The Seven Hills of Edinburgh

There is something special about cities and the number seven, there are a lot of cities built on seven hills. The most famous examples are Rome and Jerusalem. Made popular because of its Christian heritage and the biblical stories about Rome and Jerusalem – Rome being the new Jerusalem on Seven Hills, but that are many more in the world that claim this seven hills heritage, Edinburgh is one of them.

The imagery of the seven hills is important especially in cities with a Judeo-Christian heritage, because in the Christian bible – the final powerful city on which Jesus and Mary triumph has seven hills (Revelation 17:9).

Precisely for this reason, any city that wants to claim political influence through religious imagery claims that it is built on Seven Hills. Nevermind that there are usually more than seven hills around these cities – Istanbul (then called Constantinopole, or new Rome), Moscow (another claimant of new Rome).

While the capital of most countries is usually the oldest city or most religiously significant, Edinburgh could not claim either, towns like Dumbarton and Dunadd are historical older, and abbey cities like Iona and St Andrew’s command more religious importance. In fact compared to other parts of central Scotland, Edinburgh was relatively new (being found only in the 1200s). To be able to claim seven hills, was therefore vital to establishing the importance of Edinburgh that dominant Christian narrative to enable it to be more than just a castle.

The Seven Hills of Edinburgh are all extinct volcanic hills, and form a ring around what is present day Edinburgh. Three are located within the city centre and are particularly well known: Castle Rock, Calton Hill and Arthur’s Seat. All three are part of a protected scientific area called the Arthur’s Seat Volcano and were all formed in the same way. But each plays a different symbolic role in the story of Edinburgh.

Castle Rock is the birthplace of Edinburgh, where the Edinburgh Castle was founded right in the heart of the Old Town.

Rising 130 metres above sea level, Castle Rock was formed some 350 millions ago. Its unique crag and tail structure emerged because it was the peak of the volcano at the sprout of a volcanic pipe. When the lava sprouted it burst from the pipe and melted the surrounding sedimentary rock. After cooling a very hard rock called a dolerite is formed. The direction of flow from the volcano created a peak and a single gentle slope (where the Royal Mile is). Millennia of glacial erosion pushed alot of sedimnetary rock away but protected the areas covered by the dolerite.

Located Just outside of the New Town, on a hill above is Calton Hill. While Castle Rock is reason for Edinburgh’s birth, Calton Hill is centre of Edinburgh’s political power. The government of Scotland is located on top of the hill at St Andrew’s House. With the other key government buildings – Hollyrood Palace and the Scottish Parliament for example, located near the foot of the hill.

Sitting at the top of the hill are a bevvy of monuments. There is an Athenian acropolis, called the National Monument, built after the conclusion of the Battle of Waterloo – where the British forces defeated Napoleon’s army and ended the Napoleonic Wars – it was meant to remember all the soliders who fought during the Napoleonic Wars. The Athenian structure, no doubt, in reference to Edinburgh’s impression of itself as the Athens of the North.

Then there are monuments to Admiral Horatio Nelson who gave his life in defeat of the Spanish Armada at the Battle of Trafalgar and Professor Dugald Stewart, who popularised the Scottish Enlightenment.

Then there is Arthur’s Seat, named for King Arthur after the many myths and local suggest that King Arthur and the knights of the round table located the Kingdom of Camelot in the area. King Arthur, according to legend led the defence of the British peoples against the SAxon invaders and Arthur’s Seat itself forms part of a hill fort that was vital to defense of the early inhabitants – the Votadini.

If Castle Rock was the real defensive fortress and Calton Hill the focal point of administration then Arthur’s Seat is the bulwark of Scots story. According to Wikipedia, “Tradition has it that it was at the foot of Arthur’s Seat, covered by the forest of Drumselch, that Scotland’s 12th-century king David I encountered a stag while out hunting. Having fallen from his horse and about to be gored, he had a vision of a cross appearing between the animal’s antlers, before it inexplicably turned away, leaving him unharmed. David, believing his life had been spared through divine intervention, founded Holyrood Abbey on the spot. The burgh arms of the Canongate display the head of the stag with the cross framed by its antlers.”

Arthur’s Seat plays cameo roles in many works of literature – it is mentioned in Frankenstein by Mary Shelly, an honourable mention in Sir Walter Scott’s Waverley Novels, Jules Verne’s Les Indres noir and James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner.

ON THE MAP (Castle Rock & Edinburgh Castle)

ON THE MAP (Calton Hill)

ON THE MAP (Arthur’s Seat)


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