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Dark City

July 1, 2005

The Hub

It’s summer in Edinburgh, and the cold stone heart of the old city is reluctantly warmed by the gentle Northern sun. It yields its secrets with bitter grace to the carefree tramp of visitors looking for a quick dose of its eldritch history.

But the dark, louring heart of the city still beats its malevolent poison beneath the warm cobbles of the High Street; the soot-black buildings scowl disapprovingly down on the wee lasses in skimpy clothes and the general air of frivolity that comes with summer in this black city. The unquiet ghosts of Burke and Hare and Deacon Broadie slink deeper into the inmost dark, manifesting occasionally in the dress of a latter day Goth, hiding in some of the darker and less visited of the Old Town wynds and closes.

The city does not take to modernity well. The first great attempt to drag the sullen medieval city into the rational light of a new age occurred with the building of the New Town two hundred years ago, as the Athens of the North was created on the drawing boards of the ambitious and newly rich. And so the darkling loch was drained and some of the cold spirit of the place leeched out and sublimated into a Victorian phantasia of Order and Reason that stands yet as an accusatory counterpoint to the dark superstition of the Old City.

For the fort of Edin hides well her dark heart beneath her blythe exterior. Who knows, for example, that the happy summer playing field of the Meadows, uncommonly green and fertile, was once the rotten city’s plague pit, or that dear stone heart set in the flags at Saint Giles is memorial to a prison infamous for its suffering and pain.

That it is a dark place is well known to those who live here. The dank and dreary Cowgate is a world away from the monied plazas of Charlotte Square, and the old spirits live well in Greyfriars Kirkyard with scant regard for the light of reason shone so presumptuously on the ancient secrets of this darkest of cities. In the drink-soaked, subterranean vaults of the pubs where many a sad tale has been shared, a deep mourning still lingers for all the joy sucked out by the stern countenance of granite walls and the snell winter winds that blow a shadow across the heart.

The young of the city wrap themselves in mystic black and lurk in the shadows at Bannermans, Nichol Edwards and other dark places, while the old keep their council and sup their pint of heavy. The nightmare of centuries indeed weighs heavy on the hearts of the living.

Who knows what misery lies beneath the stones? In the gloom of a wet evening the old and beaten down gather in musty howffs and toast the darkness together, drinking a dour dram to the cold hand that clutches us so relentlessly.

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