I reach Edinburgh after a four hour train ride from Kings Cross Station; the countryside flashes by in patches of blue sky, and fields of rolling green. There are daffodils blooming golden and stretching into the horizon, and snow white lambs gambolling with their mothers. It’s spring, and the world is starting to wake up. I tumble out of the train station, a little disoriented, and look up to see a narrow, twisty pathway of stairs, the buildings on either side leaning precariously over, and wooden pub signs swaying in the wind. The town is tiny, perched on the slopes of the Cracken’s Tail, Old and New Town divded by the chasm of Princes Street Gardens.
I check into my b&b, a good 1.6 miles away from the city centre, put my walking shoes on and head into town. The walk, in twilight, under a tall sky – taller than London will ever be, for me – is relaxing and filled with new sights. Edinburgh is quiet underneath streetlamp and moonlight. I buy some dinner and walk home again, all 1.6 miles of it. The next day is overcast and grey, but I start early – the castle awaits.
The current Edinburgh castle is newer than its origins; the oldest part of the castle still left standing is the beautiful, serene St Margaret’s Chapel; built in the 11th century. The rest of the castle dating from that time was torn down by the Scots themselves after they took the castle back from the English. The Scottish king ordered the castle destroyed so it could never be used against them. I take the free walking tour, drink in the views. There is a swirling, chilly wind from the North Sea. From the top of the battlement I can just see the sea, stretched out along the Firth of Forth. The sight makes me glad.
I walk down the Royal Mile, filled with cobblestones, gothic cathedrals and old, leaning houses, mysterious closes and winding steps. Edinburgh is old, atmospheric. The city is what I imagine London to be like, before the Great Fire of 1666 and the Blitz wiped out most of the pre 12th century buildings. I nip down alleyways that lead into sudden, steep drops, into internal courtyards, underneath gothic roofs. Everything is a discovery; starting with their placenames – Fishmarket Close, Advocates Close, Grassmarket, Mercat’s Cross, Lawnmarket – the pubs; The Last Drop, World’s End.
Edinburgh is filled with stories – the stories of kings and queens, battles and struggles with the English, ghosts and the ordinary, day-to-day. My first, prosaic, historical tour takes me to sites of old buildings, gives me details of historical events, compels me to imagine what the Mercat (market) was like in the old days, talks about the architecture of the city. My second tour takes me into the bowels of the city – some parts of Auld Reekie still exists, built over the top now by modern, grand, renaissance-type modern buildings.
The Mary King Close tour descends into cobblestone streets, chambers and vaults still existing, in the darkness. We are taken into the actual street, where, with some compelling language, our costumed guide tells us to imagine the tenements soaring up above our heads, 7 to 8 storeys high, a patch of blue sky far above, criss-crossed with lines of washing. Now imagine further, this narrow street filled to bursting with merchants and their shop awnings, children running errands, vendors with their wares, burghers going about their business. Imagine the street as an open sewer, back in those good old days with no plumbing save a good rainstorm to save the citizens from the smell and sight of effleunt. There are stories of the plague, of hauntings, superstitions, of the ghost of Little Annie. There is a ledger filled with the rent paid by the tenants of the close, who worked as what. The highlight, for me, was when we were huddled, in front of a wooden door, along the street, for the guide to knock and swing wide open, a glimpse into a house that is still preserved in its original condition, from the dusty floorboards to the surprisingly delicate wallpaper still in evidence.
I have been walking since the morning, by now, and my next tour starts later that night. I buy some gloves (the wind is freezing) and I put my feet up and read the local newspaper – a habit I started while in Prague, picking up a version of the local paper and trying to read it even if it wasn’t in English; keeping the headings for my travel journal.
There is a full moon rising – perfect for the haunting tour that’s coming next. We go first into the vaults underneath the South Bridge, a warren of arched rooms and passageways – haunted, so they say. My guide is cloaked, uplit by a flickering candle as he gathers us in a tight circle and regales us with stories of the local ghosts, of graverobbers and orbs of light seen in darkness. The vaults are something else – closed down by the authorities then reopened again after 200 years of isolation, they are dark stone and dry dust, choked with history. He asks us to imagine people, working here, living here, seeing no daylight for days, 5-6 levels underneath the hustle and bustle of the South Bridge, burning wicks in fish oil because it was the cheapest fuel, the smells of food cooking and waste being thrown out the window, oyster bars and dance fetes, these vaults ringing with the sounds of lives, packed in dense.
I go home underneath the full moon, illuminating the castle on its rock. The next day I have a leisurely breakfast, visit the National Gallery and its eclectic collection of Titian Cranach, Veronese, then head out to Holyrood. The park is huge, wild, windy underneath a cloudy sky. There are families out, runners, cyclists, dogs loping madly on the grassy slopes. There are the ruins of a chapel on a small hill. I trek up the path, in patchy sunshine, enjoy the views of Edinburgh, stretching from the mountains down to the sea. I like the wildness of the city; Scotland is rugged, craggy, beautiful. My train ride home later that day takes me by a lonely, white lighthouse, and the sea, crashing on cliffs; a North Atlantic sea almost the blue of my Sydney seas, underneath Scotlands wild, tall skies.