A Day out with Elspeth In Edinburgh

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The classic view. Note where the colour is. It’s my favourite building

When one describes Edinburgh, it sounds ideal and wonderful: a city on hills with a mini mountain at its centre; blue water stretching out in the distance towards a kingdom of further such hills; a medieval city on the tail of an extinct volcano – castle at the high rocky end, palace at the other, and little vennels running off the main street. A park in between mounted by classical galleries and a large, conveniently situated railway station, a one sided shopping street that views all I’ve just said, and then the squares and curving terraces of a neat classical town – the second part of the world heritage site – and then an ancient port connected by another long straight thoroughfare about two miles away. Schools like palaces and Grecian temples throughout the suburbs; domes of banks and archives; Gothic spires. A city of vistas both natural and architectural, with a double centre of two contrasting styles unity; suburbs stretching still in a distinct style, mostly of the same coloured stone.

For me, Edinburgh is not just a pair of towns old and new but some little urban villages; I see it as a sunflower with a split centre and then several long petals. Find Broughton and Merchiston, Southside and Stockbridge to really know Edinburgh. There’s more greenery in the Meadows and connected Bruntsfield Links, there’s Morningside, the land of Miss Jean Brodie in her prime, and now trams to the airport – and of course, a zoo.

Not too big but big enough, stuffed with arts (even without August’s huge festival), and museums. I counted 30 visitor attractions, most of them along the Royal Mile, the spine of that volcano and the original Edinburgh. I used to live just off it and could imagine Mary Queen of Scots passing with her retinue as I popped out for milk. But that got tricky, especially during August.

Edinburgh is best seen and understood from its side streets, the enclaves that are not in the free tourist leaflets or most of the souvenir guides. Ascend more hills and go where the rubber of slow moving tyres run through interlinked crescents in shapes of otherworldly signs, find its many boutiques and bistros, some hiding below street level, some with smart and colourful frontages, some under marble domes and columns, and always a hill in sight (unless you’re standing on one taking in one of the several famous city vistas).

However, that is not my Edinburgh; it was only briefly. The unity is also disappointingly homogenous and  its suburbs of tenements are relentless, but without the class or appeal of the well photographed bits (they’re so dark, they are difficult to photograph). The New Town only has one survivor from the century it most celebrates, at Charlotte Square. The Old Town has no medieval domestic buildings save part of John Knox House and only small bits of the castle, cathedral and palace are pre 1500. There’s several 16-17th C houses, and some in pastiche, but much of that Mile is a bland late Georgian, and there’s some dreadful new fillers, such as the former council offices that have become a hotel and yet another Pizza Express on the site of the West Bow.

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Clean and unclean stone near Stockbridge, New Town

The Scots word ‘dreich’- meaning approximately what ‘mauvais’ in French does – is appropriate for describing the colour of its capital. Drear, dull and relentless browny black, often read as grey. The true colour of Edinburgh’s predominant stone is a beautiful, gold and pink flecked light beige. But it’s been slow to clean itself, despite being the World Heritage Site – and its rival to the West feels a warmer city in comparison because it has done so. My photos of neighbouring contrasts in Edinburgh show what is and what was and what might be. Bath was blackened in the 1960s – now look. Why isn’t equally proud, visited and celebrated Edinburgh also sparkling? England’s northern cities have tidied themselves, so when one wants to film a period drama set in the height of industrial blackness, at least one (North and South, 2004) chose Edinburgh to stand in.

So the colour is a big big issue. Edinburgh looks like a man in a drab suit, sometimes with a bright blue background (for sunny days) but often a sky that matches the suit.

But old Scots buildings are colourful – hurrah to the City museum which has brought some gold to the Canongate, and that deep burgundy that along with white is also popular and sets off each other and the stone. Some criticise that auld Scots pastiche Crown/SAS Radisson hotel in the High Street but it brought me gladness to view it and is what I think other gaps should be filled in with.

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Welcome colour in the Old Town

Edinburgh’s also cold – the proximity of the Firth of Forth and being on hills makes you exposed to cold winds. You get extra long summer days but short winter ones.

The Royal Mile which can feel inspiringly historic felt particularly made for television on my last visit. I can think of other cities with tat shops, but not en masse, and not feeling so false. And yet much of the Mile isn’t authentically old or even pretending to be.

Edinburgh has more theatres and cinemas than other British cities except London, and I’ll review some of those on my other blog. It has enough theatres to subdivide into types – drama in one, new writing in another, knees up West End, musical and opera, ballet, and student/amateur. This is one of its strengths.

It has many places to eat and drink but I found myself returning with alacrity to very few. I commend Ecco Vino on Cockburn St in the Old Town for being the one I have consistently been able to visit over some years and be happy each time, whether I’m having a hot choc, asking advice on wine, or having a meal – alone or with friends. And well done for not feeling the need to change your logo or decor – you got it right and stuck with it, and it helps me recognise you.

Many others I knew have either closed since my last visit, or changed beyond recognition.

So Edinburgh’s best is kind of its essence – the idea of it, which conforms in part to my own ideals as much as much of its later planning does to the classical ones. But I like mix and match, and not that City Fathers (why always patriarchs?) and feudal lords control the look of a city as much as what goes on it in. The more I read on that, the less happy I am.

It’s the hills and water that I like most, and the notion of the sleeping volcano; the sense of a nation’s history.

But the city lacks water in the centre. Since the Nor’ Loch was drained, the city feels dry. I’m also used to cities of many medieval or Georgian churches, and Edinburgh’s are mostly 19th C and not in the middle and of the overbearing gothic sort, even for the evangelical non conformist churches. It also lacks a central square – Grassmarket’s in a basin with no arresting buildings on it – and a proper cathedral. St Giles was the collegiate parish church for medieval Edinburgh, only briefly a seat of a bishop in the 17th C – and thus is truly a High Kirk, and though large, is not on the scale of a cathedral as many of us would view them. And there’s no close. And the castle’s position is dramatic, but its edifice is low slung and mostly 18-20th C military buildings, some of whom you can’t visit. (I personally recommend Stirling castle over this one).

If I could change three things about Edinburgh:

-Colour: get cleaning and painting those older mansions

-Bring back Holyrood Abbey

-A few degrees warmer and with less wind

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The Cowgate – under belly of the Old Town

I’d like to do a neo Patrick Geddes and rejuvenate the Old Town: less tat, more like the SAS/Crown hotel (and Glasgow’s St Mungo’s museum – same architect); more of that distinct timber, turnpike and crowstepped look that was lost through slum clearance. And less bridges which create the sense of dank tunnels and under-streets, nether and laigh in every sense.

And I’d like a go at Princes Street which is more view than being beautiful in itself, and busy, tatty Lothian Road/Toll Cross which really lets the side down. And George Square and that street that begins as South Bridge and keeps changing its name. And Leith Walk.

Sorry, not just three.

Maybe Leith is worth a Day Out of its own sometime – it does like to be thought of as independent. I need a prolonged updated visit to be able to do this.

I will be sharing my thoughts on Glasgow shortly.

I already have on the Royal Mile attraction “The Real Mary King’s Close”.