Scotland’s shadows of roguery and genius

by Scott Thomas AndersonPublished in the Roseville Press Tribune

Donan Castle sits on the water near a bridge to Scotland’s Isle of Skye.

The streetscape of Edinburgh’s Old Town was once called the murky fishbone, that long spine of “Royal Mile” descending from a castle-head as courts, wynds and alleys went fanning from its vertebrae like barbed ribs. Within this fossil frame of bronze brick and cobblestone once existed the men who brought western culture its most haunting memories. In 2005, a historian proclaimed the Scots had “invented the modern world,” but Edinburgh’s own Victorians understood the city’s afterglow of zealotry, vice, scheming and double-lives had balanced the Scottish Enlightenment with a dark legacy of the imagination.

Today, Edinburgh offers more than just a chance to walk in the footsteps of philosophers and folk heroes: It holds the allure of sneaking down street-tunnels that led its shadiest residents to a marauding and madness that atomized the Gothic mindset, scattering their influence from Britain’s greatest novels to its most popular films.

Evening on a dark town

Grassmarket Square sits directly under Edinburgh Castle in the city’s Old Town.

To venture into Scotland’s capital during Fringe Fest means pushing through leather-clad sword swallowers, bawdy glittered pantomimes and mohawked men in kilts blowing fire from bagpipes as they rip out Van Halen’s “Eruption.” It’s a spectacle that gives little hint to the theocracy that once ruled Edinburgh with an iron noose. In 1696, the city fathers sent a 19-year-old college student to the gallows for “ridiculing” their Presbyterian faith. Yet just decades later the same sludge-spattered streets were alive with the radical views of deists, social scientists and revolutionary intellectuals taking over Edinburgh’s soul. Modern visitors can walk in the footsteps of the era’s most ill reputed celebrity, the godless skeptic philosopher David Hume. Treated as Scotland’s first walking Devil, Hume’s letters recount that one evening while strolling through the outskirts of Old Town he slipped and plunged into a bog. The sun was vanishing. He called for help and got the attention of a Scots fishwife in the distance. But when the crabby woman approached, she suddenly demanded to know if he was the horrible “atheist” David Hume. The writer admitted the charge. The salt-lunged scold assured Hume she’d let him drown in the mud unless he repeated the Lord’s Prayer in front of her.

Travelers can still go to the area where Hume used reason to rescue himself with an insincere communion; and the prettiest walk to it is by night, turning off of the Royal Mile onto Cockburn Street and descending to the now bog-free Princess Street Gardens. Along that twisting path stands the Arcade Haggis & Whisky House, a narrow low-key hall with rare Scotch bottles and contemplative modern art adorning its Georgian stone. The Arcade is known for European wines, certified whisky pours and that most traditional of all Scottish meals, Haggis, which it prepares as a wad of pungent tenderness — a mash of salt-sponged sheep guts that pop with dripping, juicy nuances.

Exiting the Arcade, sojourners can turn north on Cockburn Street to find a tunnel of grey brick and flagstone steps that go sinking under the street lamps. The passageway is known as Fleshmarket Close. It was here, amidst slum-bound taverns, butcher shops and prostitute corners, that William Deacon Brodie began the carousing double-life that would soon inspire one of fiction’s most memorable characters. Brodie was a wealthy, high-born Trade Councilor and member of Edinburgh’s Town Council. In 1787, Scotland’s capitol was shocked to learn that, by day, he had been a respectable religious socialite; and by night he’d been a flighty hobgoblin of pure vice, running cock fighting rings, cheating gamblers with loaded dice and commanding a gang of black-suited burglars who tromped through the shadows with pistols, masks and lanterns. Two generations after his hanging, an obsession with Brodie’s dual-existence drove fellow Scotsman Robert Louis Stevenson to write “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.”

The grim trickster’s impact does not stop there.

One of the centers of nightlife in Edinburgh is Deacon Brodie’s Tavern. After sunset, it has all of the timeless touches of a lowland pub on the outside while its interior is a lamp-washed cavern of gold leaf, ebony oak and frothy glasses clanking in obfuscated mirrors. The pub’s menu is hailed for its wild boar and Chorizo burgers, along with hard ciders and its venison-and-port pot pies. Beer guzzlers can give a nod to Old Brodie by sipping on a pint of Siren Liquid Mistress.

Edinburgh’s Old Town was the site of countless moments of infamy and sparks of Enlightenment.

A stroll south under the stars from Deacon Brodie’s Tavern leads to the Greyfriars Kirkyard. In the 18th century this span of graves was the first depository of the dead to be hit by “the resurrectionists.” As Edinburgh’s professors of human anatomy became a beam of scientific progress, the city’s cemeteries were desecrated by a ghoulish group of paupers known as “resurrectionists,” men who would dig up freshly buried corpses and sell them to medical departments at nearby universities. Heading down Candlemaker Row, along the edge of Greyfriars’ tombstones, travelers come to Cowgatehead and then the faded medieval grandeur of Grass Market Square. It’s the mouth of the neighborhood where, in 1828, “resurrectionism” evolved into serial killing.

Edinburgh remembers it as the case of Burke and Hare, the gruesome duo, the ragtag shoe cobbler and boarding house keeper who together murdered the city’s indigents, prostitutes and disabled outcasts, selling them in turn to the renowned professor of anatomy Robert Knox. Decades later, Robert Louis Stevenson’s dreams were so captivated by Burke and Hare’s 16 victims that he used them as the origin of his masterful story “The Body Snatcher.” Hollywood’s golden age of horror elevated Stevenson’s tale to new heights in 1945 as a gaunt, hollow-eyed Boris Karloff brought Edinburgh’s resurrectionists to life in his most chilling moment of silver screen brilliance.

Burke and Hare are gone, but Grass Market Square still hints at their world, especially at night when lamp orbs throw coral rays along the rising, rust-weathered bricks and turret edges, looming above body-warm pubs like the Black Bull, Biddy Mulligans and the White Hart Inn — all humming with crowds as the ghost-white face of Edinburgh Castle lifts out of a blackness above.

The elementary appeal of daylight

Sunrise over Scotland’s capital city: On a clear day the brightness goes glinting from the jagged teeth of St. Giles Cathedral to the neo-classic peaks and massive stone columns of Parliament Square. These brash marbled monuments are where the philosopher Lord Kames and the novelist Sir Walter Scott practiced law; and they’re also where Robert Louis Stevenson was supposed to be handling legal tomes when he was gallivanting in Edinburgh’s seedier pubs.

Looking out on Parliament Square is the Advocate, an old fashioned bar that pays homage to Edinburgh’s judicial history. Afternoon drinking is lively here, and the menu balances beer with rump steak, hand-battered Haddock and perfectly spiced Haggis drenched in whiskey gravy. The Advocate’s no-frills style makes it an anchor point to watch a Rugby matches surrounded by the real faces of Edinburgh.

Nearby, at the Scottish Writers Museum, author Allan Foster meets groups for literary tours of the city. With a guttural brogue and a wry sense of humor, Foster pauses in front of the hospital where a young Arthur Conan Doyle studied with the doctor who inspired Sherlock Holmes; he brings people to the forgotten medical wards where Robert Louis Stevenson visited the poet who was his model for the pirate Long John Silver; he leads people past the cafes where a struggling J.K Rawling penned the first Harry Potter novel with a stroller by her side. One of the mainstays on Foster’s tour is 3 Drummond Street, a gorgeous, ornately carved oak storefront that was once known as Rutherford’s Bar. It was the drinking hole for Stevenson, Doyle and J.M. Barrie, the author of “Peter Pan.”

“All three of them would sink a pint at this pub,” Foster explains. “Stevenson and Barrie were here at the exact same time.”

The Edinburgh writer is quick to add, “Because of that history, for years this pub was a place that hosted public readings and great literary events. Unfortunately, it closed and now it’s some damn Italian restaurant.”

It’s a seven-minute walk from Rutherford’s corpse to Princess Street and a tucked back tribute to Victorian Scotland called the Guildford Arms pub. The establishment’s doors simply open through time, breaching a vast parlor of chained chandeliers, elegantly etched glass and high, gilded cornicing.

“It has an amazing palatial décor,” notes Chris Callison-Burch, an American who owns a flat in Edinburgh. “And it has a good selection of Scottish beers.”

On most nights Guildford’s patrons are drinking those brews of their homeland, including the ale by Bottlecap Brewery in Aberdeen and the “Skull Splitter” from Orkney Brewery, either of which goes perfect with watching a band like Yard of Ale light up the stage with their urgently swaying guitar and ukulele chords.

Skye’ at top of the world

The town of Portree is the biggest settlement on the Isle of Skye.

Scotland’s national poet Robert Burns memorably wrote “My heart’s in the Highlands,” infusing history with visions of damp valleys, wild-hanging woods and deer chasing through meadows, those stirring flashes that continue to make Scotland’s upper landscapes feel like a remote, living canvas. And few destinations on this windy terrain have the far-flung beauty of the Isle of Skye.

One highway to Skye cuts through Glencoe, where lithic bluffs as dark as ash punch off the planes, towering over the water grass and the wide, lonely vales. Some of Scotland’s most grieving ballads recount a tragedy that took place in this very glen, when the Clan McDonald saw 78 men, women and children slaughtered or forced to freeze to death by soldiers loyal to the Protestant crown. Today, the road from Glencoe to the fishing village of Mallaig winds along stone train bridges and lochs dotted with tiny, forested islands. Mallaig’s ferry breaks out for waves where Loch Hourn meets the Atlantic and then pushes slowly for the misty shores of the island.

Self-imposed exile — Skye’s priceless gift to the Scots. With grass growing on sweeping, volcanic ridges, crawling ghosts of fog that pass the cottages and sheep that wander from castle ruins to the lapping coastline, this chunk of the Highlands broken away from the shore is a sanctuary for finding one’s thoughts as cliff-side waterfalls pour into the sea. The forgotten place is also where the infamous “Bonnie Prince Charlie” — failed leader of the Jacobite revolution — arrived disguised as a woman in 1746. Sentimentalists can raise a glass to the bonnie boy’s failed cause and the price on his head at Talisker Distillery, a 185-year-old whiskey operation set on the banks of Loch Harport. And Talisker’s 57 Degrees North Scotch can toast anyone: It hits the tongue as stabbing, sea salt fire with a tinge of sand and dash of sweetness. It’s calm brown smoke in a glass.

Sheep graze near the ocean on Scotland’s Isle of Skye.

Nightlife on the Isle of Skye thrives in the town of Portree, a lively harbor where warmth emanates from pubs like the Isles Inn, with its door leading inside to scruffy Highland cow scalps hanging over lamps. The inn serves thoroughly Scottish dishes, including Cullen Skink, a light, white cream soup chalked with bits of potatoes, vegetables and local smoked fish. The kitchen’s haggis, on the other hand, is muscular, prepared as a burly, filet mignon shaped fist of meat-mangle, fortified by “neeps” and “tatties” and dropped in a pool of red wine and roasted onion gravy.

Mornings reveal the island’s final allure, clouds gripping the flinty sides of its bluffs as breezes batter its cold, spring green desolation. Hikers looking for a spiritual awakening find themselves in Skye’s southern Cuillins at a place known as the Fairy Pools. From Sir Walter Scot to Robert Burns, Scotland’s prophetic voices have always looked for grace in the mystic openness, and this gentle span of waterfalls snaking through meadows under the mountains beams with a radiant glass blue that’s other-worldly. It’s the final epiphany from a nation that has always produced the strongest and strangest of people — a land that has always used personality to conquer the impossible.

The Fairy Pools on Scotland’s Isle of Skye.

California journalist. Writer-producer of the ‘Drinkers With Writing Problems’ podcast. Author of ‘Shadow People’ & ‘The Cutting Four-piece’