Edinburgh is a damn near perfect city for tourists. It’s small and manageable, lots of the museums are free, and it seems that there’s a pub on every corner. There are lots of touristy tsotchke stores, but they all seem to sell Scotch whisky, kilts, and scarves, so it’s not too bad. People are generally quite nice, and if we speak slowly and clearly, they can understand our thick American accents without too much trouble.
Whereas many big cities have goofy tourist traps like wax museums or Believe-It-Or Not joints, the dorkiest tourist attraction in Edinburgh is something called The Scotch Whisky Experience, which includes a theme park-style trip in a whisky barrel through a virtual distillery, hosted by a moustachioed 19th century hologram. After the ride is over, visitors get a short course in how Scotch is made (complete with scratch and sniff cards – no joke!), followed by a tasting and a visit to the world’s largest collection of whisky bottles. And you get to keep the tasting glass! It was the best tourist trap I’ve been to in years. Oh, and my favorite part about the place is that they offer tours for schoolchildren! You gotta love Scotland.
For all you people who cringe and whinge about the thoughts of haggis, please get over yourselves. As for the vegetarians among you, well, I suppose it’s all meat to your ilk.
Anyway, haggis. Basically, they take a bunch of sheep parts, grind them up, add some spices and oatmeal, and boil the whole thing. That may sound a little nasty, but I think it’s delicious. It’s basically like giblet stuffing. If you think of it that way you’ll be just fine. It’s traditionally served with a small mound of pureed parsnips and a pile of mashed potatoes, and sold as “haggis, neeps, and tatties” which sounds like a Scottish strip joint if you ask me.
One of the important features of haggis, neeps, and tatties is that you get your meat, your vegetables, and your simple carbohydrates in a package that doesn’t require teeth. I suspect that nursing homes across the country rejoice in this.
There’s more to Scottish cuisine than haggis. One extremely good example is a place called Timberyard, a gastropubby joint that is up there with the best places we’ve eaten on this trip. Like many hipster havens, the restaurant is a repurposed old warehouse, complete with exposed ductwork and brick, and the ingredients are sourced from local organic farmers who sing their kohlrabi and salsify to sleep.
There are small batch microbrews and staff with 1920s haircuts and fluffy beards and armloads of tattoos. I know that this makes me shallow, but I always take these to be promising signs.
We tucked in. We started with one of those dishes that makes me groan with unctuous, savory ecstasy – a duck pate served with a duck heart speared on a small stick. It was as if Donald Duck’s girlfriend cheated on him and this was all that was left of him – an impaled heart and a pickled liver.
Donald’s loss was our gain. We followed with a bright salad of prawn, crab, fennel, mustard leaf, and dill that was happiness and light after all that gothic drama. Then there was a smoked curd topped with thin sliced pickled beets, served with this stuff called ramson, or bear’s garlic, which is a garlicky bulb that grows around here. After that we had a bass with a crispy skin, some kind of yummy foam, and a bit of turnip that was as close to a perfect fish dish as I’ve had. Then came the main event – smoked beef with an arrangement of ingenious accompaniments – braised daikon that had been shaped to look like a lotus root, pickled cauliflower stalks, as well as braised or pickled cabbage and kohlrabi (presumably the ones that were sung to sleep by their farmers). The beef had been smoked and then grilled, but mercifully only just past rare. Getting rare meat in these mad-cow-mad British Isles practically requires a bribe accompanied by a liability waiver. But these tattoo parlor enthusiasts know what they’re doing, and they served up their beef the right way, bless them. I, for one, will be the first to donate to their legal defense fund.
My mother has joined us for the last leg of our trip, which has been great fun. She’s been an avid follower of the blog and when she joined us in Argentina in January I asked her to pick another place to meet us, and she chose Scotland. She seems to be having fun.
There is no shortage of dandy cultural things to do and see here. The Scottish National Gallery has a great collection of medieval and renaissance art, as well as Scottish art, and it’s free. As is a rambling but very informative museum of the City of Edinburgh, which helped me get my bearings and better understand Scottish history. We also climbed the 287 steps to the top of Scott Tower, dedicated to that famous but impenetrable author, Sir Walter Scott. (A brief digression – when I was a young actor I appeared on a celebrity edition of Wheel of Fortune. Playing for some lady in the Midwest, I was about to solve the puzzle but crashed and burned when I couldn’t come up with S_r Wa_ter S_ _ tt. Or something like that. This did not inspire me to read Ivanhoe, but I will nevertheless never forget Sir Walter Scott, that bum.)
My favorite attraction by far, however, was Holyrood Palace, the Scottish residence of the Queen. She comes up to Edinburgh as part of the Royal Family’s annual summer vacation to Balmoral Castle. Holyrood is an intensely Scottish place, though, and visitors can see the bedroom of Mary Queen of Scots, as well as the anteroom where her private secretary David Rizzio was murdered by Mary’s jealous husband, Lord Darnley. You just can’t make this stuff up. When the Queen is in town, the palace is used for royal events, where she has hosted heads of state, and even Pope Benedict. In the off season, though, for fifteen bucks you can wander the halls where all this history continues to take place. It’s as opulent as you might expect, but it’s still very much a working building, which makes it special.
The most exciting part of the visit happened when my mother went missing. She’s small, but she’s not that small. I retraced my steps and then re-entered the building from the front and worked my way through the entire building, but I just couldn’t find her. I spoke to several security guards, who issued A.P.B.s on their walkie talkies, but nobody had seen her. I finally did the intelligent thing and sent her a text. Turns out she was off in the Palace Gardens. Who knew?
Finally, we had the get the bad taste of Keswick’s Theatre by the Lake out of our mouths, which we did quite effectively with The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, a very moving play about autism, based on the novel by Mark Haddon. It’s also on Broadway and it was just nominated for a best play Tony, and I hope it wins. Good heavens, but it’s fun when theater is this good.
We will soon be heading north to another castle, near Inverness, because we just can’t get enough of all this Scottish castle stuff. By the way, yesterday was May Day, an official bank holiday here in Scotland, which is meant to commemorate the coming of the warm weather. This must be a joke. We’re freezing our bippies off, but then again, this is Scotland.