Breathes there a man,
with soul so dead,
who never to himself
“This is my own.
My native land”.
A city like Jekyll and Hide: Authors and tourists alike appreciate its sinister charm.
Klaus von Seckendorff
At least Mr Clart got round to praising Scottish beer. Quoting the words of Burns, it is a literary pub crawl, after all. As he goes on to describe encounters of Wordsworth and other 18th century poets as "serious drinking and thinking", he finally gets interrupted. A lady in a knitted woollen jumper retorts "I didn't come here to find out about grimy drinking holes!" Mrs McBrain seems a quaint, cranky bookworm, whose world can neither accommodate Burns' drinking songs, nor his illegitimate children. However, the audience soon realise: this know-all is part of the spectacle, a true counterpart of smart Clart. Thus, the tour with its two characters pays tribute to Edinburgh's grand theme - duality - the gap between posh facades and hidden passions, Jekyll's respectability and Hyde's depravity.
"The entire city leads a double life", Robert Louis Stevenson claimed, and discreetly transposed the story of Jekyll's split personality to London in 1886. The model for his "strange case" of multiple personalities was a citizen of Edinburgh: an esteemed town councillor during the day, a ruthless thief by night, Deacon Brodie got the money for gambling and two fastidious mistresses by way of robbing those whose houses and shops he entered during the day as a cabinet maker. He scanned their riches and copied their keys, until he was hanged in 1788, and about 40.000 people came to watch.
Steep piles of stone
"The Deacon's House CafÈ", situated in Brodie's old workshop is a perfectly harmless tourist trap. But for visitors entering Brodie's Close, one of the passageways connecting the Royal Mile with courtyards along the sides, it is easy to understand why Dorothy Wordsworth talked of grim alleys reminding her of steep shafts in quarries when she visited Scotland in 1822. The buildings along the Royal Mile were up to 12 storeys high, forming the backbone of the Old Town, connecting the caslte and Holyrood Palace.
Now that sewage systems have replaced cleansing rain showers and nocturnal pig raids, the houses called "lands" are increasingly popular. It is above all students who appreciate some comfort in the middle of the busy centre. Businesses find the location equally desirable - the upper third of the Royal Mile, near the castle, is a touristic mecca. In the shops, tartans prevail, as does shortbread, and the drink which is only labelled "Scotch" by ignorant foreigners. It comes from Scotland, so it is "Scottish", and if it isn't, it's hardly worth drinking, anyway.
The Mile is Scottish as long as you avoid the Festival season. During that time, the city of 500.000 goes mental with twice as many visitors. Up to 20.000 Fringe shows are taking up every scrap of space available, the Royal Mile becomes a stage for clowns and jugglers, and there are fierce matches of panpipes vs bagpipes.
The city knows how to dramatise itself, be it in the accurate choreography of the Military Tattoo, or in Edinburgh's popular all-year-round entertainments: Spooky theme walks, on the trail of witch finders and whore slayers, pestilence and pain, ghosts and ghouls. During the summer season, this can lead to grotesque scenes: "We were here first", hisses a pale ghost, as two other "Ghost Tours" approach the same atmospheric backyard. "Get lost!" a woman shouts from an upstairs window. She has only just managed to get her baby to sleep, and is set to fight the spooky crowd with a bucket of water.
But there are also more serious eerie walks, such as the Underground tour to Mary King's Close. Underground because this early C16 passageway was covered up a 150 years later. The city hall reaches 12 storeys, at whose foot a steel door yields the passage to the "lost city". About 300 people lived there, when the plague spread in 1645, and the close was closed up: a brutal quarantaine.
Even a bunch of 14-year-old boys feel wobbly when guide Jim explains how two men, who were considered "immune" had to get rid of the bodies. No wonder that there have been rumours of apparitions ever since. Wandering the rooms which are more like cellars, Jim tells us about the fate of the close inhabitants, but he does not try to prove as a fact apparitions like "Little Annie": "I leave this to your imagination. But some guests on this tour have repeatedly claimed to have seen an eight-year old girl. One woman got her a tartan-clad Barbie, and gifts have been accumulating ever since." Again, the cool boys seem quite impressed, when Jim shows us a room crammed full of toys, photos, coins and good luck tokens. "I hope you will find peace", a ten-year old girl wrote on a note for Annie.
Until the end of the 19th century, businessmen and artisans lived in the close. Jim leads us into a whitewashed room with lots of hooks on the ceiling. "A butcher's shop" This is how Edinburgh's most famous crime author, Ian Rankin, described it. In his novel "Mortal Causes", a young man's body is hanging from those hooks. But Mr Chesney in whose shop we are, was not a butcher - he made saw blades, and kept them safe here, under the ceiling.
Mercat Tours is the largest tour operator, and they feature entertainments, whose main goal it is to get a maximum amount of female guests to scream and seek shelter in the arms of their male escorts. Flimsy mock-torture games with volunteers, nightly visits on graveyards, ostentatious ghost stories and candlelight. Visitors with a serious interest in the darker aspects of progress at Edinburgh's medical school should investigate into the world of the body snatchers by themselves. Already in the 18th century, the increasing demand for bodies to be dissected for scientific reasons caused people to dig out the dead soon after the funeral. One of the graves in Greyfriar's Churchyard is fortified with iron grids.
There were also watchtowers to discourage body snatchers. Faced with the increasing risks, the Irishmen James Hare and William Burke developed a technique of getting poor souls drunk and suffocating them with a pillow in the early 19th century. First-rate bodies without injuries were sold to the anatomy department. Hidden away behind the Surgeons' college at 9 Hill Square, there is the "Sir Jules Thorn Exhibition of the History of Surgery", in which there are terrifying medical instruments, disconcertingly detailed anatomical models, and a plaster cast of Burke's head, complete with the strangulation marks from the Gallows. Next to it: a "Burke's Skin Pocket Book", with a cover made of macabre leather, which was also used for purses.
Looking around the Museum of Scotland area opposite Greyfriars the traces of body snatching abound. There's a 19th century "body safe", which was meant to protect the bodies of the deceased during the first six critical months. 17 miniature coffins, about 4 inches long, were found on Edinburgh's prominent hill, Arthurs Seat, in 1836. Experts suspect that these simple dolls symbolised a funeral of Burke and Hare's victims. The "Arthurs Seat Coffins" are particularly spectacular now that Ian Rankin used them in his bestselling novel "The Falls". Rankin finds his inspiration for his crime series featuring sinister Inspector John Rebus in Edinburgh' true stories, and legends.
Not all the goings-on behind the classicist facades are honourable, and this makes puritan-presbyterian Edinburgh especially fascinating to authors like Rankin. The relegation of passion into the private life, obscure deals in tucked-away back rooms, crimes covert, not overt as in Glasgow.
A two-hour tour on the trail of Rebus leads guests to the Lothian & Borders Police Station on the Royal Mile, Rebus' HQ on St Leonard's Lane, as well as to the morgue. John Skinner, who, according to Rankin "knows more about Rebus" than the author himself, starts his marvellous stroll in one of the best residential areas between Royal Circus and Stockbridge. Above the Dean Valley, even the rotund back fronts of the splendid Georgian architecture emanate nobility.
"Nothing is as it seems", is the motto of the guide and ex-PR specialist, as he explains aspects of "Hidden Edinburgh" along the Water of Leith. In the Holy Trinity Church at the North Western bank there is a power plant, the "Greek temple" in the South East harbours pumps for mineral water, and in the mills under the Dean Bridge there are flats for Yuppies like career conscious Policeman Derek Linford, who occasionally clashes with John Rebus.
Linford would have like Ainslie Place too, above the picturesque Dean Village millers' and bakers' quarter. Many professors and lawyers live here - and in Rankin's Strip Jack? an illegal establishment. John Rebus sees Ainslie Place as a backdrop for hidden desires, but Skinner also shows it as an example for the final stage of Georgian city development. He ends his tour outside, deliberately not inside, Oxford bar. Whoever fancies a pint in Rebus' and Rankin's favourite pub should not be forced into it. The atmosphere in the place is much too intimate for that; middle-aged men wearing ties and discussing the cost of the new parliament within walls stained yellow by smoke .
Even if the costs for the Parliament have risen from £50 million to £300 million: Scotland's capital is in dire need of fresh impulses. For many years, the "noble beauty" reclined on its laurels and left it to crises-ridden Glasgow to initiate change. Edinburgh is still a stronghold of costly public schools, whose architecture rival the castle's grandeur. Visiting an establishment like Fettes College, Tony Blair's old school, will get you top-notch connections, and George Heriot School, established in 1659 for "fatherless children" is reminiscient of Muriel Spark's 1930s setting of "Miss Jean Brodie".
Edinburgh's south-western area Morningside is still very much a terrain for eccentric, dainty ladies. Cats are being walked on a leash, and youngsters learning to drive are never hassled by oncoming traffic. How irritating if there are flashlights outside one of the numerous villas. Please take over, Inspector Rebus! But it is only an ambulance. An 80-year-old fainted, and a neighbour is only too willing to tell us why: "No wonder if you live behind closed curtains and don't open a window in years!" That's Morningside for you: maybe there's a story for Mr Rankin after all.