For somebody in a one-sided relationship with his alcohol, I’m not a very big ‘birthdays’ person – I mean what the devil is the big deal, pray tell me? Yes, you were born – but is that really your achievement? More like your parents’ if you ask me; for going through 9 stressful months to see your ugly little face! Yet, we celebrate this day each year with pomp and much clamour. Me? I like to hide away in a corner and retreat into my shell, only letting in the most precious people in my life! Generally, I like to get away from my immediate surroundings accompanied only with some combination of my favourite music, a good book and closest friends.
This year, I decided to do one better! I made a wager with meself – to spend the next 5 birthdays in 5 different countries…and VIOLA! I overshot myself at the first try and ended up spending it across two! I brought in my birthday in one of the prettiest cities I’ve stepped foot in – Edinburgh, and then boarded the short flight across the channel to the land of leprechauns and tooth-fairies, but more on all of that later! [Read: The Leprechaun Made Me Do It!]
We arrived in the land of bagpipers & excellent Scotch (slurp!) after a long drive from the Lakelands of Cumbria – which by the way is an absolutely blissful place to spend some time in [Read: A Weekend In The Lakelands of England]. Our visit was short – restricted to 2 days, thanks largely to amateur planning (hey! don’t be quick to judge, this was my first international trip on a tight budget). We decided to spend the first day in Glasgow, before driving down the same day to the capital wonder of Edinburgh!
Before any of you look at the length of this piece and decide to bugger off elsewhere, I’ll jump directly to the part that is truly a MUST-DO experience (my must-do list is a little difficult to break into – it only includes experiences without which I’d consider my life a complete waste).
On the eve of my birthday, after wandering around the cobbled streets of Grassmarket in the Old Town, I made my way to the Beehive-Inn for The Edinburgh Literary Pub Tour! What followed was a couple hours of stunning entertainment in the extra-ordinary company of Clart & McBrain (our guides), who’d take me and a dozen or so other lucky folk on a whirlwind waltz across the city’s most iconic & oldest pubs and their intertwined histories with some of Scotland’s greatest literary scholars!
I’m a complete sucker for literature; though admittedly, I’m no scholar on Scottish literature and I knew or had heard of none, barring a few of the names the duo mentioned while painting a colourful picture of Edinburgh’s literary history.
Unlike most guided walks and tours in different parts of the world, The Edinburgh Literary Pub Tour is hosted/performed not by tour guides or academics but by professional actors! Both Clart & McBrain are charted characters played by accomplished theatre persons and the difference is frankly evident – the entertainment value = TOP notch! Clart is a coarse, whiskey-drinking, no-nonsense bloke who doesn’t shy away from the vile realities of society, whereas McBrain is a gentleman, sitting high on his horse of morality, with displaced pretensions of the world – he refuses to acknowledge the influence of alcohol & women on the work of modern society’s great artists.
The brilliant pandemonium starts off in the comfortable upper room of the Beehive Inn with Clart addressing the day’s participants. After a brief introduction of all the participants, the charade takes off!
SPOILER ALERT: you’ll wonder where McBrain is during Clart’s opening speech…soon enough though, you’ll find a fellow audience member constantly engaging and refuting your solitary host’s claims! In no time, Clart invites his adversary to the debate and the well-oiled dialogue begins.
The narrative is in English for most parts, but the the quoted texts are in Scots. The focus is not so much on understanding the words; they do offer explanations & translations from time to time but the idea is to communicate the importance of a language in their medieval culture – even one that has faded from use in normal life but remains alive mostly through street-dialogue & literature.
Did You Know: that many traditional pubs in Edinburgh were named after the landlady of the inn?
The tour sheds light on literary figures across the years, starting from Roberts Burns, the Scots’ National bard to Alan Ramsay, Sir Walter Scott and many others I’ve neither heard of, nor remember. The whole story revolves around the opposing ideological stands the pair represent, as they cross swords over what constitutes a typical Scot, and what potentially inspired some of these literary works-of-art!
Clart has no qualms about plunging his arms deep into the bowels of the Scottish social psyche as he reveals parts of the lives of these famous gentlemen that are otherwise brushed under the mat in literary gatherings! He argues and repeatedly points out how many of them were renowned for their private drinking clubs & indiscriminate womanising – clues to which are also hidden in plain sight within their works. McBrain on the other hand squirms at the slightest indication that such primal roots could have potentially inspired some of the country’s most famous literature!
The pair use their theatre background to great effect and draw the audience in – it was also thrilling to see that some of the participants (unlike my amateur self) actually had a good sense of Scottish history & literature and seemed to be thoroughly enjoying the show, punctuated by constant humour and witty one liners.
The 2 hour walk through the cobbled streets of Edinburgh, takes you to some of the city’s most historic & oldest pubs such as the Ensign Ewart & The Jolly Judge in addition to the Beehive Inn, which is estimated to be more than 300 years old! What better way to sample the different kind of ciders & beers (not to mention the scotch) than in a traditional Scottish pub? While the pace is usually gentle, the city’s naturally sloping streets mean you require some degree of fitness. The walk through the Old Town & New Town of Edinburgh is also one of the best ways to see the city and its timeless architecture.
As we finally settled down at the last pub of the tour – The Kenilworth, Clart & McBrain launch into some wonderful poetry recitals! I don’t follow very well (partly because it’s Scots and partly because I’m getting to my ‘happy-high drunk’ phase) but the duo appear to have reached some sort of common ground as McBrain seems to begrudgingly concede the importance of alcohol & other alleged ‘vices’ in every society.
After a wonderful round of applause, the two gentlemen mingle with the crowd and are happy to join you for a drink or two! I can’t for the world of me think of a better way to conclude the recital of this wonderful experience than to use one of Burns’ many famous verses:
Freedom an’ whisky gang thegither!
Take aff your dram!
There aren’t too many times when travellers struggle to pin a city down to one particular attribute that sets it apart, but Edinburgh is one place that really had me stumped. I mean how do you even choose between an inactive volcano at the centre of the city, a conveyor belt of excellent centres for applied and performed arts, the spectacular castle and truly orgasmic architecture all-round or the raging connection between its pubs & never-ending list of famous poets & writers? It’s ridiculous to think that I spent 2 nights and 1 day (half of which was wasted in finding a parking spot) in this wonderful city – it remains one of my greatest regrets to date that I didn’t have enough time to look at the magic around me; yet, the place cast a tremendous spell upon me – the effects of which still don’t wear off after 6 months of procrastination!
Expert City Tip: If you’re planning to visit Edinburgh during August, you might be lucky enough to just catch glimpses of the Edinburgh Festival. Here’s a quick guide to the festival from my good friends at Two Scots Abroad [Read: Quick Edinburgh Festival Fringe Guide]
Side Note: my fellow lit-pub travellers were a wonderful bunch of people and helped make this evening even more memorable. I met a German professor who had spent some time in Mumbai (my home-town) and was excited to meet somebody from the same place again. I shared a drink with a wonderful, elderly American couple – I must admit I actually sat next to them only because the gentleman looked like Sir Alex Ferguson, but it turns out the poor pair didn’t even know who that might have been! HA!
My favourite way to explore a new city is to walk through its busiest streets. This is the main reason guided/unguided walking tours have become so close to my heart! Are you also fond of walking tours? Which one’s your favourite and why?