Picture the lovechild of a fluorescent tube and a patch of moss. That’s the pigment and vibrancy of Scottish parks eleven months of the year, from the wet but mild climate. This January, however, public spaces here in Scotland’s fairy-tale-elegant capital Edinburgh (“BRR-ugh” not “borrow”) are limned with frost. Unseasonable cold’s nailed home by sharp winds. Locals do whatever to stay warm. That man’s ears are visible between slits in his blue and white toque. Is he wearing a tea cozy?
A warm welcome to the first of several stories discovering spaces, relationships and revelations around Europe over the next few months. My wife’s a postgrad at the University of Edinburgh; I’ve tagged along. Though obvious visitors, we both have Scottish relatives and know this cultural epicentre well. Auld Reekie, a nickname medieval Edinburgh earned from its stench, is home between odd jaunts to continental hubs: Naples, Istanbul, Amsterdam — probably Berlin. But first, let’s flee these piercing gusts and explore Edinburgh’s preeminent summer draw.
Festival City: No happening in the English-speaking world outperforms Edinburghin August.
You’ve doubtless heard of Edinburgh’s Fringe Festival. Thousands of small performances in theatres, halls, libraries, tents, squares and streets, it’s inspired such festivals worldwide. (A google reveals over twenty Fringes in Canada alone.) Though huge, the Fringe is just one of Edinburgh’s mostly concurrent arts festivals. It grew up on, y’ know, the fringe. But by 2019, this city of not 500,000 hosted over 3 million Fringe visitors during three weeks.
Why did the Fringe become the main event? Its shows were cheap*. Or free. That’s why their quality ranges from sublime to submachine-gun worthy. I’ve probably seen over 50 since my first visit in 1986. The best ever? In Loyal Company. This one-man tribute to a teenage WWII volunteer from Liverpool, the actor/writer’s great uncle, breaks hearts. Waggish Private Joe gives his jolly best — enduring years of unspeakable horrors in occupied Burma — only to return home, enfeebled, where he gradually drowns from TB in his lungs. You go from loudly rooting to openly weeping for Joe in 50 devastating minutes.
50 minutes? Fringe shows are never longer than an hour. So, if you’re feeling greedy and don’t mind risking seeing something awful, you could take in four or five a day.
Or … on a tight budget and timeline? Plan to visit mid-Festival. By then the early reviews are out celebrating the worthiest pieces, but the streets have yet to become … sticky. It’s a symptom of success. Last summer, the Festival completely reopened for the first time since before COVID amid fast-rising inflation. Then the garbage crews went on strike. See above re 3 million over three weeks and Auld Reekie. Nae bother! Just point up and hold your nose to attain your fairy tale selfie.
We’ll revisit Edinburgh’s arts festivals later. Right now: are those tipsy strains of Auld Lang Syne you’re hearing?
“Hogmanay” is Scotland’s capital holiday (and Edinburgh is Scotland’s capital)
Take May Two-Four, add Christmas, a grownup’s naughty Halloween, plus your nineteenth birthday. That’s Hogmanay, the Scottish word New Year. But beware: those visions of kilted gingers two-stepping to hiddley-hiddling fiddles amid a funk of single malt are more myth and romanticized marketing — possibly the product of celebrated author Sir Walter Scott.
But Scottish people’s love of New Year is genuine, often excessive. And be warned: word’s spread. Hordes of out-of-country visitors (albeit like us) invade Edinburgh like berserk Vikings to co-celebrate Hogmanay. By noon December 29, the Royal Mile’s a veritable Babel Tower. Foreign revellers drag clackety wheelie cases across the ancient cobblestoned streets, pursuing selfies in the many pedestrian closes and wynds.
By noon December 31, there isn’t room to swing a haggis. Barriers have been set up around the heart of town. Here’s where Edinburgh’s Insta-friendly Castle, Tron Square and Princes Street Gardens host tourists year-round. But tonight? Would-be visitors pay £27.50 ($45ish Canadian) just to pass these barriers … and remain outdoors in a huge pen. Better still, for £70 you can attend an outdoor concert below the castle featuring, ahem, The Pet Shop Boys.
Bizarrely, it’s all sold out. Did we mention you’re outdoors? See above re excess and first time since COVID! Now, see the bits about this winter’s weather and lungs full of TB! By 5pm December 31, the rain’s hammering Thor’s vengeance on the lucky revellers. Imagine paying $115 to be crammed and jostled about in an atmospheric river of sideways rain that won’t quite wash away the zesty omnipresent whiff of vomit, while The Pet Shop Boys smirk through their timely hit, Let’s Make Lots of Money.
Happy New Year!
Thank heaven we avoided this masochism. Instead, we’re invited to my wife’s cousin’s dinner party in the north end of town. There are zero kilts or hiddley-fiddling but plenty of sparkling wine and conversation, a smorgasbord of tempting courses, and constant eye-watering laughs.
Just before midnight, Cousin Hazel (aka Purple Hazel!) bundles us twelve guests from the table to the parlour where we watch the barricaded centre of town’s soaking countdown, fireside, on widescreen.
Then, yes, they — actually, we — do tipsily sing Auld Lang Syne. I ask what “a cup o’ kindness” is and how one takes it. Hazel wordlessly nods then refills my glass. I’m brimming with bonhomie from such cups plus schadenfreude, having avoided the expensive countdown to Hogmothermia. The glow brings to mind a scene from years ago when I first met Cousin Hazel and asked that other question you’re probably wondering: just WTF does Auld Lang Syne mean?
“Loosely translated, it means ‘old long since’.” Is that helpful? No. Fun? Definitely! Even in fairly-tale cities, the people are the best tourist attractions.
* Locals complain that shows have become uncomfortably expensive. If it sucks, you’ve just wasted £15 (about CA$25).