On the days when the batteries in my legs have run low, or when I know it is going to be a particularly beautiful evening, I save my daily walk until late in the day and venture out for a shorter stroll up Calton Hill.
It is a still night. Cawing seagulls, a waspish buzz from a pizza delivery moped, and a tannoy announcement from Waverley Station (announcements for whom?) all rise in unexpected harmony, hoisted by a pulley of silence that encircles this city. A plastic black bin liner is entwined in the arms of a wizened hawthorn. Over time the wind has shredded it into strands of witch’s hair caught up on thorny tendrils. Have they been here? Those three witches? Did they call down this hurlyburly? I think about that famous line and it makes sense to me: when this is all over, the battle will be lost and won.
Two men sit on a bench, together but apart, sharing subdued laughter. This is not a time to be garrulous. Quiet hellos are exchanged, although more often than not, a nod is favoured over speech. The atmosphere feels funereal, it is charged with a sense of resigned expectation. An organ note hangs in the air, reverberating in reverence.
Children – that’s what’s different – there are so few of them around, no running and whooping and climbing. The children have been out during the day and this is child-free evening vespers. Most people are alone, contemplative eyes trained up and out and towards the horizon. What is it we are looking for? I count nine boats anchored in the Forth. Is one of them a galleon come to save us? Plumes of white smoke rise from a fold in the landscape from the direction of the Mossmorran petrochemical plant in Fife. For a fanciful moment I think it could be dust rising from galloping horses, the incarnation of William Wallace bearing down on horseback from the hills of Fife on his way to save us. Or will something rise from the depths of St. Margaret’s Loch and stalk these quiet streets, breathing fire to burn away the pestilence? Or will the sky blow a pure, healing wind to clean and absolve us from this invisible malevolence?
A pathway of cloud funnels into East Lothian; it is an accumulation of thoughts. The whin bushes boom in wafts of coconut. The Pentlands are within touching distance, and a sole adventurer stands at the summit of Arthur’s Seat. If he had a rope, he could hitch himself to the moon and climb like Jack up the beanstalk to the safety of night’s keeper. A north facing slope of Salisbury Crags is gashed, burnt black. I know about it; I passed the firemen two weeks ago, hoses trained on elders, ash and heather, their spring cut short. Just like ours. There’s never a good time for starting fires, but this is the worst.
Tonight, not one soul had climbed upon The National Monument of Scotland. Unpeopled, it looks even more half-finished than usual, pillars rising from a ruined Pompeii. Turning in the other direction, I see that Pompeii is being rebuilt. Construction cranes, five of them, are arthritically hunched over the interrupted rise of St James Shopping Centre. Angled arms are stuck in place, frozen in time like the grandfather clock on the day the old man died. Behind the mothballed construction the sun falls down into the three bridges as we wonder when the real new day will dawn.
Standing sentry over a deserted Prince Street is the Balmoral Clock, still five minutes ahead of itself, buying time for all those who used to rush. Now it runs fast while we run slow. At the far end, the castle oversees it all, watchful but aloof like the portrait of a whiskered ancestor hanging in the long hall. ‘I’ve seen worse than this,’ – whispers the castle –‘I’ve watched over plague and battle, burnings and drownings, filth and insurrection.’ It’s a good time to live in an old city, a city whose creaking bones hold the wisdom of memory. I stand between two monuments: Nelson’s and Dugald Stewart’s and ask how they would navigate and philosophise their way through this?
Keeping quiet vigil on a less visited part of the hill, on a low section to the east, is a humble, rough-hewn stone cairn with a brazier on top. I read that it was built ‘by the keepers of the Vigil for a Scottish Parliament’ – and that vigil began on 10thApril 1992, ending 1,980 days later with a ‘Yes’ vote. Set into the foot of the cairn is a piece of marble inscribed with some lines from hallowed Scottish poet, Hugh MacDiarmid. I read his words and think of the importance of ancient traditions and rituals, of the coincidence (or otherwise) of the date the cairn was first lit, of today being Good Friday as we wait for a resurrection, and of the quiet vigil we are all keeping, now and in the weeks to come.
Hugh MacDiarmid, except from Gairmscoile
For we ha’e faith
In Scotland’s hidden poo’ers,
The present’s theirs,
But a’ the past and future’s oors.