Edinburgh International Festival: Spectacular Speed of Light show on Arthur’s Seat to reveal hill’s history
A NEW episode in the history of iconic Arthur’s Seat will be written by the thousands who take part in the art project
Speed of Light, writes Susan Mansﬁeld
A RECUMBENT lion. The chamber where sleeps King Arthur and his knights, to be roused in the country’s hour of need. A refuge for debtors, or smugglers, or people just seeking a bit of peace and quiet. Here, runners and dog-walkers tread where Bonnie Prince Charlie’s army slept the night before their most famous victory. Teenagers light fires on the site of ancient beacons. Edinburgh’s hill. Arthur’s Seat.
In the next three weeks, thousands of people will see this old landscape in a new light in NVA’s Speed of Light, the largest public art project the hill has ever seen. Audiences of up to 800 per night will walk after dark to the summit holding light-emitting staffs fuelled by their own energy, while 150 runners in specially designed LED suits run in formation over the hill’s ancient paths.
Another layer is laid down in a landscape already saturated with history. Now managed by Historic Scotland, it has been probed by geologists and described in novels. It is riven with stories of sleeping kings and sacred springs, has hosted dark-age warriors and modern-day pagans. Here, murders have been plotted and criminals concealed, kings have hunted and sheep have safely grazed. Over centuries, it has etched its place on the consciousness of Edinburgh.
“What NVA is doing is part of an incredibly rich pattern of custom, ritual and creative human intervention,” says Donald Smith, director of the Scottish Storytelling Centre, and co-author of new book, Arthur’s Seat: Journeys and Evocations, published this month by Luath Press and supported by the Speed of Light project. “It’s like a palimpsest. People have made their mark on this landscape and related to it for thousands of years.”
Traces of settlement on the hill go back 10,000 years, and there are few citizens of Edinburgh today who don’t have a relationship with it: a memory, an encounter, a particular view glimpsed while crossing the city. Angus Farquhar, the artistic director of NVA, is well aware that he’s working with a landscape to which many people lay claim. “I think the great thing about hills is that they can allow each person to feel that sense of ownership, but it is a collective ownership. It’s an incredible canvas to work with. It’s walked and run every day; we’re really just building on an activity that’s already there.”
Farquhar, who grew up in Edinburgh, says he has wanted to make a piece of work on Arthur’s Seat for 26 years. “I’ve got a picture of my dad, my sisters and I sitting at the summit, I’m about five years old, everyone’s face is beaming. It was the first hill I ever climbed. When I came back to Scotland in my mid-twenties, I wanted to find out more about my roots, and Arthur’s Seat was very much a part of that. When I first dreamt of creating large-scale work, it was the first place in my mind.”
NVA has worked with wild landscapes before – Glen Lyon, the site of its work The Path, Kilmartin Glen, and The Storr on the Isle of Skye, but never one slap-bang in the middle of a city. “There is a powerful sense of contrast with a wild place that is in the heart of a city,” says Donald Smith. “Sometimes people have feared the wild, sometimes they have celebrated it. People have interpreted that in religious ways, cultural ways, in customs and stories for many centuries.”
When James Hutton, the father of modern geology, began to question the received wisdom about how the world’s rocks were formed, he found evidence for his theories in the landscape he saw from the window of his Edinburgh home. Examining the penetration of volcanic rock (Arthur’s Seat is an extinct volcano) through sedimentary rock in the part of Salisbury Crags now known as Hutton’s Section, he began to rewrite the textbook on the history of the world.
The first mention of the hill in any literature is in The Goddodin, the early medieval Welsh poem which describes dark-age warriors training on its flanks. It is also the first written text which mentions Arthur.
A later story has it that a horse trader, coming home one night across the hill, was met by a mysterious man and shown a chamber where the king and his knights sleep, to be awakened in the hour of the country’s need. A more prosaic explanation for the hill’s name is from the Gaelic “ard na saigheid”, hill of the archers. Then again, a hoard of bronze age swords and spears was found in Duddingston Loch in 1778.
Since then Arthur’s Seat has worked long and hard on the imagination of writers. Sir Walter Scott used it in The Heart of Midlothian, Jules Verne in The Underground City, and James Hogg’s ambiguous protagonist in Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner confronts his doppelganger on Salisbury Crags.
Crime novelist Doug Johnstone uses the landscape of Arthur’s Seat and the Crags throughout his new novel, Hit & Run, from the first crisis to the final showdown.
“Arthur’s Seat and Salisbury Crags have loomed over my psyche since I moved to Edinburgh over 20 years ago,” says Johnstone. “I lived in its shadow as a student for years, and its dramatic potential nagged away at my mind for a long time. That finally bubbled to the surface in Hit & Run. There is just something hugely dramatic and strange about having a massive hill and a cliff right slap bang in the middle of a capital city. Both Arthur’s Seat and Salisbury Crags are extraordinary landmarks that have changed the way I think and feel.”
Long before modern crime-writing, the hill had an association with death. One Gaelic name for it was The Hill of the Dead. And in 1836, two children discovered 17 tiny carved coffins, each containing a small carved doll, on the north-east slopes. The artefacts are now in the National Museum of Scotland. No-one knows who made them or why (The Scotsman in 1836 blamed “the infernal hags of Arthur’s Seat”), but a persuasive theory is that they may have been an attempt to lay to rest the 17 souls who met their deaths at the hands of Burke and Hare.
“There is a sense of going up the hill to remember the past,” says Donald Smith. “That is also saying something about the way people use the hill. It is somewhere to run and to test yourself physically, but it is also a place to reflect.”
This Easter, the hill provided the culmination of an imaginative journey reflecting on the Passion. The Passion Walk was an opportunity to walk the journey of Christ on Good Friday through the landscape of Edinburgh, an urban pilgrimage with a reflective guide on MP3. The steep path of Radical Road became the journey to Calvary, culminating in the imagined place of the crucifixion on the Crags overlooking the city.
Rev James Stewart, a local minister who took part, says: “The resonances were profound – a hill overlooking the capital city, connected yet apart, provided the perfect location to sit in quiet and reflect on the most poignant moment of the Christian calendar. In walking the paths, we somehow write our own meaning and value into the story of the stones themselves, so that they touch us personally. I felt as if I had really walked into the story of Easter, and that the story of Easter had hallowed my city – and its wonderful crags.”
The network of paths on the hill testify to layers of old stories, some now forgotten: the Gutted Haddie, Lover’s Leap, Samson’s Ribs, Murder Acre, Radical Road (this last said to have been built by weavers from the West of Scotland doing hard labour for their part in a workers’ uprising of 1820). Bonnie Prince Charlie’s army camped here the night before its famous victory at Prestonpans. Mary Queen of Scots’ engagement banquet in 1564 was held here. And, here, in the shadow of the hill, the Rev Robert Walker, subject of Raeburn’s famous painting, skated on Duddingston Loch.
Those taking part in Speed of Light join that rich tapestry. The project is part of the Edinburgh International Festival and London 2012, but brings together six of Edinburgh’s festivals in a project of almost unprecedent scale and ambition.
In a few years’ time, those who took part will remember. They might tell their children or grandchildren about the night they ran on Arthur’s Seat for 90 minutes in the pouring rain in a suit made of light, or walked to the summit and watched a landscape come alive in familiar and unfamiliar ways. And it will be another layer on the palimpsest, another story.
• Speed of Light runs from tomorrow night until 1 September, various times. www.eif.co.uk/ speedoflight
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