After five visits, I still get turned around in Rome, but, in Edinburgh, I consulted a map only on the first day.  A quick look around from the summit of any one of the city’s hills is worth more than an hour examining a map.

By the end of our Convivium, I’ve climbed all the hills, and, on our last day, I stand at the crest of Arthur’s Seat, the remains of a prehistoric volcano on the central city’s eastern edge, admiring Edinburgh and catching my breath.  The ascent would have been easier, had I kept to the path; instead, I climbed the slippery makeshift stairs dug by locals into the grassy hillside.  For my trouble: unflattering grass stains on my khakis and a humbling shortness of breath.

And a magnificent view.  In the distance, merchant liners navigate the Firth of Forth, but I, having recently read Mattingly, see the English fleet at last quitting its pursuit of Medina Sidonia’s broken Armada.  Below me stands Holyrood Palace, where the tragic Queen of Scots stood helpless as she watched her husband’s thugs stab to death her faithful Italian secretary, David Riccio.  At the other end of the Royal Mile, atop Castle Rock, sits Edinburgh Castle.  Saint Margaret of Scotland, niece of Edward the Confessor and mother of eight, died in the castle, having four days earlier learned that her husband and eldest son fell in battle with William the Conquerer’s son Rufus.  The 12th-century chapel built in Saint Margaret’s honor by her third son, David I, is the oldest building in Edinburgh Castle.

Between the Firth of Forth and the medieval city, the Georgian New Town spreads its broad streets, checkerboard blocks, crescents of row houses, and large private gardens.  The New Town is a triumph (if that is the word) of rational city planning, but, as I contrast modern and medieval Edinburgh, I recall an expression popular at The Rockford Institute, and one that sums up the theme of our Convivium: “theory against life.”  On the one side, Scottish Enlightenment heroes David Hume, Adam Smith, and Francis Hutcheson; on the other, reactionary romantic Sir Walter Scott.

Our Convivium begins, in fact, with afternoon visits to Hume’s grave and Scott’s monument, after a quick look around from the top of Calton Hill.  Calton, which rises behind our hotel, the Royal Terrace, is a shorter climb than Arthur’s Seat but enough to alert our 30 guests that vigorous walks are essential to Convivia.  With Don Livingston leading, we make our way down the other side to Hume’s grave.

A spirited debate breaks out among our company about the extent and nature of Hume’s belief.  Laughter and groans follow as we discover a nearby statue of Abraham Lincoln.  This monument to Scottish soldiers who fought for the Union has at its base a bronze slave genuflecting and raising a hand of supplication to his emancipator.  As a debate arises over whether more Scots fought for North or South, Sam Dickson of McClellanville, South Carolina, insists I take his picture with Lincoln lest his friends not believe him.

Up Princes Street, we make our way to Scott’s Memorial.  I am with the minority of those who do not find the neogothic structure over the top, but all agree that the deerhound at his feet is fitting.  There is no shortage of good pubs nearby, a surprising number without televisions, and some in our party peel off for a pint before heading back to the Royal Terrace.

This is our first Convivium where the theme has been framed as a debate.  Tom Fleming has taken Scott’s side—the side of blood and soil, the particular, the local, the traditional, the ancient.  He is outnumbered by Scottish Enlightenment apologists—Don and Marie Livingston of Emory University and Peter Jones, professor of philosophy emeritus at the University of Edinburgh.  The presentations are polite, but no punches are pulled.

The highlight of the Convivium is a motorcoach tour of the Borders.  Our first stop is the 15th-century Rosslyn Chapel.  Hardly a square inch of the interior is left uncarved.  Our entertaining guide can only explain a fraction of the chapel’s ornaments: scenes from the Old and New Testament, Deadly Sins, Cardinal Virtues, Celtic green men.  He spares no derision for the Da Vinci Code enthusiasts and other kooks who have descended on the chapel in recent years attempting to decode its Masonic (or is it Opus Dei?) secrets.  Pointing out the musical notes carved into the ceiling of the sanctuary, our guide explains, “A secret door, leading to a secret chamber, containing secret treasures—perhaps the Holy Grail!—will reveal itself to anyone who can decipher the notes, put them in the right order, play them on the right instrument, while standing in the right spot, on the right day of the year, wearing the right pair of shoes . . . ”

At Traquair House, Scotland’s oldest inhabited castle, we are greeted by Lady Catherine Maxwell Stuart, who gives us the house’s rich Jacobite history, noting that the “Bear Gates” at the front of the estate will remain locked, as they have been since 1745, until a Stuart is back on the throne.  In the meantime, she and her family are keeping the papist end up by brewing a powerful Jacobite Ale that goes perfectly with the fresh river trout and cheese we have for lunch.

Even if one has never read a Scott novel, it is difficult not to love the man after having seen his home, Abbotsford.  The 9,000-volume library is itself a lifetime achievement, but to it Scott added great relics of Scotland’s past, each more fantastic than the one before: a lock of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s hair; the crucifix Mary Queen of Scots clutched in the shambles; Rob Roy’s pistol, dirk, and broadsword.  Most inspiring, perhaps, is Scott’s writing desk where he labored tirelessly until his death to pay off a crushing debt from his failed publishing house that today’s limited-liability laws would have absolved.

In Scott’s dining room, we are shown the spot where, during his final weeks, the writer had his bed placed so that he could look out the picture window onto the Border Country below.  Our guide tells the story with real affection and then, in full voice, declares, “We get our shar’ of one-world types through here, and when I tell ’em of Scott’s love for his place and his Scotland, they sneer and say we are all suppos’ to love everyone and everyplace jus’ the same.  Well, if there’s any one of ye here who’d like to say that, let ’im say it, ’cause I’m ready for him!”  He crouches a little and raises his fists.  Our company burst into cheers and applause, though back on the bus, Tom and I are accused of using a plant.  The truth is, only a cynic could make a life of giving tours at Abbotsford and feel any differently.

Our final stops are the ruins of two magnificent Border abbeys, Melrose and Dryburgh.  The former holds, legend has it, the heart of Robert the Bruce; the latter, the tomb of Walter Scott.  Both show the handiwork of Henry VIII, who had practiced on some 3,000 abbeys in England before laying waste to Scotland’s, during the “Rough Wooing.”

The ruins of Holyrood Abbey, at the base of Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, is another of Henry’s ruins.  It is there we begin our second walk.  We turn off the Royal Mile into the graveyard of Canongate Church.  Here lies Adam Smith, provoking Harry Teasley of Tampa to declare the space hallowed ground.  Farther up the Royal Mile is Saint Giles, into which we duck to escape the rain.

The interior of Saint Giles Kirk has been stripped of its relics and ornamentation and so subdivided that it is difficult to sense that it is a church.  Marked, however, is the spot from which, in 1637, Jenny Geddes hurled her stool at a preacher attempting to establish use of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer.  When Tom Fleming points out that the event and the subsequent riot were stage managed, one in our group dubs Geddes the Rosa Parks of the Scottish Reformation.

Across the street from Saint Giles is the house of John Knox, though he seems to have lived there for even less time than Ulysses Grant lived in Galena, Illinois.  Peter Stanlis points out, with some pleasure, that Knox was evicted by his landlady for failure to pay rent.  I sneak away from the group for a moment to see if I can find the rebel’s grave in what is now a parliament car park in the square on the south side of Saint Giles.  H.V. Morton claims the exact grave is unknown but that a brass marker indicates its approximate spot.

Finding no marker, I ask the guard patrolling the square.

“There isn’t any marker on the grave,” he tells me.  “Bu’ I’ll tell ye where ’tis so ye can go over an’ ’ave a joomp on it!”

“What I’d like to do on it would get me arrested,” I answer.

“Noo . . . I’m a policeman, and I woodn’ arrest ye.  I might come over and join ye,” he says.  “It’s parking spot noomber twenty-one.”

Parking spot number 21 is a handicapped spot and, like most of the handicapped spots in America, is empty.  I have my jump on the grave, refraining from a coarser but doubtless more gratifying act (which I could have accomplished with real aplomb, having earlier downed a terrific pint of a Scottish bitter called Deuchars at a 17th-century pub now named for Waterloo hero Ensign Charles Ewart).  Two men turn their heads and stare for a second as the sound of my feet landing on the pavement fills the square.

I return to the policeman now sitting in his guardhouse.

“Are you a Roman Catholic?” I ask.

He nods his head.  “Aye.”

We shake hands.

“We ’ave our own cathedral, y’know,” he says.

“Saint Mary’s,” I answer.  “I went to Mass there on Sunday and saw Saint Andrew’s bones.”

“But this’ll be ours again one day,” he declares pointing at Saint Giles.

I extend my hand again.  “Christopher.”


At the top of the Royal Mile is Edinburgh Castle, and our group breaks up to explore the castle, each at his own pace.  Ray Olson and I head for the newest building (the highest in Edinburgh), the National Scottish War Memorial.  Built in 1927 to honor the nearly 150,000 Scots who gave their lives in World War I, it is the most stirring war memorial I have seen.  Don Livingston marvels at the waste of lives.  I do not disagree, but, having once borne arms for a living, I felt a kinship with war dead I had not felt since visiting the cemetery at Belleau Wood 19 years before.  There is no mistaking the memorial.  The outside looks like a fortress, but the inside is a medieval cathedral.  In red-leather notebooks that line the transept are the handwritten names of the fallen.  I leaf through a few and trace my finger over the names.

As I walk out, I try to make eye contact with the soldiers standing guard in the chilly rain.  They are not as still as U.S. Marines, I think.  Nor are there places where Marines stand guard over a thousand years of their own history.  The thinking Scot who confronts his history has a tragedy with which to wrestle.  Most of Scottish history is Catholic history.  There is no making the case that John Knox, much less Adam Smith, was really preserving the tradition.  Scottish heroes are Catholic heroes: Saint Andrew, Saint Giles, Saint Margaret, Mary Stuart, Bonnie Prince Charlie.  What Knox derailed, Walter Scott devoted his life to restoring; and, although he never poped, his descendants did, and Cardinal Newman offered Mass at the Catholic chapel at Abbotsford.

Tom Fleming calls Scott “an instinctive Jacobite.”  Fitting that he rests in Dryburgh Abbey.  By the end of our Convivium, I have taken Sir Walter’s side of things and resolved to read more.  I could hardly be objective.  “Objectivity,” Tom points out in our last session, is one of the “Enlightenment’s false moral principles.”