I was sat on my sister’s couch, as had become the norm, when the call came. An average day of simply waiting for the minutes to grind by, dreaming of what could be, the plod of life with no real control or opportunities. The call was an unexpected and somewhat welcome interruption. On the other end of the call was a high and lightly breathy woman’s voice, she introduced herself as from Edinburgh City Council, that she was calling to offer me an apartment in Edinburgh. I would have an opportunity to view it before deciding if I wanted to take it or not. I knew, even then, that I was going to take it.
Edinburgh has been my only real home and my greatest love affair since I was 20 years old. The first time I moved there it was with a girl who I was also very much in love with. My love for the city has outlasted that by decades now. It’s difficult to describe why I love the city so much, but explaining love has never been simple. If it were there wouldn’t be so many stories, poems and songs about it. It’s certainly a beautiful place, although I find myself agreeing with an acquaintance that once described the city centre as being “an extremely beautiful theme park.”
The city has also changed a vast amount since I first moved there. A slightly seedy underbelly that once gave the city an edgy character has mostly been replaced by vagaries of respectability. Pretentions that were always there to some extent. After all, those from Glasgow commonly referred to Edinburgh as “all fur coat an’ nae knickers,” back when I first lived there. Even with that being undeniably true, it’s far from the whole truth. There is a complexity to Auld Reekie that’s often missed.
The tourist crowded centre of Old Town from the Castle to Grassmarket is festooned with tat stores, whiskey and tartan. The Nessie Experience, some 170 miles from Loch Ness, has been there as long as I can remember, but the record stores and goth shops that once peppered Cockburn St have been replaced by restaurants and Harry Potter memorabilia. Tourism was always a big part of Edinburgh life but in recent years it has been supercharged. With the assistance of Airbnb and the encouragement of ten million Instagram images of the Vennel and Circus Lane, tourism has gone big.
Some say that this has all led to the destruction of Edinburgh, but I must disagree. The real character of Edinburgh was never much in the city centre, it was always in the people, the communities. Those communities have shifted somewhat but they haven’t disappeared. Today I find myself loving whole new parts of the city in ways that I would never have imagined two decades ago. Be it Portobello, Leith, Newhaven or Gorgie, I find new characters and communities to love. There are also still parts of the city I love as much today as I did a decade ago, maybe even more so. Yet I’m living in part of the city I’ve never really known until now.
I find myself in awe of being in a city that seems to contain little tastes of everything. I live in what feels like endless suburbia. Yet heading in, towards the city, is an area that feels like the middle of the countryside. To the east and you’re in the bustling seaside town aesthetic of Portobello. Dominating the city centre is the rising volcanic monolith of Arthur’s Seat and Holyrood Park. Sit in the middle of that ancient volcanic caldera and you would swear to being in the middle of Jurassic Park not a city park. The wayward, cobbled constructions of the Old Town may be what made Edinburgh, but the grand elegances of the Georgian New Town were the result. Hidden nooks of ancient history nestle in the secretive vale of the Water of Leith, the perfect place to catch a little peace with the lullabies of running water and bird song.
It wasn’t that long ago that I discovered the charms of Crammond, where the river Almond runs into the Firth of Forth, or what used to be known as the Scottish Sea. With wader fowl occupying the mud flats and stretches of sandy beach to the other side of the war time causeway, Crammond is a unique spot. There’s the medieval church lying near the Roman fort ruins, many small boats bobbing gently in the river mouth in view of a little café that serves some pretty good ice cream. The old pub provides a stiff drink and a good lunch to celebrate completing the gentle waterfront walk.
Edinburgh is a city of character and characters, hiding behind a curtain of photogenic tourist honey and historic respectability. It’s a city built by philosophers and rogues in equal measure. A place of mists and mystery, love and loss, promises and passions. A sandstone book of lives lived, then and now. I am glad to be back and etching my story in the basalt and sandstone with everyone else. My love continues and, though I can never fully explain, I thought I’d start telling that story. So let this be your introduction and may you get a taste of this enduring love affair.