Wednesday, 26 April 2017

A Scottish Tale.

They say you should never go back but last week I did. I went back to Edinburgh after an absence of twenty-five years. The last time I was in Edinburgh I was accompanying an author on a book tour, which seems fitting because above all else Edinburgh is a city of stories; even its railway station is named after a novel.

On that occasion I stayed at the Roxburghe Hotel and I remember there was a telephone in the bathroom. I raided the mini bar, ran a deep bubbly bath, and rang everyone I could think of while
lying in it. And that's a true story.

The time before that I was 19 and I stayed with my uncle and aunt. This time I'm back for my uncle's 80th birthday celebrations, all two of them: the family get-together at the house on Saturday evening and the even larger family get-together at a local venue on Sunday lunchtime.

We fly up from London on Good Friday morning. The flight is so early we're standing in the B&B in the suburb of Colinton - where incidentally Robert Louis Stevenson spent his childhood summers - by 10.30am. I feel oddly rearranged and freezing cold, and there's no sign of either a bath or a mini bar.

"Michael Portillo once slept in that room just there," says the friendly B&B owner, as we climb the stairs behind him with our luggage. "And this radiator in your room here takes a wee while to warm up."

I feel the radiator. The last time that radiator warmed up Michael Portillo had a seat in the cabinet, I think. Fortunately there's an old heater in the corner so I put it on, and leave it on.

My aunt and uncle's house just down the road from the B&B is both warm and exactly as I remember it. I take photographs of particular objects I have fond memories of: the stuffed snipes behind glass that originally belonged to my great grandparents; the sculpture of a woman's head in the bathroom that came from the art college. As you get older the past becomes more precious and I'm conscious of trying to capture bits of mine before they're gone for good and to nurture relationships that, despite being geographically thwarted, I am nevertheless bound to by an unbreakable familial thread. I'm also keen to reminisce.

I tell my cousin I remember going round Edinburgh junk shops with her searching for Clarice Cliff and Susie Cooper crockery.

I tell my aunt I remember going swimming with her and that I'm also now addicted to it. I ask my uncle if he remembers my father trying to climb around the house when he was a boy without touching the floor, something he frequently mentions. 

We all enjoy the slideshow of old photographs and shed a small tear together thinking of our shared grandparents/great-grandparents/parents whose union in 1934 made possible this gathering of 20 people in 2017.

Apart from my relatives there are two things I'm keen to see in Edinburgh, both with stories attached. The first is Holyrood Palace, inextricably linked to the history of Mary Queen of Scots, surely the most tragic of heroines, married to the brutal Lord Darnley who had her Italian private secretary David Rizzio dragged from the dining table on the 9th of March 1566 and stabbed to death 56 times in front of her in a fit of jealous rage, so the story goes. She was seven months pregnant with her son at the time (later to be James VI of Scotland/James I of England and Ireland). There's a spot on the floor of the palace, they say, where Rizzio's blood still stains the flagstoned floor. Unfortunately we get to the palace on Good Friday afternoon to find that it's shut. Easter Monday might not be a holiday in Presbyterian Scotland but we quickly discover that Good Friday is. No matter, I have seen the palace before. I haven't seen Greyfriars Kirkyard, though, and I'm keen to go there too, not just because I love snooping round old churchyards but because of its famous fable.

I tell my 13-year-old niece the tale of Greyfriars Bobby as we walk up to Edinburgh Castle on Saturday afternoon. "I think I've seen the Disney movie of that, Aunty Libby" she tells me, "and there's a similar story from Japan." She recounts the similar story from Japan as we climb the last few steps to the top. It's a sweet little yarn of love and death and devotion, told to me by a sweet little girl.

"Read this," says my brother, pointing to a sign recounting one of the myths associated with the castle. "Do you think it's true?"

Last Orders. Three hundred heroes rode to their doom after a year drinking in a hall on the castle rock. This story was told in the ancient verses of Y Gododdin -
it says.

"Could be," I say. "Actually, I think I was in that club at university."

We don't get to Greyfriars Kirkyard until late Sunday afternoon and by then it too is shut. I peer through the wrought iron gate. Instead of seeing the old cemetery for myself I will just have to imagine it. Or perhaps I'll go back to Edinburgh another time to complete that particular chapter from its past, and my own.

Love E x


P.S. Edinburgh is also famous for its ghost stories, and it's the setting for most of Ian Rankin's inspector Rebus mysteries and for the gruesome 19th century tale of Burke and Hare, a shocking real-life saga of death and dismemberment. There's even a book bound in Burke's own skin, which just goes to show that murders make great stories. Especially when they really did happen.

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