Last week, some friends came to visit me from North America, and we spent a few days together in Edinburgh. I used to live in Scotland’s capital, and so I am well acquainted with its cobblestoned roads and juxtaposing layers of old and new. The city of shifting light, as Alexander McCall Smith once called it, is one of immense historical importance to Scotland, the rest of the UK and the world at large, so it’s no surprise that millions of people flock to it year after year. Fortunately, it’s also a city that has worked hard to accommodate such desires. Few places I have been to have commodified their own history as effectively as Edinburgh, a city where the oldest buildings and quaintest museums stand alongside excessively tartaned gift shops selling cuddly Highland cows, mini-bagpipe sets and shortbread shaped like Scottie dogs (I must confess that I bought multiple packets of the latter). My friends were eager to see the most iconic of our capital’s landmarks, and I was all too happy to tag along. When you live somewhere, you seldom indulge in the pursuits of tourists unless someone comes to visit.
We had afternoon tea at Holyrood, we browsed the Royal Yacht Britannia, we took in multiple museums and I introduced my American friend to haggis (she loved it). Of course, we also went to Edinburgh Castle.
If you live in Edinburgh, particularly if you study there, the castle is a beacon you easily forget about. It’s not until someone reminds you that yes, there is a castle on top of an extinct volcano in the middle of the city, that you realise how odd that must be to the rest of the world. Sometimes, when you walk past it at night, the bricks blend seamlessly into the rockface and you swear it was never really there. I’d only been to the castle a couple of times before and seldom walked up there while living in Edinburgh - why the hell would you want to go all the way to the top of the Royal Mile for no reason? Going back is always fun, especially with guests for whom seeing a castle every day is not the norm.
If you’re taking a trip to Edinburgh, it’s certainly worth the price of admission to see the castle. It’s a vast structure whose history is worth knowing, and there’s something for every history buff. You walk past multiple tour groups, each guided in a different language, and allow yourself to be overwhelmed by the sheer size of everything, and the view alone is enough to inspire. The small country on one green island becomes limitless in its scope from the top of the city.
Towards the end of our time there, we visited the Scottish National War Memorial. We’d seen everything else so why not this too? The monument was opened in 1927, making it the youngest part of the castle, and it commemorates the Scottish soldiers, as well as those serving in Scottish regiments, who died in the First World War. Over the years, it has expanded to commemorate those who died in other conflicts. The outside of the building is like many a castle in Scotland, gargoyles and all, although the inside is more akin to a church. It’s dimly lit and the ceilings go high, decorated in inscriptions and insignias that invite the eye to stare just a little longer. Flags border each section dedicated to a particular regiment, with impeccable letters etched into the stone. At a spectator level, there are large and well-used books full of the names of those soldiers who died. Some of the ink has smudged, some of the pages are ripped or yellowing. People browse casually, most of them not looking for any one name, and then they move on. Photography was prohibited but I remember the click of a camera or two as a I passed by.
My friend pointed out that one regiment was from my district, and that connection struck me harder than I’d anticipated. I slowly moved through the memorial with the weight of contrast on my shoulders: I’d paid money to go to this top rated tourist attraction that housed a war memorial, one where people like me browsed with muted interest as if we were attending a school trip. Thousands of dead soldiers had a beautiful memorial dedicated to their sacrifice, and part of me couldn’t shake the feeling that I shouldn’t find this building ‘kind of cool.’
There’s a moment in Alan Bennett’s The History Boys where teacher Hector and the boys discuss World War Two. The topic falls onto concentration camps and a discussion takes place that’s stuck with me for years now. Hector says, ‘They go on school trips nowadays, don’t they? Auschwitz. Dachau. What has always concerned me is where do they eat their sandwiches? Drink their coke?’ When a student tells him they’d do it in the visitors’ centre, like anywhere else, he responds, ‘Do they take pictures of each other there? Are they smiling? Do they hold hands? Nothing is appropriate.’ He says this in the context of writing an Oxbridge entrance exam paper on the topic but it opens up a wider issue on what Hectors calls ‘decorum’.
War memorials will always exist, and the chances are that their upkeep will cost a pretty penny. The one in Edinburgh Castle is kept in impeccable order, no doubt assisted by the steep ticket price, but that question of decorum keeps returning to me. Death fills the castle, as it does everywhere in Edinburgh, where excitement over spirits and murder comes only second to history in tourist’s priorities. The ghosts of the past offer the ideal distraction for your holiday away, and yes, people will take smiling selfies in front a war memorial because what else is there to do? How else can you share those precious memories with family back home? Can you even bear witness to the past and its insurmountable atrocities when your mind is on where to eat and if the gift shop sells cookies? What can we understand about our own history when we’re tourists in a strange land, or even when we’re tourists on our own land?
After about fifteen minutes in the memorial, I realised my friends had already left, but I took my time in leaving. It felt only right to do so. They enjoyed it. They thought it was interesting. We went to see the castle prisons before grabbing a quick lunch. When pushed to ask about the war memorial, I’m sure my instinctive reaction will still be the same, even as I struggle to parse my entangled emotions on the subject:
It was pretty cool.