Since I’d been working in Northamptonshire for the week, I thought I’d tag on a quick trip to Scotland for the weekend.
As you probably could tell from my last post, I’m an unabashed Anglophile. But, I’ve never been super tight on my terminology. So, on the flight from London to Edinburgh, I decided to do a little research to “set the record straight.” So, let’s clear up some confusion…
- The United Kingdom: Comprised of England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland (it used to be basically the whole world, then the Americans revolted and it’s been downhill ever since)
- Great Britain: The island that includes England, Scotland, and Wales
- British: From England, Scotland, and/or Wales
- English: From England
- Scottish: From Scotland
- Welsh: From Wales
- Northern Ireland: A constituent part of the United Kingdom
- Ireland: The independent Irish Republic (unlike Northern Ireland, it’s not part of the United Kingdom)
- Irish: From Northern Ireland or Ireland
Okay. So, these rivalries are pretty intense. For our purposes, we’ll only concern ourselves with the complex relationship between the English and the Scottish. For a sense of how deep it goes, just watch the 1995 flick, Braveheart.
If you don’t have time to queue up the movie, just know that the England vs. Scotland thing did not end in 1297 or even in 1995. Put another way, you do NOT want to call a Scotsman, English. Or vice versa.
About half the English people who learned I was going to Edinburgh were excited for me. The other half were disgusted. And, on the surface, I could understand both views. Pictures of Scotland made it look beautiful, but they also eat Haggis. For the uninitiated, Haggis is the definitive Scottish dish. It’s “a savory pudding containing sheep’s pluck (heart, liver and lungs); minced with onion, oatmeal, suet, spices, and salt, mixed with stock, traditionally encased in the animal’s stomach.” I couldn’t wait to place my order!
When I arrived, I checked into my hotel and took a stroll to the top of the Royal Mile (the city’s “Main Street”). I was ready to find out who was right: Is Edinburgh incredible or terrible?
Sadly, my first stop proved completely useless in the investigation. I accidentally walked into a completely empty American-themed restaurant. Have you ever found yourself in a situation where you’re in too deep by the time you realize you need out? When I realized I didn’t want to eat here, a man was already walking me to a table while he quite literally whistled a happy tune. I sat down, looked at the menu and by the time “Witchy Woman” transitioned to “Party in the U.S.A.,” I placed an order for the only relatively authentically British thing I could find: Fish and Chips. No Haggis this go around.
As I took my last bite of chips, a large group of people tumbled in. They were led by an omnipresent caricature in Edinburgh: A very drunk Scotsman. I saw a lot of very drunk Scotsmen during the weekend. At times, I felt like the narrator on a nature show as I watched them navigate their natural habitat: Scotland. This particular example arrived and pulled a tube of chap stick from his jacket pocket. He enthusiastically shouted across the nearly empty space, “We’re just gonna get f*ckin’ lubed up.” He then slathered his lips with the tube, ordered a beer, and began a mating ritual in which he (unsuccessfully) attempted to engage with an amused Canadian woman.
I’d had enough and headed to bed. I was ready to learn about the history of this (thusfar) fascinating city.
Through my travels, I’ve learned one of the quickest and best ways to get my bearings in a new city is to grab a ticket for one of those “hop on, hop off” buses. Sure, I look a little silly sitting on top of an open bus wearing a poncho, but it’s a practical solution when I find myself in a new place for a short time. So, early in the morning of my second day in Edinburgh, I found a ticket seller and did just that.
I discovered, after the quick tour, that Edinburgh is an exception to the rule: You don’t need the bus. It’s one of the world’s greatest “walkable cities.”
The tour wasn’t a complete wash since I learned some valuable facts. For example, people have lived in Edinburgh for 3,000 years. The Castle, which marks the city’s original center is placed on a plug from an extinct volcano. Oh! And the clock on the hotel over the railway station is set 10 minutes fast so people won’t miss their trains. They fix it for New Year’s Eve then change it back again.
Anyway, following the tour, I hopped off the bus and walked the route to get a better sense of the city. It took about an hour to walk the entire city.
I wandered into another restaurant and there, shining brightly from the menu was the hallowed Haggis. So, I ordered it. I wish I could write about it as a monumental event in the way I wrote about cheese curds or guinea pig or bad sushi or rocky mountain oysters. But I can’t. It was fine. Nothing very special about it. Like most food in the United Kingdom it was virtually tasteless. Leave it to our friends from Great Britain to make sheep’s guts tasteless.
My favorite section was around Holyrood Palace. The site of the palace was selected in 1128 when King David I of Scotland was hunting and had a vision of a cross somehow held by a deer. The story is vaguely reminiscent of the strange vision of a “Merlion” that Prince had back in Singapore. Men and their tall tales of hunting glory…
Anyway, Mary Queen of Scots called the palace home from 1561 to 1567 (the only time in her life she spent in Scotland, which is a story in and of itself).
Today, the palace is the Monarch’s Official Residence in Scotland. So, even though Queen Elizabeth spends most of her summers at Balmoral in Scotland, she’s officially at Holyrood. Across the street from Holyrood is the Scottish Parliament. And — now here’s the best part — between the two (the Royal Palace and the Legislative Building) is public housing.
Yes, you read right. Public Housing. One of the most distinctive aspects of Scottish Culture is egalitarianism. Nowhere is this more evident than at the bottom of the Royal Mall where Queens, Commoners, and Crooks (whoops, I mean politicians) are on the same block!
As Edinburgh grew, tenements (or apartment buildings) were constructed everywhere. People were slotted in wherever it was possible. And, because these tenements were made of wood, fire was a constant danger. As a result, the closer you were to the door, the better off you were. In fact, it was only recently that a Penthouse became a good thing. In the past, the higher up you were, the poorer you were. After all, a higher floor meant death was more likely in a fire.
I loved Edinburgh. When traveling, my favorite activity is to wander around a city on foot. Sometimes it works. Like in Edinburgh. Other times, it’s awkward. Like in Los Angeles. For the most part, walking around Edinburgh is easy. The only admonition is to watch where you step. Especially early on a Saturday or Sunday morning. You’ve got to keep an eye out for the vomit from last night’s very drunk Scotsmen.
In short, Edinburgh has replaced Cape Town as my favorite city.