Clermiston Tower, Corstorphine Hill, Corstorphine Hill Tower, Edinburgh, Edinburgh Tourism, Edinburgh Zoo, Friends of Corstorphine Hill, Gothicism, Horror, Humor, Love, Lovers, Nature, Scott's Tower, Sir Walter Scott, Spiral Staircase, Terror
Corstorphine Hill is a large cake of cool, sleepy woodland which reposes above the Western suburbs of Edinburgh, a mile or so behind Edinburgh Zoo, providing a convenient location to release all of the exhibits when this institution finally goes bankrupt (in case you have not been following the recent scandals at the Zoo, the present management have been behaving worse than the animals). There is a long, weary walk up Kaimes Road, past dainty bungalows which are perched on the slope of the hill like toadstools, until Edinburgh is suddenly turned off as if with a switch. Great waves of silence break over you, trees stir massively, there are alternate pools of sunlight and delicious green shade, whilst some sort of hawk mews as it dives in scrappy circles overhead.
Before young sweethearts were accorded cinemas and the forecourts of shopping centres for their courtship, they would have retreated from the adult world to places such as Corstorphine Hill. Centuries of peasant wooing, the explosive release of so much fresh human love under these trees, doubtlessly explains the faintly sacred atmosphere up on the hill: the brilliance of the air, the razor-sharp colours of the vetch and thistles, the fascinating flourishes and contortions gurgling within those gnarled old oaks.
And what is this which steps suddenly out from amongst the trees? It is the same grey hue as the woodland bark but more immense than the mightiest oak. An ancient tower, perhaps the lonely home of a knight who once quested out to relieve cities and destroy loathly worms. Or maybe a dark warlock lived here, infatuated with alchemy, whilst his maiden daughter pined for a knight to come and sweep her away. Enough! – this is the Clermiston or Scott’s tower, a mock-Gothic viewing-station which was erected in 1872 as a tribute to Sir Walter Scott.
This tower is a hundred times less of an eyesore than the monstrous, intergalactic Scott Monument on Princes Street, and its gentle suggestion of medieval fancy is agreeably reminiscent of Scott’s Ivanhoe. Today the tower is being manned by three volunteers from the Friends of Corstorphine Hill, whose name makes me vaguely picture them turning up to boost the hill’s spirits whenever it is feeling sorry for itself, and these Friends are very polite and friendly. They only throw open the doors to their tower on Sunday afternoons between two and four, but they have to keep a close eye on it since vandalism forced its closure several years ago.
Entry is free. Yet once through the door, my heart sinks with a sick dismay at the prospect of a spiral staircase. From the outside, I had assumed that the tower was filled with poky little rooms, but the interior turns out to be the barest shell, with the iron staircase rising within whitewashed stone walls, and echoes barking at your heels as you climb. This staircase is particularly narrow, with no room to manoeuvre past if you bump suddenly into a descending body. This is my fear: of missing a step and being sucked shooting down the vortex, messily tumbling head over heels, the steps biting chunks out of me, leaving a nose behind here and an ear back there… Or is it a terror of getting stuck somewhere on the staircase, and remaining there quaking and gibbering whilst laughing paramedics tried to coax me back down?
Danger swoops around me and the staircase rattles with excitement like chattering teeth. As I reach the top, my head is very light and my legs feel stiff and hollow, as if they are made of balsa wood. There is a great hearty cheer of cool air and in little spurts I try to walk the unsteadiness out of my legs. Edinburgh, Arthur’s Seat, the Pentlands, lie back in the sun with all of their colour baked out of them, whilst the occasional window flashes and the Firth dazzles resplendently. Although not quite unfamiliar, this city now seems oddly faraway and somewhat preposterous. You cannot gage your distance from the brown woodland floor as a vast moat of wandering treetops conceal it, but we are over seventy feet up and if you tipped over the side of the battlements you would lose a few teeth when you hit the ground.
Standing at the top of the tower is rather like being trapped in a lift, with random strangers all awkwardly ignoring each other. I decide to leave early because I am already dreading the descent. Half way down, some children are stampeding up and in terror I brace myself for annihilation, but we get past each other without incident.
Safely at the bottom again, I ask the Friends whether the staircase is safe. It was rusting in patches, and if too many people were aboard at once, the whole thing could buckle under the weight. The Friends tell me that the staircase was previously made of wood, but that it burned down after the tower was hit by lightening. Comically, the tower was consequently fitted with a lightening conductor which was earthed to the staircase itself. Alas, there are no reports of visitors to the tower being fried en masse during an electrical storm – they must evacuate the tower very quickly at the first discharge of thunder. It occurs to me that the Friends might be pulling my leg, but as with the entirety of my trip to the tower, this is not altogether disagreeable.