Finally asked Dear One and Juliette if they had noticed a pervasive Edinburgh smell. They gave me their longsuffering looks. No, they said, it is in your mind. If it is in my mind, I replied, then it is also in the Cumberland sausages. It is in the Guinness, in the haggis, in the stairwell of our apartment, all along the Royal Mile, up in the topmost stairs of the Scott Monument, in the shortbread, and especially in St. Giles Church. It's there in the morning, noon and night. It comes and goes. Sniff sniff - it is buttery, or like sheep fat and sugar. It's part animal fat, part sugar, part musk, like the sweat of some wild animal of the heath. Can't anyone else smell it?
This went on for days, until even I was sick of myself asking about it. The smell came in bursts. Now, near a bus stop, or here, winding down the castle stairs, now disappearing in trails around the courtyard of the Writers' Museum... Finally I found out that not only does Edinburgh have a smell - it is famous for it - to the extent that the city has been nicknamed Auld Reekie. Many say it is the heady wafting of hops from all the breweries, and there is something to that. But I've smelled hops before, and this smell has a few added layers: shortbread and sheep fat, and a few other tantalizing elements. Apparently some people can't stand Auld Reekie's reek, while others find it strangely comforting.
Now that I know I'm not alone in smelling it, I fall into the category of the comforted ones. I can't help thinking how Edinburgh must feel and smell at Christmas, with the cold damp burrowing into your bones, among the stones, and the snow, and the shop lights. I think I would find that very beautiful indeed, in a Northern, drear and sombre sort of way. Every evening the bagpipes of the tattoo drift through our apartment windows. The tattoo itself is one of those mad tourist things I can't stand, crowded and situated on an eyesore of a stadium rigged up outlandishly at odds with the loveliness of the castle. It's more fun to catch bedraggled bits of the parade tuning up in a mad cacophony in the wynds and closes around the castle before the Tattoo starts, like these members of the Fuzileiros Navals Banda Marcial:
Edinburgh's smell was one of the first things that finally made the city feel like home for me. When I first moved there, in 2008, I lived in Dalry -- one of the western neighbourhoods, ten minutes or so from Princes Street and right near the distillery. I woke up smelling barley, and hops, and when I walked to work in the morning (such early mornings, those) the smell would mingle with fried sausages and the baking that wafted out from open doors.
For the longest time it broke my heart -- it was a happy smell, the smell of being well fed and busy and social and warm. And when I was clinging to the city, as I so often did in those early months -- clinging more to the idea of it, probably, to the stones and the dark and the dreary beauty of the rain more than the reality of being new in a place where you knew no one at all -- the smell seemed to speak to everything that I wanted and wasn't getting. Walking to work every morning with the smell of sausage rolls sitting calm before my face, every time.
But when I went back to the city this year, the smell had changed, or I had changed, and suddenly I felt like I belonged. Hello, the stones seemed to say. The bakeries. The distillery. The quiet, unremarkable waves on Portobello beach. You can have everything now, if you want. Sit. Be warm. Enjoy.
I am (somewhat sheepishly, I'll admit) rather proud to say that I spent three years in the country and never once went to a tattoo. But I once met friends for lunch just outside of their apartment -- they too live right near the Castle. I was late, and stressed out about it, but there were hundreds of children getting ready for a bagpipe concert in that behind-the-Castle area, and as I wound my way up Johnston Terrace, picking my way through kilts and plaid and this note, then that, I remembered how lovely it was to be climbing up the side of a hill in such a city as that one, surrounded by music on all sides, and my stress disappeared.
Thank you for these posts, Kathleen. I'm so glad that Edinburgh has settled its comfortable folds around your soul.
It feels so lovely to have your company, through your words, as I acquaint myself with this imposing yet strangely comforting place. I look forward to catching up with more of your posts, which are lovely, lovely to read.