at the castle than can be described in a few words: the small and simple St. Margaret's Chapel, the oldest roofed structure in Scotland; the shattered hulk of the great cannon Mons Meg; the rough-hewn (but chilly!) dungeons in which French, Dutch and American prisoners have languished; the Regimental Museum of the Royal Scots, Britain's oldest infantry regiment; the Scottish National War Memorial designed by Sir Robert Lorimer, in which the service of each WWII military branch (including the animal veterinary corps) is etched in stone; the tiny room in which James VI of Scotland (the future James I of England) was born under mysterious circumstances to Mary, Queen of Scots; the great hammer-beamed Banqueting Hall rebuilt by James IV, its walls encrusted with swords and polearms and guarded by suits of armor, wherein occurred the infamous "Black Dinner" of 1440; and the fabulous Scottish Regalia: the Sceptre, Sword and Crown of Scotland, hidden away in a forgotten trunk after the Restoration and brought to light again only at the urging of the novelist Sir Walter Scott. There is even a small piece of ground on the open Esplanade at the castle's entrance which, in a bit of legal legerdemain intended to fill the depleted coffers of the restored King Charles II, is considered to be territory belonging to the Canadian province of Nova Scotia.
And casting shadows all around is the looming solidity of centuries-old stone.Scottish National War Memorial
Eventually the scattered members of our party reformed just in time for supper. Bill had done some research for us and found a place that sounded good. The entrance turned out to be a stairway down to a cellar... but an extremely well-appointed cellar. We were soon enjoying a meal that instantly put to rest any question of Scottish fare being unimaginative or bland; from the sauces to the wines to the after-dinner drinks to the service, it was one of the best meals I had during my visit.
And then, as the sun sank behind the castle in the west, we headed back to the castle for the evening's main event, the celebrated Military Tattoo. To put it simply, this is a concert of massed pipe and drum corps. But the simple description doesn't really convey what it felt like to sit in the stands on the Esplanade facing the imposing entrance to the castle. Everyone in the crowd around us was grinning, ready for something exciting to happen.
At this point, we experienced a minor scare. Ann had cleverly managed to get us the best seats in the house, not too far back, not too close, and directly facing the castle. But somehow in all the excitement her own ticket had been left back at the hotel. So while the rest of us turned concerned faces to one another, worried that Ann was going to miss most of the show while she went back to the hotel for the ticket, we tried to console ourselves by promising to take great pictures. (Those of us who'd brought cameras, anyway.) Suddenly we saw Ann, beaming and waving to us. She had gone downstairs, obviously upset, and when someone with the Tattoo learned that she had no ticket but had reserved one, the computer records were checked then and there, and she was told, "Just go on up!"
So the show began.Military Tattoo Start
It was a musical program; words are not going to be able to describe it adequately. But suffice to say that it started with a bang--and I mean that literally. As the first number ended, each of the seven cannons mounted in the Half Moon Battery facing us fired in turn, waking any in the crowd who might have been snoozing. Then the two companies of Scottish pipers had their pipe and drum corps friends from France and Egypt (yes, Egypt) out in turn, each with their own special exhibitions. This was followed by a spectacle; mounted actors portraying characters of French and Scottish history rode out of the castle in celebration of the 700th anniversary of the Auld Alliance between Scotland and France, a long history of mutual military aid against the English (an agreement which, it must be admitted, was generally ignored when it suited the various Kings of France to do so). Then came the dancers, ladies and gentlemen in skirt and kilt who performed intricate maneuvers while young women in the center of it all did the Highland Fling to the skirling of the pipes.Military Tattoo Middle
And then came the finale. Out marched all the bands, massed in performance of a Saint-Saens number which featured a monstrously amplified pipe organ shaking every seat in the house as though in the hands of a giant who'd had one too many cups of coffee. The lights dimmed, and out on the battlements of the castle strode a lone piper lit by a single spotlight. We held our breath while the pure notes drifted out onto the evening breeze. When the song ended and we sat quietly waiting, the strains of "Auld Lang Syne" began. To my surprise, everyone in the crowd crossed hands, left over right, and clasped the hand of the person next to or behind him or her. So I did the same, and sang along as best I could, feeling welcomed here as though I and everyone else carried nothing but the purest of Scottish blood in our veins.
Finally, the music segued to Scotland the Brave, at which point the crowd remembered to breathe, and the cheering returned in a laughing, clapping, shouting crescendo.Military Tattoo End
While the others did some further partying, I went back to the hotel to sleep. I couldn't imagine anything topping the Tattoo, and didn't want anything to try.
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