From Iceland — Not a Kilt in Sight

Not a Kilt in Sight

Published February 10, 2006

With an American espresso franchise on every corner, Princes Street – Edinburgh’s main shopping district – is a fine testament to the corporate stranglehold modern cities endure. White-collar professionals strut purposefully towards the next bank or solicitor’s firm, with their Case Logic on their shoulder. Inside the cafés, men and women in suits have gathered with laptops for working lunches and coffee breaks. There is not a kilt in sight. In fact, the tartan-clad souvenir shops offer the only suggestions that we are actually in Scotland, rather than any other shopping street on the Western hemisphere.
We make our escape to the parallel Rose Street. From an elderly woman heading for a bible study group in a nearby congregation home, we learn that Rose Street is actually referred to as Pub Street by the locals. There is a good reason for this alternative name. The white-collar community is thirsty once the eight hours are up. Along Rose Street, pubs and casinos line up next to each other for what could be an interesting pub walk.
Booze and Castles, the Royal Mile
Edinburgh Castle is the city’s most distinctive landmark and remains the most visited historic building in Scotland. It sits on top of a volcanic crag overlooking the Princes Street Gardens and borders on the most touristy section of Edinburgh, the Royal Mile, offering a great viewpoint over the city, especially over New Town. Within the sturdy castle walls, this is the best place to celebrate Scottish military history: Museums and various collages demonstrate the Scotsman at war. Scotland has been a fertile recruiting ground for the British Army through the centuries, and one gets the impression that it has something to do with the tradition of the Highlander. A number of recruiting stations dot the Royal Mile, with one recruiter explaining to me that being in the army is a wonderful opportunity, “and it’s good pay for a single lad.”
“There is no such thing as the best whisky,” the shopkeeper tells us at the Scotch Whisky Heritage Centre when we ask him for recommendations. “The best is simply what agrees with your taste.”
He proudly presents us with two bottles of The Balvenie Cask 191, which sells at £6000 a bottle and explains that “although it is the most expensive, it is not guaranteed to blow your socks off.” However, he says, “For £6000, I’ll throw you in a Coke to mix it with.” We all agree that this is a very good deal, and I decide to venture away from the touristy area.
Home to Trainspotting and Flat Screens
“Royal Mile is just for tourists. If you really want to get to know Edinburgh you do the Leith Walk” the bartender at The Doric, an upscale bar on Market Street tells me as he draws me an 80/- from a hand-pumped nozzle. His two customers agree. “If you want a shag, you go to Leith, that’s where the prostitutes are,” another one of them tells me.
The bartender and his customers continue to convey their knowledge of some of the more under-the-table attractions available in Scotland and Leith in particular. They warn us not to try the absinthe, “at least not without the sugar” the bartender insists. And we should be very careful if we are offered poteen, Irish moonshine made from potatoes. “Treat that with respect,” the bartender emphasises, “that drink will go straight to your head and make you crazy.” They all agree on the dangers of poteen. One of them tells us a story of waking up after a night of drinking poteen to have a glass of water, only to become immediately hammered again, just from the water. Naturally, we head off for Leith.
The town of Leith merged with the city of Edinburgh in 1920, but it has served as the city’s main harbour for centuries. Leith has long been known as Edinburgh’s poor district, a residential area for the lower classes. Ravished with poverty and beset with crime, Trainspotting’s author, Irvine Welsh, was born and raised in Leith and his renowned book is set in these streets.
In the last few years, a part of Leith has witnessed an extensive revival. Down by the harbours, big development projects are under way. Seaside locations, and the continuing rise of property prices in Edinburgh have made Leith a fashionable alternative among younger professionals. But so far, this only holds true for a small section of Leith. And, as one resident of Edinburgh told us, “You still have to go through the poor part to get to the rich part.”
We head down the Leith Walk, a long commercial street leading from Edinburgh centre into Leith. As we further descend towards the town’s centre, the shift in economic standings becomes obvious. Gone are the fancy cafés and fashion shops that cater to the upper-end clientele and tourists in central Edinburgh, instead we find seedy bars, hotdog stands and tattoo parlours. This is obviously a part of Leith that has not been deemed worthy by the multinationals, stuck in a no-man’s land between the revitalised northern Leith and Edinburgh centre.
We enter a dimly-lit sailor bar along Leith Walk, called The Old Salt. It’s still early in the afternoon, but here we find a group of people enjoying Polish karaoke. In between serving drinks, the barmaid springs in front of the counter and performs one Polish hit after another. “We’re having a Polish night on Friday,” she explains. “I want to be prepared.”
“The money has always come through Leith, down at the harbours. But it never stops here, it all goes to Edinburgh,” a man at a Leith local tells me. “And now the yuppies are running us out. A few years ago, I bought a flat in Leith for £24,000. And I did that on social security. Now it would cost me £130,000,” he explains. “And still it is cheaper to pay of a mortgage than it is to rent. Ordinary Leith people just can’t afford to live here anymore.”
According to the newspaper the Scotsman, he is right. Property prices in Leith have surged with annual increases of up to 33% in the last 15 years, freezing many first-time buyers out of the market. With Edinburgh’s increasing role as a financial centre, and the recent addition of the Scottish parliament, which attracts even more white-collar workers, Leith’s central location is too convenient for it to remain an impoverished area.
How Do You Say Auld Lang Syne in Zealandic?
Harriet Michaels: Do you actually like haggis?
Charlie Mackenzie: No, I think it’s repellent in every way. In fact, I think most Scottish cuisine is based on a dare.
– So I Married an Axe Murdered (Thomas Schlamme, 1993)
Our purpose in Edinburgh is to witness Burns Night, the anniversary of the national poet, Robert Burns. The celebration has become a second national day for the Scots. When done properly, Burns dinner follows a strict ritual, including recitals of Burns’s poetry. In particular, his Address To a Haggis, an ode to the Scottish national dish that Burns cherished deeply. This is followed by drinking whisky, eating haggis, more whisky, more poetry and more whisky. A particularly well-executed Burns supper would likely include a fight as well. In short, it is a celebration of all things Scottish.
Although it is not a celebration of the food, but a celebration of the poems, the haggis is an integral part of the proceedings: “Haggis is fairly mainstream now, it is not seen as some disgusting old food you would only ever eat on Burns Night. It is not a bizarre thing to eat,” one of the locals says to me. I remain unconvinced. The main ingredients of the haggis are the sheep’s heart, liver and lungs, served in the sheep’s stomach. It looks about as tasty as it sounds and from the moment I arrived in Scotland, I was torn between my curiosity to actually try it and the nausea the idea creates.
We have made various inquiries about Burns gatherings since our arrival, but everywhere we turn, people and formal societies have planned their celebrations for Saturday, rather than the actual Burns Night itself, which falls on a Wednesday night. At last we head off to try to find a restaurant that will to serve us with a resemblance of an actual Burns supper. At least a portion of haggis and a glass of whisky, poetry be damned.
After several unsuccessful tries and a round trip through Edinburgh, we find ourselves at the Stac Polly, a restaurant specialising in traditional Scottish food. We are treated to a five-course special Burns Night menu. I ask the waitress if she could recite some poetry for us. “I am sorry,” she sighs, “I’m from New Zealand, I don’t know any Scottish poetry,” drowning our last hope for a conventional Burns celebration.
After finishing our traditional starter, a tasty soup called Cullen Skink made from smoked haddock, potatoes, and onions, we face the moment of truth. Our haggis arrives, complete with the obligatory neeps and tatties, i.e. mashed potatoes and turnips. After a momentary hesitation, I dig in. The taste is nowhere near a vile as I had imagined. In fact, it washes down surprisingly well with the whisky. Following the haggis is the Angus beef, a fine testimony to Scottish farmers.
The Tartan Image Unfolds
The wind has turned on our last day in Edinburgh. There is a cool sea breeze and seagulls fill the air over Princes Street. As I reflect on my stay in Edinburgh I am reminded of a conversation I had in Iceland just before my departure with Gary West, a lecturer in Scottish ethnology at the University of Edinburgh.
“The imagery of the Scottish traditions belongs to the marketing people,” he said. “We have constructed an image of ourselves through films and books and tourist brochures and the image we sell is this stereotypical image of bagpipes and tartan and haggis and whisky and romantic scenery and romantic violent history. You know, these sort of icons.”
I’ve found much truth in Gary’s words. There is an unbelievable number of tourist shops and attractions in Edinburgh that try to sell this particular image, and it is easy to get caught up in it and think of this as Scotland. But once you look beyond that, a different Scotland emerges. Down in Leith where the residents fear for the survival of their community, amongst the booming middle class that services the financial and political sectors and the elderly ladies that attend bible study classes, the image of Scotland as a tartan-clad, bagpipe playing, whisky drinking, haggis eating nation, remains just that: an image.

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