To Edinburgh (Part 3)

Before I go on to the literary attractions of Edinburgh, I’d like to tell you very quickly about a lightning stop we made at Glasgow: the sun had already set by the time we got there, so all we saw were glittering shops, a very interesting cafeteria that called itself “Dino Ferrari” and therefore would have won my patronage had it been open, and the streets through a cold drizzle. We went up to a church and peered through the locked gates that led to the cemetery, beyond which rose the silhouetted mound of the Necropolis: a place that we would definitely have wanted to go up to, given our penchant for graveyards. A board outside detailed the history of Glaswegian burials, almost Dickensian in its narration of the class differences that governed the lives (and deaths) of the residents of the town many years ago. We visited the statue of the Duke of Wellington with the traffic cone on his head and walked past a pub famous for the shenanigans of the football fans of two major city clubs, Celtic and Rangers.

I didn’t see as much of Glasgow as I’d have liked to, of course: but given that Glasgow hadn’t even been on the itinerary, I am delighted that we stopped there if only for a few hours.

*****

The streets of Edinburgh are awash in sunshine, even as the promise of the approaching autumn keeps the air cool and nippy. I’m saving this morning for literary landmarks: I intend to keep my eyes wide open, to pounce on anything that bears the vaguest connection to a book or a writer. I’m being a tourist of the most annoying kind, but at times you just cannot help it.

We have already paid homage to Arthur Conan Doyle’s statue in front of the pub where his house once stood. For all the attention that the Baker Street tube station in London gets, this is where the legendary author had his beginnings. But how can you not associate Sherlock Holmes with London? This is a happy conundrum, so just try and visit both the cities.

The souvenir stalls are being set up on rickety tables, there is a lot of attractive jewellery on display, but we decide to bide our time till we find something we really like. To the right, an inscription points roughly in the direction where Robert Burns lived when he first visited Edinburgh in 1786. Further ahead, down a short slope, an archway opens on to a grey building which houses the Writers’ Museum. Lines from various Scottish writers’ workers are inscribed on the stones leading to the entrance, one in Gaelic. Here is one of my favourites:

Weird hou men
Maun aye be makin war
Insteid o things they need

– Tom Scott (1918-1995)

The artefacts belong to various Scottish writers: desks, notebooks, pictures. But my favourite is the extensive Robert Louis Stevenson section. He introduced me to the concept of stowaways and adventures at sea, and to people with dual personality traits; he was the first real writer I read and enjoyed as a little girl, and to be in his city was indeed a remarkable feeling. I want to go back someday for a nice long vacation and track down the haunts of different Scottish writers and the streets that inspired them, to absorb the atmosphere that inspired The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie or the intrigues that challenged DI Rebus.

The streets of Edinburgh, as I mentioned in my last post, present a veritable maze of mysteries. True, there might be absolutely nothing to them, but if you just think back to the number of people who have walked these streets, given the antiquity of the city and the propensity for drama that such long years possess, you cannot help but be fascinated by the unfamiliar depths of what seems to be yet another innocuous tourist haunt. A plaque talks of David Hume, James Boswell (residents) and Sir Samuel Johnson (visitor), in a portion of Edinburgh that declined in 1790 with the rise of a new town. Destruction by fire, sweeping changes, the footsteps of learned men who contributed to history: various ghosts walk the streets of Edinburgh. It is by no means the site of endless tranquillity and sunshine. Political turmoil and intrigue have dogged Scotland for centuries. But beyond allowing your imagination to run wild, how can you, a mere foreign tourist, lay your hands on these mysteries which lurk agonisingly close?

*****

We enter a souvenir shop. The man at the counter is wearing a kilt- is this my chance to get into a conversation about traditional Scotland, about the legends that inspired Sir Walter Scott and made me fall headlong in love at sixteen with the very idea of the Highlands and outlaws?

“Do you speak Gaelic?” I ask eagerly.

“It is as much as I can do to speak English,” he replies gruffly, almost sullenly. “I’m Italian.”

I beat a meek retreat.

But what a stupid idea to look for Gaelic speakers in the tourist district of Edinburgh! Most of the shops here are run by foreigners, many of Indian origin. We buy jewellery from a pretty young woman wearing a long skirt, her hair wrapped in a scarf: she reminds me just a little bit of a fairytale creature. As I engage her in conversation, she tells me she is Irish and likes Ireland better than Scotland for its greener landscape.

In a couple of hours, we will have left Edinburgh. I don‘t want to go, for no time seems long enough for this lovely city. Consolation comes in the shape of the knowledge that our train route hugs the Northumbrian coast, and I will spend a good portion of an hour in raptures over the dark cliffs dropping into the placid North Sea, and numerous rainbows arching through the grey-blue sky. But it isn’t good enough- I want to find myself a corner in Edinburgh, sit down there and refuse to budge. And then maybe a literary-minded ghost will come along and say to me:

You intend to bide here?

To be sure, can you think of anywhere better?

– Nigel Tranter (1909-2000)

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