I visited Edinburgh, Scotland last weekend. (Yes, just for the long weekend. Stop giving me that look. I don’t get much time off from work.)
I might also be going a little crazy.
I lived in Oxford, England for a spell. I’ve visited a few places in Europe—mostly old cities rich in history. I’ve stood in front of Titian paintings and been overwhelmed. I’ve walked through Mozart’s house and swore I could feel his energy lingering in the walls. I’ve seen ancient relics in museums. I’ve been inches away from The Rosetta Stone.
I have all this proof that humanity has existed for thousands of years. I know people are a blip on the radar of time, but when I try to think about all the individuals who have existed, all the things they’ve created, all the skirmishes that have been fought, it’s still too much to fathom.
We took the obligatory tour of Edinburgh Castle, and our tour guide pointed out that no one knows exactly how old the castle is. The oldest building still standing on the grounds is St. Margaret’s chapel, because in 1314, Robert the Bruce had all the other buildings razed after Thomas Randolph recaptured the fortress.
Hearing this while standing on a spot where remembered kings and forgotten soldiers also stood made me think a lot about the arbitrariness of history.
The Writer’s Museum in Edinburgh tells the story of three Scottish writers: Sir Walter Scott, Robert Burns, and Robert Louis Stevenson. Those are the Scottish writers we remember enough to devote a museum to them, but why them? Go to a Barnes and Noble (if you can find one) and look at all the books sitting out on display. Do you wonder which ones will survive?
Why those writers? Why are their works deemed worthy of history?
This isn’t a profound idea by any means. There are a lot of feminist readings of history that note the exclusion of women from the historical and philosophical canon.
In The Future of Feminist History, Susan Pederson writes, “[W]e can understand why feminist history has always had a dual mission—on the one hand to recover the lives, experiences, and mentalities of women from the condescension and obscurity in which they have been so unnaturally placed, and on the other to reexamine and rewrite the entire historical narrative to reveal the construction and workings of gender.”
But it’s more than this. History is not just marked by an exclusion of women or the poor or the losers of battles. The particular story of history I know is a narrow one (cobbled together mostly from bits and pieces I remember from high school textbooks), and given the limitations of my own mind, it’s only one tiny, muddled, piecemeal story among 7 billion.
I think this might be why I am uncharacteristically fond of traditions and rituals. I don’t think they mean anything per se, but I like the connection, the comfort, and the routine. I like that there is a traditional British breakfast that looks essentially the same wherever I order it. I like that same quiet stillness found in every museum I’ve ever set foot in. I like the little tray of airplane food and putting my seat in an upright position and being careful when I open the overhead bin because objects may have shifted during flight.
I’m adaptable. I can roll with the punches, but I like the familiarity of routine. I like knowing what to expect. I like that you can’t go back and change something in the past. I like that it is one less dimension I have to deal with.
But standing in this castle in Edinburgh, it hit me with full force that we can change the past. We can re-write the story of history. We can forget Robert the Bruce and Robert Ferguson and David Hume. We can tear down buildings and walls. We can ignore rights that we have been guaranteed in historical documents.
And isn’t that kind of scary?
Edinburgh was a gorgeous city and I would go back in a heartbeat if I ever get the chance, but its history is now folded into my history and that arbitrary folding together of human experience haunts me.