On the Elephant in the Room

If you follow this space, you know by now that Edinburgh is one of my favorite places in the world. At the heart of this beautiful and historic city sits Edinburgh Castle, perched atop a large rock stopper on a dormant volcano. That prominence lords over the city, and all life radiates from its epicenter. Over the centuries, the castle has been host to kings, queens, foreign dignitaries, and even captives and prisoners. This tale is about one of those prisoners.

In the early 1800s, Britain was ramping up its systematic colonization of what is now Sri Lanka and was then Ceylon. While the British wrestled control over the territory from the Dutch, the people there were loyal to their local king, a man whom the British eventually replace. Land, economic, and infrastructure reform soon followed. The rich soil of the island provided resources for Britain for decades as a plantation system was imposed.

When the 78th Highlander Regiment returned from their posting in Ceylon, they arrived in Edinburgh with a prisoner in their custody. He was placed in confinement in Edinburgh Castle as it was seen to be the most secure facility to hold him. Now, several mysteries surround this prisoner. To begin with, no history records his name. We don’t know his age. We are not even sure why he was being held; we don’t know why the regiment brought him to Edinburgh in the first place.

Here’s what we do know for sure. This Ceylonese native had a personal jailer. And, because the victors usually write the histories, we even know the jailer’s name: Private McIntosh–can you get more Scottish than that? And we know that the regiment regarded their prisoner as a sort of regimental mascot. When the regiment was on parade in the large courtyard in front of the castle, they put this poor guy at the front of the marching soldiers and made him march with them. And, to further add insult to injury, the soldiers often thought it funny to ply the captive with beer until he could not stand.

We also know that, after a few years in jail, the prisoner died in the castle. He never saw his native land again. Today, you can see wonderful things in Edinburgh Castle. The Stone of Destiny is there. The Scottish Crown Jewels call it home. Wonderful art and architecture can be viewed all around. And, in a small corner sit the feet of this former prisoner. Yes, his feet are on display there.

At this point, you might be wondering what the elephant in the room is that is referred to in the title. Well, the title refers to the fact that the prisoner who lived for a time in Edinburgh Castle was actually an elephant.


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