20 A Town of Contrasts
"I would be overjoyed," announced Jacques, striding down the High
Street, "to find a tavern with the arms of Wallace, the Three-Cranes or the
Coat-of-Arms of Southwark. A little local colour would contribute a great deal
to our lunch."
"No objection; but let's be sure we do find lunch, whether or not it's under a picturesque sign."
Locating food outside the hotels is difficult in Edinburgh. There are no Paris-style restaurants, and the rare taverns don't display the least sign-board. But at long last, and with a great deal of patience, the starving tourists discovered a sort of coffee-house in front of the Tron Kirk; and there, for a very modest sum, feasted on cold meat and Scottish ale. Jonathan would have liked to try out a few fresh eggs, but couldn't make himself understood, as he didn't know what the English for à la coque was.
After their substantial meal, Jacques came back to his earlier idea concerning the mountain seen from his window — and Jonathan had to go along. They descended the High Street towards Holyrood Palace, via the long working-class thoroughfare described by Scott in such graphic detail in The Abbot; and then crossed North and South Bridges, whose gigantic arches link the three hills of the capital. At the southern limits they could see the university, built on the site of the house that the Earl of Bothwell blew up, Darnley's body with it.
One cannot take a step in Edinburgh without meeting the living traces of Mary Queen of Scots, or being surrounded by Walter Scott's poignant ruins. The High Street is re-baptised the Netherbow, and passes the house of the great reformer John Knox. He was the only man to resist the smiles of the Queen, and was thus able to die peacefully in his bed, on the 24th of November 1572. The Netherbow finally becomes the Canongate, that ancient street which once used to be the whole town.
This is the most poverty-stricken area — and the closest to the royal palace. Naked children, barefoot girls and women dressed in rags, beggars with hats, cross paths, collide, drag themselves along, creep with their starving faces beneath the high tenements. And yet, in the midst of this rickety population, in this contaminated air so favourable to epidemics, on these heavy, muddy cobbles, at the end of these "closes", dark, damp, infected passage-ways leading to disgusting slums, the visitor can climb down the step-less stairs into the two surrounding ravines — and thus find the terrible poetry of Old Scotland.
Waverley lodged here when he arrived in Edinburgh for the first time, and the tailor sewed for him here the famous battle-tartan that Widow Flockhart admired so much. Here in all probability the Highlanders discharged their guns to celebrate the Young Pretender's victory, with Flora Mac-Ivor almost being hit by an enthusiastic bullet. The Canongate can be compared with nowhere else; it is unique in this world, with its street stalls, its shops, its signs grating on iron chains, its overhanging eaves, the prison clock which hangs a disconsolate face over the street, the stalls still standing from the ancient inns — everything gives it a character that only Delacroix's brush could convey. In this street, almost everywhere in fact, there seem to be more women than men. It is because there are very few men-servants in Edinburgh; whereas domestics and chambermaids, decked out in their mistresses' old hats, throng here, filling the streets.
At the approach to Holyrood Palace, the street gets wider. One passes a hospital, and then the Canongate Kirk with its prominent graveyard. The building itself is without grace or presence. It displays all the splendours of Renaissance Gothic, and hence an inferior purity of style. But it did appear to the two friends so delicately elaborate, so patiently worked, so freshly blooming, that it was a pleasure for the eyes. It seemed to have sprouted there in a single summer night, like a flower from the tropics.
Jacques and Jonathan headed for Holyrood, guarded by soldiers still wearing the traditional Scottish costume: kilts of thick green material, checked plaids and goatskin bags with long hairs hanging down over the laps. Being a little short of time, they merely admired the four large crenellated towers making the façade look medieval. Except for the ruined chapel with its Gothic arches behind the palace, it is impossible to know which parts are new or restored. Despite the fatal events and high crimes that occurred inside, despite the tragic memories of Mary Queen of Scots' love for poor Rizzio, this ancient residence does not have a sad and lugubrious air, rather the opposite. One could imagine a small pleasure-château which has kept its feudal character by some whim of the owner. Only a deposed king, like Charles X of France, would not have felt a deep peace there, without regrets about the past, without worries for the future.
" `Holyrood, Holyrood' (Victor Hugo). And now for the mountain."
"It looks a bit steep. Perhaps we should ask whether there's a gentler path?"
"Not on your life. We head straight up. Forward march!"
Jacques dashed into the Queen's Park, on the right of the palace. A regiment of cavalry was exercising. Their shining weapons and red uniforms produced a delightful effect amongst this countryside. A few trees shaded the shores of a small lake, in fact little more than a pond, bathing the feet of the hills.
Jacques couldn't help thinking about the scenes from Waverley, on this very spot, where Bonnie Prince Charlie's army had assembled. Its tartans waved in the wind, its plumes rippled, its unfolded banners displayed the rallying cries of the Clauronalds, the Macfarlanes, the Tullibardines, the Gordons. In the middle stood the Prince's standard, with its motto Tandem triumphans ["Victory in the end"]. Shortly afterwards, it would be vindicated at the Battle of Prestonpans.
Loud explosions rang out at regular intervals, echoing from the mountain hollows on the right. A company of riflemen in dark costumes were practising with precision rifles. Little by little, climbing up the surrounding hillocks, the travellers took in the mountain. But Jacques had sworn not to turn round until he had got to the top of the longed-for summit.
First they had to cross Victoria Drive, a magnificent circular avenue that Scott claimed to have built merely by writing a few lines in The Heart of Midlothian. He paints an enchanting picture of the paths that wind up under Salisbury Crags. These crags form the lower foundations of Arthur's Seat, which Jacques was now climbing. It is nearly a thousand feet high, but he never fully believed this, for it seemed three hundred feet at the most. Unaccustomed to this sort of panorama, he was to suffer later from similar disappointments. At long last, well ahead of poor out-of-breath Jonathan, he got to the top — covered in sweat, unable to breathe and missing heart-beats. He closed his eyes and turned round.
His amazed eyes had never seen such a wonderful spectacle before. The solitary head of Arthur's Seat dominated the surrounding hills; at its feet was laid out a perspective of all Edinburgh, with the modern developments and parallel streets of the New Town, the confusing heaps of houses and the strange networks of Auld Reekie. Two landmarks dominated the view, the Castle on its basalt rock and Calton Hill bearing on its rounded rump the ruins of a Greek temple.
Magnificent tree-lined avenues lead out from the capital city. To the north, the estuary of the Firth of Forth cuts deep into the land and opens up the Port of Leith. Further on winds the harmonious coast of the Kingdom of Fife, and in the east lies the immensity of the open sea, always calm and blue from these heights. As Charles Nodier says, an avenue as straight as the road to Pireus runs from this New Athens to the North Sea. The far-off peak of Ben Lomond stands out to the west, and on the right extend the beaches and bathing facilities of Newhaven and Portobello.
The pen cannot convey this awe-inspiring scene. Jacques was silent, gripped by that hushed emotion produced by nature's most magnificent displays. Jonathan had joined him, and shared his mute admiration. They remained a long while without moving while the sea-wind bathed them in its penetrating scents.
"Let's go, let's go now. Otherwise we'll never be able to leave this spellbinding spectacle. Come on, Jonathan."
They had approached Arthur's Seat up its steepest slope. A slower path wound down the other side; young girls were climbing up it, pink and giggling, laughing and shouting: "Och, mae laegs, mae poo-oor laegs!" Jonathan, proud to understand, gave them his friendliest smile.
While working his way down the mountain, he had the idea of going for a bathe at Portobello; so, with Jacques on his heels, he headed off across the countryside. Half an hour later they were at the seaside.
Portobello is a cluster of houses along a fine beach. Where does this Italianate name come from, amongst the hard Gaelic syllables? Jonathan could only explain it by the presence at the Queen's court of the singer Rizzio and his companions.
There on the yellow sand could be seen the bathing activities made popular by the illustrated magazines. Large numbers of families spent the hottest hours of the day there; while the children played, the maids and governesses watched over their games and the mothers and charming young misses vanished into the sea. The men bathed about ten yards away from the women. A cabin on wheels took them beyond the first waves.
"That's British modesty for you! In France we don't have this sort of segregation."
"It's a shame, a terrible shame. But when in Rome . . ."
They entered two cabins. After a few moments came a cry.
"Jonathan, please ask the gentleman for swimming-costumes."
"H'm, it's a bit difficult, I don't know the right word."
Jonathan called the man over. But despite all his efforts, he couldn't get anything out of him.
"We're in a fine pickle, Jonathan. Why didn't he understand you?"
"It's ridiculous, he's as stubborn as a Breton male!"
"But we can't . . ."
The words froze on his lips. Through the slightly-open door, he had just caught sight of a magnificent male bather, a pure-blooded Briton, slowly and gracefully emerging from the water, in the most perfect nakedness . . .
"Um, take a look."
Jonathan was flabbergasted. Other bathers were coming back out, with as little clothing on as the first, and not paying any more attention to the women and girls on the beach!
The two friends hesitated no longer. They ran up to the first breaker and dived into it without a backwards look.
"So much for British modesty," said Jacques, shaking the water out of his hair.
"Anything else, I'm sure, would be most frightfully infra dig."
The water seemed a little cool to men who a few days before had been swimming in the Bay of Arcachon. Accordingly, after a certain amount of hesitation at returning to their cabins in this primitive state, perhaps understandable, they emerged from the bitter swell backwards, braving the young ladies' amusement at their awkward posture and hasty retreat.