A Night in Edinburgh
From:  fieldnotes, 10/28/09 – 10/29/09

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            On our second night in Edinburgh I'm unable to sleep.  Our room in The George Hotel lies at the end of a labyrinthine set of hallways and flights of stairs with no sane reason for the layout.  I lie in the dark caught in a swirl of Doré images driven by something resembling a long, Coleridge incantation.  I've forgotten what a release sleep can be, what a necessary decapitation it is when the mind has run unchecked for hours. 

As I lie awake, the past soaks through the present, dissolving the chronological boundaries.  Everywhere my thoughts turn, I come upon stories decayed into middens centuries deep.  Each stone of the fortress wall I pass and each cobblestone sunk in the street holds vague shapes trapped within.  Dark events have saturated the physical world until every step releases a voice of lamentation.  Each deep and narrow alley holds another terror as I descend its stone steps.  Murder and starvation, running battles in the streets, pestilence and war, treachery and assassination, religious purges and mass imprisonments – all churn to the surface and sink again.

The castle stands on its crag, dominating the town.  Entering the Great Hall I study the ancient weapons arrayed on the walls, the halberd blades worn and nicked with use, the leather-wrapped handle of the immense Claymore sword darkened with the sweat of the human hand.  Every town square I cross has its gallows or gibbet, and piercing screams echo from the walls of the great kirk where 300 women, found guilty of witchcraft, are being burnt to ashes.  Passing the Kirk of St Giles, I hear John Knox thundering out a sermon under its ancient ribbed arches.  It's a dreich night, and as a shadow rounds the corner I see the raven mask of a plague doctor making his rounds by the flicker of torchlight.  Another bend of the street gives a glimpse of Deacon Brodie, upstanding citizen by day and notorious burglar by night who inspired the tale of Jekyll and Hyde.  Back on High Street I find him hanging by the neck, executed on a gallows of his own design. 
Alleys lead off in opposite directions, and each one I take ends at the stone face of the city wall, stone everywhere – stacked in walls, armoring the streets, even a stone sky overhead where the tall buildings lean together.  My only way to escape the waking nightmare is through the tolbooth at the city gate, but I lack the money to pay the fee.  Those trapped in the warren of tenements know it as The World's End.  Nowhere to turn, I roam the burying grounds falling to ruin, the headstones toppled, the crypts broken open and empty as if the bodysnatchers have done their work and left.  Earlier in the day I read about the murmuration of starlings, and the image now returns.  Ten thousand souls swarm in the twilight around me, pulsing in a great cloud as they search for a grove of trees to land.

In this city the frontiers of knowledge are as wild and terror-stricken as any borderland.  Prohibited from using corpses for medical dissections, the doctors have encouraged a lively trade in cadavers.  The medical colleges of Edinburgh need a steady supply, and the bodysnatchers meet the demand.  Guard towers stand in graveyards to protect the recently departed from the resurrection men.  When enough fresh corpses are unavailable, they sometimes hasten the process of dying.  William Burke murders sixteen victims and sells their bodies to a professor for use in his anatomy school and museum.  I find Burke left hanging on a gallows before a crowd of 25,000 until his own body is turned over to students for dissection and his skin made into a pocketbook.  At least he is spared a slow death.  The executioner has as many inventive ways of prolonging the agony of dying for the entertainment and edification of the public as the prosecutor has of eliciting a confession.

Walking down a long curve of street, I pass the home of Major Thomas Weir, left empty and damned for a hundred years.  Weir is one of the city's most prominent citizens, a war hero and devout Christian, who shocks the community by confessing on his sickbed to devil worship, bestiality, and a life-long, incestuous relationship with his sister.  When he is asked to repent before his execution, the 70-year old wizard says he has lived as a beast and must die like one.  Granting his wish, the executioner strangles the wizard until he is almost dead and before he can lose consciousness burns him at the stake.

These thoughts recycle in endless mutations and conflations as the hours stretch toward morning.  At some point I wonder if a cook slipped something into my meat pie at dinner.  In what pub did we eat – the Black Rose, Blackfriars, the Black Bull?  I can't remember, and now see the head of a black bull being served to the boys in the castle dinning room as guests of the young king.  It's an ancient sign of condemnation presented moments before they are hauled into an adjacent chamber, convicted on a trumped-up charge of treason, and quickly beheaded in the courtyard.  The castle on its crag looms above every street, and where the land drops down to the north, a nightmarish spire rises hundreds of feet in honor of Sir Walter Scott, its Gothic architecture appearing skeletal and stained as dark as bones pulled from a bog.

Nearly suffocated by the weight of stories, I finally realize the necessity of escape from the past.  The memories of my grandmother, a MacLeod, went back no further than Montreal.  No family stories, no traditions survived the crossing.  It was as if a long forgetting took hold the moment they stepped foot on a new continent.  I now see why we had to trade the dark memories of five hundred generations for the heaving expanses of a vast Atlantic, why we had to head west not to discover a new world but to create one, why we had to reach the last America.  At any cost.


Click for past explorations
New World part 1 of 3
New World part 2 of 3
New World part 3 of 3