Sunday, 21 October 2007

‘One can love a country until it hurts’

It was good to have finished Alexander McCall Smith’s The Careful Use of Compliments just days before visiting Edinburgh. I’ve long been a fan of McCall Smith’s effortless, cool prose – and reading one of his Scotland Street or Isabel Dalhousie novels is like enjoying a particularly fine afternoon tea, with perfectly assembled sandwiches and cakes, partaken in the company of some delightful and interesting friends. There’s a hint of cosiness, but never anything too sweet or cloying. When I started reading, I was a little worried that this latest offering was going to fall short of its predecessors and I began to wonder whether there was a hint of the formulaic – a good idea grown a little tired and lifeless. Luckily, my fears were allayed once the book got going (or perhaps once I got going with it), and I ended up enjoying it every bit as much as I had the previous books in the series.

On my train journey from Berwick-upon-Tweed into Edinburgh on Wednesday, following the coast round to the west, via Dunbar and North Berwick - the Bass Rock glowing yellowy-white in the autumn sunshine as if illuminated from within, the Firth of Forth an inky blue – I remembered the words of Isabel Dalhousie: ‘The whole point of being in Scotland was that one was in Scotland’ and ‘One can love a country until it hurts’.

Spent the morning mainly exploring the Old Town streets and shops – revisiting familiar places and happening upon new ones.

Top favourite shopping discovery for the day was Ragamuffin, on the corner of Canongate and the Royal Mile. A sensory treasure-house of hand-made textiles – from coats, shirts and skirts, to knitwear and accessories, including some by Hume sweet Hume (a big favourite of mine). I was in heaven – though it took me an age and a half to make a decision between the hundreds of delights on offer.

In the end I contracted a sudden onset of Bookshop Syndrome and came out with two items instead of one – well, three, in fact, but one was definitely a birthday present for a friend rather than a(nother) greedy self-indulgence. I told myself quite convincingly that I’d keep one scarf and give the other as a Christmas present, but once I got them home I realised that they’d both accidentally ended up in my chest of drawers. I can’t think how that happened, but I guess I’ll simply have to accept, gracefully, that it has, and try to make the best of things.

The softest imaginable, mossy knitted alpaca scarf:

Festive textures and intense, rich colour (this photo doesn’t do it justice at all):

The one thing I was really looking for – the much-needed Timberland boots - eluded me all morning. Just wasn’t in the right part of the city.

Lunched in the justly renowned Cafe Royal Bar:

Click here and scroll down to see the huge tile portraits of famous inventors which are a special feature of the decor – I sat directly beneath Robert Peel having a eureka moment with his calico printing machine.

Ordered Guinness (naturally) and a smoked salmon, cream cheese and cucumber sandwich. The latter came, rather surprisingly, with a portion of plump, crisp chips and a leafy side-salad. Chips with sandwiches? Well, it is Scotland – and with all that running up and down steep hills and steps all over the city, I suppose the extra calories are probably deemed necessary. I chomped my way happily through the lot without demur, anyway.

A huge coffee followed, which I enjoyed while perusing that morning’s Scotsman newspaper. I gave up on the crossword after a minute and a half (crosswords have never been my forte - or even my pianissimo), but enjoyed an episode of Volume 5 of Alexander McCall Smith’s tales from Scotland Street, which are serialised in the paper before being published in book form.

Decided to tackle the shops on Princes Street and its environs in a final desperate push for some Sensible Footwear. Eventually found a branch of Jones on George Street which stocked a pair of Timberland Nellies in my size. Not pink, not lilac, not blue or red or purple. Just boring brown. But they did the trick – my feet went ‘ahhhh, thank you’; my Visa card went ‘ouch!’, and I got a free bar of chocolate at the till for being a good girl.

Suitably attired for a good brisk walk, I set off for the Gallery of Modern Art , which is off to the West, over the Water of Leith, and just beyond Dean village. Bathed in sumptuous golden light, the city looked ethereally beautiful. I had never seen Edinburgh in anything other than damp, grey weather, so it was an absolute treat and a delight.

Water of Leith from Belford Bridge.

The Virgin of Alsace by Bourdelle - in the grounds of the Dean Gallery.

Charles Jencks' prizewinning Landform Ueda - a stepped, serpentine-shaped mound and crescent-shaped pools of water in the grounds at the front of the gallery. Part artwork, part landscaping - you can climb all over it and I wish I'd had time to exploit its huge photographic potential.

The Gallery is a favourite haunt of old. Its permanent collection includes the paintings which, aged 15, inspired me to study Art History. Here are some I particularly love. I can’t describe how wonderful it was to see them up close and personal once again:

Bonnard - View of the River, Vernon 1923.

Derain - Collioure 1905.

Matisse - The Painting Lesson 1919.
Vuillard - Nature morte au bougeoir c.1900.

Peploe - Still Life c.1913.

Having arrived later than intended, I didn’t have time to do justice to the current Richard Long exhibition, unfortunately, though there were some interesting pieces dotted around outside the show itself – notably Cornish Slate Cross, which I was able to survey while enjoying a Nice Cup of Tea in the gallery cafe.

Back into town – now teeming with people who’d finished work – to meet a friend for tea before my train home. Went to The Elephant House – an intriguingly decorated cafe, which claims to be 'The Birthplace of Harry Potter', because this is apparently where J K Rowling often 'mulled over a coffee writing her first Harry Potter novel'. (I suspect that places where this is supposed to have occurred will soon be as ubiquitous as venues claiming that ‘Elizabeth I slept here’, or 'Mary, Queen of Scots was held captive here’.)

There wasn't a lot of time before my train back to Berwick, but we managed several cups of Earl Grey. There's nothing like drinking tea in a good cafe in excellent company!

Soon I was speeding eastward through the dark on the King's Cross train. There was nothing to see from the windows, so I flicked through my Companion Guide to the Gallery and reflected on my long but thoroughly rewarding, sunny and memorable day.


Anonymous said...

Fantastic post - I just went on a fabulous trip to Scotland and my feet didn't even leave the ground. Love those scarves - one of them looks like an arty interpretation of a couple of your other photos.

60GoingOn16 said...

Well, I just drowned in this gorgeous post, which brought back so many happy memories of Edinburgh. No wonder that Kirstie and Phil (of C4's Location, Location, Location) revealed it last night as the UK's best place to live - at least according to their 2007 survey.

It also happens to be where my beautiful, rehomed black Labrador comes from. Needless to say, he does think he's a rather superior sort of Labrador.

Juliet said...

Diane - your black lab is just gorgeous - I'll bet he has a deep, seductive Scottish bark, as well! He looks mighty fine in that blue scarf. He's inspired me to post a photo of my black lab's footprints!