There’s nothing quite as comedic as ushering 17 students and their suitcases on and off trains all day long, and that was our journey from Whitby to Edinburgh. We loved Whitby and were very sad to leave, but excited for the new adventures in Edinburgh - we didn’t know yet how exciting they would be! I snapped a few last lovely shots on a walk during our final evening.
We still managed to enjoy the scenery when we left Whitby on Thursday, May 17, and our third train ride had some beautiful vistas with shaggy sheep, horses, and rolling green hills with darker forests than we had seen in England.
After milling about on the uneven stone streets of Edinburgh a bit, rather too much like the sheep we’d spied earlier, we arrived at Bar50 Hostel. This is a bit of a new experience, as I’ve never stayed in a hostel before, and our previous accommodations were a bit more like B&Bs. Here we’re 8 to small rooms occupied by bunk beds with not much space for anything.
After settling in, wandering Royal Mile and touching loads of cashmere and woolen goods - Edinburgh is textile heaven - and ingesting a truly terrible hostel buffet dinner and participating in Quiz Night (The Tough Brets were robbed of our victory, robbed, I tell you), some of us went about a block away to a twin joint called Café Voltaire and Cabaret Voltaire, a more relaxed bar/bistro and a nightclub. They had a spooky atmosphere with tons of exposed, old brick, and we were to find out later that those rooms shared space with the back end of a ghost tour we did taking place in the old vaults under Royal Mile. But more about that later. After some cocktails on their part and a peaty single malt on mine, we did some dancing in the cabaret part. It was a sparsely populated deep house night, but between the two instructors and three students, we managed to liven it up a bit.
The next day, Friday May 18, myself and a few fellow students got up relatively early to take in The Scotch Whisky Experience. We were ushered into gigantic moving barrels that took us through a light show illustrating the different stages of creation and maturation that scotch goes through - my favorite was giant yeast bubbles that started to flicker and light up frantically as we went through the room.
Next, we went to a tasting room where a guide explained the different varietals and characteristics of the four main scotch regions: Lowland, Highland, Speyside, and Islay - the guide didn’t touch on Campeltown or the Islands. We got a scratch and sniff card to pick a scent indicative of a region, the scotch we’d like a sample of. Lowland was quite light and citrus-y, while Highland was a touch darker, with notes of spice and vanilla. Speyside they presented with some honeyed, cereal, grainy notes, and Islay with strong, smoky, peaty, tobacco scents. I, of course, being made of stern stuff picked the Islay, and ended up with a nice little tipple of Laphroaig 10 year in a snifter that they sent home with us after.
We went into a display room to drink our little drams of scotch, a glowing, glorious mecca of a room which contained the world’s largest collection of scotch alight in glass cases. I snapped a few photos, including one of the oldest bottle of scotch in that collection, a sealed bottle of Buchanan from 1897.
The collection also contained a bottle of “Millennial” Scotch, a blend of single malts all at least 30 years of age. The combined age of the bottle total was 2000 years, thus the moniker “Millennial”.
At the end of the tour we stopped for one last little taste. Some of my companions had sweet hot toddies and I myself took the opportunity to sample the BenRiach 30 year old Speyside scotch, as I’ve always wanted to drink a scotch older than I am. It was lovely, lots of nice brown sugar, vanilla, and spice notes with just a touch of smoke at the finish.
I think the look on my face is a combination of sheer joy and just a touch of cat-who-swallowed-the-canary smugness about all the scotch.
Such good sports about me being a huge enthusiastic nerd!
We continued on down Royal Mile, popping into a few thrift and wool shops, grabbing lunch and cappuccinos at a tiny café, and ending up at a wool shop we’d popped in at the day before.
Laura, the woman working there, was just lovely and told us everything we’d need to know about the sourcing and the work done on the sweaters in her store - all wool from Scotland and made in Scotland, unlike many of the other stores along the tourist strip. In fact, some of her sweaters were made by the company who created the jumpers for the Harry Potter films, and I ended up getting one with a similar striped design. They were obviously very well crafted with high quality wool that still smelled just slightly of lanolin, and so cosy that I never wanted to take it off. She gave us a discount on them for being mutually lovely and then gifted the two of us who couldn’t afford to buy sweaters with some lovely lambswool scarves. We put them on to combat the chill in a nearby old church graveyard as we sat in the sun and made daisy chains.
(Samantha, Leaa, and Lauren)
(Photo by Lauren Ray, @laurenray on Instagram)
The Scottish poet Robert Fergusson’s grave:
For the evening, after some class presentations on Ian Rankin, Alexander McQueen, and the film An American Werewolf in London, we went to the Tron Kirk to meet our tour guide for The Auld Reekie Tours' Terror Tour. Our guide Ewan, dressed in some black 18th-century finery which stopped just short of over the top, was saucy and hilarious but knowledgable, imparting us with macabre and interesting bits of Edinburgh history, about witch trials, hangings, and the persecution of immigrants, about plagues and choleras and the intolerable conditions that earned Edinburgh the nickname “Auld Reekie”, or “Old Smokey,” for its horrific stench. We soon headed down a dark alley for the underground vaults of the Royal Mile, where our guide broke his characteristic gaiety to quite seriously stress to us the nature of the vaults; namely, that he believed them to be haunted, had experienced and witnessed firsthand a great deal of disturbing, unexplainable activity within the vaults, and wanted our experience, while eerie, to be safe. We agreed to disclaimers, were explained possible experiences that could occur to us, and were told to speak up if we felt sensations like hair-pulling, heat, or scratches, as they could lead to more dangerous phenomena.
The first room as we entered the passageway to the vaults immediately gave me a suffocating sense of unease, and as soon as I looked at the glass cases lining the walls I understood why. There were gnarled, blackened iron torture devices mounted against a red cloth background, each use more horrific than the one before.
I do understand that the purpose of a ghost tour is, indeed, to give the tourists what they came for, but I did not get that impression with our guide, Ewan. He emphasized the history and the stories, but that nothing had been staged for us; the vaults were frightening in and of themselves. While the atmosphere was spooky, I felt some things during the tour that I truly do not believe came from only suggestibility.
In the torture instrument room, I felt uneasy and in fact, a little overwhelmed, an overwhelming need to leave the room. I relaxed a little as we entered the dark vaults. These were underground streets originally built to house shops and pubs, but eventually became slum housing during the 1800s, when 40 people might occupy the same small, damp stone room. As limestone had been used for the construction of the tunnels, a great deal of precipitation had leaked through as it rotted over the rainy years of Scottish weather.
Ewan told us some stories which were frankly, very gruesome, as we were booked in on the “Terror Tour”, the scariest historical tour. I will relate what I can remember of the stories, so a fair warning to my readers: the next section regarding the tour may be somewhat disturbing.
Standing in the dark, dripping tunnel, illuminated only by the candle Ewan held, a pervading sense of horror stole over our previously merry group. Even without the spookiness of the atmosphere and the stories, it was not difficult to imagine the horrible conditions living down in the tunnels would engender. Body-snatching, murder, rape, and other atrocities were common in the tunnels, an area police almost never entered. We were told that the tunnels were beyond a shadow of a doubt haunted, and some of the presences we might encounter; a man who wandered about tugging women’s hair and throwing stones, a woman who had been raped by twelve men then had her brain dashed out upon a set of stairs, and a proprietress of an underground bar and brothel, a mother who had killed a man she caught abusing her child, then been hanged. Ewan told us that quite often children in the vaults would see apparitions that matched the description of the ghosts without knowing about them.
As we stood in the darkened tunnel, letting the chill sink in, I heard a scratching on the wall a few feet to my side. My classmate Lauren was slightly closer to the wall than I was. Every time I glanced back at the wall, the scraping sound would stop, but as I looked forward again, it would start up. I nudged Lauren and asked, “are you touching the wall?”
"No," she said, eyes wide, and stepped away from the wall.
Ewan finished his introduction and began to lead the group past us, behind towards “Mary’s” area of the vaults. “Why is there a scratching sound?” Lauren asked, a slight panic apparent in her husky voice.
Ewan smiled calmly at her, his face lit by the flickering flame. “Ghosts, dearie.”
The first separate chamber didn’t seem too spooky. The second was the former site of Mary’s bar and brothel, where she stabbed to death the abuser of her son. Later I found out a classmate, Leaa, had seen someone she thought was our instructor behind her, only to find upon talking to her later, that Karen had been in an entirely different part of the room - that no one would have been behind her.
The third room we went to scared me silly. It contained a large stone circle and Ewan told us quite seriously that we were not to step inside or even touch the stones of the circle with our feet; that people who had disregarded this condition had broken ankles, experienced vomiting, and even cardiac arrest minutes after tempting the forces in the room. The spot had at one point been a site where abortions were performed for unlucky prostitutes and other women, and so often women especially experienced uncomfortable symptoms in the room, but that the circle had been declared by mediums to be “demonic” rather than ghostly, and that the host of a lucrative paranormal investigation show had quit on the spot after she had been punched in the stomach while standing alone in the room. She had had a miscarriage four months before. A pagan coven who had rented out that room originally had attempted to cleanse it of negative energy, and immediately after rented a different room.
I don’t know about “demonic”, but I was the first one to follow Ewan into the room, stepping carefully around the circle, and as soon as I crossed the doorway, my knees went weak, my heart began to pound, and I felt almost suffocated - my breath came short. I stepped up on the plinth at the back of the room beside Ewan, legs weak, and noticed that I could smell a strong, smoky scent, almost like pitch. As my classmates filed in around the stone circle, I asked, my voice low and just a little shaky, “why does it smell like smoke in here?”
Ewan looked at me, eyebrows raised, and said, “ah, you can smell smoke, can you? How many of you can smell it?” About a quarter of my class raised their hands, and the others stayed still. He explained that there had once been a fire in this section that had burned alive many people. The circle seemed to pulse in the candlelight, in the middle of the room. Eventually my physical discomfort subsided enough to be tolerable, but even as we left the room, I felt unsettled and uneasy, and my eyes seemed to slide away from looking at the space in the circle, as if just having it in my line of sight would allow something horrible to slip into my consciousness.
The last room in the vault, though he explained to us had a “level 5 poltergeist,” didn’t have anything very spooky happen to us, though I did hear a noise come from an empty corner as we left. However, even though the room was larger, higher, and had a duct connected to a nearby nightclub and therefore should have been much warmer than any of the other rooms, it was utterly chilly. We could see our breath blowing out eerily in front of us in the light of the candle, and the tips of my fingers and nose started to ache in the cold. Ewan blew out the candle to give us a scare, and we all tumbled out of the room, and towards the exit, thoroughly spooked. As we are touring our Gothic Literature sites, this was the first one to really make me feel a sense of horror and bone-deep unease that is at the heart of the sublime and the Gothic draw, the fascination united with repulsion.
After the tour, our class split up. I popped quickly into Brew Dog Edinburgh, a bar front for one of my favorite breweries in the world. Brew Dog is an unconventional and creative brewery that routinely produces the finest crazy beers possible. I have a bottle of their Tokyo Imperial Stout waiting at home, a 17% monster brewed with jasmine, cranberries, and specialty hops, and aged with oak chips. Can’t wait to try it now that it’s been sitting for 9 months. At the bar, it was too crowded with a bachelor party to stay for long, but I did get to enjoy the Cocoa Psycho, a 10% Russian Imperial Stout brewed with chocolate and espresso, which was very robust with a strong cocoa edge.
I went with a group of classmates and our two professors to look for somewhere to dance, and we ended up at what Lauren would call a “chongo bar”, dancing to silly top 40 pop to finish the night. So that’s all we need say of that!
This morning, Saturday May 18, I woke up early in order to join some classmates on a hike up to Arthur’s Seat, a rolling trail along a jagged cliff rising out of massive green hillsides. It’s the site of an extinct volcano and thought to be a possible location of Arthur’s long-lost castle of Camelot.
The trail rose steeply at first, evened out, and then we ended up on a second section that was mostly red stone stairs beaten into the hillside. It was absolutely pouring, a right gale. Wind pounded us and mist rose up from below, obscuring Edinburgh’s cityscape so that all we could see were spires of towers rising above the white blanket, and some lights far off indicating the presence of the airport. The second leg of the climb was massively steep, with so much water pouring off the hillside that thick, red rivulets of muddy water streamed over our feet.
It was an exhilarating hike. Rain streamed over our faces, and my wool sweater underneath my coat kept me relatively warm against the torrential wet and wind. We finally reached the top, remote and flat green fields dotted with rabbit holes and pellets. The wind nearly swept us off our feet and we all howled at the white void in defiance and wild joy. An amazing experience and another perfect illustration of a Gothic moment, as the wind blew rain into my eyelashes, my hood off my head, and the wool around my hands grew sodden.
We have one more day in Edinburgh tomorrow. I’m sure it will be an exceptional one.