The contrast between old and new, sedate and quirky, mellow and brash, strikes me this warm summer day, the last day of August and the last day of Edinburgh’s summer festivals. This evening a firework display from the castle and its environs will burst, exuberant with stars and waterfalls of colour, into the night sky, lighting up in a rainbow of sequinned colours the craggy bastion of rock with the castle perched on top like a hat from a costume drama.
Below, in Princes Street and its gardens, visitors will gather to oooh and aaah at the spectacle. But this afternoon we are in the heart of the old town on the Royal Mile that slopes from the castle down to the Palace of Holyrood House, and to the modern structure, likened to a series of upturned boats, that is the new Scottish Parliament.
A large section of the street is closed to traffic, and here visitors swarm to view the shops, pore over the offerings in the myriad stalls, and linger watching the street entertainers. Eyes lift upwards, cameras follow, to photograph the buildings, the old closes, the more recent Georgian facades with their porticos and fancy fanlight windows above stout oak doors. And as eyes and cameras swivel to look down the Royal Mile they pick out in the distance the flash of blue-grey sea that is the Firth of Forth.
This is the beating heart of Edinburgh. Within a stone’s throw of the parliament are the law courts (behind the Georgian frontage of the Supreme Courts remains Parliament Hall, the Scandinavian oak hammer-beamed ceilinged hall of the original, pre-1707 Scottish parliament), the buildings housing the authorities that run the city and the wider region, the buildings of the Signet Library and the Advocates Library (adjacent to the National Library of Scotland), and St Giles Cathedral, the oldest part of which dates from the twelfth century.
Here too is the Mercat Cross, though of Victorian structure it marks the place where proclamations were, and still are, read out. And nearby three brass plates at the edge of the pavement indicate the site of the gallows in 1864 for the last public execution in Edinburgh.
On one side of the road you will find the famous Deacon Brodies Tavern, a reminder of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. On the other side, a new hotel has taken over from a bland sixties corporate building, built in a vaguely modern traditional style. And to be found in abundance are shops selling tartan and cashmere, kilts and scarves and hats, jackets and bags, T-shirts with Scottish and celtic emblems, Scottish rugby tops, quality goods and the occasional tat.
Lining the street are pubs and restaurants selling food from around the world as well as those specialising in world-renowned Scottish produce, whisky and tablet. It’s the variation that provides interest and excitement, added to by the stalls selling colourful hats, clothes from who-knows-where and jewellery in silver, beads, braids, stones, and glass. Artists abound, selling small paintings or prints, as well as those intrepid creatives who, with a flick of wrist and brush or pen, will capture you, or produce a caricature of your husband or partner.
My ears pick up a sound, music, sentimental like an air from a Victorian music hall. Perched on a stool, by the plinth of a monument to Adam Smith, is a man playing a saw, at his side a line of rusty ones, their jagged teeth planed smooth.
The sweet voice of a young woman straggles through the crowd. With long fair hair, she looks very young and her guitar seems to dwarf her, but she has obviously done such gigs numerous times and barely misses word or beat as she thanks those who throw coins into her case.
A large crowd has gathered in the centre of the road and a voice can be heard urging people to raise their arms, clap hands above heads. In an opening created by a movement of watchers I click my camera. A man appears to be dancing around a chain saw. Later I stop again by the crowd. The photo I take is of the same man stripped to the waist standing on a platform. What attracted the crowd and kept them riveted I have no idea. But this is Edinburgh, the festival, the Fringe, and anything goes.