Edinburgh Journal

The following is a journal I made when in Edinburgh from August 13th to 15th, 1999. Ostensibly the trip was to see the Fringe Festival but it turned into so much more…

The Prelude - Thursday, August 12, 1999

I have been planning this trip for many months. You have to if you want to visit Edinburgh during August. Every festival they have seem to fall on the same month of the year so I was well prepared, purchasing tickets well in advance for everything I was interested in. The city becomes VERY busy during this time.

After a full day of work I caught a taxi to the train station in Guildford, where I currently live. I transferred at Clapham Junction (the busiest train station in Britain - EASY to see why if you visit) to continue on to Victoria station in London. I was on my way to catch a bus (coach) to Edinburgh, the coach station is just a few minutes from the train station.

I was not looking forward to the trip on the bus. The trip is about seven hours and I knew that it would be cramped and stuffy – I was not disappointed, unfortunately. Every seat was taken, I had got on the first of five buses departing for Edinburgh at the same time. I had looked into other methods of getting to Edinburgh but coach was really the only viable option, everything else was so unreasonably priced…The coach was even cheaper than taking the car (in petrol costs alone). We left early, winding our way through the middle of London past Hyde Park Corner and up Edgeware Road past a number of areas I will be wanting to visit in the future (I was a bit surprised to see the number of Lebanese restaurants with people smoking Hooka's out in the front – containing a strong coffee I am led to believe).

The bus driver seemed to have a bit of trouble once we got into the north of London. The entrance to the M1 motorway was closed for construction and this seemed to through him off. It was tough in the coach, I could not get comfortable, tossing and turning, getting to the nearest thing to sleep about 10 minutes in every hour. Around about 1:30 we stopped for 45 minutes and I found it strange to be walking around in a daze, walking simply to not sit. Amazing that I even remember it.

Edinburgh had better be worth this trouble. Perhaps I should have paid the money to travel by train/car/plane/horseback (ok, just kidding about the last) – at least I might have caught some sleep (a bit rough when driving I will admit).

Edinburgh - Friday, August 13, 1999

Early in the morning we exited in the Motorway onto a small side road to Edinburgh. After the traffic on the highway it was odd to be passing sheep along the side of a small, winding road. No one in the bus was really awake at the time, the sun had only just started to come up.

Throughout the night the driver had left the lights on in the bus, indicating, when someone asked, that it was the 'law'. Rather difficult to sleep though and so I was not in very good shape when we finally passed into Edinburgh.

We pulled into the bus station just off of Prince's Street. I was in desperate need of a shave and wash. At 6:00 am on a Friday in Edinburgh, NOTHING is open. Though, to be fair, the same can be said about any city in Britain, my experience has shown (same problem with late at night/early in the morning).

Lost, I eventually wandered around for the hour or so before anything opened. I did take the opportunity, while the streets were empty to look around and familiarize myself with the layout of the city. The first thing that really struck me was the castle, it is simply magnificent, dominating the city. It is on the top of a large rock formation (cliff) right in the middle of the town, hundreds of feet about the city streets. Near Prince's Street, the main street through the 'New City', a park is along the southern side, with the castle on the southwest side of that. The train passes through this park to the main station located in the middle of the city. I was surprised to see Roman colonnades located at the top of another hill at the end of Prince's street – The Royal Observatory. There are a fair number of 'high-street' retailers but not as many as I would have expected, in many ways there are more in Guildford.

The city itself seems small and personable, with no massive, tall buildings. Most of the buildings seem older and the place is steeped with history. So much different than the Glasgow I visited a few years ago – so much more to see and do…And it wasn't even awake yet. The streets seem to be fairly clean, much more so than in the south of England.

After all of that, I ended up desperate and in McDonald's. I had to have something to eat for fear of passing out. The rain did not help…Felt better after abusing their facilities by having a quick face-wash and shave. It is going to be a LONG day…

After breakfast I took care of some business I had with American Express (preparation for a somewhat adventurous holiday starting next weekend) before heading off to see my first Fringe show of the weekend, the first of many for today.

Shakespeare for Breakfast (C)

Held in a small venue right on Prince's Street the facility was not the best but the show was quite good – They billed it as including breakfast but this was simply a coffee with a croissant. We were led into a small theatre whose walls were lined with black sheets with two sets of chairs at opposite ends of a flat stage. I was wondering how well the performance would be with these facilities but I did not need to be concerned. The show started a bit slowly but once you got into it, it was very good. It was VERY well scripted and briefly touched on a number of Shakespearean topics (including Shakespeare's love life). Very amusing show to start the festival for me.

King Arthur and the Knights of the Occasional Table (Observer Assembly Rooms)

The next show as on George Street, which runs parallel to Prince's Street. The Assembly Rooms is one of the largest venues in the festival and is very well organized and laid out. This show was put on by two ladies in what I would call an 'inept' style. That is, seeming not to be organized all the time proceeding through the well-scripted show. An example of this was the use of a large fold-up façade as a castle, at one point the lead character is moving it off the stage and stops for a second, a furtive 'help' is heard from behind. They started with an intentionally fake looking 'mound' of astro-turf that served as a 'hill' (amongst other things). This was to be used to house a dragon, a lake from which the lady of the lake would gift Excalibur to Arthur and a rock from which Arthur would pull a sword. Very versatile.

I was disappointed that the somewhat small auditorium was not entirely full though the people present seemed to be very appreciative.


After the first show I figured I had enough time to head off to the Bed & Breakfast to get rid of my luggage and check-in. I was only going to finish my day at the fringe late at night (early in the morning) so I needed to get my key and room sorted. The directions they had provided for the B & B when I booked many months ago served me well, telling me to take a specific bus south from Prince's Street. We passed over North/South Bridge and past the Royal Mall and eventually I got out just after all the businesses had ended and the houses/hotels began – about a mile away from Prince's Street. I was delighted when checking-in that the proprietor knew me by name (a practice he would keep up throughout the times I saw him), guiding me to my small room on the top floor looking south with a GREAT long-distance view (to the far left, though not visible, is the Arthur's Seat hill formation).

After passing out (unfortunately) I had to run quickly to catch my next show back at the Assembly Rooms. I decided to walk back to town to save a bit of money and see what exactly was in the area where I was staying – not much as it turned out (other than hotels and B & Bs). The walk was interesting (if hurried), taking an interest in every store I passed to see what was there. The Old City was interesting, passing by the Royal Mile and seeing streets passing beneath the street I was on – about 40 feet below. The city was beginning to get busy as the day progressed, packed with tourists and festival attendees.

The Old City - Edinburgh

Hattie Hayridge (Observer Assembly Rooms)

I must admit that I have heard Hattie before. I first heard of her where she really achieved her fame – on the BBC's Red Dwarf Science Fiction series. She played a computer (well, the head of the ship's computer) with a low IQ. She has played this persona up and her stand-up act continues with this 'dopey' act. I saw her show at the Red Dwarf convention last year in Liverpool. She typically comments on the irony and humour in every-day life smattered with small self-depreciating, but amusing, comments.

After my experience with her show in the past, I was surprised when the show opened with her in a set which was supposed to be mid-2001 in the Pleasure Dome (the London Millennium Dome rebuilt after being hit by the Mir space station when it fell on New Year's Day 2000). A rather odd set with plastic ducks 'floating' on a series of small round 'lakes' (of what looked like plastic). She started the act by putting on a pair of flip-flops with little plastic ducks on the front of them also, commenting how nice the ducks were and what a great place it was. She then continued, commenting on the situation in the world in 2001 and making some rather bitter-sweet comments about life in the present day. Despite a number of noisy distractions from other theatres around ours, she continued unflustered, even incorporating a few comments about the noise into her act. She might act dopey on stage but she is REALLY on the ball.

The ending is wonderful, a rebellion against the society she had found herself in, or at least her little corner. The whole event was well scripted and very good, not as much humour as I would have expected from her but the irony and social comments were very good.

Best of Irish Comedy (in pub in basement)

After walking down a series of steps into a basement pub. When I first arrived there were few people actually there but the place soon filled up. This was an atmosphere that I had had experience with, having gone to many stand-up shows in Canada when I lived there. I grabbed a seat (and table, lucky enough) at the back and to the side (you do NOT want to sit near the front, close the speaker, for fear of being called on 'stage'). The 'stage', by the way, was another typical affectation of such clubs – a small, low platform, against one wall with a microphone and a papermaché backdrop. The atmosphere was soon polluted with the smoke of other patrons as they arrived (though I did take the opportunity to grab something to eat, and drink – VERY good, by the way, Pepsi, to keep me awake – I still had a number of hours to go before I could get to bed).

The show was very good, every performer being a professional resorting only sparingly to swearing and vulgarity (which, in excess, does put me off). The crowd really appreciated the acts and it was a wonderful experience.

Interlude -- A walk

I had a bit of time before the next show so I decided to walk to the far end of the Royal Mile and the Palace of Holyroodhouse, looking through the locked gates. Evidently this is the residence of the royal family when they are in Edinburgh.

The Royal Mile (near the castle)

Walking down the Royal Mile was very interesting, very old, cobble streets with ancient storefronts all along the somewhat crooked street. The Royal Mile stretches from the very bottom of the castle hill at Holyroodhouse all the way up the castle entrance itself, hundreds of feet above. Fascinating just to walk down and look into the various shops selling everything from drink to tartans and wool.

The Comedy Supermarket (The Royal Mile)

After the wonderful experience I had with the events I had experienced so far I was bound to get a bad show and this was definitely it. I can honestly say I have never seen such a bad all-round performance – I was VERY uncomfortable.

The premise of the show was pretty interesting (and that is why I booked for a ticket): As an audience you pick from a list provided which topics the comic is to provide a joke or a sequence of humorous anecdotes. I got the list when I showed up for the event and a sense of dread began to creep into the back of my mind – the topics were either extremely sexual in nature or simply boring (political topics, etc). Quite diametrically opposed. Well, I had got a ticket so I made my way into the basement of the pub for the show…

The comedian was obviously uncomfortable and unsure of himself – relying on notes for every topic and requiring that the topic be on the list of items we had been given. Any other decent comedian in such a situation would 'go with the flow' talking about whatever the audience wanted. He seemed to even almost literally read the words from the sheet. He acknowledged only a few minutes in that he was 'not doing that well' to the audience (the death knell if I have ever heard one – NEVER acknowledge failure, continue anyway). The topic raised was 'Togger Waving', though I will not describe this more it literally involved what you might (extremely vulgarly) think and him singing a strange little tune about how small it was…God.

Around about that point, someone who was obviously a bit on the drunk side started to shout out that he thought the show was…not very good (except not nearly so polite, of course). He had an ongoing argument with the comedian for quite some time, though funny enough, extremely one sided as the comedian agreed with everything the guy said 'Yes, it is not very good tonight'. Anyway, eventually the drunk left, the audience tensing up as he made a slight movement towards the stage (though, cynically, this may have been more interesting than the show).

At one point he even said 'Ok, the show is not going that well and if you decide to want to end it I will refund all of your money'. Unbelievable. We had paid good money for the performance and really, as most audiences at these events do, we wanted him to succeed so we gave him a second chance and allowed him to continue for the full time (though it was EXTREMELY unbearable by the end). He ended with having his father (who showed up at the end) coming on the stage and singing a indecipherable ditty that was world's better than the show was.

As I walked out the front door I passed his father standing there. As I passed him he asked 'Did you enjoy the show?'. I stopped, turned around and walked back to him, patting him on the shoulder, 'He doesn't know how to handle people – He let them get to him. He will tell you about it.' Never quite having it in my heart to tell him that the drunk had a point that we all agreed with.

The Comedy Zone (Pleasance)

I was early for the Comedy Zone so I walked about a bit, eventually turning up at the Pleasance which turned out to be a series of small buildings around a square with each building holding a venue for shows. The square was basically a big party with a lot of drinking and the like. It was getting late so the crowd was getting a bit restless (and drunk).

Eventually after leaving the area to return just before the show began I got into the queue that was beginning to form for the show. This was common, all shows I had seen (except the Commedy Supermarket) had a queue to get in for the best seats (there are no reserved seats, it seems, for any of the shows).

After getting a seat right near the front, I was looking forward to what looked like a good few hours of comedy – a series of four comedians with an MC. Many of them I did not really care for but the biggest problem was the audience – some at the back were obviously extremely drunk and started shouting obscenities and insults at whoever was on the stage. The comedians can take a certain amount of this but it got too much for the ones near the end. 'I can see this does not seem to be working for some of you in the crowd so perhaps I should just leave. Who thinks I should stay on?' The crowd was overwhelmingly in favour of continuing and voiced their approval. Again, we had paid money to see the show and wanted to see it. The hecklers were too much and the evening ended perhaps earlier than it should have.

Perhaps I have too much self-esteem. These people were extremely drunk. If I was drunk and I made stupid comments (such as they did) I would not be able to live with myself and would feel a lot less of myself. Perhaps drinking perpetuates a degradation of one's soul eventually leading to the stage when you care so little for yourself when sober – you get drunk and feel even worse, taking it out on anyone you feel you can take it out on. I was very uncomfortable and hurried to leave.

Interlude - The Day Finally Ends

As I made my way, walking, back to the Bed and Breakfast for the night I was the most fearful I had been since arriving in Edinburgh. Perhaps it was the lack of sleep, but the last show had really caught me off-guard with the disruptive audience. Eventually sleep came, early the next morning when I finally arrived.

Edinburgh - Saturday, August 14, 1999

I woke up bright and early the next day – eager to get into the shower before anyone else, about half an hour before the breakfast time began. Making my way down the two flights of stairs, I entered the back dining room for my meal, invited to sit by the window and served a wonderful 'Scottish Breakfast' (though how such a meal could not include black pudding I will never know – basically what I would call an English Breakfast). It was nice that the proprietor remembered my name and greeted me as I sat.

The Millennium Musical - The Reduced Shakespeare Company (Observer Assembly Rooms)

The Reduced Shakespeare Company is well known in many places but I actually know them from a few long-running shows in London, having seen their 'The Complete Shakespeare (Abridged)' (in just over an hour in length). They are an extremely witty group, and have a pretty tame sense of humour but a great sense of timing.

The Assembly Rooms put this group in the largest of their auditoriums which was filled for the show. The show itself was put on by two gentleman and a lady (all of which I had not seen in the London show – so I would assume that the group is composed of a number of companies). It was exactly as it indicated – a musical highlighting events of the previous 1,000 years. Much of it was silly with a bit right near the end which was a bit bittersweet with a 'duet' between Hitler and Ghegis Khan which basically indicated that would it not be nice if people like them did not show up in the next millennium.

The music was simple, the staging very adequate, the jokes pretty lame (but amusing nonetheless) and the crowd very responsive (made up of a largely American audience – typical considering the Reduced Shakespeare Company is American – Odd to think that they travelled to Edinburgh from the US to see an American group though this seemed to happen at many of the events. Perhaps in the US such forums for off-beat entertainment are rare.)

Edinburgh Castle - In the Middle of the City!

Sherlock Holmes...The Last Act!

I made my way around the castle, to the west, walking up a street that approached the castle towards my destination for the next show. The venue was a small building that held two theatres (one on each of two floors above a main floor). It is true what they say about every place in Edinburgh being converted to either a hotel or venue for the festivals in the summer. We eventually made our way up to the third floor and were shown into a small room that must have seated less than 50 people. I noticed that the author of the play was in the audience (I recognized him from the photo in the playbill) and so looked forward to a wonderful play.

I was not disappointed, the play consisted of Sherlock Holmes, by himself, remembering his days as a detective after reading of his friend Watson's death. Much of it was introspective and obvious to anyone familiar with Doyle's work on the famous detective but I thought it was very good the way the actor played out the various characters, switching in and out of the fearfully serious nature of Holmes with such transparency it was enthralling. Absolutely wonderful (though I was still a bit tired from the previous day/night/day/late night).

What really struck me was the dramatic nature of Holme's use of Heroin the play. Of course, anyone familiar with the works would know that Doyle indicated that this was one vice of the detective that he would resort to when 'bored', trying to keep his mind busy or perhaps numbed. In the play he had become bored with his passive life and used the drug to forget…Dramatically 'shooting up' in front of the audience. Very powerful. Tragic ending, as you might expect.

The actor was absolutely fantastic if not very well known, playing the part with great taste and fantastic talent.

Blue Grassy Knoll and Buster Keaton on the Big Screen! (Observer Assembly Rooms)

Returning to the New City, I once again visited the Assembly Rooms to see some Buster Keaton movies that were accompanied by a small band (jazz, to use a term). Absolutely wonderful the way they brought the pictures to life. They emphasised that this was the way Buster had always intended the movies to be seen – accompanied by music, never completely silent. A few times the band missed their queues but most times it was 'spot on' and really quite entertaining. It really brought the crowd to life.

I have never actually specifically set out to completely watch a Buster Keaton movie so this was the first time I had seen them. As I expected – I was not disappointed and this made a wonderful, if relaxing afternoon show.

Princess Street

Interlude - Dinner

I had enough time for dinner, so I set out to find some. This is always difficult for me when I am alone. Most restaurants were full or places that I would not feel comfortable dining alone – fancy with not many tables and BIG prices. I like a place where I can enjoy the food. I eventually ended up eating at a Japanese noodle shop just north of George Street, the whole restaurant only seating about 12 people. Though perhaps overpriced, the meal was good, if a bit bland. When I first arrived there was a Japanese family eating there so it can't be that bad…

Edinburgh Military Tattoo (50th Aniversary)

One of the most popular tattoos in the world, this is not the oldest nor even the biggest but certainly attracts a good size crowd (I heard it on good authority that in one weekend they had about 100,000 people at the tattoo – last weekend). Set on the Esplanade immediately in front of the castle, temporary seating is set up around the area.

I have only been to a few tattoos before but this one was truly wonderful – there is something about hearing the bagpipers playing against the backdrop of the castle, lit up. This concert started at 10:30 at night and we were lucky that it did not rain and the sky was relatively clear – though it was VERY cold and windy, especially in my seat right near the top of the seating stands (quite a walk). I had picked up my ticket by mail a number of months ago, I wanted to be sure of a good place – high up in the stands, in the middle, so I could see the whole field without too much trouble (though, as per the norm, I was behind a very tall person…they seem drawn to me).

The performance was simply wonderful, with the bagpipes starting the show, passing through the castle gates in a (somewhat tacky) cloud of smoke. Overwhelming and haunting. The formation they march in is interesting, I especially like it when they march to the far side of the area and reverse on themselves to go return to the other side of the area (the people at the front turn to the side to walk back along the side of those behind them, continuing one by one as each person reaches the far side until they are all marching in the opposite direction).

Though the bagpipes did not do anything fancy when it comes to marching, a few other bands present did, including a very good Marching Band from the US, who were very good. The group from the Barbados was interesting with the stilted dancers towering over their fellow performers – quite spectacular.

The night was topped off by a wonderful fireworks display, launched from the top of the ramparts of the castle (smoke filled the seating area causing most people to cough and hack…). Getting away was a bit more difficult – everyone had to exit through the one street leading to the castle – narrow and cobbled (The Royal Mile).

Another late night before getting back to the B & B…

Edinburgh - Sunday, August 15, 1999

My final day in Edinburgh, though I had until 10:30 at night before I had to leave so I did not really do a lot of things, taking it a bit easy before the tiring journey back to London.


The Former Royal Yacht Britannia

The Britannia has been docked at Edinburgh for less than a year since it was decommissioned last year. Formerly used by the royal family to visit the far corners of the world it has been turned into a very interesting museum.

I had a bit of trouble figuring out how to get to the ship since it is located a few miles north of Prince's street. I eventually figured out that the 'LRT' did NOT refer to 'Light Rail Transit' but something like 'Lothian Regional Transport' (ie, a bus) after being told rather curtly at the train station. I caught this 'bus' from Waverley bridge (but not until I had relaxed in the park for a few minutes first) which took us directly to the harbour area and the Brittania docked there.

They have built a vistor's center on the dock which contains a small but very interesting exhibit not only concentrating on it's famous passengers but also on the mundane like the physical and technical aspects of the ship. There is a short (and somewhat disjointed) movie they show you before you enter the exhibit area proper. When leaving the exhibit to go to the ship you are given an audio guide device that you simply type in numbers posted about the ship for information about that area. In some ways this is a better way than having written placards disrupting the various areas.

The ship was very interesting and I was surprised to see the number of artefacts left behind. When the ship was decommissioned I heard that the royal family took many of their possessions with them, they must have had a LOT of them considering the amount they left on the ship. The ship is well appointed but a bit dated, having been made more than 50 years ago, the final ship in a series of ships stretching back quite a number of centuries. No rich tapestries but many comfortable, if small, rooms. Lots of wood, fresh flowers (of course, only when the ship was in use, plastic for us visitors now), pictures everywhere, teak decking, brass fittings…Not terribly large but it did have about 20 visitor rooms. Half of the ship was actually for the crew (all navy men, captained by an admiral) which kept the ship not only running but also provided other services such as catering and tailoring.

I returned on the coach through Leith back towards Waverley Station.

Edinburgh Castle

The Main Castle Entrance

I could not visit Edinburgh without a trip to the castle. Odd to be walking through the Esplanade where just last night the bands performed so wonderfully. Walking past the sentries with their guns, I showed my ticket to be allowed to pass into the castle across the drawbridge and through the main gate. At the very outset the walk was of cobbles and I picked up the free audio guide they passed out but I noticed that there was also a free tour offered by a REAL human just a few minutes from when I arrived. So, listening to a few opening sections of the audio guide while waiting.

There were two guides, I got the one that was not terribly exciting, younger and very straight-laced. The other guide was a bit older, wore a kilt and always seemed to have a big crowd with him. Oh well. Our guide was very good, showing the main areas of interest and a few tips on how to avoid the big crowds at sites such as the Honours of Scotland (their equivalent of the crown jewels in England – funny enough, long lost but rumoured to be in a big chest which was opened early this century and, low and behold!).

The castle is approached by a very steep path (cobbled) around the outside of the castle into the center of the castle where a few chapels and barracks. The castle is STILL in use today as the headquarters of a few Scottish regiments. The castle was taken only a few times and never by direct force, always by cunning. Great views of the city from the top of the walls.

I wandered around, going from point to point listening to the guide as I went. There was a lot of information on the guide, much of which was history about Scotland which I was not really previously aware. I followed most of it but must admit with all of the dates and names it was a bit overwhelming.

One of the most interesting was the visit to see the Honours of Scotland, not necessarily for the jewels themselves but rather the history of how they were found and that they found a piece with the jewels that they had no idea where it came from. Odd bit of history.

I did not go in the regimental museums there. I find the act of war a bit distasteful and instead enjoyed the history of the castle itself, visiting all other buildings (including the dungeon and the oldest building in Edinburgh – a very small chapel within the inner castle itself). Really, a lot to see and listen to.

Interlude - Dinner

Took the last of my hours in Edinburgh by returning to the B & B to pick up my bags, it was already about 6 pm, stopping at a Fish & Chips place for something to eat and to fill out a few postcards. Absolutely awful, greasy dinner though I do it to myself every few weeks, kind of a bad craving I periodically have.

Returning to Prince's street, today was Fringe Sunday and all day there were free events in the park. The main stage was putting on a few live acts that I watched for a few hours, noticing how a few street people who were talked to periodically by the ushers as they were drunk…Interesting. Evidently this stage has free events all the time which are broadcast live on cable TV in the area.

The Trip Home

Eventually I gave up as the music was getting very bad. The first few acts were alright but the last one I saw was basically loud music with no tune and little talent, sorry, no talent. I made my way to the bus station to eventually join in the queue for the bus. Should be used to it after all of the queues at the festival and other attractions. I eventually struck up conversation with someone who was also on the bus and we commented on the English/British love of queuing. A typical Englishman will see a queue and get in it, regardless of what it is for – or so it seems. There were a few in the crowd that were very rude, pushing their way past us into the front of the line. We commented VERY loudly about how rude they were. After discussing this with my friend we concluded that it is only in the city where people will not say 'sorry' when they step on you. I will ALWAYS mumble an apology no matter where I am if I do this to someone.

We got on the bus which ended up leaving pretty late. The long journey home began…At least it was more comfortable than the trip to Edinburgh, don't know why, the seats seemed better (and mine reclined this time). I had to work on Monday too…Was going to be another long day…And only four days before Hong Kong (second visit) and Australia (first visit).

While in Edinburgh, I stayed at the Lorne Villa Guest House, hosted by Mary and Calum McCulloch. They are located at 9 East Mayfield, Edinburgh, EH1 1SD, Telephone/Fax: 0131 667 7159.

From their brochure:

  • Lorne Villa is a family run business situated only one mile from the city centre, ten minutes by bus and thirty minutes walking. It is located on a quite road between the A701 and A7, which are major bus routes to and from the city.