Breathes there a man,
with soul so dead,
who never to himself
“This is my own.
My native land”.
Forget A Tale of Two Cities – this is a tale of one city with two very different faces.
An evening stroll through Edinburgh’s Old Town to its New Town, visiting some of Edinburgh’s oldest pubs on the way, offers an entertaining evening of enlightenment told through the Capital’s rich and varied literary history.
The two characters who lead the illuminating promenade are Clart (a Scots word for muck or a mucky person) and McBrain. Clart (Paul Murray) is a coarse, whisky-drinking, bawdy, feet–on-the-ground type who doesn’t shy from life’s realities. McBrain (Hilde McKenna) is a pinkie up, bool-in-the mooth, teetotaller who has pretensions of the finer things in life and prefers a sanitised view of the world.
Their opposing views perfectly embody the Capital’s dual characteristics that have so often been shown in Scottish literature, from Hogg’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner to Stevenson’s better known Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde.
Starting off in the top room of the Grassmarket’s old Beehive Inn, the characters begin their spiky dialogue. Their style is direct and informal. Their costume is everyday, relying solely on their not inconsiderable skills of memory and acting that has also to accommodate the promenade style and ever changing audience.
While the audience is addressed in English, the texts quoted are in Scots and the actors take the opportunity to explain the importance of a language in any culture – even a language that has faded from use in formal life but remains very much alive informally and in literature.
The emphasis is less on understanding every word, and more on listening to the very different sounds and rhythms of Scots. They do give some explanations, but the overriding sense is of the existence of a separate tongue. This is done to particular effect at the end of the tour in the back room of the Kenilworth with a recitation of a verse from Hugh MacDiarmid’s poem Bonnie Broukit Bairn.