Edinburgh – City of Writers

You’ve got to love a city that has a museum dedicated to writers.  The three celebrated in Edinburgh’s Writers’ Museum – Sir Walter Scott, Robert Burns and R.L. Stevenson – remain widely read and revered even today.  Sir Walter Scott has been credited with ‘inventing’ the historical novel with tales like Kidnapped and Ivanhoe, we all sing Robert Burns’ most famous song, “Should Auld Aquaintance Be Forgot,” at New Year, and who hasn’t dreamed of finding their own Treasure Island or been frightened by a Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde character.

writers museum

For a small city of less than half-a-million people, Edinburgh has produced (or been the home to) an amazing number of writers.  Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle, Irvine Welsh, J.K. Rowling, Alexander McCall Smith, Iain Banks, Ian Rankin, Robert Fergusson, Muriel Spark, Kenneth Grahame.

Outwith Edinburgh, the list of Scottish writers includes J.M. Barrie, Val McDermid, Louis Welsh, Lewis Grassic Gibbon, Nigel Tranter, Alistair MacLean, A.J. Cronin, Dorothy Dunnett, George MacKay Brown… it goes on and on. and on…

For a wee country, Scotland delivers a ‘muckle’ literary punch.

writer quote

Gilmerton Cove

Rightly described as Edinburgh’s Best Kept Secret, Gilmerton Cove is the place to visit if you’re a fan of mysteries. Hidden beneath an unprepossessing cottage on Gilmerton’s main road, historians and archeologists still don’t know for sure when this network of secret passages was built, or even what they were used for.

The entrance to Gilmerton Cove

Discovered almost 300 years ago, George Patterson, the local blacksmith, claimed he had hand carved the tunnels – in which he and his family lived – by himself, over a five-year period.  But could one man, on his own, really carve such an intricate series of ‘rooms’ out of bedrock using simple hand-tools?

cave

    Is that the ghost of a previous occupant at the end of the tunnel… or just a trick of light?

 

 

If so, why dig a well that doesn’t reach water? Why build a forge that has never been used? Were the tunnels really built as a home, or do they harbour older, darker, secrets? Were they used by Covenanters rebelling against the king?  A coven of witches?  A Hellfire Club? Smugglers distilling illegal whisky?

Is this a bed… or a grave?

Is it possible they were built by the Knights Templar as a place of religious reflection?  How about the Romans? It’s up to you to come to your own conclusions.

Who gathered here and why? To study? Pray? Drink?

 

Getting There:  Only twenty minutes from the city centre, Gilmerton Cove can be reached by car or by bus (3, 3A, 29). Guided tours take 45 minutes. Only 12 people are allowed per tour, so booking is essential via Rosslyn Tours.  Telephone: (011-44) 07914 829177

And afterwards, while you’re in the area, consider driving a further ten minutes up the road to explore the mysteries of Rosslyn Chapel.

The Scottish Parliament

I’ve just returned from a (literally) flying 48 hour visit to Edinburgh. The weather was stunning – I even caught a touch of sunburn – and although I’ve lived in Canada for a more than half my life, the trip reinforced how much Scotland holds my heart.

I spent the time with a friend I made many – many – years ago when we were both students at Aberdeen University; she studied Politics and International Relations while I majored in Social and Economic History. Having both lived in Edinburgh at various times in our lives, we felt we knew the city well, but one place neither of us had ever visited was The Scottish Parliament building at the foot of the Royal Mile by Holyrood Palace.

Parliament

The  building itself caused lots of controversy when it was commissioned; designed by a Spanish architect, it ran horrendously over budget.

What were those images of whisky bottles on the walls? we asked the guide.The famous quote by Scotland’s national poet Robert Burns came to mind; Whisky and freedom gang th’gither.

‘Aye,’ the guide replied, ‘that’s what everyone thinks, but it’s supposed to signify people looking over the politicians’ shoulders, so they know they’re always being watched.’

whisky bottles

And then we came across a copy of poem, Open The Doors, written by Sottish makar Edwin Morgan for the reconvening of the Scottish Parliament in 2004. Although it was written specifically for the re-opening of the Scottish Parliament, there are lines in there that every politician around the world- be they local, national or federal – should recite every day before they begin their day’s work.

A Poem by Edwin Morgan
For the Opening of the Scottish Parliament, 9 October 2004

Open the Doors!

Open the doors! Light of the day, shine in; light of the mind, shine out!

We have a building which is more than a building.
There is a commerce between inner and outer,
between brightness and shadow, between the world and those who think about the world.

Is it not a mystery? The parts cohere, they come together like petals of a flower, yet they also send their tongues outward to feel and taste the teeming earth.
Did you want classic columns and predictable pediments? A growl of old Gothic grandeur? A blissfully boring box?

Not here, no thanks! No icon, no IKEA, no iceberg, but curves and caverns, nooks and niches, huddles and heavens syncopations and surprises. Leave symmetry to the cemetery.

But bring together slate and stainless steel, black granite and grey granite, seasoned oak and sycamore, concrete blond and smooth as silk – the mix is almost alive – it breathes and beckons – imperial marble it is not!

Come down the Mile, into the heart of the city, past the kirk of St Giles and the closes and wynds of the noted ghosts of history who drank their claret and fell down the steep tenements stairs into the arms of link-boys but who wrote and talked the starry Enlightenment of their days –

And before them the auld makars who tickled a Scottish king’s ear with melody and ribaldry and frank advice
And when you are there, down there, in the midst of things, not set upon an hill with your nose in the air,

This is where you know your parliament should be And this is where it is, just here.

What do the people want of the place? They want it to be filled with thinking persons as open and adventurous as its architecture.
A nest of fearties is what they do not want.

A symposium of procrastinators is what they do not want. A phalanx of forelock-tuggers is what they do not want. And perhaps above all the droopy mantra of ‘it wizny me’ is what they do not want.

Dear friends, dear lawgivers, dear parliamentarians, you are picking up a thread of pride and self-esteem that has been almost but not quite, oh no not quite, not ever broken or forgotten.

When you convene you will be reconvening, with a sense of not wholly the power, not yet wholly the power, but a good
sense of what was once in the honour of your grasp.
All right. Forget, or don’t forget, the past. Trumpets and robes are fine, but in the present and the future you will need something more.

What is it? We, the people, cannot tell you yet, but you will know about it when we do tell you.
We give you our consent to govern, don’t pocket it and ride away.
We give you our deepest dearest wish to govern well, don’t say we
have no mandate to be so bold.
We give you this great building, don’t let your work and hope be other than great when you enter and begin.
So now begin. Open the doors and begin.

Edwin Morgan

Advice To A Young Author – Arthur Conan Doyle

I visited the Surgeons’ Hall Museum in Edinburgh on my last visit there, a fascinating – but quite gruesome – place. One of the exhibits detailed Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s training as a doctor at The Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh before he became celebrated as the creator of Sherlock Holmes. It included the following poem, which I found both inspirational and thoughtful.

ADVICE TO A YOUNG AUTHOR by Arthur Conan Doyle

First begin

Taking in.

Cargo stored,

All Aboard.

Think about

Giving out,

Empty ship,

Useless trip!

 

Never strain

Weary brain.

Hardly fit,

Wait a bit!

After rest

Comes the best.

Sitting still,

Let it fill.

Never press,

Nerve Stress

Always shows

Nature knows.

 

Critics kind,

Never mind.

Critics flatter,

No matter.

Critics curse,

None the worse!

Critics blame,

All the same.

Do your best,

Hang the rest!