Edinburgh's Royal Lyceum Theatre is about to present the world premiere of a new play with its roots in the very heart of the city's Old Town. Glory on Earth is Linda McLean's dramatic vision of August 1561, when Mary, Queen of Scots returned to Edinburgh for the first time since Scotland had moved away from Catholicism to Protestantism, under the eye of John Knox, the fiery minister of St Giles cathedral.
The story examines not just the personal conflicts between these two iconic figures of Scottish history, but also the political, religious and social turmoil which engulfed Edinburgh in the sixteenth century.
The Reformation of the Scottish church transformed Scotland, and laid the foundations for a whole new relationship between the people and their church, with ministers now preaching in the language of their congregation, and dismantling the power structures that the Catholic church had established.
The impact of the schism in the religious fabric of Scotland can still be felt in the country today, and one of the most enduring consequences of the rise of Knox's vision of faith is still embodied by Scotland's focus on the importance of education for all - it became a matter of law in Scotland for people to be able to read the Bible, now that it was available in Scots/English, which necessitated a requirement for all social classes to be literate.
Thus the emphasis on the education system in Scotland became a matter of priority, and one which continues to be an important feature of Scottish society - it is unlikely to be a coincidence that Scotland became a seat of learning for great thinkers, academics, philosophers, and scientists into the eighteenth century, the period known as the Scottish Enlightenment.
Visitors to the city can still walk in the footsteps of Mary, Queen of Scots, and John Knox today. St Giles' cathedral has a bronze statue of Knox, and in Parliament Square outside the church parking space number 23 is noted as 'the approximate site of the burial' of the Protestant reformer.
Meanwhile, visitors to the Palace of Holyroodhouse can still visit the private chambers and bedroom of Mary, as well as the birth room in Edinburgh Castle where she gave birth to her son James, a future monarch of Scotland and England.
The Lyceum's production - directed by artistic director David Greig, is a world premiere, and may shed a little more light on the tempestuous times in which it is set, putting the city of Edinburgh back at the front and centre of the world's stage.
Glory on Earth runs at the Royal Lyceum Theatre from 20 May - 10 June 2017.
Explore Edinburgh in more detail with my private city walking tours!
Plenty of folkloric rituals surround the turning of the year and traditional May Day celebrations - often associated with pagan rites, the May Day itself probably started with the Romans as a way of marking the start of the summer season.
In Edinburgh, the most popular way of marking the turning of the season survives in the tradition of the Beltane fire festival, held on the slopes and summit of Calton Hill at the east of the New Town. This annual parade of dancers and acrobats wielding flaming torches is a modern interpretation of ancient Celtic festivities, but it is far from being the only such way of marking the May Day itself.
Arthur's Seat, in Holyrood Park, has been a focus for some other traditions which blend pagan mythology with Christian sites of worship. The peak of the hill is considered by some to be a focal point for mysterious ley lines channelling energy, and one famous tradition has taken place in the area for centuries.
It is said that a visit to St Anthony's Well in Holyrood Park at dawn on the morning of May Day, to wash in its water or the dew from the grass around it (and, some suggest, returning another eight times to repeat the cleansing ritual during the month of May) has healing or health-giving properties.
The poet Robert Fergusson described the ritual in his 18th-century poem Caller Water:
On May-day in a fairy ring,
We’ve seen them round St. Anthon’s spring,
Frae grass the caller dew draps wring,
To weet their ein,
And water clear as chrystal spring,
To synd them clean.
St. Anthony's well was one of seven Holy Wells that used to be found in Holyrood Park, but it no longer has running water. It is still observable on the path up to the summit of Arthur's Seat - look for the boulder with the ancient collecting bowl sitting at the front of it, from which its water used to be drawn - beneath the ruins of St Anthony's Chapel, a structure dating back at least as far as the 13th-century, but with no clear evidence for its date or purpose of construction.
The well itself has a long history of being a site of pilgrimage for those seeking miracles, and in the 19th-century it was said the slopes leading to St Anthony's Well would be well populated by locals trekking to secure the benefit of its powers first thing in the morning of 1 May, but would be nearly deserted later in the morning.
Today the reverse is more likely to be true, with Arthur's Seat proving a popular spot for visitors throughout the year, with a steady stream of walkers ascending throughout the day - if you're heading up this morning, keep an eye out for the historic well on your way (or down)!
Explore Edinburgh in more detail with my private walking tours!
Edinburgh Expert Walking Tours is run by Gareth, an adopted native of Edinburgh, with over 20 years experience of living and working in the city...
Search the blog archive...
© COPYRIGHT GARETH DAVIES 2014-22