Linlithgow and history blethers

I travel a lot between Glasgow and Edinburgh, usually by train and usually via Linlithgow. The Queen Street-Waverley train runs every 15 minutes during the day and every half hour at night, making it the simplest route between here and the capital. Occasionally, due to working in Dumbarton, I sometimes take the slower route via Airdrie and Bathgate, which slightly makes one lose the will to live by the time the train hits West Lothian, let alone Edinburgh. Sometimes I like to take the bus too, just for a change of scene.

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Linlithgow is a place I know well, notwithstanding passing through it several times a month. I first visited when I was in primary school, when my class went to an outdoor education centre there. We went to Beecraigs and Muiravonside Country Parks, to see the deer and walk a while. One year we did some orienteering in the Peel, the park around the Palace. The only flaw being that there was snow on the ground and ice on the paths.

I’ve always liked the place. I associate it with good childhood memories but also with history and wonder. Like Dunbar, where I grew up, Linlithgow is very historical, with an old high street as well as its Palace and St Michael’s Church with its spire of thorns. It even has a family bakers, which Dunbar sadly doesn’t have any more, as well as superb public transport links, which my home town certainly doesn’t have either.

By a quirk of train ticketing systems, it used to be slightly cheaper to buy a return from Dunbar to Linlithgow than to Edinburgh, which is 20 miles closer. I believe it is something to do with prices to Dunbar being set from Westminster owing to it being on the East Coast mainline and Linlithgow prices being set by the Scottish Government. On day trip Saturdays, Linlithgow was an easy choice, a place I knew I liked and was fairly near to hand.

I have been an Historic Scotland member for years and first bought my membership on my birthday at my favourite HS property. The Palace is a ruin, which is enough to put folk off, but it is a very complete ruin and at several points one can make a complete circuit of the building. When I go, I pick a tower and start from there, moving around in a circle, moving steadily upwards to the top.

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The top has splendid views across the Loch, the town and the countryside beyond, only marginally affected by the constant sound of cars on the M9 on the other side of the Loch.

It is architecturally interesting, with a fountain in the centre of the courtyard as well as elaborate features on the walls, including one which would have held three statues symbolising the Three Estates which used to constitute the Scottish Parliament, the burgesses, lords and clergy.

On my last visit, in April, I paid particular attention to the fountain, which HS recently restored to magnificent effect. It was a nice spring day which underlined the fountain’s beauty, though I am sure if I visited in this past week with the epic rain, it still would have looked good.

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Masonry interests me. Stone is surprisingly subtle, requiring in lots of cases gentle chipping rather than knocking great lumps out of it. The fountain in Linlithgow Palace is a great example where the old and the new has been blended together by HS’s team of masons, keeping up old arts in these decidedly modern times.

History is an area that fascinates me. I am just about to study it again, which will make the next few years busy but endlessly interesting. I became interested when I was a kid and haven’t stopped. Every time I go near the High Street in Edinburgh, I think of the Scottish Enlightenment and the fifty men of genius that one could shake by the hand. (It also amuses me that Jehovah’s Witnesses stand with their magazines outside the High Court right by the statue of David Hume, a great Enlightenment figure who espoused rationalism). I also think about the quote from The Heart of Midlothian by Walter Scott, where one of the characters talks about when there was a Parliament in Edinburgh (pre-1707), folks could pelt them with stones if they weren’t good bairns, but no one’s stones could reach the length of London. Thankfully the present politicians sitting in Holyrood don’t tend to be pelted with stones that often. We have the fourth and now the fifth estate, social media, for that, good or ill.

Linlithgow is a place that inspires thoughts about how things once were, requiring not so much imagination to do so. Alex Salmond grew up in Linlithgow and talks of hearing his grandfather’s tales of the great, nation-changing events that happened right there and not so far away. I remember walking around Dunbar as a kid and hearing stories of the Castle and John Muir. As I grew older, I became more interested and read more, learning far more than I ever did at school. For a while I even talked history for a living, working in museums.

Orienteering in the snow and ice seems pointless at first. It remains one of my best memories because it was in a place I liked and wanted to explore. It is a feeling that comes back every time I go somewhere out of my routine, new or dear and familiar, and it informs how I live life each and every day now.

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