Some say that the eyes are the gateway to the soul. Have you ever looked into someone’s eyes and gotten this profound feeling that their soul has been around for quite some time… an old soul? It’s a look, a gut instinct that they have weathered storms spanning decades, fraying the edges. That soul had peered into a darkness so black that part of it left a staining imprint. If a city could have a soul, and I believe many do, Edinburgh’s would be an old soul. Ancient even.
For me, Edinburgh’s gloom and rough edges made it feel like a home I forgot had existed. It is the capital city of Scotland and home to its Scottish monarchy and “ruling parliament”, as much as it can be called this under the ever-tedious thumb of the UK Parliament in London. Our trip was in the dreary fall, immediately following the failed independence referendum from London. I had thought this might lead to a bitter attitude among the locals. Surprisingly, their hospitality and endearing nature made me realize it was just another issue the Scots would learn to overcome with time, one way or another.
For the all too brief visit, we stayed close to Waverly Station, at the Balmoral Hotel. It oozed a kilted Scottish style with the flair of Sean Connery’s James Bond. If you want the real deal Scottish luxury, I highly recommend! Adventuring into the town, there was a faint smell of virile musk and peaty moss; like the famous scotch of the surrounding isles and villages, I wished I could have bottled it and taken it home with me. With its underlying tones and character, this capital has all the makings of a great, regal city. Edinburgh Castle looms large and ominous at the top of the Royal Mile. The path is lined with old brick and stone buildings with new additions peppered in using the same architectural styles. After traversing through shops and stumbling up cobblestone streets slick with morning dew, it was time for lunch.
To truly understand a new culture, history, and innermost thoughts of a city, one must open the mind, and the palate, to new and sometimes nerve-wracking experiences. I find myself to be an adventurous eater in the broadest sense. Under the vein of Scottish cuisine, this meant I had my first taste of, you guessed it, haggis*. At first glance, it looked like ground up bits of various meats sandwiched between carroty colored neeps (a turnip-like vegetable), and mashed potatoes. Sitting next to it was a small jug of brown whisky gravy.
*Definition: Haggis - traditionally a sheep's ‘innards’ minced with onion, oatmeal, suet, and spices.
I licked my lips and prepared for the impending taste. Believe me when I say… it was delightfully good. Like actually, really good! Once I got over the thought of what it was I was actually eating (and the preceding double dose of scotch certainly helped in hazing the memory!), it was everything I wasn’t expecting it to be. Yes sir, may I have another?! Once my stomach was filled with local delicacies swimming in a lake of ambered scotch, it was time to explore the darker side of the city.
Wandering deeper into the town, we staggered across a graveyard hidden among the stone buildings. It could have been the booze talking, but this place had eyes. The damp grass below our feet seemed to breathe, slow and deep. Greyfriars Kirkyard began accepting the deceased since the 16th century, and it is apparently haunted by a resident poltergeist in a part of the cemetery closed off to visitors. You would be hard pressed to find me inside this gated community after dark, at least not without a few more gulps of the local spirits. Not lingering too much longer, we made our way back out into the narrow streets.
Late afternoon, the city was brimming with people bustling down the sidewalks. Most seemed to be heading straight home from work, some off to a local pub. It was people-watching at it's best, rivaling the busiest New York City street corner. We walked and we listened. A handful of passersby had a Scottish accent too thick for comprehension. Without understanding the context, they all seemed to have a joyous urgency to their words. Their tone mirroring the very hum of the city. We walked on and began to slip in and out of little shops. Woolen scarves. Scotch. Woolen blankets. More Scotch. Each shop owner was proud of their wares and what they had to offer. One notably called to our attention that all of her goods were made locally. Pungent blue marbled cheeses mixed in with soft lambs wool kilts. Of course, I had to buy an item... or five. Soon, the side streets began to quiet.
Nighttime was upon us. As the sun set, grey clouds rolled in and capped the city with a faint glow from the street lamps. The clouds were like a warm woolen blanket preparing the city for a deep sleep. Bagpipes played a somber lullaby off in the distance. I had stared into the black abyss of a vacant night sky and Edinburgh placed a stain on my soul that left me wanting. I have some more looking to do and I will be back.
Needless to say, you too should visit Scotland, even for a day. Explore Edinburgh. Get lost. People-watch while soaking yourself in a good single cask Scotch.