Cities have the potential to crush you or lift you without the intervention of another being. Having lived in Edinburgh for almost two years, my feelings for the city were those of a schizophrenic lover. My affinity with the place was as conflated as the bittersweet smell of malt from the brewery, blown in by the wind. Depending on my mercurial mood, that smell would be comforting one day, and nauseating the next. Like any city, there are different angles and edges to “Auld Reekie.”
After cursing the constant cloudbursts for months, I eventually became accustomed to them. Other than Edinburgh, there are very few cities in the world where the rain exalts the atmosphere. In the dampness, you can imagine rugged clansmen, ascending the mound to the forbidding castle. On a jagged volcanic rock, it still stands in formidable splendor. The castle, which now boasts the possession of the Crown Jewels, sits at the top of the Royal Mile. This street is the spine of the city, and was once a striving market-place. From the castle to Holyrood Palace at the bottom, the street heaved with tradesmen selling everything from yarn to iron. Today the Royal Mile is cushioned by predictable tourist shops. They sell a mixture of mass produced tat with quality, hand-woven textiles and single malt whiskeys. The propitiators, most of Indian descent, blare new-age Celtic music. The freckled bagpipers, wearing tartan, compete with this recorded music, outside. Even in the most tempestuous weather, the pipers stoically perform their searing Scottish airs for the passing tourists.
Cockburn and Victoria Street extend from The Royal Mile, like arms akimbo. They host a curious range of amenities, from garish joke shops to musty bookshops. At the bottom of Victoria Street lies Grass Market. Despite the site once being a place of public executions, during the day Grass Market is a pleasant spot, where you can enjoy a dram of whiskey from aptly named, “The Last Drop.” At night the cobbled square metamorphoses into a raucous playground for stag and hen parties. It is common to see a cluster of inebriated women, preciously traipsing in stilettos. Falling over a fissure is a painful lesson learned for those braving such footwear.
The cleavage between the new and old town is connected by the North Bridge. From here, pay heed to the vista, where the distinctive crag and tail formation can be fully appreciated. The serrated landscape gives the city a fairy-tale aesthetic. At the end of the bridge stands the Balmoral Hotel. The towers’ clock keeps the city five minutes ahead of time, for the sake of the train travelers with tardy tendencies. At rush hour, Waverly pulsates with people, catching the last train to the south. Despite the redundancy of the Flying Scotsman, there is an unshakeable excitement which still lingers in the station. The luxury of finding a comfortable seat, aboard a sleek train fills one with a sense of unquenchable possibility.
There is something otherworldly about Arthur’s Seat, which can be seen from every vantage point. From afar you can see the outlines of walkers, climbing the wedge-like peak with gusto. Washington Irving once compared it to “pure witchcraft” and indeed there is something about it that is both alluring and unnerving. It is impossible to resist its magnetic pull. At the apogee, you can sometimes find a flighty magician, trying to appease his captive audience with some rope and a battered hat. Let not his allusions distract you from the earthly wonders that stretch far into the horizon. Let the celestial light quietly fade, making way gloamings’ shadows. For me, it is that soft duality which is the quintessence of Edinburgh.