Thursday, March 7, 2013

Wherein ...

... an angel plays bagpipes under Arms, Thistles and Lierne-vaults in a high kirk, a cigarette transformed into a quill, and a dismembered felon confident of resurrection.

Dour is a word one might use about the architecture of the High Kirk of Edinburgh and one would not be far off the mark, yet for those of us whose hearts beat a little faster at the sight of stone buildings, Saint Giles' Cathedral, as it is better known, sited as it is on the descending greyness of the Royal Mile in the Old Town, brought a certain not-quite-palpitation-more-a-wobble to this non-presbyterian heart.

bombolone I'd eaten at breakfast, repeating as it did, had created something of a dour mood in me as I stepped through the modern abstract blue glass porch, screened in steel, to the sunlit interior – an interior of rigorous stone bald of decoration but for a kneeling angel which, despite being a copy of one by Thorvaldsen, is more fitting as garden ornament than font; tombs; monuments (one by Saint Gaudens who, because of offense to the church fathers' sensibilities, changed the cheroot held by Robert Louis Stevenson to something resembling a quill); memorial plaques to men lost in wars and at sea; a memorial chapel to the Marquis of Montrose whose parts, having being hung, drawn and quartered, were scattered across Scotland, but now are gathered again in one place under these lines

Scatter my ashes, strew them in the air 
Lord, since thou knowest where all these atoms are 
I'm hopeful thou'lt recover once my dust,
And confident thou'lt raise me with the just;

a bronze statue of John Knox (his body lying, as came an English king also to do, under a parking lot), bosses marking the coming-together of ribs in the vaulting, chandeliers reminiscent of phalanxes of space craft, a white-ribbed, blue ceiling to the nave, a red-encased organ, and some of the most beautiful stained glass windows (one by Burne-Jones) this side of that Undiscovered Country, from whose bourn no traveller returns, etc. (I said, I began the day in a dour mood).

Beyond its associations with John Knox and the Scottish Reformation, the real glory of Saint Giles' is a space called the Thistle Chapel or the Chapel of The Most Ancient and Most Noble Order of the Thistle – a lushly Edwardian feast for the heart and eyes.

A Gothic Revival jewel-box, small, abundantly enriched, reminding one of a reliquary, as indeed it is, but not of any saint's bones – for here the relics are Heraldry, Chivalry, Nobility, Sovereignty and Scottish History, interwoven with angels – some on the walls holding lamps, others holding symbols of the Christian Virtues, a cross for Faith, an anchor for Hope, a heart for Charity, and one, most fittingly, blowing the bagpipes. Atop most of the pinnacles surmounting the stalls, nineteen in all – one for the sovereign, two for accompanying royals and sixteen for the Knights and Ladies of the Order – are Knights' crests which correspond to a stallplate in the stall. Some are wonderfully tacky though, having said that, I realize that modern taste has nothing to do with heraldry.

The ceiling, breathtaking in its complexity – lierne-vaults encrusted with bosses, almost a hundred of them, with the five largest ones representing the Royal Arms, Saint Giles and his hind, the Badge of the Order of the Thistle, Saint Andrew (patron saint of the Order) with his saltire, and the Pelican (ancient symbol of Christ's sacrifice), all placed along the central spine – is, despite the difference in scale, as beautiful as that of Saint George's, Windsor Castle which I'd visited but days before.

I could go on all day describing details of The Thistle Chapel. Suffice to say, if you are in Edinburgh or closeby, take the detour and take the time to sit and and marvel.

"Hip and happening" is a phrase that makes my heart sink, for it means only one thing to me – noise. Nonetheless, hip and happening is where we were at, as it were, and I must say the Hotel Missoni – despite one night being woken by Breughel-like howling and singing from Victoria Street below the window – is where I would stay on a return visit to Edinburgh. Incidentally, we ate the best Italian food at the hotel restaurant (I cannot say the best Italian food in Edinburgh because other than lunching at The New Club we ate all meals in the hotel. It was that good.)

I am conscious I need to catch up on replying to comments to the last post, and I shall. The only excuse I have for tardiness is that last week we took a last-minute trip across the Atlantic – business for the Celt, pleasure for us both.


  1. Naughty boy, you. How dare you not take us with you on your latest adventure. I did think it was not like you to respond to comments as you are often so kind to do. I realize now you had better things to do. You are excused dear Blue. Beautiful and exhaustive post as always. You never disappoint.

    1. Anonymous, thank you. A very kind comment so thank you again.

      I'm setting aside part of today to respond to the comments on the previous post – otherwise, I'll never get them answered.

  2. Thank you for the re-visit (for me) to Auld Reekie, with which I am familiar from my time living there and schooling nearby. In the latter I was one of a small party that attended the Thistle service at St Giles's many eons ago, which was my first close hand glimpse of the Queen, resplendent in her green cloak, its train carried by a page in green livery.

    1. columnist, thank you. Auld Reekie is Auld Reekie no more – the air was clear and sweet. The Thistle Chapel is one of my favourite places I've visited – I've seen much grander, but nothing as impressive as this small and sincere (odd word, I know) chapel. I hope to revisit soon.

  3. I've added this to my list of things to see! I'm dying to go to Scotland as I feel I grew up hearing about it (Scottish Grandmother from Edinburgh).

    1. ArchitectDesign, thank you. Edinburgh is one of the rare places I could live if ever we chose to leave Atlanta, Rome being another.
      It's not London or New York but it has its own strong flavor.

      If I were you, I'd take a day flight with Virgin Atlantic (Premium Economy) from Newark NJ and begin my vacation the minute I sat in the plane. (I don't work for Virgin, just love their service).

  4. Although the method for brewing may have changed, so that there is no longer the "reek" from burning, there is quite often a pungent smell of hops, which some like, but I found to be quite overpowering. Interested in your thought about the possibility of living in Edinburgh. I think it has all the potential to be a great place to live, but perhaps we tried it when we were too young, (in our 40s). But later in life, if you can put up with the weather, it's probably quite manageable. Rome would seem to be a better choice, but it is more frenetic, and the traffic is abominable. Edinburgh is a village by comparison, easy to walk, and pretty Georgian architecture and layout in the New Town, (which I'm sure draws you). It is however a bit dull, which is perhaps less important as one grows older and is less in need of social stimulation.

  5. ...and to think we were there a year ago, almost to the day of your very poetic post. It does justice to St. Giles.

  6. "Hip and happening" your travelogue's certainly are.