Breathes there a man,
with soul so dead,
who never to himself
“This is my own.
My native land”.
Norwegian visitors Paul Jorgenvag and Inger-Lise Koren went on the Edinburgh Literary Pub Tour. They talked to Alison Young.
So what's the difference between a literary pub tour and a pub-crawl?
On this pub-crawl, you learn more than whether Norwegians can outdrink the Scots. Instead, two actors lead you on a journey through the streets and taverns of old Edinburgh, recreating the world in which Scottish writers and poets lived, from the time of Rabbie Burns right through to Iain Banks and Irvine Welsh.
Where did you start?
Everyone meets in the Beehive Inn in the Grassmarket (where Robert Burns was thought to drink in the 1700s) gets themselves a drink and troops upstairs to where the actors set the scene. The cheeky down to earth "Clart" argues with posh, refined "McBrain" that Burns and his fellow writers were more interested in hanging out having a good time in the rough and noisy howffs if the working class with tough, bawdy drinking partners than pretending to be genteel men of letters. They describe how harsh life was for Edinburgh's poor in those days, and conjure up noises (and smells) of the crowds and street sellers outside, not to mention the public hangings. They also threw in a few songs along the way.
What came next?
Then it was off outside, where Clart, standing on the side of the gallows, told us gruesome stories about rough justice, hangings and riots. Next we go through old and winding streets to another old pub, The Jolly Judge, up a close off the Royal Mile. After a performance in the back courtyard, we head for the Ensign Ewart, (the original dates back to 1603 at least and its believed to be where Sir Walter Scott would have drunk), where there was a band playing traditional music. Along the way we were told about Deacon Brodie, a respectable man by day and a thief by night, who was thought to have inspired Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.
Isn't it a bit of a chilly way to spend the evening?
I think we were lucky with the weather. When we got back to Norway it was 11 degrees below, so it was like spring for us. But it's a good idea to wrap up warm. Dropping into pubs for a drink every now and then was just what we needed at this time of year. As for the amount of walking in-between stops, we thought they got that about just right.
Who takes part in these pub tours?
Anyone who wants to know about what Scottish writers got up to in Edinburgh over the past 300 years (and they got up to a lot). That evening on the tour there were Scandinavians, Americans, Canadians and Irish as well as Scots wanting to learn more about their own writers. It's a great way to get a potted history and at the same time see what pub culture is like in Scotland in 2001 - it's still real Edinburgh punters out for a bevy, but they seem used to a bunch of people invading their bar once a night, then disappearing off.
What did you think of the actors' performances?
It was good how Alistair and Hilde, (Clart and McBrain) communicated and sparked off each other. But as foreigners it was a bit difficult to follow the Old Scots language of many of the writers quoted. But then if you changed it to make it easier to understand, it wouldn't really convey what they had written. Rabbie's "whisky and freedom go together" just doesn't have the same ring to it.
<b> Where does the tour end up? <b/>
Not in the gutter as you might think, but in a bar off Princess Street called Milne's. This is a place that doesn't seem as old as the other pubs; there's loud music and a lot of young drinkers.It was once known as the Poets' Pub - a few decades ago people like Edwin Morgan, Norman MacCaig and Hugh MacDiarmid were often to be seen there, so often that they were given their own room. After the actors tell you a bit about its history, they have a bit of a quiz to see what you've picked up. Then it's up to how long you want to stay and soak up the atmosphere and - and the whisky.
What did you get out of this pub tour?
We enjoyed our evening and learned a lot about Scottish writers. We like the Scots, but didn't know much about Robert Burns until we went on the tour. It would have been good to hear more about the social conditions they lived in which shaped what they wrote. Just hearing the Old Scots being quoted was a bit difficult for us to follow if you haven't read the work before, but then it is a literary tour. And we learned that Scottish writers like a wee dram now and again.