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Letters from Edinburgh: Quick Change Terrain

In the second installment of her letters from Scotland, our writer watches Neighbors, hits the Highlands, and meets the most helpful shaggy dog in Scotland.

In the Fountainbridge district on the southwest edge of Edinburgh’s city center are two large breweries that, depending on time of day and wind direction, make the whole city smell like Vegemite. The smell is usually strongest in the early morning, before the streets get fussy with people and double-decker buses, though on occasion the starchy aroma hangs in the air from the time the newsstands open to when the pubs close down.

I’m starting to get the hang of living in Edinburgh; every day I feel a bit more anchored than I did the day before. The walls of my bedroom are no longer blank, and I know a good place for a cheap cup of coffee. Thanks to my flatmate Laura, the entire flat is hooked on Neighbors, a repulsively wholesome Australian soap opera on BBC One. All four of us convene in the evening for 20 commercial-free minutes to eat dinner and find out: Will Harold show Skye how to use the espresso machine?

Laura’s also the one responsible for turning me on to football. I played soccer in high school, so I’m fond of the game but not so much of watching it because the excitement of being on the field never transfers to the couch. However, watching football in pubs is a completely different experience. When you get to celebrate or scream ‘Fer fuckssake!’ alongside some of the most amiable people in the world, seeing someone kick a ball and chase it can be as exhilarating as doing it yourself.

Laura and I like to watch matches at the Bank Hotel Pub, an old stone building with dark wood tables, low lighting, and a widescreen TV nestled between portraits of Scottish writers and inventors. Laura’s boyfriend, Andrew, drives up from Paisley to catch a Celtic match with us. Celtic is a Glasgow team whose fans are traditionally Irish Catholic, and its archenemy is Rangers, the other Glasgow team whose fans are traditionally Protestant. Both Andrew and Laura are diehard Celtic followers, and Andrew tells me that he knows it’s ridiculous, but when Celtic plays Rangers, it means way more than people playing football on a field. Despite the fact that hardly any of the players are Scottish, by wearing a Celtic uniform they represent the Irish Catholic in years of religious unrest. His family moved from Ireland to Paisley, and for them supporting Celtic is like going to Mass: You grew up doing it. Every time I go to Bank Hotel with Laura it’s either to cheer for Celtic or cheer against Rangers.


* * *

I spend a weekend in the Highlands with the Photographic Society, a university club I joined at the societies fair early in October. There are only 12 of us on the trip, so we split up in two vans and drive up toward the west coast of Scotland, stopping anywhere we please along the way to hike and take pictures. The mountains in the Highlands are round, earthy orange rocks that reach up to the sky, where low clouds take big, white bites from their tops. Small streams run down from the crags and drip and freeze onto the footpaths, making them slicker than Edinburgh’s wet cobblestone streets (which are pretty darn slick). Miles of mountains run into flat marshland and placid, glass lochs, only to become thick forests that meet up with grassy hills mottled with sheep and cattle—and the weather makes just as many quick changes as the terrain. But it’s the Highland cows I love best, with their fat heads and golden Tina Turner-textured hair that covers their eyes.

We visit Stirling, Callander, Crianlarich, and Loch Lochmond before lodging at a youth hostel in Glencoe, a small village on Loch Linnhe that we can walk through in less than 20 minutes. All the houses are short and white with small features, and they spice the air with the scent of burning peat. Later in the evening our group heads out to Glencoe’s local pub for a pint and some folk music. The entire pub is singing along with the band but I don’t have the foggiest of the words so I just listen and pet a shaggy dog that keeps bringing me a dirty paper napkin. Three older men, completely piss-drunk, join me at my table and want to know where I’m from and what brings me to Glencoe. One of the guys explains to me that I, as a non-vegetarian American, must have been raised on Angus beef, a breed of cattle originally from Aberdeen, and therefore my coming to Scotland is actually a return to my roots. When I tell him I don’t follow his logic, his friend starts rollicking with laughter and loses control of his beer, emptying it across the table and into my lap—at which point, on cue, the shaggy dog with the dirty napkin comes racing to my aid.


* * *

My ticket for Italy sits, face up, in my desk drawer, resting until the end of the term in December. I have plenty of adventure to look forward to before then—a weekend at Laura’s house in Paisley, a couple days in London to see my family, the Tate Britain and the Tate Modern, plus I have a lot of studying to do—so I’m no hurry to rush through the next couple of weeks. Yet I keep opening the drawer, feeling a fast burst of excitement in my chest, thinking about bumming around Italy on my own.