Scottish capital offers arts festival, military tattoo, historical sites


August 04, 1991|By William A. Davis | William A. Davis,Boston Globe

Edinburgh -- The 1 o'clock gun caught me by surprise.

I was leaning over the parapet of Edinburgh Castle, admiring one of the British Isles' grandest views, when a lone sergeant marched by with as much panache as a parade. A sturdy man in dress uniform with a florid face and splendid old-fashioned military mustache, he swung one arm in the regulation British Army manner but carried a cannon shell under the other.

With an ease that bespoke much practice, the sergeant slipped the blank shell into the breech of an artillery piece pointing over the city; consulted a pocket watch; and pulled the lanyard. Bang! And all Edinburgh knew it was 1 p.m. On the dot. My watch was slow, I realized and adjusted it, doubtless along with many others in earshot.

Few cities are as romantic-looking as gray, rain-streaked, castle-topped old Edinburgh. Fewer yet have the Scottish capital's great civic gift for such simple and affecting ceremonies. The 1 o'clock gun has been fired from the castle since 1848 and figures in much local lore, even playing a part in the beloved Edinburgh story of Greyfriars Bobby.

A Skye terrier, Bobby went everywhere with his master, John Gray. When Gray, known as "Old Jock," died in 1858, Bobby followed his coffin to Greyfriars Churchyard in the Old Town below the castle. For the next 14 years, the dog remained almost constantly by his master's grave.

Bobby's fidelity made him famous. When a city ordinance was passed requiring all dogs to be licensed, the lord provost -- Scottish equivalent of lord mayor -- personally paid the terrier's fee. The owner of a tavern, now called the Greyfriars Bobby Inn, by the churchyard gate took it on himself to feed the little dog. Every day when the 1 o'clock gun went off, Bobby would !B scamper to the tavern door for a plate of leftovers.

One day in 1872, the gun fired, but Bobby didn't show up for lunch. He had died during the night, still keeping watch over Old Jock's grave.

A statue of the faithful Bobby decorates a fountain across from the tavern, and there is a memorial on Gray's grave erected by American friends of his dog. Many noted Scots are buried in the churchyard, and it was in Greyfriars Church that the Scottish National Covenent, a historic statement of principle by religious dissenters, was signed in 1620. But most visitors come because of Bobby.

Two sights of the castle also bear evidence to the profound Scottish love of animals. Just below the ramparts is a small, poignant cemetery reserved for the pets of members of the garrison. And, in the very moving Scottish War Memorial, a hall filled with tributes to the Scottish regiments that fought in two world wars, there are tablets honoring military birds and animals, such as canaries and mice used to detect poison gas, that died in the line of duty.

The local fondness for animals is also evident at the Edinburgh Zoo. Scotland's largest, the zoo has about 2,000 animals from a wide range of species. But it is so kindly a place that it won't keep elephants in its collection because in captivity they can't roam naturally in large, sociable herds.

As devotion to the 1 o'clock gun indicates, Edinburghers like artillery as well as animals. The superstar of Edinburgh ordinance is Mons Meg, a massive siege piece acquired by King James II in the mid-15th century that was so powerful it could hurl a heavy cannonball a mile and a half. Mons Meg was taken from Edinburgh Castle to the Tower of London after the union of Scotland with England in 1707, and probably would be there yet if it weren't for Sir Walter Scott, the prolific writer of historical romances.

A superpatriot, Scott convinced the crown that the great gun was a Scottish national symbol and should be sent back home. In 1829, Meg was hauled in triumph up the Royal Mile -- the historic ceremonial route that runs from the Palace of Holyrood to the castle gates -- preceded by a dozen triumphantly skirling pipers. No longer serviceable (it burst while firing a salute), the great cannon now is the centerpiece of the castle's antique-weapons collection.

The Royal Mile (or Canongate, as the street is officially called) doesn't see many spectacles such as the triumphal return of Mons Meg these days, but to walk down it is to travel through centuries of Scottish history. Like the castle, Holyrood House -- once the home of Scotland's kings and queens -- is open to the public most of the time, the exception being when the royal family is in residence. There are interesting small museums along the route, including ones devoted to childhood, Scotch whisky and -- housed in the former medieval tollbooth or tax office -- one called "The People's Story," which focuses on the day-to-day life of working-class Edinburghers.

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