How is it possible for a city to be both blazingly public and intensely private at the self-same time? Somehow Edinburgh manages the feat, even in August, with festivals all go and the population almost double the norm.
This quirk is something I’ve explored many times in my novels, because to me it says lots about the very nature of Edinburgh and how it came to be the way it is. The Scottish capital is bursting with stories, but sometimes you have to tease them out. Its history seems apparent from the moment you arrive, yet there are things you’ll never see unless you know where to look – or get lucky. I’ve lived here more than half my life, yet can’t claim anything close to an encyclopaedic knowledge of the place.
Even when the city swells with hundreds of thousands of visitors, it’s possible to escape and discover a quieter, quirkier city just minutes from the jugglers, fire-eaters and myriad other performers who flock to the world’s largest arts festival.
Maybe it is all an accident of history and geology. In times past, while invading armies prepared to strike, the denizens would secrete themselves in tunnels dug beneath Castle Rock and the Old Town.
You can still get a sense of this underground existence by visiting the Blair Street Vaults or Mary King’s Close (where narrow streets with houses on either side housed citizens during the 16th and 17th centuries).
When the invaders arrived, they’d find the city empty. It was easy for them to ransack and loot, but they would soon get tired of this and march back out the way they’d come, at which point the citizens would rise up from their underground hiding places.
Edinburgh has always seemed to me a furtive place. Throughout history it has made its money from invisible industries such as banking and insurance. And while the city has been known to celebrate its success stories (the Scott Monument, a memorial to the great novelist Walter Scott) and flag up folly (the unfinished “Parthenon” on Calton Hill), it is not a place where people flaunt their talents. You don’t see many Ferraris – the wealth sits quietly behind the New Town’s thick Georgian walls.
I always envy the first-timer who arrives by train. As you ascend from the platform to Waverley Bridge, Castle Rock catches your eye and, stabbing the sky below it, the Gothic spire of the Scott Monument. Waverley Station is named after Sir Walter Scott’s first novel, a sensation when published in 1814.
It was Scott, incidentally, who popularised tartan as part of the Scottish national identity in the 1820s and who, when later he faced humiliating bankruptcy, did the honourable thing and wrote book after book until his debts were cleared.
Edinburgh was once called a city of “public probity and private vice” and this still rings true, though the “probity” tag has lost some lustre since the near-collapse of the Royal Bank of Scotland, one of the city’s biggest employers, which recorded the UK’s largest-ever corporate loss during the financial crisis before being rescued by the government.
But visitors to Edinburgh, if they stick to the main tourist routes, will be seeing only the city’s most public side. Travel just a little further afield and you can widen your appreciation. That’s why, on a blustery day, I set out from the Oxford Bar for a walk.
This isn’t a random starting point. I discovered it as a young writer. I’d invented a character called Detective Inspector John Rebus, and he needed a place to hang out. The Oxford Bar is central (Young Street is a two-minute walk from Princes Street), yet hidden. It is small, but contains the widest possible cross-section of Edinburgh life.
As I walk in, there are a few nods of greeting (nothing too effusive). Kirsty behind the bar has guessed that I’ll want a pint of Deuchars India Pale Ale. Edinburgh at one time had more than 40 breweries – the Scottish Parliament sits on the remains of one of them. These days, though, there is just the one. It’s called the Caledonian Brewery, and that’s where my IPA was made – about 3km from here as the crow flies.
The “Ox” is run by Harry Cullen. Harry used to sing in a folk group (though he won’t thank me for publicising the fact), and has a fund of stories of his own. In fact, everyone I have ever met in the Oxford Bar has a story to tell. I ask Harry today if any Rebus fans have been in. He rolls his eyes.
“Two of them took photos – without buying a drink!” He then asks me if I’m having another. I shake my head.
“Things to do,” I say by way of apology.
“That’s my profits shot,” he mutters, polishing a glass.