The Heart of Midlothian

Edinburgh is a disorienting place for the English traveller.  The neat Georgian buildings of the New Town recall Bath, but the symmetrical grid plan they are laid out on recalls Barcelona. The castle on the rock relates to Edinburgh’s history in the same way the Tower relates to London’s, but the vertiginous geography recalls Prague or Budapest rather than a customarily flat English city.  The Prince’s Street Gardens recall Hyde Park, whereas the crowded kirkyards seem like a relic of London before the Magnificent Seven.  Where London is a conflicting agglomeration of style, the use of similar stones (and decades of blackening air pollution) weld Edinburgh into a cohesive whole irrespective of whether the design is medieval, Georgian or Victorian.

I start my visit by exiting the tram at Princes Street. The first thing I notice is the Walter Scott monument.  Where London lacks monuments to most of its major writers (even Shakespeare only gets a small sculpture in the city) this dominates the entire view of the New Town from the castle. It’s a lovely day with the castle rock still covered in Daffodils. I walk straight down to Calton Hill, where I am somewhat surprised by the rather bright and warm being unreasonably interrupted by snow and hail. Gratefully fishing my umbrella out of my rucksack, I walk around the hill and am taken aback by how far one can see from the Forth Railway Bridge in the far distance  across the Firth of Forth to Arthur’s Seat. I walk back to the old town and visit the cathedral. The interior contrasts between the dark stone and the brightness of the painted blue gothic ceiling. The sun is back out while I’m here and rainbows stream into the church through the stained glass windows. Windows by Burne Jones remind me of England, others showing scenes from Scottish history remind me rather more of Amsterdam and Brussels. I step inside the Chapel of the Thistle before heading out and walking to the castle, looking out at the snow-capped hills and then ending the day at Greyfriar’s Kirkyard.  The late afternoon sunlight casts long shadows around the blackened and weathered gravestones.

The following day I walk a little down from where I’m staying to the Canongate Kirk and its statue of Robert Fergusson, before walking back into the city and visiting the castle.  It’s a rather more dark and forbidding day but the view from the castle is still extraordinary. The first thing I visit is St Margaret’s Chapel, with its Romanesque arch before visiting the National War Memorial. I’m rather taken aback at the scale and beauty of it, quite unlike the unassuming cenotaph in London.  I then look round the castle chambers and the Great Hall (including the Honours, namely Scotland’s Crown Jewels) before visiting the various military museums, particularly exhibits like Napoleon’s eagle.  Lastly, I visit an exhibition of planned designs for the castle; I especially like one modelled on a French chateau. Next, I visit Gladstone’s land, a tenement building and one of Edinburgh’s last 16th century skyscrapers from the time prior to the fall of the city walls. The renaissance painted chamber is easily the most striking thing here, with its ceiling painted with flowers and fruits. Lastly, I visit St Cuthbert’s Kirkyard and the nearby church of St John the Evangelist, with its plaster fan vaulting.

The next day I go for a walk in Princes Street Gardens – I notice a statue of Wotjek, the Polish soldier bear that I particularly like – before arriving at the National Gallery. I start with the renaissance section, with its paintings by Titian, El Greco, Botticelli, Bordone, Veronese, Bassano, Tiepolo and Canaletto. An entire room is filled with depictions of the sacraments by Poussin with paintings by Claude, Fabre and Gauffier outside. The next room concentrates on Spain; Velasquez, Murillo, Goya and Zurbaran. After that is the Netherlands; Massys, Ruisdael, Rembrandt, Saenredam, Dou and Vermeer. The upper floors dwell on modern art; Gauguin, Van Gogh, Seurat, Monet, Singer Sergeant, Sisley, Courbet, Pissarro.The Scottish sections contains names that are often to me; Gavin Hamilton, Nasmyth, Paton, Traquair and Ramsay; there are a few English works thrown in by Reynolds, Gainsborough. Martin and Turner. The basement has an exhibit of Schinkel’s drawings for a planned palace in the Crimea (somewhere between neo-classical and Babylonian) and for a redesign of the Acropolis.  There’s also a small exhibition on romantic landscapes by Peder Balke, Dahl, Thomas Fearnley and Joseph Wright. The gallery architecture is often quite dramatic, with staircases filled with plaster busts in a manner similar to the Ashmolean. Afterwards, I visit the National Portrait Gallery; the building here is equally dramatic with a gothic revival entrance hall filled with sculptures of Burns and Stevenson. Much of the earlier sections are effectively a history of the Stuart dynasty and ultimate Italian exile before dwelling on Scotland’s role in the Empire. Lastly, I manage to cram in a visit to a National Trust Georgian House on Charlotte Square; I’m rather left struck by the combination of Chloroform and Rhubarb powder in one medicine cabinet.

The next day the sun is out again, so I go for a walk in the New Town, visiting the church of St Andrew and St George and St Andrew’s Square before walking back up Calton Hill and visiting the cemetery. I then visit Holyrood Palace. I walk around the grounds to begin with, looking at the ornate Renaissance fountain and the ruins of Holyrood Abbey. The palace facade is distinctly Scottish with its turrets but the interior courtyards remind me of a rather austere version of Hampton Court. Some of the striking aspects are the stairwell, with its swirling plaster ceiling, the long gallery with its reconstructed paintings of historical and mythical Scottish kings (Macbeth being the most prominent), orientalist tapestries with images of camels and the sepulchre-like Mary Queen of Scots chambers, with their collection of Stuart memorabilia through to the Winter King and Bonnie Price Charlie. My ticket also offers entrance to the Queen’s Gallery, so I get a chance to see the Dutch paintings I’d missed in London. The exhibition includes works by Gerrit Dou, Gabriel Metsu, Jan Steen and Pieter de Hooch, and Johannes Vermeer’s ‘A Lady at the Virginal with a Gentleman.’ Lastly, there’s still several hours left in the day so I set myself the task of climbing Arthur’s Seat. The gorse is in bright flower as I walk up past St Anthony’s chapel to the summit before returning past one a lake filled with swans.

My penultimate day is given up to the National Museum of Scotland.  The Grand Gallery is extraordinarily impressive, featuring exhibits from a Nubian sculpture, a Giant Deer fossil, a lighthouse lens, a Gandharan Buddha, an ironcast fountain, a whale skull and an atom smasher. The Museum ranges from geology (a large amethyst geode and haematite rocks), natural history (a Tyrannosaurus Rex, Ammonites, a Stegosaur, a whale jaw with a scrimshaw of the whaing ship engraved on it, stuffed Pandas, Blaschka models, Elephants and Polar Bears) to the history of science (a Newcomen engine, a working model locomotive). I especially like the ethnography galleries, with their Benin bronzes, Columbian Thunderbird costumes, Ainu inaw sticks, Tibetan prayer wheels, Chinese headdresses made from Kingfisher feathers, Coconut fibre armour, Persian ceramics, a Ghanaian coffin in the shape of a car and Cham dance masks. The rest of the museum of dedicated to Scottish history, starting with the Picts, Romans and Celts. The main things that strike me; the Lewis chessmen, a copy of the tomb of Mary Queen of Scots, Renaissance wood carvings and painted ceilings, leather Covenanter masks, through to Mackintosh and Traquair art nouveau.

There’s not much time left on my last day, so I spend the morning at the Surgeon’s Hall museum. This ranges between a historical account of the achievements of medicine in Edinburgh (Lister, Simpson, Bell) through to a collection of shrunken heads, Hare’s death mask  and a book made from his skin. Difficult not also to be struck by a pickle fish that had lodged in the throat of a fisherman and suffocated him. There’s also an exhibition on the fate of the voyage to find the Northwest passage.

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