By the time the train arrived at Waverly Station in Edinburgh, I felt like shit. My throat was burning, my sinuses were blocked and if I tried to walk for more than a few minutes, a wave of fatigue overcame me. I feared I was coming down with the flu, despite getting a vaccine before leaving for sabbatical. I hoped it would all pass sooner rather than later. The fact that I was booked into a very nice hotel gave me hope that I would have the chance to relax in luxury for the next two days as I recuperated.
My nephew is the manager for a chain of restaurants in Scotland, and he was able to secure a couple of complimentary nights at the Waldorf Astoria for me in the city center of Edinburgh. I have never stayed in such a high-end hotel in my life; and absent my nephew’s kindness I would never have been able to afford to do so. When I arrived in my room, I was amazed by the view. Edinburgh Castle sat framed in my window like a scene from a postcard. That night, the same scene was illuminated by colored lights, like something out of tourist brochure.
I was sick, but I was also in Edinburgh, so I did not want to waste my time. After lying down for an hour or so, I felt strong enough to venture out of my room and into the streets. I had visited this city a few times before – as a child, and with my mother and with my wife on two separate occasions a few years ago – but this time I was looking at the place with special eyes. I wanted to get some sense of how this Scottish city differs in atmosphere from Glasgow. With a limited amount of time, and depleted physical vitality, I decided to set off to visit a couple of locations that I had never been to before: David Hume’s grave and Calton Hill.
Walking down Princes Street, one thing immediately becomes clear: there is no mistaking Edinburgh for any other place. Unlike Glasgow, which is in large part nondescript in its appearance, Edinburgh is distinctive and unique. First of all, there is the castle, sitting atop a hill overlooking everything else. Dating back at least to the 12th century, Edinburgh Castle is located in a commanding position. It is impossible to ignore. Additionally, there are spires everywhere. As you walk down the street, they punctuate the skyline, like jagged rocks on a mountainous terrain. The most imposing of these spires is the Sir Walter Scott Monument, built in memory of one of Scotland’s most treasured literary figures; the author of such classics as Waverly and Ivanhoe.
Monuments to, and statues of, literary figures are to be found everywhere in Edinburgh; and this is another aspect of the city that makes it quite unique. I don’t think I have ever been in a city where artists and writers are so central to the spirit and identity of the place. In addition to Sir Walter Scott, there are monuments and statues dedicated to Robert Burns, Robert Lewis Stevenson, Arthur Conan Doyle, Adam Smith, and of course David Hume, the great Scottish skeptical philosopher who is one of my heroes. Why his statue depicts him bare-chested and adorned in Greek robes is an anachronism that mystifies me, but the fact that his image occupies a prominent place on the Royal Mile is nonetheless exciting.
Hume’s resting place is in Calton Cemetery, which sits toward the opposite end of Princes street from the Waldorf Astoria. By the time that I had made the approximately half mile walk, I was already beginning to feel poorly. Nonetheless, here I was, in the place where the remains of the author of An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding lay buried! The inscription on his grave, like the Greek robes on his statue, is puzzling. It reads:
Behold I come quickly. Thanks to GOD which giveth us the victory, through our LORD JESUS CHRIST.
Hume was a notorious atheist, so this inscription definitely seems out of place. Perhaps those left behind had a need to tame the radical nature of the dead philosopher’s ideas, making them less troubling and more palatable to the mainstream. That could also be the reason for the robes on his statue. After all, isn’t that what philosophy is all about; being Greek and dead?
As I walked away from Hume’s grave, I looked downwards and saw the first of a series of discarded hypodermic syringes that, as it turns out, litter the cemetery. I immediately thought of the book Skagboys, the prequel to Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh. In that book Renton, the junkie main character has anal sex with one of his girlfriends somewhere around here. It seems that this place is, indeed, a magnet for junkies. How much more depressingly appropriate could it be that they choose to shoot up in a graveyard? Exploring further, I was alarmed to find a discarded cell phone with its battery removed lying near one of the crypts. This, I realized, was probably not a good place to be walking alone unless I wanted to get robbed, so I hastily made my way back onto the street and started up the road to Calton Hill.
David Hume’s presence is still felt at Calton Hill. There is a “Hume Walk,” established by the philosopher in order to encourage the people of Edinburgh to get some exercise; ironic since Hume himself was quite fat. The walk winds up and around the hill, leading to the top where there are panoramic views of the surrounding landscape. From one side you can view Arthur’s Seat, a picturesque rocky mountain that juts up above the city. From the other side you can view the old town, and in-between you can see the Firth of Forth and the new town. The top of the hill is also adorned with a number of monuments, including a Greek styled temple and a building in honor of Admiral Lord Nelson.
At this point the battle taking place inside of my body was starting to reach a fever pitch and I had to find a place to sit down, so I started back down the road, stopping for a bottle of water and a muffin before heading back to the hotel. Along the way, on Princes Street, I passed a Dr. Marten’s store displaying a set of quite interesting advertisements. As part of an ad campaign focused on the notion of “standing for something,” there was a poster depicting a middle-aged skinhead couple engaged in leisure-time shenanigans. It struck me that this was the kind of ad campaign that would not work in the US. First of all, the man and woman in the ad look as if they are well into their 40’s. Second, they are skinheads; a subculture that does not have the most positive reputation. Third, the woman is flipping off the photographer. In the US, this is the sort of gesture that is routinely blurred out on TV. I like the fact that Dr. Marten embraces the tradition and history of the brand, but I also find it surprising (and a bit disappointing) that skinheads can be used for marketing. But then again, I guess things are different here in Scotland.
I ended the day with a veggie burger and an early night to bed. When I awoke the next morning I felt doubly terrible. My throat was even more irritated and I was blowing gobs of green mucous out of my nose. I felt worn out. I decided to eat some breakfast and then take a walk to the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, where I could wander around at a relaxed pace.
It was a short, rain-soaked walk to the museum, and upon arriving I was greeted by the none-to-comforting message “THERE WILL BE NO MIRACLES HERE.” This was spelled out in lights on a scaffolding that sat on the lawn in front of Gallery Two. As if to put visitors’ minds at ease, the message “EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BE ALRIGHT” appeared in lights on the front of the building itself. I wandered around the exhibit of surrealist art, enjoying some of the works by May Ray, Duchamp, Dali, Max Ernst, and Picasso, before crossing over into the gallery’s other building where I found myself completely mesmerized by an exhibit of work by Louise Bourgeois. The works on display were both paintings and sculptures, but all seemed to focus on themes concerning the anxieties of embodiment. Hanging, black headless bodies dangled from the ceiling like dead sacks of flesh; a giant metal spider occupied an entire room; caged, screaming, red faces greeted visitors in another room; and sculptures of amorphous body parts appeared elsewhere. The mood was dark, anxious and Freudian. In my sick and fragile physical state – blowing my nose, coughing and feeling as if my own body was betraying me – this exhibit really struck a chord.
It was beginning to snow when I left the gallery, and I was feeling close to physical collapse, yet I could not resist walking around Dean Cemetery, which occupies the lot right next to Gallery Two. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve had a fascination with graveyards that has never abated. I find them sad, peaceful, sobering and ultimately comforting. The idea that everyone must die is reinforced by seeing the graves of all sorts of people next to one another: the rich and famous as well as the obscure. Everyone dies, and while this is an idea that is certainly disturbing, it is also helps me to realize that death is an inevitability for which no one is responsible. It is not a punishment or an indication of what a person has done wrong, but a biological inevitability. We all have to die in one way or another and in this sense, none of us is alone. We are all in it together. Dragging myself along, coughing up green phlem, alternately shivering and then breaking out in a sweat, I had a moment of clarity in that Scottish location. I occupy a body, as did the junkies, skinheads, philosophers and artists who have lived and died in Edinburgh. No monument or work of art can rescue us from our personal mortality, but they can help us to remember the fate that we share as human beings.