By Alexander McCall Smith
Edinburgh seduces. It is not the only city to do that, but it has a particular, romantic charm that led Charlotte Brontë to say that if London was prose, then Edinburgh was poetry. In our own times, it has been described by the Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid as a ‘mad god’s dream’. It is certainly not a place to which people can be indifferent; it is a city of extraordinary architectural surprises, made up simultaneously of order and confusion – classical in parts, in others an eccentric warren of winding streets and hidden squares. No, one cannot visit it and feel dull or dispirited – as Evelyn Waugh observed in one of his novels, Edinburgh vibrates.
I live in this city by choice. At times, I have longed for a warmer climate and have thought about living somewhere like Western Australia or Italy, but then I walk through the city to the Georgian New Town, where my Scotland Street novels are set – and I realise that there are very few places in this world where one can experience the pleasure of living on what seems like an opera set and simultaneously feel that you are part of the opera. Edinburgh gives us exactly that feeling.
I like to walk across the city, crossing the High Street, the main thoroughfare in the Old Town, and then make my way past the National Gallery of Scotland to Hanover Street and beyond. The gallery is one of Scotland’s greatest treasures. It is not very large in comparison with some of the galleries in European capitals, but the paintings are displayed in an exquisite setting – the legacy of the flair of Sir Timothy Clifford, who was until recently the gallery’s director. That is one of the delights of Edinburgh – its numerous colourful inhabitants who, in contrast to the rarefied world of their equivalents in bigger cities, are here very much on show. Edinburgh is an intimate city, and there are few places better for people-watching, because people here have, on the whole, rather a lot of character.
The brow of Hanover Street, with Dundas Street descending towards the shores of the Firth of Forth, offers what I consider to be the finest view in Edinburgh. On either side of the road are the elegant Georgian façades of New Town tenement buildings while, ahead, under a constantly moving sky of blue, white, purple – it changes so quickly, like the backdrop of a fevered play – are the hills of Fife. Such scenes, breathtaking in their beauty, are a constant companion on any walk.
And romance is everywhere. This is a city in which historical associations abound. It is the city of Mary Queen of Scots, that tragic figure, and the city into which Bonnie Prince Charlie rode in triumph. A trip to the incomparable National Museum of Scotland in Chambers Street and the Palace of Holyroodhouse brings this history vividly to life. And, curiously, it does not seem in the least bit distant. Somehow, in Edinburgh, these old things seem to have happened only the day before yesterday. David Hume, the greatest philosopher to have written in English, walked the streets you tread here, the very same stones. Robert Burns too. And you feel their presence.
But it is not all poetry and philosophy – Edinburgh is crammed with restaurants and atmospheric bars, and shops selling everything from Scottish tweed to imported exotica are at every turn. Don’t miss: the Scottish Gallery on Dundas Street, run by Guy Peploe, the grandson of the great Scottish artist SJ Peploe; Mary Contini’s Valvona and Crolla, at the head of Leith Walk – a temple to Italian culinary culture; and the Oxford Bar, the haunt of Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus. A week is fine; a month, a year, a lifetime even better.
Alexander McCall Smith’s latest book, Tea Time for the Traditionally Built (£14.99, Little, Brown), the tenth in the No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, is published this month.
British Airways flies to Edinburgh from London Gatwick and Heathrow. Book a flight on ba.com now.
Read on for Barbara Trapido's Durham, Lucy Cavendish's Exmoor and Robert Macfarlane's Snowdonia.
One of Scotland's most beautiful islands is finally accessible again. Read about it here.