I remember reading that Queen Victoria and Prince Albert believed that simply being in the company of one or more Scotsmen, especially in the bracing air of Scotland, brought health and vigor. We certainly found that to be true on our first full day in Edinburgh when our gracious host, George, took us on an introductory walking tour of Edinburgh. Orientation was easy — the town flows down from Edinburgh Castle. So look up and you’ll always have your bearings. Find the largest body of water — which will be the Firth of Forth and you’ll know where the West is. Otherwise, just keeping running up and down the Royal Mile, with side trips down Queen Street and Princes Street, and you’ll never be more than a few steps from a Whisky, cigar or kilt shop. Secondly, especially if you are in the company of a Scotsman, you must walk briskly. That’s because if you have brilliant sunshine and blue skies as we did, you want to get everything in before it starts to rain. Then, when it starts to rain, which it inevitably will, you have to move quickly to get to and from wherever you are going without getting drenched. So, the result is, when you are in the company of a Scotsman, especially in his native country, you are always moving at a fast pace. Strolling is for Italians. The Scots only move at one speed: brisk.
There are many guidebooks that will tell you all the sights of Edinburgh. So I’ll just let you know some of the unusual ones and some lesser known facts. Firstly, I was all prepared — when I saw anything commemorating Robert Louis Stevenson — to bring out my argument that he is really a Sonoman. I had no opportunity. Edinburgh is more interested in documenting the exploits and hangouts of Burke and Hare, the infamous Georgian Era serial killers. At the time, law the forbade the dissection or other medical practices on any corpses other than those of executed criminals. Yet medical schools were proliferating in Edinburgh, while the execution rate was dropping. Enter Burke and Hare who, along with their significant others, found themselves doing a brisk business in the body supply racket. Surprisingly, they kept this up for over a year and through seventeen bodies. I say this is surprising because they weren’t particularly subtle about it. Many of their victims were lodgers at Hare’s wife’s lodging house. Their usual methodology was to get the victim drunk on whisky and then suffocate them. So, as you can imagine, any still existing pub where Burke and Hare were known to drink is clearly marked with an historical plaque. Their second mistake was killing and delivering a number of popular prostitutes. This caused suspicion when the medical students started recognizing their cadavers. Which makes you wonder if medical school back then was not as rigorous as it is now, what with students having all this time to consort with streetwalkers. In the end, they were caught, Hare turned State’s evidence in a plea bargain and, fittingly, Burke was executed and various parts of him were used in medical experimentation at the Royal Colleges of Medicine where his skeleton and various items made out of his tanned skin can still be seen. You could make a full day of it on a Burke and Hare tour, ending, as we did, with a pleasant pint at a pub overlooking the Grass Market where you can still see the gallows platform where Burke met his end. While George knew much about Burke and Hare, I was happy to uncover the fact that they were actually Irish immigrants. Which relieved George immensely as he said, “I just knew they couldn’t have been Scotsmen.”
However, our walking tour wasn’t all serial killers. We found the pub where Boswell met Samuel Johnson (who at the time was suffering from food poisoning from Scottish food). We looped around John Knox’s house which was pretty much Ground Zero for the Scottish Reformation. And to bring us back somewhat to Robert Louis Stevenson, we found several of the haunts of Deacon Brodie, upstanding citizen by day, criminal by night who was the model for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Ironically, one of those haunts was NOT Deacon Brodie’s Tavern, which still looked like a great place to get a pint.
You could make a very satisfying day of it just walking around and around Edinburgh and in and out of the closes, or enclosed courtyards that are everywhere. But a number of houses are now museums giving you a good idea of what indoor life was like in Edinburgh. One of the best is Gladstone Land. Like a lot of the older houses in Edinburgh, it started life as a one story building that was built up and up and out through the ages until it became something much different. By the time building was done on Gladstone Land, it had a Medieval section, an Elizabethan section, a Jacobean section and a Georgian section. (Think of Johnny Cash’s One Piece at a Time translated to Scottish stone and living quarters.) It’s not as small inside as you normally find historical houses to be. But then, I can’t imagine that even in Medieval times, Scots were exactly small. And they certainly needed space to move briskly.
By this time, we had about all the health and vigor that could be injected into our jet-lagged selves, so it was time to sample some local wares. May I ever so highly recommend The Scotch Malt Whisky Society on Queen Street? Set in a beautiful Georgian building, this elaborate tasting room includes special blends that the Society mixes up. Wine writers could learn a thing or two from the names and tasting notes.
You could clearly spend the better part of your vacation in here tasting such intriguing blends as “Fresh Toffee and Glossy Magazines”, “Oak Shelves in a Library”, “Christmas Cake and Afghan Coats” or “Old Jazz Club”. But we had to press on. Briskly.
To a pub. Where the management thoughtfully provided a few laminated pamphlets on intriguing Scottish history. What caught my eye was a claim that the Scottish flag is the, and I quote, “oldest flag in the world, dating from 850 AD.” This started a lively discussion as I was sure people were marching under Roman banners, or under Alexander the Great’s standards or even Assyrian flags long before the Scots had a flag. Andy and George assured me that what was probably meant was that it was the oldest continuously in use flag that is still a national flag today. That’s quite a qualification that probably should have been put in the pamphlet. But it was an intriguing story. Apparently, the Scots, who were fighting someone or other, probably the English, were outnumbered and not hopeful on the eve of the battle. But their leader had a dream that St. Andrew came to him and promised victory. The morning dawned with a brilliant blue sky, except for a whisp of cloud that formed the shape of the distinctive cross upon which St. Andrew was crucified. The Scots, buoyed by a divine thumbs up, took the field, won the battle, stitched up a blue flag with a white cross and have been fighting — and walking briskly — under it ever since.
I can’t imagine Scotland gets too many brilliantly sunny, blue and nearly cloudless skies. In fact, I was sure the one we were walking under was perhaps one of the few since 850 AD. So that got me focussing up trying to get pictures of Scottish flags flying against blue skies.
Over all, a comprehensive and unusual orientation to Edinburgh. And brisk!
Note: The Scotsman pictured above is not walking briskly. But I thought it was notable that Scots have their priorities right. In front of a major cathedral, they place a statue of a writer. In this case, Sir Walter Scott.
More pictures here.