Towns / Cities Visited: 176
Countries Visited: 30
Steps Taken Today: 15,642
Steps Taken Around the World: 4,310,487
Our final day in Edinburgh saw us awake to a bitterly cold morning. The kind of cold which calls huddled masses to the side of radiators and begs you to slip on your thermals before you dare do anything else. Tea and toast warming our insides and donned in every shred of winter clothing we carried, to the point that nought but our faces were left uncovered, we stepped out for another day of adventure.
By the time we had made the walk into the city centre from Leith, we had warmed sufficiently, and turning onto the Royal Mile, we made our way towards the unmissable gothic beauty that is St. Giles Cathedral capped with its crown steeple. Sure, it doesn’t have the height and pure pointiness of The Hub, but it has more delicate tracery and artistic stonework than you can poke a stick at. This church, which sits pride of place along the famed thoroughfare between Edinburgh Castle and Holyrood House, has been in residence here since the 14th century, although a church on this site was likely first founded in the 12th century. As with most it grew over time, being expanded up until the 16th century, and later, in the 19th and 20th, it underwent some alterations. Despite its multi-era renovations, it still holds onto its medieval good looks, and a good thing too. Its longevity has seen it go from being a Catholic to a Protestant place of worship, and like many large community spaces, has served multiple uses, at one point being partitioned off so that part could be used as a prison, and yet another part used as a meeting place for the Parliament of Scotland. These days though, it sits as a simple parish church and tourist attraction.
Now, St. Giles may have been the patron saint of lepers, but sightseers in these parts certainly don’t shy away from this place, and thus, along with the throng of others, we funnelled in through the doors to explore its anything but leprous interior. As with so many churches across Europe, this one is heavily steeped in arches and vaulted ceilings. Looking up is always a pleasure in gothic cathedrals, and it is no different in St. Giles, with the clerestory letting the weak winter light brighten the chilly stone interior and vibrant blue plastered ceiling starkly contrasted by its clean white fan vaulting which draws the attention of all who enter. I suppose in a place dedicated to a heavenly being believed to exist in some spectral realm above us, making an eye-catching ceiling to entice parish members to look skyward is a fairly on-brand decision. Even the plainer stone vaulting in other sections of the nave are adorned with carefully carved keystones to draw fascinated faces up.
Looking around, I couldn’t help but muse at the fact that these kinds of towering churches just look as though someone grabbed the roof and pulled it upwards, elongating the walls and windows to an almost unnatural extent, like a poorly photoshopped photo where the proportions are all slightly off. The shear lanky height of the interior, as with all akin churches, allows for the stories portrayed in the frankly dwarfing height of its stained glass windows to morph from concise short stories to veritable biblical epics; entire tales regaled to the flock in a single frame. Given the size of the church and the countless windows its holds, the space offers an anthology of saintly tales in technicolour between the tracery.
In the still air of the cathedral hang the common sight of laid up military flags, left undisturbed as they slowly deteriorate; a strange but sombre tradition I was growing fond of seeing, and quiet proof that those who served were gone but not forgotten. Some displayed colours as bright as day, others so threadbare that whole patches had been eaten away by time and circumstance, harking back to battles fought long before any who viewed them were born.
The church is also home to more permanent memorials, more than a hundred in fact, and despite the age of the building, the majority of them only date as far back as the 19th century. Amongst the swathes of noble names unknown to me, a familiar famed author’s memorial plaque did catch my eye, that of Robert Louis Stevenson. This legend of prose and Edinburgh native gifted the literary arts with two of the 19th centuries most classic stories, Treasure Island, and, one of my personal favourites, the Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Although he is buried in the country of his death, Samoa, it is nice to see that his hometown has taken it upon itself to commemorate one of its most noteworthy sons with this lasting depiction.
With our visit come to an end, we left St. Giles behind, passing the unfamiliar face of the 5th Duke of Buccleuch immortalised in bronze atop an almost comically large and ornate plinth in Parliament Square at the western front of the cathedral. Our day was not over though, we had one last site to tick off our list, Greyfriars Kirk, and after a short walk we were soon arriving and passing under the somewhat ominous wrought iron arch which guards the entrance to the church grounds.
Despite its intriguing exterior, we were not actually here to visit the church itself, but rather the centuries old churchyard surrounding it, which has been the resting place for many notable Edinburgh residents since the1500’s. On top of this, the space has a fascinating history, with part of it being used as a makeshift prison for Covenanters who were too numerous to fit into the city’s prisons after these Presbyterian religious and political rebels had their brief rebellion quashed in the 17th century at the Battle of Bothwell Bridge.
Now, graveyards by their very nature are a strange mix of peaceful and creepy, but the biting wind and bare branches of the trees served only to heighten the latter factor. In relative silence we passed between the tombs and by the vaults, pausing here and there to linger in the more interesting additions in the sea of grey headstones. One of these additions is the inclusion of mortsafes over some of the graves; a cage-like contraption designed to prevent people from stealing the corpses to sell to medical schools back before the 1832 Anatomy Act began to regulate the legal supply of bodies so that students could learn anatomy from human dissection. Plus, for the Harry Potter fan’s there sits the gravestone of Thomas Riddell, who it is thought may have been the inspiration for Tom Riddle, although it might just be a coincidence.
Eyes flitting from grave to grave, some stood ornate and commanding, others plain and simple, marking the resting places of everyone from poets to politicians. Despite holding the remains of the likes of William Mcgonagall though, a man who rose to notoriety because of how truly atrocious his poetry was, one of the most visited graves here is that of John Gray, a nightwatchmen of the Edinburgh Police until his death in 1858. It is not the man himself which makes this grave so popular, but the fact that upon his death he left behind his faithful dog, Bobby, who, legend has is, spent his remaining 14 years sitting loyally on his master’s grave. Although there were apparently multiple attempts to evict the dog from the grounds, he always returned, and was fed and cared for by James Brown, the sexton of the church. Upon the death of Bobby, thanks to the stupid rules about dogs not being able to be buried on consecrated grounds, he was said to be buried just outside the church gate, instead of in his rightful place alongside his master. A memorial stone for the Skye Terrier now sits just inside the gate and is arguably the most popular stone in the entire cemetery, evidenced by the sheer number of sticks placed at its foot by mourners determined the Bobby’s spirit should never be short of something to fetch. Seriously, we don’t deserve dogs.
Sightseeing over, and the afternoon kicking on, we popped into the pub named, rather appropriately, ‘Greyfriars Bobby’. Settling in in the warmth, we ordered ourselves a round of ciders before tucking into our swiftly delivered shared meal of fish and chips, and chicken and chorizo pie. Refuelled, we made the walk back to Leith, stopping in at a local tearoom to round off the quickly waning day with scones and hot chocolate.
As I savoured the last morsels of jam and cream smothered scone and sipped the final dregs from my mug before we headed home, my mind wandered off to visit the memory of Bobby. In the middle distance, my mind replaced the bustling tearooms with the wrought iron arch of Greyfriars Kirkyard at dusk, the lantern lit, the bare trees creaking in the breeze, the silhouette of the church looming before me, a sense of trepidation cloaking my shoulders as I stood alone on empty streets. Rounding the corner of the holy building, I neared the grave of John Gray, and from amidst the stillness lifted the head of a puppy laying sombre and solitary upon it, a whimper escaping its mouth as it pawed as the freshly turned earth. Creeping close I knelt alongside the dog, stroking it gently before settling down cross-legged on the frozen ground opposite the headstone, the sharp corners of its newly etched letters causing pointed grief to a loyal companion. In an instant, my eyes were drawn down to my lap, upon which this faithful four-legged friend had clambered, his collar displaying his name in the dimming light, his tiny cold body searching for warmth as he nestled in, his head resting on my knee, searching the ground for signs of his master’s resurrection. There was nought I could do to bring back John Gray, but I could linger, if only for a while, to offer comfort; still, silent, knowing comfort.