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It was a Christmas party in Edinburgh and I was minding my own business when the well-dressed matron suddenly leaned toward me. “You must think we are barbarians the way we send our young children off to boarding schools.” At a loss and as a guest, I shook my head. “Uh no, not at all. I love the Harry Potter books… I love Hogwarts.”
But I don’t think she bought it. No matter – we both moved on to other conversations. It was a genteel evening in Edinburgh, Scotland.
And bonny good to be here in this ancient city, anchored with its medieval castle, framed by the famous peak known as “Arthur’s Seat”. Who could resist a city located in a realm called the Firth of Forth?
As with certain cities - Venice, Jerusalem or Vegas come to mind - you knew you had landed somewhere different in Edinburgh. Like those destinations, the city has its own look, language and way to behave. There is a fine coat of civility woven over this Scottish center of culture, education and international art festivals.
But under that silky tartan lurks a rougher fabric seen in the landscape, the climate, its history and its people. Behind every heathery Brigadoon in the hills plots the ghosts of warrior tribes and clans seething against the English invaders. It’s a lively place.
It had been tough making my deal to get here. My client’s budget was very… frugal. Even Scottish in its tight-fistedness. I felt as though the Scotland Tourism Board had laid siege against my little company and I was at the mercy of their ancient feudal instincts. Plus, I couldn’t always understand what they were saying.
Their terms of surrender were absolute, “Here's whit we git. Tak' it ur lea it.” Thus vanquished, I agreed to work for a pittance of my usual fee just so I could visit their extraordinary city. I heard you could get great deals on scotch. Also tam o‘shanters.
Seats 8a & 8b
So after all of the economic warfare they put me through it was ironic that they landed business class seats for us. Perhaps it was their way of, “Throwing th' laddie a bane.”
Through the years as I’ve set my backside down in Coach, Business and First Class, I have always sported my standard uniform of safari shirt (lots of pockets) and blue jeans. Not to mention shoes and always socks. Neat and practical. Hey, it’s the 21st Century - dress shirts and jackets are for bar mitzvahs, court and the Big Sleep.
But somewhere along the flight I noticed a smartly dressed lady a few seats away, eyeing me suspiciously. There was clearly something about me that troubled her. I’m pretty certain I didn’t look like a terrorist. Was it the epaulets on my safaris shirt that were threatening? I tried to disarm her with a smile.
It wasn’t but a few minutes later when a slightly uncomfortable flight attendant came by and shared that one of the passengers was upset with me. I was dressed in jeans… in business-class.
Oh. This was a first. Well what did she want me to do? Take of my pants? March back to coach and hang out at the lavatory? The flight attendant hadn’t a clue but the woman insisted I should be told. My assistant and I laughed. I thought it would be a funny bit to retell sometime. So what do you think?
Did this silly kerfuffle portend the dress code in Edinburgh? Would I have to go shopping at an airport store for a McGregor hunting jacket and tie?
This was the most serious matter we would entertain crossing the Atlantic until we approached the dark green fields of Edinburgh. There unexpectedly, the serious stakes went up. Interrupting the sweep of the grassy panorama below were the dusky twinkle of red and blue holiday lights. No wait, those were emergency vehicles lining the runway.
Our captain filled in the puzzle. Seems they weren’t totally sure about our landing gear. As in, did it fully extend and lock, thus enabling us to land on the plane's tires instead of its belly? From the sound of his voice the captain didn’t sound overly concerned – just a precaution he said.
But then I had to overthink the situation - maybe he was trained to speak in a very calm way in very bad situations when, in fact, he was up there in the cockpit clenching the yoke in a death grip and soiling his airline pants.
However, my assistant was so chill with the whole landing thing, so I decided to be as well. And we touched down just fine, false alarm. Everybody lives. Even the mean lady who judged me can go home and torment her family.
Welcome to Edinburgh! Thought we’d give you a wee fright. “Should auld acquaintance be forgot…” Ha Ha.
Have you heard of it? It’s a kind of pudding made of sheep’s pluck. And what is sheep’s pluck – well it’s heart, liver and lungs. Then it’s mixed with oatmeal, suet and other evil things. Although it sounds like poison, I can assure you it is far worse.
But other than haggis, the fare in Edinburgh was wonderful, whether at the hotel or pubs. And the scotch lived up to its name. There was one special distillation called, “As We Get It” - a single malt that is bottled straight from the cask. Unfiltered, no two bottlings are ever the same. Very peaty.
I sipped some under the watchful eye of Angus, my soundman. The client couldn’t pay to fly my crew over, so I had hired a couple of local lads. Everyone should, at some time, have a soundman named Angus. His mere presence brought a charming brogue to our sound recordings.
We stood on the Royal Mile, a grand road leading up to Edinburgh Castle. The city is centered around this fearless 1000 year-old fortress. But I am certain for some, the city is really centered around another historic fortress of refuge and sustenance. Yes, I’m talking about Harvey Nichols, the upscale 200 year-old department store.
It was here at Harvey Nichols that I actually did buy a tartan tie, some scarves and other plaid accessories for loved ones. It was also here that I came across my first paper note from the Royal Bank of Scotland. I didn’t even know they had their own currency.
That’s not all. They have their own Parliament and sometimes a visible distain for their English cousins. For instance, one of my crew scoffed that their currency wouldn’t even be recognized in England. To which he added some funny Scottish words about the English that sounded like a snorting hog rutting in a swampy bog. Still, I think I understood the gist.
It Was Almost Christmas
We were so far north the light faded around 3 in the afternoon. I stepped from Harvey Nichols and gazed up at Edinburgh Castle. The trees surrounding the fort framed its ancient structure in Christmas lights. Hard to believe this seasonal postcard was ground zero to many of the Wars of Scottish Independence and dozens of sieges. It’s said to be the most besieged structure in the U.K. Now it’s a tourist tableau of twinkling holiday lights.
But as beautiful as Edinburgh’s lit paths and warm welcoming pubs, there still exists here the wretched spaces of an historic dank underbelly.
Deep beneath the city lay the remains of underground vaults from the 1700’s. As part of our assignment, we descended to these underground remains to film them. Here lay a hell slum in tortured parallel to the illuminated world above. Families were crammed into these dark spaces with no other place to live. No light, no water, no sanitation but plenty of crime.
While some of the finest universities in Europe prospered in the city above, these urban caves were inhabited by generations of unfortunate souls.
Maybe it was the weight of the dark or the stale air. Or perhaps the place was filled with ghosts, but it felt like taking a tour of your own grave. I kept looking around for the exit.
“Ok, I think we got enough…”, I whispered to the crew before beating a retreat up the ancient stairs. Bumping into each other, they quickly followed me up to the light of the evening streets above.
Taking in deep winter breaths, we laughed, happy to leave the spooks below. Then we stomped down the merry lanes draped with seasonal cheer and soon retreated to a warm pub and some peaty drams. There, at the end of my journey, I took stock of the situation as I understood it.
There can be a bitter wind over Edinburgh and sometimes… it is just the wind. But sometimes it’s the fortunes of the centuries – pitiless domination, uneasy alliances, suffering. The good people of Edinburgh have overcome a brutal history with their love of culture, art, education and faith that we travel ever upward - surely that’s a fine message for the season.
Some years ago, a young woman down on her luck took refuge in the cafes here to seek calm and let her imagination rise to the levels this great city encouraged. She returned the favor and gave the world the gift of Harry Potter.
So I would say to that matron who asked if I thought Edinburgh was a place of barbarians, well maybe a little… but just enough to give rise to wonderful things.
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