If Glasgow is Milan, Edinburgh is Rome. I know of no city with more beauty, atmosphere or dramatic topography in the British Isles and it is a delight to visit. There’s a wonderful ying/yang in the contrast between the dingy winding alleys of the Old Town and the celestial triumph that is the planned New Town. Dividing the two halves are the station and Princes St Gardens, and at the top of that vertical mass of jagged volcanic rock -nature’s own skyscraper- Edinburgh Castle surveys its domains from far above. Proper old castles are fearsome instruments of power. Many of the hilltop towns in Umbria have a papal fortress sitting at the summit to remind them who’s boss and this is similar. We’re not dealing with fairytale castles; in the middle ages, a castle was simply the prerogative of the guys with the biggest swords and clubs. Those days are long gone but the castle still lords it over Edinburgh; wherever you are in the city you can usually see it, and its otherness looms larger still in the imagination. It could stand in for Kafka’s castle.
I grew up with the Edinburgh myth as much as anyone; a highlight of my childhood would be my dad bringing back the pastel-coloured creamy chalks of Edinburgh Rock, the castle in silhouette on the tartan-fringed box, when he went away for work. My two previous stays had been to see favourite musicians play the comedy trade fair that is the Edinburgh Fringe, the month in which a mini-Versailles of self-important London luvvies descend upon and occupy this city to the extent that it can feel like Paris 1941. The castle was indeed where the occupying English forces would barricade themselves at times of revolt, and there is a conception of dandified, tourist-friendly Edinburgh as Scotland for wimps, even if its not really true.
What I noticed on my walk is that although the streets of the Old Town may be medieval, not all of the buildings are. The story is that everyone moved into the pristine Georgian squares of the New Town, and the slums of the Old Town were kept as a picturesque backdrop, but a lot of the Old Town’s prominent buildings seem to have been built in the C19th to fit the story Scotland tells about its past, one of bagpipes and lairds. This does make you question how much of Scottish identity is authentic, down-through-centuries tradition, and how much was simply made up by the Victorians. The great bard Ossian turned out to be a contemporary chancer trying it on. Speaking of which…
I begin my walk at the Scott Monument, sat halfway down Princes Street and dominating the view. You can usually climb up for a few bob but it was closed during my visit. It’s a dark basalt thing covered in clusters of Gothic spires, like the Albert memorial stealing the clothes of Milan Duomo. Sir Walter Scott is a national hero who fulfils the same role for Scotland that Verdi does for Italy, and in a way is the author of the Scotland of the imagination, a valiant and knightly place akin to Confederate America.
The train station is named after one of his novels and, to mark a centenary, plastered with quotations from him. To get me in the mood, I read the first 100 pages of Waverley on the train up. It’s a ripping yarn but I didn’t like the eponymous hero, an Englishman who enlists to fight for George II, absents himself from his post to go travelling, and ends by defecting to the rebels of Bonnie Prince Charlie. Today he would have been killed by an American drone around Chapter 16, and rightly so. Having inherited all the gifts of the Enlightenment, Scott looks back at the 1740s and gets nostalgic for the feudal lords of the Highlands. In doing so, he sounds like an apologist for the Taliban, or one of these people who overlooks Mafia racketeering and violence to praise their code of honour.
Princes Street itself is full of delectable views; the serene and logical grid of New Town places a statue at every side street, gazing towards the castle. Walking to the west, the promenade culminates in the churches of St John and, beneath it, St Cuthbert.
St John’s is open and turns out to be bright and cheery C19th, with a few components that sparkle. The intricate patterns in the stained glass are worth seeing and the fan patterns on the ceiling are glorious.
I turn off into the west end of the New Town and immediately leave behind the crowds. After James Craig’s original grid of three long, intersected streets come a series of squares, circuses and crescents, their townhouses uniform and elegant in unobtrusive grey stone. As at Kelvingrove in Glasgow many of them seem to house the offices of investors, architects and engineers.
At the start of the original grid is Robert Adam’s Charlotte Square, far grander in scale than, for example, the squares of Bloomsbury, and dominated by the Wren-ish copper dome topping the appendages of Register House. Charlotte Square and St Andrew’s Square serve as bookends for George St, the high street that runs through the centre of New Town.
Other streets have a uniform style of house, and are beautiful for it; same honey/grey stones, same columns supporting the doorway. In contrast, George St has been designed as a delectable showcase, a pick-and-mix of buildings. Its skyline is judiciously peppered with domes, spires and statues atop columns.
This is the highest point of the New Town and as you look down each side street there are excellent views; the heights of the Old Town and Castle on one side, and the steep drop down to Leith and the bay on the other.
There’s a bit of ritzy bombast to the showpieces of George St. Some look gilded and Parisian, some Neo-classical temples to Empire (in this instance, a bank converted into a fancy grill-house. The tinsel of fairy lights wrapped around the columns looks sad and infantile as forcing Edmund Burke to dance in nipple tassels). It being a Bank Holiday, the church is locked up but I like its round shape; a mini Pantheon with a teetering Amsterdam spire added.
Intersecting the grander streets of New Town are cosy alleys- they keep out the swirling winter winds that destroyed my strongest umbrella within thirty seconds. There’s a Cambridge Bar and an Oxford Bar, the latter reportedly the local of Ian Rankin and his Inspector Rebus. I’m not a big reader of crime -I enjoy Montalbano & Brunetti more for the glimpse of Italian life than the pleasure of finding out whodunnit- but this chap always does very well in the library. It’s a surprise to find a row of cottages and bungalows nestled amongst all these opulent squares.
St Andrew’s Square has some striking palladianism, and behind it Queen St features Scotland’s National Portrait Gallery. You come away with a good overview of Scottish history, some good modern portraiture and quirky curios like death masks of the likes of Coleridge, Voltaire, Burke & Hare and others. My favourite thing, though was the beautiful arts-and-crafts entrance lobby.
It’s Victorian neo-medievalism harking back to Scott’s depictions of the chivalric; a romanticised, soft-focused piece of wishful thinking, but very likeable with it. Under the balcony are mosaics that turn out to be gold-leaf frescoes, showing Scotland’s history from Stone Age man right up to what was then the present day. The implication is that Scotland’s narrative is one of unceasing Progress, but best not to even start me on that one.
Before crossing over to the Old Town, I ascend Calton Hill for the views. A few hours earlier we had joined thousands of tourists up here to see in the New Year, to the faint bewilderment of any Edinburghers who just carried on drinking. The castle was barely visible but the fireworks did look good thrown against the doric columns of the observatory.
The hill was an early public park which Hume & friends had been demanding, and it is another calling card for Edinburgh as Athens of the North. A variety of towers, obelisks, Hellenistic temples and so on are artfully scattered across the slope and its feel is Greenwich Park meets Glasgow Necropolis.
It’s not the most taxing climb and you are rewarded with great views of Edinburgh’s two halves and the bay beyond. It’s to the credit of those good parts that the city can look so impressive despite the demolition of swathes of New Town tenements at its very heart, replaced by vast shopping centres that seem entirely unsympathetic to their surroundings.
The National Monument, the Observatory and Nelson Tower have been designed to comply with the notions of picturesque. Speer thought he should build big enough that the ruins would last as long as the Colosseum, the Scots built what already looked like ruins passed down to us by antiquity.
Back down on Princes St, an equestrian Duke of Wellington and the castilian bulk of the Balmoral Hotel mark the appearance of North Bridge, the dramatic point of entry for the Old Town.
From the foot of the hill to its summit, The Royal Mile is Edinburgh at its most ‘Disney Scottish’; think of those Venetian streets around San Marco which sell nothing but made-in-China carnevale masks. It starts with Holyrood Palace, built atop and around a dissolved monastery so that later kings would have a more luxurious residence than the grim defensive fortress at the top, and ends in Edinburgh Castle. Having been exposed to frequent intervals of rain, snow and hail I find one of the less egregious pubs and warm my bones with a Laphroaig, before taking a look at Holyrood. It’s a lot smaller than one would expect of a royal palace; one thinks of Buckingham Palace, Schonbrunn or Versailles, but those monarchs ruled bigger kingdoms. The best bit is probably the inner courtyard, only to be seen by paying punters. The fountain intrigued me; it turns out to be a Victorian copy of a Jacobean design.
Right outside the palace gates, by the Queen’s Gallery, is a roundabout littered with housing of the kind that has largely been demolished in the poor bits of Belfast, which is a delightfully earthy contrast to the palace and what one might expect from the start of a ‘Royal Mile’. On the other side of the road is Miralles’ new building for the Scottish Parliament.
This is about as avant-garde as architecture gets, with totemic abstract shapes repeated throughout. I find it better than the vulgar skyscrapers that are taking over the City of London but I’m not sure I feel any warmth for it. Really this design is doing to buildings what Picasso or James Joyce did to their respective disciplines, acknowledging the past only to offer it outside for a fight, and I enjoy their work well enough; perhaps architecture being as old as the hills means that it can take a few decades to digest the new.
As we ascend Canongate things get more traditional. The C17th Canongate Kirk is also shut, but I ponder the oddly sensuous curves of its gables and have a nose around the churchyard. A painted Victorian list of “celebrities” buried here includes Adam Smith but I don’t find anyone of note.
There is still the odd modernist building brave enough to show its face on the Royal Mile, such as this museum next to John Knox’s house. I find Knox and Calvin forbidding figures. They are supposed to be the daddies for Protestantism but I get the impression that life under their rule in Geneva was more oppressive and censorious than life under the Ayatollah. Revolutions can happen as a result of unjust government, but the pigs end up walking on two legs.
Off the Mile are attractive winding streets with the look of Hanseatic port cities, taking you from the foot of Castle hill to its height. The stories are piled up as high as an Italian ghetto, and overcrowding was a major reason for the draining of the loch and creation of New Town.
The nearer the castle, the higher the density of tartan gifts for Japanese tourists. A man dressed as a top-hatted ghost asks the people on his walking tour if anyone has seen The Human Centipede and we’re at the C14th St Giles’ Cathedral, flanked by Hume, Smith and the rest of the gang.
You can really picture how old Edinburgh was around here, Knox popping out and crossing the road to deliver his tirades. It feels lighter in spirit than Glasgow Cathedral; that may be the result of a major Victorian restoration, the scrubbing down of the stones, or lots of lighting, colourful heraldic flags and soft cushions to make it nice for tourists. In the C18th St Giles was divided into four separate churches and the Victorians decided to unify it and create a “Scottish Westmister Abbey”. The ceiling to the lower part of the nave is a lovely Giotto blue.
I want to see more of the Old Town than just this thoroughfare, so I turn off for the long and narrow Grassmarket, a square which looks for all the world like an old Grote Markt in Flanders or Holland, with houses packed in tightly and topped by ziggurat gables. The castle looming overhead, they are of course pushing the grisly bits of history to give tourists a frisson and there are many monuments to this square as a place of execution. It wasn’t until the 1980s that these lower parts of town gentrified but it’s in an advanced stage now, with more French restaurants than pubs.
As you wander around Edinburgh you see a lot of deconsecrated churches; another thing it has in common with Amsterdam, which makes one wonder if Protestantism was a stepping-stone on the road to naked capitalism, or if splintering off from the heart of the old church renders you less resistant to change.
The rest of Old Town is hostels, vertiginous flights of Montmartre steps, museums, theme pubs and fringe venues; a mixture of Victorian, neo-classical, modern and baronial, the Heriot School being a typical example of the latter. Opposite the school on Lauriston Place, the grounds of a large Victorian hospital have been converted into yuppie apartments by Norman Foster and friends, and are loudly advertising their ‘Marketing Centre’. Do people really think separation from England will save them from all this?
Back on the final stretch of the Royal Mile, a ferociously Gothic Pugin church has metamorphosed into a café/conference venue called ‘The Hub’ and the street is now thick with nonsense like ‘The Rabbie Burns Whisky Restaurant’. The arches running off the main road remain enticing if your brain can filter out the crowds and the omnipresent droning, chiefly Mull of Kintyre and Scotland The Brave.
The Royal Mile reaches its climax with an esplanade taking you as far as to the Castle entrance. There’s not much here but the view of the immediate surroundings is as good as that of Arthur’s Seat and the city below.
And the Castle itself? “As he came closer, the castle disappointed him, it really was just a wretched-looking small town, a collection of rustic hovels… it was as if some gloomy inmate, who by rights should have been locked away in the farthest room of the house, had burst through the roof and raised himself high in order to be seen by the world”. At Christmas I’d seen a documentary on the wildly romantic C19th castles of mad King Ludwig in Bavaria, the fruits of an addiction to Wagner and a retreat from a changing world into Scott-ish fantasies of chivalry and damsels in distress. Edinburgh Castle is not a Victorian fantasy, it is the real thing and it’s pretty primal, hanging on to that steep and rocky cliff of black basalt. Another documentary I watched a few days later had Jonathan Meades visit the Castle and declare it “troglodytic, insanitary and barbaric. They lived like animals, they fought like animals, they died like animals.” Kafka never got as close to his castle as I have to mine, so it doesn’t seem right to grant myself admission.
On the descent back to Princes St, I pass a building with multiple domes, fancy enough for Rome and topped by a golden statue; presumably once a bank, it is now a ‘museum of money’, which probably points to the heart of the matter of what makes this city tick and what makes it churn out the endless whisky-and-bagpipes that sends visitors home so happy, stereotypes confirmed.