In stark contrast to the sunny excess of Spain, the second week saw us head off to Scotland, home of the brave and eternal rain. Or so we were lead to believe, every single time we spoke to a native. The conversation would go like this: Me: “Lovely weather!” Native: “Yeah… It won’t last though.” And given that that is about the extent of my small-talk I never really got any further.
Kidding aside though, I’ll follow my usual narrative from start to end, or arrival to departure as the case may be. We flew in to Edinburgh late on a dark and windy evening, arriving just in time to pick up the rental car. Heading in towards the centre of Edinburgh got me into a little trouble with Google Maps. Google insisted that we must take a certain route, but the local authorities had other ideas, having closed the main road. Still, we did manage to confuse the persistent technology enough for it to come up with an alternative and finally arrived in Morningside.
“Morningside” has such a great ring to it and it proved to be a delightful area. For starters, the bed & breakfast, “No 27 Morningside” was superb. Small, very personal, splendid rooms and a nice walk from the city centre. And the area has something of the same feels as Shoreditch, Kreuzberg and similar up and coming areas, with interesting little shops, nice eateries, artisan coffee and bakeries. You know the sort of thing, a pleasant area to stroll about. It was in one of these shops I discovered the awesome illustrations by The Grey Earl. His Star Wars inspired pieces are wonderful.
Morningside also has an incredible density of charity shops. I’ll get back to this topic later on, but I think this may be a growth industry in the UK at the moment. Given my penchant for a spot of secondhand spelunking I visited every single one between the B&B and Old Town, sixteen of them in all. And they were all terrible, sadly.
Morningside is something of a contrast to The Old Town though. The Old Town is the area near the castle, where the Royal Mile runs through fantastic old buildings and so forth, with windy roads twisting off to the sides. It could have been such a great place, but the reality of it is, to put it bluntly, shite. The whole area is mainly tourist shops selling standard fayre tourist tat, i.e. cheap merino wool, tartan kilts and made in China tweed jackets. And even more depressingly, I later found out that it’s almost all owned by just 2 men. Good going guys, you’ve managed to destroy what is arguably the finest piece of Edinburgh.
The area is also swarming with tourists, literally. And their tour buses parked up in all the side streets. It’s as if this is The Only Place To Visit In Edinburgh, as the infestation appears quite localised.
We did bump into the Queen there though. Not literally, but we did see her coming out of St. Giles Cathedral, having attended something or other there in occasion of it being here Scottish week or some such. No doubt her next stop was the whisky tour next door and then on to grab half a dozen bargain scarves. I was happy to see the statue of celebrated Scottish philosopher David Hume while we were jostling with the assembled throngs, so now all history and culture has been lost.
Edinburgh is very much about the visual though and while the infernal tourist trade do their best to cover up the good bits, you can see fantastic historical artefacts almost everywhere. It’s a sad irony that the city doesn’t take more charge of how it’s presented, as I think that of the places I’ve been, Edinburgh has to be one of the cities with the greatest potential and the saddest reality.
One unavoidable aspect of Scotland is the bagpipe. Like haggis, Braveheart and what gentlemen do or do not wear under their kilts, the bagpipe is inescapably Scottish. And the wailing, curiously atonal drone can be heard frequently, though most commonly where tourists assemble. I’m not sure if it’s the Scot underground resistance trying to drive the hordes away, or whether it’s an authentic expression of Scot heritage though. One of the most amusing moments of the day was eating lunch at the Scottish National Gallery. Not the lunch itself, though that was better than expected. No, there was a band playing nearby. A band featuring a drummer, a bassist, and guitarist and … a guy on the bagpipe. The three first guys played a selection of songs, the guy on the bagpipe just the one. And he didn’t take a break between songs like the others. Maybe you had to be there…
If you’ve got this far you’re probably wondering if there was any decent shops to be found, right? Well, not much, truth be told. I did finally make it to Corniche, which was something of a pilgrimage for me. The owner, Ian, proved a genial and friendly chap and we had a long natter. Ian has always been a huge stockist of Nigel Cabourn and he did have a wall full when I visited. Nothing really eye-catching though, a point Ian tended to agree with. Hence why he has recently branched out into other brands as well. Perhaps Cabourn’s next collection will be “The Descent of Cabourn”?
Apart from Corniche there really is just the usual stuff to be found. I did find a nice vintage shop in the Grassmarket and I did score a pair of Red Wings in the sale at Harvey Nichols. Apart from that though it was slim picking.
Well, apart from Walker Slater in the Old Town. I’d been tipped off about them, and made a point of stopping by. A gentlemans outfitter, heavy on the tweed, reasonably priced (but not made in Britain). The shop was nicely designed, rich with details and even the staff looked the part. I had a good poke around, but really didn’t feel it at all. Very traditional designs and to be honest, pretty boring. A good step up from the made in China tweeds from the tourist grottos nearby, but if you have one three-button tweed jacket, you’re pretty much sorted for three-button tweed jackets, right?
Next door though is their ladieswear shop and that is totally different. Let me repeat that, their ladieswear shop is totally different! Yes, the shop itself is quite wonderfully designed and decorated and the staff attentive and helpful, but what sets it apart are the garments. While the menswear was staid and traditional, the ladieswear was inspired and wonderful. If only their menswear was so inspired! One of the staff was wearing a long tweed jacket, looking not unlike the blonde investigator in “The Bridge”, and that jacket must have been selling like crazy even on a sunny summer day. Incidentally, the Cabourn womenswear is also very much more inspired than the menswear at the moment. What is going on?
I’ve saved the best bit for last though. And I only quite hesitantly mention it, fearing that it will be spoilt if it gets any more attention. As a long-term fan of Edinburgh author Ian Rankin and his “Inspector Rebus” books, I was curious to visit the oft mention watering hole of the esteemed inspector, the Oxford Bar. Yes, it features in every single book and it actually exists. And it is magnificent. Not in a huge or glamorous way, as it’s basically a small room with a bar and a separate room with tables, and toilets. Very much not glamorous at all, but very authentic, and as far as I could tell totally under the tourist radar. I noticed a small photo of Ian Rankin on wall behind the bar, but that was the only nod to the notoriety of the place. And not a bagpipe to be heard anywhere nearby.
And if that isn’t wonderful, I don’t know what is.
The next instalment will cover Rosslyn Chapel, the drive to Inverness, Highlands, shitholes, wonderful fish soup and rain.