The skies above the castle on the cliff had gone from shooting warming rays of sunlight to pelting me with bursting hail and stinging rain and back again. But despite the elements, and even if it never saw a day of sun again, Edinburgh would have been impossible to dislike. It’s a lofty, laid-back and quirky city. And depending on the results of a referendum in 2014, it could well become the capital of an independent Scotland for the first time in almost 300 years.
But I hadn’t come for the politics. Being of ambiguous Scottish stock, I simply wanted to get a glimpse of my ancestral land and to pay my respects to my favorite whiskies on the peat-covered Isle of Islay. As a companion, I’d brought along a copy of Robert Louis Stevenson’s early travel book Edinburgh: Picturesque Notes, which I’d recently found buried in the recesses of my local library. I thought I’d compare the present-day city to his 133-year-old observations.
From the castle, I ambled down the famous Royal Mile — now stuffed with souvenir shops, overpriced whisky and tourists’ pubs — past the skyscrapers of old and along what was once considered the most densely packed street in the world. As Stevenson lovingly described it: “Houses sprang up storey after storey, neighbour mounting upon neighbour’s shoulders, as in some Black Hole of Calcutta, until the population slept fourteen or fifteen deep in a vertical direction.”
But for all the filth and smoke that marred this congested thoroughfare in ages past, many still considered it one of the loveliest roads in Europe. Among the small alleys (called closes) and lanes (called wynds) that jet off toward private courtyards and the historic Grassmarket stands the 14th century High Kirk of Edinburgh, the so-called mother church of Presbyterianism, more commonly known as St. Giles’ Cathedral. It’s not far from the old house of the two-faced Deacon Brodie, a respected cabinetmaker during the day and notorious thief at night who would rob the houses of his friends and customers and later became the inspiration for Stevenson’s book The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
I turned on Old Fishmarket Close and descended to the subterranean street called the Cowgate, which is home to the BrewDog bar, one of Scotland’s most flavor-forward new breweries. Over a couple of hardy Tokyo Stouts, weighing in at an impressive 18.2 percent alcohol by volume, I got involved with a handful of regulars in a conversation about past English transgressions, the economics of going it alone and how strongly divided the country is on the issue — and, of course, about beer. As Scotland draws its proud descendants, scattered across the globe, BrewDog beckons to global beer geeks like me. Hours later, when the rain picked up again and my head started to clear, I walked off my cheerful, possibly naive thoughts of an independent Scotland on a stroll to the Greyfriars Kirk and surrounding cemetery. Here, in the 1820s, William Burke and William Hare, when not out murdering the city’s disadvantaged, stole recently buried bodies that weren’t guarded by friends or relatives to sell to the surgeon Robert Knox for his lectures on anatomy. Along with shocking the city at the time, these events would later influence Stevenson’s popular short story The Body Snatcher.