Scotland: “i” is for imagination
“And the fleet of little boats moved off all at once, gliding across the lake, which was as smooth as glass. Everyone was silent, staring up at the great castle overhead. It towered over them as they sailed nearer and nearer to the cliff on which it stood.” (Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, Chapter 6)
Scotland is layered with human history atop human history. I have joked with Norwegian teachers that in Iowa if a building is 100 years old we consider it ancient, and they think it’s relatively new. Some added to that play by noting that when they travel to the UK they might mention to new colleagues that their school in Norway is over 100 years old only to be told by their British hosts that this school is over 500 years old.
My holiday to Scotland was centered in Edinburgh, a most fabulous city. Arriving to Edinburgh airport my first introduction to the city was thoroughly modern. The conspicuous air-traffic control tower announced a commitment to high technology and progress. The double-decker express bus to the city center was then a journey back through time, 30 minutes to travel over 1,000 years.
An interstate highway pierced the first layer, post-war modernity. We cruised past dull buildings that passed for businesses. Too typically festooned with garish signage to attract attention that the architecture could not. LCD displays relayed GPS information, we neared the Gyle Shopping Centre.
Continuing forward to go back in time, turn-of-the-century row houses lined the way. The homes were tidy and compact stone or brick structures with ad hoc parking for cars; satellite dishes hung like peculiar and forgotten christmas ornaments. Edinburgh was a working city, a destination for displaced farmers from the Lowlands and crofters from the Highlands. People moved here to continue life, to move forward. And so did our bus.
Harry Potter was born in Scotland, Edinburgh specifically. J. K. Rowling took inspiration from her surroundings and experiences to create that most magical world. We ate at the cafe where she wrote the first book. Like Scotland, Rowling wove a story that wed the ancient, the fantastic, and the modern into a compelling tale. As it did for Rowling, Scotland invited me to do the same.
Our bus entered Shandwick Place circle and another era, Georgian Britain. The German-bred kings of Britain reigned over a period of industrialization and wealth. New cities were plated to both capture and reflect the prosperity and philosophies of the day: right-angle city streets and uniform architecture. The West End and New Town of Edinburgh exemplify the ambitions of those long since passed Scots and their wisdom; the old buildings still stand and thrive in a modern world.
Owen and I took a walk through New Town later in the week. The straight streets and din of traffic were familiar but the aesthetics of the buildings were not. I could imagine the wide streets free of autos, and instead traversed by horse drawn carriages. The sound, and certainly the smell would have been different. I didn’t ask Owen what he imagined, I regreted that.
Cruising east on Princes Street we passed the Scott Monument. It was a fitting transition between the New Town and the Old Town to which we were about to enter. Bus #100 reached the end of the line on the bridge and our journey back in time was nearly complete. We crossed Market Street with our backpacks to ascend Cockburn Street. The curved and climbing street took us back in time further still. The twists and turns, nooks and crannies of Rowling’s Diagon Alley were here. Cars were clearly out of place yet had muscled their way onto the street through brute force and threat of violence, taking cues from the countless public hangings in the neighborhood.
High Street, also known as the Royal Mile, denoted the journey’s end. The route was a riot of architectural splendor. Our apartment on the street has hosted souls for hundreds of years. And at the end of the street, actually the beginning, rested Edinburgh Castle. It was perched on a crag and protected the Chapel of St. Margaret. The diminutive house of prayer was built in the 12th century, the oldest building in Edinburgh.
From the ramparts of the castle all of Edinburgh was visible. Our visit was extra special in that the sun was present, illuminating a city that needed little help to amaze. The view from the primordial rock went back again through time: from Old Town and a Royal and Independent Scotland, to New Town and the cusp of the industrial revolution, and on to the horizon where a new bridge over the Firth of Forth will commemorate the 21st century.
Inspiration for the imagination, is that the old Celtic meaning for Pictland? It has inspired so many authors, Rowling most famously as of late but also Sir Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson, Alan Ramsay, and Elizabeth Melville. We agreed that Scotland in general, but Edinburgh in particular warranted a return visit. Who can resist a place of such creativity that made the unicorn its official animal?