The D&O Diary is on assignment in the United Kingdom this week, with the first stop in the venerable city of Edinburgh, for meetings and an event. Due to flight delays, cancellations and missed connections, my visit to Scotland’s capital city was cut short by a day, which compressed both my meetings and my opportunity to see the sights. Even with a shortened stay, I still managed to take in quite a bit of the city.
Edinburgh turned out to be quite a bit of surprise. Perhaps I was fortunate with the time of year of my visit and the pleasant weather that prevailed while I was there. Rather than the dark and gloomy domain perched on craggy peaks that I pictured, the city was (at least while I was there) bright, open and, while hilly, an uncommonly pleasant place in which to walk around.
With a population of about 470,000 (about the same size as Sacramento), Edinburgh is perched on the south side of the Firth of Forth, which opens out to the North Sea. The city’s name is pronounced with a distinctive Scottish flourish – it is “Edin-burra” not “Edin-burg.” The view within the city is dominated by the looming presence of the Edinburgh Castle (pictured at the top of the post), which stands at the top of the city’s Old Town. An architecturally interesting and beautiful cobblestone street, called the Royal Mile (pictured left), connects the Castle to the royal Palace of Holyroodhouse (pictured below). On a warm, sunny fall afternoon, the Royal Mile was thronged with tourists looking to buy kilts, tartans and whisky to take home with them.
Edinburgh is a topographically complicated city owing to the several craggy outcroppings, the remnants of ancient volcanic activity, within and adjacent to the city. Looming beyond Holyroodhouse is the craggy peak known as Arthur’s Seat, the highest point among the rocky outcroppings of the Salisbury Crags. On a clear day, the view from Arthur’s peak seemed almost limitless. To the east, the Firth of Forth stretched out to the North Sea. About twenty miles away, the soft, rolling beauty of the Pentland Hills framed the view to the southwest. To the north, Edinburgh castle soared about the city below.
Just days before my visit, Scotland had held a referendum on whether or not it should be an independent country. I saw the remnants of the independence campaign around the city. Though Edinburgh had voted “No” in much greater numbers that most of the rest of the country, most of the campaign remnants that I was were in support of the “Yes” vote. On Saturday evening, I was in a pub to which I had been drawn by the live acoustic music. Late in the evening, the musician played a song called “Caledonia.” Every single person in the place sang along to the lyrics that go like this: “Let me tell you that I love you/And I think about you all the time/Caledonia you’re calling me, now I’m going home/But if I should become a stranger/Know that it would make me more than sad/Caledonia’s been everything I’ve ever had.” And then when the song ended, in unison, everyone in the college age crowd in the pub stood and shouted “Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes!” It was so cool it gave me goosebumps and it also made me think that for many in Scotland the independence issue is not over and may never go away.
Whenever I spoke to anyone there, after hearing my American accent, whoever I was speaking to would say that I must be there for the Ryder Cup golf tournament (which was played over the weekend at Gleneagles, about an hour outside Edinburgh). The next topic for discussion was where I was from in the United States, and when I said Ohio, the standard response was “Aye, you’re the first person I ever met from Ohio.” I wanted to reply that, in fact, Ohio is 50% larger geographically than Scotland and has more than twice as many people. Of course, I also thought to myself that Scotland’s history, heritage and culture are many times greater and more distinctive than that of Ohio or just about any other U.S. state you might care to mention. So I kept the comparisons between Scotland and Ohio to myself.
While I was in Edinburgh, I took full advantage of the clement weather for some ambitious walking. A friend back home upon learning that I was going to be visiting Edinburgh had told me that I had to make time to explore the footpath that winds along the Water of Leith, a stream that runs from the Pentland Hills to the port city of Leith. Though I didn’t walk the entire length of the walkway, I did walk from a point near my hotel all the way to Leith, Edinburgh’s historic port city, about five miles away. The pathway goes through a number of picturesque villages, including Stockbridge, Canonmills, and Dean Village. The stroll along the walkway’s heavily wooded, sunlight dappled pathway was quite a contrast to the crowded sidewalks near my hotel in the city’s shopping district.
The city is actually full of green space. Just a bit south of the Royal Mile is the University of Edinburgh, which itself is adjacent to a large open parkland called the Meadow. I roamed around the area after my meeting on Friday afternoon, and as I walked back toward town on the Meadow Path, a footpath that connects the campus to the historic city, I came upon two grandmotherly women who were holding up a map and obviously trying to figure out where they were. From the accents, I could tell they were American, so I offered to help.
It turns out that the two women, whom I later learned are sisters and are named Edna and Alice, had gone AWOL from their tour group, and had intended to walk on their own from their hotel to the Royal Mile. They been given surprisingly useless directions – they were told to “turn left at the Starbuck’s,” which, given the fact that there is a Starbuck’s on just about every street corner, virtually guaranteed that they would get lost. They weren’t far away from their destination, but the Royal Mile was about a half a mile away – and straight uphill. From their reaction, it was clear that they didn’t think that after all of their wanderings they had enough left in the tank to make it up the hill. I suggested that they should go in the pub just across the way and call for a cab to take them back to their hotel. It was pretty clear they weren’t sure at all about the idea of going in a pub (they didn’t look like the types who, say, made a habit of going on pub crawls), so I said I would accompany them. The Doctors pub (apparently named for its proximity to the medical school) was quiet on a Saturday afternoon, with a few men in a corner watching the Ryder Cup on television.
I told the ladies that we might as well get comfortable while they waited for the cab and I suggested that they should make the most of their pub experience and have a pint of ale. They laughed at the idea, but the spirit of adventure got ahold of them, and they agreed to try a pint. To their surprise, they liked the ales the bartender recommended them, and after a time of convivial conversation, they decided it was their turn to buy me a round. I wouldn’t have thought that spending an afternoon drinking beer with a couple of American grandmothers would be the best way to spend the day, but I have to say I enjoyed meeting them. After the second round, I had to remind them that they had intended to call a cab to go back to their hotel. As they were leaving, they said that the visit to the pub had been the most fun they had on their entire trip and they couldn’t wait to tell the others in the tour group about their adventure. As is often the case while traveling, the unplanned events and encounters often are the best part.
My time in Edinburgh was all too brief, and I soon had to leave to head on to London. But I am glad I had the chance to catch a little glimpse of the Scottish city. I enjoyed the entire experience. As much as I enjoyed climbing up to the top of Arthur’s Seat and hiking along the Water of Leith pathway, the afternoon in the pub with Edna and Alice might have been the best part of the visit for me as well.
More Pictures of Edinburgh:
Here’s a video of the song “Caledonia”