Something Old, Something New: Edinburgh
My suitcase clatters across the cobblestones of Edinburgh’s Old Town, coming to rest at the doorstep of the G&V Hotel. The property encapsulates all that is compelling about this place: a fusion of old and new, heritage and innovation.
As the only five-star hotel on the Royal Mile, G&V sensitively sets the standard for accommodation within this world heritage site. Its sleek stone façade both references the surrounding structures in terms of material and sets the hotel apart when it comes to design. Like the city itself, G&V is about living in the now while acknowledging one’s roots.
Heading past the lobby bar, which proves a happening spot come evening, I am directed up to a thoughtfully put-together room. A muted palette of black, white and grey allows the design elements to shine. A long horizontal mirror not only opens up the space, but reflects the opposite wall’s line drawing of nearby Victoria Street. This has the effect of contextualising the room’s modern style within its historical environment, while emphasising the present-day, lived experience of this part of town. Small touches — a beautiful woollen blanket, comfortable and stylish chairs, and a minimalist coat rack, not to mention complimentary butterscotch cookies and fine tea — make the place feel like (a very aspirational) home.
With morning comes the sound of bagpipes ricocheting off the Old Town’s historic buildings. I push aside the very fun tasselled window treatments and peer out the floor-to-ceiling windows, panning from iconic Arthurs Seat in the distance and past the National Library and Lothian Chambers — the former home of the nation’s Parliament. A crowd is gathering around a piper on the corner of the Mile. I’m in Scotland, no doubt about that. This is momentarily forgotten when prepping for the day, however: compared to the relatively pared-back nature of the main space, the bathroom is like another world, or at least the disco spaceship one might use to get there. Metallic tiles shimmer in the shower and sheets of shiny purple and black laminate reflect infinitely between the two mirrors that dominate opposite walls, one lined with bar lights giving a celebrity dressing-room vibe. Following an excellent eggs benedict at G&V’s Cucina restaurant, it is time for this celeb to head out into the public eye.
Leading from the castle to Holyrood Palace, the Mile holds much of the city’s history in its pavements, closes and facades, and remains a focal point for today’s residents and visitors. Not everyone here is such a fan of the bagpipe: a sign taped to a window specifies there is to be “no performing outside this window during office hours”. Souvenir shops line the Mile, each offering ever-so-slight variations on the ubiquitous tweed and tartan. There are more unique mementos to be found, though. The Royal Mile Gallery is a trove of vintage maps, covering Edinburgh and the rest of the world; and prints of all kinds — from anatomy and aeronautics to hilarious Louis Wain images, the 19th-century antecedent of the ‘lolcats’ of the internet age.
A little further down, Cadenhead’s offers dozens of varieties of single cask whisky, sorted by distillery, age and strength. This would be intimidating if not for the exceptional service, which ensures both beginners and seasoned drinkers will find just the right bottle, with the added bonus of making a new friend in the sweet resident terrier, hair falling in his eyes. Steps away, the Joy Division-inspired Unknown Pleasures stocks rare vinyl and CDs, covering all bases from new wave and punk to funk and soul.
While the main drag is dense with landmarks, it’s the Mile’s closes that reveal Edinburgh’s historic life. Many of these alleyways are named for their prior functions — Old Fishmarket’s Close is pretty self-explanatory — while others memorialise particular property owners or tenants. Such is the case with Dunbar’s Close, a reminder of local lawyer David Dunbar, who in the 1770s owned the tenements at the entrance. An ideal respite from the hectic activity just metres away, the geometric beds of the garden here were designed in 1976 to suggest the spirit of the neighbourhood’s prevailing 17th century style. Manicured hedges and stone walls frame the sights of Calton Hill, the Nelson Monument pointing skyward and the pillars of the National Monument visible through leafless tree branches.
Continuing to the bottom of the Mile, tourists congregate outside Holyrood and the striking new Parliament building. As architect Enric Miralles proposed, such an institution “belongs to the Scottish land” and ought to reflect this. The steel, granite and oak construction slopes toward the Salisbury Crags and echoes the curve of Arthurs Seat behind. Climbing this iconic hill offers a different perspective of the city, but it is also an experience unto itself. Accessed from the south, near Prestonfield estate, the crags jut out over the city, well-worn walking paths cutting across their back. Though the flora consists mainly of thorns and regular old grass, from a distance it takes on a soft-focus, mossy appearance. An uneven stone path winds organically up the steep slope: fortunately, the ever-changing views offer plenty of reasons to stop and take a breath. Reaching a plateau, the terrain underfoot is by turns springy and slippery with mud. The harbour comes into frame. Ravens sweep along the curve of the crest, congregate against the grey clouds and perch atop the summit, surveying the city below just as we human interlopers do.
Cutting back down the tree-lined avenues of The Meadows alongside the monumental university campus, Greyfriar’s Bobby can be found still standing watch on George IV Bridge, his brass nose shining brightly as a result of the many times it has been rubbed for good luck. Besides offering an array of bars to choose from, the nearby Grassmarket area is a haven of vintage and designer clothing stores. The flagship Armstrong’s Vintage Emporium — one of three locations — is filled to the brim with anything a vintage shopper could hope to find, be it a fur cape, a retro swimsuit, or even a tweed straitjacket. After much deliberation, a classic Burberry trench walks out the door with me. Up Victoria Street towards G&V, contemporary tailors Walker Slater take tweed to the next level, combining classic and modern silhouettes in tones that recall the landscape of the Hebrides. I could live quite happily on a windswept Scottish moor if it meant I would always be dressed like this.
Dusk falls, and on entry to Greyfriar’s Kirkyard itself, a skull-and-crossbones headstone set crookedly against a plot of overgrown ivy sets the scene. Lights glow warmly from the windows of surrounding residences and traditional lampposts, creating an atmosphere more magical than eerie, despite winter’s spindly tree branches and biting cold. Stone walls covered in monuments to lives lived centuries ago foreground and contextualise the illuminated castle on the hill, a reminder that the history of this place is not found in such landmarks themselves, but in their memory of the people, famous and ordinary, who bring them into being and exist among them.