Part 1 here
I am not the most ideal of travelling companions, because given a bit of time, I’m bound to traipse around in search of literary landmarks, to visit the sites of the most tenuous connections to a famous author or a book I’ve loved. I can become quite oblivious to others’ irritation when in a bookshop or in pursuit of something I desperately want to see, especially when my chances of returning to said place hover near zero. You can imagine now what a pain I must have been to my friends at Edinburgh, that lovely city steeped in literature and history.
But let me begin from the beginning. Having fallen in love with Edinburgh the moment we arrived on Friday, we knew we had to get to know the city more intimately. Saturday was given over to Loch Lomond and to sighing over the spectacular landscape that was (atleast in part) the setting of Sir Walter Scott’s Rob Roy. On Sunday and Monday morning, we explored Edinburgh.
Walking down the main thoroughfare of the town where souvenir sellers were just beginning to set up shop, we heard bagpipe muzak everywhere- I know of no other way to describe it, it was so ubiquitous. But even as we enjoyed the crisp, invigorating chill, clouds gathered suddenly and we were caught in a sudden shower of rain. I was glad, of course- for who wants to see a town associated with crime fiction bathed in innocuous sunlight? We scrambled up the steps to the porch of St Giles’ Cathedral, but unfortunately too many people had the same idea. So we made a dash for the National Museum of Scotland, making a quick stop on the way at the Elephant House hoping for a table, but instead just getting a quick peek at the interiors in which JK Rowling first began spinning her yarns and her meteoric rise to fortune.
The museum was fascinating, of course: but what was truly providential was the timing of an exhibition on Scottish Formula One legend, triple world champion Sir Jackie Stewart. I cannot begin to describe how incredibly lucky I felt to have stumbled into the museum right when an F1-related exhibition was on- and we wouldn’t even have stepped in if not for the rain! His car was on display, along with other relics from his racing career- a trophy, a helmet and overalls. You know the pull of sporting paraphernalia- how awe-inspiring and magnetic it can be! It took me a bit of effort to tear myself away from the exhibit, but there were other gorgeous things to be seen- like a rooftop view of the city. In all the spires, roofs and rolling hills of Edinburgh, there wasn’t a sign of pretence or ostentation. It was a city you could imagine yourself living in, listening to the delightful Scottish accent and getting soaked in culture.
A quick trip to the castle gates followed, with a brief stop at the cathedral (where an orchestra played beautiful, solemn music), and then we set off through the curious streets of the town to Arthur’s Seat. Edinburgh is rich in history, and at every corner, you want to stop and dig out the secrets behind the narrow winding lanes that end in barred gates (a “close”). But we were short of time, so resolutely shutting out the beguiling invitations of the old streets, we walked by the rather unusually built Parliament to the irregular-shaped mound that is Arthur’s Seat. That RL Stevenson had something to say about it was enough for me; up the steep, narrow path we went, following many other walkers out to enjoy the glorious afternoon, to find ourselves a nook of the hill from which to see all of Edinburgh, this time not from the secure comforts of a terrace, but on an exposed slope, open to the wind. We were almost at the top of a particular ridge when the trail ended and my ridiculous fear of heights kicked in (a bit like the situation in The Dharma Bums, but on a relatively harmless hill); I have my friends to thank for convincing me to pick my way up the rock-strewn slope. Finding myself a niche, I gave myself up to contemplation. I had never been so scared and so excited at once. The brown roofs of the city spread out on one side, culminating where the hills rose in the distance; on the other, the blue North Sea glistened in the sunshine. At that moment, like never before, I felt like I was really and truly on an island; a tiny piece of land, not anchored to the gigantic solidity of a continent, but out on its own in the choppy waters of a vast ocean. It could be swallowed up or be bullied by the winds, with no protection from ancient, weighty mountain ranges. I felt vulnerable, but also at peace. It was a day like no other.
On our walk back into town, we were caught in another burst of rain, taking shelter this time under a makeshift structure on the pavement. But as the rain slowed to a drizzle, we were rewarded by the sight of two beautiful rainbows curving across the yellowish-grey sky. I had meant this trip to Scotland to be an early birthday present to myself, and it was evidently a gift that kept on giving.
As the sun began to set, we went up Calton Hill to be treated to the spectacular sight of a bright, round moon rising through the pillars of the incongruous Grecian structure on the top. We were closer to the North Sea than the hills this time, and it felt like I could just shut my eyes and find myself in Scandinavia in a couple of minutes if I wished hard. If all these years of relentless dreaming had brought me to shores so far away, by seas whose names had mystified me so greatly, surely I could live in hope of seeing the Northern Lights, Finland and Alaska? But strangely enough, I also felt slightly afraid of familiarity: of having revealed to me the secrets that had been so well shrouded for many years, and losing dreams I had nurtured carefully to get me through difficult days. It is a silly idea, of course, because there is always enough to question and ponder over, but that evening, watching the sea dissolve into the rapidly falling dusk, I was overwhelmingly happy and disappointed all at once. More than ever before, I was made keenly aware of borders, hills, oceans, people- the substance of so many dreams, almost within grasp but kept away by geography, bureaucracy and birth. Which is why there are books.
I had intended to write about Edinburgh in two parts. But as I’ve managed to get carried away and digress as usual, the literary bits will have to spill into Part 3. Do blame it on the city.