Date: 22 August 2015.
Location: Castle Rock hostel, at the foot of Edinburgh Castle.
“You ma think it's started ta rain,” out Scottish tour guide Colin drawls in the most beautiful Scottish brogue, “but it's just a wee bit a liquid sunshine. Unmade whiskey yer know.”
We're standing in Greyfriars Kirk, a graveyard in Edinburgh Old Town — and I may have imagined that he actually said 'wee'. The green grassy cemetery is filled with crooked gravestones and crumbling crypts and, contrary to what the handsome Scottish man is saying, it has just started to drizzle. It's hard to care though as it's ever so lovely. Here and there graves are covered with cages to thwart the body-snatching grave-robbers who made their livings selling fresh corpses to the local university's meYdical school and, human bodies not being property and so incapable of being 'stolen' as such, largely got away with it. Colin tells us a ghoulish story of a woman buried with all of her finery whose just-dead body was dug up my a pair of wily grave-robbers. Wary of being done for jewellery theft, the men attempted to remove her rings and, when the swelling of the corpse's fingers made that impossible, promptly set to these with a pair of pliers. On the third finger the poor woman woke up. In a move that seems like singularly ungrateful behaviour by a woman towards two criminals who have just saved her life, she promptly had her rescuers (/torturers/would be robbers) prosecuted and hanged. She then went on to live the rest of her life with 8 fingers (and, when she died, paid handsomely for a robust grave cage).
Somehow we dragged six sleepyheads from their hostel beds this morning onto this walking tour to learn about Edinbrugh. And, once coffees had been had, we were all intensely grateful for it. As in Latvia, we'd lucked out with an incredible guide and by 1pm our minds boggled with new facts — and the location of a local pie shop for lunch. Chandler, who has taken it upon himself to eat haggis for every meal, orders the haggis pie. His girlfriend Monica has a safer cottage pie. Paris and her Parisian boyfriend, Chuckles, opt for sausage rolls. Twiggy — essentially my date for the weekend — and I go for traditional meat pies (which look alarmingly like those in the movie version of Sweeney Todd). And that's our Edinburgh crew.
We're here for the Fringe Festival, the largest fringe festival in the world (followed by Adelaide's, if you can believe it). The Royal Mile is thick with gawping tourists (hi) and garish street performers and people promoting their shows. Every little bit of space is being used for performances: theatres, lecture halls, pubs, tents, crumbling churches, laneways and — allegedly — a public toilet? It's one big Scottish street party. The (Australian, of course) guy who checks me into our hostel tells me that Edinburgh's modest population of 400,000 swells for the month of August to 1.5m, a mix of artists, festival staff, visitors and harried locals. And yet everyone is still so friendly. Twiggy and I had been first to arrive on Friday evening and we had headed directly down to Cowgate to sample the nightlife. At the Brewdog brewery the barman is eager to help us choose the right brew (a fruity IPA for us) and then to make sure we were having a good time in his city. The change from brusque London manners to this Scottish bonhomie throws us and neither of us stop smiling all night.
We're smitten with Scotland. This is good because I've forever romanticised it in my head. Land of clan tartans and red-headed charmers and grizzly rugged highland terrain and misted lochs and fierce patriotism? Hi. I'm there.
So, Saturday afternoon, filled with pie, the gang wanders towards our first show. And promptly gets totally lost. After a leisurely walk, then a clipped walk, then a full on sprint, we finally find our venue: The Underbelly, in St George's Square — the beating heart of the festival. We're seeing Austentatious, a completely improvised Jane Austen novel inspired by a name suggested by the crowd, where every show is different. Previous 'novels' presented include Mansfield Shark, Gay Pride and Prejudice and Darcy & Hutch. Today the randomly selected audience-suggested title is 'Spinster in love 🙂'. The smiley face emoticon is a key aspect of the title. Five incredibly talented comedians improvise an hour long show and it's wonderful. They must have their go-to jokes ('Ah but she is a haggard spinster! She is four and twenty this year!') but a lot of it is clearly made up on the spot, like where the two Bloom sisters have a conversation almost entirely in emoticon speak. To me, a huge Jane Austen fan and a huge fan of one of the comedians (Andrew Hunter Murray, of No Such Thing As A Fish) this is like crack and I fully intend to see it a second time when it's back in residency in London (conveniently at the Old Queen's Head just nearby home). Even the boys enjoy the show. We leave inspired to see more shows but quickly get distracted by blackberry cider at the Assembly next door. Each of the four major festival companies — Underbelly, Assembly, Pleasance, The Gilded Ballroom — have an enclosure here in St George's Square (along with many many satellite venues scattered around town, hence our scrambling earlier on). Each enclosure has a few makeshift theatres such as The Assembly's Spiegeltent, and a smattering of pop-up bars and food stalls with which to sustain yourself between shows. It's a hipster's dream. We love it too. We muse over the festival guide and consider various acts: Adam Hills, Paul Foote, Moby Dick in Space, Dave O'Doherty, but fail to make any decisions. The shows are on all day, starting at lunch and running until very late at night/early hours of the morning. Some venues run all night. To us a midnight show sounds ridiculous and yet, around midnight, after whiskey tasting and dinner (more haggis) at the Albernach, we find ourselves at one for the main venues, The Pleasance Dome (usually a university union building), perusing the list of shows on offer. We select the next comedy show due to start and blindly head on into a darkened lecture theatre.
We immediately regret it. There's a beaded man on stage in a wheelchair caressing a toy pig and there's morbid, creepy music playing. The Fringe is notorious for terrible one man shows, excruituating for all but its delusional star. Is that what we're in for? Thankfully no. Our show is The Jest and it's a 5-man skit show. It's bloody brilliant and we squeal like delighted piglets throughout.
By now the Scottish summer has vanished and the dark sky is filled with torrential rain. The pebbled streets are slick and leaky gutters have turned into waterfalls. It's home time. But Edinburgh has one last trick up its tartan sleeves for us. The Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo has been playing up the castle, a sold out show of course. They've just finished to fireworks and are now returning to their buses — which are parked outside our hostel. So, out of the rain march hundreds of kilted men playing bagpipes. We stand almost alone on a dark corner near the castle under dripping umbrellas as the Scottish rain falls heavy on us and we watch the display in stunned silence. This country — whose national animal is the mythical unicorn, whose graveyards and ancient schools inspired JK Rowling to conjure up Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardy and its enchanted inhabitants, whose most famous citizen is a dragonlike monster in a faraway lake — is magic.
If this post is wandering it's because that's how we discovered the city: wrong turns up steep and twisted cobblestoned alleys, blindly following casual recommendations, cheerfully lost.