The pub where everybody knows a song
In Edinburgh, drinking is about more than just fine whiskey. It’s about community.
Hello Edinburgh, capital of a Scotland that grows in self-confidence and embraces its national identity as it gains more independence from the United Kingdom. Its "Royal Mile" of shops sells instantly recognizable Scottish icons such as tartan and kilts to the more than three million visitors who come every year, attracted by events such as the Edinburgh Festival, the world's largest arts festival.
At a buzzing bar behind the new Scottish Parliament building, the wait staff struggle to keep up with the demand for cocktails and Smorgasbord platters. The whitewood tables are littered with cellphones and PCs, and the young clientele would look at home in almost any other major city. This is modern Edinburgh, whose arts festival is the world’s largest and whose self- confidence is brimming as the capital of a country flirting with full independence from “English” rule.
A mile away, at the top of the Royal Mile, the gates of Edinburgh Castle are guarded by two ancient heroes of Scottish independence. The statues of William Wallace and Robert the Bruce welcome more than 1million visitors every year into a towering fortification originally built to repel invaders. Over the gates themselves is inscribed “Nemo Me Impune Lacessit” (“No- one Provokes Me With Impunity” – the prickly Latin motto of the Scottish Order of the Thistle), a motto also inscribed around the edge of many British pound coins.
To understand Scotland, you have to understand Britain and the tangled relationship with England. “In a recent survey, only 20 per cent of Scots said they felt British,” says local historian Sandy Taylor. “Almost 70 per cent said they felt Scottish. That is a remarkable figure when you consider Scotland has been part of the United Kingdom since 1706.”
The Royal Mile makes history seem very recent. Worn granite buildings line the cobbled street, off which lead narrow medieval alleyways. A dark, glowering sky and the skirl of bagpipes from a kilt-wearing piper lend a suitably ancient soundtrack to the atmosphere. Another kilted and blue-faced warrior strides by, bearing a massive claymore, a reminder that much of this front is a deliberate catering to the tourist trade.
Electro-bagpipe music provides the background track
The first stop for many of those visitors is the Tartan Weaving Mill, just off the castle’s famous Esplanade. The giant shop sprawls over five floors, with a giant loom weaving tartan cloth in the basement and the option to buy souvenirs that range from Loch Ness Monster freezer magnets to a full-blown set of bagpipes for £1,000 or more. Lots of room is given over to a display of clan tartans for every surname. In its photo studio, I watch a group of Spanish visitors have their photos taken in full tartan regalia against a backdrop showing a romantic Highland scene, while a loop of electro-bagpipe music provides the background track.
The history of tartan is told with a set of quaint mannequins dressed in the changing styles through the centuries. I learn that “plaid” is the name for a long length of tartan cloth, not the tartan itself, which was originally pleated or “kilted” to make a garment that was fastened at the waist with a belt. The extra length was wrapped around the upper body for warmth or around an arm in a sword fight to shield it.
“The early kilt was a Feileadh Mòr (great plaid) and the Victorian kilt is a corruption of it,” says David Withers, who spends most of his working days in a kilt as a guide for a Highland tour company. “Tartans for every clan are another Victorian invention; no one wore a clan tartan at Culloden. They also used natural dyes and colors, so their colors would have been much less flamboyant. In the Lowlands, they wore trousers of course.”
The kilt has come a long way since those days, with Scottish designer Alexander McQueen among others putting it on the catwalk. No other country is so indelibly linked with a piece of cloth as Scotland is with tartan, and a kilt is its most evocative image. “(Writer) Sir Walter Scott had his hand in creating this Disneyland image of a Scotland of tartan, kilts, shortbread and whiskey,” says David. “It did a lot of good for Scotland and tourism, of course, but he created many myths as well.”
Highland dress was banned, along with the Gaelic language
After the Jacobite Rising of 1745, which ended at the tragic Battle of Culloden a year later, Highland dress was banned, along with the Gaelic language and the playing of the bagpipes. “Only those who joined the Highland Regiments could wear tartan openly,” says Sandy. “With landlords clearing people off their land to raise sheep, the number of Scots joining the British Army soared.”
It is a tradition that continues to this day, as the annual Military Tattoo at the castle attests. In the friendly Scotsman’s Lounge pub just off the Royal Mile, the walls are lined with pictures of regimental bands in kilted splendor. Their integral role in the British Army does not seem to jar with the protestations of Scottish nationalism that also decorate the pub.
“I was in the British Army for 37 years but I never thought of myself as British,” says one woman I meet. “I was a Scottish person in the British Army.” Prominent over the bar is the Declaration of Arbroath, which dates to 1320 and includes the ringing boast: “As long as but a hundred of us remain alive, never will we on any conditions be brought under English rule. It is in truth not for glory, nor riches, nor honors that we are fighting, but for freedom.”
I embrace my own freedom with a complementary tour around the city center. The kilted guide is highly entertaining, despite the dubious nature of many of his tales, a reminder that a well-told story has always trumped boring facts in Celtic culture. However, even I know that the expression “daylight robbery” had nothing to do with the window tax, nor does “shit-faced” refer to drunks having chamber pots emptied on them because they were out after curfew. There is one that I have no way of checking, though. One American woman inevitably asks him what he is wearing under his kilt. “My socks,” he says.
“That’s macho bull,” says David. “Those early clansmen did not wear underwear under their kilts because it had not yet been invented but we are not living in the 16th century anymore. A lot of it is a masculine thing: ‘I may be wearing a skirt, but I am a real man.’”
The kilt was last worn into battle in 1944
It also comes back to the British Army, always dedicated to tradition, which ordered soldiers to go commando, so to speak. The last time the kilt was worn into battle was by heroic piper Bill Millin who marched up and down under German fire during the Normandy Landings in 1944, but it is still worn on ceremonial occasions. The kilt that is, not underwear.
“The two things that sell best are the kilt and the bagpipes,” says David Singh, who owns five shops in Edinburgh and has been on the Royal Mile for more than 25 years. “That’s why most shops here are dedicated to them. Most of my customers are from the US but the Chinese have become the biggest spenders. They buy cashmere scarfs in tartan designs. However the Royal Mile is full of imports as the real ones are too expensive for most people.”
He is a second generation Scot – his parents are from the north of India – and has a kilt made from the Singh tartan. “I’m definitely Scottish,” he says in his musical Edinburgh lilt. “You’re Scottish if you can understand the heritage.”
He is more ambivalent about Scottish independence. “I am divided. A lot of older Scots might want independence but I don’t think Scotland can manage on its own.” His shops on what locals call the “High Street” sell tartan in all its forms: bath towels, bikinis, mugs and caps, basically anything you can make in tartan or put tartan on. They also offer a full kilt outfit at an affordable price. A good kilt is not cheap, using more than seven meters of heavy woolen cloth. With jacket, sporran, hose (socks) and brogues, the cost can easily go over $1,000.
People from abroad look for a clan tartan
Very much at the top end of the market is Geoffrey Tailor Kiltmakers where Alistair McLeod helps me look at a few tweed jackets. “Our customers are about 60:40 local to tourist,” he says. “When I was young the kilt was not cool. Its popularity has followed films: Highlander, then Braveheart. Highlander had a huge impact because it was the first big Hollywood movie to feature real Scottish characters in kilts. It put the fun back into it. People from abroad look for a clan tartan. Local people are more often concerned about the color and what is going to match with the bride, as a very high proportion are for weddings.”
Sure enough, at nearby St Giles’ Cathedral, I see a groom and his friends in matching kilts, with the bride in traditional white. Beside the cathedral is the Heart of Midlothian, a stone symbol set into the cobbles. It is not as romantic as it might sound; it marks the site of a former prison and spitting on the stones is said to ward off bad luck. Well, that is what the guides tell tourists, who enthusiastically let fly, I suspect to the bemusement of the Scots themselves.
On the other side of the cathedral is a lead statue of King Charles II, the oldest in Scotland. It was erected in 1685, the year of his death, and marks perhaps the last time Scotland and England fully agreed on a monarch. His son, King James VII of Scotland, was overthrown by the Dutch William of Orange, widening a schism between Protestants and Catholics that led directly to the Jacobite Risings (“Jacobus” is Latin for James). The differences persist to this day; the red Scottish post boxes do not carry the same royal cypher as the rest of the “United” Kingdom. I ask David Withers what makes someone Scottish. “Having a deep love for your country,” he says, “It tugs on your heart to live in such a beautiful place that so many people pay so much to come see. I get it for free.”
At bottom of the Royal Mile, a slice of that beautiful country points right at the heart of Edinburgh. Holyrood Park is busy with joggers, dog walkers and visitors like myself admiring the view. I stop to pick blackberries, then climb high in the fresh Scottish air to enjoy one of the best city views in the world from the peak of Arthur’s Seat. Robert Louis Stevenson described it with a local writer’s passion: “No situation could be more commanding for the head of a kingdom; none better chosen for noble prospects”. Down below is Holyrood Palace, seat of the British monarch when they visit Scotland. It is no coincidence that the startlingly modern new Scottish Parliament has been built directly opposite the historic royal residence.
Pipe bands and contestants from around the world
The real Highlands start a short drive away. The geographical heart of Scotland, rather than mid-Lothian, is at Pitlochry, a pretty village surrounded by breathtaking scenery. Their Highland Games are a celebration of Scottish culture, bringing pipe bands and contestants from around the country and further afield. A group of Swiss in lederhosen and many tartan-clad Americans are just some of the foreigners joining in the fun. The games start with a parade of some 800 pipes and drums in 20 bands along the town’s main street, lined with picturesque Victorian buildings and several thousand spectators. It is a stirring sight, and the sound touches something almost primeval.
“No matter where I am in the world, if I hear the pipes, I have to go to where they are playing,” says David Withers. “Under the clan system, you went to the pipes, whether it was the music of war, the music for a gathering, or the music for a celebration. Not a lot of people could read or write, so culture was passed down through storytelling and song.”
Parade over, I watch the pipers prepare for their individual competitions, with the more experienced passing on advice to others. There is no sheet music to be seen. In the background, the announcer calls for under-tens from the crowd to take part in a race. The Pitlochry relay team, which mixes boys and girls equally, is cheered to a final lap win despite a fumbled baton change. The beer tent is doing a roaring trade and the rain that threatened at one point has thought better of it.
“The first Pitlochry Highland Games was held in 1852 and it has been held every year since except during the World Wars,” says Charles Butter, the Games Chieftain, whose father held the title for more than 60 years before him. Despite his clipped English tones, he is impeccably turned out in Highland attire and I regret I am not wearing my own kilt. However, I note that very few among the spectators are either.
The cyclists stick to skin-tight lyric, probably a wise choice
On the field, the Highland dancers are displaying their skills while cabers are readied for the so-called “Heavy” events. The caber is basically a tree trunk which it tossed end-over-end. Meanwhile cyclists warm up for their own races, held on a grass track. The Heavy men wrap kilts around the shorts they warm up in, but the cyclists stick to wearing skin-tight lyric, probably a wise choice.
The caber this year is a new, heavier one as the previous one was thrown successfully by all the competitors. The Chieftain has the job of inducting it with a splash of whisky. Despite the ceremonials, it still proves too easy to toss and it is announced later that it will be soaked in a stream before next year to add weight.
The event has the lovely feel of a slightly grand school sports day mixed with a village fete, so it is no surprise to bump into the local Member of Parliament. Pete Wishart is a former keyboard player with Runrig, one of Scotland’s best-known Celtic-rock bands, and was first elected to the British Parliament in 2001. He is standing near a booth run by the campaign for an independent Scotland and I ask him what makes someone Scottish.
“When you are Scottish you do not need to ask that question because as a nation we are culturally secure,” he says. “We have a profound idea of our historical experience. Look around you and you feel a real sense of connection with history and heritage. We do not have the angst of so many other nations about redefining or reinventing their identity. Contrast that with Britishness. No one has a clue what being British means. People agonize over it because they have to question it. We don’t in Scotland.”
In my teenage years we would never have worn a kilt
We are joined by John Swinney, the local MSP (Member of the Scottish Parliament) who, unlike Pete, is actually wearing a kilt albeit with a casual top. “In my teenage years we would never have worn a kilt.” he says. “I graduated in a suit but most young men now graduate wearing a kilt. We’ve become much more secure in our Scottish identity.”
At the Independence stand, Andrew Bonner has run out of the blue St Andrew’s Cross of Scotland flags he has been giving away. “There has been a problem in Europe with far right nationalism but the Scottish National Party is about civic nationalism, not ethnic identity. Politically, Scotland has a personality that it is different from rest of the United Kingdom, is more left of center. Until oil came along, we were a very poor country and poor people tend to have more of a community spirit. It is the only way they can get through.”
I notice that he is not wearing a kilt, either. “I am a third generation Scot, so I do not have an association with a clan. Tartan is not a great part of Scottish history, nor is it twee rubbish that should be thrown away. In terms of nationalism, it is a nice thing to have, but it is not completely identified with it. It is perhaps more important to the Scottish diaspora. I have had a kilt suit for about 15 years, though. I wear a green tartan because it is my favorite color.”
Back in that Edinburgh bar, the Scotland of Pitlochry – or even the Royal Mile – seems very far away. “There are many people in Edinburgh who don’t see themselves represented in Scotland’s identity,” says one young Scot. “The iconography of Scotland means very little to them and they don’t know what makes them Scottish apart from geography. Those in rural communities are much more connected to the past as the present moves at a different pace. In the cities, a lot of people have moved on.”
In Edinburgh, drinking is about more than just fine whiskey. It’s about community.
At St Giles’ Cathedral, Edinburgh’s historic church and one of the architectural landmarks along its Royal Mile in Old Town, I see a groom and his friends in matching kilts, with the bride in traditional white.
Beside Edinburgh Cathedral stands a lead statue of King Charles II, the oldest in Scotland. It was erected in 1685, the year of his death, and marks perhaps the last time Scotland and England fully agreed on a monarch.
Every clan in Scotland has its own tartan pattern: memorialized on a clan-specific kilt. The Macdonalds. The MacFarlanes. The Macduffs. And the Singhs...
On a tour around Edinburgh city center, the kilted guide is highly entertaining, even when one woman inevitably asks him what he is wearing under it. “My socks,” he says.
The Royal Mile – the main thoroughfare of Edinburgh’s Old Town running downhill between the city’s old Castle and Holyrood Palace – makes history seem very recent.