Thursday, 23 September 2010

In Defens: Edinburgh Castle

Edinburgh Castle emerges from the rock, standing proudly above the city, the flags cracking in the stiff wind. It is imposing, formidable, solid and reassuring – depending on which side you stand – but it is certainly not comfortable.

The great halls are draughty; the stairs are steep; the walls are thick; and the windows narrow. As the weather creeps in through the cracks, the views of Edinburgh are wide and expansive but no number of tapestries and rugs can exclude the chill.

The National War Museum of Scotland explores more than 400 years of Scottish military history. War has given rise to extremes of technology and innovation, and revels in pomp and ceremony. Cabinets contain examples of weaponry; guns, daggers, dirks and bayonets. Rituals involve medals and dress uniforms. Paintings and letters capture coloured versions of history – ‘Butcher Cumberland’ and Culloden are frequently mentioned as is the Battle of Dunbar in 1650 at which the English Parliamentarian forces under Oliver Cromwell defeated a Scottish army and enforced military union with England.

Agreed union came about in 1707 but that was far from the end of the skirmishes including the Jacobite rebellions and Bonnie Prince Charlie. The Victorian era romanticised the Highlands (just like the last 50 years have romanticised the Irish Boglands) and all things Celtic, such as the re-emergence of tartan and the preponderance of kilts, which were worn by the army until 1940. A further exhibition, Land Girls and Lumber Jills, shows how the women were involved in military work while remaining at home – planting and reaping harvests to feed the population and provide timber.

A voice-over recording explains that Scotland’s history is military, and that disbanding their armies has been particularly tough. ‘Famous regiments with famous names have been disbanded regardless of their achievements and long service.’ Although The Black Watch are not specifically mentioned, it is hard not to think of them, especially having seen the phenomenal National Theatre of Scotland play of the same name.
Pipe bands play as we roam the parapets – the mournful sound drifting down over the city and reinforcing the elegiac effect of this place on the rock. Modern munitions are represented by the crates of fireworks that will be let off later in the weekend to celebrate the end of the festival. We missed the Edinburgh Tattoo by a day. I can’t say that I’m sad about that, being slightly disturbed by the orgiastic parade of military might (I favour John Hegley’s argument here). There is definitely a pent-up feeling of barely restrained anger without an outlet around these walls.

St Margaret’s Chapel provides a quiet place for contemplation, however. The diminutive building is the oldest in Scotland, built for her by her youngest son, King David around 1130. Even this beautiful but spartan building with its stained glass windows commemorating the saint (Margaret was canonised in 1250 for her pious and charitable acts) has not always been used for worship – from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century it was a gunpowder store.
The Scottish National War Memorial is within the castle walls at Crown Square – built in 1927 in a somewhat austere art deco style. It was to commemorate the approximately 150,000 Scottish casualties of the First World War in the Hall of Honour. The names of the dead now extend to over 50,000 in the Second World War and the campaigns since 1945 including the Mayan Emergency, the Korean War, Northern Ireland, the Falklands War and the Gulf War. So many dead soldiers; Scotland remembers.
A particularly poignant cemetery is for the soldiers’ dogs, so there are gravestones for Tinker and Scamp, and other officer’s pets and regimental mascots. It has been in use since Queen Victoria’s time and is a perfect example of era’s blend of maudlin sentimentality with dignified respect.

A queue announces the whereabouts of the Scottish Crown Jewels (otherwise known as the Honours) and people shuffle through the exhibit which tells their story, anxious to get a glimpse of the crown, sceptre, orb and the seat of kings (and queens), The Stone of Destiny.

Apparently they still have a ceremonial part to play and the Queen symbolically presented them to the opening of the Scottish parliament but, the way things stand at present, no one will ever again wear the Crown of Scotland. No wonder ‘it’s in good nick’ as Him Outdoors says, ‘it’s not been used much’.

In my defens God me defend is the motto of the Royal Coat of Arms of the Kingdom of Scotland, often simply abbreviated in modern English to 'In Defence'. Nowhere is this more pronounced than the capital's castle where the sense of righteous indignation simmers palpably beneath the surface.

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