Wednesday 15 May, warm and sunny, t-shirt weather, was our chance to explore Edinburgh. There were many other tourists with the same idea.
We started with a short visit to the New Calton Burial Ground , close to where we were staying. Then we walked up the Royal Mile, admiring the unicorn on the Mercat Cross (Scottish market cross) near St Giles Cathedral. From there we followed The Mound to the New Town and along Princes Street to our morning destination, the National Trust’s ‘Georgian House’, in Charlotte Square.
In the Georgian House a short film called ‘Living in a Grand Design’, followed a day the life of the Lamont family, who lived there in the early years of the nineteenth century. Their day culminated in an elegant dinner party. The film was an excellent introduction to the house and the people associated with it. The National Trust guides were very knowledgeable, friendly, and helpful.
From the Georgian House we walked to the National Gallery of Scotland which, unfortunately (for us) was rather disrupted by renovations. Charlotte’s favourite picture was of Callum, a terrier, who had belonged to a wealthy patron called James Cowan Smith. Smith made a generous bequest to the Gallery on condition that the picture of his dog should always be hanging there.
In the afternoon Charlotte and I visited St Giles’ Cathedral, focal point of the 16th-century Scottish Reformation. John Knox (1514 – 1572), founder of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland, preached there. Later in the afternoon we walked past his house, also very much on display.
In St Giles’ Charlotte and I were very pleased to have seen the Thistle Chapel, which we found by hunting for a carving of an angel playing the bagpipes. The Chapel is home to the Order of the Thistle, a division of Scottish chivalry founded in 1687. The chapel, with intricate neo-Gothic woodwork and a stunning gold-leaf ceiling, was constructed in less than two years, from 1909 to 1911. There are 16 knights and ladies of the Thistle. Appointments are made only to fill the vacancy that follows a member’s death. On top of each of the 16 stalls the heraldic device of its current holder is displayed. At the back of the seat there are stallplates with the coat of arms of the current holder and all previous holders. Charlotte and I were astonished to learn that tourists had attempted to steal these coats of arms and had even tried to wrench off the door handle the chapel, a carved angel, to take away as a souvenir. Sadly, Queen Elizabeth II, who is the head of the Order, would need a hand-rail to make her way safely up the steep steps to her stall. But a rail would compromise the Chapel’s heritage value and cannot be built. As a result she is no longer able to visit. (Or so the story goes. There may be a little bit of mutual Scottish-English hostility at the root of it.)