Edinburgh, Scotland: Arthur’s Seat ….Like most others I have hit the pause button on new journeys during COVID-19 lockdown, but that does not mean I do not travel. Traveling vicariously through articles by fellow Suja writers and wandering amid wonderful travel books has proven a tonic to plug the gap. Another satisfying solution has been slipping into the sanctuary of savored memories. And being banished indoors these days seems to tilt my reveries towards the great outdoors. Dwelling upon past rambles surprised me by opening new connections, and with that opening I would like to share Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh, Scotland.
Arthur’s Seat is one of several peaks from an ancient volcano which gave rise to Edinburgh’s prominence. Another remnant from the volcano is Castle Rock, where Edinburgh Castle would be raised to afford protection and permit a population to prosper. The city grew and royalty moved in, reserving the expanse surrounding Arthur’s Seat as their private hunting ground. In 1541, however, King James V declared the 650 acres surrounding Arthur’s Seat as a public space named Holyrood Park, which it has remained ever since.
Over time Holyrood would be engulfed by Edinburgh and render the space as a stellar urban park. This status was affirmed when we began our ascent, which launched from the doorsteps of Holyrood Palace. It is rare when the trailhead for a hike is a palace, and Holyrood is spectacular; the official residence of British monarchy when visiting Scotland. Beyond that distinction, the mansion anchors the lower end of Edinburgh’s famous Royal Mile, whose upper end is Edinburgh Castle.
Climbing Arthur’s Seat is a relatively mild effort, though there is some elevation gain. Even at a leisurely pace it should take no more than an hour to reach the top, and there are plenty of options to get there. My major caution would be advising to pack along a jacket: Arthur’s Seat is the pinnacle of Edinburgh and being adjacent to the ocean, we found the top to be very windy and a bit chilly in the middle of summer.
The path we selected was a meander past natural and cultural landmarks. Seldom do I plod over a pathway graced with a name as colorful as ‘Radical Road’, and its derivation does not disappoint. Oddly reminiscent of modern times, the ‘radicals’ were merely striking laborers, protesting for voting rights to unseat a wealthy, self-serving government. The movement turned violent and was put down by the military, with several high profile protestors executed and others shipped off to Australia. It was Scotland’s favorite poet and author, Sir Walter Scott, who proposed a more humane punishment for the remainder – having them work on building a trail to Arthur’s Seat, ostensibly to keep them too busy to think about further mutinies. Thus the radicals constructed a road offering a pleasant way to summit Arthur’s Seat.
Today the Radical Road is little more than a deteriorating gravel track (it was originally constructed in 1821) winding past an excellent natural feature, the Salisbury Crags. Basaltic cliffs are a world-wide phenomenon, but the Salisbury Crags were the example where a geologist successfully hypothesized these formations resulted from molten lava shafts within a volcano. The sad news is that the crags are crumbling and Radical Road was fenced off for safety in the fall of 2019.
After rounding the Salisbury Crags, our successive path was Piper’s Walk. This is an unpaved escalation, but not nasty. Any steep climbs have stone steps in place and it is a short transport to the summit. Once atop Arthur’s Seat you are far removed from the urban landscape, but the city and much more lies at your feet – the views from the summit are unrivaled! Being the highest point in Edinburgh guarantees sweeping panoramas the whole way around. We had packed a picnic lunch and reveled in the vistas as we munched, constantly rotating between Edinburgh Castle, the Scott Monument, Calton Hill, the Firth of Forth and much more.
One of the scenes we looked down upon was Duddingston, a wee village outside of Edinburgh at the eastern base of Holyrood Park. Since downhill is easy going and we could circle back along roadways, Duddingston was the after-lunch target. Our interest had been driven by a desire to enjoy an afternoon pint at the Sheep Heid Inn, rumored to have been serving libations since 1360. The pub is currently housed in a building dated to the 1800’s, but even if the operation switched buildings, legend holds they have been continuously tapping draughts across the centuries.
Emerging into sunlight with a beer in our bellies, the return yielded some bonus charm. Almost next door to the Sheep Heid Inn is Duddingston Loch, a delightful nature preserve where we were blessed with a magnificent collection of flowers, swans and other placid attractions. As so often seems to happen, striking out on foot unearthed unexpected gems which were absent from guide books. The jaunt was so satisfying we were already reminiscing as we climbed the Royal Mile on our way back to the hotel.
Travel presents an opportunity to gather gems. This often results from tracing a treasure map directly to a mother lode, but I have found the way is frequently sprinkled with surprises of equal brilliance. What I failed to appreciate was how reflecting upon this accumulation provides a thread, allowing you to cluster the nuggets into something of greater beauty. Comparing and contrasting the collection yields wonderful new insights and helps one identify details which would have otherwise been missed.
Contemplating Arthur’s Seat along with another well-known urban park, NYC’s Central Park, increased my admiration for both. The parks parallel each other by offering splendid wild expanses within a metro area, but they are flip flopped. Arthur’s Seat towers above the city with nature expressing her power in spite of how humanity attempts to dominate. The open air wilderness of Central Park, on the other hand, seems to be cratered by towering skyscrapers on all sides; revealing that when humans dominate the landscape, the tug of nature still motivates the necessity of a refuge.
As much as I long to add more baubles to my travel necklace, COVID-19 days may still be invested in relishing the precious stones I have already been fortunate to collect. And that contemplation makes them shine even brighter.