Edinburgh is a city that looks as solid as the many thinkers and bankers it has spawned. The Royal Bank of Scotland always sounded so trustworthy, after all, but of course we now know it has cultivated a rather more devious face in recent years. The same duplicity goes for Edinburgh itself, although its other face is far more endearing: one of eccentricity, being blunt, and also having a serious taste for a tipple.
Drink courses through the veins of these Celts (from whom I’m descended, so maybe that explains my habits) and it’s not only whisky, although the malts do tend to monopolise pub shelves. Drunks are two a penny, but often rather courteous – although this book-shopkeeper wouldn’t agree.
But then he’s as eccentric as the rest of them, just read this explanation of his opening hours.
A few blocks away along the illustrious old Canongate, it was easy to be impressed by the artistry of this shop-window – or not. A window display of tinned haggis? And, in the background a pink plastic squirty bottle for cleaning – all part of the display. I tried to keep it out of the frame – but in retrospect I think it adds to the tone.
Then there was this antique pram outside a secondhand shop – harbouring not a pretty doll but a stuffed boar’s head, complete with kerchief as worn by Little Red Riding Hood’s grandma. Literary references abound, but are not always straightforward.
And where else would you find a much photographed bronze statue in a prime historical location of – a dog? In fact it’s none other than Greyfriar’s Bobby, hero of a true story that kept my tears flowing when I read it as a kid. The heart-melting story recounts how a Skye terrier faithfully stood watch over his master’s tomb for 14 years, back in the 19th century. But Bobby’s spirit is very much alive as his own tomb, just inside Greyfriar’s cemetery across the road, continues to attract little offerings from admirers. This time it was a bar of chocolate flake and some drooping flowers. So-o-o sweet! It reminded me of a Mexican Day of the Dead tomb – minus the tequila and cigs. And other Edinburgh terriers have it good too, as below, although in this case kept on a short lead.
In tandem with their sense of irony, the Scots have a modest bent, certainly not ones for self-agrandisement. So Edinburgh is full of unacclaimed jewels, places that in London or Paris would have huge signs to magnetise hordes of tourists. Like the atmospheric Bennets, a pub dating from 1839 which combines stunning original features with a cheerful, laid-back atmosphere.
It looked like they had some good malts too, and I loved the tables with city map-tops – which recalled my recent global feast experiences in London (see previous post). Bennets is on Leven Street, south of the main action and well on the way to a downmarket area. But who cares, because the verdant Meadows are a hop away, and right next door stands King’s Theatre, a spectacular 1906 playhouse heaving with marble, stuccowork and chandeliers, and still going strong. Like Bennets it feels as if it should have a plaque honouring its history, but no.
The place where I did spot a (discreet) plaque was in the Canongate Kirk. Now this one honoured one of Scotland’s greatest sons, Adam Smith, 18th century author of Wealth of Nations and, it is said, the father of capitalism. His legacy is therefore a moot point, depending on your politics, but he was nonetheless a great thinker. Here pavement plaques led towards his imposing 1790 grave set into a wall of the churchyard. In typically understated (or neglectful?) fashion, it seems the crumbling grave was only restored a few years ago when these pointers were also added.
It’s extraordinary that RBS (‘that’ bank), with its scandalous trillions squandered on the dirty face of capitalism, never considered doing anything for Smith. And now I should confess that my grandfather, before he saw the light and hotfooted it to Shanghai, never to return, actually worked at RBS, a true son of Edinburgh. But what wonders he left behind him —