Letters from Edinburgh: Colorful Lullabies

In the first of her series of letters from Scotland, our writer moves into her flat, learns the Scottish hoedown, and goes on a countryside jaunt that turns out to be anything but Withnail & I.

I am the first person to arrive at the flat—which turns out to be a small cluster of four bedrooms, a single bathroom, and a kitchen—located on the second floor of a large building on Cowgate, in the Old Town region of Edinburgh. Getting from the airport to my building and up the stairs is pie since I’m only toting my laptop and a single suitcase that can’t fit much more than my coat, my scarf, and my Italian dictionary (unabridged).

It’s late afternoon and I’m drinking water out of a saucepan the previous occupants left behind, when I notice a hard drumbeat pushing up at me, through the floor. I wander to the front of the building and peer out to discover not only that the windowless business beneath our flat is one of Edinburgh’s many pubs—but also that my bedroom window overlooks its entrance.


* * *

I’m in Scotland for an academic year—late September thru late June—to study English and Italian literature at the University of Edinburgh. Many areas of campus are simply stunning, especially New College (built in 1846) and Old College (founded in 1789), though to be honest I am best acquainted with the main campus library in George Square—particularly the third-floor old lending stock, where I sit by the windows, inhale stale books, and take turns finding Middle English hard and Neorealism impossible. But it’s all good, since from my post I can see Scotland’s mild sunset transform the rooftops, hills, greens, and grasses into shimmering gold tinsel.

To me Edinburgh is the stuff of gothic novels: shops and tenements, spires and gray stones that are still patchy with soot from years of burning coal, that line windy cobblestone streets—weaving between and under bridges, leading to food markets, antiquarian bookshops with doorbells, and deteriorating graveyards. The architecture coupled with the weather—brisk, windy days, generally overcast skies, and an hour of cold rain daily – create a Jane Eyre atmosphere that suckers me in. Often it’s the kind of weather that pinks cheeks and puts hands in pockets but since I’m a sweater-and-scarf kind of girl I’m smitten. I am, however, warned my enthusiasm will sway once winter sets in and it starts getting dark by 3:00 p.m.

In the first week of the term my flatmates and I attend a ceilidh (pronounced ‘kay-lee’), which is basically a huge Scottish hoedown where getting pissed (pronounced ‘way-sted’) is optional, but dancing is not. Laura, my flatmate who is from Paisley, a town on the outskirts of Glasgow, explains to me that Scottish kids learn these traditional dances early in secondary-school physical-education class and then do them a couple times a year at formals and local ceilidhs. Watching ruddy-faced guys in kilts twirl girls around the floor, every one of them whooping and slapping hands, I wish that my PE classes and school formals could have been half as souped-up as theirs. The amount of times I miss my turn or tromp on some poor bloke’s toes is higher than I can count, but if anyone notices they certainly don’t care. The ceilidh is exactly what Laura promised: pure fun.


* * *

Toward the middle of October I board a bus for Shap, England, to participate in a ‘home stay’ for international students. I’m initially reluctant about the trip because I registered for it well before my workload began and before I enjoyed having weekends to indulge in the things I largely ignore during the week. It’s a good thing the ticket is already paid for because otherwise I might have skipped the most exciting weekend of my life for sleep, booze, and The Guardian.

I meet my host, Rob, in the parking lot. He’s a lanky man wearing a forehead-to-chin grin and a weathered black coat and mud-splattered pants. He zooms down two-way roads barely wide enough to fit one Fiat and at one point quickly pulls off, mere centimeters from the surrounding stone fence, to let a speeding SUV by—but not without a slight rebuff. ‘You’ve got the bloody four-wheel drive and I’m the one goin’ off road! Fuhhckin’ nutter!’ When we reach the end of a dirt road in the village of Griseburn Rob turns off the ignition to his rickety van and explains that there is no road to his cottage, only a path between two sheep farms, and it’s a 250-meter walk. He and his partner Sue bought the cottage in 1987 for next to nothing because that’s how about all the money they had and they liked the fact that unless you live there you couldn’t possibly know where it was. As I’m a person who ignores doorbells and turns the ringer off, Rob and Sue win my affection instantly.

Excluding the vibrant green window frames and plants potted in old hiking boots, the outside of the cottage looks like something straight out of Withnail and I (which actually takes place in Penrith, a town an hour and a half away). The interior of the cottage isn’t like anything out of movies or magazines—but rather out of sheer imagination. The walls and doors are painted in brilliant hues of reds, yellows, golds, oranges, and blues. Every nook displays something: cookbooks, guitars, a penny whistle, paintings—and there’s stuff everywhere. And somehow not an inch of their cottage looks cluttered. Each item sits happily in its place looking well-used and well-loved. Rob stays at home, tinkering with the house, working in the garden, and taking care of their three kids. Sue works full time, running a youth center in nearby Appleby.

Rob and I quickly find common ground as music geeks when I show interest in the back issues of Q, Uncut, and Mojo that hog up half the cottage. I tell him about my disastrous night at the student-union pub, doing slurred karaoke to The Small Faces’ ‘Itchycoo Park.’ He breaks into hysterics when he hears about my failed attempt to bring the crowd into the call-and-response chorus and says I would have been a massive hit with their dads. I take this as a huge compliment.

Sue and her youngest son Zeph take me on a hike to see ‘Water Cut,’ by Mary Bourne, one of ten sculptures that line the Eden River. Stone fences built hundreds of years ago stretch from the top of the hills to the trickle of the road below, demarcating one farm from the next. I watch as a shepherd whistles to his sheepdog, who in turn collects a spill of sheep into a cloud of wool and directs them through a gate in a matter of seconds. From the sculpture at the top of hill all the surrounding land comes into view, forming an oddly shaped present that’s wrapped in dense, green paper and polka-dotted white with sheep.

For the weekend I sleep on a loft in the part of the house that has no heat, so I’m given enough blankets to break a four-story fall—all but one of which sports a Hanna-Barbera theme. Both nights I lay awake for some time, in part because it’s flat-out thrilling to be here, but more because there’s no drunken ribaldry or drum ‘n’ bass to rock me to sleep.