The Full Scottish – An Irishman’s Diary about tourist Edinburgh

The wonders of Dùn Èideann

The Royal Mile,  Edinburgh. Photograph:  Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

The Royal Mile, Edinburgh. Photograph: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

 

It’s an almost shocking admission, I know, but until last Friday I had never set foot in Scotland, never mind Edinburgh. So in between the weekend’s various rugby assignments, I also felt obliged to do some obvious tourist things, of which the “Grey Athens of the North” has plenty.

The city owes its nickname partly to the ubiquitous sandstone that makes the old town look as if it was carved out of rock, and partly to Edinburgh Castle, which looms above it on a glacial crag, like a Scottish Acropolis.

But if the latter-day Athenians were half as good at monetising culture as the burghers of Dùn Èideann, they’d probably be solvent now. And never mind the Athenians, the locals could teach us lessons too.

Take the Walter Scott memorial, the first thing I met when leaving my hotel. Yes, it’s a bit ugly. Charles Dickens was right when he said it looks like the top of a Gothic cathedral that someone has sawn off and set on the ground.

But unlike Dublin’s Spire, or the Wellington monument, you can at least climb it – something tourists are always desperate to do with vertical monuments. So in return for the £4 admission, you get a 267-step workout and a 360-degree view.

While up there, as a bonus, you can turn your own penny – a commemorative one, pressed by a machine that costs a pound to operate. Rarely has the saying “take care of the pennies and the pounds will take care of themselves” been so pithily illustrated.

Elsewhere, seeking the full-immersion Edinburgh experience, I had a bacon, sausage, and haggis roll in a cafe called the Elephant House, which sells itself as the “birthplace of Harry Potter”.

Yes it was here, apparently, that JK Rowling first delivered the world-famous wizard onto a page. Hence the long queues of customers – probably not there for the cafe’s impressive miniature elephant collection – and a lucrative sideline in souvenir mugs and T-shirts.

Later, nearby, I eavesdropped on a tour, by a kilted guide, of Greyfriars Churchyard, wherein many famous people are buried, including the world’s favourite bad poet, William McGonagall.

Neither he nor any of the other two-legged residents are the cemetery’s star attraction, however. That role belongs to a Skye Terrier, Greyfriars Bobby, who may or may not have set a world record for canine loyalty in the late 1800s.

According to the story, he lay on his late master’s grave for 14 years until his own expiry. And I suspect the story is about as true as the existence of the Lough Ness Monster. But there’s a headstone, a memorial statue, and a pub named in the dog’s honour. So who am I to doubt him?

On arrival in Edinburgh, by the way, I was taken aback to discover that The Irish Times had booked me into a temperance hotel. At first, I feared that the expenses department had been complaining about me again.

But on closer inspection, it turned out that the Old Waverley just used to be a temperance hotel, one of many in the late 19th century, when Scotland had its own versions of Fr Matthew, much needed.

This being a rugby weekend, of course, temperance was not much in evidence there or anywhere else. And everywhere in Edinburgh there were reminders of the historic triumph of Scotch whisky over its once-dominant Irish cousin. The latter is making a belated comeback nowadays. But if the rivalry were a rugby match, we’d be the ones who lost 40-10.

The other touristy thing I had hoped to do during my visit was a tour combining the two aforementioned themes – drink and literature. They collide, violently, in the old dockside area of Leith, home to a large Irish population (and Hibernian Football Club), and the setting of Irvine Welsh’s oeuvre, including 1993 novel-turned-film Trainspotting.

I might have passed up on a visit to that book’s most famous address – “the worst toilet in Scotland” – if it really exists, because memories of the hero’s search for his lost opium suppositories are still too vivid to need prompting. But I would like to have visited The Volunteer Arms, the spit-and-sawdust early house which was the characters’ social hub.

Alas I couldn’t. It seems that poor Leith has been going upmarket in recent years and now has Scotland’s highest concentration of Michelin-starred restaurants. In the process, The Volunteer Arms has been decommissioned. It was reinvented last year as a much classier establishment, serving specialist whiskies and craft beers, and is now known as The Cask and Still.

@FrankmcnallyIT

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