Writers, Wit and Whisky

Rosemary Goring, Literary Editor of The Scotsman, gets a drink-fuelled insight into Scotland's great men of letters.

The biographies of Scotland's literary giants are peppered more frequently with words like howf and tavern and pub than teashop or drawing room.As this spirited romp across some the city's literary landmarks emphasises, carousing with friends or the solitary tipple have played a large role in shaping the lives of writers, if not in adding to their inspiration. "O thou, my muse! Guid auld scotch drink; / whether thro' wimplin' worms thou jink, / Or, richly brown, ream owre the brink, / In glorious faem, / Inspire me, till I lisp an' wink, / To sing thy name!" said Robert Burns, and many after agreed with him.

His affusions (sic) to the glory of alcohol are delivered early in the tour by the impassioned Mr. Clart ("Clart by name and clarty by nature") as he begs for the audience's indulgence for a colourful but biased literary lecture. His side-kick and constant aggravant is Mr. McBrain (sic), who dislikes Clart's insistence on the underbelly's place in the literary imagination and adds more refined details to this otherwise seedy view. Together, in a duel of wits that is more of a duet, they whiz down the centuries with a mixture of panache, fact and anecdote, clearly enjoying themselves and gradually warming up their audience as either the drink or the beguiling atmosphere of the drama loosen their reserve.

Starting in the Grassmarket at the timbered and atmospheric Bee Hive Inn, Clart and McBrain paint a vivid picture of Burn's time and earlier, ripe with smells and violence. In the midst of the Grassmarket they evoke the Porteous Riot, immortalised in Walter Scott's Heart of Midlothian, while in the courtyard behind the Jolly Judge in the High Street they re-enact Scott's life, Clart temporarily metamorphosing ("If I'm limping, I'm Sir Walter Scott") as he takes on the mantle of this exceptional writer, who spent his last eight years feverishly trying to clear his debts.

Robert Louis Stevenson appears, representing the tension between the genteel and the dark, as brilliantly depicted in Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and for a moment, gathered at the feet of glowering tenements, Edinburgh's renowned mask splits a little to reveal glittering, evil eyes.

With a brisk walk down the Mound to Milne's Bar on Hanover Street, Clart and McBrain fly over the years and land with a triumphant thud in the early 20th century, the time of Hugh MacDiarmid and Sydney Goodsir Smith, architects of the Scottish literary renaissance. No point in quibbling over what's been missed in the interim, because you could argue there has never been a more important link in the literary chain. In the cosy recesses of this famous pub you can almost see the spectre of its old and current regulars, from the "tall, sarcastic lizard" Norman MacCaig to the flamboyant Alasdair Gray. 

Reaching the 1990s the drama falters in pace somewhat, reduced more to a listing, with Muriel Spark pre-eminent, thus continuing the thread of debate about the duality of Scottish life. There are notable omissions - Candia McWilliam and Kathleen Jamie for example - but the purpose of this friendly and enthusiastic tour is not to offer an exhaustive name check nor an academic thesis, but to bring alive for a couple of hours the world of past masters. This they do, with a charm and wit in keeping with the writers who have inspired them.


Rosemary Goring, The Scotsman

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