“This was a townscape raised in the teeth of cold winds from the east; a city of winding cobbled streets and haughty pillars; a city of dark nights and candlelight, and intellect.” Alexander McCall Smith, The Sunday Philosophy Club
“Edinburgh is alive with words.” Sara Sheridan
“Jesus knew that there was a place for everything and it’s not necessarily everyone’s place to come to Australia.” Tony Abbott
Edinburgh has exceeded our expectations as a travel destination. The spectacular location of the city, architecture and wealth of history to explore is really exceptional. I was not cognisant of just how grand the Scottish capital became in the 18th century and did not know the city was referred to as the ‘Athens of the North’ until visiting last week. Wandering the streets and enormous public parks or ascending the extinct volcanic rim that provides such mighty, magisterial views of the capital, shows why this moniker is justified. The city is just magnificent – classical and romantic – for spending time reflectively. You must visit if you have not already had the chance.
When first exploring any city the pleasures of trying to get a sense of the place is one of the great joys of travel. I loved the vibe in Edinburgh’s open spaces and old streets. It was impossible not to notice how many people had books out in public. I saw numerous bibliophiles reading while walking. Reputedly, almost 20% of the population comprises of students who attend the four universities in the city and this continues a tradition that stretches back to the 18th century when Edinburgh experienced an intellectual golden age.
The Capital of the Mind
Reading the Capital of the Mind: How Edinburgh Changed the World by James Buchan by night during our stay, to complement what I was seeing during the day, has been instructive as the Scottish Enlightenment never previously consumed much of my (reading or thinking) time. David Hume and Adam Smith are familiar thinkers but many of the central figures of the period (other than the poets and novelists) are not so well-known to me. This has been an oversight that needed correcting, especially in these Dark Times where Enlightenment principles are being decried in public and political discourse in Australia by our federal government.
The thinkers during this period of Scottish Enlightenment had quite a radical belief in the primacy of human reason and rejected any authority that could not be justified by this reasoning. As one reviewer summarised effectively:
This was the group of geniuses and atheist bachelors whose abrupt arrival on the scholarly scene gave us the foundations of modern Western politics, science and philosophy. Edinburgh had surprised and surpassed itself.
The story of how an extremely conservative, religious society bred thinkers that effectively laid the foundations for modern society is intellectually fascinating – and unexpected. I will not summarise here other than to say that 1746, the Battle of Culloden, was the end of the Middle Ages and Scotland started to benefit from the growth of literacy and a burgeoning tradition that valued education. What was sown, was reaped. A bookish, scientific and rational culture developed quickly in response to the joyless madness of what passed as religion in the capital. Edinburgh soon became a centre of learning, especially for the medical sciences and philosophy. The very geography of the city seems to have assisted so many to aspire to the loftier places of the intellect.
Calton Hill and Holyrood Park
My favourite space in Edinburgh quickly became, with its commanding views of the city, Calton Hill. Walking around the National Monument, seeing Arthur’s Seat, once a prehistoric hill fort in the distance, is truly an uplifting, transcendental experience. One really has the sense of this post-Enlightenment era building project reflecting the spirit developed in that age. James Hogg, in his The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner wrote:
“An exaltation of spirit lifted me, as it were, far above the earth and the sinful creatures crawling on its surface; and I deemed myself as an eagle among the children of men, soaring on high, and looking down with pity and contempt on the grovelling creatures below.”
I felt no ‘contempt’ on Calton Hill but did wonder what projects were developing in Australia that were truly nation, or epoch-making, as I walked or sat for several hours above the city. Our federal government is currently defined by what it is effectively dismantling or stomping on rather than building. It would be fair to muse about, considering the decisions made in the last year, if the religious values of the federal cabinet are impacting on rational decision-making. In fact, Australia’s political representatives increasingly seem more religious than the citizenry, considering statistics the census reveals about what Australians say about their belief, or rather lack of belief, in supernatural deities. Decision after decision seems to espouse values most Australians find anachronistic and reveal somewhat unbelievable, anti-Enlightenment values. The growth of religious schooling is but one example of a secular state funding values are not based on science or rational decision-making.*** Fine for the private citizen but not for government.
Holyrood Park is an unusually large (259 hectares) and green space in the centre of a capital city with evidence of human occupation dating back to the fifth millennium BCE. My family especially enjoyed the services offered in the park by the Historic Scotland Ranger Service. My children learnt about the geography, history and ecology of the area in a kinaesthetic, hands-on manner. They dressed up – as did I 😉 – and wandered about the park with rangers (in costume) who skilfully constructed an engaging historical narrative. The photos show how much fun the kids had during the day bow drilling, making wattle fencing, grinding barley in a quern and dressing-up.
Castles, Language, Greyfriars, Harry Potter and Learning
Travelling with family really is an opportunity to spend time together and learn, as Miss 8 says, about ‘random stuff’. We enjoyed visiting Edinburgh and Stirling castles and the kids never tire of interactive displays or dressing-up at these sorts of historic sites. We also had a great deal of fun with Scottish vernacular during the week in Edinburgh. I originally assumed that another nickname for the city, ‘Auld Reekie’, was to do with it being smelly in the historic past but later realised ‘reekie’ means ’smoky’.
My youngest daughter really likes to imitate accents and a unique opportunity presented itself with a Scottish version of a favourite picture book. Playing with language is fun and helps to make children powerfully literate. Travel is just a superb way for them to make connections and grow to have a deeper appreciation of the richness and variations found in the English language. Just for fun, you can hear Miss 8 reading ‘The Gruffalo in Scots’.
Wandering around the city led us to Greyfriars Kirk, made famous for many via the stories told of how JK Rowling found inspiration for characters, and Hogwarts, for the Harry Potter novels. We did a fun HP tour that had a magician. He was quite good. The kids loved it and learnt much about how a novelist finds inspiration for stories in the environment that surrounds her.
The list of cities that have resounded with me more than Edinburgh is brief. It would be great to stay for a longer period of time and explore more of the countryside, maybe the Orkneys and Hebrides too. I did travel to Scotland in the mid-90s and especially enjoyed Glasgow and Iona. Hitchhiking provided a great opportunity to chat with a range of different kinds of people. Everyone was very welcoming, often offering accommodation at their homes. In fact, now I think about it, I was heading to Edinburgh at that time but chose to take a lift offered elsewhere on a whim. Such is life.
It needs to be said that I truly could despair at the directions successive Australian governments, regardless of political lineage, are taking our nation except for a belief that rational, progressive thinking will ultimately overcome ignorance and superstition. It should not be taboo to ask why the leaders of so many nations around the world believe in a supernatural deity and how this influences decision-making in supposedly secular states. The fact that there is no science minister for the first time since the 1930s in the current federal cabinet and that the PM is minister for women (and only has one female in cabinet) is yet another indicator that he is cocking-a-snoot at his critics and ideological opponents. The endless ‘dog-whistling’ is just crass and mindlessly tribal. A more enlightened, mature, inclusive, data-driven approach to policy would make more sense for all of us.
Surely, in 2014, that is not too much to ask.
BTW Our next stop is Reykjavik, Iceland.
Featured image: creative commons licensed (BY-NC-SA) flickr photo by Darcy Moore: http://flickr.com/photos/darcymoore/15352993185
*** Australia’s PM is being lampooned internationally for his bumbling hard right, anti-Enlightenment values, as this satirical program reveals (NB maybe NSFW).