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Ye'll Take the High Road and I'll Take the Low Road

In 1999, Lynn and I visited Edinburgh, Scotland. We arrived on a Monday, two days after the closing of the Edinburgh Military Tattoo which until then we had never heard of but quickly learned was the centerpiece of a three week festival. It’s held in August, generally from the first weekend through the fourth weekend. We thought after moving to Europe we would see the Tattoo. We were aware that there was something running almost concurrently called the Edinburgh Fringe Festival which seemed to be a conglomeration of all kinds of street theater: mimes, puppets, balancing acts, musicians, and people creating a play by pulling spectators from the street into the action.

We moved to Europe in November and about the following May we tried to get tickets and a room to stay. Big mistake. There were no tickets to be had and no rooms to be had so we would have to wait another year. The tickets went on sale in December and I was there at the appointed online opening to snag them. Then all we had to do was wait. It was a wait well worth it.

The Edinburgh Military Tattoo is a show that takes place in a small temporary stadium, built just for this purpose, in the esplanade at the entrance to Edinburgh Castle. The show lasts about 90 minutes and is done everyday except Sundays, twice on Saturdays. There are several bagpipe bands that perform alone and en masse, among other things. I’m Irish by marriage and Scottish by a former marriage, and have always had an affinity for bagpipe music so I find this very stirring. There’s a part of the show where there is a lone piper standing on the wall of the castle in the dark except for a spotlight on him. If you look at the website under "Tattoo Experience" you can see some of their videos. But there is more than bagpipes. This year there was the Top Secret Drum Corps from Switzerland consisting of about 20 drummers. While playing the drums, they would each toss one stick to the drummer on their right, play some more, and toss the stick back. We had to look carefully to make sure we were seeing what we thought we were seeing; it was an amazing move. There was also a choir of African kids singing music similar to what you may have heard in Paul Simon’s Graceland. The kids all appeared to be about eight to 17 and every one of the 50 or so kids had lost one or both parents to AIDS. The Tattoo ended with the massed bands playing Auld Lang Syne.

We discovered that we had underestimated the Fringe. The Edinburgh Festival Fringe is more than street theater. There are probably hundreds of venues that are used for theater, musicals, concerts, comedy, anything. Some of the shows are well-known (three separate versions of Godspell), some are brand new. Frequently the casts roam the streets handing out pamphlets of their shows and do some street performances. We saw one group on the street that was particularly moving. It was an "integrated" group. Not racially, not religiously, but rather with intellectually challenged and able-bodied members. About half the members had Downs Syndrome or other disabilities but they sang their songs with gusto and they did it really well. If you enjoy theater of any type, the Edinburgh Festival Fringe is something you have to see. You could spend the entire three weeks here, see different things several times a day, and still not even come close to seeing everything. And I haven’t even mentioned the Edinburgh Jazz Festival and the Edinburgh Arts Festival.

Edinburgh Castle is at the top of a hill, one end of the Royal Mile. The hill ends in a cliff. It’s actually a rock formation called a "crag and tail" and this example is supposed to be one of the world’s best. Imagine that you built a hill of sand at the beach. Then the ocean comes in and washes some the hill away in the front as the water retreats from the shore. You’re left with a cliff. The shape is sort of like the arm on a sundial, a long, steep hill and then an immediate drop. There’s a model of the topography in the park that shows this.

Think of the castle of an evil king. It sits at the top of a hill on the edge of a cliff. The sky is dark and threatening. Danger seems to loom in the air. Edinburgh Castle at the top is the actualization of that thought. When we were here in 1999, the weather was as I described and the place was really spooky. This time, with a fair amount of sun, it wasn’t quite so ominous, but it is still an incredible site. Here’s a picture in the sunshine and another where it’s overcast. When it was actually used as the residence of the king, it wasn’t the full time residence. It was used mostly when things got hot and the king was in some danger. It was easier to defend him at the top of the hill. The full time residence was Holyrood Palace at the bottom of the Royal Mile and that is still used today as the Queen’s official residence in Scotland. She supposedly stays there one week every year.

The queen used to have yacht, the Britannia, which was retired in 1997. The government sold it to a private company and it’s now tied up at a pier and is available to be rented for private functions and for tours. While taking the tour one can see the queenly bed, the family drawing room, the one room on board with a double bed used by Charles and Diana on their honeymoon, and the state dining room. The dining room has space for about 50 people. It took three hours to set the table because each dish, each glass and each piece of silver was precisely measured as to its position. Seriously, wouldn’t you be embarrassed if a fork or teacup was a millimeter or two out of position? I sure would.

The pier next to which the yacht is docked houses a shopping mall. To get to the yacht you enter the mall the same as you would as if you were going to Macy’s to get a sweater. The entrance to the yacht was next door to a Chinese restaurant. To get a picture of the whole yacht, I had to leave the mall and go to the adjoining parking lot. I suspect this was not where it was housed when the Queen used it.

South of Edinburgh about six or seven miles is Rosslyn chapel. If that name is familiar to you it may be because of the DaVinci Code. The chapel is featured prominently at the end of the story. I didn’t see the movie but I did read the book in which there is reference to a house next to the chapel in which the woman who took care of the chapel lived with her grandson. There is no house next to the chapel (see? It really is fiction!). There is a building that was once a small inn. The building is undergoing exterior renovation and has been since before the movie was made. We were told that the interior shots of the chapel were actually done there but that what is shown from the exterior is really a model built to one fifth the size.

One thing that was very surprising to me was the mention of the DaVinci Code in the chapel. The guides talked about it and the book, along with its screaming detractors, were also on the shelves to be sold. Since some people were so up in arms over the blasphemy of the story, I thought the chapel itself would share in that indignation. But, no, they seem to realize that the story really is fiction and share in its fun.

Recognizing that I may be prejudiced because of my adopted Scottish heritage, I think Edinburgh is a great place to visit. At least in the summer. In the dreariness of February, it could be that the evil spirits really do inhabit the castle but that’s just a wild guess.

See my pictures of Edinburgh.

See videos from Edinburgh.

 

2008 Rick Wexler   last updated February 21, 2008