Tuesday 12 December 2017

Edinburgh: Great Scot

There's far more to Edinburgh than a few weeks of festival, as Peter Geoghegan discovers

Views from Calton Hill
Views from Calton Hill

Peter Geoghegan

'I doubt I'll ever tire of Edinburgh," bestselling crime novelist Ian Rankin once wrote of his hometown. Standing atop Calton Hill, it's not difficult to see why Inspector Rebus' creator is so enamoured with Scotland's capital.

Down below, the historic Old Town, framed by the majestic Pentland hills, sprawls invitingly, and in the distance, the afternoon light bounces off the imperious Forth Road Bridge.

Slap bang in the centre of Edinburgh, Calton Hill feels a bit like an open-air museum of Scottish history. Formerly a site of public executions, this hilltop at the far end of Princes Street houses a pleasingly Catholic collection of iconic buildings and curious memorials -- from the Political Martyrs Monument, a tall, angular ashlar obelisk visible from most of the city, to St Andrew's House, headquarters of the Scottish government.

Rankin isn't the only Scottish writer with a fondness for "the Athens of the North". Robert Louis Stevenson, of 'Treasure Ireland' fame, celebrated the views from Calton Hill in his prose. Stevenson was musing in the middle of the 19th century, not long after an attempt to erect a facsimile of the Greek Parthenon on the hill's summit was abandoned due to lack of funds. To this day the National Monument -- known locally as Edinburgh's Folly -- remains unfinished, its imposing neo-classical columns popular with night-time revellers and tourists with a sense of adventure.

Thankfully, Edinburgh's frivolity is not confined to the ill-fated folly on the hill. This is a city jam-packed with arts, culture and entertainment, particularly in August, when just about every conceivable space -- from public toilets to residents' living rooms -- morphs into a venue as the world-renowned Festival kicks into life.

August in Edinburgh is quite simply the largest cultural happening anywhere in the world -- indeed, the Olympics and the World Cup are the only public events that sell more tickets.

The festival began life in 1947 when the Edinburgh International Festival was established to "provide a platform for the flowering of the human spirit", with classic and contemporary theatre, opera, music and dance all showcased. The International Festival is still going, but the more off-beat Fringe is Edinburgh's big festival draw today.

The world's largest comedy festival, past Fringe winners include Dylan Moran, David O'Doherty and Sean Hughes. Meanwhile, in the city's salubrious West End, the Edinburgh International Book Festival has progressed from a cocky wee upstart into one of the most popular and prestigious events on the literary calendar. This year's line-up features Roddy Doyle, Colm Tóibín and Kevin Barry.

Thankfully, the city's cultural life doesn't begin and end in late summer, as an evening passed in Sandy Bell's at any time of the year attests. Nestled at the edge of the Old Town's winding streets, the fabled Bell's is equally regarded for its pints of Deuchars IPA -- the light, hoppy warm ale popular across eastern Scotland -- as its traditional music.

Back in the 1960s, the bar was a favourite haunt for singers including Dick Gaughan and Hamish Henderson. Now the sessions are a little less intense -- and the political atmosphere less febrile -- but the musical quality is still high and the bar staff friendly.

Across the street from Bell's stands the architecturally unorthodox National Museum of Scotland. It was opened in 1998, on the eve of Scottish devolution. Prince Charles, one of the museum's patrons at the time, resigned in protest at the unabashedly modern Moray sandstone structure, connected by a series of internal walkways to the original Victorian museum and built to house the new national repository.

Sociologist David McCrone memorably described Scotland as a 'stateless nation', and wandering around the National Museum one gets a very real sense of the richness and complexity of Scottish history.

Among the collection are the Lewis Chessmen -- remarkable 12th-century chess pieces discovered in the titular island in the Outer Hebrides -- the bejewelled Hunterston Brooch and everything you've ever wanted to know about Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Jacobites.

It's not all ancient history, though. On one floor I bump, quite literally, into a rather creepy taxidermied sheep in a glass box, which on closer inspection turns out to be none other than Dolly, the world's first cloned mammal.

Edinburgh's charms are surprisingly subtle. Most first-time visitors fall head over heels for the narrow cobbled streets along the Royal Mile, with its formidable medieval façades and the imposing castle perched on the hill, or the lively, bustling nightlife of Rose and George Streets. But stray off the beaten track and you'll be rewarded by some unexpected, if less immediate, delights.

The so-called Scotsman Steps are a case in point. Hidden away at the side of the Scotsman Hotel on the corner of North Bridge, the city's main thoroughfare, this staircase is quite literally a work of art.

Long neglected, the steps were recently redesigned by Turner Prize-winning Scottish artist Martin Creed, who covered each one in a different colour of marble from a different part of the world. The result: a wonderfully quixotic shortcut to Waverley train station.

Art courses through Edinburgh's veins, and the city boasts one of the UK's liveliest gallery scenes outside of London. The Fruitmarket Gallery, near the rear entrance to Waverley, is a cutting-edge exhibition space (not to mention a great place to pause for tea and a scone). Set across two floors of a former fruit and vegetable market, the gallery has a well-earned reputation for innovative contemporary shows, while its bookstore is a veritable treasure trove of texts and fashionable art magazines.

The more conventional National Gallery is located halfway down Princes Street, but I head instead to Dean Village, a tree-lined neighbourhood about three miles from the city centre. Here, housed in yet another massive neo-classical building, is the Gallery of Modern Art. Its collection features work by Picasso, Mondrian, Matisse and Warhol.

In the adjacent Dean Gallery, the workshop of revered 20th-century Scottish sculptor Eduardo Paolozzi has been faithfully recreated, 'Star Wars' models and all.

Over the past decade, Edinburgh has become synonymous with one person or, more correctly, one fictional boy wizard -- Harry Potter, and his creator JK Rowling. But stepping out of Dean Gallery, past Charles Jencks' colossal landform sculpture, and on to an overgrown river walkway that runs alongside the Water of Leith calls to mind a very different writer -- Irvine Welsh -- with a markedly different vision of Edinburgh.

The Water of Leith, Edinburgh's largest river, snakes through the west of the city before reaching the sea in Leith, the port immortalised in Welsh's anarchic, gritty novels. The wild, drug-addled Leith of 'Trainspotting's' Mark Renton and Francis Begbie has been partially eclipsed, with the docks transformed into a vibrant strip throbbing with hip bars, trendy bistros and young professionals.

With its post-industrial charms and eclectic array of residents, Leith feels a lifetime away from the more established, old-world appeal of the Oxford Bar, where I spend one of my final evenings in Edinburgh.

The Oxford, a spit and sawdust boozer a few minutes' walk from Princes Street, has hardly changed since opening almost 200 years, but is best known today as the favourite watering hole of Edinburgh literary duo Ian Rankin and John Rebus. The great detective writer is often to be found supping a pint of Deuchars in the front bar, while up the back regulars discuss everything from politics to football.

The festival is away, but in the Oxford there's not a performer or a flyer in sight. I order another Deuchars and return to my Rebus novel. At this rate, I doubt if I'll ever tire of Edinburgh either.

The Edinburgh International Festival runs from now until September 4, 2011.

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