Edinburgh

26 to 30 July 1829

On the day they arrived in Edinburgh, Sunday 26 July 1829, they climbed Arthur’s Seat, the ancient volcanic hill that overlooks the city. When he descended from the top of Arthur’s Seat, Mendelssohn paused on the cliffs of Salisbury Crags to jot down a sketch in his pocket notebook of the skyline of Edinburgh, with the castle, St Giles Cathedral and the slope of the Royal Mile all clearly visible.

Edinburgh skyline from Salisbury Crags 26 July 1829

Edinburgh skyline from Salisbury Crags 26 July 1829. Bodleian notebook. 21r

Mendelssohn described the experience in a letter home:

Felix Mendelssohn – letter, Edinburgh, 28 July 1829:

It is Sunday when we arrive in Edinburgh; then we cross the meadows, going towards two desperately steep rocks, which are called Arthur’s Seat, and climb up. Below on the green are walking the most variegated people, women, children, and cows; the city stretches far and wide; in the middle is the castle, like a bird’s nest on a cliff; beyond the castle come meadows, then hills, then a broad river; beyond the river again hills; then a mountain rather more stern on which stands Stirling Castle; then blue distance begins; further on you perceive a faint shadow, which they call Ben Lomond.  All this is but one half of Arthur’s Seat; the other is simple enough, it is the great blue sea, immeasurably wide, studded with white sails, black funnels, little insects of skiffs, boats, rocky islands and such like.  Why need I describe it? When God himself takes to panorama-painting, it turns out strangely beautiful. Few of my Switzerland reminiscences can compare to this; everything here looks so stern and robust, half enveloped in haze or smoke or fog; moreover, there is to be a bagpipe-competition tomorrow; many Highlanders came in costume from church, victoriously leading their sweet-hearts in their Sunday attire, and casting magnificent and important looks over the world; with long red beards, tartan plaids, bonnets and feathers, naked knees, and their bagpipes in their hands, they passed quietly along by the half-ruined grey castle on the meadow, where Mary Stuart lived in splendour and saw Rizzio murdered. I feel as if time went at a very rapid pace when I have before me so much that was and so much that is.

Edinburgh clearly made a positive impression on Felix. He continues in the same letter:

It is beautiful here! In the evening a cool breeze is wafted from the sea, and then all objects appear clearly and sharply defined against the grey sky; the light from the windows glitter brilliantly; so it was yesterday when I…called at the post-office for your letter of the 13th inst. I read it with a particular zest in Princes Street, Edinburgh. In Edinburgh, a letter from under the yew tree in Leipziger Strasse! My swim was pleasant too today, and afloat on the waves I thought of you all, how very closely we are linked together, and yet I was in the deep Scottish ocean, that tastes very briny. Dobberan is lemonade compared to it.

Whether I shall see Sir Walter Scott here, although I have a letter to him from one of his intimate friends in London, is quite uncertain; yet I hope so, chiefly to escape a scolding from you, dear mother, if I return without having seen the lion.

On the evening of Thursday 30 July they visited Holyrood Palace in Edinburgh where Mendelssohn found the inspiration for the opening of his new Scottish Symphony. He described the experience in a letter home, dated 30 July 1829.  Below this letter there are two images which show that the Abbey at Holyrood Palace is virtually unchanged since Mendelssohn visited it in 1829 - the first image is of the Abbey painted by Louis Daguerre in 1824, just five years before Mendelssohn went there; and the second is a video taken in 2009. The only noticeable differences are that the stone lattice work in the large window at the far end of the Abbey has been repaired at some point between 1829 and 2009, and the "grass and ivy" which grew there in the 1820s and can be seen in Daguerre's painting and which Mendelssohn mentions in his letter, has disappeared from the top of the wall on the left.  

Felix Mendelssohn – letter, 30 July 1829:

Beloved ones, it is late at night and this is my last day in the town of Edinburgh. Tomorrow morning we go to Abbotsford to see Sir Walter Scott; the day after tomorrow, into the Highlands. The windows are open, for the weather is beautiful and the sky full of stars. Klingemann, in shirt sleeves, sits by my side writing.

In the evening twilight we went today to the palace where Queen Mary lived and loved; a little room is shown there with a winding staircase leading up to the door; up this way they came and found Rizzio in that little room, pulled him out, and three rooms off there is a dark corner, where they murdered him. The chapel close to it is now roofless; grass and ivy grow there, and at that broken altar Mary was crowned Queen of Scotland. Everything around is broken and mouldering, and the bright sky shines in. I believe I found today in that old chapel the beginning of my Scottish Symphony.

Louis Daguerre “The Ruins of Holyrood Chapel”, 1824

Daguerre painting of Holyrood Chapel

Courtesy of National Museums Liverpool, Walker Art Gallery, where this image can be viewed

It was either during the few days that he spent in Edinburgh or in Perth on 1 August that Mendelssohn sat for a portrait by the Scottish artist Thomas Duncan. For several reasons, I favour the theory that the portrait was painted in the capital, rather than in Perth: firstly, even though Duncan came originally from Perth, we know that he was living in Edinburgh in 1829, so it is likely that it was there that the two men met and, secondly, Mendelssohn and Klingemann were in Edinburgh for a full week, whereas they were only fleetingly in Perth (for a single evening, in fact) so there would have been virtually no time for the sitting to have taken place there. Thirdly, in the letter that the two travelling companions started from Blair Atholl on 3 August, there is no mention of their meeting Duncan and one might have expected them at least to have mentioned it if the sitting had happened just a couple of evenings previously; but there again, Mendelssohn never mentions this portrait, or whether he ever met Thomas Duncan in any of his correspondence! And fourthly, in the portrait, Mendelssohn is dressed in what looks like a smart smoking jacket, white shirt and silk cravat, which is unlikely attire for a young man who had just commenced his walking tour of Scotland! The location of the sitting must remain a mystery. The portrait came to light in 2009, the bi-centenary year of Mendelssohn’s birth, and is in private ownership in Scotland. I am grateful to the anonymous owner for permission to reproduce this image here.

Portrait of Mendelssohn by Thomas Duncan, painted in Edinburgh or Perth, Scotland, 1829

Portrait of Mendelssohn by Thomas Duncan, painted in Edinburgh or Perth, Scotland, 1829. Courtesy of the owner.

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