The 14 September is celebrated in Christian calendars as a feast day, and specifically as a feast of the Cross. It was on this very day in 1128 that king David I of Scotland elected to go hunting instead of attending church, and so set in motion a series of (probably largely mythological) events which had an impact on the development of the city of Edinburgh itself.
At that time, the area around what is the bottom of the Royal Mile today was property of the crown, and very heavily wooded. It may be hard to imagine the expanse of Holyrood Park covered in trees, the rise of Arthur's Seat emerging above them, but before the land was developed this was broadly how it looked. (The area today is, not incidentally, still crown property, and Holyrood Park is also called the King or Queen's Park, depending on the monarch.)
David was a keen huntsman, and so having assembled his men he rode out from Edinburgh Castle, in search of a prize stag. Somehow, somewhere, in the midst of the royal forest he became disoriented and separated from his men. As he sought to return to the path his horse was startled by a large white stag which emerged from the trees. David's horse bolted, leaving the king sprawled on the ground at the stag's feet, whereupon it made as though to gore him to death with its antlers.
At which dramatic point in the narrative things take a turn for the supernatural. Various versions of the story exist - either a crucifix appeared between the stag's antlers, and as David reached for it the stag ran away; or the sunlight through the trees cast the shape of a cross on the stag's face, dazzling it momentarily and allowing David to summon the strength to scare it off; or a physical crucifix appeared in David's hand, which he brandished at the stage, scaring it away.
Either way, there was a cross (in some form) and a lucky escape for David.
Taking this sequence of events as a sign from God that he needed to start being more pious - and not least as a telling-off from the Almighty for having skipped church against his chaplain's advice - David resolved to amend his ways. He would continue hunting, but no longer on Sunday mornings, and not on feast days either. And he would found an abbey on the site where the stag appeared to him.
The abbey he founded was populated with Augustinian monks, and the land around it given over to their care and ownership. The abbey was named after the feast day, that of the Holy Rood, and it would survive as a royal abbey for the next six-hundred years. Later the abbey site was developed, and in the sixteenth century a royal palace grew up adjacent to the abbey building. Today the ruins of Holyrood Abbey directly join on to the Palace of Holyroodhouse, still a royal property, and the official residence of HRH the Queen when she visits Scotland.
The area between the abbey and St Giles' cathedral in the Old Town grew up as a thriving town, beyond the walls of Edinburgh itself, and today survives as the Canongate section of the Royal Mile. The symbol or emblem of the area - represented in various forms through the area - is that of a stag's head with a cross between its antlers.
Explore the Canongate and Holyrood areas in more detail with my customised city walking tours.
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