To the outside world, it’s a festival, a castle, a university, a tin of shortbread and a drone of bagpipes. To Jackie Hunter, it’s home, and it’s more about coping with the weather ...
From INTELLIGENT LIFE Magazine, Summer 2009
On the short, steeply curving street where I live, the neighbourhood shops offer an unexpectedly refined display of goods: between my front door and the pub on the corner it’s possible to buy Yohji Yamamoto’s artfully cut menswear, cherry-red rubber shoes by Vivienne Westwood, Tom Dixon armchairs and Ingo Maurer lights, Gothic tattoos, a pierced nipple (or two), quirky Scandinavian kitchenware and even a tubby-bellied woodburning stove, one of which would nicely warm my crow’s-nest flat, where on windy nights the sash windows rattle like a box of cutlery as easterly gales blast in off the North Sea.
It is certainly not the clichéd image of an Edinburgh thoroughfare—Robert Burns’s portrait on a shortbread tin, buskers and their deathless droning bagpipes, tiny shops peddling kilts, haggis, souvenir fudge, saltire fridge magnets, ceramic Scottie dogs, tartan scarves woven in China and lifeless prints of vast Highland glens. No—to find all that, I must walk past the pub and round the corner on to the Royal Mile. This is a city where the twee meets the rugged, where ancient sits benignly next to modern, and where Georgian elegance grandly rises above the lingering miasma of medieval squalor.
Adapting your personal sense of style to Edinburgh’s many idiosyncrasies and paradoxes is no easy task. Once, in the early days, I complained to a colleague about the difficulty of dressing appropriately for the Edinburgh weather. She said nothing, but pulled open the bottom drawer of her desk. Inside was stashed a telescopic umbrella, tights of varying thickness, a shawl, walking shoes, a white T-shirt, sunglasses, hiking socks, a cagoule, a hat and a hairdryer. These days, my own desk is similarly stocked and as meticulously audited as a hotel-room minibar.
Since moving to Edinburgh after 16 years in London I have resorted to some questionable outfits when caught out by the capricious maritime climate: a shabby green wax jacket worn with high-heeled sandals, a winter coat over a summer dress, gloves in June. The weather patterns change fast and without warning. Even in high summer, slate-grey cloud can cloak a cerulean sky in a matter of minutes and send forth icy blades of wind or an eerie sea mist (known
locally as the haar) that sticks to the skin. On such foggy days I come to expect chills, high humidity and wind-whipped hair, all at once. There’s nothing to be done but consult the desk-drawer.
It was three and a half years ago that I arrived, on a flat Sunday in Advent. After a 400-mile drive from the start of the A1 to its bitter-cold end, my back was stiff and my mind dull with pessimism, most of it planted by others. It’ll be cold and dark, I had been warned; the people are cold, too; the weather will get you down; the Scots are terrible drinkers; it’s such a small city—you’ll really miss London. The Edinburgh I already knew, from summertime visits to the Fringe in my 20s, was surreally resplendent, thrumming with life, noise, colour, excitement and magnified personalities. I was familiar with its looming monuments to writers and philanthropists, its superb architectural façades and the dramatic countryside looming around it, but what was missing was any comprehension of the Edinburghers and their everyday life. What’s it like when the carnival isn’t in town?
You might look to the works of Edinburgh’s most famous novelists for clues: are there echoes of Muriel Spark’s pert schoolgirls and proud spinsters, Alexander McCall Smith’s haplessly genteel New Towners, Ian Rankin’s dour-faced loners on both sides of the law, or Irvine Welsh’s cynical addicts, articulating the ironies of modern life in Leith’s council blocks?
Although these stereotypes are certainly to be found in the Morningside cafés and elegant Georgian streets, or crossing town on a bus, Edinburgh is modern in a way that has not yet been properly chronicled. What you’ll find in Leith, for instance, bears little resemblance to the shabby, crime-riddled ghetto of the early 1990s, where the middle classes feared to tread unless they were cannily buying up newly converted warehouse apartments as investments. Today, Leith’s gentrified shorefront is a magnet for Edinburgh’s burgeoning community of well-heeled gourmands: it has three different Michelin-starred restaurants. Its grimiest drinking-holes have been given new life as funky bars and gastropubs by confident young entrepreneurs, some local, others just arrived from the Baltic or the ex-Soviet nations. This rough-edged port town has always been proud of its independent identity, and the growing number of small businesses—a Turkish café, modern-art boutiques, a pub with its own knitting circle—are helping it thrive under a new generation of hip, educated twenty-somethings priced out of the city centre.
Nor is it true that the Scots are terrible drinkers, or cold and unfriendly: they are spectacularly good drinkers and supremely sociable (though not always in a good way—so it pays to stay close to the more upmarket spots if you don’t know the city). Edinburgh has conducive opening hours—any night of the week I can meet a friend or colleague in my favourite bar and chat over a good Alberino or well-mixed martini till one in the morning if so inclined. This is, as I was told, a small city, but that means a five-minute walk home instead of a Tube or taxi ride. The only ne’er-do-well I’m likely to meet is an urban fox as he makes his late-night tour of restaurant dustbins.
Whisky societies, vintners’ rooms, microbreweries and tiny, cool cocktail bars abound here (one fish-and-chip shop even has a resident DJ), run by style-conscious, switched-on individuals who are only too aware of the level of competition. You snooze, you lose out to the forward-thinking Swedish pub down the road with its female-friendly policy, artisan beers and annual summer crayfish festival. The Italian fashion house Missoni has chosen the Old Town for the first of its group of international hotels—a landmark for both the label and the city.
National pride is very much to the forefront of the Scottish character, which is quite hard to get used to if you’re an apologetic English type. But the Edinburghers have always opened their arms to foreigners—Poles, Italians, Scandinavians, French. It’s just their English neighbours they are not so sure about. We are a significant minority, making up nearly a tenth of the city’s population, but the resentment that dates back to the 13th- and 14th-century Scottish wars of independence has yet to be entirely forgotten.
In winter, the days are short and light-starved and social life requires dedication. There are times when I cannot bear to be cooped up in the flat for yet another evening, with the blackness pressing against the windows. It feels strange to live in a city where people shut themselves away; I’d rather brave the cold than hibernate. Even at weekends, the main shopping streets are abruptly deserted as people scurry home in the 3pm dusk to draw the curtains, switch on the TV and bask in artificial light and heat. On those nights it takes mettle to dress up, wrap up, and pitch out into the inky night for a few hours of merriment among fellow die-hards—except on Hogmanay, when it’s a point of pride to be dancing on the streets in sub-zero temperatures as the bells ring in a new year.
Come spring, the suddenly light evenings are greeted with a surge of energy and optimism. It’s so refreshing to think not about dinner or what’s on TV but to consider instead a stroll up to the university district and its browsable bookshop, open till 8pm, and wonder whether the coffee shop in St Andrew Square is opening later and setting out its tables beside the lawn. By mid-June, the sun barely naps for three hours and you’ll see the glimmer of dawn in a clear eastern sky not long after 2am. Two summers ago, a friend who lived in the same street walked me home from a party late one night and, just as he was about to turn in through his own front gate, saw the promise of sunrise over Portobello beach some two miles in the distance. He broke into a run and didn’t stop till he hit the brightening sands, then stripped off and took a dawn-lit dip in the cold waves. It pays to make the most of daylight this far north.
In high summer, the 10,000 students melt away and a different tribe invades. Edinburgh’s cosmopolitan population of half a million doubles in the August festival period, the start of which is marked not by the beat of the Military Tattoo at the castle but by the rumble of suitcase wheels along the pavement. “They’re here...” was the thought that surfaced when I identified the sound outside my window in my second Scottish summer. I knew then I’d gone native.
Is there a divide between festival incomers and Edinburgh’s residents? If the 9am dash to work on a rainy Monday is delayed by a flashmob of Armenian unicyclists, it’s fair to say you may detect a lack of indulgence towards the visiting masses.
Mostly, though, visitors find the festival an inclusive experience—albeit an expensive one. As the Fringe has grown more slick and commercial, ticket prices have risen and the temporary bars and food stalls charge exorbitant sums for soggy falafels on paper plates and warm beer in plastic glasses. Taxi drivers cheer up because they make a killing, with events going on throughout the city day and night for a month, during which biblical rainfall is virtually guaranteed—meaning that those who arrive unprepared seek out their yellow lights in the throng of traffic as a sudden greyness descends over Arthur’s Seat to the east.
WHERE TO STAY:
The Balmoral (pictured) Five-star Victorian landmark on top of Waverley Station, made over by Olga Polizzi in 2004. Its No 1 restaurant is Michelin-starred.
1 Princes Street, EH2 2EQ. + 44 (0)131 556 2414;
Hotel Missoni Italian chic meets ancient cobbles in this 136-room hotel on the Royal Mile, due to open in June.
1 George IV Bridge, EH1 1AD. +44 (0)131 220 6666;
WHERE TO EAT:
The Dogs Affordable, rustic-chic cuisine in a buzzing bistro.
110 Hanover Street, EH2 1DR. +44 (0)131 220 1208;
The Kitchin Tom Kitchin’s Michelin-starred restaurant on the fashionable Leith waterfront. 78 Commercial Street, EH6 6LX. +44 (0)131 555 1755; www.thekitchin.com
Stroll up curving, cobbled Victoria Street and down the medieval closes that are ribs off the spine of the Royal Mile. The New Town, north of George Street, is one of the finest examples of Georgian street-planning. From city-centre pavements you can see rugged countryside and coastline on all sides. Take a steep walk up Calton Hill and view the whole city and beyond from this peaceful park.
WHAT TO SEE:
The festivals Almost too many, as the Film Festival in June ushers in the Art, Fringe, Book and International Festivals. If I had to choose one it would be the Book Festival, which is delightfully civilised, setting up camp in elegant Charlotte Square Garden. A Fringe benefit is the Spiegel Garden bar in George Square, busy until the small hours. www.edinburghfestivals.co.uk.
The Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art has Charles Jencks’s stunning land-sculpture on its lawn (right), work by Barbara Hepworth, Ian Hamilton Finlay and Eduardo Paolozzi, and plenty of Dada and Surrealist works. www.nationalgalleries.org
Best escapes: a hike up to Arthur’s Seat, or a walk on the beach at Portobello.
Find rare plants, and peace, in the Botanic Gardens (www.rbge.org.uk). Admire Edinburgh Castle on its volcanic rock, but don’t bother paying £13 to shuffle round its packed interior.
Foodies love Ian Mellis’s cheese shops in Victoria Street (pictured above) and Stockbridge, and the Saturday farmers’ market on Castle Terrace—get there early and join the queue for Falko’s bread. St Andrew Square garden, at the east end of George Street, is a welcome green space with a cute coffee pod offering indoor and outdoor seating: a treat for shoppers in need of strong espresso and cake.
Picture credit: Murdo Macleod