Edinburgh: The Intellectual Influencer9 min read
– Let’s play a game!
– What game?
– I’ll go first. Scotland.
– What do you mean wrong?
– Kilts are not Scottish.
– Yes, they are.
– No they’re not.
– Well, suppose they weren’t, it’s still what I associate the country with.
– I’m telling you, neither kilts, nor tartan originate from Scotland. Same goes for whiskey.
– No way?!
– True story! You see, Scotland is a country of contradictions. It’s best known for things it did not invent, but excels in. Like whiskey, kilts, haggis, pipes and tweed. But you’ll be surprised how many other things that people take for granted today, were actually invented by the Scotts.
– Like what?
– For example, the TV, the phone, Penicillin… and Gin&Tonic, of course. The funny thing is the country produces 9000 different malt whiskeys, yet there are no happy hours and it is illegal to serve alcohol to a drunk person.
– You’re kidding!
– I am not. I’m telling you, it’s a country of contradictions.
As we continue wandering the streets of Edinburgh, my friend enlightens me about the Scotts while I note all my incorrect presumptions. I could easily blame Hollywood and Braveheart, because as it turns out they also had it wrong, but I won’t. I’ll take responsibility and bare the next few steps of shame.
There were no man in kilts on these lands during the 13th century. And even though Mel Gibson won the hearts of many by wearing one, the historical figure William Wallace was probably fighting in pants. But trust me when I say, today Edinburgh is making up for that.
Welcome to Edinburgh
The city of Edinburgh is draped across a series of rocky hills overlooking the sea. It has the perfect balance between the amenities of a European capital and the charm of a small town. All you need is a day in this vibrant cultural hub to understand why it ranks so often among the most liveable cities in the world. I, for one, fell in love with it straight away. To me Edinburgh feels like the hug of a big cashmere scarf and the smell of a first edition book.
“Half a capital and half a country town, the whole city leads a double existence; it has long trances of the one and flashes of the other; like the king of the Black Isles, it is half alive and half a monumental marble.”
― Robert Louis Stevenson
Much like the duality of Stevenson’s book “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde”, the capital of Scotland has its old and new parts of the city. I bridge from the new side to the old one, in the role of Miss Seek.
“If he be Mr. Hyde“, he had thought, “I shall be Mr. Seek.”
― Robert Louis Stevenson
I am in search of what’s left from the Scottish literati. On my way, I pass by Sir Walter Scott’s epic monument. It is a jaw-dropping 61-meter Gothic spire, impossible to ignore. And naturally, my first stop in the Old town is the Writer’s Museum, which details the lives of Scotland’s three great literary figures:
1. The national poet Robert Burns.
2. Robert Louis Stevenson, who distilled his adventures into evocative classics.
3. And the father of the romantic historical novel—Sir Walter Scott.
The Old town’s tall medieval buildings are crammed shoulder to shoulder with small alleys in-between called closes. While finding my way through one of those closes, I learn the origins of the phrase shit-faced.
A shitty story
Before the Enlightenment, there were the dark and smelly days of Edinburgh. The city was one of the most congested places in Europe and the poor were so wretched, they couldn’t even afford candles. People around here didn’t know each other by how they looked, but rather by how they smelled. They lived together with their animals, slept with them to keep warm at night and since there was no plumbing system, they did their shitty business in a bucket.
Once, on a starry night, a blitzed (drunk) lad (guy) went out of a local pub, not only to fill his lungs with what was anything but fresh air, but also to ask God “Why?”. What was the nature of his question, one could only suppose. The important thing is that, as he begged for a divine answer, he tilted his head back and looked up to the sky.
In the meantime, the people who lived on the floor above the pub were preparing to go to bed. This meant that someone had to throw away the contents of the bucket which served as a toilet. And so, on that starry night, the eldest woman in the house threw away the stink from the bucket unintentionally, yet with graceful precision, over the drunk man down on the street. Now, that guy was no longer just drunk, no—he was shit-faced.
I wonder if the shit-faced man took that as an answer from God? Whatever the case, he might have been the trigger of a revolutionary age, at the heart of which was questioning.
In the 18th century, a desire to investigate and debate philosophical and scientific ideas in the public, free from the persecution of authoritarian institutions, spread across Europe. That period is known as the Enlightenment, to which Scotland made some powerful contributions through the works of its literati.
The Scottish people produced original thinking in philosophy, literature and economics, and made ground-breaking discoveries in science and medicine. Far from taking place in a vacuum, those achievements were born within a network of social and professional ties between people who were bounded by friendship and the search for truths.
In the 18th century, Scotland had five universities, while England only two. Being a mecca for education, the country became the birthplace of influencers with massive effect on the world. It was the Scottish who made the first cloned mammal, too—Dolly the Sheep, after Dolly Parton, of course.
Today @visitscottland has 1.2 million followers on Instagram. And even though social media has become a very effective way to affect people, the old school influencer’s quality beats the new-age tech efficiency with its worldwide reach. You know, Adam Smith and his influence on economics…
But there is a crossroad where old and new thrive together. One could observe it as the children of the modern-day turn back to the ideas and words of that very same Adam and his close friend David Hume, to the verses of Robert Fergusson and many more. As the Scottish poet and author Tobias Smollett once said,
“Edinburgh is a hotbed of genius.”
Words and thought transformed the city of Edinburgh from a crowded and miserable place, where people occasionally got shit-faced, into the first designated UNESCO City of Literature in the world. There are many stories carved in the stones of the city, from those of people like Burns to those of characters like Harry Potter. And to find them, all you have to do is become Mr. or Mrs. Seek. The stories that fascinate me most are buried. And so I embark on a tour of my own and visit the most iconic, drenched in intrigue cemeteries.
We tend to change the subject, when death becomes the matter of discussion. Though inevitable, or maybe precisely because of that, people prefer to ignore it. That is the mode but there are always exceptions to it.
As I stroll across Edinburgh’s Greyfriars Cemetery, I understand how spooky places can influence us in a way which sparks our imagination and ignites the creative processes. I suppose JK Rowling did a similar stroll, for there seem to be a killer resemblance between the names on the graves here and some Harry Potter characters.
In the books, Lord Voldemort was born Tom Marvolo Riddle. There is a grave in Greyfriar’s Cemetery of Thomas Riddell – a general who died on 24 November 1806 at the age of 72. Could it be that the dead general influenced JK Rowling’s naming decisions?
I continue my stroll and stumble upon William McGonagall’s resting place. He was a Irish poet who lived and died in Edinburgh on 29 September 1902 at the age of 77. Could it be that his surname has inspired that of Professor Minerva McGonagall?
And how about the grave of Mrs Elizabeth Moodie? Rumour has it, it may have inspired the name of the fictional character Alastor ‘Mad-Eye’ Moody. Behind the graveyard, there is a primary and secondary school called Heriot. It has four towers and somehow reminds me of Hogwarts. As I walk on Victoria street I cannot help but think of Diagonal Alley. Just sayin’…
In the castle of Edinburgh there is a gallery. In the gallery there are two centuries of recruiting posters which show how clever government sponsored ads kept lads enlisting for soldiers. The pitch is as relevant as it gets—a well-paid secure job with a bonus on the side, the promise of a manly and adventurous lifestyle, all topped with Scottish pride and British patriotism.
This lovely poster was an ad, inviting young Scotsman to join the army. Now, notice how the call to duty relies on a poem written by Robert Burns, whose words from 133 years before were still authentic. It turns out that intellectuals have long been influencing both the business of war, and that of advertising.
Today, the capital of Scotland continues to inspire and influence people. In summer, the city heats up not so much because of increased temperatures, but because of the world-class festivals it hosts:
- International Film Festival (June)
- Jazz and Blues Festival (July)
- Edinburgh Festival Fringe (August)
- Art Festival (August)
- International Book Festival (August)
- The Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo (August)
– Well, 2020 is not the best time for festivals. So, how about we finish that game we started?
– Aye, let’s do it!
– I say Edinburgh.