The third instalment of Intercity involves our nation’s capital, Edinburgh, the city of my birth and my primary school years, a place I still spend a lot of time in despite living in Glasgow. In thinking about an Edinburgh street for this series, I went through a few contenders but in the end I chose the street I associate most with Edinburgh, for good or ill. Most people know it as the Royal Mile but I refer to it the same way as the Royal Mail does: the High Street. The High Street, as most Scots could probably tell you, leads from Edinburgh Castle to the Palace of Holyroodhouse, a distance of roughly 1,600 yards, funnily enough. I was in Edinburgh one bright and cold Sunday morning in December and decided to take advantage of the nice weather and the time I had to kill by getting this over and done with. I avoid the High Street as much as possible. It is invariably crowded and saturated in tartan. The best time to give it a bodyswerve is normally August, at the height of the Festival circus, but in recent years, it hasn’t dissipated much across the year, even on a baltic Sunday in December.
I walked up the Esplanade, dodging every second person who had a phone in their hand and every third one of those in selfie mode. Edinburgh Castle isn’t my favourite castle in Scotland, it isn’t even my favourite castle in Edinburgh but to be fair it does look the part. I focused my attention on looking left and right, into the sun towards Arthur’s Seat and the other way across to Fife. As I processed down Castlehill, nearly taking to the road to dodge the phone cameras, I went into psychogeographic mode, appreciating the architecture and quietly observing the masses as they passed. It being December, the kilt count was impressively low, the owner a young blonde guy with a beard. He looked like a tour guide so it was probably work attire. There were a lot of people with tartan somewhere on their person. For once I was one of them, since I was on the way to the football and my Hibs scarf is a tartan one. By the Assembly Hall an older gent was singing, the Skye Boat Song, as it happens, not unpleasantly with an accent which reflected more diverse origins, possibly Cornwall.
A few selfies were happening by the David Hume statue. What he would have said about this whole spectacle, I wonder. A quick Google uncovered this quote: “Reading and sauntering and lounging and dosing, which I call thinking, is my supreme Happiness.” Meanwhile I was struck by the sight of a huge Saltire flying over Parliament House. It might even have been bigger than the monstrosity that flies outside Trump Turnberry and that’s saying something, an unusually ostentatious gesture from Edinburgh’s legal establishment. I looked fleetingly at the Adam Smith statue further down and longer at the City Chambers and the buildings around it which house City Council offices with their fine carvings and features. As I walked further down I paused frequently to look at the many informative plaques, including one marking part of the Elsie Inglis heritage trail, and the many showy older buildings on that stretch of the High Street, stopping longest by John Knox House.
I find the part of the High Street furth of the World’s End pub most interesting, mostly because it is lived in and not as touristy. Mostly, for since my last trip down there, offices belonging to the homelessness charity Streetwork had turned into a hotel. (Streetwork does also have premises on South Bridge and near Holyrood, incidentally, but the irony was not missed.) The High Street is what a lot of people associate Scotland with and it leaves me slightly nauseous. It is one facet, one very commercialised part of a much more nuanced picture that also includes Govanhill, Ferguslie, Raploch, Lochee and many other places. This might have occurred to the architects of the Scottish Parliament, an institution which makes much of being closer to its electorate than many other legislatures. I often like to read the quotes on the Canongate Wall by the Parliament and on this occasion one from Mary Brooksbank felt most apposite:
‘Oh, dear me, the warld’s ill-divided,
Them that work the hardest are aye wi’ least provided,
But I maun bide contented, dark days or fine,
But there’s no much pleasure livin’ affen ten and nine.’
I think I was also grumpy because I had clocked a Celtic scarf being sold outside a tartan shop but gratifyingly a Hibs one was also there. My walk down the Canongate had included encountering a man with his arm around the Robert Fergusson statue, deep in selfie mode, and passing the traditional Royal Mile Primary School, a sense of a community in these surroundings, a day-to-day beyond the hype.
Psychogeography interests me because it involves looking at the urban in greater depth, looking beyond the obvious. Edinburgh is a city of hidden depths, a mad God’s dream, to quote Hugh MacDiarmid, a place which combines wealth and poverty, substance and lots of stories and legends barely skating the surface of what actually happened. The High Street is the Royal Mile, some bits the Lawnmarket, others the Canongate. In one street it conveys a lot of how people see our country, tartan, historic, romantic. Scotland is all of these things but many more besides, to be experienced by walking on and beyond this street, this city, this coast sometimes. Life is beyond.
Thanks for reading. This is the third instalment of the Intercity series here on Walking Talking. The first two involved Glasgow and Stirling. Another will follow next week.