The Royal Mile (Edinburgh Re-Visited)

Thirty seven years ago, I spent a lot of time in Scotland. Over the course of eighteen months, I was in Edinburgh on  seven occasions. Sometimes I was there for two weeks. Sometimes I was there for three days. It was all work related but plenty of leisure time to see the sights…to take a Saturday trip to Inverness and walk around Culloden Battlefield or go to a pre-season football match between Dunfermline and Hartlepool United or freeze watching Hearts Reserves against Raith Rovers Reserves.

Staying in the Inverleith B&Bs with other colleagues from Belfast, Newry, Derry and Enniskillen. Having the waitress in a bar near Edinburgh Castle come to our noisy table….we had been celebrating a good night at Powder Hall Greyhound Stadium and tell us that we should leave. Our accents were agitating the off-duty soldiers from the Castle. I dont know if they were the brave Scottish Soldiers that Andy Stewart used to sing about. All we knew…Catholic nationalist from West Belfast or Protestant unionist from Coleraine….was that in 1978 in Edinburgh, this was a very bad pub to be in.

Edinburgh always struck me as a strange city. Little to do on a Presbyterian Sunday. And Conservative. Despite the dubious link to the Highlands and Jacobites and a tourist industry that bought into “shortbread tin” Scottish Nationalism, all the evidence pointed to a very unionistimage image image


Indeed I recall one Victorian hotel was called the “North Britain Hotel”. Of course, even in 1978, I knew that West Briton was a term of abuse for Dubliners who showed some unionist or pro-British sentiment. But Edinburgh was different in pre-Thatcherite times. They embraced the term “North Briton”. It under-scored the legal, business and political Establishment.

The last time I was in Edinburgh was the early part of 1979. I had not yet met Mrs Fitzjames Horse but we have talked for several years about going there. In part, I wanted to show her part of my life that she has never seen. The cluster of B&Bs around the old Training Centre. And the functional Edinburgh around Princess Street and the historic Edinburgh up on the Hill. GOD knows I had forgotten just how steep that hill is. In 1978 and 1979, I was up and down the Royal Mile like a mountain goat. But in 2015, It was really hard on our elderly knees.

So what did I learn from this?

I dont think I ever noticed the park benches in Princess Street before. Many dedicated to Scottish (British) regiments and many dedicated to individuals “who loved this city”. Yet the one that struck me most was the bench dedicated to the International Brigade who fought in the Spanish Civil War. It is pictured above as is the more conventional statue dedicated to the Black Watch (also above).

The Castle is as I always remember it…British rather than Scottish. It did after all hold out against the Jacobites in 1745 and indeed much of the Royal Mile leading downhill from the Castle is very “Establishment”….St Giles Cathedral, the University, the David Hume statue, the Heart of Midlothian mosaic (above) , Deacon Brodies, John Knoxs House (above).Little has changed. There is a flavour of antiquity in the high buildings where it is easy to imagine the population looking out of those windows to gaze on the public executions

For my taste, there was too much “shortbread tin” Scottishness in the kiltmakers, whisky shops and souvenir shops on the Royal Mile. The large men wearing kilts, who owned or worked in these shops struck me as “Tartan Tories” rather than Scottish Nationalists.

There is a lot of History in the Royal Mile and within the “old” city. The City was once walled and there is certainly a lot to see…this is the city of Robert Louis Stevenson, of a very deprived underclass who lived in caves below the streets. It is the city of Burke and Hare (the grave robbers) of Walter Scott (a very impressive memorial in Princess Street).

It is the city of Greyfriars Bobby. It is the city of….Harry Potter tours.

Oddly the National Museum of Scotland had little to interest a Jacobite historian. Three cabinets of fairly mundane artefacts and the only surviving Jacobite flag from The Battle of Culloden. All captured Jacobite banners were ritually burned by the Edinburgh Hangman, after the Battle.

But overall my impression was that while Edinburgh went “nationalist” in May’s Westminster Election, there is something in and around the Castle…the Militarism of the Edinburgh Tattoo and the “Establishment” that is still very much West Briton in character.

It contrasts unfavourably, with Glasgow and I find this odd. In the 1970s Edinburgh at least had an aspect of (shortbread tin) Scottishness while Glasgow had the air of a British city…a Labour stronghold.

There has been an odd role reversal.





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4 Responses to The Royal Mile (Edinburgh Re-Visited)

  1. Political tourist says:

    Have you read the book, Edinburgh Divided by Tom Gallagher.

    • Yes I have.
      Edinburgh is very different from Glasgow.
      I tend to think that the problem in Glasgow is between unionist and nationalist. The problem in Edinburgh is between protestant and catholic.
      Edinburgh is older more established and the mutual hatred in Edinburgh goes back to the Reformation, Mary Queen of Scots and John Knox …Covenanteers, Jacobites etc.
      There IS a football dimension in Edinburgh (Hearts/Hibs) and a lot of anti Irish feeling (Burke and Hare).
      But the Cormack Riots between the wars and even the Miss Jean Brodie attitudes placed Edinburgh in a very Anti-Catholic tradition.
      Glasgow is for the most part a modern city. So the hatred is not in the ancient walls to the same extent. The animosity in Glasgow is football and Irish politics against a background of religion.
      Certainly the only times I encountered unpleasantness in Scotland was in Edinburgh. Of course it WAS at the time when the Troubles were on. There was the incident in the bar near the Castle, there was also a couple of occasions (taxi drivers etc) where we felt unwelcome.
      People from other parts of Scotland, including a Rangers supporter from Kilmarnock trained along with us and they didnt seem to have the same problems with us as Edinburgh colleagues.
      In part there was a jealousy on the part of Edinburgh staff that people from Belfast, Derry, Newry….Aberdeen, Kilmarnock, Inverness… were there in B&Bs and on a daily expenses which financed bars, greyhound racing, football….but the Edinburgh people did not have that.

  2. Political tourist says:

    Believe Edinburgh has another claim to fame.
    More schoolchildren per head of population go to fee paying schools.

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