Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Arthur's Seat

Henry Cockburn, in his “Memorials of his Time” provides a glimpse of Edinburgh around 1815, and of one of its characters, Dr. Andrew Duncan, who ascended Arthur’s Seat on May 1st of each year.

‘The extension of the city gave rise in 1815 to the New Town Dispensary.  Any such institution seems at least harmless; yet this one was assailed with a degree of
bitterness which is curious now. It was a civic war.
Two of its principles were, that medicines and medical advice, including obstetrical aid, 
were to be administered to patients at their own homes…The Lying-in Hospital was eloquent
on the danger and the vice of delivering poor women at their own houses. 
The Old Town Dispensary, which did not then go to such patients as could not come
to it, demonstrated the beauty of the sick poor being obliged to swallow their doses
at a public office. Subscribers choose managers ! Impracticable,and dangerously popular !...
The most conspicuous opponent of this charity was Dr. Andrew Duncan, senior,
one of our professors and physicians, and the great patron of the Old Dispensary; 
one of the curious old Edinburgh characters. He was a kind-hearted and excellent man;
but one of a class which seems to live and be happy, and get liked, by its mere 
absurdities. He was the promoter and the president of more innocent and foolish
clubs and societies than perhaps any man in the world, and the author of 
pamphlets, jokes, poems, and epitaphs, sufficient to stock the nation; all amiable,
all dull, and most of them very foolish. But they made the author happy; 
and he was so benevolent and so simple, that even those who were suffering 
under his interminable projects checked their impatience and submitted.
Scientific ambition, charitable restlessness, and social cheerfulness made him
thrust himself into every thing throughout a long life. Yet, though his patronage
was generally dangerous, and his talk always wearisome, nobody could 
ever cease to esteem him. He was even the president of a bathing club;
and once at least every year did this grave medical professor conduct as many 
of the members as he could collect to Leith, where the rule was, that their respect 
for their chief was to be shown by always letting him plunge first from the machine into the 
water. He continued, till he was past eighty, a practice of mounting to the summit 
of Arthur's Seat on the first of May, and celebrating the feat by what he called a poem.’

Arthur’s Seat was obviously a prominent part of Sir Walter Scott’s life as well.  Scott begins Chapter 7 of “The Heart of Mid-Lothian” there.

                    Arthur's Seat shall be my bed,
                    The sheets shall ne'er be pressed by me,
                    St. Anton's well shall be my drink,
                    Sin' my true-love's forsaken me.
                                               Old Song.

If I were to choose a spot from which the rising or setting sun could be seen to the greatest possible advantage, it would be that wild path winding around the foot of the high belt of semicircular rocks, called Salisbury Crags, and marking the verge of the steep descent which slopes down into the glen on the south-eastern side of the city of Edinburgh. The prospect, in its general outline, commands a close-built, high-piled city, stretching itself out beneath in a form, which, to a romantic imagination, may be supposed to represent that of a dragon; now, a noble arm of the sea, with its rocks, isles, distant shores, and boundary of mountains; and now, a fair and fertile champaign country, varied with hill, dale, and rock, and skirted by the picturesque ridge of the Pentland mountains. But as the path gently circles around the base of the cliffs, the prospect, composed as it is of these enchanting and sublime objects, changes at every step, and presents them blended with, or divided from, each other, in every possible variety which can gratify the eye and the imagination. When a piece of scenery so beautiful, yet so varied,--so exciting by its intricacy, and yet so sublime,--is lighted up by the tints of morning or of evening, and displays all that variety of shadowy depth, exchanged with partial brilliancy, which gives character even to the tamest of landscapes, the effect approaches near to enchantment. This path used to be my favourite evening and morning resort, when engaged with a favourite author, or new subject of study. It is, I am informed, now become totally impassable; a circumstance which, if true, reflects little credit on the taste of the Good Town or its leaders.*
* A beautiful and solid pathway has, within a few years, been formed around these romantic rocks; and the Author has the pleasure to think, that the passage in the text gave rise to the undertaking.

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