A not-so-giant wheel going round a gothic stone tower erected to the memory of Sir Walter Scott — that was my first view of Scotland. The tourist attraction, a bulky man in a kilt playing an off-key bagpipe, came next. I knew I was in Scotland, but it didn’t quite register until I walked into the tourist information office and saw McCondoms for sale.
Only in Scotland would whisky-flavoured condoms — McCondoms — be sold in tourist gift shops. The box even had red and green Scottish checks and a bottle of whisky on the cover.
The Scots, it seems, are great ones to laugh at their own quirks. So you have kilt-print boxers and thongs, dungeon tours detailing some of their gory past, and the legendary Loch Ness monster reduced to an adorable, bagpipe-playing stuffed toy. Right across the Roslyn Chapel of Da Vinci Code fame is a pub called the Holy Grail Restaurant, with the Holy Grail imprint on matchboxes. <b1>
A pub for everyone
The Scots do, however, take their drink seriously, and in Edinburgh, one is never more than a stone’s throw away from a pub.
We started the day at Elephant House, made famous by Mother Rowling. Right outside was a large poster announcing: ‘Elephant Cafe, The Birthplace of Harry Potter, NOW SERVES BEER’. Oh well.
Walking and walking down the pebbled streets, we ended up at the Pubic Triangle — named after the three lap-dancing pubs at the three corners. Right across the road is The Last Drop (with ‘O’ written like a noose), the pub where the condemned were taken for their final drink.
But the real story was next door. The Maggie Dickinson Pub, named after a fish-hawker who was found guilty under the ‘Concealment of Pregnany Act’ in the 1720s. Maggie was hanged but she survived — and the double jeopardy law meant she couldn’t be hung again. Free to go and dead by Church laws, ‘Half-Hangit’ Maggie, as she came to be known, opened her own pub and lived for another 40 years.
Partying with ghosts
In the mood for ghosts and ghouls by now, we headed to the Edinburgh Graveyard, with its giant tombs and crate-like graves.
A chill descended on us at the Convenanter’s Prison (religious protestors defeated by Cromwell), where over 200 people were tortured to death. Just 10 feet from there, a trail of beer cans led us to a tomb where a merry group had celebrated Christmas. The grave enclosure was full of empty bottles and beer cans, and I even saw a party hat!
I gravitated to Greyfriars Bobby’s gravestone, strewn with stuffed toys (many shaped like little dogs) and flowers. Bobby was a Skye terrier adopted by a nightwatchman of the Edinburgh police who died in 1858. For 14 years, Bobby guarded his master’s grave, until his death in 1872. Though Bobby could not be buried in the church’s graveyard, his tombstone was erected right next to his master’s grave. Like all Scottish heroes, Bobby too has a pub to his name: the Greyfriars Bobby Pub, right outside the graveyard.
It seemed appropriate to have our last drink in Scotland at The Last Drop, and so we trudged back in the bitter cold. I nursed a mulled wine while my friends marvelled at the whisky flowing from casks.
A loud group by the corner argued about the Stone of Destiny. The superstitious Scots believed this Stone was the pillow of the Biblical Jacob. As the debate over Scottish independence has grown louder, the Stone has become a symbol of nationalism.
As we joined in, adding our two bits to the argument, I kept referring to Londoners as ‘British’. A guy in the crowd slammed down his Corona beer and said, ever so politely, “When we talk of independence, we don’t call them British. They are the English and we are the Scots.”