This is a longer, earlier draft of a piece on Edinburgh I had published in the Telegraph a few years back…
Far to the east the guano-spattered Bass Rock glints in a shaft of sunlight. Edinburgh and the shiny new apartments of Leith lie across the sparkling waters. The train rattles and chugs along the Fife coast, past shipyards and rippled sands and onto the Forth Rail Bridge. There are fantastic black and white photographs of men walking the girders of the bridge. The men wear no harnesses and flat caps rather than hard hats. Ocean-going liners and warships, far below them, appear in miniature like toys in a bath.
It’s a rare, still day in Edinburgh. The Saltire flaps from the battlements and the skirl of pipes drifts from Princes Street as I climb the steps out of Waverley station. A crowd of Japanese tourists is pointing at the Scott Monument. The guy in the booth tries to explain it is 287 steps to the top. As he does so a smiling face leans out from the top and waves and the Nikons and Canons flash in unison.
Princes Street is being dug up for the trams. The project has divided the city, but the Council is on a PR offensive with crayoned images of smiling schoolchildren and banners that read: ‘Making tracks for the future.’ Princes Street has more than its share of souvenir shops. Scotland’s identity has been packaged in fudge and whisky and tartan and shortbread and comic ginger wigs. The Skye Boat song plays endlessly and a video shows pensioners singing along with their arms linked.
I cross Princes Street Gardens and stride up Cockburn Street, leaning into the steep hill and panting as I turn onto the Royal Mile. A man dressed like a highwayman and sprayed head-to-toe in silver paint doffs his hat to passing tourists. There is a tinkle of coins at the foot of his plinth. He replaces his hat, tucks a hand into his lapel and freezes once more. Women in pink foam cowboy hats and tartan mini-skirts giggle and point. One takes aim with a water pistol but Dick Turpin doesn’t flinch. Edinburgh is in the grip of Regency fever. Men in breeches and triangular hats hand out flyers and women in velvet dresses and lace bonnets curtsey. It’s like being on the set of an Adam and the Ants video. I take a flyer and step into Mary King’s Close. The entrance is through a draughty courtyard where an American family is huddled close, sipping coffee from paper cups.
The tour begins with a map of 17th century Edinburgh. Land was at a premium because the locals were forced to build inside the City walls seeking protection from invading English armies. A side profile of Edinburgh would show the Royal Mile at the crest of a ridge with steep slopes falling away to either side. Houses were built with an increasing number of storeys, with some reaching sixteen storeys in parts of the city. The Scots were doing skyscrapers when New York was still a swamp.
Our guide plays the role of Mary King’s daughter. She has a twinkle in her eye and doesn’t overplay the whole accent and mannerisms bit. We descend a creaking wooden staircase into the rooms below what is now the Council Chambers. The air is dry and fusty and has asthmatics patting their inhalers for reassurance. It smells of dust and a little damp; not unlike opening a long-forgotten chest in the attic. The cobbles below our feet are original. There is a cow byre with large, smooth stones for slaughtering. A neat U-shaped channel has been carved into the stone for collecting blood.
‘If it’s not contaminated it’s taken away for puddings,’ our guide says.
An American tourist nudges his wife. What kind of country eats dessert made from cow’s blood?
We head down further and into an old room where the plaster is crumbling and made from bone and horsehair. In a poor room we see where plague victims were laid out. I can’t stand upright. I’m forced to stoop and the rough, cool plaster touches my neck causing me to shudder. There is an oil lamp that provides scant light. It is bleak and enclosed and there could have been twenty to a room like this. We are led into a room and the faint lights are killed. A ghost story is read in the portentous, mournful tones of Fraser from Dad’s Army as silhouettes dance across the whitewashed brickwork. Edinburgh is a city of secrets. Prostitutes, crooks, lawyers, doctors and body-snatchers lived cheek by jowl. Perhaps the main class distinction was daylight. Some walked in rags through streams of raw sewage, while others sipped coffee in sedan chairs far above.