According to folklore (and plate tectonics), Scotland was once supposedly warm. If you believe the locals, Scotland — and the whole of Europe, for that matter — was once situated near the equator. The locals paint Ye Olde Scotland as a tropical paradise, but after a few days there I suspect it was the whisky talking.
The Scot’s drunken rambling does, however, explain the invention of the Scottish Kilt, a form of male attire similar to a woman’s skirt that’s not exactly conducive to a cold climate (or heterosexuality).
Experiencing Scotland today, you’d never guess that the country had ever been anything other than a thriving, erudite and cosmopolitan civilization slowly freezing to death.
Not that you couldn’t happily live in Scotland — famous people like J.K. Rowling, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Sir Walter Scott, Alexander Graham Bell, the Bay City Rollers and Garbage front-woman, Shirley Manson, were either born, lived, or found inspiration in the chilly streets of Edinburgh.
That’s not surprising since Edinburgh has tons of indoor culture, art, and science — including a major, international comedy fest — all of it just a short, eleven-hour plane flight away from our own San Francisco (another big, beautiful city home to tons of outdoor culture, art, science, and a major comedy festival). The biggest difference between the two metropolises comes down to the total quantity of pantless, free-swinging male testicles each has, and in that regard, San Francisco wins in a land-slide.
Upon arrival in Scotland’s capital city, we took the famous Sandeman’s Edinburgh Free Tour because it was, well, you know…free. This complementary walking tour of the city’s “Old Town” was led by an enthusiastic female guide named Izzy. She assured the group that there was no cost to the tour, but quietly intimated that if we wanted her to guide us back to the safe part of town afterward, we’d better “pony up some dough.” At least, that’s what we think she said — her Scottish accent was pretty thick. More amazing was the fact that she wasn’t even from Scotland. Hailing from America’s own Chicago, Izzy had — in just under three years — thoroughly adopted the nigh incomprehensible brogue of a real Scot (again, that’s what we think she said).
Izzy then led us around the cobblestone streets of Old Town pointing out places where Scottish people of yore had been variously beheaded, nailed to doors, spat upon, burned as witches, covered with feces, and perhaps worst of all — forced to eat Haggis.
Haggis is a traditional Scottish dish made by combining the most disgusting parts of animals (you’re better off not knowing which ones) with enough spices to make you not realize what you’re really eating. Haggis is so vile in concept that many restaurants offer a vegetarian version to prevent the inevitable and almost compulsory vomiting that ensues the moment first-time diners find out what they’ve just put in their mouths.
Stopping at the Edinburgh Mercat Cross (or Market Cross) outside St. Giles Cathedral and Parliament Square, we learned how the Scots punished wrong-doers back in the day. It seems that if you broke the law, they’d drag you to this public square and nail your ear to the wooden door of this structure. Hanging there bleeding, you’d have two choices: 1.) Suffer the indignities of having kids kick you in the shins while adults pissed on you and threw human manure at you, or 2.) Rip your ear off, forever be known as a coward, never find work again and die shortly after. Needless to say, the early Scots didn’t have prison over-crowding problems.
While crime wasn’t a big concern, Edinburgh still had major problems. Feces, for example. Since there wasn’t always a handy criminal at whom to throw your butt-nuggets, citizens of this highly populated city had to find some other way to dispose of it.
After what I’m sure had to be a hotly debated issue, the geniuses of Scotland landed on the idea of yelling “Arr-da-lee!” as a warning and then heaving buckets of their filth out the window onto the street.
To mitigate the problem of everyone getting coated with keister cakes, the King wisely decreed that you could only toss your ass-kabobs out the window twice a day, at either 10AM or 10PM. This helped in the morning, but made things far worse at night.
Not only were the city streets pitch black by 10pm, it was also the time when all the pubs closed, too. It’s alleged that drunken pedestrians who heard the warning “Arr-da-lee!” and instinctively looked up inspired the euphemism of “being shit-faced.”
Obviously, excessive excrement was a real problem for a city built on a hill. Edinburgh’s fecal fudge flowed down the streets and sluiced into the city’s primary source of drinking water, Nor Loch (or “North Lake”). As a result, all manner of infectious disease ran rampant throughout the population. However, the Scots quickly and shrewdly identified the real cause: Witches.
Being an “advanced” civilization, Edinburgh used the scientific method to identify witches. Based on indisputable conjecture and speculation, you were declared a witch if: 1.) You had red hair (unfortunately common in Scotland), 2.) You had facial moles (where the Devil had obviously touched you), 3.) You had a third nipple (where you were clearly suckling Satan), and/or 4.) You were left-handed (well, cuz that’s just weird, bro).
Should you display any one of these traits — or worse, more than one — you had your thumbs tied to your toes and were tossed into the putrid, disease-ridden Nor Loch. Real witches would “logically” be held aloft and saved by Satan himself, while innocent women would make a beeline to heaven (well, after a few minutes of desperate gasping, thrashing, and screaming). To thwart Satan, any “floaters” would be fished out of the disgusting Nor Loch (“Yay!”) and burned at the stake (“Boooo!”). Yeah, take that, Beelzebub!
Still, Izzy assured us, Edinburgh wasn’t all suffering, bleakness, and dysentery. It was a city of refined creativity and innovation, too, she insisted.
Inventions such as the steam engine, bicycle, telephone, ATM, fingerprinting, television, penicillin, electromagnetics, radar, insulin, and a host of others had their beginnings in Scotland. She even told us about the two young entrepreneurs, Burke & Hare who cleverly found an innovative way to supply medical schools with much-needed teaching aids. Their radical new concept in “procurement” made them both very wealthy until around 1828 when they were hanged for grave robbing and serial murder (a minor snag in an otherwise very inventive business plan).
Over the course of three hours, Izzy continued to delight us with stories of Edinburgh’s macabre and disgusting past, wrapping up the tour in Princes Street Gardens, near the oldest floral clock in the world. We’d intended to ditch the tour right before the end to avoid having to tip Izzy, but by then, we’d forgotten how to get back to our hotel. So we coughed up what we thought the tour was worth and it turned out to be a lot.
Now left to fend for ourselves, we once again walked the length and breadth of Old Town, stopping to spend more time at places we saw and to marvel at the city’s almost French-like architecture. Edinburgh’s stout, sturdy buildings mirror the stout, sturdy people of Scotland themselves. To call the Scots ‘larger than life’ is no lazy cliché or hyperbole—the Scots are just pretty big people. In fact, the petite section in clothing stores has a sign that says, “Sorry, try France.”
Edinburgh is thankfully a very walkable town since if you don’t keep moving constantly, you’ll freeze to death or the haggis will clot inside your heart and kill you. We couldn’t think of any other reasons for sane people to be outside in those temperatures otherwise. That’s not to say that Edinburgh is all that cold, it’s just colder than it feels like it should be.
Normally, we were assured, the weather in Edinburgh vacillates between miserably rainy and god-forsaken gray, so we were thrown off by bright sun and blue skies over the four days we visited. (Thanks, Scottish weather gods!) Yet it was still freezing to us, though obviously not to the locals.
We saw a stunning amount of pasty, exposed flesh considering the brisk temperatures and gale-force North Atlantic winds. Still, nothing seemed to dissuade the young Scots from walking to nightclubs in short sleeves and even shorter skirts. We stood out as obvious tourists thanks to our bulky coats, woolen scarves, and day-time sobriety.
Despite an active late-night club scene, the city’s shops and restaurants call it a day as soon as the sun goes down. Holding fistfuls of pound notes in our freezing hands, we found nowhere to spend them. So we did what everyone else does and went to a pub.
In New Town, we particularly liked 1780 Restaurant and not just because it was just a short, drunken stagger away from our hotel. It’s a casual place on Rose Street cheerfully serving traditional Scottish food, over 100 whiskys, and a few drunken mooks who should’ve been shown the door hours ago.
The next morning, we awoke to an impressive sunrise view of Edinburgh Castle, standing high atop the volcanic crest in the center of town and decided to go there. Once an easily defensible position from which to ward off attacking armies, the Castle is now a tourist trap from which to ward off financial recession.
Going inside Edinburgh Castle would’ve cost us both thirty British Pounds (roughly US$60), so we chose instead to put our hard-earned money towards a Scotch Whisky sampling platter of Glenlivet French Oak Reserve 15, Oban 14, Glenrothes Select Reserve, Scapa 16, Aberlour 10, and Dalwhinnie 15 at the Amber Restaurant bar just south of the Castle on The Royal Mile.
We then stumbled out onto, and meandered down, The Royal Mile, a road that runs from Edinburgh Castle in the center of town out to the Palace at Holyrood where the Royals stay whenever they visit Edinburgh and can’t get a room at the local Radisson (be sure to look for its hilarious plaque that says in all seriousness, “Since 1990”).
The impressive Palace at Holyrood started out as a humble Abbey in 1168AD, but as more and more people invaded the city, the place was expanded until the next invaders moved in and expanded it further. Eventually, Palace at Holyrood became a massive structure that’s been home to royalty, like Robert The Bruce, and the naked ghost of alleged-witch, Agnes Sampson, among others.
A bit peckish from all of our walking about, we sought out some comestibles. The first time we heard about Oink Hog Roast, we knew we had to eat there. It’s a small shop at 34 Victoria Street with a desiccated, roasted pig in the window reposing in its own pulled-porkiness. You can order one of three portion sizes served on a white or “brown” (i.e. wheat) bun with your choice of apple sauce, sage, and onions, or haggis and chili. I had the haggis and chili and it was fantastic, although a little dry (next time, I’d probably load up on the chili sauce more). While it may sound like a meal that should be served with rib-spreaders, you have to remember that Scotland invented the deep-fried Mars bar. So by that benchmark, this meat-fest was practically health food.
Having come all this way to Edinburgh, we felt obligated to try finding the Holy Grail before we left (just imagine what we could get for it on eBay). So we hopped on the No. 15 city bus (US$3.00) out to Roslin to see the now-famous Rosslyn Chapel — and no, that’s not a typo (they’re spelled differently for some stupid Scottish reason).
After a pleasant forty-minute double-decker bus ride through Edinburgh’s suburbs, we arrived at Rosslyn Chapel in the Scottish countryside. Outside the chapel, there’s a fancy visitor’s center thanks almost entirely to the “Da Vinci Code” book/movie phenomena.
Up from 30,000 visitors a year to around 170,000 now, the chapel attracts people of all religions, backgrounds and mental states — one guy tried taking an axe to one of the chapel’s columns in hopes of exposing the world’s most holy relic. He was struck dead by lightning.
The chapel itself is small by modern standards, but nonetheless contains an impressive, comprehensively carved interior. Nearly every square inch of the walls, ceilings and columns are ornately carved to depict ghastly religious scenes meant to terrify uneducated farm folk into behaving themselves.
The chapel was abandoned for many years during which time the wet Scottish weather had its way with it like Gene Simmons with a groupie. Afterwards, an ill-fated attempt was made to seal the wall carvings, inadvertently sealing in the moisture. As a result, the Chapel’s interior looks like it was spray-painted with wet cement. Later on, they built a giant roof over the entire chapel to protect it from the elements while it dried out over the next few years.
After exploring the Chapel’s carvings, we walked down to Rosslyn castle, which is in far worse shape. Hopping back on the bus, we headed back to the Old Town to explore Edinburgh further.
In all, we had a splendid time in Edinburgh. The city’s beautiful, the people are nice and there’s lots of stuff to see and do. Sure, we didn’t spend a ton of time there, but we did get a good feel for Edinburgh and its many charms. More importantly, we left while we still had good feeling in our outer extremities.