To be in Edinburgh on this day, 17th February, 1598 would have been memorable for two reasons. Firstly, King James VI was present at the High Kirk of St Giles, on Edinburgh's High Street, hearing about plans for the division of the city into quarters, each section being allotted its own church .
St Giles' would have been packed to the rafters that morning, not primarily for the presence of the king, but for another, astronomical reason...
The event is recounted in Fragments of Scottish History, a historical record (of sorts) dating from 1798. In it, "ane grate darknes" is described - the darkness being caused by the transit of the Moon between the Earth and the Sun. Today we know these as eclipses, relatively common (or at least relatively understood) events that can still arouse great interest. At the end of the sixteenth century, however, the common 'man in the street' would not have had such astronomical knowledge - a translation from the archaic Scots text suggests that the people of Edinburgh that day considered that they were facing the end of the world, their 'Doomsday'....
It is a scene that wouldn't be out of place in a Hollywood disaster movie, imagining the merchants and traders of the Royal Mile hurrying people out of their premises, and closing up their doors in panic. Perhaps they gathered their belongings (or at least their valuables!) and "ran to the kirke to pray, as [g]if it had bene the last day".
We have no record or way of knowing what sense the king made of this planetary occurrence - as a man who is famed for his robust treatment of those suspected of witchcraft, it is likely he may have shared the fears of his subjects, and perhaps would have joined them in prayer to ward off the dark omen of nighttime coming during the day!
The eclipse lasted a little under an hour, and shortly after ten o'clock the sun was shining again. As you wander past St Giles' today, perhaps crossing Parliament Square with your camera in hand, take a moment to imagine what the people streaming back out of the kirk might have been feeling as they returned to their shops and businesses.
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