I was in Edinburgh for work last week. I was unenthused by the prospect. I had been before and I retained only a vague memory of a dull castle.
When I was 17, I went to Scotland to visit a friend I had made on a camping holiday in France the previous year. We had both taken part in the Miss Campsite competition and come first and second (modesty forbids me telling you who won, ahem) and this formed a bond. There was no internet in those days and we had to keep our friendship alive through letters and the very odd phone call and, most thrillingly, a visit to Glasgow. Her parents nobly drove us to Edinburgh for the day so that I could experience the excitement of Scotland’s capital. I retain much firmer memories of driving around the suburbs of Glasgow with Alison’s schoolmates (boys, cars!). We stayed in touch for many years but finally lost contact around the time she got permanent employment as an engineer with the local council (she used to make mini-roundabouts and we didn’t have any mini-roundabouts in Ireland at the time and my incomprehending indifference was the beginning of the end).
I arrived into Edinburgh late and flicked on the telly in the rather nasty hotel. I found myself watching a programme in Gallic on breeding sheep on remote Scottish islands. I was rivetted. Not by the sheep rearing but by the language. Gallic is very similar to Irish. It was sub-titled which was a big help to my comprehension but I would imagine that a fluent Irish speaker would have very little difficulty in understanding the spoken language and even I could tell that almost all the words were the same. The pronounciation was weird though, it was like hearing a Norwegian speaking Irish, that same Nordic intonation.
My conference the following day finished at 4 on the dot (in my experience entirely unprecedented in the world of conferences) and I sailed out to take the air. My sailing was considerably impeded by the road works associated with the creation of a tram line. The local, who was my informant on these matters muttered darkly about it. “It was just as bad in Dublin when we got our tram lines,” I said sympathetically. “Aye, but you got twice as many as we’re going to get.” “You’re only getting one tram line?” “Aye,” he said dourly (I was, obviously, delighted to meet a stereotypically dour Scot).
I made my way to Charlotte Square passing several school boys wearing short pants (really, short pants? and I bet it gets chilly in Edinburgh in Winter) and bright red knee socks picking up the red piping on their blazers. Very odd.
Charlotte Square is a beautiful Georgian Square designed by Robert Adam (who was from Edinburgh, who knew? alright, alright all of you) and one of the houses is open to the public. Normally the children accompany me on this kind of expedition and the relief of not having to constantly stop them running, touching or shouting was enormous: as you know, it is part of every child’s upbringing to be tortured by parents in this way. I was able to consider the printed leaflet in each room, chat to the nice elderly lady volunteers guarding each room and, generally entertain myself. I was able to make a comparison with more or less contemporaneous houses in Ireland as, the previous weekend, I had visited a number of houses in Merrion Square which was enjoying an open day. The latter had been rendered hideous by the children. It’s hard to know which was worse, the screaming and running about at the Irish Architectural Archive, having to carry Daniel from the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland howling, red-faced and rigid with anger because he had not been allowed to sign the visitor book, or Michael gaining access to the water cooler on the second floor of the NUI building and promptly flooding the stairs and soaking himself and then trailing squelchily out of the building asking loudly to be allowed to take off his trousers. No such unpleasantness marred my visit to Charlotte Square and that of the genteel English people who seemed to constitute the bulk of the other visitors.
After that I walked over to the Old Town (challenging with the tram works) in a mood of increasing astonishment. Edinburgh is amazingly, jaw-droppingly beautiful. Almost every building in the centre is made with the same yellow stone and nothing much appears to have been built since 1900. The effect is extraordinary. I walked round entranced. The Royal Mile was described by the frank guidebook in my hotel as awash with tartan tat and, I suppose, that is true, but it is also full of beautiful buildings, fascinating sights and the whole thing is wonderfully harmonious. However, one cannot live on pre-20th century urban architecture and I was getting peckish.
A friend whose husband is from Edinburgh advised me to eat at the Witchery but, alas, they were too full to take me at 6.30 (where oh where is this recession of which they speak). Fortunately, I got the last seat in its sister restaurant, The Tower, which is at the top of one of the only 20th century buildings in Edinburgh: a museum which was closed but looked a bit dull based on what one is allowed to see on the way to the restaurant. The restaurant was full of locals which is always very gratifying for the tourist. I had lovely views out over the city as the sun set and I ate my sardines.
I took myself off to the airport absolutely delighted and quite astonished. How is it that I had remembered none of this loveliness from my last visit? It appears that at 17, I was as self-absorbed as my children are at 3 and 6. You would think that the genetic code might have better things to do.