When I was growing up, my Scottish grandfather, whose real name was Alexander McKay, had a series of lame jokes he would often repeat at certain times and places – what we might refer to now as ‘dad jokes’ (or ‘grandad jokes’). For example, if we were upstairs on the number 1 double decker bus going into Edinburgh – and we always travelled on the top deck for the views – we could see over the wall into the cemetery at Dalry. That’s the dead centre of town he would quip, a statement I never found funny on two accounts. Firstly, as a solemn little girl I didn’t think we should be making fun of the dead; and secondly, it was clear to me that this graveyard was not actually in the centre of town at all.
Grandad liked graveyards though, and I feel sure that this joke was one he used to better effect at Greyfriars Kirkyard. Not only is it actually in the centre of Edinburgh’s Old Town, but it’s also famous for the statue of Greyfriars Bobby, erected outside the entrance to commemorate the loyal dog that is said to have refused to leave the grave of his master for many years. Now the statue is always crowded by tourists rubbing its shiny nose (said to bring good luck) and taking endless photographs, but fifty years ago Edinburgh’s Old Town still looked dark and gloomy, and Bobby seemed sad and alone on his pedestal. I remember then feeling quite upset by the story of that little terrier and trying to imagine what kind of a life Bobby would have had in such a bleak place.
When Grandad himself died a few years later – much too young, in retrospect – there was no grave for him. Just an entry in a memorial book and ashes in the rose garden at Warrington Crematorium. I’ve only ever once been to view the spot, and that was when it was the turn of my grandmother’s cremation two decades later. Unlike in the case of my grandmother, I did not attend my Grandad’s funeral, even though I was already a teenager by then. All I remember was being taken to the zoo, along with my sister and our visiting English cousin, and then my father bringing us children back to my grandmother’s house for tea and cakes. There I met a sea of unrecognisable elderly relatives who were mainly distracted by the bright red curly hair and strange accent of my cousin, leaving me mostly in peace to wonder whether it had been disrespectful to go to the zoo on such a day and why the guests were not all in floods of tears.
But Grandad’s ‘mysterious illness’ had started several years earlier, not long after that trip to see the statue of Greyfriars Bobby. We had gone on a rare outing to Holyrood Park. I’m not sure now whether the plan had been to climb Arthur Seat or just to meander on the many paths that go through the area and have a picnic – as my grandparents would have done in their courting days, fifty years previously – but I do remember we’d not got too far up the hill behind the Palace before my grandfather took ‘a turn’ and then collapsed on the grass. At the time I didn’t understand what was going on, and at first thought he was just larking about, until my grandmother’s agitation and the fact that a taxi was called for to take us straight home, made me soon realise it was serious. There were strangers, too, that day who aided and comforted us and I have the feeling my sister and myself were in matching summer dresses, as if it were a more formal occasion.
Paths Behind Holyrood Palace
The same Grandad never returned to us after that time. Maybe that was why I never wanted to go back to Holyrood Park until long afterwards when I lived in the Canongate and the memory of that frightening event had almost been forgotten. Then I could no longer easily recall the arrival of the blacker-than-black cab and shrinking back from the life-size doll that had replaced Grandad, and which was carefully helped into the back of the taxi.
Why is Holyrood? Grandad used to say in the time before his fall. I don’t know Grandad, why is Holly rude? we would say in return. Because it looks up Arthur’s Seat! This was a most un-Grandad like joke, and the first time I heard it I remember feeling almost shocked that my religious, non-swearing, tee-totalling grandfather could even think of such a thing. The joke’s impact was also lessened by the fact that the first time I heard it I did not understand what ‘seat’ meant in this context. Like many of Grandad’s rather lame jokes, which my mother had also heard growing up, it wasn’t really designed for the very young, missing the mark either linguistically or culturally.
But Grandad told us, too, that Arthur’s Seat was both a lion and an extinct volcano. And that Holyrood actually meant holy cross and was the place where the Queen stayed when she visited Scotland, as well as the scene of many hundreds of years of bloody Scottish history. So now when I think of Grandad and Holyrood Park, it’s not that day when I sat upon a lump of rock at the side of the path with my little sister and the comforting strangers, but the time we were ‘guests of honour’ at the palace after hours. And all this was because Grandad had once been a magic man who’d brought light to places where there was once darkness, and who’d reportedly carried out secret war work while working as an electrician for the surreal-sounding Ministry of Works.
My Grandfather (far left) with Work Colleagues, c1940
On that afternoon we met one of Grandad’s old colleagues at the side door of the Palace (the tradesmen’s entrance) and were taken through each of the rooms in turn, allowed to romp free while Grandad chatted to his friend. I remember pretending the palace belonged to us – which it did that day when it was closed to the public – and feeling quite grown-up at the fact that I knew better than to expect to meet the Queen. That absurd notion had been disabused when we’d gone to Buckingham Palace a couple of years previously. Not only was I disappointed that we were unable to take tea with Her Majesty, but we weren’t even able to get beyond the main gates! My father’s pleasure at being back in London and seeing the changing of the guards again, encouraged him to quote the first lines of the A.A. Milne poem They’re changing guard at Buckingham Palace, Christopher Robin went down with Alice a book he remembered from his own pre-Blitz childhood. But his excitement was not infectious, such was my disappointment in the fact that we were left to stare at an ugly, un-palace like building with hundreds of other people. No wonder Queen Victoria had reputedly never liked it, I thought to myself, years later.
But Holyrood at least resembled a fairy tale palace from the outside, if a little austere and Scottish, and while the ropes strung up against the treasures in the rooms might have been off-putting to the general public, I seem to remember (although I could be wrong here!) that while alone in the palace we were able to slip under them as long as we did not touch the artefacts as well as visiting rooms the public never got to see. After that afternoon, my grandfather became elevated in my mind from the humble electrician whose byzantine underfloor wiring in our own house made my father swear in frustration, to someone entangled with royalty and secrets and the blood of David Rizzio.
Grandad, thank you for giving me one of the best days of my childhood!
The Incidental Genealogist, November 2022