Monday, 11 November 2013

Calton Hill, Greek temples and the Scottish struggle for democracy

Edinburgh is a city of hills. Some of them sit discreetly at the ends of the bridges which leap the voids between them. The hidden hills of Waterloo Place, George IV Bridge and the network of streets off Lothian Road are like this.

Seventeen arches of North and South Bridge swoop over Waverley Station, once the Nor' Loch, and span the Cowgate, an engineering triumph.

Other hills, however, dominate the skylines. The ancient hill forts of Arthur's Seat and Castle Rock thrust their rugged features above the spires and tenements, between them the dramatic silhouette of Salisbury Crags, ringed by the rough red ribbon of the Radical Road, a footpath built by unemployed weavers from western Scotland. During the 'Radical War' of 1820, otherwise known as the Scottish Insurrection, unemployed artisans came out on strike against the British government. More literate than their English counterparts, thanks to the Presbyterian Church of Scotland and its support for education, they demanded reform and the restoration of the Scottish Parliament. The rebellion was ruthlessly suppressed.

However, it is Calton Hill that is the subject of this post, an ancient volcanic core which in 1724 became one of Britain's first public parks when the land was bought from its aristocratic landowners by Edinburgh Town Council. The view on the right is taken from Old Calton Burial Ground,

To get to the top of Calton Hill from our house, we take a diagonal route through Regent Gardens, named after the Prince Regent (later George IV). The gardens follow the long sweep of Playfair's Georgian terrace of the same name, an extension of Edinburgh's New Town. At the top of the Gardens, we pass the Stones of Scotland, which commemorate the establishment of the new Parliament, its 32 stones brought from each region of the country.

Along the road is New Calton Burial Ground, its newness only relative. (See the earlier post Remember Thomas Muir of Huntershill about Old Calton Burial Ground and the monument to the Scottish Political Martyrs.) The dead enjoy a fantastic view across the panorama of Arthur's Seat, Holyrood Palace, the Scottish Parliament and, if you stand in the right place, as far east as the Firth of Forth.

Here are buried members of well-known Edinburgh families such as the Stevensons. Robert Stevenson, lighthouse builder and grandfather to Robert Louis Stevenson, the writer, was the engineer for Regent Bridge further along this side of Calton Hill, linking it with Princes Street. You wouldn't know it was a bridge, so smoothly is it integrated with the line of elegant buildings along Waterloo Place. Only if you glance down do you catch sight of the hidden ravine now occupied by Calton Road and once the site of the modest houses of Calton Village. Most of the last remaining buildings were demolished in the 1970s. A few still stand, however, at the top of the steep cobbled road, itself called Calton Hill.

Also buried in New Calton Burial Ground is William Dick who founded the Veterinary School. As in all cemeteries of this era, solid burial houses for merchants stand beside poignant memorials to small children and mothers dead in childbirth.

In one corner of the New Calton Burial Ground still stands the watchtower, from the days when resurrectionists disinterred the bodies of the recently dead for medical dissection. Recently renovated, it bears a plaque to the McDonald family of Australia, one of whose members was born in that tower.

As we walk further along Regent Road, we pass the Burns Memorial, a beautiful 1830s Grecian pepperpot, with the broad sweep of Arthur's Seat as its backdrop. The statue of Burns which once stood inside is now housed in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery on Queen Street. On the right we pass another Greek temple - the Old Royal High School building, once mooted as the prospective home of the Scottish Parliament. On the left lies Canongate Graveyard and the steep little path of Jacob's Ladder which descends to Calton Road.

The imposing headquarters of the Scottish Government, St Andrew's House built in the 1930s, stands on the site of the old Calton Jail. All that remains of that institution are the towers of Governor's House and the bones of the executed criminals lying beneath the car park.

Opposite St Andrew's House, beneath the tower of the Nelson Monument, we start our steep ascent, through the parkland of Calton Hill itself.  A network of paths circle and cross the upper reaches of the hill. On the left we pass another Greek pepperpot, Playfair's memorial to Dugald Stewart, professor of Edinburgh University. Calton Hill is home to many reminders of the achievements of the Scottish Enlightenment.

Beyond us lie Observatory House and, round the curve of the path, the now disused City Observatory.

More prominent than any of these old structures is the National Monument, started after the end of the Napoleonic Wars and never completed. Yet another Greek temple for the Athens of the North, its steps are now occupied by picnicking civil servants from nearby St Andrew's House.

What I love about Calton Hill, however, are the 360 degree views. To the north you can see right across to the Firth of Forth to the ancient Kingdom of Fife. Glance to your left, down the steep slope, and you are looking at an area called Greenside. Nowadays it is notable for its soulless modern buildings - multi-storey carpark, offices, and one of the ugliest commercial developments in Edinburgh, the St James' Centre. However, in the fifteenth century, Greenside was an open area used for military training. Archery and tournaments were the sports of the day, rather than golf or football. The latter were banned as a waste of time, a view with which I have some sympathy. At various times over the centuries the area housed open-air theatres, a monastery and a hospital for lepers.

Our way home follows the south east descent of the hill, near the place where the vigil for a Scottish Parliament was kept. The vigil began in 1992 after the fourth consecutive Conservative win at the UK General Election, a win achieved by English votes while Scotland remained determinedly Tory-free. It ended in 1995 after the successful vote for a devolved Scottish Parliament. This vigil is now commemorated by Parliament Cairn, built of stones from a number of locations, each representing some aspect of the worldwide struggle for freedom and democracy.

Our homeward walk involves a quick detour along Regent Terrace, with its grand town houses once inhabited by aristocrats and exiled European princelings. Now the presence of the American Embassy has resulted in the street being blocked off by bollards at each end.

Behind the smart terraces lie picturesque mews leading on to the other great streets: Carlton Terrace and Royal Terrace, built on land which used to belong to Jinglin' Geordie or George Heriot. Heriot was jeweller to James VI/I and founder of George Heriot's Hospital for the children of the poor, now George Heriot's School for the children of the prosperous.

Greenside Church lies at the junction of Royal Terrace and London Road, the A1 and main road south. Here too is Playfair House, with its bizarre Greek temple bolted onto the end of elegant Georgian townhouses,

We turn our backs on the city centre, however, and wander through London Road Gardens towards home, following the path taken by the exiled Charles X of France when he walked to and from the Palace of Holyroodhouse to St Mary's Church (now Cathedral) on Leith Walk.

Here we must cheat a bit, however. After a quick coffee at home, we climb again, this time up Salisbury Crags using the Radical Road. From there we can look over the route we have taken, along the aristocratic Georgian Terraces winding up Calton Hill, past the temples to the Enlightenment to the peak itself and the vigil for Scottish democracy. And there, at the foot of Calton Hill we see the outcome of that centuries-old struggle: Scotland's impressive Parliament Building.