While the Chief puts sunshine on Leith… (PROCLAIMERS)
In the home of Scottish government you can rub shoulders with tourists amid the stunning architecture of the Royal Mile, dance with Wiccans on Calton Hill, or watch the ships on the Forth as you enjoy the panorama from Arthur’s Seat. Amble down Leith Walk and watch the steady gentrification of the docks area that inspired Irvine Welsh. From sassenach stag-do’s to the literary heritage of Ferguson, Burns, Scott and Stephenson, there’s plenty to take in – and pubs to drink in.
In August the month-long Edinburgh Festival (actually several festivals, including the Edinburgh Book Festival and a little known Peace Festival) will blow your mind. Every spare room, hall and basement has been turned into a performance space. Aussie actors, British bands, Canadian comics, Dutch dancers, French film-makers, New Zealand novelists, Presbyterian peaceniks and South Californian Shakespeare schools – they’re all here.
Juxtaposed with this cosmopolitan jamboree of creatives, there are busloads of bemused elderly British folk visiting the military tattoo. It can get a little surreal; WW1-uniformed drama students promoting "Oh What a Lovely War" on one side of the cobbles, a Kenyan army marching band on the other.
Strolling down Leith Walk with a Trainspotting soundtrack on your mental iPod, you’ll find yourself passing by Elvis Shakespeare at number 347. Inside Dave Griffin who’ll gladly shoot the breeze, and play along with your fantasies by sticking on anything by Iggy Pop. He's got the odd signed copy (Toby Litt’s “Beatniks” when Bookpacking was there) and vinyl too (“specialists in punk and the alternative and indie lineage that followed”). Knock back a coffee – fair trade of course – and if you’re feeling decadent, a cake. Gigs are not unknown, check the website for details.
Picking up The Beat Book for just a few pounds, we did indeed achieve a state of Zen oneness shortly after, though that could have been the beer at the head of Leith Walk. For carousing, you might want to play it safe and head down to The Shore. Over a pint of ale in the King’s Wark (C18th) – under the shadow of the ‘banana flats’ – you can wax lyrical about how they’re ruining the character of old Leith. Be sure to gloss over the fact that you avoided the area like the plague before it was trendy.
Dave says a lot of his valued clientele hang out at the Boda Bar on Leith Walk. Alternatively, Robbies was the haunt of the Irv’ crowd in the early 90s. A customer who wishes to remain anonymous tells us it’s got “character” and if you’re looking for a drunken literary argument, with a literary drunk, it’s literally your best bet. 1st pic (band) © Dave Griffin
An altogether more traditional book buying experience is on offer at Armchair Books at 72 West Port, near the Grassmarket. Crammed full of old books, this is more of a meditative ‘lost in spines’ experience. Open late, and with cheap books outside, I picked up my copy of No Logo there for peanuts and the obligatory Welsh for that going-native 'litperience' and his acerbic commentary on the development of his old stomping ground. Bookpacking picked up an No Logo for a very own-brand price.
“That merry night we get the corn (beer) in...” It’s no coincidence that provincial-boy turned city-party-animal Rabbie Burns chose this town to paint red. There’s the Grassmarket for stag-dos (that’s a Bucks party to the guys Stateside), then many a quieter nook and cranny for the more esoteric. Hebrides and Sandy Bells are good for the old fashioned celtic vibe and the skirl o' the pipes.
The Literary Pub Tour is highly recommended. Find out over a pint how bad-boy Burns played down his education, and how double-life Deacon Brodie inspired Jekyll & Hyde. The guide/performers lead you around the pubs where the big guns of the Scottish literary cannon filled their boots.
Strike a pose in the pristine period piece that is the Cafe Royal, tucked behind the Princess Street burger bar opposite the Scott Monument. Try an oyster with your pint of Deuchars.
There’s plenty of hotel rooms – except during the festival, when the nearest bed may be in Northern Ireland. They do open up the university halls of residence, but even then the town is packed fuller than a shoplifting smackhead’s carrier bag. Alternatively, there are a number of hostels, and if you’re staying for a few days/weeks you can sometimes work for your board. If you’ve never scrubbed a hostel toilet, you ain’t never lived.
Staying in Edinburgh, the Writers Museum on the Royal Mile is free and you can find out how Scott influenced Tolstoy and how Stevenson was one of the first big writers. For some sea air, read up on Rebus on Portobello beach (20 mins by bus, Lothian Day Rider from £2.50). Be sure to try the fish & chips. Do bring a coat. And maybe a hat. And maybe a scarf, actually.
Dance with Wiccans on Calton Hill, or climb Arthur's Seat for a quick dose of exercise in mid-city tranquility. Waverley Station is named after the Walter Scott historical epic and you can look down on it as you survey the spectacular view – so near and yet so far from the bustling bodies and buses beneath you.
Only 45 minutes to the west is Glasgow, a very different city. If gigs are your thang, you can easily slide over to for that gig at the SNECC and be back around midnight. Express buses also run very late.
The National Wallace Monument is in nearby Stirling, but for the true beauty of Scotland head into the Highlands for splendid isolation as you wade through that copy of Waverley. If you like that book, extend your stay and wade through the other 30 in the series.