Reaching New Heights in Edinburgh

Visiting the Scott Monument, Edinburgh, Scotland
PART 1 ] [ PART 2 ][ This is a continuation of last week’s post about my explorations of Edinburgh on a sunny autumn day. Check out the first part or keep reading to see whether I managed to face my fears and get a new perspective on the capital city. ]

As I finished my circuit of Princes Street Gardens, my time in the city was drawing to a close but there was still one more thing I wanted to do. During previous trips I had visited the castle, Holyroodhouse Palace, St. Giles, and the main museums, but I had never climbed the Scott Monument. It seemed a waste to venture to the top on such grey days but if I was ever going to climb it, today was going to be the day.

I don’t think Sir Walter Scott is read much today, at least outside of Scotland, due to a combination of doorstep-size novels, dense language, and somewhat overwrought plots. Yet during the 18th and early 19th century, he was the celebrity writer of the age. He was inspired by tales of the Scottish borderlands and chivalry, writing novels such as Ivanhoe, Rob Roy, and Waverley, and is credited with launching the historical novel as a genre. He is likewise recognised for reviving Scottish national pride after the Jacobite rebellion of the mid 18th century, and his success further led to the stage management of the visit of King George IV to Scotland, sparking a trend for all things tartan.

Soon after Scott’s death in 1832, a contest was run to design a fitting monument for such an illustrious citizen. The eventual winner was George Meikle Kemp, a self-taught architect. Decorated with the figures of 64 characters from Scott’s novels, with a statue of the author himself at the base, the monument was built by public subscription at a cost of over £15,000. Reaching heights of 61m (200 feet), it remains the tallest monument to an author anywhere in the world.

Unfortunately Kemp did not have the chance to see the monument completed; he drowned in an accident in 1844, just a few months before the final stone was placed. He was, however, spared some of the negative reviews, such as one by Charles Dickens, who had this to say about the monument: “I am sorry to report the Scott Monument a failure. It is like the spire of a Gothic church taken off and stuck in the ground.” 

While I think Dickens was a little unfair, I do wish Kemp had given a bit more thought to how visitors would get to the various levels to take in the sights. Yes, I was again looking at my nemesis: narrow, winding stairs. Heights don’t bother me: walking over the glass walkway at the Tower of London was a highlight of my trip. But figuring out where to put my feet gets me every time.

I have vague recollections of falling down cellar stairs as a toddler: it was winter, they were slippery, and I was swaddled in a snowsuit so no lasting damage done.* But perhaps this made an impression on my psyche? Logically, I know it’s a baseless fear: even if I were to fall, I wouldn’t make it all the way to the bottom like in this classic Far Side cartoon—but that doesn’t stop my brain from triggering a fight or flight response (it prefers freezing in these situations or, preferably, fleeing in the opposite direction towards a nice level surface).

There is only one stairway up and down on the monument, and it’s as narrow as any I’ve ever come across. However, I made it to the first level without a problem. This houses the Museum Room, with beautiful stained glass windows of St. Andrew, St. Giles, and the coats of arms of Edinburgh and Scotland. I took a moment to catch my breath while reading about the history of the monument then I began to climb the second flight of stairs.

Visiting the Scott Monument, Edinburgh, Scotland

And this is when I ran into a few issues. Not only were the stairs narrow, but the ceiling was low as well. So low that my backpack was hitting it and I had to keep my head down to stop it doing likewise. There was no handrail, I didn’t know where to put feet (which seemed to be growing in size by the second), and I was trying to protect the camera hanging around my neck from swinging into the side of the wall. I was not exactly comfortable with any of this.

Indeed, I scurried back down after only about 20 steps. Not two minutes before I had passed a member of staff who had given me the go-ahead to go up, and as I reappeared in the doorway he asked me what the problem was. I tried to explain, gesturing to the backpack but not mentioning my rapidly expanding feet.

“You have a good camera,” he said. “You’ll get great shots today. Give me your bag.” And with that he took my backpack from me and carried it up to the next level. I trailed along in his wake while trying to focus on his questions as part of my brain yammered that I needed to think about foot placement.

But, with his help, I made it to level two.

As you climb the Scott Monument, a paradox occurs. The stairways seem to get narrower, but each level opens up more and more of the city to your gaze. And there were still two flights to go. I navigated them holding the backpack out in front of me, and in this way I climbed to levels three and four. Once at the top I marvelled at the 360-degree views across the city, looking towards all the landmarks that I had visited in the course of the morning and across to the magnificent Arthur’s Seat and distant mountains.

Getting back down proved to be its own challenge. I had the same issues as before—no handrail, dangling camera, low ceiling, small steps, and big feet—but now gravity was pulling me forward, aided by my heavy backpack. But, step by step, I made it back to level three, level two, level one. Fortunately there were no other visitors making the climb at the same time or I think I would still be frozen to the spot.

When I made it back down to the ground I nearly hugged the member of staff who had helped me up, and I felt like I could take on anything life threw at me. There were also a number of lessons I took away from this. First of all, face what scares you. It’s probably not as bad as you think! Second, just keep putting one foot in front of the other. For me, this was quite a literal lesson, but it’s something I think that is applicable regardless of the challenge you’re facing. And, finally, sometimes you’ll need help along whatever journey you’re facing—accept it. Because the view from the top or the other side of a difficult problem? Absolutely worth it.**

When visiting Edinburgh it’s hard not to think about other places; certainly Athens, Oxford, and Hogwarts all came to mind at one point or another. Yet Edinburgh is very much its own beast and is a city I love to visit. Not only does it have an incredibly rich history, stunning architecture, and friendly people, but it always challenges my expectations. In this case, proving to myself that I could climb 287 narrow, winding stairs was a wonderful confidence boost. The other unexpected outcome of my trip? Sunburn.

Calton Hill, Edinburgh

* In double checking this memory with my parents, they reported that I fell down at least two sets of stairs as a child, so perhaps my irrational phobia isn’t quite as irrational as I thought (also, I have a new appreciation for the invention of stair gates).

** Another lesson: pack a lighter bag. My arm ached for the next two days!

Off the Beaten Track Wiltshire

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