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Frederick Douglass wrote to William White on July 30th, 1846
‘I am now in Edinburgh. It is the capital of Scotland – and it is justly regarded as one of the most beautiful cities in Europe. I never saw one with which for beauty, elegance, and grandeur to compare it… The Monument to Sir Walter Scott – on Princes Street, is just one conglomeration of architectural beauties. The Calton Hill – Salisbury Crags and Arthur’s Seat give the city advantages over any city I have visited in this or in your country.’
The Scott Monument was finished just two years before Douglass’ visit. I walk near or among all of these places that Douglass writes of no less than several times a week. Oh, the wonder of it! – In the Main Reading Room of the National Library of Scotland with The Frederick Douglass Papers, Series III: Correspondence. Volume 1: 1842-1852, ed. John R. McKivigan.
Journal: Calton Hill, Edinburgh, early Saturday evening, August 12th
Right now, I’m tucked into a little sort of alcove formed by a guardrail behind me and an old cast iron fence in front of me, sitting on one of the concrete guardrail supports, resting my back on the end of the wide rail, with my feet up on the stone wall from which the cast iron posts rise. The slope of the hill behind Arthur’s Seat and the abbey ruins on the Holyrood Palace grounds are in my view. I’m eating an early dinner (or late tea) of sharp cheddar, an apple, a tangerine, and gingerbread which I brought with me, and a lightly salted, crusted pillowy pretzel and tiny bottle of wine which I picked up on my way here.
I slept off much of my jet lag yesterday, last night well into the morning, with a break of wakefulness to sit down for a celebratory carvery dinner – with Yorkshire pudding, oh joy! – and beer, then grocery shopping. Much of this morning and early afternoon was spent on letters, working on my history of ideas travel articles for Ordinary Philosophy, going through photos of my journey of the last few weeks for that series, and a very, very long hot bath. It was raining pretty steadily all that time and it’s Saturday during the annual, world famous Fringe Festival, so it was not a good day to go hiking or taking care of business or commence job-hunting. Not that I minded at all. My room is cheery and cozy and I passed the first part of the day very pleasantly and unhurriedly.
But as soon as I left the bath, it felt like it was time to go out. I was suddenly eager to see the lovely city I first fell in love with about three and a half years ago. It’s about an hour and a half walk from where I’m staying and I need the exercise, so I decide to go on foot. I love walking, and it’s a great way to get a detailed sense of the lay of the land between the city center and where I’m staying at the southern end of town near the city bypass. It’s sprinkling on and off a little, but I don’t mind. I’ll likely get tired of the damp and cold over time, but the last few weeks traveling through the United States have been mostly oppressively hot. It felt good today to put on a light wool sweater and not to be flushed and soaked in sweat after only a few moments of activity.
The route north to Calton Hill is pretty straightforward. After about a mile you clearly see Calton Hill and the Castle most of the way, so it’s very easy to orient yourself. I passed by petite and tidy suburban row houses, old and even ancient standalone ones, stone walls ditto, and even in one place, to my surprise, small crop fields [on subsequent thought, I think it’s a golf course, it just looks different than many American ones]. These gave way to taller, fancier buildings, new apartments, large handsome older row homes, parks, rows of shops with flats over them, then fancier homes, then tall handsome guest houses, and then, suddenly, I was in the city proper. It’s usual for Edinburgh’s old city to be very busy in tourist season but today, it’s absolutely packed, thronged with festival goers interspersed with those locals who have not fled the city, gritting their teeth as they try to reach their destinations through the hordes.
I reached Calton Hill and turned into the cemetery gates to my right and paid my respects at the tomb of my man, the great Enlightenment philosopher David Hume. It was through him I met this lovely city, and he who inspired me to apply to the University of Edinburgh which he attended as a young prodigy of twelve years old.
His monument is beautiful, a neoclassical structure with clean lines, embellished just enough with a frieze of flowers and a carved urn. Other family members are buried here with him. The monument was built to reflect Hume’s wishes about the kind of monument he’d prefer if one was to be built for him; it was designed by his architect friend about a year after his death. He didn’t want anything too fancy. It’s near the base of the hill, just down the street from where the scenic walkway named for Hume circles the crown of the hill and its monuments. He successfully lobbied the town council for this path to be built so that the local people could take their exercise in a wholesome and beautiful environment readily accessible from the crowded, dirty, often dark and dank city. In this as in so many other ways, he’s totally my type of guy.
I look forward so much to learning more about his life, thought, and legacy in my upcoming year here in Edinburgh. If, indeed, it’s only a year. Who knows, I may get even more hooked on this place and find myself here longer…
It’s early Sunday afternoon, and I’m recovering from probably the single longest day of walking I’ve ever done, and that’s saying a lot for this avid hiker and walking enthusiast. My hip joints ache, my feet ache, my calves ache, my shins ache. But I don’t care, each of these aches are little tokens of a beautiful day. But let me back up a bit…
Saturday, May 03, 2014
I started my exploration of the Old City from the other end, where the Castle of Edinburgh overlooks all from its high perch on a craggy rock, along the Royal Mile, which heads east from the castle to Calton Hill and the Palace of Holyroodhouse.
The first half of my day is spent getting my bearings, creating a mental map of how the Old City hangs together, while spontaneously popping into any historic place that looked interesting. That can get expensive, paying entrance fees, but what the hell, it was my first day. Anyway, that’s what keeps these wonderful old places from falling into ruin or turning into tacky gift shops, so it’s worth every penny.) I have my little camera out to keep my hands free and snap a gazillion photos along the way. I don’t have a way to upload those photos and share them with you now, but I will when I get back home in a couple of weeks. The photos you see here are taken on my tablet.
So here I am, overlooking Edinburgh from Calton Hill.
It’s on Calton Hill that my journey following David Hume really begins, though I had looked into some sites associated with his life on the way, that I’ll return to later. It’s here on Calton Hill that he’s buried, and it’s here, I discover, that he caused the first path in Edinburgh to be built dedicated solely to the improvement of mind and body. Here, people would be encouraged to take their exercise by having a lovely place to walk, on this hillside with its spectacular views of the city, the surrounding countryside, and the Firth (estuary), away from the hustle and bustle, the crowds, the dirt, the unhealthy air, and the smells of the city. The first path to be built is named Hume Path in his honor, so of course, that’s the path I choose.
I head back downhill a little from the park at the top of the hill, and Calton Hill Cemetery is on my left. I go through the gate and up the short flight of steps, and a bit ahead to my right, I find Hume’s elegant and rather simple monument and gravesite. I spend a good bit of time here musing: the power of physical objects to really bring things into focus still never fails to surprise me, and my sense of purpose in this journey to Edinburgh is strengthened.
I’ll soon write a reflection on his good and noble death…
I’m also moved to discover that a monument to Scottish-American soldiers was erected, featuring a statue of Abraham Lincoln. It seems to me so fitting that these two great heroes of freedom are honored here side by side, one of freedom of person, the other of thought.
When I leave Calton Hill, I return to the Royal Mile by an alternate route, with a detour along York Place to St. David’s Street. This street got its name from a fond prank by his close friend Nancy Orde, who wrote this little tribute in chalk on the side of Hume’s house. The street bears the name to this day.
My explorations are sure to bring me back to this street since Hume once lived here, so stay tuned. I’ll be back when I’ve gathered more details.
I return to the Royal Mile and this time head west, passing by a grand statue of David Hume, across from St. Giles’ Cathedral. I’m not sure it looks anything like him based on all of his portraits I’ve seen, but it’s a handsome statue, very classical. This bronze Hume probably looks much better with his shirt off than the real man ever did; he was a portly and not terribly good-looking fellow, as much as I admire and respect him. But who knows? Perhaps the younger Hume was a little more fit, before the years of poring over books left him out of shape. The statue’s right toe is polished and very shiny, looks like it’s a tradition to rub his toe for luck.
I return to James’s Court, where he lived for awhile in a tenement (apartment) with his sister. The original buildings are mostly gone, lost in a fire ages ago. I visited Gladstone’s Land and the John Knox house earlier in the day, two restored tenements from the era, and the Writer’s Museum, the restored home of Lady Stairs, built in 1622 and purchased and decorated by her in the 1700’s, all of which gives me a good idea of what Hume’s place would have looked like generally. James’s Court is a lovely little courtyard reached through a couple of lit
The old city is full of such little closes leading to pretty little courtyards or providing access to who knows where, all nearly irresistible to an American like me, where ancient cities are rare. Each time I see one of those closes, it looks like a little magic portal to some other place and time, and I just have to go through it. I spent much of my day stumbling on interesting corners of the city this way.
On the other side of Lawnmarket (the same little neighborhood as James Court) is another stand of tenements across from the castle, in the area where Hume was born in 1711. The original buildings are also no longer there; while most of the tenements that stand today in old Edinburgh are old, most of them date from the mid-1700’s and later. Many of the original tenements were lost in fires, a common occurrence in those days when people depended on open flames for all light, heating, and cooking, and a fire that started in one place would quickly spread. Many of the others were torn down, since after Hume’s time, the tenements became the homes of the poor, where overcrowding and the accompanying disease and filth left them in very poor condition (people and buildings like).
I end my first day of Hume-seeking here, as I suddenly realize I’ve been walking for hours without eating. I eat a meal of the obligatory haggis (it’s delicious, even if it does sit a bit heavy; I suspect it’s not the haggis that the Scots of yore ate, which was boiled. This haggis does not appear to be prepared that way), and I wash down with a pint, of course.
Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, entirely supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!