Edinburgh Revisited: Places, Memories and Men in Skirts

Clockwise from top left: Bicycle on George IV Bridge, Telephone Box on the Royal Mile, Greyfriars Bobby Pub, and Calum Lykan, Storyteller and Edinburgh Guide, Wearing a Traditional Great Kilt.

Edinburgh and I go back a long way. One of my earliest memories is of being carried, by two men, in my pram across the railway tracks at Inverkeithing Station to catch the train to Edinburgh from Platform 2. That was when railway stations still had porters, and health and safety concerns didn’t restrict the use of common sense and calculated risk.

In the course of our slow travels, Sean and I found ourselves unexpectedly spending six days in Edinburgh, capital city of Scotland and the one place in the world that comes close to feeling like home. I only lived in the city for three years, but my associations with Edinburgh are strong, many of them formed in my childhood and teens. As a child I climbed on the seductively smooth Henry Moores in the Royal Botanic Gardens and enjoyed visiting and revisiting the glasshouses, especially the one with the giant water lilies. My mother, who had a penchant for afternoon tea in grand places, would take me to Jenners in the days of table service, silver teapots and three-tiered cake stands. And whenever we visited the Scottish National Gallery we’d hear the rousing strains of Scotland the Brave emanating from the pipes of busking bagpipers. To this day I feel a rush of patriotism whenever I hear the bagpipes, followed swiftly by a flush of embarrassment at the strength of my subconscious pride.

We were fortunate to arrive on a gorgeous evening, followed by an equally gorgeous day. To make the most of it we decided to have a picnic lunch beneath the Castle in Princes Street Gardens, before heading up to the Old Town where I was hoping to persuade Sean to try on a kilt (there’s something about men in skirts) but he wasn’t to be swayed. The gardens stretch along much of the length of Princes Street, itself a mile long, divided into the West Gardens and East Gardens by the Mound, a man-made hill formed from excavated earth during the building of the New Town in the late 18th and early 19th century. Prior to its construction the city was cramped and overcrowded, but with the new grand Georgian houses and wide streets laid out in a classical grid pattern, Edinburgh was transformed into an Enlightenment-inspired European city.

After lunch we walked up the Mound to the High Street, or the Royal Mile (a Scots mile equivalent to Imperial 1.12 miles), where Sean was happy to see a larger than life statue of David Hume, a key philosopher of the Scottish Enlightenment, as well as the subject, along with Immanuel Kant, of Sean’s book, An Essay concerning Human Enquiry. You can see Sean’s photograph of the statue here.

Fettes College

Fettes College © 2013 Mufidah Kassalias

Edinburgh is sometimes referred to as the Athens of the North, a comparison that goes beyond its beauty and grandeur to its early modern intellectualism that spawned the Scottish Enlightenment, itself a product of a high proportion of universities in a relatively small country. By the mid-16th century Scotland had five universities (St. Andrews, Glasgow, Aberdeen, Edinburgh and the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh) compared to England’s two (Oxford and Cambridge). By the mid-18th century Scotland boasted one of the most literate populations in Europe with 75% literacy. The tradition of educational excellence remains strong in the capital today, with almost 25% of pupils educated at one of Edinburgh’s many independent schools, nearly four times the 7% national average.

Except for one year in Australia, I lived in a variety of places on the East Coast of Scotland until I was twenty-five. The majority of my education was in state schools until I began to fail in order to fit in (education in Scotland’s state schools wasn’t held in such high esteem). My mother took drastic action and applied under the Assisted Places Scheme, on my behalf, to Fettes College, a prestigious public school often referred to as the Eton of the North. And so I attended Fettes for the two years of Sixth Form, rubbing shoulders with the Scottish and international elite. The Assisted Places Scheme, which funded up to 100% of fees and associated costs for children from lower income families, was abolished in 1997 by Tony Blair’s New Labour government. The irony isn’t lost on me, he being one of the most well-known Old Fettesians in history. Fettes is also thought by some to be the inspiration for J.K. Rowling’s Hogwarts. The building, designed by architect David Bryce, is an impressive combination of Scottish Baronial and French Gothic architecture. (The inspiration link has an excellent photograph of Fettes, showing much more of the building than I was able to capture from my vantage point standing outside the locked front gates.)

Clockwise from top left: Bagpipers in Waiting, Playing AC/DC on the Royal Mile, and The Scotsman Building on North Bridge.

Once David Hume had been photographed from a variety of angles, our attention was grabbed by the skilful playing of an AC/DC song by a young bagpiper busking outside the High Court of Justiciary. As busking is a polite business of give-and-take these days, the bagpiper only had time to perform two or three tunes before ceding his prime spot to a fellow piper who’d been patiently waiting in the wings. Since the new guy’s discordant playing was quickly giving Sean a headache, we crossed the road to St. Giles’ Cathedral. There we sat on the wall to finish the remains of our lunch whilst watching a magician’s cringe-inducing attempts at busking. Our incredulity rose as the busker, whom Sean dubbed the Reluctant Magician, aborted each attempt to perform. And so we decided it was time to head home via the long walk back to Leith, where we were staying in a friend’s flat, in a converted warehouse that once housed bottles of the delicious Crabbie’s Green Ginger Wine. We headed west along the Royal Mile so I could show Sean The Scotsman building which, until 2001, was home to The Scotsman newspaper and has since been remodelled into the 56 rooms and 12 suites of The Scotsman hotel.

The next few days were typically dreich. Otherwise known as grey and wet. Sean and I spent much of our time indoors, he writing a thoughtful blog post, Is This Failure?, which less than 24 hours after publication was chosen to be Freshly Pressed, and my being preoccupied by frustration at the weather. (As I write this — no longer in Edinburgh, but now house- and cat-sitting in Fife — Sean is approving and replying to comments left by his new readers.)

Clockwise from left: The Waverley Steps, Lampposts outside Number One Restaurant at The Balmoral, and The Balmoral from the Top of Princes Mall.

The weather picked up again on our last couple of days and so we walked into town to see the Royal Scottish Academy’s annual exhibition at the National Gallery. After which we hung out at the foot of the Mound listening to the Stockbridge Pipe Band followed by a heartfelt music and dance performance by friends of missing Russian student, Yulia Solodyankina. After this we wandered through East Princes Street Gardens, past the Scott Monument (with its 287 steps which I climbed once in my teens) down into Waverley Station and back up the Waverley Steps, coming out by The Balmoral, one of Edinburgh’s classier hotels. In my early twenties, having inherited my mother’s fondness for tea and cake in swank places, I would often stop at the Balmoral’s brasserie to enjoy its patisserie delights.

Clockwise from left: Lamppost outside St. Giles’ Cathedral with Scottish Flag Flying, Giraffes at the Top of Leith Walk, and The Witchery Restaurant near Edinburgh Castle.

On our last day we fancied a repeat experience of our picnic lunch in Princes Street Gardens. We’d bought a couple of vegetarian patés and a loaf of bread from Henderson’s, a place I loved for its good food, kitsch ’70s country pine aesthetic and the handful of candlelit tables tucked under the arches built into the walls. Although the arches are now covered by plywood, the food tasted as good as I remembered. And so we ventured back to Henderson’s and bought the same patés as before and a loaf of bread. As often happens with repeat performances, the experience was entirely different: the patés were dry and tasteless, as if made by a another hand following a different recipe. Sean opened our bottle of water, which smelled strangely sweet and tasted even sweeter, rather like stale fruit-flavoured water. That was the deciding moment: we resolved to return to Henderson’s for a refund. Buoyed up by this decision, and anticipating the just-spent money coming back to us, we indulged in coffee and a chocolate brownie to console our epicurean spirits.

Mufidah Kassalias

Mufidah Kassalias is a writer, photographer and slow traveller. A digital nomad, she’s also co-founder of Creative Thunder, helping creative individuals and small businesses to fire up their online presence and prowess. To get a free copy of the inspiring Creative Thunder Manifesto, click here.

16 responses

  1. Marvellous post Mufidah..and your pictures are a joy…a real snapshot of “Auld Reekie”..

    • Thank you, Azmi! I can’t remember if we ever had tea together at The Balmoral, but I do recall a place next to Waverley Station (that no longer exists) where we would meet and I’d enjoy an egg and cress sandwich. :-)

  2. This is such a lovely report fusing your childhood memories with a present-day visit. I used to do afternoon teas with my big sis … Simple pleasures! Have never been to Scotland, but guess what? Never one to do things in half measures, I am off to Orkney this September! Only a few days, but I’m very excited.
    Oh, and one last thing – Sean, get yourself in a kilt, man! ;)

    • Thanks, Val! Afternoon tea is always good. And brilliant that you’re off to Orkney. I’ve never been that far north myself, but at some point I’d really like to go. Just remember to pack a lot of super warm clothes! There’s still time to get Sean in a kilt, as we’ll be in Scotland for a couple more weeks. Mental note to self: take a photograph of said kilt-wearing and send to Val. :-)

  3. Beautiful images, Mufidah. It’s lovely to hear about your connection to the city – it’s those bits childhood memories that seem to be the strongest.

    • Thanks, Nandini. :-) I’d love to go back for a while longer, but we’re further north now and then will be heading to Cornwall in just over a week’s time. So it will have to be another time.