Of bagpipes and bottled smoke
When the alarm went off at 6 am, the blue night-infused dawn was giving way to a dull grey morning. I would have gleefully returned to slumber land, but for the Scottish sojourn that lay ahead of me. An hour of zigzagging through the London Underground brought me to Euston. The next 5 hours almost whizzed past as the train cut across the English heartland and finally pulled up at Edinburgh Waverley in the afternoon.
My first view of Edinburgh was arguably the finest. Stepping into the archaic city bathed in the afternoon sun, Auld Reekie appeared glorious, opulent and imposing. Auld Reekie is the Scottish nickname for Edinburgh; translated to English it means Old Smoky, probably a reference to the smoke from the chimneys of the tenements in the days of yore. Setting foot on the streets of Edinburgh, I stood transfixed, looking up at the medieval splendours in granite, reeking of heritage and antiquity.
My first stop was the Edinburgh Castle and I had to cross the Royal Mile, a longish stretch of road leading up to the castle. Restaurants and pubs dotted the grid of cobbled streets, each surpassing the other in antiquity. A clutch of street performers showed off myriad games and tricks while the ubiquitous sound of the bagpipe floated through the air.
Fragments of conversations in diverse dialects wafted over the music. It seemed like a carnival amidst a milieu of people, the excitement being almost contagious. As I trudged up the last few paces of the Royal Mile, the entire castle came into view.
Towering above everything else and steeped in grandeur and magnanimity, the castle commanded a panoramic view of the city. Scotland’s history is fascinating and the castle seemed to have stepped out from the pages of a history book.
Though some parts of the castle had been closed, the poignant war memorial and the crown jewels together with the exhibits made for a truly enriching experience.
A walking tour group with a gregarious Scotsman at the helm helped me explore the rest of Edinburgh. The group walked around the city’s two distinct areas - the Old Town and the New Town. The Old Town, characterized by the medieval narrow lanes, streets and alleys was seamlessly juxtaposed on to the planned Georgian New Town constructed between the 18th and 19th centuries.
Walking along the south-east stretch of the Edinburgh Castle brought us to the Grassmarket Square, nestled in the heart of Edinburgh’s Old Town.
What appeared as a quaint old shopping centre had a long and chequered history. Once a medieval marketplace for horses and cattle, it was also the place where public executions took place, drawing large crowds. Remnants of the past were still evident in the square; some of the pubs had names dating back to the 15thand 16th centuries, one of them being The Last Drop, which commemorates the last hanging in the square.
The walking party eventually came to a halt in front of the St. Giles Cathedral, right in the heart of Royal Mile. Built in the unmistakable Gothic style, its splendid Crown Spire and charming Victorian stained glass windows kept the shutterbugs busy.
However the sombreness of the grey granite had many a sad tales to tell, as revealed by the guide. The group stood in rapt attention as the guide narrated tales of the church’s role in the 300 year period of witch-hunting from the fifteenth to the eighteenth century.
The witch hunts were an eruption of orthodox Christianity's vilification of women, “the weaker vessel,” in St. Peter's words. These were harrowing tales, but Justin’s candid account of the gruesome history of his native land struck a chord with all of us.
As we said our goodbyes, Justin gave us some food for thought viz. whether we would remember Edinburgh as Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Hyde? Could Robert Louise Stevenson’s novel possibly have been an allegory on Edinburgh itself?
The city seemed starkly divided into two – the foggy old town once the site of atrocious crimes and public hangings, and the splendid New Town resplendent in its gorgeous buildings and marvellous edifices.
I had felt constantly delighted, amazed and impressed with this city, yet the accounts of some of the darkest chapters of human history had left me disconcerted.
I couldn't find an answer; probably the city had elements of both Jekyll and Hyde; but just as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, as a work of art draws fascination even to this day, the city of Edinburgh also bathes in its own glory. It continues to enthral one and all and promises to exude an aura of enigma for centuries to come.