A Royal Scot - Edinburgh, October 2019

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October 23rd 2019
Published: October 19th 2019
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A Royal Scot – Edinburgh, October 2019

It’s been a few years since I last tramped over the uneven cobblestones of this ancient royal city, dodging the almost constant rain drops and sampling an excellent Shepherd’s Pie and a shot of smoky-peat whiskey in a local pub. I didn’t have the time during that last visit to really explore the alleyways, museums, hole-in-the-wall cafes or even Holyrood Palace – time to correct those errors. Edinburgh is a city that begs to be discovered, filled with quirky, come-hither nooks that tempt a visitor to explore just that little bit further afield.

I began my latest adventure on a Virgin Atlantic nonstop red-eye flight from Las Vegas to Manchester in northern England, where my brother and I grew up, went to school and made the decision to emigrate to the USA, lo those many years ago. Landing at Ringway Airport some 11 hours later, the very same which saw me depart this country for the New World, I hardly recognized the place – talk about “you can’t go home again”. It was in the low 50’s but this part of the world virtually guarantees heavy overcast and rain – I ask you, is Manchester ever any other way? I think not. Thankfully I didn’t have to be completely exposed to the climate while navigating my way from the jetway to the train station, it’s all within the airport complex. I had a 3-hour layover before the express train departed for Edinburgh, so I headed for the waiting room/café close to the platform for coffee, the daily newspaper and a chance to breath some fresh (and very wet) air. The National Rail station is about as busy as the airport terminal, with hundreds of people using this form of transportation on a daily basis. About a month ago, I had purchased a direct one-way ticket online for £32GBP ($39.50 USD) a 50% discount from regular fares. This gave me a reserved window seat with table for the 3-hour trip to Edinburgh’s Waverly central station. Known as the TransPennine Express, I settled into my seat and promptly at 2:10pm, the train began to move smoothly and quietly away from the platform – I’m on my way to Scotland - warm up those bagpipes and hold the haggis! Thankfully this being a daylight journey north, I got to enjoy the unfolding scenery along the tracks, winding thru the Yorkshire Dales National Park and the Lake District before crossing the border into Scotland just north of Carlisle. I hadn’t seen the sun since I left the US and that trend continued for the entire journey. The further north we traveled, the more desolate the scenery became. Rain spats dotted the picture window on a regular basis, but they didn’t deter from seeing endless emerald green fields with sheep peacefully grazing, totally oblivious to our passing. Stone cottages with smoke spiraling from chimneys, stone walls of ancient vintage dividing the fields, deep blue rippling rivers - this is the English countryside I remember so well.

Arriving at Edinburgh’s Waverly Station in downtown at 5:35pm, it was getting dark, cold and raining (no surprise there) but this time, I had to brave the elements and make my way outside to Waverly Bridge to grab a taxi to the hotel, a few blocks away. The Hilton Carlton is right in the middle of everything this city has to offer. A magnificent Victorian building and a stunning 5-star hotel, with marble and mirrors everywhere. Assigned to a 4th floor executive suite, I was pretty much blown away when I opened the door. It’s a corner unit overlooking the main street with a cozy reading nook and a separate desk/office section. The bathroom is fabulous (not to mention the heated towel rack on the wall), and the suite is huge. I could hold a dance in here! Dropping luggage on the floor, I couldn’t wait to shower and change clothes (36 hours is enough time in any outfit), before checking out the executive lounge on the 1st floor. Open every day from 6:30am to 10pm with snacks and beverages available between the breakfast buffet and evening canapes, was another pleasant surprise. A small but utterly delightful room with limited seating, and an outstanding selection of food and beverages. Delicious samosas with chicken tender strips and salad was my dinner, along with a couple of bourbons on ice…..then I could finally think about some much-needed sleep. I vaguely remember switching on the television to catch the evening news but not much else before the next morning – obviously I was totally brain fried.

Surprise, surprise…I drew back the heavy window drapes just after 7:30am – lo and behold a clear day, blue sky with scattered high clouds and actual sunshine – there is a god! It’s cold with a mercury reading of 38f, probably won’t go much above 53f today. Maybe I’m tempting the devil, but it appears this may just be a dry day, but I know better than to assume it will last for long. Getting dressed to go down for breakfast and watching the Scottish morning news, I found out it’s the State Opening of Parliament in London by the Queen at 11am and the entire ceremony will be televised – don’t think I have ever watched this ancient royal event previously….no doubt worth my time to tune in later on. With the state Crown and Sword being brought from the Tower of London, there’s enough bling with just those two to satisfy anyone. I checked out the breakfast buffet in the main restaurant – Marco Pierre White – very typical with all the fixings of a full Scottish breakfast, including black pudding and haggis. I consider myself adventurous but draw the line at this culinary dish – no way, no how will that stuff ever grace my plate.

Weather wise, I’m batting a thousand here – not a drop of the wet stuff since I arrived two days ago, with brilliant sunshine and actual blue sky…..the forecast is for the same the next couple of days – did I luck out or what? Tried out the Executive Lounge for breakfast on day 2: fantastic! Custom order of Eggs Benedict and a latte set up the morning perfectly. The crowning touch was the toasted crumpets topped with blackcurrant preserves…..heaven on a plate! This is the first time in many Hilton stays where I have been able to place specific breakfast orders with the lounge staff…. this is where I’ll be spending my morning hours for the remainder of this stay.

Considered one of Europe’s most beautiful cities, Edinburgh is draped across a series of rocky hills overlooking the Fifth of Forth, which flows into the North Sea. It’s a town intimately entwined with its landscape, with buildings and monuments perched atop crags and overshadowed by cliffs. From the Old Town’s picturesque jumble of medieval tenements piled high along the Royal Mile, its turreted skyline strung between the black, bull-nosed Castle Rock and the russet palisade of Salisbury Crags, to the New Town’s neat grid of neoclassical respectability, the city offers a constantly changing perspective. The Athens of the North, an 18th century Edinburgh nickname dreamed up by the great thinkers of the Scottish Enlightenment and the numerous Greek Revival buildings scattered throughout, is a city of high culture and lofty ideals, of art and literature, philosophy and science. It is here that each summer the world's biggest arts festival rises, phoenix-like, from the ashes of last year's rave reviews and broken box-office records to produce yet another string of superlatives. Also known as Auld Reekie, a down-to-earth place of loud, crowded pubs and decadent restaurants, late-night drinking and all-night parties, beer-fueled poets and foul-mouthed comedians. It’s the city that tempted Robert Louis Stevenson from his law lectures to explore the drinking dens and lurid street life of the 19th century Old Town. And it’s the city of Beltane, the resurrected pagan May Day festival, where half-naked revelers dance in the flickering firelight of bonfires beneath the stony indifference of Calton Hill's pillared monuments. I haven’t been lucky enough to see any naked or otherwise revelers from my windows, but that could have a lot to do with the temperature!

Like a favorite book, Edinburgh is a city tourists want to dip into again and again, savoring each time a different experience – the castle silhouetted against a blue spring sky with a yellow daffodil haze misting the slopes below the esplanade; stumbling out of a late-night club into a summer dawn, with only the yip of seagulls to break the unexpected silence; heading for a cafe on a chill December morning with the fog snagging the spires of Old Town; and watching festival fireworks crackling in the night sky amid the crowds in Princes Street Gardens.

A little bit of history: Located on the southern shores of the Firth of Forth, the earliest known human habitation in the Edinburgh area was at a Mesolithic campsite dated to 8,500 BC. Traces of later Bronze Age and Iron Age settlements have been found on Castle Rock, Arthur’s Seat (a 350-million year old extinct volcano) and the Pentland Hills. When the Romans arrived at the end of the 1st century AD, they found a Celtic tribe whose name they recorded as the Votadini. Up until the reign of King David I in the early 12th century, the region was ruled by a succession of tribal chiefs, and it wasn’t until the middle of the 14th century, that Edinburgh was described as the capital of the country by the French chronicler Jean Froissart. In 1603, King James VI of Scotland succeeded to the English throne as James I, following the death of Elizabeth I and uniting the two countries, though Scotland remained in all other respects, a separate kingdom.

In the 17th century, Edinburgh's boundaries were still defined by the city's defensive town walls, and as a result, the city's growing population was accommodated by increasing the height of the houses. Buildings of 11 stories or more were common, and have been described as forerunners of the modern-day skyscrapers.Most of these old structures were replaced by the predominantly Victorian buildings seen in today's Old Town. By the first half of the 18th century, Edinburgh was described as one of Europe's most densely populated, overcrowded and unsanitary towns. Visitors were struck by the fact that the various social classes shared the same urban space, even inhabiting the same tenement buildings, with shopkeepers and tradesmen tending to occupy the cheaper-to-rent cellars and garrets, while the more well-to-do professional classes occupied the more expensive middle levels. During the Jacobite rising of 1745, Edinburgh was briefly occupied by the Jacobite "Highland Army" before its march into England. After its eventual defeat at Culloden Moor, there followed a period of reprisals and pacification, largely directed at the rebellious clans.

Other than Old Town, my next favorite part of Edinburgh is undoubtedly Grassmarket. This area, located near Edinburgh Castle, is full of history and character and oh yes, lots of pubs! If you need a hearty meal and a cool pint, then head over here where you’ll find plenty of choices. While here, learn some of the crazy stories about why these pubs got these names, including the tale of “Half-Hangit” Maggie. It was the first Scottish pub I visited on my prior trip and remains my favorite. Maggie Dickson lived from about 1702 to about 1765. She was a fish-wife who came to fame after being convicted of killing her new-born baby. She survived her subsequent execution and was subsequently known as Half-Hangit Maggie. In 1723 Maggie found work at an inn in Kelso and subsequently "fell pregnant" after a relationship with the innkeeper's son. Maggie concealed the fact of her pregnancy and the baby duly arrived, prematurely. It is unclear whether the baby was stillborn or died shortly after birth, and if the latter how it died. Either way, Maggie abandoned the body on the banks of the River Tweed, where it was found. Based on questionable medical evidence that the child had been born alive, she was convicted and sentenced to death. Maggie was duly hanged at a public execution on September 2, 1724. Her execution was followed by a near riot as friends and relatives fought with medical students for possession of her body. The friends and relatives won, and Maggie was placed in a coffin to be transported for burial. While the party paused enroute for refreshment in a roadside pub, the lid of the coffin was seen to move, and Maggie was found to be alive. She was well enough to walk the rest of the way to Musselburgh the next day. As the sentence of the court has been carried out, Maggie was beyond further prosecution and she lived for another 40 years. Some say that Maggie survived because she had become a "good friend" of the ropemaker who supplied the hangman, and the early breaking of the rope allowed her survival. Whatever the reason for her survival, her story is remembered in the name of Maggie Dickson's Pub, which overlooks the scene of her execution in Grassmarket. I’ll be back there again during this trip, that’s for sure.
Probably the most famous of the city’s many festivals is the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo. This is an annual series of military tattoos performed by British Armed Forces, Commonwealth and international military bands and artistic performance teams on the esplanade of Edinburgh Castle. The event is held each August and since the 1970s on average, just over 217,000 people see the Tattoo live, and it has sold out in advance for the last decade. The term "tattoo" derives from a 17th century Dutch phrase doe den tap toe ("turn off the tap") a signal to tavern owners each night, played by a regiment's Corps of Drums, to turn off the taps of their ale kegs so that the soldiers would retire to their lodgings at a reasonable hour. With the establishment of modern barracks and full military bands later in the 18th century, the term "tattoo" was used to describe the last duty call of the day, as well as a ceremonial form of evening entertainment performed by military musicians.

Following my usual pattern, I purchased a 48-hour HOHO tour bus pass for £22 ($28.22) senior fare online, consisting of unlimited travel for two consecutive days touring around Edinburgh on three separate bus routes: Majestic, Edinburgh and City Sightseeing. This not only covers the entire city but goes out to Leith to the cruise ship terminal, adjacent to the Royal Yacht Britannia moored at the Prince of Wales Docks. Each route is approximately 75 to 85 minutes long with a combined total of 24 bus stops, so day one was spent completing these 3 routes, taking numerous photos and planning my exploration stops for day 2. The main bus stop for the 3 routes begins and ends at Waverly Bridge back at the central train station, and just a short pleasant 4-minute walk from the hotel. Tour buses start running at 9am until 6pm rain or shine. With the weather being so hit-and-miss, I chose the morning with promise of sunshine for the most part, in spite of the heavy grey clouds hanging over the city. The temperature was barely above the 40f mark with a breeze providing a wind chill below freezing, but still I ventured forth from the hotel. It was shortly after 9am, the streets were crowded with tourists and locals alike, and the tour bus arrived just minutes after I reached the stop.

The first ride on the City Sightseeing bus was very familiar territory, and sitting on the open top deck, afforded great opportunities for outstanding photos. Next up was the Majestic route (new territory for me) and seeing the Britannia moored dockside was a treat. Very different architecture here than Edinburgh – Leith seems like another world away. As the morning worn on, the clouds grew darker and more threatening, but thankfully the rain held off. It was quite cold, and I was half frozen by the time I was back at #1 stop, and ready for the third and final bus: Edinburgh tour. This one covered some old and some new ground in the city, including traveling along Regent Road and directly passed the US Consulate on Regent Terrace (the most expensive area of Edinburgh). This consulate was the very first, being established on July 12, 1798, with the appointment of Harry Grant from South Carolina as Consul – an appropriate choice considering that state’s strong Scottish heritage. One of the most public and widely-appreciated acts by a U.S. Consul was made by the splendidly named Wallace Bruce in 1893, when he unveiled in the Calton Cemetery, a striking statue of Abraham Lincoln bestowing freedom on an African American slave. The statue commemorates Scottish soldiers who fought during the American Civil War, six of whom are buried here.

Upon reaching Lawnmarket I left the bus to do a little shopping. Lawnmarket, which is the oldest part of Old Town and part of the world famous Royal Mile, was the original settlement developed both within the shadow and protection of Edinburgh Castle. The Lawnmarket’s name derives from "land market" where produce from the surrounding countryside was sold. A cloth market was also established here in 1477, one of 15 market sites chartered by James III within the city. This vibrant and colorful market continued to trade here until around the late 1700s. The Lawnmarket also boasts some of the best preserved examples of closes, courtyards and 'land' developments that remain within the city.

Before jumping on the next bus, I decided to go into Deacon Brodie’s Tavern for hot chocolate and a slice of buttery shortbread, not to mention also thawing out my fingers and toes. This place has quite a history which is written on the walls. A real life cabinet-maker, William Brodie was elected a Deacon Councilor of the City of Edinburgh in 1781. By day he was an outwardly respectable citizen and pillar of society, but by "night he was a gambler, a thief, dissipated and licentious." To support his lavish lifestyle, Brodie would copy the keys of his wealthy clients and return at night to rob them. He escaped to Amsterdam in the Netherlands after being recognized at the scene of one of his crimes, only to be caught and returned to Scotland. He was hanged from the city's new gallows at the Tolbooth (which ironically it is said he had a hand in designing) on October 1, 1788. Such was the public interest in the case that it was said to have been attended by a crowd of over 25,000.

However, his history doesn’t end there. The story goes that Brodie bribed the hangman to ignore a metal collar he was wearing and that he had also inserted a flexible tube into his throat in an attempt to prevent the drop from being fatal. Immediately after the execution, Brodie's body was spirited away to a rendezvous with a French surgeon in the hope that he might be revived. Here however the plot thickens even further. While it is claimed that Brodie did indeed perish and that his body was buried in an unmarked grave in Buccleuch Parish Church, rumors however were later to circulate in the city that he had been seen alive and well and living in Europe. It is said that the story of Deacon Brodie may have served as the inspiration for Robert Louis Stevenson's story, "The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" and Brodie's Tavern, at the corner of the Lawnmarket and Bank Street, is virtually a stone's throw away from Brodie's Close where William Brodie inherited his father's business.

I stopped into the Taste of Scotland store and left with a couple of boxes of Walker’s all-butter shortbread under my arm before catching the next bus, and was back at the Hilton by 3pm, only partially frozen. Then the arduous task of editing over 200 photos began, capturing the essence of this fabulous city with its thousands of incredible tales. Being this far into the northern latitudes darkness comes early to Edinburgh around 5:45pm, and daylight doesn’t appear until almost 8am…. these daylight hours shorten as we march towards November. The weather continues overcast, chilly and wet with rare glimpses of sunlight, but it’s obvious winter is fast approaching. Time to get started on my packing, as my next adventure begins in just a few days, and hopefully in warmer weather!

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