A walk to the top of Arthur's Seat in Edinburgh
Erlend is a journalist who lives in Edinburgh and together with his wife Hélène welcomes guests to stay for bed and breakfast at their home, 2 Cambridge Street, in the centre of Edinburgh almost below the castle.
by Erlend Clouston
The mountain wilderness in the middle of Edinburgh.
So, you have reached Edinburgh. You have bought a kilt. You have learned that tartan patterns were cunningly encoded in heather twigs and hidden under turf roofs at the time of the English Occupation. You have missed the brass plaque pointing out the blood David Rizzio spilled in Holyrood. You have discovered there is no train to St Andrews. But you have not yet climbed Arthur's Seat. Really, there is no excuse. Arthur's Seat owns one of Scotland's most alluring outlines. Only the megalomaniac acorn of Suilven, 200 miles to the north-west and the megalomanic brassière of the Forth rail bridge can match it. The 350 million-year-old volcanic rump sprawls like an overfed lion along your new temporary home's eastern flank, its mangy head cocked in permanent contemplation of a lunge at the pink thigh of Salisbury Crags.
"Arthur's Seat was pure witchcraft," mused Washington Irving in 1817. Many serious mountains would kill for such an endorsement by the creator of Rip Van Winkle.
The witchcraft has been greatly helped by two factors. The adjacent city, through an ingenious (and ultimately bankrupting) deployment of 22 bridges, has cunningly flattened the surrounding landscape, rendering the raw impertinence of Arthur's Seat all the more striking. King David I, celebrating his 12th century escape from the clutches of a republican stag, established an abbey close to the lion's paw, ensuring with his simultaneous grant of territory that the herds of speculative builders would be held at bay.
One man did try. In 1783 Dr James Graham applied to build a house on the lion's 822-feet crown in order to prove a correlation between good health and extreme cold. He met with what might be termed a frosty response from the town council. In fact, Edinburgh's affection for its private wilderness in pre-Greenpeace days seems nothing short of remarkable. In 1831, public outcry at his degradation of the skyline obliged Lord Haddington to accept, somewhat grudgingly, £30,000 of public money in return for his ancient quarrying privileges. Shortly afterwards Prince Albert's plans to construct a restaurant half-way to the summit perished on the skewer of civic indignation.
The best view of Arthur's Seat is to be had, coincidentally, from the front window of the stainless steel cabin that houses the Royal Park Visitor Service. Set back a quarter of a mile from the rising ground, it provides the eight official Rangers with a panorama of what look like a mildewed accordion beaten to death by a blunt instrument. The Rangers were set up in 1999, replacing the more ponderously titled Holyrood Park Constables and charged with educative and environmental duties as well as law-enforcement. One of their responsibilities is protecting the slender pink-headed sticky catch-fly which, as almost nobody knows, is the official flower of Edinburgh. It struck me that being a Holyrood Park Ranger might be one of the planet's less stressful occupations. Their main crime-fighting role, according to chief Ranger Jenny Hargreaves, involves repelling golfers and mountain-bikers.
Occasionally staff are called out to rescue climbers. Two recent beneficiaries of this service, Ranger Nicky Pettigrew told me, turned out to be Royal Marines. "And rescued by two skinny girls - myself and Jenny! We were quite proud of that. They said they were trained to storm beaches, not hills."
Leisure is a relatively new arrival. In the right light a series of furrows can be traced on the south-eastern slopes: medieval, or earlier, agricultural terraces. A cache of battered Bronze Age weaponry and knick-knacks was fished out of nearby Duddingston Loch: possibly scrap metal destined for a Bronze Age foundry. The royal hunting forests were replaced by sheep, and so, presumably, shepherds. And what sheep. These were a robust, no-nonsense Caledonian variety. The magistrates' court, confronted in September, 1740, by two moribund forms at the base of Arthur's Seat, concluded that Peter Campbell, an off-duty soldier bent on a little poaching, was the victim of the world's first extra-sensory attack ram.
"It was observable of this malevolent beast," wrote the clerk," that he always bore a malevolent eye to Redcoats; he'd often leave the flock on seeing a soldier and lend him a hearty bounce. And though this unhappy one (Campbell) had nothing of the soldier about him yet the beast, as it were, smelled him, and saw him out." We like that hearty bounce.
In better-fed times the view from the top of Arthur's Seat gradually became sufficient reason for the scramble up from Holyrood Palace. It is hard to read Lord Cockburn's formula for a brisk evening's entertainment without being seriously impressed by the vigour of a mid-19th century judge: " First to dine about four, to be sociable for a few hours, then a walk, then more sociality from about ten till the sun's hour was approaching, then up the hill and then down to a few hours' sleep, or feverish study."
If that doesn't prise you out of your hostel bunk, perhaps the knowledge that you could be panting in the footsteps of Burns, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Sir Walter Scott and R.L. Stevenson will. One can suppose that the golfing Mary Queen of Scots probably preceded them; she certainly liked the lump, staging in 1564 a banquet a third of the way up in honour of Lord Fleming's marriage. A hundred and eighteen years later, that other iconic Stuart, Bonnie Prince Charlie, paraded about here before marching off to the false dawn of Prestonpans. The 23-year-old Alexander Carlyle, watching the royal rebel "ride to the east side of Arthur's Seat to visit his army," noted a freckled face and "dark red hair."
The Rangers estimate that a million people now visit the Park annually. Most of those will make it to the top of Arthur's Seat, an area of pitted, liverish rock the size of large sitting room. It took me 16 minutes, but I cheated by driving round the back of, and halfway up, the hill. Even the longer routes, though, are devoid of obvious hazard. I encountered 33 adventurers, of whom 20 were shod only in trainers. At the top Helene, aged 24,and Celine, 20, up visiting from Oxford's Maison Française, declared they were making "une promenade digestive." Staring north and west, we could just see snow-capped Ben Lomond, 60 miles away.
King Arthur is one of the few people not to have visited his Seat. The name is thought to be a corruption of Ard-na-Said, a Gaelic phrase meaning 'Height of the Arrows'. This may, or may not, be connected to the Iron Age fort that once straddled the summit. As you wheeze past the shadowy remains of its two walls, remember to salute the memory of James Burnet. For a wager, the 18-stone last captain of the city guard took only 15 minutes to run to the top where he lay "like an expiring porpoise."
Erlend Clouston is a journalist who lives in Edinburgh and together with his wife Hélène welcomes guests to stay for bed and breakfast at their home, 2 Cambridge Street, in the centre of Edinburgh almost below the castle.