There are few cities that provide the spectacle and depth of Edinburgh. Its skyline is an imagined fantasy, ancient and ornate. Implacable of outline, yet it harbours a wealth of tales, written and being written up until this very moment. Cities are as much a construct of stories as they are of stone, Edinburgh rejoices in both. Like Dublin, you can translate it through its writers, distant and contemporary wordsmiths honoured in various ways. Prince’s Street features the stunning spire of the Walter Scott Monument, rising two hundred feet into the sky. There are more discreet memorials too. The dark laneways of the old town speak of Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde. Above them rise a conspiracy of spires and turrets, the broken teeth of old volcanoes, the whispering stone of graveyards and kirks. Sleuths saunter in the shadows, from Sherlock Holmes to John Rebus, while demons and wizards, killers and creators number amongst the cast of Edinburgh’s multitude of stories.
As one door into this maze, I thought of the contemporary world of John Rebus, that hardboiled detective created by Ian Rankin. Planning this trip to Edinburgh, only my second, I messaged Rankin if he could offer a tour of Rebus watering holes as a pathway through the city. Rankin obliged, so I had a list of seven pubs giving me a route through the streets of the Scottish capital.
It has taken me three years to act on it.The lockdown gave us our own version of the plague, locking us into awkward isolation. I had first visited Edinburgh in the mid nineties. Autumn is a good time to visit Scotland, grey, gold and auburn, and prey to mists. It was a treat for my fortieth birthday, which falls on Saint Andrew’s Day. Andrew provides the Saltire for Scotland’s flag, being the patron saint. And I am half Scottish. My father was born in Scotland, in the mining country of Blantyre, between here and Glasgow.
Back then, myself and M took the Hidden Edinburgh tour, which was a guided walk through the subterranean city of the Old Town. Gloomy indeed, especially in late November. It took off from the Royal Mile, the spine of the city. Our young guide was as charming, loud and funny as we expect a Scottish guide to be, they’re just born to it. Tales of ghosts and ghouls and graverobbers loomed out of the misty evening. We journeyed beneath the streets themselves, finding graveyards down there too, Stopping in a catacomb, our guide whispered this was once an entire street which had been blockaded in Plague times, the residents left there to die, or survive if God so chose. Now, that’s what I call Lockdown.
Rankin was born in 1960 in Cardenden, Fife, north of Edinburgh, on the far side of the Firth of Forth. He never intended to write a detective series. The first Rebus adventure was intended as a stand alone novel, as something of a modern day version of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mister Hyde. Titled Knots and Crosses it was published in 1987 and followed by Hide and Seek in 1990, also influenced by Jeckyll and Hyde. Hide, get it?
Rebus himself was born some years before his creator, in the later forties up in Fife and hardened in the smithy of Northern Ireland during the early Troubles. Exit Music, 2007, saw Rebus reach sixty, retirement age for a police officer. Rebus was buried, but not dead, and rose again five years later in the appropriately titled, Standing in Another Man’s Grave. Rebus now retired but unable to let the past, or the present go. Rankin has published twenty four Rebus novels up to the recent A Heart Full of Headstones 2022.
Rankin puts the Oxford Bar, Rebus’s most regular haunt, top of his list. Coincidentally, my trip to Oxford some years back, also took a writer’s prism, in this case Colin Dexter’s Morse. Myself and M took a wonderfully entertaining tour in tandem with the adventures of Morse, and of course the long suffering Lewis. The Oxford Bar itself is in Edinburgh’s New Town. The idea of the New Town was first proposed by James VII when Duke of York (of New York fame) as a sophisticated extension to the overcrowded ancient city above. The Battle of the Boyne put paid to that, as James lost his crown, but the idea was refloated in 1766 and a design competition held. This was won by a young local architect James Craig and work soon began on the project.
Prince’s Street forms the southern edge. George Street is the central axis, along the apex of a low ridge from the Albert equestrian statue in Charlotte Square to the Melville Memorial in St Andrew’s Square. It is calm and wide, diners relaxing outdoors in the midday sun. Queen Street completed the northern perimeter. The narrower Rose Street and Thistle Street lie between, with the transverse streets at right angles: Hanover Street, Frederick Street and Castle Street The naming emphasises the theme of the unification of the two kingdoms, as some like to see the annexation of Scotland. It is all very Georgian and grandiose. But there are creeks and alleys.
The Oxford Bar is well hidden, an oasis in a cramped enclave of grey brick on narrow Young Street, north of George Street. It dates back to 1811 and retains the intimate structure of its origins. There’s a tiny bar inside the entrance, a few steps up to a larger room to the rear sparsely furnished in gloomy wood, aglow with honeyed daylight through the sandblasted Oxford window. It’s there I take my pint of IPA and sit as if in a sepia photograph, my only company the solid beam of sunlight, and a man reading a novel by its light. It’s a literary pub, to be sure. I noticed Robbie Burns presiding over the bar as I ordered my Deucher’s. The photo gallery features musicians and others, but most notably Rankin himself (natch). I see too that Colin Dexter is a noted visitor. On the way out, I receive a bookmark or two as souvenir from the pleasant landlady who served me,
Outside, I take in the atmosphere in the traditional manner before heading south along Castle Street. Rose Street, reminds me of Cork’s Oliver Plunkett Street, narrow, straight, cobbled and quaint.It’s pedestrianised and a busy mix of shops, cafes and bars. Abbotsford is at the eastern end. Named for the home of Sir Walter Scott in the Borderlands to the south. The pub is an Edwardian saloon, well upholstered beneath an ornate ceiling and around an imposing mahogonay island bar. There’s a restaurant upstairs. I order a Tennents, frothy and longlasting, the gift that keeps on giving. The bar is busy and I take my drink onto the terrace where I can catch the suns afternoon rays. A nearby busker rests his back against the railings of Rose Street Garden. This open air cafe and wine bar is a popular celbrity haunt. It les at the back of The Dome on George Street, a neo-classical building from 1847, once a bank and now a chic restaurant. Back on my stretch of pavement, more are following my lead in taking the air. It’s most pleasant. The busker’s repertoire is Dylanesque, with a tartan weave that includes The Proclaimers amongst others. He’s giving it the full nine yards, and might be better dialling it down a bit. I wonder should I ask him to sing Faraway.
Number three on the list is the Cafe Royal. This is beyond St Andrew’s Square on a secluded side street. The Cafe Royal is a lovely Victorian bar with towering glass windows designed by Architect Robert Paterson.from 1863. It describes itself as an Oyster Bar. Though shellfish is poison to me, there are more edible alternatives including haggis, venison and other Scottish delights. The walls are adorned with glorious ceramic tiled panels by John Eyre and stained glass windows featuring famous inventors such as James Watt. I can imagine myself in an age of elegance, amongst the gleaming brasswork and gasslamps. Prince’s Street is just a block away, abuzz with the height of the tea time rush. But here is a place to shelter from the outdoors, however benign, and bask in the glow of crafted opulence, art and intimacy; and a fine malt whisky, of course.