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Edinburgh and The Lothians
Chapter IV - At Holyrood


HERE is one fit approach to Holyrood. You must walk down the historic mile from the Castle. As you descend the street becomes less prosperous, less reputable. In the Canongate you are in a genuine bit of old Edinburgh. The houses are ancient and infirm; the closes are frequent, dim, mysterious; and at the end there is Holyrood, with the scarlet-coated sentinel pacing before the gate, the visible symbol of a royal palace. It is impossible to purge your mind and consider the place without local association. You have seen it already in fact or picture, and you must have read in history or romance something about it. Here is, however, I fancy the impression of the impossible person to whom it were in every way novel. Interesting, antique place, surely, with some sort of a history; rooms with queer old pictures and queer old furniture and quaint tapestry on the walls, but nothing magnificent or imposing. From it there is a prospect of a noble hill on one side and glimpses of an ignoble slum on the other! Ah! but the Chapel! Here it is plain that generations of men, high in place and great in wit, are buried, their graves strangely mixed with the graves of humbler folk. The very stones tell their story, for the Chapel is roofless, and its walks are crumbling, and every pillar is broken, and every line marred, the glorious west front itself but a fragment. Enough remains to show that in distant times men lavished all their wealth and skill on those stones. At the south-east corner is the small, dark door of the vault, where is gathered together the dust of the Royal House of Stuart. Would not the stranger speculate on the history of that house, and the tombs, and the Chapel, so exquisitely beautiful, the very poetry of ruin? But whatever he might guess, it could not be anything so exciting and remarkable as the simple truth.

All that is to be seen at Holyrood is to be seen very quickly. There is a long gallery, and three or four rooms on two floors; the rest is not shown. This "rest" only dates from Charles II.’s time, and is not of the first interest. Here are the rooms of the Royal Family or their representatives, the Lord High Commissioner or Hereditary Keeper. The gardens are but a few almost bare fields, of scanty extent, that lie round. Compare this with any other palace you know and Holyrood comes off poorly. Versailles? The idea is ridiculous. Not here do you find endless succession of rooms, rich in gilding and every trick of the upholsterer’s art; nor those famous gardens, whose fountains are the wonder of the world. Hampton Court? There too is a coil of rooms, with paintings by famous artists, and the gardens splendid and imposing. Not on such things does the attraction of Holyrood rest.

From the window you look on Arthur’s Seat and the long stretch of the King’s Park, and that is the park of this house; and the very slums that are on the north side, the shriek of the railway whistle, the smoke of the factory chimney, give edge and point to the picture. Here was unfolded the most romantic story the world has ever heard, and few as these rooms are, you find in them a rarer and higher interest than more pretentious places can furnish. Holyrood, even as show place, is not unworthy of its history. Let us walk through. You go right into the precincts, for the noble arched gate-house that once barred the way has gone since 1753. The fountain fronting the door is never without admirers, and is so crowded with figures that it would take some time to go over it. If you have already been at Linlithgow Palace you will recall its prototype on a simpler scale and of a more battered and antique air.

You pass in under the great entrance; the four towers, the courtyard, the covered walk round under the arches need not here be detailed. You turn to the left and walk up the stairs to the first floor, and so into the Gallery of Kings, which runs east and west through the whole of the building. Here are the hundred Scots monarchs. They were all done by Flemish De Win between 1684 and 1686 at something under three guineas a head. You will not think them very good art. Down to Charles II. the old historians count one hundred and eight, and there were still four to come; that is if we end the story with the Union of 1707. The early ones are quite mythical, and though it has been charitably suggested, in regard to the middle set, that the painter copied some at least from portraits then extant, I don’t believe it possible. Why, he could not afford to run about; he would not have cared to take all the trouble. The portraits have more than a family likeness, they are not without a certain rude force. Fergusius I.— B.C. 330. They had no doubts in those days. This is the founder of the Scots monarchy, the prince who brought the Stone of Destiny from the Hill of Tara in Ireland to Dunstaffnage Castle. That is the stone beneath the coronation chair at Westminster, but it only enters into authentic history some centuries afterwards, when it gets to Scone. His Majesty looks every inch a king, fit founder for a great Empire. There is not another Fergusius till 404 A.D. Achaius takes us on to 787; he was a friend of Charlemagne, and according to tradition supplied that monarch with a number of superlatively-educated Scots teachers. With Eugenius I. you are back again in the mist of 357. I will not lay irreverent hands on those poor shadows. Men believed in and were inspired by them. Did not the Covenanters when addressing Charles I. solemnly remind him of the unshaken loyalty of their forefathers to the 107 Kings his ancestors? and had not Shakespeare the same thought in his mind when he makes pass before Macbeth’s bewildered sight an august procession of phantom royalties? In the centre of the room are the altar pieces that once stood in Trinity College. You pass on to Lord Darnley’s rooms, which are on the same floor, the audience-chamber, the bedroom which opens from it, and the little turret in the corner of this last, called the dressing-closet. I will not attempt to analyse the old-world charm of these rooms or the ones above them, which are called Queen Mary’s, or guess how much is due to the memories or to the tapestry, the panelling, the pictures, for all combine into one impressive whole. The pictures, to name but these, though oddly mixed, are interesting, even for their history; possibly some are from the Parliament House, to which they lent grace before the Union. You hope so. Most are of great people whose records mix with those native to the place. That handsome gentleman is the Admirable Crichton, first of all wandering Scots; that handsome lady is the Queen of Hearts, Elizabeth of Bohemia, daughter of James VI. and I. It is through her you recall that the present royal family hold the throne. You continue the broad staircase by which you entered up to the Mary rooms on the next floor. There is a narrow stair in the thickness of the walls running from the basement and communicating with the first and second floors. A good many years ago I remember going up and down this stair, but it is now kept closed. It was up here that the murderers of Rizzio tracked their prey, and in the south-east corner of the Audience-chamber a brass plate marks where the victim was hacked to death. In old days there used to be a huge black mark, "the damned spot" that would not "out," as certain piously believed, whilst others profanely averred it was renewed from time to time by bullock’s blood or red paint. It had been shown to Evelyn in 1722. I saw it in the days of my youth, and even now seem to remember exactly how it looked.

Here Mary and John Knox had their wordy fights, and as he went from here he found the Queen’s Maries amusing themselves, "targeting of their tails," as he with more force than elegance would term it. With a certain gloomy humour he mocked at their gambols. "Fie on that knave, Death, that was presently coming to make an end of all." What the ladies said or how they took it is not recorded, for Knox is his own historian, and he gives both words and actions to himself. From the Presence-chamber to the bedroom is but a step, and there on your right hand is the private supper-room, the tiniest of places, and yet in some ways the most interesting room in the Palace, for here Rizzio was at supper with the Queen when the conspirators burst in on them. It is never far from tragedy to comedy, or even farce. Violating all historical propriety, a block of marble stands in this room. It was roundly asserted to be the altar on which Mary knelt during the marriage ceremony with Darnley. Now the Dukes of Hamilton are hereditary keepers of the Palace. At no very distant date one in residence was served by a French cook, who brought this block whereon he might make pastry!

At last you are in the genuine old part of the Palace— in James V.’s, or, as some would say, James IV.’s Tower. You find the little room, as well as the bedroom, crowded with visitors. The place affects each in different ways, and you cannot decently exclaim a penny for your thoughts to anyone. Sometimes they save you the trouble. "They did themselves very well in those days, for, considering everything, it is a good-sized bedroom." So I heard one lady, standing behind me, remark to the other with complacent approval. Yes! but this was the room of one who had been Queen of Scotland, France, and almost of England—one of the great figures of history.

When you leave the staircase for the open air you go a few steps under the piazza eastward, then by a door to the left you enter the Chapel. As you see at once, time, age, neglect, every unfavourable condition has worked for destruction, and in a whimsical, fantastic way. The people whose monuments are spared are by no means the most considerable of the crowd. Thus a square tower by the west doorway on the north contains the effigy of Lord Belhaven. The peer reposes there, very magnificently done in marble, tricked out with robes and gauds of all kinds, and there is a prolix Latin epitaph. The prying antiquarian has dug up some scandalous passages in the life of the deceased gentleman. One incident may be given, for it illustrates the times. Charles I. had a mind to persuade the Scots nobles to disgorge in whole or part their as yet not Perfectly-digested share of the old Church lands. He sent down the Earl of Nithsdale to bring this about. Now, your old Scots noble held to his lands with the grip of death, and those whose possessions were threatened speedily determined that if fair speech would not avert the danger, they would presently fall on their opponents, "in the old Scottish manner, and knock them on the head." Belhaven was blind, but he was determined to do his part, so he kept firm hold of a King’s man with one fist as if for support. His free hand was buried in his robe; it had a dagger for the other’s heart. The measure was not pressed, and the blow remained unstruck. The story has been doubted, and one would scarce have troubled to tell it save for the accident that makes his figure bulk so large in this burial-place of Kings. At the door of the Royal vault you do well to remember that this broken ruin is all that remains of the great Abbey of Holyrood, and that the dust in that vault collected by the pious care of our late Queen is all that remains of so many former dwellers in the palace.

There are hundreds of other tombs of very various degrees of interest. One tablet commemorates the life of Adam Bothwell, Bishop of Orkney and Shetland. He officiated at the marriage of Mary and Bothwell. History by no means re-echoed his flattering epitaph; most writers on Holyrood favour him with brief contemptuous words in passing. Some names are strangely out of keeping. Thus there is a certain Thomas Laws, Esq., out of Northumberland, who died on 18th December 1812, "one instance among thousands of the uncertainty of life, and the instability of earthly things," and so on, which is all very well. But what on earth is he doing in this galley? The names of humbler folk from the Canongate are not rare, and are easily accounted for. Here was for some time the Canongate parish church, for the present church and churchyard are comparatively recent, as I tell elsewhere. After all, it was not so difficult at one time to get your bones laid in this famous spot; to-day it is far other. One or two families still possess the right. Here, for instance, is laid a French Duchess and Scots Countess of high and ancient lineage, who died as late as 1895. Let "the violet of a legend blow" around her eccentric memory. The lady had a passion for things connected with Mary Stuart. The story went that she had a suite of apartments in her house at Paris done up after the pattern of those old rooms at Holyrood, and much more to the same or stranger effect. I mentioned her to one of the keepers, and found her memory was green in the Palace. She got leave from the authorities to spend a night in Mary’s rooms, and therein, as dusk came on, was safely locked. I was curious: "Had she said anything? Did she see anything?" The keeper perhaps thought that he had gone too far. "What could she see?" he coldly answered, and turned away to supply the stock information as to Rizzio’s tomb. I never learned the sequel of the story, or whether the lady heard anything but the shriek of the railway whistle—for the rail is close at hand in that same valley between Arthur’s Seat and the Calton Hill. But a vigil among the midnight shadows of Holyrood was an eerie experience. The lady now sleeps for ever in the very heart of it all, and so surely has her content!

There are two small outlying buildings within the precincts of Holyrood. The nearest one to the northwest is of two stories and is nowadays used to store the gardener’s tools. In popular tradition it is always Queen Mary’s Bath, because here she was wont to lave herself in wine, or milk, or water, according to various accounts. Not either of the first two, you judge, for prying John Knox or his kind had ne’er let slip so obvious a mark for the stone of their wit or their argument. And though it is of course possible that she used it for a bath-house it is more likely that this is only an example of the local tendency to attach the memory of Mary Stuart to anything and everything. If you continue your walk along the road eastward of this so-called bath you mark another house on the north-east end of the Palace ground. It is Croft-an-Righ, or the King’s Croft. It is called Croftangry in Scott’s Chronicles of the Canongate. It now serves to house the gardener. But here when in Edinburgh, and. when on good terms with his sister, there dwelt Mary’s half-brother, James Stuart, afterwards the Regent Moray. It seems to date from the fifteenth century, and is worth seeing inside and out of the Palace gardens there is little to be said. The luxuriant vegetation of an earlier time, "the parterres and pleached alleys," are long vanished, and even the common grass thickens in that air of factory, and brewery, and railway. A prominent object is a fine sundial inevitably called Queen Mary’s, although it bears the initials of Charles I. and his Queen, Maria Henrietta, with the date of his coronation. Although the streets that hem in the Palace on this side are poor and mean, yet they are not without interest. Here and again is a curious old house in a hidden corner, and at every other step you catch a glimpse of Holyrood, or its Chapel, or the Lion Hill in its overshadowing majesty.


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