Edinburgh in the time of Robert Kirk. Wenceslas Hollar 1670
I returned to the handsome capital of Scotland, Edinburgh, to spend a week in the archives at the National Library of Scotland. I had received a small grant from the University of Leicester to support my time there, transcribing a rare 17th manuscript I had discovered in their Special Collections last December. Over the following week I laboured away in there from opening time until mid-to-late afternoon. Special Collections is such a pleasant place to work in – high up in the NLS, its floor to ceiling windows afford a fantastic view over the Hogwartsian rooftops of the city, towards Arthur’s Seat, the volcanic summit, and the Salisbury Crags, which dominate the skyline of this dramatic city – the backdrop to myriad dramas, intrigues, conspiracies, plots and sub-plots, tragedies and love stories over the centuries.
I stayed at the central SYHA hostel – a large, busy, but clean and convenient, base, brimming with Italian and German students, making breakfast a lively affair.
After my daily transcribing I would check out the city’s attractions, which are numerous and impressive. I caught the tail end of the Fringe on my first full day, so I took in a cross-section of shows (one about a lost Nick Drake recording; an adaptation The Master and Margarita) and enjoyed the festive ambience on the Royal Mile, where talented buskers were milking the madding crowds for all their worth. In the evening I caught the festival finale fireworks, exploding in time to a classical concert over the castle. It was a spectacular end to what must have been an exhausting month. One day was quite enough for me, and I was happy to knuckle down for the rest of the week. However, I still found time at the end of my stay to be a tourist again, and took in a couple of walking tours – one of the Royal Mile; and a Ghost Walk one. Both were free on delivery and you just paid what you thought it was worth at the end, an equitable arrangement, which was clearly worthwhile for the guides, with groups of twenty plus each time, often several times a day. Being a part-time tour-guide myself (a handy bit of summer income) I watched how the tours were delivered with interest. I was impressed by the level of detail and the projection above the noisy traffic and hustle and bustle. Both guides could more than hold their own, and hold a crowd’s attention for a couple of hours. I rounded off my stay with a visit to the Whiski Bar, where I enjoyed a couple of fine malts (a peaty one; a sherried one) while listening to a great Scottish folk band, a trio who belted Scottish and Irish classics with gusto and skill. The next day I walked off my hangover going up Arthur’s Seat – it was inevitably quite busy, but it still was great to escape the pellmell of the Royal Mile. It did the trick, blowing away the cobwebs, and helping me to get a perspective on the week.
Edinburgh’s wealth is in its vast reserve of time, which it sells in diverse configurations, from history tours to single malts. Everything celebrates the past, glutting upon its depthless history. It is as though it is built upon a time-reservoir, akin to its volcanic roots – a chrono-thermal resource which fuels the city. Visitors come from far and wide to bathe in these time-springs, to receive their special ancientness, returning home refreshed, their wallets and purses lighter. We hope some of the ‘authenticity’ and sense of belonging and identity rubs off on us. We leave, walking a little taller, channelling our own inner Wallace or Bruce. We might besport embarrassing tartan tat, Outlanders dancing a caper. Somehow it feels okay. There is a wealth of fascinating history there – and it is a fine-looking city, darkly handsome, with its Piranesian levels of wynds, bridges, teetering tenements, gothic towers, dungeons, dives, courts, penthouses and promenades. Exploring it is like stumbling around the torturous catacombs of a novelist’s brain. For a while we are all characters in search of a plot, playing our roles – tourist, punter, mark, local, rake, beggar, laird.
Long live Auld Reekie!