I was going to tell you about volcanic plugs and St Anthony’s well, about James Hogg’s Confessions and the brocken-spectre, but as soon as I got here this morning I knew it was just about the hill and me. Arthur’s Seat lies at the heart of Edinburgh, and since I’ve lived here, it’s been at the heart of my life as well. I can see it from the back window of my home, and I’ve walked here with countless friends, with my dad and with my sister. It is a place of happiness and exuberance: Tom and I like to run around the hill in all conditions in our trusty fell shoes; we bury our home brewed mead in a secret place , and merrily drink it here each Christmas morning. Spectacular from all angles, and visible almost everywhere in the city, the hill has also provided a dramatic backdrop for many a crafty photo.
But Arthur’s Seat is a place with sad associations, too: a few years ago, a fine young man who was my childhood friend threw himself to his death from the nearby crags. And shortly after Belle died, Tom brought his own grieving brother to the summit.
In comparison with Arthur’s Seat, Edinburgh’s other hills really do not feel like hills at all. At 823 feet it is not high, but the ground is steep, and very rough in places. For someone with a wonky leg and limited energy reserves, it is quite a serious proposition.
I found the going very tough indeed, and all I could think of was: I used to just run up here
How complacent and ungrateful was the able-bodied me, how little she valued her nimble, speedy limbs. Weak and unsteady as they are, I value my limbs now, by God.
It was early morning, and the summit took on a spooky aspect against the rising sun.
I wanted to follow our usual route, which is quite steep and rocky near the top. I abandoned the poles, and resorted to lopsided scrambling on my hands and knees.
Made it, Ma.
The last of the seven hills. The highest point in Edinburgh. I felt deeply emotional, but not in the least triumphant. It had been a difficult climb, and, precisely because the hill is so familiar, the comparison with the me of just a few months ago felt quite raw and painful.
At the summit, a nice young, American couple, who had risen with the dawn like us, asked Tom to take their photo.
“Do you know how high we are?”
“Are you local to Edinburgh? Do you often come up here?”
“Well we did, but Kate has had a stroke. We’re just getting back into the swing of things again.”
I managed to hold it together for a photo at the trig point.
then it was time to inch my way back down.
As I descended I realised that, though my weak leg was very shaky, it was really much better than it had been when we climbed Blackford Hill, only a few weeks ago. I had to regard this as a walk of new beginnings, rather than old memories.
Bruce frolicked in the grass . . .
. . . and lost his ball.
The tourists were starting to come up as we were coming down. Kids on a geography field trip clutched clipboards and pencils. An Italian asked her tour guide about Edinburgh’s seven hills. Everyone stopped us to remark on the lovely morning. . .
. . . and, in the end, it really was.
Hill number 6 is Craiglockhart, which lies in the South of Edinburgh, behind Morningside. More of a rolling, rising piece of land than a hill proper, much of the walking to be had around Craiglockart is in the grounds of a “giant Italian villa” – which began life in 1880 as a hydropathic institute, capitalising on the late-Victorian fashion for health cures. According to a brochure advertising the institution:
“The establishment affords to its residents all the amenities and retirement of quiet country life. . . and the further privilege of wandering over the picturesquely wooded hill adjoining which was laid out some years ago at considerable expense with winding paths and pleasant resting spots.”
You can still wander around said “picturesquely wooded hill”, as long, of course, if you avoid the fenced-off, carefully manicured areas which have been set aside for yet another golf course.
From the portions of Craiglockhart upon which one is allowed to ramble freely, there are fine views of many of Edinburgh’s other hills, including Corstorphine:
(note the Forth Bridges to the left on the horizon)
And Arthur’s Seat, (assuming, from this angle, a most elephantine aspect):
The “giant Italian villa” is now part of Napier University, but it is perhaps best known for being the place where poets Wilfrid Owen and Siegfried Sassoon met. During the First World War, Craiglockhart was used as a place of respite for the many hundreds of seriously traumatised soldiers who had survived the Somme. Records show that the hospital administrators were unwilling to recognise shell-shock as a legitimate and prevalent disorder, and instead classified their patients with trivial diagnoses which ranged from piles to a broken toe. At Craiglockhart, Wilfrid Owen edited the hospital’s magazine, The Hydra, to which Sassoon contributed this famous poem. Napier’s library (housed in the former hospital) includes a special collection of war poetry, and an accompanying exhibition.
Rather than the prospect view, on Craiglockhart, I found my camera most attracted by the undergrowth: by dried-out husks of willowherb, and black, blasted gorse
Bruce also enjoyed the undergrowth . . .
. . . and did his best to steal the show
. . . but this is my favourite of the photographs I took on Craiglockhart.
There’s something about the light today that I find very particular to this time of year: a season I generally associate with introducing nineteen year-olds to Addison and Steele, to Pope and Thomson. Indeed, this is the first time in 34 years that Autumn has not signalled, in one way or another, the moment to go back to school. I still find it surprising and curious that at the moment my main business is my recovery, accompanied by a bit of knitting. . . but there we go. I have been working on the Tortoise and the Hare, and should have a new cardigan to show you next week – I was hoping to finish it sooner, but rather underestimated how long it would take the new, slow me to produce sleeves on 3mm needles. . . and as well as completing a garment, next weekend I also hope to haul my wonky ass up hill number 7 – celebrations all round, I reckon.
ETA: I mustn’t forget to mention that I’ve been updating the correspondence archive – I’ve not quite finished, and there are still quite a few cards, letters and objects to add and catalogue, but I’m getting there. Also, I still intend to write with thanks to all of those who sent me an address – this may take some time, but I shall get round to it. Thankyou again, everyone.
Autumn seems to have arrived while we were away. The plums on Jesus’s tree have been turned into jam, the brambles in the local hedgerows are all but gone, and the rosebay willowherb has blown spectacularly to seed. It seemed the right sort of time to ascend Corstorphine, which has, perhaps, the most woodland character of all of Edinburgh’s hills. Corstorphine is really more of a ridge than a hill proper – a glacial fold to the West of the city. The lower slopes of the ridge house the zoo, and the sprawl of housing created as the city expanded over the last century. The upper slopes are home to the remains of a neolithic settlement, and a stone tower of much more recent construction, dedicated, as so many things about these parts, to Sir Walter Scott.
Scott is an appropriate figure to think of on Corstorphine Hill which, with shady nooks of beech and fir, giant slabs of bare dolerite, and brief, tantalising views, is just the sort of place that the folk of his generation might contrive for a picturesque ramble. And like many picturesque spots, Corstorphine can also seem to invite a certain mis-reading. While the woodland looks relatively wild, it is a managed landscape, and until relatively recently, a working one as well. What you see to the right might seem to be the ivy-covered ruins of ancient structures, but are actually stones rejected from the quarry which used to operate on the hillside.
There is an orienteering course set up around the hill, and you can see one of the controls to the left of this obligatory Bruce obedience photo. The last time I came walking on Corstorphine was several years ago after Tom insisted that I do something to improve my navigation skills. I have no sense of direction — that is to say, I suffer from the mistaken and often unshakeable belief that I am going the right way, without doing what one should when there is any doubt at all, viz, consult the map. Tom has become exasperated with this on more than one occasion — I think the final straw was when, in poor visibility on the top of a munro, I absolutely insisted that we follow some footprints I could see in front of me in the snow. After this, he was (understandably) concerned at the prospect of my getting lost on an independent expedition, and I recall that I, grudgingly, and not with a very good grace, managed to find my way about Corstorphine’s woods with a compass and controls.
Today the challenges of Corstorphine were of a rather different kind. I was very grateful for the walking poles — there are lots of steep inclines, and several places in the woods where one has to pick one’s way over slippery rocks and tree roots.
I doubt I’d have been able to manage such manoeuvres even a couple of weeks ago. I think that the swimming has improved stroke-leg’s strength and control considerably. At some point, I shall video myself walking — I’ve not had the gumption to do this so far, as I feel so damn wonky and ungainly — but, as with the swimming, I imagine it may help if I can actually see any small improvements in my gait.
In the dark of the woods, the turning beech leaves seemed almost luminous. . .
. . . and you emerge from the shade to bright glimpses of the city beyond.
The interesting cone that you can see on the horizon to the right of this photo is North Berwick Law — the first hill I intend to ascend after completing Edinburgh’s seven. Anyway, we all had a fine ramble about Corstorphine on a lovely early-Autumn day, and Bruce, as you can imagine, absolutely loves the woods.
Five down, two to go . . .
Hill four of the seven is Braid Hill, or in local parlance, The Braids. Rising from a wooded valley floor to an undulating hillside a couple of miles south of Edinburgh, The Braids are part managed parkland, part urban corridor. By day, a place for golf buddies and walkers; by night, the hideout of youths and foxes. With its rosebay willowherb and corners of abandoned furniture, the landscape reminds me of the canal-side walks of my childhood, but it can feel quite remote at times at well. Tom often runs here, and occasionally crosses paths with a startled deer — it is a marginal sort of place where you feel that you are just about to leave the city. Edinburgh’s eighteenth-century poets regarded The Braids as a rural retreat: it was one of Burns’ favourite walking spots, and Robert Fergusson wrote a rather conventional pastoral in which he counseled his readers to forget “the city’s allurements” and “to this spot of enchantment retire.” But my favourite Braids-inspired poem is from the hand of a far less-well-known local writer, Rebekkah Carmichael, who in 1790 chose The Braids as the setting for a curious poetic re-enactment of the Choice of Hercules.
Thankfully I did not have to make a choice between Pleasure and Virtue today – in fact, my walk seemed to involve both. The Hedgerows were glorious. I enjoyed having my macro lens to photograph late blooms . . .
. . . and new fruits
Bruce came too.
The walk was certainly a challenge — the ground was thankfully even underfoot, but with over a mile of steady ascent, things were a bit more tricky than Blackford . . .
We had a wee rest at the top. There’s Castle Hill, in the patch of sunlight behind me.
This was quite a tough walk for me, and I will probably now be bushed for the next couple of days, but I have to say I much prefer a bit of exertion followed by rest, to the interminable purgatory that is pacing oneself. That’s just me, though – and it is so nice to ramble about the landscape again on a lovely late-summer’s day, beneath Edinburgh’s shifting skies, with my man and my dog.
Look! The Pentlands! One day not too far away, perhaps . . .
Time for the third of the seven hills. Blackford sits to the South of Edinburgh and though the hill is not at all steep, the terrain is rough in places. On Calton or Castle Hill, one is definitely walking in the city – not so here. I thought I’d try using two walking poles today: this would support me on the descent, and also give my left arm something to do. I’ve noticed that when my legs are having to make more of an effort – such as when walking up a hill – that the left arm tends to forget its duties and droops limply at my side. But with two poles, the arm must be fully involved in the walking at all times! Involve the arm!
I am really not the most co-ordinated of creatures with two poles, but once I’d got going it was fine.
Blackford Hill is most notable for being home to the Royal Observatory, which you would be able to see if it wasn’t having a face-lift . . .
But for me the summit of the hill has another signficance. . .
I could see the top of Blackford Hill from the Astley Ainsley Hospital. Many’s the time during my interment that I’d gaze out and wish to be up there rather than down here. Tom works nearby, and at lunchtimes he would go for a run and phone me at the hospital when he got to the top. If I stood at a particular place by a particular window on the ward, I could see his small figure gaily waving to me from the summit. How I wished that I could join him!
. . . and now I can. It felt damn good to be up here rather than down there.
The poles were very welcome on the descent. I will have to work at building up my strength at going down . . .
After our walk, we popped into Morningside to buy supplies: ingredients for a special fruit cake; tea from Falko (I am addicted); and a muthaload of cheese from Mellis‘s. Tom set to work on the cake when we returned. . .
This is what Pru Leith recommends to prevent uneven cooking. A couple of old issues of Private Eye seem to work just fine.
The tea and cheese and cake are rations for my trip – I am going away for a few days to a nice-looking pad that Mel found for us all to stay in near Stirling. I shall be attending a class on Tuesday, and will probably be knocking around the, um, ‘marketplace’ at the weekend, but mostly I am just going to spend some quality time with my favourite knitting comrades. Stop me and say hello if you see me!
A couple of days of bed rest is enough for me. Now that the incision wound in my thigh is feeling less tender, it is time to crack on with my seven hills of Edinburgh project! You will recall that I’ve only managed one of these so far, but now the hole in my heart is closed, there will definitely be no stopping me. I’ve recently been fitted out with some new orthotics to correct my over-pronating ankle – the effect of the stroke on my left foot has been made worse by my naturally flat and weirdly large plates o’ meat – but these new orthotics really help. In fact, I have found that I can now walk about a little without using the leg brace, which is very pleasing. My brace may well be a miracle of carbon-fibre engineering, but I really hate clumping along with a big, black, cumbersome object strapped to my shin, so I decided to attempt Calton Hill without it. I’m still very unsteady on my feet, though, so I used one of the walking poles that Tom gave me for my birthday for added support.
Calton Hill is not high, but because of its position in the city it has a distinctive sort of prominence. Once the site of a gibbet and a jail, over the course of the Nineteenth Century, the hilltop became home to a crazy jumble of unrelated structures, the most notorious of which is the unfinished national monument (seen above), which was originally meant to commemorate Scotland’s dead in the Napoleonic Wars. Other men have other monuments here too, including Nelson, whose memorial was apparently designed to resemble the admiral’s telescope. This architectural conceit, according to Robert Louis Stevenson, makes the Nelson monument “rank among the vilest of men’s handiworks.”* You can make up your own mind.
Today, folk come up here to explore the buildings, or to celebrate Beltane, but mostly for the views, which are tremendous in all seasons, weathers, and directions.
. . .and to the South, brooding skies over the old town, the Braids in the distance.
But my favourite monument on Calton Hill is not really part of the hill itself: it is the obelisk that you can see just right-of-centre in the photograph above, and it lies over the road in Old Calton Burial Ground. David Hume is buried here, but that’s not who we came to see. . .
In Scotland, as elsewhere in Britain, one effect of the French Revolution was to unleash the forces of conservative reaction among supporters of the Government. In 1793 and 4, political repression came to a head in a series of Edinburgh show trials, whose purpose was to undercut and demoralise the burgeoning movement for parliamentary reform. With the assistance of a reactionary and corrupt judiciary, the Unitarian printer, Thomas Palmer, William Skirving, (the secretary of the Edinburgh Society of the Friends of the People) Maurice Margarot (member of the London Corresponding Society), Philadelphia lawyer, Joseph Gerrald, and, perhaps most famously, eloquent Scottish radical and advocate, Thomas Muir, were all convicted on spurious charges of sedition, and transported to Australia.**
When the foundation stone of Hamilton’s monument to Scotland’s political martyrs was finally laid in 1844, a massive Edinburgh crowd gathered to watch the ceremony on Calton Hill’s south side.
The Political Martyrs monument is often overlooked, but I reckon it deserves a much more prominent place on the tourist map of Edinburgh.
After a highly successful walk up, down, and around Calton Hill, it was time for a reward, and not before time, as the sky was threatening rain. . .
There was a beer festival on at one of our favourite pubs, so we headed North . . .
The festival featured some fine Scottish ales, but we didn’t hang around for the evening’s entertainment (pictured left). I like to imagine them as the ultimate caucasian soul outfit, but they are probably just two blokes from Falkirk who look slightly alike.
It was a good afternoon.
And for those who are wondering, yes, that is the cycling jersey. It is a fun and perfectly wearable garment, but, to be honest, all is not quite well with it . . . after writing that terribly smug post about the importance of neat finishing &c &c, I found myself having a steeking disaster. I promise to explain all another time. . .
* RL Stevenson, Edinburgh: Picturesque Notes (1879).
**if you are interested in the British parlimentary reform movement and the sedition trials of the 1790s, check out the brilliant book by my friend John.
Well, there will be no hill walking for me this weekend. I’ve been absolutely bushed since our fun trek up and down the Royal Mile. My leg has been stiff and plagued with cramp and my arm is being very annoying – floating around in mid air and refusing to behave – which is what it likes to do when I am very tired. On Monday, I swapped around my summer and winter wardrobes. I generally enjoy this: it is always good to put away the grey things and to see brightly coloured cotton and linen again. The folding and packing, washing and hanging would usually be accomplished in a couple of hours, but on Monday it took me more than nine. I had to first ask Tom to retrieve the giant vacuum-packed packages because I couldn’t climb the ladder or lift the damn things, and I then spent the entire day struggling with, and cursing at the clothes, the wardrobe, the washing machine, and the coat hangers. Because of the vertigo, I am not good at bending down; because my arm is weak, I am not good at hanging things up; because I tire quickly, nothing is easy. I had to keep taking breaks and lying down among mountains of unsorted clothes. (Believe me, I have a lot of clothes. All my own fault . . . ) It was horribly frustrating. By the time Tom came home, I had turned into a sort of frazzled zombie. But I had sorted out the clothes.
Now, I think I am doing a good job of pacing myself – breaking up tasks and exercise with frequent rest, going to bed very early etc – but clearly this isn’t good enough. Today my limbs were so stiff and tired that I couldn’t do my exercises. My physio then told me that I had to do less, and suggested that I keep off the hills for the time being. I agreed, but I can’t tell you how hard this is going to be for me. Having physical goals to focus on and aim for really helps to keep me going, but apparently, at this stage, my goals are just far too ambitious. The real problem is that I was very, very happy to be walking up and down the Royal Mile on Saturday, just as I was overjoyed to walk the four miles to Lytham Windmill. Walking is such a pleasure because it makes me feel like me again. When I am moving about outside, I really feel that being mobile is a goal almost within reach. But I suppose it is no good being incredibly happy for an hour or so if it means that I’m going to be miserable and frustrated for several days afterward. And this is, unfortunately, what happens every time I’m out on my feet for a while: in the Botanical Gardens, on the Royal Mile, in Blackpool. After each walk, I pay for my pleasure with days of crazy fatigue and painful cramp. My physio cautions little and often, and I know that she is right, but I am just eager to get well and it is so incredibly hard to stop oneself from walking when one can.
So today I am feeling annoyed because, at the moment, the stroke is denying me so many things that I love; that make me happy; and that make me me. I can’t walk to and from the allotment, and even if I could, clearing and planting involve bending, kneeling, and moving things around – activities that are difficult and unpleasant for me right now. Tom has no time for gardening because he is too busy performing all the household tasks we used to share. So the allotment is just left to the weeds. I can hardly bear to think about our poor neglected plot, and can’t even bring myself to look in the direction of the allotments when I pass them in a taxi on the way to physio because I know it will upset me. Meanwhile, Spring is ticking by. At this lovely time of year, we would usually be spending our free days in the hills, and our evenings in a tent, but I know there will be no wild camping and walking for a very long time. I can knit or embroider (hurrah!) but only for short periods. It isn’t easy, and my left arm and hand just turn wonky if I make them stick at it for too long. It’s the same with reading, typing, or even taking a few pictures. I tire so damn quickly that I can only do things for slots of time that are frustratingly short. I haven’t even had a single tasty home brewed beer since February. (I was told that booze is bad for brain injuries, and to stop drinking it, which seems sensible ). I am very motivated and happily not depressed: I can potter freely about my own space, and, unlike many of my friends in the Astley Ainslie, am now mobile and capable enough to continue my recovery in my own home. I have a supportive partner, family, and lots of friends and see recovery as a positive process. It also always helps to think and write about it here. But sometimes all there seems to be is my stroke, my rehabilitation , my fatigue and I am finding this frustrating.
So the seven hills will have to wait, and my new project is unfortunately going to have to be the tedious but necessary one of pacing myself. Processing the entries in the correspondence archive is very enjoyable, however, and something I can do during short snatches of time, so I can continue to focus on that project at least.* I can also dash off maudlin, ranty posts like this one and vent my spleen. Three months ago I was entirely paralysed on one side: I know I am recovering well, and that I am just being foolishly impatient when I feel as I do today. But then that is just me. In any case perhaps next time I will try to write about something knitting or textile related to remind myself that I can, and to take my mind off things.
* the fine knitted fellow who illustrates this post is the latest addition to the archive. He was made by my sister and looks how I feel.
The easiest of Edinburgh’s hills (and therefore the first of my seven walks) is Castle Hill – the volcanic plug sitting at the highest point of the street that runs through the heart of the city’s old town and which is known as the Royal Mile. Our ascent (which, incidentally, covers a Scots not an English mile, and is therefore slightly longer) began at Holyrood – the site of the new parliament and the old palace. On one side of the street are the signs of monarchical privilege:
And on the other, those of democracy:
I was accompanied by Tom and our good friend the Mule, who is visiting this weekend. The Royal Mile abounds with much “Traditional” Scottish fayre – you just can’t move for bagpipes, whisky, tam o’ shanters, and tartan of questionable quality and authenticity. . .
This particular bagpipe shop is the real deal, though.
Further up, we passed the memorial statue of Edinburgh poet, Robert Fergusson (who you may remember from this post and whose poem, Braid Claith, provides today’s title). I was pleased to see him striding down the Cannongate as we were striding up, and stopped to say hello. Across the road is the White Horse bar which always puts me in mind of Dr Johnson. While staying here in 1773, he threw a sour glass of lemonade out of the window and almost got into a fight with a waiter. Things seemed a little quieter outside the Cannongate pubs today.
Here we are near the former site of the grim Old Tolbooth prison. . .
And speeding onward and upward as Cannongate turns into the High Street. . .
Walking became more tricky on the Lawnmarket (toward the top of the Royal Mile). Here the level pavement gives way to uneven cobbles which are difficult to pick one’s way over with a wonky leg and stick. The crowds are also dense and unpredictable – tourists struggle with their suitcases and drift in and out of gift shops. . .
Approaching the castle, we resisted the temptation to shake hands with a William Wallace who seemed much more obliging than pugnacious. . .
I was tired by this point, and it was great to reach the castle. By now, it was noon, and had turned into a lovely day . . .
I had a rest while Tom and Mule went to find some “traditional” Scottish ice-cream. Then it was time to head back to Holyrood again. While the gradients on the way up actually weren’t much of a problem, I found those on the way down much harder to manage. Descending is tougher on the knees and hips, and mine don’t have much stability as yet – I felt a little vulnerable and unbalanced negotiating the steep sections of the High Street, and by the time we were back on the Cannongate I was very tired indeed. Having been out and about for a few hours, however, fatigue was only to be expected, and overall I was very pleased with my progress up and down this first hill. I’ve only been walking on the flat with my splint and stick so far, and I was concerned about managing the gradients. But though the Royal Mile was certainly a little tough for my bad leg, I could walk up and down it no problem. Next week, however, I shall attempt Calton Hill – a shorter climb, but,with lots of steps and uneven ground, a steeper and much trickier affair.
Thanks for the photos, Mule!