Above and below Auld Reekie

I am all too rarely able to make it along to the monthly gatherings of the Highland Literary Salon, and last night was one such occasion. It was a “slam night”, which, far from being a chance to practice ones wrestling moves as I first speculated, was in fact a chance for participants to sign up to read a five minute extract of their work. There was a huge range of style and genres, from poetry and children’s story to crime and romance, many taken from works in progress such as novels or short stories. I think mine was the only travelogue, knocked together hurriedly yesterday afternoon. Here’s what I presented.

Exposure of more than a day or so to Fife can inspire a certain kind of wanderlust.

Not the kind that leaves you hankering for the open, dusty road or lush sun-kissed beaches; but rather a more basic and urgent wanderlust that compels you want to be somewhere, anywhere, that isn’t Fife.

Thus it was that my wife Nicole and I escaped from a few days’ break in Fife for a day out by ourselves in Edinburgh.

I know Edinburgh well – work takes me there frequently, too frequently. It’s a long journey from home, so Scotland’s capital is more synonymous to me for the heavenly smell of the breweries as you approach Haymarket station, crowded trains at the end of the day, and faceless hotel rooms, than it is for its famous icons and sights.

So what to do in a city where I now have a chance to explore without deadline or work commitment, to wander, digress and absorb at will?

Recommendations from friends pile in – the Camera Obscura comes top, with rave reviews of this sort of museum of lights and illusions, the highlight seeming to be 3D projections. “You can fold up a bit of paper,” enthuses a friend, “and see a 3D bus ride along it!”

Staff, presumably, are well-trained in administering sedatives for those patrons for whom the excitement is unbearable.

On arrival at its door we decide against Camera Obscura – anywhere just a stone’s throw from the castle and enscrummed by armies of camera-wielding tourists is almost certainly a trap; the £9.95 entry fee confirms this, despite our unspoken acceptance that we are briefly, ourselves, camera-wielding tourists.

Instead, we take a wander up Calton Hill and take in not just the views outward, across the tightly-congregated histories of the Old and slightly less old New Towns, but inward too, to the curious jumble of architecture on the top of the hill itself.

Among them stands the National Monument, one of the city’s many Victorian-era Greek-style constructs that rendered Edinburgh “the Athens of the North”. I must remember, should I ever visit Athens, to tell the locals how reassuringly familiar I am finding “the Edinburgh of the south”.  I’m sure they’ll see the funny side – the Greeks are known for their good sense of humous.

Not much humour greeted the National Monument back in the day, however, a project which ran out of money in 1826 and stands half-finished, a supposed “national disgrace”. I found it no disgrace, personally, as I clambered up and walked between its few dark, lofty columns. Like with the figurative glass, I take it as half-full, half-completed, like today’s Scotland. And in a city that hosts the over-budget upturned boat that is the Scottish Parliament building and the hauntingly barren tramlines, the term “national disgrace” needs some context.

After further wanderings, and in a choice we’d regret, we find ourselves heading underground, on one of the city’s many tours of the streets that lie beneath the Old Town, cramped and disease-ridden alleyways and tenements, long abandoned, built-upon and for a time forgotten by new, grander thoroughfares above.

What I hoped would be a gripping journey back in time and a revealing exploration of a lost city, turned out to be a brief and cheesy tour of some darkened rooms laden with electricity cables and luminous “fire exit” signs, led by a woman in a half-hearted nod to period costume with an accent that was as many miles inauthentic as the years that separated us from the era we were implored to imagine. The depth of our descent constrasted with the lack of depth of the history.

With no freedom to wander, the rigid, forced-cheerful tour was informative only insofar as gaining the hindsight that told us it wasn’t worth it, while the entertainment came inadvertently, in the form of an earnest American woman with some sort of ghost-hunting app on her iPhone, a fluorescent green radar spinning round and round on her screen, presumably not transmitting the message, which was of course that she was a deluded nutter and should stop pretending she was some sort of hipster ghostbuster.

Emerging back into the early evening dusk and drifted back to the bus station, none the wiser about Edinburgh’s murky depths and long past, we reflected on the tour.

Perhaps those 3D buses and folded bits of paper would have been exciting after all.

2 thoughts on “Above and below Auld Reekie

  1. Simon – I very much enjoyed reading this post! I love the angle that you are a visitor and yet, also well familiar with this place. Also — I love the idea of the “Edinburgh of the South”!

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