Views of Edinburgh Castle

What is it like living under a castle?

Craig Browne

On a recent trip to Edinburgh in Scotland (with my partner, Leonie), I was awed by the grandeur of Edinburgh castle positioned high over the city. I have seen it before, but this time I was struck by a compelling thought “what is it like living under a castle?” What is the impact on people who see this commanding image every time they visit or move around the city? Like all imagery, there must be some effect. Is it positive?

I recall from my museum educator days a concept known as “resonance”. In the context of museum objects, resonance is described by Stephen Greenblatt as:

“the power of the displayed object to reach out beyond its formal boundaries to a larger world, to evoke in the viewer the complex, dynamic cultural forces from which it has emerged and for which it may be taken by a viewer to stand.”

Greenblatt also refers to the resonance imbued in an object when we read in its museum label “stolen from” or “owned by” or “defaced by” or “This vase broken by Marcel Proust”. These “marks of the human touch” give the object a power that resonates with the viewer, often in a way that has nothing to do with the actual object itself.

Importantly, the effect is most pronounced when the viewer is made aware that the object is the actual original item, not a replica. A fact I recall being quite sceptical of in my early museum educator days, right up until the time I stood in front of the Apollo 11 Command Module capsule in the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. As I tracked my eyes over the object and reached the label indicating that this was the capsule, I experienced a strong emotional connection and awe – transported back to my childhood and watching the splashdown event. There was just something special about seeing the real thing. I turned to my partner and said “Ok, I just got resonance!”

As a side note, I remember giving a nod to resonance when watching the Pixar movie, Ratatouille. There’s a wonderfully pivotal scene when the food critic, Anton Ego, finally tastes Remy’s ratatouille dish. With the first bite Ego experiences a flashback to his childhood and the day his mother made him his favourite ratatouille dish (after he had fallen off his bike hurting his knee).

So, back to the castle on the hill.

What kinds of impacts might the image of this iconic object have on the people “below”?

Well, as you are likely thinking yourself, it could mean quite different things to different people – as a function of their lived experience and/or present views. So let’s consider a few general responses.

For some, the castle would undoubtedly serve as a source of pride and identity – a symbol of their heritage, history, and culture, and a reminder of the city’s rich past. Of course, some may feel pain rather than pride.

Seeing the castle regularly may serve to remind people of community, festivals, and cultural activities – which can help foster a sense of place and belonging.

For others, living under a landmark structure like a castle can also have a positive impact on people’s mental health and well-being. Such objects can apparently provide a sense of stability and continuity and serve as a comforting presence in an ever-changing world.

Of course, it should be said, that it’s also possible that lots of people become so accommodated to the sight of the castle that they often don’t even see it. After a time, it’s no longer novel to them and their brains just skip it – unless a new element appears such as a promotional flag or beautiful mist.

I also understand that at least one study suggested that your personality and the valence of your emotional response to an image (negative, positive, neutral), may actually affect your ability to use this image as a navigational landmark. Interesting. Although, in the case of Edinburgh Castle, you are unlikely to miss it, so perhaps this is less relevant in our example!

“Castles” in your training

You can tap this kind of effect in your one-on-one and group encounters. Try asking people to bring in a favourite object to use to introduce themselves. Have them describe a bit about the object, the story behind it, and why it is important to them. Descriptions are often rich in emotion and memory and can provide a nice hook to help others connect.

At CCS Corporation we see similar kinds of effects and impacts when people shuffle or swipe through image cards. They experience elements of resonance, reminiscence, memories, emotional connection, tacit knowledge, fresh thoughts. Our sets of cards include a few such iconic images and symbols mixed with a wide range of evocative imagery about people, place, time, nature, symbolism. Excitingly we are currently involved in some projects investigating how our real and virtual CCS Cards can be applied to important areas such as brain health and healthy ageing.   

Postscript: I have just found a newspaper article* about a happiness poll from a few years back that suggests that “Edinburgh is the most anxious and depressed city in the UK”. Apparently, people surveyed in the Scottish capital favoured words like “anxious” and “depressed” with only 16% rating their lives as “happy”. No mention of the castle!

[*grain of salt warning]

Castle image first from left, courtesy of Becks