Workers, tourists, locals, acrobats…a day in the life of Arthur’s Seat reveals an astonishing variety of visitors, finds Peter Ross
HURRYING, hurrying through dark Edinburgh streets to keep an appointment with the dawn. The horizon, at a little after six, is a pale and chilly blue, growing pink to the east. The silhouetted steeples of the Old Town are witch’s hats; the great cresting wave of Salisbury Crags frozen on the point of drowning them.
This is the hour of Scotmids and Spars, of joggers and early commuters. A jet etches a white line into the stained glass sky. The clarity of light promises a hot day. The weathercock on top of St Giles’ has his beak wide open, as if to greet another fine morning.
I’m on my way to Arthur’s Seat. Such warm weather so early in the year is a sort of gift, and deserves a gesture of acknowledgement. What better way to show appreciation than to climb the hill, an extinct volcano, which has for so long given grandeur to the city and pleasure to its citizens? Sir Walter Scott, in his novel The Heart Of Midlothian, noted that there is no more enchanting place to watch the rising and setting sun than these crags above Edinburgh. Today, I’ll test that theory.
On St Margaret’s Loch, at the foot of the hills, swans glide across the rosy water, pausing to beat their wings as if in sarcastic applause of the midnight barbecuers who have left such a mess of charred tinfoil and empty beer bottles. Holyrood Park, in which Arthur’s Seat and the other hills sit, is managed by Historic Scotland; the challenge for the eight rangers is to keep the place beautiful even though it receives an estimated 1.5 million visitors each year.
Hugo Arnot, in his 1779 history of Edinburgh, wrote that “seldom are human beings to be met in this lonely vale, or any creature to be seen, but the sheep feeding on the mountains, or the hawks and ravens winging their flight among the rocks”. These days, the park is never empty of people. At any time of the day or night, at any time of the year, you will encounter dog-walkers and runners. During hot spells like this, the place is hoaching and becomes a perfect expression of that rare phenomenon - Scottish happiness.
It’s still cold as I climb the lower slopes. Whinny Hill is living up to its name, the gorse in flower and smelling of coconut oil. Mary Queen of Scots is said to have enjoyed this scent when, in 1564, she hosted an engagement banquet here. That’s the thing about the park – it has been enjoyed by the great figures from our history. A boulder at the side of the path leading to the summit is marked with recent graffiti, noting that Britney, Heather and Niall were here. It’s a list to which one might add David Hume, Bonnie Prince Charlie and Robert Louis Stevenson.
Nearing the top of Arthur’s Seat, which rises to 251 metres, I stare down at my feet, so as to save the pleasure of the sight from the summit. This is a popular strategy. There are plenty of whispered breathless wows as new arrivals raise their eyes to the view. It’s golden and hazy up here. The shadow of the hill falls almost to the Meadows. The hills of Fife poke, crocodile-like, above the haar. What are the sounds? Seagulls and sirens, trains clanking into Waverley and the fretful growl of morning traffic. The city is spread out all around – dainty and moreish. It feels as though one could reach down and pick up Holyrood Palace or flick the buses along North Bridge.
A group of friends in their twenties and thirties, colleagues from a digital agency, arrive at around 8am. This is a ritual. They come here once a week to breathe the cool clean air. “It’s a nice way to start the day, and makes you appreciate the city,” says John Harfield. “At work all you see are the four walls.” Today, they have brought an ironing board with them, and attempt to iron a pair of jeans in the face of a wind which does its best to blow the denims off to Leith. It’s a joke for the benefit of their boss. They take photos on their phones.
Russell Carter, a tall Alaskan geophysicist, aged 25, is leaning against the sharp brown rocks of the summit with a look of perfect contentment on his face. “I’m here on business and leave in two hours,” he says. “I came here when I was 10 and climbed it with my family. I couldn’t bear to leave the city without coming up here again.”
You meet all sorts on the top of Arthur’s Seat: couples sharing Strongbow and saliva; school-trippers from Hanover punching the air to the Rocky theme; a wee boy in a Spider-Man costume shooting imaginary webs in the direction of the Forth Bridge. It’s especially fascinating to watch the glistening runners who arrive at the top, tap the trig point, tap their stopwatches, and barely glance at the view. They are absorbed in an internal struggle of pounding hearts and personal bests. The tinny motivational music leaking from their iPod headphones is a transmission from the remote world each inhabits.
Angus Farquhar, the creative director of arts organisation NVA, ran to the summit on a windy day towards Christmas, marking the completion of 1,500 miles run in 2011. His latest project, Speed Of Light, will take place on Arthur’s Seat, from 9 August, combining his twin obsessions with the hill and running. Hundreds of runners wearing specially designed light suits will ascend to the summit at night, creating beautiful patterns in the darkened landscape. Though Arthur’s Seat and the surrounding crags are remarkable, those of us who see them often can begin to take them for granted. Sometimes it takes their appearance in art – think Speed Of Light or the beautiful melancholy watercolours in Sylvain Chomet’s animated film The Illusionist to make us realise what we have here.
Clearly, though, there are many people who appreciate Holyrood Park very much. Walking around, one meets connoisseurs with specific preferences for particular seasons and times of day when the light falls on the Pentlands just so. This is the place they come – with pets and pals and lovers – treading memories into every path.
Over on the Salisbury Crags, Roisin Russell, 48, is enjoying a picnic lunch with her friends Dave and Eve Beynon, a South African couple in their fifties, and a big friendly dog called Jambo, named not for the football but after the Swahili word for hello.
“This place means a lot to me,” says Roisin. “I’ve been coming here since I was 16 and moved to Edinburgh.” She points round the park. “I’ve had a pee there, and a crap there, and I had sex there when I was 18.”
Dave and Eve laughingly tell her to shush. “We arrived in Edinburgh on Christmas Eve nine years ago,” says Eve, “and I thought I had come to fairy-land. We are still in awe of places like this. Everywhere you go there’s another secret.”
As the day wears on and warms up, the air takes on a lolling, lotus-eating quality. At the foot of the crags, along the Radical Road, four female students are sunbathing in bikinis. All are American. One is called Bliss Baker, a name that suits the day. None of them is studying geology, or else they would know that the sloping lump of sandstone and dolerite immediately behind them, known as Hutton’s Section, enabled the 18th century scientist James Hutton to radically alter our understanding of how the Earth was formed. “It’s, like, a nice little windbreak,” says Bliss.
The afternoon heat burns off the haze and ships become visible on the Forth. A brace of buzzards spiral in slo-mo on the thermals. Two white-vested acrobats, right on the cliff edge, tumble and leap, taking pleasure in the sunshine and their own capable bodies. A party of four women, in hijab and tracky bottoms, set out for the summit. Climbers, enjoying the feel of hot rock beneath their chalky fingers, move with balletic grace up the crags.
On Queen’s Drive, a young blonde woman parks her Fiesta, and lies back, eyes closed, bare feet up on the dash, listening to Enya, right arm drooping out of the window, long silver nails flashing in the sun.
Back up on top of Arthur’s Seat, a small crowd gathers to see the day out. Germans, Russians, French, English, Scottish and Vietnamese – a Babel of voices. Someone opens a bottle and there’s a sudden smell of champagne. Everything is growing purplish and indistinct. Crows, which have spent the day in leafy purdah, sense a kinship with the lengthening shadows and come whirling round the summit. At 7.40pm, the red sun slips down the back of Ben Lomond like a coin in the meter and lights start coming on all over the city - the Castle, the Balmoral clock-face, the lighthouse on Inchkeith.
Hurrying, hurrying down the hill, through the gloaming, trying to get back to the streets before it’s too dark. Today has been glorious; from dawn to dusk, the park has buzzed with people enjoying the simple business – which sometimes seems horribly complex – of being alive. Days like this, weeks like this, don’t come along too often. “You do realise,” folk have been telling each other all day, “that this is Scotland in March?”
In years to come, when we remember little else, some of us may be lucky enough to remember the pleasure of that surprise; that and the fading smell of the whins.
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Weather for Edinburgh
Saturday 25 May 2013
Temperature: 5 C to 19 C
Wind Speed: 15 mph
Wind direction: West
Temperature: 9 C to 16 C
Wind Speed: 15 mph
Wind direction: West