Edinburgh from the air

At the weekend I did something I haven’t done since I was a about seven years old – I climbed the 287 winding steps of the Scott Monument to the uppermost viewing gallery. Built to honour the memory of the famous Scottish writer Sir Walter Scott this great neo-Gothic rocket of Binny sandstone was completed in 1844; designed by George Meikle Kemp. Kemp was the son of a shepherd in the Pentland Hills, reputedly inspired from his rural existence as a boy by a visit to Roslyn Castle and Roslyn Chapel. He seemed to have a knack for the fine arts, but it was an an unknown he entered the public competition to design a memorial to Scott; in fact for the first round he used a pen name rather than his own humble name which at that time had no great reputation, so when his design was ultimately chosen he went from being a respected but not well-known draughtsman and designer to being responsible for one of the major iconic landmarks of the capital of Scotland, an area now designated as a UN World Heritage Site.

Sadly poor old George did not live to enjoy the fruits of his studies and labours; early in 1844, several months before the Monument was completed, he fell into the canal at Fountainbridge, not far from where I live, and was drowned. Citizens of the city lined the streets for his funeral procession as his casket was led to Saint Cuthbert’s kirkyard, in the shadow of the Castle and in sight of his construction.

It was very odd to be back at a spot you hadn’t been to in decades; last time I went up those stairs was with my mum and dad as a wee boy. One thing that was noticeably different was that the spiral stone staircase seemed a lot smaller and much, much narrower than it was a lad. One way up and one way down, so if you are going one way and other folks coming down the other it is a bit of a problem. The higher you go the more the spire narrows and so does the staircase. On the final segment from the mid gallery to the upper one the staircase becomes very, very narrow; the heavy stone walls are scraping my shoulders and I need to duck as the roof is lower. Hemmed in by dark stone blocks you could swear you are deep inside the lowest dungeon, which is a strange feeling when you know that you are almost 200 feet in the air.

The viewing platforms become smaller too as you ascend. The first one is relatively wide, with a tall, narrow room in the centre with beautiful stained glass windows and carved wood which includes the names of Watty’s books carved into the decorations; many scores of feet beneath this is a similarly proportioned, but far plainer chamber, deep beneath the earth, between the massive stone pillars of the Monument which one guide claims go down almost 40 feet into the bedrock (our 19th century ancestors built to last). Up, up and up to the next level, wind blowing through the arrow slit windows of the stone stairwell (no escalator here, kids, you walk 200 feet into the air by foot) and a smaller gallery to look out from, all the time surrounded by dozens of sculptures, large and small, of characters from Scott’s many books. That final, tight, narrow climb and out onto a tiny upper gallery barely wide enough for one person.

Wind streaking past you, carrying the sound of the bagpipe player at the gates to Princes Street Gardens up to you even 200 feet above him. I don’t suffer from vertigo but leaning over the top still makes my stomach do a wee twirl; 200 feet may not sound much in our age of high-rise buildings but for the mid 19th century it must have seemed staggering. Since there is a limit on how tall a building can be in the centre of Edinburgh to preserve the brilliant skyline the Monument remains towering above most of its neighbours. Right across the road from it the Victorian splendour of Jenners Department Store, the original facade covered in carvings and sculptures. I’ve admired some of the Caryatid statues on the building many times but how odd to see a building I pass every day, a large and tall building, from above, looking down onto it. Raise your eyes up and the view leads you across the Georgian splendour of the New Town to the River Forth and the hills of Fife on the far side, upriver the great iron shape of the Forth Bridge looms out of the haze.

Walk round, the wind stinging your eyes, trying not to hit your knees against the stone rail in the narrow walkway. There’s the expensive grandeur of the Balmoral Hotel, North Bridge striding across the valley between New Town and Old Town past the old Scotsman building; in the background the distinctive modern dome of the Dynamic Earth, the new Parliament next to it, Holyrood Palace and rearing above it the great volcanic rock of Arthur’s Seat, nature’s way of pointing out She’s even better at this monumental architecture than humans are. The skyline of the Old Town with its tall, narrow old buildings and church spires, with the Pentland Hills visible beyond the city, the white marks of the dry ski slope standing out against the grass. And then turn your head past there, past the expensive homes of Ramsay Gardens and there you go, the Castle. I just don’t get tired of that view, but how cool to see it from the top of the Monument again after all these years.