An account of the first part of the circular tour of Leith which I took with ten others in celebration of the Terminalia Psychogeography Festival (23rd Feb, annually). Happily coinciding with the Women Who Walk Network and Audacious Women
Can we ever stop for a moment? No! Time is always turning (until we die). Is there ever complete quietness in life? No! Although, maybe we can quieten. Can we slow down? Well, walking is a good start. It leaves almost no trace and makes little noise. It allows time for thoughts to blow in, and for your footsteps to drown them out again.
On this particular Sunday, we walked between the worlds of Leith and Edinburgh, connecting with the past by celebrating the ancient Deity of Boundaries held on the last day of the Roman year, where citizens traditionally processed around their land for continued peace and stable borders – something I sincerely advocate at this time of disagreement and instability over nationhood.
Before we set off, we remembered the 1920 merging with Edinburgh which, ‘despite a plebiscite in which the people of Leith voted 26,810 to 4,340 against the merger’ (Wikipedia, Leith) resulting in division and the loss of political identity. This walk was, of course, taking place shortly after the initiation of à further detachment, this time of the UK from the rest of Europe which was initiated by many of those who, contrariwise, oppose the separation of Scotland and England.
We took a minute to remember, or dedicate this walk to, someone we know, because the second aspect of Walking Between Worlds was the acknowledgment that we are all, always, stepping on a tightrope between life and death, never knowing when it will happen.
The group knew that we would be visiting the graves of notable women in Rosebank Cemetery, North Leith Burial Ground and South Leith Parish Church. I have a special interest in the lives of women who are often forgotten or overlooked, and I wanted to focus on those who were connected to this area.
Although the weather was 80 percent better than the previous weeks (for which I gave thanks), the wind was cold, so we crossed the road and began.
The steps we take between an information stop on a guided walk such as this, or when on errands, from one hiatus to the next, are equally, if not more important – they are an opportunity for exchange with others or silent contemplation in the middle of busyness.
We made our way past Pilrig Park. The community woodland was planted by the Friends of Pilrig Park (and supported by Fields in Trust) when I had my allotment there and the kids were wee. Years later it is thriving – a lovely spot for hiding and playing in, whether you are human, animal or bird.
Nearly opposite, we made our first stop so I could point out the Leith flag blowing from a top window with its motto of ‘Persevere’, however, in its place was another one which none of us could identify. I was puzzled as it was there five days before when I did my rekkie!
At #86 there are metal sculptures worth admiring in the front garden. A gateway (perhaps it is between worlds) and a panel the shape of a large gravestone with leaf motifs in relief are my favourites. I could not identify the sculptor, so took this opportunity to share with the group that I had been at a talk the previous day by Fi Bailey, an Edinburgh artist, and on listening to her I realised that what I am looking for is private information which those who are dead or behind closed doors cannot or do not want to give me. I chose to focus, on what exists before my eyes.
Tip: In the interests of mindfulness and memory, when or if you see something which interests you as you are walking, say it to yourself three times for later. You may forget, but that doesn’t mean you didn’t see it and that traces of it aren’t going to stay with you, ready to pop up another time.
In the same way that there is no nighttime dark without a glimmer of light somewhere, so there is no life without some death in it and no death without life. As the bodies in the first graveyard, Rosebank Cemetery, decompose, they become earth and support living things which are in that earth. We, by being interested and remembering the ones who are interred, raise the dead in a manner of speaking.
We stood in front of the grave of Ida Bononomi (probably Italian). It reads, ‘Sacred to the memory of Miss Ida Bonanomi, the faithful and highly esteemed dresser of Queen Victoria, who departed this life October 15 1854, in the 37th year of her age. Beloved and respected by all who knew her. This stone had been placed by Queen Victoria as a mark of her regard’. Bononomi’s job was a position of extreme intimacy with the monarch.
That Autumn, Ida had travelled with the Queen and stayed with her at Holyrood Palace where the former fell ill. In her journal, the Queen wrote, ‘Saw Sir James Clark, who brought me a telegram with the this sad news that my excellent maid Ida Bononomi, whom I had had to leave at Holyrood as she had become so ill, not having been well at Balmoral before – had died last night. It was a great shock to me, & I was thoroughly upset, for no one, including Sir James had apprehended any immediate danger. She was the kindest, gentlest, best being possible, & such a pleasant servant, so intelligent, so trustworthy & her calm, quiet manner had such a soothing effect, on my often over wrought nerves. To lose her thus, and so far away, surrounded only by strangers is too grievous. Everyone was shocked & grieved, for she was quite adored.’
Queen Victoria liked funerals and had an interest in the protocol of mourning, ‘a mentality as much as a personal observance’ (see below for references). It is known that she recognised the deaths of her housemaids and others with ritual in which other members of the household were require to be involved, and also that she visited this grave six years after Ida died.
There are, of course, many other graves of interesting women in this cemetery, and there is one which commemorates the stillborn babies who, by Scots law, cannot be cremated and must be buried.
Arboglyphs can be seen at the cemetery and they contrast with the grave inscriptions and, later, the graffiti which we saw beside the river. These different types of markings are official and unofficial, consisting of numbers, letters, words and images cut into or sprayed onto stone or bark with or without permission. They engrave death, and mark political or personal messages, causing us to remember and take note. They sometimes do damage to community surroundings and cause loss of life to the tree, but are always used to communicate and are often enjoyed, even viewed as art.
We continued our walk across the junction at Bonnington Road and this stage will be covered in Walking Between Worlds – 2.