The following is a guest post.
It was a warm day last August, and my daughter Verity and I were on a shopping spree in Edinburgh. We had spent at least an hour in Top Shop, where my familiarity with the changing rooms has now reached saturation; in fact, I would really appreciate my own rest area with tea and refreshments.
We emerged into the daylight again, and my happiness was restored. As we made our way down Princes Street the jagged shape of the Scott Monument, Edinburgh’s tribute to Sir Walter Scott, loomed in front of us; glancing upwards, I could see a couple of people silhouetted at the top. I needed fresh air, and there looked to be plenty of it available up there. How exhilarating! A mad idea entered my head. I dragged Verity across the road, mildly protesting.
I’ve lived near Edinburgh for five years, and when I first saw the Scott Monument I was awe-struck. Tier upon tier of impossibly ornate arches and pinnacles stretch skywards, pushing away from the ground, giving you the dizzying impression that you’re falling upwards. The Victorians loved embellishment, and in the Scott Monument they indulged their fantasies to the full.
Beneath the soaring spire – now darkened with age and industrial pollution – is a marble statue of the novelist Sir Walter Scott. He sits in a relaxed pose with his dog at his feet, pensively watching the crowds seething up and down the city’s busiest shopping area.
The monument’s elaborate architecture was the brainchild of a carpenter, George Meikle Kemp, who was the surprise winner of a design competition. The structure was unveiled in 1844, to a mixed reception from the visiting public. Charles Dickens wrote: “It is like the spire of a Gothic church taken off and stuck in the ground.” Rising to 200 feet, the Scott Monument is still the largest monument to a writer anywhere in the world.
That morning Verity and I were among the first customers at the tiny little wooden kiosk that sits beneath the arches. The attendant had just opened his shutters, and seemed mildly amused at our eagerness. “Shall I keep your bags here for you?” he asked. We expressed doubt at the necessity. “The stairs are very narrow,” he explained. “You don’t want to carry your shopping all that way!”
Suitably lightened, we set off up the stairs and soon I discovered my mistake.
Inside the Scott Monument, a narrow flight of stone steps winds around in a tight and windowless spiral. You have to go in single file, and if you meet someone coming down you must stand sideways, flatten your arms, legs and ribcage against the wall, and breathe in.
On the first floor, a tiny central room is lit by stained-glass windows depicting saints and symbols that have a connection with Edinburgh. I was already hyperventilating when we arrived here, so my photos are necessarily a bit blurry.
The next step was to venture out onto one of the four spurs that make up the ‘legs’ of the monument. After glancing down, Verity said nervously, “You know, if you want to carry on, I’ll stay here. I’m good.” She didn’t look that good, but I judged it best not to tell her.
Other people, tourists of all ages and nationalities, were now passing us by – some smiling and saying ‘Hello’, others stopping merely for a breath before eagerly tackling the next flight of stairs.
Having dreamed up this dreadful idea, I felt obliged to continue. Heart pounding, breaths coming fast and shallow, I half-ran up the stairs to the second floor. No central room this time – just a small opening that yawns out onto the vast, heaving panorama of Edinburgh.
There was no way I could walk around the parapet. Waverley Station lay below me, its ridged roof looking like Lego bricks; behind it was the George IV Bridge, the Mound, and in the distance the rounded hill of Arthur’s Seat.
One hand gripping the railings, I raised my camera with a shaking arm and clicked, hoping that the auto-focus would do its job. Then I turned and fled.
Two further stages lay above me, but my legs took me downwards, in order to preserve the rest of my body. When I rejoined Verity at the first level the nausea had not gone away, but I was still trying to hide it.
“Just don’t look down,” I advised her cheerfully. “Look up, instead!” With this, I turned and looked up the monument – straight up, to its pinnacle 150 feet above. The earth seemed to move, and not in a positive way. “Oops,” I said. “I don’t think I should have done that.”
A young Australian woman who had passed us on her way up now halted briefly on her way down to make sure we were all right. We assured her weakly that we were fine.
“You two,” she observed acutely, “are trouble.” Verity laughed at this, while I, still reeling from combined claustrophobia and dizziness, politely thanked her as if I attracted this kind of compliment every day.
We must have presented an amusing sight to the kiosk attendant on our return to Earth. He wasn’t fooled by our sickly smiles; he handed over our bags and advised us to sit on a bench in Princes Street Gardens for at least ten minutes. If he’d had a kettle, I’m sure he would have made us a cup of tea.
Sadly, neither Verity nor I received the Certificate of Achievement (or possibly Endurance) which states that the bearer has successfully climbed every single one of the monument’s 287 steps. On the plus side, however, an hour in Top Shop is now looking extremely appealing.
Jo Woolf is a British writer with a keen interest in history and the natural world. She lives in Central Scotland, and is happiest when she’s wandering around the ruins of an ancient castle or pottering along a pebbly shore. Jo writes an online magazine called The Hazel Tree: www.the-hazel-tree.com