There are many routes up and across ‘Arthur’s Seat’, each one different. Some steep, some rocky, some a gentle stroll. On this particular occasion I began at the Southern end, and took the ascending northward path through the long grass along the slopes of Salisbury Crags.
That Sunday was an interesting mix of weather – brilliant blue sky and billowing winds; perfect for walking and thinking. Perhaps not so perfect for walking along a cliff-face. In any case, there I was.
For those unfamiliar, Arthur’s Seat is in fact an extinct volcano that forms the centre-point of Holyrood Park in Edinburgh. It last erupted 350 million years ago and was then buried under layers of rock. In more recent times – between 31,000 to 16,000 years ago – glacial erosion re-exposed rock formations that had been created during eruptions and slower lava flows. As a result, this iconic landmark dominating the city’s skyline is a geological heaven, with varied ages and types of stone, from igneous to carboniferous sedimentary rock.
On the Eastern side of Arthur’s Seat, and at 151 ft, the tops of the Salisbury Crags offer stunning panoramic views across and beyond the city, as well as a deathly drop to the bottom. Viewed from a distance, the crags rise up like an ancient fortress.
The crags were formed in a molten state and contain dolerite: a subvolcanic igneous rock, quickly formed from cooling magma that produced tightly packed pores not letting in air or water. As a result it’s especially resistant to weathering, a quality that meant the rock was regularly quarried and used as street cobble stones from Edinburgh to London. The travel writer Sarah Murray wrote in 1796 when visiting Arthur’s Seat “I saw vast heaps of the hard rock divided into small pieces, ready for shipping; and I was told great quantities of that crag were sent to London for paving the streets.” So much of the rock was being mined that the locals complained the extinct volcano and the much-loved landmark would disappear. In what is often considered the first case of modern geological conservation in Britain, a campaign to end the extraction was spear-headed by Scottish geologist James Hutton in the late 18th century (I am quite sure there would have been pre-modern, less official, local attempts we just don’t know about). It wasn’t until 1831 though that the quarrying was officially stopped.
Why am I telling you this? I suppose because I like rocks, I find them interesting – the deep histories they silently tell, and the wisdom they hold. As some of the oldest natural landmarks on the planet, mountains, cliffs and caves have witnessed more than any of us.
(For those who follow this blog for the Tolkien references, I think this is why I have always been fond of book-Gimli in the LotR. Recall when at Helm’s Deep he says, “This is more to my liking…Ever my heart rises as we draw near the mountains. There is good rock here. This country has tough bones. I felt them in my feet…”. The attention he pays to stone and his own connection with it, allowing his feet, and not just his eyes and ears, to see and hear, is rare and worthy of respect.)
I took a moment to sit, survey, and be present at the top of the cliff-face (also to stop myself from being blown off it). In the distance the Pentland Hills looked back.
I became aware of a curious and quite joyful scene involving a group of crows. They were taking turns to jump off the cliff-face and watch each other perform some kind of extreme sport. Once in the air, they spread their wings allowing themselves to be carried up and in all directions as if they were bits of paper – they attempted no resistance, giving up all control to the wind and embracing the thrill of weightlessness. Then, they would close their wings, dive into free-fall for a few seconds before opening their wings again at lower altitude where it was less windy, allowing them to regain control of their flight. They then swooped back to the cliff edge to repeat this pattern. I’m sure there is some precise ornithology that explains all this, but to me it looked like they were simply enjoying themselves like children at a water park. I don’t know how long I watched them like this, I was mesmerised and lost track of time. I thought how carefree they were, how instead of resisting the wind or being frustrated by it they found a way to be in harmony with it. Crows aren’t usually considered beautiful, but they were beautiful then, and so unlike humans I thought.
Just as I was thinking this I became aware of a small shape on the cliff-edge away to my left. Someone kneeling, watching the birds and the hills, just as I was. And I was reminded that humans, in their silent pondering truth, can be beautiful too.
- Sarah Murray, A Companion, and Useful Guide to the Beauties of Scotland, to the Lakes of Westmoreland, Cumberland, and Lancashire; and to the Curiosities in the District of Craven, in the West Riding of Yorkshire. To which is added, a more particular Description of Scotland, especially that part of it, called The Highlands. By the Hon. Mrs. Murray, of Kensington (London: George Nicol, 1799)
- JRR Tolkien, The Two Towers (Harper Collins, 1991)