Thursday, May 10, 2007
Scotland the Brave meets Kansas ;)
(article published some years ago, so it's out of date)
The first time I saw Edinburgh I was smitten. Until then, it had been the same old story: a view of Scotland put about by foreigners of drafty castles, wild men in kilts, a wee beastie called Haggis, and other calumnies.
Scotland, as I discovered on that first visit, was more of a land of undulating, heather-clad landscapes, serene lochs fringed with purple foxgloves, and a wonderful sense of humour behind the dour reputation.
I first laid eyes on Edinburgh while standing at one end of Prince’s Street, a grand boulevard that sweeps through the city centre, looking towards Waverley Station and the majestic North British Hotel. The buildings of the Royal Mile loomed to my right, the suddenness of Edinburgh Castle at one end and the jolting Arthur’s Seat, an extinct volcano, at the other. It was small for a city, highly negotiable but overwhelming in its architectural grandeur, and we parted on affectionate terms.
Years later, fuzzy images but affection undiluted, I found myself in the North British Hotel, now The Balmoral. I drew the curtains and caught my breath. There, outside my window, was Arthur’s Seat, so close that I thought if I reached out I’d be able to touch it. The Royal Mile rose before me like a Medieval Manhattan. I could almost hear the horses’ hooves clattering down the cobblestones and a faraway voice warning “Gardy loo!” (from the French gardez l’eau, or “watch out, I’m about to throw out the slop”).
Instead I heard voices more like Sean Connery’s, himself a native of Edinburgh. It was fall, the weather crisp, perfect for tweeds, woollens, and a wee dram. And so priorities were set, and I found myself in a knitwear wonderland, from a myriad small shops to the majestic Jenner’s department store, of sweaters, scarves, wraps, cashmere coats, tweeds, and kilted skirts. This is where I learned that women wear “kilted skirts”, while the kilt proper is worn only by men; it takes up far more material, has countless pleats folded exactly so, and is cut so that it needs no hemming.
As for the wee dram, Edinburgh’s pubs and restaurants (this city has more restaurants per capita than any other city in Britain) all offer single malt lists in the same manner as wines. Forget the haggis jokes and know that when you eat here, you eat extremely well. Fresh fare in the hands of great chefs makes for a fine cuisine. There are no pubs on Prince’s street, but just behind it, Rose Street has more than its share, with the famous Café Royal in the vicinity.
If Edinburgh’s Old town is Medieval, its New Town is Georgian, and both are very walkable, The Royal Mile especially so. Starting at Edinburgh Castle, you can wind your way downhill to Holyrood Palace to meet up with the ghosts of Mary Queen of Scots, her hapless young husband, Lord Darnley, and her secretary, Rizzio, both of them dispatched by murder. Holyrood Palace enchanted me; it’s no Versailles, but I wanted to move in and live there. Historical landmarks dot your progress, like the 19th-century High Kirk of St. Giles, Parliament House (now the law courts), the 15th-century Mowbray House, 16th-century John Knox house.
Of course, I had to take the Witchery Tour that began at the foot of Edinburgh Castle. It took place at night and was guided by Adam Lyal, deceased. Lyal, himself executed in 1811 for dastardly deeds, escorted us in and out of dark closes and alleyways to sites of erstwhile tortures, murders and supernatural happenings (a hint: Drs. Jekyll and Hyde were created here). It's best to go with a friend. Despite the highly entertaining Lyal, the sudden apparition of a mad monk or a shuffling figure screaming “Gardy loo” can make you jump out of your skin. And there was the ominous physician’s bag he carried around. To my utter shame, as he prepared to reveal its contents, I hid behind one of my friends, face buried in his coat and trying not to scream.
The next day, I recovered my calm, and my dignity, at the Scottish National Gallery, the finest of its size in the world, housing European and Scottish masters, followed by the neo-classic Royal Scottish Academy, the National Portrait Gallery and the magnificent Royal Scottish Museum.
In this country you’re never very far from a golf course and Edinburgh is no exception. A number of those are municipal, costing very little in fees: that’s so your everyday schoolboy, toting his granddad’s saw-down clubs, can also afford it.
Democracy on the green. And fitting for one of Europe’s great cities.