Essay // ’TWAS IN THAT PLACE O’ SCOTLAND’S ISLE

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EDINBURGH, IN MY MIND AND RECOLLECTION, is a city of theatrical contrasts: Old Town and New Town, vastness and intimacy, drama and comfort. I traveled there in a particularly cold winter, only intensifying this sense.

On the one hand, Edinburgh is a place of great spatial spectacle. Not a very large city, it is set upon a series of heights and hills that create a multiplicity of elevated lookouts: from the cliffs and battlements of Edinburgh Castle, stripes of city, sky, and sea; from Calton Hill, the gesticulating Arthur’s Seat; from the Salisbury Crags, the National Monument against the distant hills. Everywhere, glistening snow and expanses of blue and black. Fittingly, the city is built upon a landscape formed by primeval histrionics: ancient volcanic and glacial activity that shaped the area’s distinctive hills, valleys, and rugged stony crags.

Yet in stark contrast to this sense of vast, sweeping space, Edinburgh’s Old Town is also a city of closeness and attenuation. Narrow alleys and narrow stairs run between the grizzled buildings, flagged at either end by decorative arches denoting their historic uses and occupants. Small, curving streets pop you out, all of a sudden, into broad ways and startling vistas. The drama, however, is not just in these spatial transitions, but also in the city’s very atmosphere: the streets echo with ghost tales and dark histories like that of Burke and Hare, the infamous body snatchers.

While ‘gloomy’ might spring to mind — greyness, stoniness, deep cold and slippery snows — Edinburgh is actually a city of great warmth. The alleys are punctuated at every turn with friendly, cosy pubs that ache for your presence in a comfy armchair with a couple of close friends, some resolute beer, and some forgot-the-punch-line jokes to ramble through. The streets are replete with sweet little teashops, cheerily compensating for the cold outside with yellow tablecloths, big mugs of tea, and big plates of eggs. The hole-in-the-wall vegetarian baked potato shop I stumbled across while unhappily hungry did a lot for hearty warmth too (find it at the top of Cockburn Street).

It’s certainly a tourist’s city — barely a corner on the Royal Mile isn’t the hangout of a tour guide waiting for his horde of followers (don’t miss an evening ‘hidden Edinburgh’ tour if you’re ghoulish of spirit). The tourist sights are worth seeing, certainly. Edinburgh Castle oozes history from the pores in its stonework; a bit of imagination and some audio-guide listening will have you in raptures over kings and queens gone, battles and hearts won and lost. Also commercially tourist-oriented, the shops lining the way from Edinburgh Castle to Holyrood Palace are overflowing with cheap tartan goods, wee ‘witty’ tee-shirts, and cashmere blend scarves. But there are alternatives if a bit of mass-produced Scotland doesn’t take your fancy: my treasured souvenirs are a Scots cashmere vest and red retro scarf from a little vintage shop on Cockburn Street, The Frayed Hem.

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