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Edinburgh and The Lothians
Chapter II - To-Day at the Castle

HERE are two main points of interest in Edinburgh: these are the Castle and Holyrood. Nothing else approaches them. They gather into themselves the whole tragic interest of old Scots life and history, and if we balance the one against the other we ought to give the preference to the Castle,— but I am not sure that we do. Holyrood has rarer and choicer moments; it is more life-like and pathetic. In its old rooms the past actually lives for you again. The very dust in its chapel is "dropt from the ruined sides of kings." Amidst the bustling activities of the Castle, its ugly barracks and storehouses, you feel yourself in a modem fortress; but put yourself away from the present, listen to the voices of the past, and you are at the very core and centre of old Scotland. Busy as it is, all is mere nothing,—the ghosts have it here as always in Edinburgh, - to-day is unreal and shadowy, it is the past that lives. In one thing the Castle is an easy first; Edinburgh is the city of beautiful and picturesque views, of sudden and magic effects, and simply because the Castle is the highest inhabited spot, you have the best prospect therefrom. Even at the Esplanade, before you enter the gate, you are charmed, but you scarce dare look, or you spoil the better prospect from the Argyll Battery, and when you get there, you feel obliged to pause till you get up above on the King’s Bastion. Better take in all that the Esplanade will give you and pick up on the higher reaches what still remains unseen from the lower. I need not dwell on that view, a word must suffice. There to the north, rising sharply to the ridge and then sinking away for two miles to the sea, are the Gardens and Princes Street, and the ordered sequence of the New Town, and the huge mass of modem building that threatens to fill up all to the shore. And then there are the waters of the Firth,—that noble arm of the sea, with, as R. L. Stevenson puts it, "Ships tacking for the Baltic," and no end of other places one might add. And beyond is Fife and a background of great hills. To the east the old town runs down the ridge towards Holyrood, how obvious the comparison to the vertebrate frame, the closes north and south, marking the ribs running off from it! On the south your eye runs down and up again to the College and all the group of academic buildings, to the open fields beyond, still not quite covered with the rising tide of bricks and mortar. And beyond all round are the hills, "as the mountains are about Jerusalem." Most prominent, because near at hand, the Lion Hill keeps its stately watch and guard over this precious relic of the past, this city of dreams and memories. How these hills ring round Edinburgh; what character and grandeur they give it! "I will lift mine eyes to the hills," so must everyone in Edinburgh say.

It will not take you long to walk over the Castle. True, there are eleven acres of it, but only part rivets your attention, and only part is accessible. I remember one recent visit of my own. It was a beautiful autumn day; soldiers were drilling on the Esplanade, tourists were lounging about, and I lounged too and gazed at the monuments. These are to dead-and-gone soldiers of all ranks, from the Duke of York downwards. The Duke of York, modern as he is, is the most ancient of the lot. Crimean wars, Indian wars, South African wars are all commemorated, but not the stirring incidents of the place. The needs of the day were terribly exacting. In that old Scots life men were making history, not memorials. Everything you see has suffered change again and again. This Esplanade, for instance, is over 300 feet long and 300 feet broad; it is level, and you walk over the moat and under the portcullis into the Castle from it as from a level, but this is only since 1753. Before that it was rough, untended ground, sloping downwards towards the city, and there was a flight of steps by which you gained the level of the drawbridge. But when the Royal Exchange was built a huge mass of superfluous earth was on hand, and was used to level it up.

Inside, you are soon in the Argyll Battery. The particular Argyll this commemorates was John, Duke of Argyll and Greenwich, who commanded the Government forces at Sheriffmuir.

"Argyll the states bold thunder born to wield,
And shake alike the senate
and the field."

Thus Pope, in one of those neat couplets of which he knew so excellently the trick. His Grace was a favourite of men of letters; you remember the beneficent part he plays in The Heart of Midlothian. The Castle is intimately connected with the tragic fate of two other Argylls, namely, the Marquis of Argyll, called Gillespie Grumach, from his villainous squint, which quite spoilt a naturally sanctimonious set of features, and his son, the Earl of Argyll. They were warded in the Argyll Tower, which you reach by some steps on the left. There is nothing but a table of photos in the little rooms of the prison, nothing for the imagination to catch hold of and so call back those mournful scenes of death and ruin.

Next comes the King’s Bastion, wherefrom there is the view and whereon is no less a person than Mons Meg, that centuries-old fetish of the Scots folk, that idol of the Scots school-boy. "Munsch Meg" (to give phonetically the popular pronunciation) would not claim your particular notice, for ‘tis but an old, uncouth mass of metal, were it not for its history. That is lost in antiquity. Once ‘twas believed that Meg was a Flemish lass, and Mons recalled her place of birth. (To this effect runs the inscription on the metal.) Others said that it was made by command of James II. for the siege of Threave Castle, the last stronghold of the Douglas, and that it was cast by a local artisan, one M’Kim of Mollance. Meg was the name of his good lady, and it was his humour to trace a likeness between the voice, which you augur was neither soft nor low, of his wife Meg, and the thunder of the gun, and there you have the name a little contracted. The huge piece was dragged into position, a peck of powder and a granite ball, vaguely described as "the weight of a Carsphairn cow," were rammed in, the match was applied, and off went Meg with a roar which shook the firmament. Margaret, the Fair Maid of Galloway, was raising with beringed band a cup of wine to her lips, when lo! enter the cannon ball and off goes the hand, ring and all! Meg roared once again and the castle surrendered at discretion. Local tradition pointed out the spot where Meg was cast. The two bullets were found and accounted for, nay, the very ring, with Margaret’s name on it, turned up in due course, and who could doubt the story after that? Meg was a great favourite with the old Scots Kings. They dragged her about with enormous trouble, and with no very appreciable advantage, to various parts of Scotland, and even into England and back again. She was covered with emblazoned cloth, decked with ribbons, pipes played before her as she was taken up and down from the Castle, and if this soothed her martial soul she was not less susceptible to the more subtle flattery implied in the greasing of her mouth; for all these things charges appear in the royal accounts. "The great iron murderer Meg" was Cromwell’s unflattering account of her in 1650, but Cromwell was an Englishman, and rather brutal in method and speech. In 1681 Meg, who had served the Stuarts so long, may be said to have died in their service, just before they lost for ever the throne of Britain. A salute was fired in honour of James, Duke of York, afterwards James VII. of Scotland and II. of England. It was done badly, or Meg was effete; at any rate she burst.

"Oh wellawins! Mons Meg for you,
‘Twas firing
cracked thy muckle mou!"

so sings Ferguson.

Yet Meg’s adventures were not over. In 1753 she travelled south to the Tower of London, and only came back through Scott’s influence in 1829, when with pipers and cheering mobs she was escorted to her old place.

Just behind Mons Meg is the little chapel or oratory of St Margaret, the very place in truth where the sainted queen worshipped. It is one of the oldest churches in Britain. It is small,—the nave is little over 16 ft. by 10 ft. It is plain and bare. You see at once that the stained glass is modern; a Latin inscription tells how, after long and shameful neglect, it was restored by Queen Victoria who, we are reminded, surely not from pride but that the continuity of Britain and its history might thus be set forth, was herself a descendant of Margaret. There are many places in Edinburgh which lay strong hold on you, none more than this tiny ancient cell perched high on the rock. It has that pathetic touch which tirls "the heart-strings, thro’ the breast, A’ to the life," and is the peculiar and profound charm, not of this place alone but scarcely anywhere so much as of this place. You move on to the quadrangle. The western side is modern and worthless from our point of view. I ought here to say that the general aspect of Edinburgh Castle is now much as it was when rebuilt after the siege of 1573. That was so destructive that, after the rebuilding, it was mainly new, and it never was seriously attacked by force again. A very old aspect is supposed to be preserved in the towers which constitute the city coat of arms.

Some memorable precious bits have endured through the centuries. One is the Parliament Hall. Not so very long ago it was a whitewashed military hospital, but one wealthy Edinburgh publisher restored St Giles’ and laudable rivalry inspired another to restore parts of the Castle. And so this place is now beautifully done up, with arms and effigies of men in complete armour of various periods, and targets of bulls’ hide and so forth, and these set off the stone floor and oak arched roof and the huge fireplace and the deep recessed windows, and you think it a fine impressive old hall. "Do not touch" is written everywhere. How violently the Scots have swung round from one extreme to another, from callous disregard to over-anxious care! You learn with interest that deep down in the bowels of the rock are huge cavernous prisons, where for long years those who were hated or feared by men in authority have lain in darkness and sorrow. And here too, were confined the prisoners taken in the French wars, and what sort of life they led you gather from the lively narrative of St Ives. Here, too, was confined that whimsical gentleman who appears in Scott’s Rob Roy as the son of the illustrious freebooter, and in Catriona as the father of the heroine, and his adventures in fact were just as exciting as those in fiction, for did he not escape, disguised as an old cobbler, and all through a clever trick of a tall and handsome daughter? You are musing as to what her name really was, when a more august call reminds that you are keeping waiting a more impressive figure than fiction ever drew, for almost next door are the Mary apartments. And they show you the little room where James VI. of Scotland and I. of England was born, the most important event it has been called in the history of Britain.

Photograph of the Scottish Crown Jewels taken by Ranald McIntyre
Photograph of the Scottish Crown Jewels taken by Ranald McIntyre

There is still something else to see, for in another room are the Honours of Scotland, the crown, the sceptre, and the sword of state and some other lesser wonders. What a history is theirs! After the battle of Dunbar the Scots authorities easily surmised that Cromwell would presently be hunting far and wide for those treasures whose money value rumour had considerably exaggerated. They were snatched off to the Castle of Dunnottar in Kincardineshire, not very far from Aberdeen, a well-fortified place on a high rock that was almost an island. The English discovered their whereabouts, and were soon pressing round the castle, which was defended by Ogilvy of Barras. The place was safe against attack, but it was starved into surrender. In the end Mr Grainger, the minister of the parish, his wife, and the governor of the castle concocted an ingenious stratagem to save the jewels. First a rumour was set flying that they had been taken to the continent by one of the Earl Marischal’s family, then Mrs Grainger, with happy audacity, conveyed them from the castle, hid under some bundles of lint which she bad obtained permission to remove. At dead of night the minister buried the Honours under the pulpit of his church. He unearthed them from time to time to see that they were safe, to renew the wrappings, perhaps to gloat in secret over his hidden treasure. You envy him those private nocturnal visits to the august gems. He needed something to sustain his fortitude. When the castle gave in, where were the Regalia? asked the victors in angry amazement. They got no answer. Threats, prison, torture, were all in vain. The jewels lay safe till the Restoration, when compliments and rewards were distributed to all concerned.

At the Union in 1707 it was rumoured they were to be taken to England, albeit it was provided by the Act itself that they should be kept in Scotland. And then they were locked up in the huge black kist you see in. the room, and people forgot all about them, till at last in1817 the indefatigable Sir Walter got the Prince Regent to move the government for a commission to search for them. Scott was there when the kist was opened (4th February 1818), and his emotion proved that he at least thought the matter of national importance, and so fitly the Castle continues to guard, as it has done through the centuries, these gems, bright not merely with their own sparkle, but with the greater lustre of august memories, those memorials of the ancient kingdom of Scotland.

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