Search just our sites by using our customised search engine

Unique Cottages | Electric Scotland's Classified Directory

Click here to get a Printer Friendly PageSmiley

Edinburgh and The Lothians
Chapter XXI - Roslin and Hawthornden

ONE of the impressions the stranger takes away from Edinburgh is the line of cars in Princes Street ticketed for Roslin and Hawthornden. They are worth doing, and you pass many places of interest on your way. The Bore Stone, where the Scots army assembled for that fatal march to Flodden; Fairmilehead with its legend of the flute-playing gauger, "haunted Woodhouselee," the locus of a quite baseless legend regarding the Regent Moray, are some of them. You move along on the slopes of the Pentlands, the greatest of all the near Edinburgh ranges. Another route, quite unconventional but I fear impossible, would be to descend on Roslin by the Esk. Now there are two Lothian Esks: the South Esk, which rises among the Moorfoot hills, and the North Esk, which begins in the Pentlands. These join at Dalkeith and reach the sea at Mussel-burgh. The North Esk is one of the storied rivers of Scotland. Allan Ramsay knew its beginnings well, and the scenery of its upper reaches is figured in his charming pastoral of The Gentle Shepherd. Contending innkeepers or antiquaries will make this or that spot "Habbie’s Howe," but you will more wisely allow it to remain dubious. Roslin and Hawtbornden are the gems of the Esk. The village will not detain you, though the old inn has memories of Dr Johnson and Boswell, who drank tea there in 1773 and Robert Burns later on was so well treated that he wrote some highly complimentary verses to the landlady. The castle is a charming ruin, though the vaults are the only very old part. When its stone mass piled on that rocky crag above the stream bums red in the evening sunset you will swear no castle of the Rhine ever looked so fair. Here for centuries ruled "the lordly line of High St Clair." Earls of Caithness they were, but their power and splendour were princely. My Lord was attended by I don’t know how many noblemen, and his spouse by I don’t know how many ladies of high degree. They were served on vessels of gold and silver. There are all sorts of legends relating to the family. Scott, in the ballad of Rosabelle, has prettily woven some of them together, and even added a new one. But the story that most takes our fancy is one rather grotesque and farcical. In 1447 St Clair of Dryden, which is close at hand, repaired to Roslin to go a-hunting with his chief. He met an enormous crowd of rats speeding along in their best style, among them one very old, very grey and very blind, assisted by its companions, in its mouth a straw, the true intent whereof is not revealed by the legend. There is a scornful phrase of Bacon’s as to the "wisdom of rats, that will leave a house some time ere it fall." Four days later the mansion of St Clair’s blazed in red ruin, the result of an accident. But as yet fire insurance was not in the land and My Lord had to put up with his loss. Only one thing disturbed him, however. The family muniments, and some precious manuscripts of a more private nature—perhaps poems, perhaps not—seemed gone for ever, but these he presently had safe and sound. The chaplain, a man of infinite resource, had secured the papers spite the raging flames. Both he and they were singed, but the bell-rope fixed to a convenient beam afforded the means of escape. You pass to Roslin Chapel, a gem of the very first water. It was founded in 1446 by William St Clair, the Lord just referred to. He meant it for a collegiate church, but only the chancel was built. The magnificent fragments are only part of a grander plan, the dream is always greater than the fact! It is strangely and beautifully decorated in pillars and arches, with sumptuous rare carvings, a very garden of stone flowers, the poetry of sacred architecture. The Lord of Roslin was himself a man of taste, and he brought artists from far and near, and lavishly entertained and rewarded them. And the incitement of his own zeal, and his own precept was, you believe, more to the artists than the gold he showered on them.

Roslin Chapel, The South Doorway

There is no settled plan. Each Master within proper limits gives scope to his peculiar genius, and the result is this root out of a dry ground, this strange exotic flower among those cold northern fields, fit shrine for the most gorgeous rites of the old faith! You wonder it survived the fierce turmoil of ancient Scots life. What a mere shell is the chapel at Holyrood; what a mere shell is Sweetheart Abbey! In 1688 a raging mob from Edinburgh, memory of their wrongs strong upon them, spoiled and defaced it in every way, and so it remained until 1868, when it was decently restored for the service of the Scots Episcopal church. Its legends are manifold. The Apprentice Pillar, in which the scholar exceeded the master, is found not only here, but the chapel has traditions all its own. Here the St Clairs were buried for centuries, each in complete armour, and as portent the chapel glowed with magic fire as each baron lay a-dying. But you remember how well those things are touched off by Scott. And Scott must again be our guide :—

"Who knows not Melville’s beachy grove,
And Roslin’s rocky glen,
Dalkeith, which all the virtues love,
And classic Hawthornden."

If the chapel is a gem of art the glen is a gem of nature. A brawling stream rushes over a rocky bed, between richly-wooded and often precipitous banks. All this is to say little. It is a compendium or epitome of Highland scenery. The path is so rough and winding as to give you almost the sensation of peril, and there are caves and gnarled tree trunks, and—but you will see it for yourself, or, at any rate, description is inadequate. It is a considerable walk, the better part of an hour, I think. At length, in the depth of it, you come upon Hawthornden, perched on a high rock like a very eagle’s nest, the waters swirling round it at such a rate that it is positively sublime. There are the remains of an old fortress, with a fairly modem seventeenth-century house and such additions as to-day’s luxury demands. In far-off times it was held by the Abernethys, but the Drummonds, who trace some marriage connection with the Abernethys, have had it between three and four centuries. But if for so long there has always been a Drummond of Hawthornden, there is one special Drummond (1585-1649) whom we all know by name at any rate—the Cavalier Poet, the friend, and in 1618 the host of rare Ben Jonson. Rare and strange indeed that massive figure must have seemed among those lean, meagre Scots!

You still get bits of Drummond in anthologies. First of Scots he wrote entirely in English verse: Tears on the Death of Moeliades, Forth Feasting, The Cypress Grove. You guess the nature of the Cavalier Poet from the very names of his works, as also from the epitaph he wrote for himself. He rests in Lasswade churchyard some two miles off.

"Here Damon lies, whose song did sometimes grace
The wandering Esk; may roses shade the place."

You still read him with pleasure. There is a courtly, tender grace about him, a subdued echo of the Elizabethans. You must not place him too high. Shakespeare stands alone, but you would not venture to compare Drummond with the other great dramatists, say Ben Jonson or Marlowe. He ranks with the men who are soldiers and statesmen first and only in an idle or softer hour carved some delicate gem of poetry, with Sir Philip Sidney or Sir Walter Raleigh.


You rise to the level of the house through delightful terraced gardens, and there are sights galore: the cavern in the rock which Drummond used as a study—. he had been more comfortable in the house—the sycamore tree or its descendant under which he was seated when rare old Ben hove in sight and they exchanged greetings in metre. And you may also view the mighty sword which Bruce never wielded, and the pulpit from which Knox never preached, and the deep cavern where the Drummond of the day did not hide Queen Mary. So you are inclined to affirm, for you grow weary of the insistent presence of those stock figures—tiresome repeating decimals you might call them—in the traditions of every famous Scots mansion. The extensive assortment of caverns under the house, even though stripped of their quaint names and quaint legends, is sufficiently curious. There seems ground for believing that Sir Alexander Ramsay of Dalhousie and his merry men here found a retreat and hiding-place in those far-off troubled days when Bruce and Balliol strove for the crown. You will prefer to their musty depths the walk on the terrace by the sundial for you are out in the bright air, and you see the house and the river far below you, and the rocks and part of the glen. And a gentle envy possesses you of the particular Drummond then in possession. What more blessed lot than to sit down in that delightful house among those choice scenes, with the memory of that long line of your forebears ever present, with pious hope that your line will never fade, and there look round on portraits of the great Masters of your country’s destiny and believe that your poet was worthy to be ranked with them?

Lasswade I have already mentioned. Here Scott brought his young bride and spent some of the happiest times of his life, and here De Quincey abode for some seventeen years; and you may still see the houses, or at least the outside of them, for "not shown" is surely with sufficient excuse written on what was once Sir Walter’s. If you get further down to Dalkeith you will find a very good example of an old Scots town: fairly antique houses, and wynds and gardens behind; and in its huge park there is a huge Palace containing things rare and beautiful, and here the Dukes of Buccleuch held sway. Surely you are more than satisfied with the things you have seen, and for the day, you will admit, sufficient are the pleasures thereof!

Return to Edinburgh and The Lothians index page


This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.

comments powered by Disqus