Climbing Edinburgh

(Originally published in the Fargo-Moorhead Forum,June 1999.)

EDINBURGH, (pronounced "Edinboro") Scotland--We squinted through the gates of Holyrood Palace, shut tight for Good Friday. While the queen's official residence in Scotland was not taking on tourists today, the advice of its souvenir shop staff was obviously available. Any good pubs around for lunch? Well, we could try the "Jenny," I think it was, just up the Royal Mile.

A plaque there told us that a public house had stood on this site for centuries. The current building did look quite old, but you can't tell. We tourists come to Scotland to see those charming old buildings we don't have at home, so old buildings we get, even if have to be prefabricated in a "Ye Olde Pubs and Double-Wides" factory somewhere.

I asked the publican, "Is this pub really old?" "Dunno, really, can't say," he shrugged.

He moved on to the lunch menu. "We have everything there except fish and chips."

On Good Friday, no fish and chips?

"Shipment didn't come in today. Having a drink?"

I hazarded a Good Friday order of chili and chips for a pound seventy-five, and to drink, a pint of McEwans Scottish 80/. I don't know what 80/ means, percentage of alcohol? I asked the publican about that versus the McEwans 70/. "That one's not as nice," he said. I ordered the 80/.

Somehow lunch at the "Jenny" on Good Friday with a pint of McEwans and a no-fuss bartender seemed as homey as the rest of Edinburgh. There are large cities, many of them in the United States, where a visit becomes a high-drama experience edging on danger. Streets strewn with graffiti, iron-barred shops, seedy loiterers dressed, literally, to kill, and looking your way for possibilities.

Then there is Edinburgh. The dignified Old City surrounting the castle invites visitors to stroll the streets (compels, them, actually, parking being what it is), and to do it relatively safely. No graffiti to speak of, shops don't need barred windows, and the many passers-by young and old look, well, wholesome. We have to say "relatively," because no city of 700,000 can be crime-free. But strolling Edinburgh feels like tourist "comfort food." "Half my business comes from America," declared an antique map seller, and no wonder.

The comfort is mental, however, not physical. Edinburgh stretches around an extinct volcano capped by a hulking castle. Flowing down from the castle is "The Royal Mile" to Holyrood Palace, and flowing out from there are niggling tributaries of narrow lanes, called closes. The medieval and quirky closes run up and down stone stairways, many pointed to the New City, built only 200 years ago. So touristing here involves step aerobics. Well,

you can take a bus, or ubiquitous black British taxi. The Royal Mile's offerings of shops for antique prints, Scottish woolens, tartans, whisky, trinkets and tea, ends (or begins, depending) at the castle on the cliff. Edinburgh castle (open daily, about $9) is one of Scotland's most important, and well preserved. Oddly, however, it is not typical of these medieval military defenses. Most castles were obsolete by the 1600s, with the invention of gunpowder. But Edinburgh's was rebuilt then as a fortress against English invasions, and its strategic location made it target of many a grim

battle. Ultimately the English won, of course. But today old animosities have cooled: in 1999 Scotland voted in favor of "devolution" away from London jurisdiction. Tourists along the Royal Mile now can see construction of the parliament building, the first parliament in this old capital since 1707.

Among Edinburgh's famous Royal Mile shops, at the castle's toe, is the Scotch Whisky Heritage Center. The prospect of riding a fake whisky barrel to me seemed entirely too corny for the $8 admission, but the gift shop is free. Can there be more peculiar brands of Scotch, at prices from $4 to $100+, anywhere in the world? A great place to snatch a few wee giftee drams for the old folks at home.

In fact, Edinburgh offers lots of opportunities to shop, to see major museums and galleries, to stroll, and to drink. But visitors who feel obligated to face this city's real past ought to visit the less touristy Grassmarket, just down the hill to the south and in the shadow of the great castle.

Grassmarket has no grass, and has no market. It does have a set of fine, centuries-old facades, and a story. From 1660-1688, hundreds of Protestants were hanged on this spot during the time of the religious wars. A commemorative medallion some eight feet around marks the actual spot. Across the cobblestone is a handsome, blood-red pub, "The Last Drop. It commemorates those many who in the shadow of the castle faced their own "last drop" at the gallows.

On the other hand, no witches perished at the Grassmarket. Those were burned at the stake just upstairs, at the foot of the castle. More comfort food, anyone?

For more information:

Edinburgh and Scotland Information Centre, 3 Princes St., Edinburgh, Scotland.

Copyright 2004 by Ross F. Collins <>