Before I begin, something I forgot to mention last time: ever heard of John Knox? Big figure in church reform? His house is a visitor attraction?
Well, he’s buried in Edinburgh, near the Mercat Cross. This is fine, except there is now a car park there where the cemetery used to be.
…and no, they didn’t move any of the bodies. And no, nobody besides Knox has a monument. But he’s got one: a plaque, in spot number 23. I took a photo to prove it. I hear a Porsche is normally parked on top of him, but he was visible today.
Our first stop today was the National Museum of Scotland. This has recently undergone an extensive renovation, and is both huge and rather lovely. We came to get a grounding in the history of Scotland – and this we did, seeing as there were extensive exhibitions on pretty much everything going all the way back to the time of the dinosaurs. I don’t associate Scotland with volcanoes, but it was volcanic once; the huge hill they call “Arthur’s Seat” and the spine of the city along which the castle and Royal Mile run are both the remnants of a volcanic age. (Today, of course, they just look rather rugged and majestic, dotted here and there with flowers.)
Eventually, along come the Picts, or “the painted ones,” of whom we know little; there were several examples of their navigation stones (?) on display. At least, the plaques assure us that’s what they are; they don’t seem to bear any resemblance to maps of the area. Instead, they’re covered with strange crescent-moon-like arcs intersecting with combinations of lines and circles; nobody seems to know what they mean, but they’re interesting in an eerie sort of way.
After them come the Celts, as we know them; there was a special exhibition on of Celtic art at the time we happened to be there, and it was, I feel, well worth the ten pounds or so of entrance fee. Much of their art is lost, of course, as leather, fabric, and wood aren’t known for their sturdiness over thousands of years, but there was a remarkable collection of cloak-pins, torcs and other jewelry in various metals. (One hoard was found by a guy who literally bought a metal detector, took it out to play with, and walked about seven steps from his car before he got a beep and unearthed a massive trove of bronze and gold jewelry.)
Also on display were the remnants of “carnyxes,” a kind of horn, usually shaped like a boar’s head; there was a video of a man playing a modern reproduction. It’s a weird, haunting noise, and it’s pretty easy to imagine it being pretty scary to an enemy army.
Then there was the Gundestrup cauldron, all in silver and lined with panels showing (on the outside) eerie faces set with glass eyes and (inside) some rather mysterious scenes featuring horned men, warriors being perhaps baptized or drowned, and a number of other strange scenes. A hole at the bottom was mended with a silver shield boss depicting a warrior woman that had just finished fighting a lion…though it didn’t look all that dead, rather as though the two of them were taking a nice break. Clearly it had been well used, though why had it then been tossed into a bog in the end? Odd.
Anyway, many examples of intricate compass-work, elaborate knots and swirling spirals; other pieces on display showed the ways that Roman and later Christian elements worked their way into the iconography. The knot work we know today is really a kind of fusion-art, it seems. Nothing happens in isolation, I guess, especially in Europe.
I mentioned the Romans, and they were next; them you know so I won’t devote a ton of time to them. After that things start to get more familiar: the clans, Robert the Bruce (we saw a drinking cup of his, which also featured a lion at the bottom, surrounded by shields bearing the insignia of his clan.) Gradually we move toward the unification with England, the Catholic/Protestant troubles, and the insane burst of literary and scientific flourishing that happened during the 1700s (with its darker side of course; the medical school Edinburgh was so known for was also the unfortunate root cause of a good deal of body-snatching.)
Unfortunately, we weren’t able to stay to see the whole thing; the day was getting on and we had a lengthy jaunt by bus to make to get out to our next stop – the Royal Yacht Britannia. A hasty picnic was assembled from ready-made sandwiches and portions of fruit and such, and eaten as we waited for the bus to take us there.
The Royal Yacht Britannia is, or was, the Queen’s residence at sea, and apparently one of the places she’s most fond of; Royal honeymooners like Charles and Diana have used it as well. It’s a sleek, dark-blue ship with a band of gold running around its edge…literal gold, of the 24 carat variety. Inside, it’s surprisingly simple, apparently at Her Majesty’s request; everything looks a bit like a somewhat swankier version of a country house as of, say, 1952. Lots of chintz furnishings, bamboo, etc. I suppose this was the Queen’s equivalent of going to the cottage, though of course when she does, she brings with her something like six tons of luggage.
An extensive entourage, too: the yacht had something like two hundred plus sailors aboard at any given time while it was operational, keeping everything neat and tidy and sort of disturbingly shipshape. (State dinners with many guests could take up to three hours to set tables for, as someone had to go round with a ruler and make sure everything was just so.). Every teacup and wineglass and fork had its own place, and people could end up changing uniforms up to 16 times in a day, so the laundry was vast. (Some amusing signs of the humanity of the sailors, though: the lockers in the berths were covered with stickers for everything from bands to some sort of contest for a PlayStation.)
There was even a full band on board at all times, which seems kind of crazy to me. How often during an average day does one – even the Queen – require a band of marines?
Visiting is a reminder of a couple of interesting differences between the UK and North America. One: the UK is obsessed with status. There were no less than four different messes available for the sailors: one for the officers, one for the lesser officers, one for the senior regular shipmen and one for the average seamen.
Two: the UK is a lot more into boats than I am. I suppose that if you have built an empire on naval power you’re more likely to be all about boats, but there was a great deal of stuff about the glamour of sailing! And sailing technique! And the glories of the sea! And so on that as a child of a landlocked city I have to admit I don’t really get. I don’t swim and I don’t share the fondness for The Seaside that many Brits seem to have.
By this time it was getting on to late afternoon/early evening – or, as Mark calls it, The Time It Rains In Scotland. Feeling a bit tired and hungry we set off for a pub recommended in Karen’s literature, at 9A Holyrood. She’d gotten it into her head that this was along the Royal Mile, and although I did say a few times that we needed to cut to the right through one of the closes, we’d made it all the way to Holyrood Palace without sighting the place.
At around this point I explained that it was actually parallel to the road we were on, and we trekked back up the hill and left, locating it almost at once.
Dinner was burgers and some cider, both tasty. Made an abortive attempt to locate a geocache (nearly impossible without data on this thing) before eventually retiring early to plan our drive for the next day. I feel rather lame for not doing something interesting with our last evening in Edinburgh, but then…who knows, maybe the planning will turn out to have been for the best, ultimately.