All children, except two, grow up.
Scottish novelist J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan heads the list of usual suspects. Cerebrally, I’m a close second, invested by childhood memories of an Edinburgh with a colossal castle perched on a 350-million-year-old volcanic plug right in the city centre that was as intriguing as any in a fairy tale, an Edinburgh where breakfasts were redolent with the rich aromas and exotic textures of kippers and oatcakes, and an Edinburgh whose natives addressed me as “wee laddie” – something of a challenge for a six-year-old rather proud of his height.
It’s said to be a mistake to revisit old haunts, but the second I emerge from Waverley station – just west of the castle – I’m not so much on Princes Street as Memory Lane. Never mind the touristic knick knacks festooning the shopfronts, this is the border of New Town – new since the late 1700s – a glorious extravaganza of neo-classical and Georgian architecture interspersed with squares and gardens that’s generally regarded as a tour de force of city planning, and all put together by a precociously talented 26-year-old called James Craig. Here’s Scotland’s National Gallery, Royal Academy and the National Portrait Gallery, as well as the 61-metre-high Victorian Gothic monument to not-very-much-read nowadays Sir Walter Scott, and the Scottish baronial Balmoral Hotel, where very-much-read-nowadays J.K. Rowling holed up to escape a ravenous public and put the finishing touches to Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.
Indeed, the boy wizard counts as one of the Scottish capital’s prime attractions. Every Sunday afternoon, the pavement beside the memorial to Greyfriars Bobby – the 19th-century Skye Terrier who stood sentinel over his master’s grave for 14 years – fills with an eager crowd of fans set to embark upon a free (you read that right) tour. I find myself rubbing shoulders with a demographic wide enough to gladden any pollster’s heart: grandchildren with grandparents in tow, a brace of 20-somethings rather too eager to show off their Potter tattoos, a Dutch economist who provides a simultaneous translation for his girlfriend, and some slightly intense types who’d probably resent being classed as Muggles. Few nooks and crannies are left unexplored, from the gravestone that’s linked to Lord Voldemort, to Edinburgh University, where some brave soul is apparently working on a PhD linking the Potter oeuvre to actual locations in the city.
“There are other literary tours in the city, but it’s Potter who’s top of the pops right now,” says Richard Duffy, who runs The Potter Trail.
“The script has changed slightly over the years, but the content’s remained pretty much the same, and we now bring along wands and accessories so people can pose for photos along the way. And it’s true, it is entirely free, but there are no restrictions on making a donation at the end.”
Numerous coffee shops in the city claim to be the incubator of the then unemployed, penniless aspiring novelist’s imagination: counter-intuitively, some post a sign in the window declaring that Rowling has never once crossed the threshold. The Black Medicine Coffee Company, on the corner of Drummond Street, seizes the moral middle ground with a plaque declaring she wrote some of the early chapters on the first floor of the building, a mini essay in modest fame claiming.
The Potter Trail passes numerous city landmarks in Old Town, so it’s a sightseeing tour as much as anything else, and it’s certainly a way to get a handle on Edinburgh’s plethora of inventions, literary and otherwise.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of the cloning of Dolly the sheep by scientists at Edinburgh University, just one of a long list of discoveries claimed by Scotland that starts with golf (sternly disputed by Lanzhou University’s Ling Hongling) and ticks off adhesive postage stamps, the telephone, the television, the decimal point, marmalade and – a no-brainer perhaps, given the climate – the mackintosh.
Chief of Edinburgh’s many charms is that it’s extremely navigable. The castle, dating from the Middle Ages and 130 metres above sea level, trumps any mapping app, a tram purrs between the airport and York Place, just beneath the splendid lookout point that’s Calton Hill, a daily bus pass costs £4 (HK$40, thanks Brexit) and a 15-minute stroll downhill from the city centre leads to the charismatic suburb of Stockbridge.
The main street, Raeburn Place, is replete with butcher, baker, greengrocer, the George Mewes Cheese emporium, a Mexican artefacts boutique, and a SimplyFixIt for poorly Apples. It’s more like a village, with neighbours bantering in between generous portions of hake, braised chicory and pancetta at The Scran Scallie gastro pub or swapping titbits of local gossip at The Floatarium Spa, whose voluminous treatments menu even runs as far as microdermabrasion.
The Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art – Lichtenstien, Escher, Magritte, Dali plus other names well-known and less-so – lies a short stroll away in one direction, the Royal Botanic Garden’s 28 hectares in the other, while the Water of Leith Walkway – a 20km riverside hiking and cycling path that typifies Edinburgh’s rus-in-urbe persona – meanders past Stockbridge on its way between the former mill town of Balerno and Leith, on the Firth of Forth.
Edinburgh swings sharply into focus each August when its annual festival – started in 1947 by Austrian-born Jewish impresario Sir Rudolf Bing – submerges the city in all things arts and culture, and I still thrill to the decades-old memory of the multicultural parade of performers sweeping down Princes Street, headed – of course – by a bagpipe band, drums crashing and chanters skirling.
Nobody calls me “wee laddie” this time around; I somehow miss out on eating kippers, but they wouldn’t have tasted the same and I buy a couple of packs of oatcakes as souvenirs.
As for the kicker, I’ll leave it to Professor Alexander McCall Smith, bioethics expert, best-selling novelist and Edinburgh’s unofficial poet laureate: “This is a city of shifting light, of changing skies, of sudden vistas. A city so beautiful it breaks the heart again and again.”
The Edinburgh Fringe Festival runs until August 29. For details, visit www.edfringe.com.