Postcards From Scotland: Old Saint Paul's
A day to remember
After my Saturday with the Old Saint Paul’s church archives, we have planned a full Sunday. We rise early enough to take the train into Edinburgh for their 10:30 high mass, which should leave plenty of time for me to explore the building before we head to Edinburgh Castle at 2. Peder Aspen will show me around after the service, though he tells me there isn’t a whole lot to show. I’m still excited to capture some good quality interior images that can be put together in a photo insert for my book project. Peder doesn’t have an iPhone and laments the difficulty of getting pictures that look right. So this will benefit us both, simultaneously enriching my project and the church records.
Waiting for the train, I notice a plaque commemorating the Quintinshill Rail Disaster, the worst railway accident in the history of the UK. On May 22, 1915, three trains collided near Gretna Green (which is close to the border with England). One of them was a troop train carrying Scottish troops who would die before they ever reached a field of battle. The death toll was over 200. Those who weren’t killed on impact with the one train were cut down by the other as they tried to scramble out. Several of the men attended Old Saint Paul’s, and their names are recorded on the wall I’ve come to photograph. I think about the poignancy of commemorating them together with their brothers who did have a chance to prove themselves in combat—all of them having, in their own way, given all.
My friend has caught a cold in the throat, so we sit quietly together as the countryside flashes by. There’s a pink weed I’ve seen everywhere. It’s running wild together with a yellow weed, filling fields and little slopes full. We pass a field dotted with sheep. We pass little houses surrounded by little stone walls. I catch sight of a child’s red and yellow wagon in one of the tiny yards. Sometimes the fields roll in the background behind houses and a car park, sometimes they are right up close, the weeds a blurred border of pink. Every so often we hit the instant pitch black of a tunnel.
Two older men are chatting in a thick brogue. I catch something about pipes and a boiler. A bit later I clearly detect, “I mean, it’s nonsense.”
We pass lush green trees with a dirty little creek threading through. We pass an abandoned old whiskey plant, covered in graffiti. And now we are coming into the city, past Edinburgh Park. We pass old stone apartments with satellite dishes stuck all over like little growths. Approaching Haymarket, in the distance I see four round green spires. We pass a trans flag flapping in the wind.
The cheerful disembodied voice tells us, “If you see something that doesn’t look great, speak to a member of staff, or text British Transport.”
Soon we are almost there. The Balmoral Hotel looms with its iconic clock. We gather our things and go, minding the gap as we leave.
We come out of the Waverley train station on Market Street. From here it’s a short walk to the junction with Jeffrey Street. We are standing in the heart of the Old Town, once a slum, now a tourist attraction—where, as Peder’s wife had noted dryly over tea, you’re more likely to be run over by a Mercedes than knifed in the dark. Across the street is the Edinburgh Arts Center, and next to it the Brewhemia pub and restaurant, still bedecked with rainbow flags at the end of July. To its right are the “Scotsman’s steps,” leading up to an Edwardian hotel where the Scotsman newspaper once had its headquarters.
We walk under the bridge (also flying a Pride flag) and cross over to the side of Jeffrey Street where the Gothic Revival façade of Old Saint Paul’s is tucked away, practically camouflaged.