When 'Silent Traveller' Chiang Yee walked backwards up Blackford Hill to prove it was higher than Arthur's Seat
He was the Silent Traveller whose many thousands of footsteps around wartime Britain can still be heard today.
Regarded one of the finest travel writers of the 20th century, Chiang Yee was a prominent author, poet and artist who hailed from the city of Jiujiang on the southern shores of the Yangtze River in China.
He relocated to the UK in the 1930s and earned his crust through publishing a series of popular travel books introducing him as The Silent Traveller.
Chiang Yee became known for his decidedly left field take on British life and his unique and fresh approach to describing surroundings.
Following the publication of well-received editions for a variety of English locations, including London and the Lake District, Chiang Yee headed north in 1943 and turned his attentions on Scotland’’s capital.
Edinburgh, as it would turn out, would have a profound impact on the Chinese writer. He was, in his own words, “dazzled” by the city.
He emerged from Princes Street Station into a drizzly scene that served to “dispel the drowsiness” of his long journey and instantly fell in love with the sights around him en route to his temporary place of residence in Marchmont.
In one memorable chapter, the writer describes his fixation with the shape of Arthur’s Seat, the ancient volcanic rock that dominates central Edinburgh.
Sharing his observations through the inclusion of exquisite sketches, Chiang Yee describes the famous hill as resembling a sleeping Indian elephant and notes his surprise at later learning via the Evening News that Scots traditionally view Arthur’s Seat as a lion.
Maintaining his gaze on Arthur’s Seat, Chiang Yee proceeds to walk backwards up Blackford Hill, in the rather peculiar hope that the latter will prove to boast the higher summit.
On the way up, the writer collides with a young boy, who, with a smirk on his face, informs the Chinese national that Arthur’s Seat is by far the highest of the two hills.
Chiang Yee later describes the atmosphere of an Edinburgh Sunday morning; his surprise at the numerous trams laid on to convey worshippers to their kirks and the general enthusiasm that Scots of the day possessed for religion.
Caught staring at a structure opposite St Giles’ Kirk, Chiang Yee is accosted by an elderly gentleman with a bristly moustache, who tells him, “that’s the auld Mercat Cross”.
Unaccustomed to encountering people sporting large moustaches, the writer explains how such sights are a rarity in his native China.
Sat atop Blackford Hill, Chiang Yee composes a short poem, something of an ode to Arthur’s Seat.
The steep rock squats like an elephant
But the Scots see it as a lion
How generously it floats in the air
Its ancient face full of valour and courtesy
The houses are lost in the mist
A lonely bird is playing in the wind
Leisurely wandering with no single thought in my mindI stand to gaze round, regardless of time
The Silent Traveller in Edinburgh was first published in 1948 and Chiang Yee’s outsider’s view of Scotland’s capital, its people, customs and natural beauty, proved extremely popular among locals.
In 1955, Chiang Yee moved to the USA, spending almost two decades there before returning to his native China in 1975 after more than 40 years abroad.
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