The Flower of Scotland: Being Charmed in Edinburgh

29 September 2015

The Fringe Festival is Edinburgh in a nutshell: three weeks of comedy, craziness and brilliant creativity , it perfectly embodies the city's idiosyncratic charms. But the wily old Scot is more than the Fringe, the world's largest annual arts festival. Michael John Oliver went exploring.

 

Edinburgh Fringe Festival perfomers, 2013. Credit: Stephen Finn / Shutterstock.com. Edinburgh Fringe Festival perfomers, 2013. Credit: Stephen Finn / Shutterstock.com.

 

 

"That there," a kilted piper pointed, "Is a dormant volcano."

"That just looks like a hill," I said.

I arrived in Scotland's capital on the last weekend of its Fringe Festival. Many big acts had been and gone but a carnival atmosphere pervaded amid the last hurrahs and revues.

Edinburgh's streets were littered with performers of different stripes. Old Town - Fringe Central - is like a minstrel fair: magicians, dancers, flautists, and ventriloquists peppered the cobblestone paths.

But you're never far from bagpipes belting out “Flower of Scotland”, the country's unofficial national anthem.

Our piper, nestled in a crook just outside the entrance to Edinburgh castle, had just finished a set. Much like the changing of the Queen's Guard, as he stepped away another piper took his place. If Edinburgh is in want of a slogan, "Pipers Aplenty" would be on-brand.

I asked him for some city highlights.

"You a Kiwi then?" he asked. "I've been to Auckland. Your entire city is full of hills and volcanos."

That's true. "But I'm not from Auckland."

He winked. "Aye, no one ever is."

The hill is called Arthur's Seat, he explained. It's the largest of a three-part volcano rising out of nearby Holyrood Park that last erupted some 360 million years ago. He promised it was worth the climb and that I must relay the views back to him.

"I'll be around," he said. "Money's good today."

From the peak of Arthur's Seat, Edinburgh pans out like a gothic playset. To the north, its eponymous castle stands proud, as beautiful outside as inside (and £18 cheaper). The dusty spire of the Scott Monument punctuates Princess Street Garden, while the sandstone arches of the Scottish National Gallery boasts an impressive collection of classical art.

Edinburgh is a procession of hills. A day of marching up and down them should be rewarded with a visit to one of the city's fine whiskey bars. The Bow Bar in Old Town is arguably the best drop of them all. It boasts more than 100 kinds of whiskey, from modern drams to a 45-year-old Glenglassaugh Massandrar (a tumbler of which carves £80 off your wallet).

But, in late August, the pull of the Fringe can't be understated. The city is awash with posters for acts as varied as the colours of the highlands in the distance. The best way to experience the festival? Stumbling upon a makeshift theatre and taking in a free show, sight unseen.

I found a basement divided by bedsheets on tent poles into three unique spaces. Two stages flanked a jerry-rigged bar in the middle. It was there I met a troupe of Croatian English students who were performing nearby – a Tom Stoppard play, no less. They insisted upon speaking entirely in American accents. "It's close to show time," one explained. "We need to warm up."

There lies the heart of this gorgeous place: it's a city-wide theatre, plucked out of time and punctuated with by long, loaming countryside. You can't help but feel part of the performance and lucky for such a stage.

With night bearing in I wandered back towards the castle to thank the piper, chip in a few pounds, and concede his volcano was probably cooler than mine.

He was nowhere to be found, but near where he stood a young fella no older than 15 began breathing the bars of “Flower of Scotland” to life. An old song for an old city primed for new adventures.

Michael Oliver

Michael John Oliver is a New Zealand-born, London-based freelance writer. He has contributed to The Guardian, Newstalk ZB and 3 News Online.