The train is speeding through the north of England and it is all bathed in sunshine. Sunshine, yes, after the floods of the previous weekend, and we struggle to believe that we are going to have splendid, clear weather during our weekend in Scotland. Having received warnings about perennial grey skies and the necessity to carry umbrellas and wear waterproof shoes all the time, we are now overjoyed as we look out of the window. Isn’t “sunshiny Scotland”, nicely alliterative as it sounds, supposed to be a bit of an oxymoron?
We have squeezed ourselves into the narrow space by the door, standing up now and then to look at the landscape, at the green valleys and endless fields that we pass as we rumble through Yorkshire. These are hard-won seats: having smartly made it to the train ten minutes before it was due to depart from King’s Cross, we realised that most of the seats have been reserved. We are lucky we have managed to find some “squeezing room”.
As the train pulls out of York, the man in the pink shirt sitting on the floor across from us, grimaces and rubs his sore bottom. Wait till Newcastle, he tells us, and the train will be almost empty. It is the first time we hear the delightfully soft Scottish accent. He tells us he is from Edinburgh and works in London. He has lived abroad- in India, somewhere in the Gulf, in places I can’t recollect now. But he is very happy to be home now, and I don’t wonder at it, now that I’ve seen Edinburgh.
True to his prophecy, the train clears at Newcastle and we’re suddenly spoilt for choice. We find a window, and after a brief halt at lovely little Berwick-upon-Sea, we are soon in thrall over the spectacular Northumbrian coast. Cliffs, rich green hillsides and sparkling blue sea unroll, producing a coastal vista such as I’ve never seen. (Is this what Cornwall looks like?)
We don’t know when we cross the border into Scotland, but we definitely know we’re in Edinburgh as solid clumps of buildings make an appearance- and the rain follows. By the time we step out on the platform at Waverley, it is cold, windy and rainy, but certainly not wet enough to dampen our spirits. After an unnaturally long wait for a taxi, we’re comfortably ensconced in it and ‘homeward’ bound. Thanks to a friend’s kindness, our shoestring budget hasn’t relegated us to a shabby hostel; instead, we have a nicely heated, cosy flat waiting for us. And what is more, our bedroom window has a glorious view of the legendary Arthur’s Seat, which is rapidly dissolving into the darkness as we wash and make ready for a walk around Edinburgh.
This certainly has to be said for Edinburgh: the moment you find yourself on its streets, you feel at home. It must be something in the air, something perhaps to do with its literary associations, making it, by connection, a familiar place. I don’t remember very well if I have read anything about Edinburgh per se, but the long list of authors who roamed its streets, frequented its pubs, and must consequently have drawn inspiration from it, is attraction enough to warrant a visit to this charming city. Just think: RL Stevenson, Arthur Conan Doyle, Muriel Spark and Sir Walter Scott lived here, making it the hallowed spot it is.
We ask for directions at the Tesco around the corner and set off for Princes Street. Some Internet trawling has yielded a list of places I want to cram into the little time we have, but since it is already close to 10 pm, we must wait. So we walk around the well-lit streets, hoping we’ll get to hear bagpipes and see culturally Scottish sights (we are tourists, after all!). We aren’t disappointed; we hear bagpipe strains as we near the grand Carlton Hotel, and are to hear more of them later when we explore the city by day. Wandering aimlessly, we pass the gorgeous, Gothic Scott Monument, which houses a statue of Sir Walter Scott. I lapse into reverent silence for a minute, for this was the man who brightened up some dismal days with his magnificent novels and helped put Scotland on my bucket list. However, the constantly flashing cameras and people grinning and posing in front of it don’t help.
Edinburgh Castle rises magnificently on a mound a little way from where we are. It is brilliantly lit and, I must confess, more impressive at night than in natural light. But that could be because it yields to the imagination easily in the dark: dungeons, prisons, skeletons and bread-and-water come to mind more readily at night than during the day, when it is swarming with tourists eating ice cream. I wonder if some of its less fortunate prisoners help bolster the careers of Edinburgh’s ghost-tour guides?
The silhouette of a church appears at the end of the street; the gate is open and we climb down the steps into a graveyard. Some of the tombstones are elaborate and have curious ornaments, but we don’t feel inclined to linger there very long- surely Edinburgh has other attractions for us? We walk home in a light drizzle, very happy with our first glimpse of the city. I refuse to draw the curtains on the bright moonlight streaming into our bedroom because I feel like Heidi, and Arthur’s Seat serves conveniently as a substitute for the Alps.
(To be continued)