Back to Blighty #17 – Edinburgh – Our Wedding Anniversary

Well I could not have planned the timing of this blog post better if I had tried.  I am just battering out blog posts about our trip back to Britain as and when a quiet moment arises between chores and entertaining / refereeing the kids yet by happy coincidence the subject matter and timing of this post happily coincide: exactly 19 years ago today, Mr Pict and I got married in Edinburgh; this blog post is all about the tour down memory lane that we dragged our kids on as part of our day in Edinburgh.

First up on our nostalgia tour of the day was the street where we got married all those years ago.  We had a civil ceremony in what was the city’s registry office on Victoria Street.  Sadly India Buildings has been disused for over a decade and is awaiting some sort of development.  Victoria Street, however, barely seemed to have changed from when we lived in Edinburgh. I have always loved Victoria Street for its elegant curve and its stacked architectural design, colourful shop fronts with arches below and more impressive buildings on the terrace above.

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Here is a photo of Mr Pict and me outside India Buildings with our four sons and my youngest nephew.

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We wanted to take the kids to see the buildings at the University of Edinburgh’s main site where we had studied for our undergraduate degrees.  The whole area, however, is undergoing something of a radical transformation it seems and we could not see past construction hoarding.  The kids had to make do with seeing some of the less impressive buildings and listening to our tales.  From Potterow, they could just make out the shape of McEwan Hall – covered in a web of scaffolding – where we had graduated from our first degrees almost two decades ago.

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Having been disappointed by our ability to tour the main campus, we took the boys to see the wonderful Old College.  The buildings around the quadrangle of Old College were designed by three of Scotland’s most famous architects – Robert Adam, William Henry Playfair and Robert Rowand Anderson, who was responsible for the dome – and the architecture certainly impresses.  The University’s School of Law is housed in Old College and Mr Pict undertook studies there in his first year.  I was familiar with Old College because of admin services being situated there and also from visiting the Talbot Rice Gallery.  It was always a lovely, quiet, restful spot.

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The final leg in our Recent Family History Travel Through Time was to take the boys to Where It All Began.  Mr Pict and I first met because we happened to be billeted in the same student accommodation for the first year of our studies.  It was a converted house on a residential street in a rather nice part of the city and the sixty of us accommodated there were actually the last to be so.  The summer that we all moved on to pastures new, the property was sold off and reverted to being a private residential property once more.  In the photo below, the window in the grey tiled roof on the left hand side of the image was the window to my bedroom.

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So 19 years after we got hitched, almost 22 since we first met, that was our little Personal History Trip around Edinburgh with the kids.  I wonder what we will be up to next year for our 20th Wedding Anniversary?!?!

Back to Blighty #16 – Edinburgh Castle

The focus of our day trip to Edinburgh was to visit the Castle.  I had not been to Edinburgh Castle for almost 20 years, bizarrely Mr Pict had never been despite us living in the city centre for five years and – obviously – none of the Pictlings had ever been.

Edinburgh Castle is very distinctive, a large fortress sitting atop an extinct volcano.  There has been some sort of castle on that site since at least the 12th Century and it has, therefore, evolved over a lengthy span of history, gradually transitioning from being a royal residence to being a military barracks.

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The kids instantly found Edinburgh Castle to be enchanting because it is just the type of castle children conjure up in their imaginations.  From walking through the thick outer walls beneath a portcullis, to walking the battlements, to clambering up cobbled paths and exploring murky dungeons, there was plenty to spark their interest.  We decided, however, that a tour of castle highlights would be best rather than slogging around every section of the site and risk the kids disengaging.

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We all enjoyed perusing the view from the castle ramparts.  We had clear views over Princes Street Gardens, the New Town and the West End, the Mound, Waverley Station and all the way across to Calton Hill.  While the adults reminisced about the places we could see, the boys enjoyed clambering onto the many canon.  On the subject of canon, the kids were able to see the famous one o’clock gun.  It has been firing since 1861, a way for ships in the Forth to gain an accurate time for setting their clocks by, and the tradition has continued long past its maritime relevance.  I used to love listening for it when I was wee and was visiting my Gran and it was always entertaining to see visitors to the city, not aware of the tradition, give a startled jump when it banged.  We were in the Castle at one o’clock but sadly it was a Sunday and the gun is silent on Sundays and other pertinent days throughout the year.  The other famous canon within the castle walls is much older: Mons Meg.  Mons Meg is a medieval canon and apparently has the largest calibre of any canon in the world.  It suffered an injury in the late 17th Century and has just been on display ever since.  Nowadays Mons Meg is famous for its role in Hogmany celebrations as it is fired at the beginning of the fireworks display, an indication of the passing of the old year into the new year.

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We spent a great deal of time on the Citadel, the upper level of the castle accessed via the arched Foog’s Gate.  There we visited St Margaret’s Chapel, a tiny building believed to be the oldest building still extant in Edinburgh.  Margaret, a Wessex princess and the wife of Malcolm III of Scotland, was renowned for her piousness and good deeds.  Margaret did not actually worship in the chapel.  It was built in the reign of her son David, in the 12th Century.  We also enjoyed the panoramic views from Half Moon Battery which took in such places as the Salisbury Crags and Arthur’s Seat and the area of Edinburgh where Mr Pict and I had once lived.

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We joined the line to view the Honours of Scotland which was effectively a conveyer belt of people.  The line was in constant motion and it was absolutely necessary to keep pace with those in front and behind or else risk getting completely snaggled up.  The system was a plus in that it removed the tedium of queuing.  The lines snaked through displays and dioramas depicting the history of Scotland’s crown jewels, from their manufacture by skilled artisans to their use in royal ceremony through to their disappearance and rediscovery by the novelist Sir Walter Scott.  After about 20 minutes we finally ended up in the room where the actual Honours – a crown, sceptre and sword – were showcased alongside the Stone of Destiny, a block of sandstone once used in the coronation of monarchs and the object of much conflict and controversy between Scotland and England.  We then segued into the rest of the Royal Palace in order to see the apartments where Mary Queen of Scots gave birth to James VI and I in 1566.  As the chap who united the thrones of Scotland and England, I thought it might be handy for the boys to have that connection to his personal history to act almost as a mnemonic for his role in history.  I also knew we were going to be visiting another Mary Queen of Scots site so I wanted them to be considering her importance to Scottish history too.  Sadly, all but the oldest found the rooms dull so I think that was an education fail.

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Much more impressive to the kids was the Great Hall, a spacious Renaissance room with a hammerbeam roof.  It was converted into barracks during the Commonwealth with floors being added to split it into three storeys and then became a military hospital before being restored at the close of the 19th Century.  What the boys loved about it was that the walls were lined with hundreds of swords and other pointy weapons and there were suits of armour throughout too.  Along with the huge stone fireplace, it made them think of the hall at Hogwarts School.  My Dad and I then had a wander into the Scottish National War Memorial which commemorates those killed in the two World Wars and more recent conflicts and houses the Rolls of Honour.

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Next up were two prisons.  The first we visited was the Victorian military prison, a collection of spartan cells, a basic shower room and a room for ablutions.  The boys all enjoyed pretending to be prisoners while their granddad was the prison warden.  The kids learned about the type of offences that would have led to soldiers being sent to the cells and the types of repetitive or physically exhausting punishments they would be given.  I was hoping their might be a moral in the tale.  We then went to see the vaults where prisoners of war were once housed.  These were dank and dark with hammocks hanging everywhere.  The standard conditions had been recreated to bring the scene to life so the children were able to comprehend what life would have been like there for the prisoners – from America, France, Spain and Holland – cooped up together, keeping themselves entertained by crafting, eating food the kids would find ghastly.  They were shocked to learn that the prisoners would have included cabin boys, some as young as six years old.  We also saw the prison’s original wooden doors which were covered in carved graffiti.

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The prisons were our last stop on our jaunt around Edinburgh Castle.  Sans kiddliwinks it would be easy to spend at least a couple more hours touring the buildings and absorbing the history.  There are just so many layers of history at Edinburgh Castle and we barely skimmed the surface.

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Back to Blighty #15 – Edinburgh – Greyfriar’s and the Royal Mile

Having returned to Fife from Argyll, we took a trip across the Firth of Forth to spend the day in Edinburgh.  We six Picts were accompanied by my parents and one of my nephews.

Having parked on Chamber’s Street (but sadly not visiting the terrific National Museum of Scotland this time) we strolled over to Greyfriar’s Kirkyard.  My boys had never been to Greyfriar’s before and, as it transpired, had scant knowledge of the tale of Greyfriar’s Bobby.  The legend goes that Bobby was a terrier who, being so devoted to his dead master, spent 14 years at the grave.  When he died in 1872, wee Bobby was also buried in the kirkyard not far from the grave he had guarded for so long.  Soon afterwards, a statue commemorating Bobby was placed just outside the kirkyard, where Candlemaker Row meets George IV Bridge.  That statue is – random fact fans – Edinburgh’s smallest listed building.  Whatever the truth of the story, it has certainly been good for tourism.

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I, of course, had to take a photo of my boys and their cousin beside Bobby’s grave because it is a tradition and because I knew I had in my possession a photo of one of my sisters and I standing beside the grave in the early 1980s.

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Greyfriar’s Kirk is one of Edinburgh’s oldest surviving churches and, as such, its kirkyard (cemetery) is a fascinating place for a wee donder.  It is a place of historical significance in that it is where the National Covenant was signed in 1638 and where, subsequently, over a thousand Covenanters were imprisoned on land that later became part of the kirkyard.  I have always loved the kirkyard because of its vaulted tombs, mortsafes*, lots of fancy monuments with fantastic carvings, and wonderfully creepy memento mori.

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A short hop, skip and jump out of Greyfriar’s and along George IV Bridge brought us to the Elephant House, one of the cafes where JK Rowling wrote her Harry Potter novels.  As Potterphiles, the boys had to have their photo taken outside.  No time to stop off for a cuppa and a slice of cake, however, as we were on a mission to walk up the Royal Mile and visit Edinburgh Castle (which will be covered in the next blog post).

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The Royal Mile is the succession of streets that runs from Holyrood House at the bottom to Edinburgh Castle at the top.  It is permanently thronging with tourists, never more so than during the Edinburgh Festival, and as such it is lined with shops selling stereotypically Scottish trinkets and eateries but with a good smattering of tourist attractions along the way.  Mainly we just dodged tourists and people-watched, stopping to view the occasional street performer.  We spent a bit of time outside St Gile’s Cathedral (properly known as the High Kirk of Edinburgh) while we pondered whether or not to go in.  Since the children were hungry, we decided against it.  Another time maybe.  What we did point out to the children was the Heart of Midlothian, which is built into the street just outside the Cathedral.  The granite heart-shaped mosaic marks the site of the entrance to the city’s medieval Tolbooth, which was demolished early in the 19th Century.  The Tolbooth was a prison and a place of public execution.  That history is no doubt what started the tradition of spitting on the heart, though nowadays people think it is for good luck rather than contempt.  I did not tell the kids about that tradition.

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*A mortsafe is an iron cage placed over a grave in order to keep ressurectionists / body snatchers from stealing the body.