Wednesday, June 17, 2015

St. Giles Cathedral. (“His life was lovely and pleasant and he died in glory.”)

One of the most enjoyable bits of my trip to Edinburgh was the hour or so I spent wandering around St. Giles, the Church of Scotland’s mother church.

Overall, the kirk looked a bit papist – all that stained glass, all those vigil lights - so I thought that the Church of Scotland, like the Church of Ireland, would have been Anglican. But it’s Presbyterian, the official religion of Scotland. John Knox, in fact, is buried under the parking lot. (Paved paradise, put up a parking lot?)

In addition to all the religious “stuff”, there were all sorts of interesting things to see.

One was a monument to Edinburgh-native Robert Louis Stevenson. (As I said the other day about Walter Scott, there’s something about a country that venerates its writers.)

There’s also a  plaque exhorting us to “Thank God for James Young Simpson’s discovery or chloroform anesthesia in 1847.” Well, the people of Scotland certainly did. When Simpson died, 100,000 people lined the streets to watch his funeral cortege pass by. (Thank you, wikipedia.) There’s something about a country that venerates its scientists… Not that we don’t. In fact, there’s a monument in the Boston Public Garden commemorating the use of ether as an anesthesia, first done at Mass General in 1846.

Ether. Chloroform. Whatever. Today, when I head over to MGH for a routine colonoscopy, I will be completely thankful for anesthesia.

St. Giles also asks us to “Remember Wellesley Bailey, founder of the Leprosy Mission.” As it turns out, St. Giles is the patron saint of lepers, so a plaque in Bailey’s honor is quite appropriate. Meanwhile, when I googled “remember Wellesley Bailey”, one of the links that came up was “remember the Bailey’s in Wellesley?” Well, I don’t remember the Bailey’s – a local ice cream parlor chain – in Wellesley, but I do remember the one in downtown Boston and, oddly enough, was talking about it just the other day. Bailey’s was known for sundaes that dripped ice cream and sauce onto the aluminum plate that the sundae dish was placed on. This was to distinguish it from sundaes from Brigham’s and Friendly’s, which were not so overflowing that they needed a receptacle placed beneath them. Wellesley Bailey, on the other hand, is remembered for leprosy.

Also in St. Giles is the Thistle Chapel, a side chapel – and relatively recent edition – to the main Cathedral event. This chapel honors the Order of the Thistle, Scotland’s royal chivalric order. The Thistle Chapel is incredibly quirky, as befits a place dedicated to knighthood. The walls are covered with intricately carved plaques depicting the crest of each line of knights. Plus there are all kinds of heraldic carvings and folderol, including something to do with pelicans.

The Queen was there just last year, I guess to dub some new Scots knight. I missed part of the tour, having gotten there a few minutes late for its departure, but I think that’s what was being said. You can only see the Thistle Chapel by tour, grubby tourist thieves having made off with some of the knights’ crests.

To me, the most moving part of St. Giles was all the plaques dedicated to the memories of local lads who’d served in one of the British Empire’s many wars.

Francis Aylmer Maxwell died in Ypres in 1917, “a gallant soldier and very perfect gentleman beloved by all his men.” A very perfect gentleman…This sounds so quaint and ridiculous, doesn’t it? And what can it possibly mean? Whether he was a perfect gentleman or not, he was apparently enough of a gallant soldier that he won the Victoria Cross (British equivalent of the Congressional Medal of Honor) during the Boer War. And, although he was a brigadier general and could have stayed in relative safety behind the lines, Maxwell stepped into the action on the front and was shot and killed by a German sniper. Maybe he actually was beloved by all his men. This was no case of “his guts, our blood,” that’s for sure.

I have mixed feelings about all of these monuments to soldiers – and Scotland is chock full of them. On the one hand, if you go and die for your country you deserve to be commemorated. It’s the least we can do. (No, actually, the least we can do is buy a yellow ribbon bumper sticker.) On the other hand, there’s so much romanticization of war, it’s no wonder that young men are drawn to it. (And young women are drawn to the young men who are drawn to it. And so it goes.)

But what was Ypres, where Maxwell fell, really like? Mud, rats, trench foot, filth, blood, guts, body parts. Insane charges over the top of the trench in which our guys were mowed down by their guys, while their guys were mowed down by our guys. Sigh…

Anyway, to me the most poignant monument in St. Giles was to Neil Primrose, killed in Palestine in 1917.

"This tablet is erected by his proud and afflicted father. His life was lovely and pleasant, and he died in glory.”

Well, if Francis Aylmer Maxwell could have been a “perfect gentleman,” then I hope that Neil Primrose’s life was, indeed “lovely and pleasant.” And good that this proud father believed that he “died in glory.”

Hard not imagine that it was just another senseless slaughter of a young man.

Lots to see and think about at St. Giles Cathedral, that’s for sure.

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