Arthur’s Seat / Edinburgh, Scotland / March 2016
On learning of the dormant volcano in Edinburgh, climbing Arthur’s Seat, and discovering its secrets.
We got halfway to Arthur Street before I mustered up the courage to say something. I always feel timid correcting cab drivers seeing as they possess superior knowledge in almost all circumstances. But with the rocky hill rapidly receding behind us I felt fairly confident of my position. “Um,” I ventured, “we’re going to Arthur’s Seat?” The cab driver immediately apologized and pulled a quick U-turn (“Happens all the time,” he said, shaking his head), and soon we were heading toward the volcano rather than away from it.
Serves us right, I suppose, for catching a cab to take a hike, but we were short on time and anxious to climb Arthur’s Seat before leaving Edinburgh. Once you learn it exists, it’s hard to resist hiking an extinct volcano at the heart of a simultaneously modern and medieval city. The volcano last erupted something like 340 million years ago, back when much of Great Britain was located near the equator, and the country was largely a tropical swamp.1Despite the march of millennia and the eroding of the volcano to an unassuming hill, our cab driver remained skeptical of all the dwellings perched mere yards from the crater’s slopes. “I think we’re probably safe,” he mused. “But still.”
The day turned out to be uncharacteristically glorious, not warm enough to actually forego a jacket but warm enough to think you could. Holyrood Park, which encircles Arthur’s Seat, was teeming with people and dogs off leashes. You could tell the outing was a sort of canine heaven, with endless green expanses to run across and thickets of undergrowth to track scents into. I stopped at one point to watch a three-legged Jack Russell terrier bound in and out of a pocket of brush, joyously chasing some small, unseen creature in a perpetual loop.
There are many ways to reach Arthur’s Seat – in fact, you can probably just pick any direction and start walking up towards it. Some paths are easier and shorter than others, though, and the cab driver, perhaps suspecting touristic weakness, deposited us at the foot of the simplest ascent, just above small Dunsapie Loch. The slope was deceptively steep, and halfway up, quads burning, we paused to take in the view. A panorama of Edinburgh spread out in the distance, all grey stone and spires, suffused with the golden light of the sun. We continued up the well-trod trail of grass, which proved to be soft, springy even, as if layered over tightly-coiled moss.2The landscape feels truly ancient. The American writer Washington Irving, in town to visit noted Scottish writer Sir Walter Scott,3wrote to his brother in 1817: “It seemed as if the rock and castle assumed a new aspect every time I looked at them; and Arthur’s Seat was perfect witchcraft. I don’t wonder that anyone residing in Edinburgh should write poetically.”
Irving was spot-on; the hills rearrange themselves with every turn, revealing new crags, meadows, and hills to climb. You might find the Holy Grail here (some say this was the site of Camelot) or the fountain of everlasting youth (young women still bathe their faces in the morning dew on May Day to keep themselves looking young and beautiful). Furthering the mystery of the place, in 1836, a group of seventeen miniature caskets, each containing an even-more miniature carving of a human, were found in the hillside for reasons unknown. Theories range from a commemoration of local serial killers’ victims to, naturally, witchcraft. Even the name Arthur’s Seat remains an enigma – it could be a connection with King Arthur, or a local hero who happened to be named Arthur, or a corruption of a Scots Gallic name, Àrd-na-Said, meaning “height of arrows.” After scaling the peak and descending to the ruins of St. Anthony’s chapel (which looks more like half a castle), I came across a pack of Scottish children running and excitedly yelling, “Dad, we found a cave!” It’s exactly that kind of a place: the kind you sense has endless secrets to uncover.
And . . .