Scotland is the home of scotch whiskey and irn-bru. The kilt and the bagpipe. Indigenous to the Loch Ness Monster and the unicorn. The country of breeding both highland cattle and poor football players. Their supermarkets are lined with haggis and shortbread. The country that gave us Robert Burns and Sir Walter Scott. The same place that gave us Little Jimmy Krankie and Susan Boyle. Eleven percent of all Nobel prize winners are Scots. And eleven percent of all Scots are red-headed. So what would they make of me? Or more importantly, what would I make of them?
I climbed up through the country to Edinburgh to celebrate Jennie’s twenty first birthday. I’ve been once before, but only for a day, and ever since that day vowed to return for longer. Jennie had never been before and had always heard amazing things, mostly from me.
The morning following her birthday we took a train from Birmingham’s gleaming New Street station, hungover and probably not as excited as we should have been. It cost about £20 each way, and would take around four hours.
Why didn’t we fly? Because it’s way more expensive, and would’ve taken the same amount of time if you include driving to and from the airport. Besides, the train journey was one of my favourite parts of the trip. We trekked through the Peak District, through the heart of Lancashire, along the outskirts of the Lake District, meandering around the Scottish Lowlands before finally arriving at a wet and windy Edinburgh. I was glued to the window the entire time. As soon as we arrived I was ready to go back and do it all again.
The weather didn’t do much to our spirits and the station is right in the hub of the City, so as we exited, the whole of Edinburgh stood on its toes before us. Beautiful stone buildings seem to be stacked on top of one another, they circled us as if we were in the centre of a huge bowl.
Our hotel wouldn’t allow us to check in for another hour so we decided to grab a coffee and a snack. And where better to do so than the Elephant House? The “birthplace of Harry Potter!”. Or so it says so on the back of the staff’s uniforms. Interestingly, this is the very place that JK Rowling sat down and wrote her first novels in the magical series.
As we arrived the queue trailed out the door, it was of course Sunday afternoon, and the place was inundated with tourists. We agreed to come back on a quieter weekday. We looked at our watches and it was time to check in. We, as we always do, booked a modest Travelodge. It cost us £50 for two nights. Totaling the trip at a very reasonable £90 for two nights and three days. The hotel was on a little road off of Princes Street (Edinburgh’s equivalent to Oxford St), about 30 seconds from the Scott Monument, in the heart of the city.
We booked it simply because of its convenience, its price and its reliability. We have stayed at Travelodge many times, and not once had a problem. They’re clean and quiet. And we spend so much time exploring its pretty much just a place to sleep.
We threw our bags down, and headed back towards where we had just been, The Royal Mile. Its approximately, you guessed it, one mile long, and runs through the centre of the Old Town. With the Castle at the top, the cathedral in the middle, and Parliament at the bottom, it’s the perfect way to see Edinburgh’s landmarks.
The rain continued to fall, heavily too, and we sheltered ourselves inside St Mary’s Cathedral. In an conflicting sense, it’s both spacious and cosy. The ceilings were very tall, and the end walls were just about visible. It looked similar to the Great Hall at Hogwarts. There were quite a few people either sitting in deep-thought or wandering, admiring the architecture. Despite this, the staff were friendly, the air was warm and atmosphere was for lack of a better word, appreciative.
We too appreciated the magnificence of the place. The tops of aisles were littered with emblems of historic Scottish families that are illuminated by two enormous glistening chandeliers.
We left the cathedral and sheets of rain were falling onto people’s umbrellas, rolling down and dripping onto the floor. We began to walk towards the castle, hoods up, looking directly at our feet.
“Aren’t the pavements here lovely”, I thought.
Then Jennie stopped us, pulled her hood down furiously and remarked,
“We’re missing Edinburgh”
“What do you mean?” I asked, a little erked that we were standing still in the pissing rain.
“The best part of exploring a city is looking at all the sights as you walk around. And we’re not seeing any of that, only our trainers and the pavement”. Drops of rain ran down her face, clutching bits of make-up as it rolled off her chin.
She may have looked ridiculous but she was 100% right. I pulled my hood down too, we gripped hands and looked directly into the on-pour, fully appreciating all the buildings we would’ve missed if not for her outburst.
We leisurely headed to the castle, just to get a glimpse as we planned to head back on our third day, and spend all afternoon here in dryer conditions. In order to get to the entrance you have to walk through something a bit like a shit football stadium. I was informed by my guidebook (Jennie) that it’s the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo, and that the British Armed Forces put on a ‘performance’. You know, banging drums and marching and that. But there were no soldiers here, and it looked like it could’ve just as easily have been home to Burnley Football Club or the reunion tour of JLS.
We headed from one side of the Royal Mile to the other, down to Holyrood Palace and Scottish Parliament. I could walk up and down this stretch of road everyday and not get bored. The best thing about it is there isn’t a chain franchise in sight. No Sports Direct, no Ladbrokes, not even a McDonalds. Every little charming shop is independent from its neighbour. It looks a bit like Diagon Alley. I was starting to understand the inspiration for J.K. Rowling’s writing. I could probably sit in the corner of each shop, my face warmed by a cackling fire, a cup of hot chocolate and marshmallows in my hand, with Hagrid buying a dragon from a hooded guy behind the counter.
There were enough fudge, kilt and cashmere shops to please a tourist with a stereotypical impression of Scottish culture. We fought our way through a sea of tourists till we were practically all alone at the bottom end of the street. We had a great view of Holyrood Palace, squinting through a black gate about 100 metres from the front door. The Scottish Parliament building was not what I was expecting. I can’t think of a building more out of place anywhere in the world. It looks like a sixth form’s newly built art building, and they’ve let one of their edgy students design it. And then accidentally misplaced it right in the centre of Edinburgh’s Old Town. The student is probably named Michael but makes everyone call him “Mee-kel” in order to add a hint of foreign mystery to his boring life. He probably loves anything avant-garde.
The rain continued to hammer onto our already sodden heads. We didn’t care at this point. We walked around the corner to Holyrood Park, big mountainous hills. Here ‘Arthur’s Seat’ sits atop an ancient volcano. It’s sort of a must-do pilgrimage and landmark in Edinburgh. It might sound like a strange thing to find in the middle of a capital city. But as we soon learnt, that’s Edinburgh. It’s split down the middle between urban and rural. You can be in the middle of a cobblestoned city, walk ten minutes and feel like you’re in the middle of the Scottish countryside. And you are to a certain degree. We looked up and agreed it didn’t look that far to the top. The rain sloped down and off the hills and we agreed today probably wasn’t the right day to ascend.
We wandered back to the city centre and to our hotel, to dry ourselves and hopefully avoid pneumonia. We rested and headed back out to see more of a city we were very quickly falling in love with.
We strolled down Rose Street, hoping to discover an appealing place to have a pre-dinner drink. We went for a pub called the Amber Rose, which had stairs spiraling down to the entrance. And to us, that indicated that it had to be a fairly classy place.
I ordered a Scottish whiskey because I had obviously been misinformed at some point in my life that I am a man. I tell you what’s not manly, and will not earn you any respect from the Scottish guys behind the bar, asking for diet coke as mixer.
“Do you want a straw too?” He remarked, ever so wittily.
I did want one, truth be told, but I knew he was poking fun at me. I’m a soft southern bastard who likes drinking diet coke through a straw and eating things that have avocado and goat’s cheese in it. I sternly declined. Jennie ordered an Amaretto and coke and nobody at the bar laughed at her. Modern-day double standards for you.
We drained our drinks and waded around puddles in Queen Street to step into Las Iguanas. Not particularly special, but good value and most importantly, half-priced cocktails. We ate a variety of tapas, drunk a myriad of alcoholic and fruit infused beverages and returned to our bed for the night.
As we walked back I felt an overwhelming sense of giddiness. Partly due to an over-consumption of rum, and partly because I was so gracious to be in such a beautiful and historic place, and I couldn’t wait to see what else it had to show me over the next few days.
The whole city has this irresistible charm. Each side-street wants you to wander down it, each restaurant says “try our food, it’s great”, each house seems to hold an interesting historical anecdote. And I wanted to try it all, I wanted to explore every street, try every dish and retell every story. I laid in bed that night and made a promise to myself that I would give haggis a chance.