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  • Writer's pictureIan Hyde-Lay

Uncut Diamonds

On the one hand, it had nothing to do with sport. Yet, on the other, in some ways everything.

Late morning, a sunny Saturday in late September. My wife and I traipse about Edinburgh, noted for its culture, arts and festivals. Climb Victoria Street, the inspiration for Diagon Alley in the Harry Potter series. Visit the National Museum and the Royal Botanic Gardens.

Pure and simply, Edinburgh is one of the most beautiful cities in the world.

Two cities almost, so different are the stately terraces and elegant houses of the New Town from the winding lanes, narrow staircases and hidden passageways of the Old Town.

Continuing on, starting from Princes Street we follow the crest of the hill, gaze up a sharp, rocky pinnacle crowned by the imposing stone walls and towers of the Castle.

On the other side of the hill, we explore picturesque Grassmarket, a historic square full of shops and cafes. A further twenty-minute hike takes us to Arthur’s Seat, at 800 feet the highest point in Holyrood Park. On the way back, we find ourselves at the Vennel, French for “little street”. This alleyway allows another breath-taking view of the Castle.

The clock approaches 3pm. We join countless fellow tourists atop the famous Royal Mile, packed with souvenir stores, restaurants, and pubs. Pipers and buskers all vie for our attention, open cases filling with coins and notes of various denominations.

Then, all of a sudden, in true Scottish fashion, dark clouds roll in. The sun disappears, the temperature drops, and the rain thunders down. Not properly dressed, we are soon drenched.

Others are in the same predicament. We survey options, scuttle across the cobblestones, happy to take refuge in St. Giles Cathedral.

The Cathedral, impressive and distinctive in equal measure, is Edinburgh’s principal church. A focal point of religious activity for nearly 900 years. Detailed carvings and ornate stonework cover the walls and roof. A central tower features eight arched buttresses, with the cathedral’s interior home to beautiful stained-glass windows, heraldic emblems and memorials to those lost in war. Also prominent is a statue of John Knox, minister at St. Giles for much of his life and a leader of the Protestant Reformation.

The rain outside continues to lash down. Still, it matters not, as a totally unexpected treat awaits.

Steadily, they stream in. Hang up sopping overcoats. Take their place in the assigned areas in the very centre of the cathedral. Singers, brass players, string players, percussionists. An equal mix of men and women, of varying ages and appearance. An organist in place in the loft above. A final dress rehearsal by the full Origin Scotland Choir and Orchestra, in advance of a much-anticipated concert later that evening, gets underway.

Symphonic Praise is the theme, the musicians set to run through some of the greatest hymns ever written. The conductor, green t-shirt tight across an ample belly, directs proceedings, like a coach wanting to draw the best from his troops. On several occasions, he brings the music to a halt, asks that various passages be repeated until perfected. The violinists, along with a beleaguered double bass player, seem to draw most of his attention. Yet, after a few words and a big smile, he draws out the phrasing he desires.

The musicians and singers certainly enjoy themselves. Whispering quietly, chuckling, beaming during any break in play. Confident and outstanding musicians all, they clearly revel in performing to the ever-growing crowd. Hundreds, perhaps like us only initially in the building to escape the inclement weather, now scurry to secure one of the surrounding chairs in place for later on in the evening.

The organ features prominently. The acoustics perfect. A chord reverberates through the cathedral, hangs in the air for several seconds. Quite literally pulling out all the stops, the organist increases the volume. Pipes and bellows work overtime, blend in faultlessly with the orchestra and choir below. Powerful sounds swell, soar to the rooftops and beyond. There is warmth, joy and majesty in the music. I can feel it in my soul.

A full ninety minutes later, the rehearsal comes to a fitting conclusion. The final hymn, based on the Apostles Creed and Genesis 1:31, praises everything from birds to flowers, from mountains to sunsets. Appropriately, it is titled All Things Bright and Beautiful.

The last notes fade away. Along with the rest of the assembled throng, slowly, grudgingly almost, we file out. I search for a sporting parallel with this group of musicians and singers, who perform to such a rare and wonderful standard. In the same manner as I would commend and appreciate elite athletes and teams, I marvel at outlandish skill, applaud serious dedication. Recognize artistry and outstanding esprit de corps. Admire the inspiring leadership and rigorous attention to detail.

Perhaps any such comparison is a bit far fetched, the afternoon nothing more than a brief snap shot. A spare moment in an otherwise busy and hectic day.

Still, as the great American philosopher and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, “guard these spare moments, they are like uncut diamonds.”

And so, we do.

The imposing cathedral door closes behind us. As if on cue, the rain ceases, the clouds dissolve, the sun glitters as it resumes pride of place in the sky.


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