I don’t know how often it happens to other travelers, but frequently I find myself imagining myself living in the place I am visiting. It could be a 3-day business trip, a weekend getaway, or a fall road trip, but I eagerly picture myself doing the day-to-day things that locals do, trying on the lifestyle. This happened in Edinburgh within my first two hours there.
I had dragged my compact suitcase over the cobbled hills to my B&B north of the city center not once, not twice, but three times in my first day. After the jet lag I needed to nap, but the room wasn’t ready so I hiked Calton Hill instead. After the subsequent nap, I found I was ravenously hungry and although I tried to be choosy, I did not venture too far. Luckily the Conan Doyle had just what I needed.
With the strange and exotic names for Scottish specialties dancing in my head, I picked out the pub’s Cullen Skink, and a finer soup experience I have not had. The Warm Halloumi Salad that I thought would balance the creamy, hearty soup couldn’t hold a candle to it. I had tea instead of an alcoholic beverage because even though it was a pub, I was jetlagged, starving, and tired. I knew my limits. It was a perfect mid-afternoon meal for a confused and waterlogged traveler in the Scottish weather.
The Conan Doyle gives off a richer, gilt-edged vibe than your normal corner pub, and that was a cozy, welcoming piece of luck for me as I paused to gather my wits and refuel for the serious sightseeing ahead. What next?
My little notepad was full of places I wanted to see, views to soak in, a few museums to explore, and several restaurants that were either Edinburgh standbys or had a reputation for flair and style in their menu preparation. Almost all of my research for this was online, so I may well have missed the segment of the restaurant scene that disdains the Online Presence, but perhaps I will have time for that on the next trip.
I had read a fair amount of travel writing on Scotland and its people in advance of this trip, and fiction taking place in Scotland, mostly historical. I waited to hear the soft whiskery Lothian accent, and prepared to see different quarters of the city, each with its own character. This was only partly right.
Edinburgh has its Castle and its Royal Mile, its medieval closes and its New Town. But what I found was rather than sections that stayed constant, there was a little bit of everything, everywhere. In the Old Town, home of crooked streets, dark alleys, and soaring church spires, there were sleek eateries, street demonstrators, bookstores with wi-fi hotspots, and light-filled galleries. In the New Town, known for its grey uniformity and manicured elegance, I found ethnic eateries, run-down and comfortable corner pubs, and a book festival in a park, bravely carrying on despite heavy rains. I loved it.
‘Where would I fit in here?,’ I wondered, as per my usual. Well, look no further than The Dogs, a quirky and fun restaurant on Hanover St. in the New Town. From the creative and inviting design and art of the place to the venue’s philosophy – “a place for everyone who wishes to partake of great value food and wine, in a chilled environment with no frills or fuss, great kids to help, and a pretty eclectic soundtrack” – it won my heart. Most importantly, the focus on British comfort food-made-interesting, with sustainable local seafood, was key. Here I sampled something called a Bedfordshire Clanger- with that picturesque name, how could I not? It is composed of a large pot-pie-type crust, bigger than a taco, which contains 2/3 savory filling (meat, onions and spice are likely), and 1/3 sweet filling (fruit chutney was used here). With that description being given me, I was too intrigued not to continue.
It was extremely large. The crust was tender and flaky, the filling was piping hot, and it was very different from anything I’d had in the U.S. I can’t say it was my favorite, but I ate rather more of the chutney side than the meat side: the sweet tooth wins again. I was charmed by the little tables, the light wood and funky light fixtures, the huge dog photo behind the bar, and the vivacious quality of conversation in the dining room. It seemed like a place I would frequent if I lived there, Clanger notwithstanding. Perhaps the smoked hake next time…
Actually, I probably needed the substantial heft of the Clanger’s meaty ways, judging from the aggressive walking, sightseeing, and staying awake schedule of activities I had set myself. I took in a Fringe comedy performance my first night, crashed a Sunday service at St. Giles Cathedral where I heard an amazing choir, chanced by the Mansfield Traquair Centre on one of the few occasions it is open on one of my many trips to and from my B&B, and soaked up the random historical bits from two tiny museums: the Museum of Edinburgh on the Canongate near the Tolbooth, and the People’s Story museum, right nearby. Oh, and don’t forget stopping into at least 6 neighborhood gem used-book stores, visiting the by-now-iconic I.J. Mellis Cheesemonger’s, and touring the photo exhibit in the lobby of the Scottish Parliament building. All in 2 days.
You would think that doing so many things in such a short time would have made it hard to remember what happened when and which activity was where, but most of these events stand out in such sparkling detail in mind, probably because I made a point of journaling on the trip. I captured all the crazy excitement in my notebook, reflecting on what I liked and didn’t, during the resting times. The exercise of writing helped to distill the colorful details into images that recalled how I felt, which is what memories are all about anyway.
Which brings me to Stac Polly, the cherry on top of the sundae of my Edinburgh experience, as well as where I had my finest dessert in Scotland: Cranachan. Cranachan is made of raspberries and toasted oatmeal soaked in Drambuie, the honey flavoured whisky liqueur, and you would be well-advised to try it when in Scotland. It would have been hard to reign in my spoon for the necessary appreciative gaps in view of my fellow diners, but luckily I was seated in a very small, very darkly-upholstered room on the subterranean floor of the Dublin St. location. Thankfully, even in the dim light, I retained some manners, and finished it off without licking the glass bowl. But it was hard, folks.
So many things I had read about and yearned to experience came to life in Edinburgh: the food, the street life, the fantastic vistas. I didn’t manage to like the smokiest-of-smokies Ardbeg whiskey that I tried, but I didn’t have to fit every stereotype. Maybe I’m not destined for Edinburgh’s piebald patchwork quilt, but it definitely made for an exciting jumping-off point to explore Scotland.