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Saturday, 28 June 2014

I Scotland: Northern Cross

ON DIFFERENT DAYS, different weather means different things to different people. In Russia for instance, some people think a wet and grey day is an auspicious time to set off on a journey. Elsewhere, when it snows on Armistice Day, 11th November, since this is also the feast of St Martin of Tours, they say that ‘St Martin has arrived on a white horse’. And in lowland areas of Britain, when it snows on 20th March, St Cuthbert’s day, a lot of people say ‘It’s because of global warming’. Be that as it may, thanks to a deluge of big flakes that started on the previous evening, the morning of Thursday 21st March 2013 found Berwick-upon-Tweed swathed in a crunchy duvet of snow, conditions which no doubt play havoc with the town’s ongoing efforts to prosecute the Crimean War[1]. I beat my retreat just after 8.30am, rendezvousing with a fellow parishioner of Our Lady and St Cuthbert’s church, and motoring north, to Edinburgh. Our conversation touched on the recent election of Pope Francis, and on the respective routes by which we had each been drawn to the ineffable light of Christianity, from the claustrophobic murk of atheism. At about 10am I reached Princes Street, but found St Cuthbert’s CoS (Church of Scotland) Church packed to the rafters with schoolchildren, so I climbed up from there to Edinburgh Castle and shelled out for a ticket. Commencing my tour with St Margaret’s Chapel gave me the chance to say some prayers in the hallowed surroundings, illumined by a medley of 20th century stained glass windows, depicting St Margaret (11th century Queen of Scotland, possibly the grand-daughter of St Stephen of Hungary), St Andrew, St Ninian, St Columba and William Wallace. The chapel’s 12th century provenance makes it Edinburgh’s oldest surviving building, because when a hand-picked company of commandos under Thomas Randolph, 1st Earl of Moray, captured the castle in March 1314 (stealthily scaling the precipitous north face of Castle Rock), Robert Bruce ordered the destruction of all the surrounding fortifications. Coming back outside, given the decided chill, it was amusing to overhear a Russian lady as she commented about one of the other visitors, who she considered overdressed for such warm weather! Next, the ‘Honours of Scotland’[2] were outstanding, and the National War Memorial, dating from the 1920s, sobering – “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return” (Genesis 3:19). In the National War Museum of Scotland, a memorable exhibit was a small Russian icon of St Nicholas the Wonderworker, retrieved from the battlefield at Inkerman in the Crimea, in November 1854; a grisly bloodbath by all accounts, but notable also because it took place on the day after Florence Nightingale’s arrival at Scutari, Istanbul, to tend casualties of the war. Meanwhile, on the very day of this visit to Edinburgh Castle, at the Scottish Parliament building in Holyrood, a mere snowball’s throw away, First Minister Alex Salmond announced to the world that Scotland’s independence referendum would be held on September 18th 2014. Many people in the west and Highlands of Scotland are expected to vote ‘Yes’ to independence, but a good deal of ‘No’ is expected in the Borders, and in eastern areas.
Edinburgh Castle, March 2013.


[1] According to a much-refuted legend, when the various constituent parts of Great Britain declared war on Imperial Russia in 1853, Berwick-upon-Tweed was cited as a separate entity, because of residual uncertainty over its belonging to England or Scotland. At the end of hostilities, Berwick was supposed to have been missed off the Treaty of Paris, thus the town is said to be still fighting the Crimean War to this day.
[2]‘Is this a dagger that I see before me?’ No, it’s a sceptre, with a similarly bejewelled sword and crown, dating from the 15th and 16th centuries (therefore long after the days of Macbeth, who reigned in the 11th century). Also seen here is the Stone of Scone (pronounced ‘scoon’), aka the Stone of Destiny, revered from days of yore for its role in the coronation of Scottish monarchs. The tradition that it is also Jacob’s pillow, on which the Old Testament patriarch rested at Bethel and beheld a vision of angels (Genesis 28:10-19) however, surely owes more to myth than legend, scientific analyses showing the rock to have been quarried in the area of Scone itself, in Perthshire. But that is not to say that it doesn’t have exactly the sort of real historical significance, combined with romantic je ne sais quoi, of which a thoroughly entertaining Indiana Jones yarn might be made.

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