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Chapter 8

THE CALTON HILL.


THE east of new Edinburgh is guarded by a craggy
hill, of no great elevation, which the town embraces.
The old London road runs on one side of it; while the New
Approach, leaving it on the other hand, completes the
circuit. You mount by stairs in a cutting of the rock to
find yourself in a field of monuments. Dugald Stewart
has the honours of situation and architecture; Burns is
memorialised lower down upon a spur; Lord Nelson, as
befits a sailor, gives his name to the top-gallant of the
Calton Hill. This latter erection has been differently
and yet, in both cases, aptly compared to a telescope and
a butter-churn; comparisons apart, it ranks among the
vilest of men's handiworks. But the chief feature is an
unfinished range of columns, 'the Modern Ruin' as it has
been called, an imposing object from far and near, and
giving Edinburgh, even from the sea, that false air; of a
Modern Athens which has earned for her so many slighting
speeches. It was meant to be a National Monument; and
its present state is a very suitable monument to certain
national characteristics. The old Observatory - a quaint
brown building on the edge of the steep - and the new
Observatory - a classical edifice with a dome - occupy
the central portion of the summit. All these are
scattered on a green turf, browsed over by some sheep.

The scene suggests reflections on fame and on man's
injustice to the dead. You see Dugald Stewart rather
more handsomely commemorated than Burns. Immediately
below, in the Canongate churchyard, lies Robert
Fergusson, Burns's master in his art, who died insane
while yet a stripling; and if Dugald Stewart has been
somewhat too boisterously acclaimed, the Edinburgh poet,
on the other hand, is most unrighteously forgotten. The
votaries of Burns, a crew too common in all ranks in
Scotland and more remarkable for number than discretion,
eagerly suppress all mention of the lad who handed to him
the poetic impulse and, up to the time when he grew
famous, continued to influence him in his manner and the
choice of subjects. Burns himself not only acknowledged
his debt in a fragment of autobiography, but erected a
tomb over the grave in Canongate churchyard. This was
worthy of an artist, but it was done in vain; and
although I think I have read nearly all the biographies
of Burns, I cannot remember one in which the modesty of
nature was not violated, or where Fergusson was not
sacrificed to the credit of his follower's originality.
There is a kind of gaping admiration that would fain roll
Shakespeare and Bacon into one, to have a bigger thing to
gape at; and a class of men who cannot edit one author
without disparaging all others. They are indeed mistaken
if they think to please the great originals; and whoever
puts Fergusson right with fame, cannot do better than
dedicate his labours to the memory of Burns, who will be
the best delighted of the dead.

Of all places for a view, this Calton Hill is
perhaps the best; since you can see the Castle, which you
lose from the Castle, and Arthur's Seat, which you cannot
see from Arthur's Seat. It is the place to stroll on one
of those days of sunshine and east wind which are so
common in our more than temperate summer. The breeze
comes off the sea, with a little of the freshness, and
that touch of chill, peculiar to the quarter, which is
delightful to certain very ruddy organizations and
greatly the reverse to the majority of mankind. It
brings with it a faint, floating haze, a cunning
decolourizer, although not thick enough to obscure
outlines near at hand. But the haze lies more thickly to
windward at the far end of Musselburgh Bay; and over the
Links of Aberlady and Berwick Law and the hump of the
Bass Rock it assumes the aspect of a bank of thin sea
fog.

Immediately underneath upon the south, you command
the yards of the High School, and the towers and courts
of the new Jail - a large place, castellated to the
extent of folly, standing by itself on the edge of a
steep cliff, and often joyfully hailed by tourists as the
Castle. In the one, you may perhaps see female prisoners
taking exercise like a string of nuns; in the other,
schoolboys running at play and their shadows keeping step
with them. From the bottom of the valley, a gigantic
chimney rises almost to the level of the eye, a taller
and a shapelier edifice than Nelson's Monument. Look a
little farther, and there is Holyrood Palace, with its
Gothic frontal and ruined abbey, and the red sentry
pacing smartly too and fro before the door like a
mechanical figure in a panorama. By way of an outpost,
you can single out the little peak-roofed lodge, over
which Rizzio's murderers made their escape and where
Queen Mary herself, according to gossip, bathed in white
wine to entertain her loveliness. Behind and overhead,
lie the Queen's Park, from Muschat's Cairn to
Dumbiedykes, St. Margaret's Loch, and the long wall of
Salisbury Crags: and thence, by knoll and rocky bulwark
and precipitous slope, the eye rises to the top of
Arthur's Seat, a hill for magnitude, a mountain in virtue
of its bold design. This upon your left. Upon the
right, the roofs and spires of the Old Town climb one
above another to where the citadel prints its broad bulk
and jagged crown of bastions on the western sky. -
Perhaps it is now one in the afternoon; and at the same
instant of time, a ball rises to the summit of Nelson's
flagstaff close at hand, and, far away, a puff of smoke
followed by a report bursts from the half-moon battery at
the Castle. This is the time-gun by which people set
their watches, as far as the sea coast or in hill farms
upon the Pentlands. - To complete the view, the eye
enfilades Princes Street, black with traffic, and has a
broad look over the valley between the Old Town and the
New: here, full of railway trains and stepped over by the
high North Bridge upon its many columns, and there, green
with trees and gardens.

On the north, the Calton Hill is neither so abrupt
in itself nor has it so exceptional an outlook; and yet
even here it commands a striking prospect. A gully
separates it from the New Town. This is Greenside, where
witches were burned and tournaments held in former days.
Down that almost precipitous bank, Bothwell launched his
horse, and so first, as they say, attracted the bright
eyes of Mary. It is now tesselated with sheets and
blankets out to dry, and the sound of people beating
carpets is rarely absent. Beyond all this, the suburbs
run out to Leith; Leith camps on the seaside with her
forest of masts; Leith roads are full of ships at anchor;
the sun picks out the white pharos upon Inchkeith Island;
the Firth extends on either hand from the Ferry to the
May; the towns of Fifeshire sit, each in its bank of
blowing smoke, along the opposite coast; and the hills
enclose the view, except to the farthest east, where the
haze of the horizon rests upon the open sea. There lies
the road to Norway: a dear road for Sir Patrick Spens and
his Scots Lords; and yonder smoke on the hither side of
Largo Law is Aberdour, from whence they sailed to seek a
queen for Scotland.


'O lang, lang, may the ladies sit,
Wi' their fans into their hand,
Or ere they see Sir Patrick Spens
Come sailing to the land!'


The sight of the sea, even from a city, will bring
thoughts of storm and sea disaster. The sailors' wives
of Leith and the fisherwomen of Cockenzie, not sitting
languorously with fans, but crowding to the tail of the
harbour with a shawl about their ears, may still look
vainly for brave Scotsmen who will return no more, or
boats that have gone on their last fishing. Since Sir
Patrick sailed from Aberdour, what a multitude have gone
down in the North Sea! Yonder is Auldhame, where the
London smack went ashore and wreckers cut the rings from
ladies' fingers; and a few miles round Fife Ness is the
fatal Inchcape, now a star of guidance; and the lee shore
to the east of the Inchcape, is that Forfarshire coast
where Mucklebackit sorrowed for his son.

These are the main features of the scene roughly
sketched. How they are all tilted by the inclination of
the ground, how each stands out in delicate relief
against the rest, what manifold detail, and play of sun
and shadow, animate and accentuate the picture, is a
matter for a person on the spot, and turning swiftly on
his heels, to grasp and bind together in one
comprehensive look. It is the character of such a
prospect, to be full of change and of things moving. The
multiplicity embarrasses the eye; and the mind, among so
much, suffers itself to grow absorbed with single points.
You remark a tree in a hedgerow, or follow a cart along a
country road. You turn to the city, and see children,
dwarfed by distance into pigmies, at play about suburban
doorsteps; you have a glimpse upon a thoroughfare where
people are densely moving; you note ridge after ridge of
chimney-stacks running downhill one behind another, and
church spires rising bravely from the sea of roofs. At
one of the innumerable windows, you watch a figure
moving; on one of the multitude of roofs, you watch
clambering chimney-sweeps. The wind takes a run and
scatters the smoke; bells are heard, far and near, faint
and loud, to tell the hour; or perhaps a bird goes
dipping evenly over the housetops, like a gull across the
waves. And here you are in the meantime, on this
pastoral hillside, among nibbling sheep and looked upon
by monumental buildings.

Return thither on some clear, dark, moonless night,
with a ring of frost in the air, and only a star or two
set sparsedly in the vault of heaven; and you will find a
sight as stimulating as the hoariest summit of the Alps.
The solitude seems perfect; the patient astronomer, flat
on his back under the Observatory dome and spying
heaven's secrets, is your only neighbour; and yet from
all round you there come up the dull hum of the city, the
tramp of countless people marching out of time, the
rattle of carriages and the continuous keen jingle of the
tramway bells. An hour or so before, the gas was turned
on; lamplighters scoured the city; in every house, from
kitchen to attic, the windows kindled and gleamed forth
into the dusk. And so now, although the town lies blue
and darkling on her hills, innumerable spots of the
bright element shine far and near along the pavements and
upon the high facades. Moving lights of the railway pass
and repass below the stationary lights upon the bridge.
Lights burn in the jail. Lights burn high up in the tall
LANDS and on the Castle turrets, they burn low down in
Greenside or along the Park. They run out one beyond the
other into the dark country. They walk in a procession
down to Leith, and shine singly far along Leith Pier.
Thus, the plan of the city and her suburbs is mapped out
upon the ground of blackness, as when a child pricks a
drawing full of pinholes and exposes it before a candle;
not the darkest night of winter can conceal her high
station and fanciful design; every evening in the year
she proceeds to illuminate herself in honour of her own
beauty; and as if to complete the scheme - or rather as
if some prodigal Pharaoh were beginning to extend to the
adjacent sea and country - half-way over to Fife, there
is an outpost of light upon Inchkeith, and far to
seaward, yet another on the May.

And while you are looking, across upon the Castle
Hill, the drums and bugles begin to recall the scattered
garrison; the air thrills with the sound; the bugles sing
aloud; and the last rising flourish mounts and melts into
the darkness like a star: a martial swan-song, fitly
rounding in the labours of the day.

Robert Louis Stevenson

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