Doug and I left the train at the end of the line, in Waverly Station. Walking out of the depot and glimpsing Edinburgh for the first time, I understood why my sister had made sure I didn’t miss it.
A block to the left was Market Street in the Old Town, which meandered up a long, gradual hill toward Edinburgh Castle. One block to the right was the New Town (as old as the United States), fronted by Princes Street, boasting stores equal to 5th Avenue shopping in New York.
“What do you want to do first?” Doug asked. The smile on his face as he surveyed our surroundings was indescribable: somewhere between bliss and euphoria, but I was sure he didn’t want to shop. “Are you hungry?”
He was much too polite to say so, but this was his way of conveying, ’I’m hungry. Let’s eat.’ It had been almost seven hours since we grabbed a quick breakfast before starting our long car journey.
“I could eat,” I replied. That decided, the next hurdle presented itself: where to eat. This was too much like being married.
We were standing in front of a Chinese buffet, which normally I would go for, but I was afraid that stuffing myself with egg rolls and General Tso’s chicken wasn’t the best way to start a full afternoon of sightseeing. Two pubs sat side-by-side a block away on Market Street.
“Let’s try one of those,” I decided, pointing at them. “As long as it has a bathroom, it will do for me.”
We walked into the left-hand building, the Doric pub, which was full of rugby fans. A table of green-clad Irish, who had obviously sampled generous portions of beer, joyously sang a team song. Navy blue kilted Scottish competitors across the bar started their own chant when the Irish finished. As we took our seats at the window, all the fans clamored for one last bathroom visit before heading to the stadium.
The place was strangely silent after it emptied while we perused the menu. “I just want a cheeseburger,” I said. Doug agreed it was a good choice and we headed to the bar to place our orders.
I’m not sure if it was the atmosphere or ravenous hunger, but the food served us there was absolutely the best we had eaten since our arrival in Britain. The cheeseburger was perfectly well done, yet juicy, and the ‘chips’ were freshly cut potato wedges instead of the usual frozen kind. I felt like licking the plate when I finished, but I didn’t want to ruin my classy tourist image by acting like the hillbilly I really am.
Bellies full, we set out so see what the city had to offer.
We looked in shop windows trudging up the steep hill of picturesque Cockburn Street, then made a right turn at the corner to head up toward the castle on High Street, better known as ‘The Royal Mile’. The sun, which had been peeking out earlier, had left completely and a cold, biting wind grew steadily stronger.
Along the way, the ancient architecture demanded that I stop every so often to capture an image of a city so beautiful I doubted it would ever fade from my memory. Many of the buildings’ soot coatings had been cleaned: some completely restored to their natural beige stone color, and others mostly clean, with a few strategically darker shaded blocks left untouched.
Edinburgh was a city seemingly stopped in an ancient time, yet life within it provided a constantly changing parade of oddness.
On the right side of the street, a bagpipe player in full regalia whined out a constant background noise. Further up the street on the left, we encountered a beautiful lady in theatrical makeup standing completely still, wearing a long red gown and a red, veiled hat with a rose.
She came to life as we watched, handing a flower to a man standing near her, then twirling and dancing for a moment, before coming to a stop in the same still pose she had started from. At her feet was a memory from my childhood: a music box with a ballerina that dances when the box is opened. The mime’s attire matched the ballerina’s exactly.
Directly across the street from her stood a man having his picture taken with tourists. If I squinted a bit and turned my head ever so slightly, his blue and white painted face was a fair imitation of Mel Gibson’s ‘Braveheart’. After capturing him on pixel, we panted on up the hill to the castle entrance.
Up close, we could see details that went undetected from the city below. The castle’s stone-block walls were atop natural stone jutting out of the ground and it was impossible to tell where the natural seamed into the man-made. Bronze statues of Robert the Bruce and William Wallace, set back in niches, guarded the castle on either side of the gatehouse.
We spent a couple of hours touring the public portions of the castle and just before leaving entered the Crown room where the ‘Honours’, a crown, sword, and scepter, Scotland’s older version of England’s ‘Crown Jewels’, were displayed. Before leaving, the ever-shy Doug struck up a conversation with a young lady dressed in black standing off to the side of the exhibit, who I assumed was a museum employee.
She explained the checkered history of the Honours, and the Stone of Destiny. Also on display, it was a large nondescript grey rock on which Scottish rulers sat during their coronation. According to her, current provisions allow it to be ‘loaned’ to England’s Westminster Abbey for future British coronations: as long as it was returned within five days.
“What happens if it isn’t returned on time?” I had to ask.
“Oh, there’s no problem with that. It will be,” she replied, as if it were under her control.
Outside, after we got a few feet away from the building, Doug asked if I had seen her gun.
“Gun?” I asked, stupidly.
“Yeah. She was some sort of Scottish secret service agent, not a tour guide. She said if anyone attempted to steal one of the Honours, she had the authority to shoot them.”
I was glad the notion hadn’t occurred to me.
During the hours we had spent in the castle’s museums it had gotten even colder, and at the top of the city the icy wind was numbing. Off in the distance, a cold, grey mist had settled over the bay. My camera even asked to be put away, as the images it focused on were too dreary to capture, even from atop cannons peeking through openings in the castle’s outside wall.
“I think some hot tea would be good about now,” Doug said, and I agreed.
Just down the hill was a cozy looking place called The Elephant House. A poster on the front window of the cafe invited visitors inside to ‘experience the same atmosphere that J. K. Rowling did as she mulled over a coffee writing her first Harry Potter novel’.
The boast was worded so oddly that I picked up a brochure to take home for later research. Internet digging yielded proof of the claim. Just think, I may have chosen the same chair her rear end once graced, but I’d bet mine covered more of it.
I was hoping some ghost of her talent lingered to possess me as we sat at the cafe window, eating lemon cakes and drinking our tea, admiring the unwashed side entrance of the massive High Kirk of St. Giles across the street. Overhead, the guitar riff locomotive of Folsom Prison Blues suddenly flooded the room.
Doug and I looked at each other and smiled. Here we sat, drinking Earl Grey tea in Edinburgh, Scotland, a place we had never imagined visiting in our wildest dreams, listening to Johnny Cash.
The feeling the entire setting provided was akin to the Twilight Zone, but the strangest moment of the day awaited us further down the hill and around the corner, in the Museum of Scotland, where we watched a large, stuffed animal in a brightly lit glass case turn slowly on a pedestal.
“Is that what I think it is?” Doug asked, with a bewildered look on his face.
We leaned closer to read the inscription. It was Dolly, the cloned sheep, in the flesh, even if she was no longer alive. Once a scientific marvel, she had aged too quickly and died young. I didn’t remember ever hearing that part.
Thousands of miles in a jet, four-and-a-half hours by car, and a thirty-minute train ride had brought us to this pinnacle of Scottish history.
We weren’t worthy, but we kneeled at the sheep’s throne and took pictures anyway.