A Dram of Edinburgh
Travel Blog by Lillis Werder
As a child and teenager, I had visited Scotland during multiple summers with my grandmother who adored Great Britain. It was during those formative years when I developed an attachment to Edinburgh. As I grew up I learned that I have Scottish heritage on both sides of my family, namely the MacDonald clan and the McIntosh clan. After my second or third attendance at the summer Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo where exquisitely trained performance teams and military bands play and dance in full Scottish garb on the esplanade of the Edinburgh Castle, I became increasingly curious as to what Scotsmen wear beneath their kilts. I put this question to any adult family member who would listen and was never given a straight answer. I finally decided to take matters into my own hands, and one day while in Edinburgh, I visited the famous Jenners department store located on Princes Street. I headed directly to the mens’ under garment section where I found a kaleidoscopic array of silk boxer shorts to match any clan tartan. Silk, colorful boxers were all neatly stacked halfway to the ceiling in solid color piles escalating in size from small boys to extra extra large mens. So, it was there in Jenners department store where I unearthed the answer to this age old question. I felt privileged to finally know the Scotsman’s secret!
On my most recent trip to Edinburgh, I was accompanied by my adult son Sam who has long desired to visit Scotland to see the culture of our ancestor William Wallace. We had a perfect ten-day itinerary to experience many things Scottish. We learned that long ago, Edinburgh was known as “Auld Reekie” (Old Smokie) back in the days of peat fire smog, overpopulation, and a distinct lack of plumbing in most homes. When combining these conditions with a stagnant Nor Loch, which was littered with human waste and floating corpses, there is no question how the city earned its noisome nickname. Since those days, Edinburgh has made tremendous strides and is now the second most visited city in the UK.
As we arrived, our weather forecast appeared quite grim, offering nothing but hour after hour of torrential rain. We decided to track the weather by the hour to get through the next three days, and make a calculated dash out to a place we wanted to photograph in the 45 minutes we had available between cloudbursts. At one point, we began walking up the Royal Mile, the most visited area in the city, consisting of a succession of streets forming the main thoroughfares of the Old Town. At the bottom of the Royal Mile sits Holyrood Palace, with Edinburgh Castle being the reward at the other end. The Royal Mile name derives from this road being the path for the traditional processional route of monarchs. The streets which make up the Royal Mile are Castlehill, the Lawnmarket, High Street, Canongate, and Abbey Strand. In truth, the Royal Mile is actually 1.118 miles, but our feet didn’t notice the difference. We wandered this path for an hour until the clouds opened up in a real drencher. I stepped into a puddle to cross a street, trying to avoid a Communist party march with hundreds of people and their dogs carrying signs of protest down the street. I waded across a fast moving stream of water that was eight inches deep resulting in soaking my shoes and ankles in frigid wetness. Fortunately, we encountered a converted police box coffee station in the street where we bought two steaming cups of Earl Grey tea and took shelter in a convenience store that conveniently had one new pair of emergency wellies available in my size. I wore those knee high rubber boots for three solid days. They became my new elixir of life. We continued down the Royal Mile to visit shop after shop, mostly aimed at tourists, and ducking into a few churches and graveyards. We also came across many historic homes, landmarks, and even shops where you can go full Scottish and custom order your own kilt. (Multi colored under garments sold separately). The Royal Mile today is an eclectic mix of restaurants, pubs, and shops, with some unusual visitor attractions mixed in. We did not visit in August, but if you do, expect to see an additional two million visitors flood the streets from 63 countries to watch over three thousand shows. Thus, we chose to visit in September to avoid the larger crowds. At various points along the Royal Mile, we saw a sole bagpiper playing to the crowds in full Scottish regalia. Between inhalations, the piper will pose for an occasional photo upon request. I found a wonderful tartan shop, Kiltane, that sold cashmere scarves in almost every tartan under the Scottish sky. These make wonderful gifts for family, and yourself.
One of the most memorable sites to explore on the Royal Mile is the renown St. Giles' Cathedral, a parish church of the Church of Scotland. Likely founded in the 12th century and dedicated to St. Giles', it has since become the Mother Church of World Presbyterianism. The church is a stunning display of Gothic architecture. The striking Rieger organ stands tall between many pillars and walls flanked by fabulous stained glass windows. I was sure to gaze up at the impressive vaulted lapis blue ceiling flanked with gold leaf details to resemble tree branches reaching up to the heavens. This cathedral is still a prominent center for civic services such as the kirking of Parliament, a multi-faith service to coincide with the opening of the Scottish Parliament, and the Most Ancient and Most Noble Order of the Thistle, an order of chivalry associated with Scotland. The crown steeple is one of Edinburgh’s most famous and distinctive landmarks with its spire designed to resemble the crown of thorns. We were quite fortunate to have visited and photographed the interior of St. Giles' the day before the Queen’s death. It was the quiet before the storm on the day of our visit with few visitors. The next day, the Royal Mile was surrounded by teams of police, the road was closed off from several entrances, and the way was made for the hearse to bring the Queen’s coffin to be installed in the nave of St. Giles' for viewing. Thousands of visitors descended into Edinburgh the next day and solemnly waited in interminable lines for their chance to pay their respect to Her Highness’ coffin. We also had tickets to see the Queen’s majestic yacht that she owned and traveled in for decades, the Royal Yacht Britannia. This boat is docked at the Leith shoreline, but our tickets were canceled in order to provide a suitable period of mourning for the Queen.
Beyond St. Giles' as we approached the Castle entrance at the top of the Royal Mile, we decided to visit one of the most quirky and artistic venues in the city, Camera Obscura. This place is a must see on any visit. It consists of six floors jam-packed with over 100 captivating optical illusions, holograms, a mirror maze, and a dizzying, spinning vortex tunnel disorienting enough to make you lose your egg and sausage breakfast. It is located in a castellated building called the Outlook Tower. At the end of your visit, as you wind your way to the top floor, you will see some of the most compelling views of the city from the rooftop terrace. It was in one of these exhibits where we learned that Sean Connery once posed nude for Edinburgh Art College in the 1950’s. Christie’s Auction House ended up purchasing all of these portraits for a mere 800 British pounds, or roughly $1,000. Quite the bargain! The last exhibit, presented by a guide in a 20 minute lecture was on the top floor. We listened a the guide explained the intricacies of the enormous pin hole camera that faces downward onto the streets below. While we were there, we were clandestine spies as we watched couples kissing, tourists blowing their noses, and diapers being changed. However, my most revealing view, a melancholy site, was a long shot all the way down the Royal Mile to St. Giles Cathedral where we could see crowds forming to line up to see the Queen’s coffin.
The most magnificent panoramic perch in all of Edinburgh is Calton Hill. We went there twice, the first visit being after a afternoon rainstorm, but light was not ideal for photos. So, we returned another morning straight after breakfast, arriving at 9:00 AM sharp and discovered this was the most ideal hour as the sunlight was pure perfection. The sky delicately illuminated all angles of the scenery from the top of this eagle’s eye cliff. We could see the Edinburgh Castle clearly on the northern side, and on the south, the red-toned cliffs of the Salisbury crags and all the way down to undulating slopes of Holyrood Park. The center view was my preferred one, as we could see all the way down the famous Princes Street interrupted by the antique clock tower of the ornate Balmoral Hotel. Such classic views we saw of this superb city. Other monuments sharing the slope of Calton Hill include the City Observatory, the Dugald Stewart Monument, and the 1816 tower of the Nelson Monument with a 143-step climb to the top. A very interesting fact is that of the National Monument, an unfinished work on Calton Hill. In 1822, work began to recreate a monument inspired by the Pantheon in Athens. It was intended as a monument to Scottish sailors and soldiers killed in the Napoleonic wars, but in 1829 with only two columns completed, the funding ran out and construction ceased. It became known as Edinburgh’s disgrace. Now, it is part of Edinburgh’s distinctive skyline. Be sure to make this park a priority when you visit Edinburgh.
In all of Edinburgh, our favorite way stop during our daily ten mile walks, was the historic Balmoral Hotel on Princes Street, adjacent to the ever convenient and modern Waverly Train Station. Completed in 1902, the Balmoral Hotel is one of the most notable railway hotels in the UK. This hotel links the ornate Scottish architecture of Old Town with the more severe classical architecture of New Town. The hotel features Victorian architecture that is influenced by traditional Scottish baronial style. Even the ladies room on the lobby floor is adorned with pink and ivory colored floral sinks that hold pure white linen towels. The author J.K. Rowling is known for staying in the Balmoral for months on end so she could escape her children and noisy household to quietly finish her Harry Potter novels while being served at every whim. Tradition since 1902 dictates that the Balmoral clock on the looming overhead tower, is considerately set three minutes fast so people won’t miss their trains. The overall service at this hotel is impeccable. The kilt clad men stationed in front of the building readily fetch you a cab, night or day, whether you are a guest or not. The lobby is lavishly decorated with plush wool carpets of Scottish origin, and a round mahogany table exuberantly filled with seasonal flowers. At the time of the Queen’s death, the flower arrangements were bright white and included tasteful lilies to show respect. Sam and I often dropped in at the Balmoral after a long day of exploring all things Scottish. We would overindulge on rich but delicate desserts, hot coffees, or a full meal. To guild the lily on our last day in Edinburgh, we made an advanced reservation for high tea in the Balmoral Palm Room, an up market glass-domed champagne bar lined with palm trees. At 50 Euros per person, we were treated as if we were at least second cousins once removed of the Royal family. We had a choice of over 65 loose leaf teas from which to choose, some of which were carefully packed in miniscule tins and sent home with us after we consumed three plated layers of egg salad and water cress finger sandwiches, scones, and fruity tarts. As we sat in the Palm room observing the other guests, we realized that some couples were sporting clothing that most likely cost the equivalent of a down payment on a New York City condo. Steeped in Scottish tradition, this hotel provided us with the royal treatment and a high tea experience of a lifetime.
Our daily walks almost never excluded a stroll through the oasis of greenery called the Princes Street Gardens. The occasional piper is stationed just outside the entrance gates standing with his back to the Castle so as to give the quintessential backdrop to any requested photo. As we walked into the gardens, we observed that even the few homeless men who reside in the garden are wearing kilts of various tartans. It is lovely to see men wearing kilts under any circumstance. In the 1820’s, the Nor Loch was drained to make way for the gardens and the beginning of construction for New Town. The gardens run alongside Princes Street and are divided by the Mound, on which the National Gallery of Scotland and the Royal Scottish Academy buildings are located. East Princes Street Gardens cover about eight acres while the larger West Gardens cover 29 acres. One of our favorite monuments, the Sir Walter Scott Monument lies in the gardens not far from the Balmoral Hotel. I have heard that outstanding views can be seen if you climb to the top of this monument, but sadly, it was never open during the week of our stay.
One day, we ventured a bit further in the gardens to see St. Cuthbert’s Church and surrounding cemetery. Originally founded in the 7th century, it is the oldest Christian site in Edinburgh. The current building was completed in 1894. Interestingly, Agatha Christie married her second husband in this church in 1930. This marriage was a runaway affair, with the couple eloping and fleeing north to Scotland where the service was conducted without any family or friends. Agatha scooped up two strangers from the sidewalk to be the marriage witnesses to her then sordid wedding due to her being 41 years of age while her groom was a mere 26. Another riveting fact is that in the late 18th century, there was a bit of body snatching occurring from graveyards in Edinburgh as corpses were sold to the University of Edinburgh’s medical school. St. Cuthbert’s Church erected watch towers into the church to help stem the bodysnatching activities. Today, the towers serve as a quirky office spaces.
From St. Cuthbert’s Church, we walked on to see the grand Ross Fountain that sits majestically beneath the Edinburgh Castle cliffs. Line these two sites up in the camera lens to make a perfect post card photo. This fountain was manufactured in Paris and was in an exhibit at the Great Exhibition in London in 1862. It is a cast iron structure that was installed in 1872 and restored in 2018.
Since childhood, I’ve always had a hankering for pot pies, particularly of the fowl kind. I had studied up on the pub culture in Edinburgh before our trip and learned that there are over 200 pubs in the Old Town area, most of which serve traditional Scottish meals. One of the most famous is Greyfriars Bobby’s Pub which occupies the ground floor of a row of Georgian houses adjoining the historic Candlemakers Hall. The pub was named after the legend of the famous Skye terrier called Bobby. Dog lovers’ hearts will melt when they hear his story. Bobby’s owner was John Gray, an Edinburgh city police watchman, and Bobby was accustomed to accompanying his master most nights as John kept watch over shops on the streets. After his master’s death in the late 19th century, Bobby spent 14 years guarding his human’s grave until he finally died in 1872. The townspeople took excellent care of Bobby during those years feeding him and giving him shelter. The dog’s undying loyalty and his tender story have been the subject of books and movies throughout the years, including a film by Disney in the 1960’s. There is a bronze statue of Bobby outside of the pub which tourists pass by for a photo and often pause to rub the statue for luck. Sadly, Bobby’s nose is wearing off from so many rubs, and visitors have been asked to stop petting the bronze boy. This fabulous pub makes excellent food and their menu features several types of homemade pot pies served with tasty beer battered onion rings. Pot pie choices include chicken and vegetables, fish, lentil and cabbage , and beef and mushroom. Sam ordered haggis, neeps (turnips) and tatties (potatoes). The haggis was described as a traditional Scottish dish of mutton (including the pluck of the sheep e.g. heart and liver) combined with hearty oatmeal and aromatic mixed spices, served with mashed potatoes and gravy. Sam declared that haggis tasted a bit like meatloaf and it was much to his liking as he ordered haggis several times during our stay.
Greyfriars Kirkyard, located behind the pub, is also well worth a stroll. The kirkyard is owned by the City of Edinburgh Council and open 24 hours a day. It is one of the most famous graveyards in the world. Burials have been taking place here since the late 16th century. This graveyard is just steps away from the Elephant House, a local coffee shop, where J.K. Rowling penned her first Harry Potter book. It was here at Greyfriars Kirkyard where Rowling observed multiple interesting names on graves which she borrowed for her books’ characters, such as the infamous Thomas Riddle. This place is also rumored to be one of the most haunted cemeteries in Edinburgh.
Only a five-minute walk from Princes Street not far from the Stockbridge area is an endearing neighborhood called Dean Village. Built in the 1880’s as model housing for local workers, this pleasant and old fashioned area is located on the banks of the Leith River. As we entered this tranquil oasis filled with nature, we were greeted by a food cart owner who sold delicious hot lattes with locally baked pastries which we devoured while standing on the old stone bridge overlooking a waterfall. Right in the middle of Edinburgh, Dean Village contains classical buildings, the most iconic being Wells Court. This village was previously a milling site, and remains of this are still evident. If you explore, you will spy a few carved stone plaques of baked bread and pies.
The newest and also most controversial building (according to a loquacious cabbie) in Edinburgh is the St. James Quarter, a huge mall consisting of mainstream department stores, high street fashion outlets, and cafes. It is a 1.7 million square foot city development with 850,000 square feet of prime retail space. A five-star hotel, and 250 new private apartments. Probably, the most crude description of its architecture was blurted out to us on our tour of Camera Obscura. The guide described the bronze circular ribbon-shaped building with a winding tassel tipped upwards to the sky as a “steaming pile of dog turd”. Some locals do not feel that this modern architecture masterpiece fits in with the rest of Edinburgh’s Gothic buildings. The idea behind this project was to make the east end of Princes Street the city’s major shopping destination. Sam and I spent an afternoon examining the over-the-top window displays in most of the shops, and we enjoyed the brilliant interiors which allowed streaming sunshine to drench the interior walkways. We ended our time in St. James at the inaugural opening of a Krispy Kreme shop where we were given several free fresh glazed donuts directly off the assembly line. This shopping center is much like a high-end American mall.
Not far from our hotel, located in New Town, is the quiet, yet celebrated residential street called Circus Lane. This appealing street is popular among photographers for its small, elegant homes, curvy lines, and cobblestone street. These houses are truly a mews lane and were built in 1765. A mews lane is defined as a row of stables and carriage houses that have homes or spaces to live directly above them. These spaces for homes were actually built on the backside of larger homes that were owned by the wealthy. This lane is nestled in the Stockbridge area and is a hidden gem. The small homes were decorated with colorful front doors, decorative terra cotta flower pots spilling over with summer plants, and petite benches painted in blues and gold. The ivy framed doorways add special interest to this neighborhood. This area is known as an artists’, writers’ poets’, and musicians’ respite. From Circus Lane, we wandered through the rest of Stockbridge where we found a small Jewish deli that sold Scotch eggs which were oddly displayed in a bowl in the sunny front window. And so, another item was checked off of the culinary bucket list after haggis. The infamous Scotch egg became Sam’s most favorite Scottish food. On our walk back to the hotel, we heard the canon go off from the Edinburgh Castle cliffs in honor of the Queen. It was a memorable 30 minute period for the salute in her honor that day.
The next morning, we headed out of town from the Waverly Train Station to St. Andrews, famed as the location for the origin of golf. From there, we took taxi rides a short distance to immerse ourselves into two fishing villages in the Kingdom of Fife. The first village, only a 20 minute ride from St. Andrews is the village of Crail. This pleasant village has winding cobbled streets that tumble down to its miniature harbor and is surrounded by small, historic fishing cottages, a few cafes, one hotel, and some shops. Crail is a small village of only 1,630 residents. We strolled the quiet streets, greeting some friendly residents with beautiful, friendly dogs, and stopped in at a couple of ceramic shops to see local artists at work. We feasted on sandwiches and cakes from a local coop grocery store, finding a small picnic table to sit where we could do some people watching. If you plan for a full day, it is possible to walk on sections of the Fife coastal path which runs from the Forth estuary in the south to the top estuary in the north stretching 117 miles. There were only a few fishing boats in the Crail harbor just sitting in a dry bed as the tide was low until mid afternoon. Local buses between the five Fife fishing villages run once an hour, so we timed our visit and lunch to be complete for the next bus which swiftly took us to an adjacent fishing village in Fife called Anstruther. This village seemed much more robust as the harbor held a few dozen boats and the surrounding shops totaled to 104. Anstruther with a population of 3,950, is most famous in Scotland for its award-winning Anstruther Fish Bar at 42-44 Shore Street where we ordered crispy beer battered haddock filets with piping hot chips. Many other visitors had come out to lounge in the afternoon sun and enjoy an early dinner at the harbor. We all ate outside on various benches. At one point we saw a dog consuming a drop or two of Johnny Walker Black with his owner. We were approached by an older couple who shared their views on the Queen’s death and the monarchy in general. They expressed sour displeasure with Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, a mediocre opinion of Prince Charles, and great admiration for and sorrow at the loss of their beloved Queen. Scottish people are quite friendly and thrilled that we come to see their towns. The fishing villages of Fife gave us a lasting sense of a serene life away from the bustling urban environments. We were fortunate to experience the everyday simplicity and peace of rural living along the coast with very little traffic and noise that mostly only originated from seagulls.
At the close of our stay in Edinburgh, we knew that we had merely brushed the surface of all that is Scotland. One of the best lessons we learned is that to enjoy and learn about a different culture, you need to devote time meandering through the streets, partaking of the local foods, sampling the local whiskey, exploring the various landscapes (in wellies or in walking shoes), conversing with the local people, and savoring the history and language of the land. We had a dram of Scotland on this trip, and when we return, we plan to make sure we drink in a bit more.
Sir Walter Scott, a famous Scottish novelist and poet, whose striking monument resides on Princes Street in Edinburgh, summarized what I believe is the spirit of traveling in one of his poems. “To all the sensual world proclaim, one crowded hour of glorious life is worth an age without a name.”
Down, down, down. Would the fall never come to an end! `I wonder how many miles I've fallen by this time?' she said aloud. `I must be getting somewhere near the centre of the earth. Let me see: that would be four thousand miles down, I think--' (for, you see, Alice had learnt several things of this sort in her lessons in the schoolroom, and though this was not a very good opportunity for showing off her knowledge, as there was no one to listen to her, still it was good practice to say it over) `--yes, that's about the right distance--but then I wonder what Latitude or Longitude I've got to?' (Alice had no idea what Latitude was, or Longitude either, but thought they were nice grand words to say.)