Auld Reekie

There’s not so much reeking these days; those who persist line up on the road out of Waverley station, just beyond the end of the covering awning where ‘inside’ officially ends. Little red and white stickers decorate every building in the city right down to bus stops, warning that smoking is no longer tolerated.

The first thing I see in Cramond on the wooded green outside the flats is a pheasant, but it never reappears. The sound of the weir on the Almond below is constant, interrupted every five minutes by the sound of a jet taking off from or landing at Turnhouse. When the sky is full of cloud you can’t see the planes, only hear the roar.

We go into town to check out the Douglas Gordon retrospective, Superhumanatural, at the Royal Scottish Academy. There’s a ramshackle pile of televisions showing nearly everything he’s ever made, and Bernard Herrmann’s Vertigo score from Feature Film wafts through the galleries (the material experience of multimedia art, far from the sensuous contemplation of single works, is that you’re never quite free of the work with the loudest sound) but the elephants of Play Dead; Real Time, This Way, That Way, Other Way are the most engaging. The hypermodern effect of so much video is slightly undermined by the tendency of the gallery staff to wear tartan trousers, one of those things about Scotland in which it’s difficult to discern the difference between local tradition and nationalist intent.

At the top of the Royal Mile by the castle a huge tourist cavern and polycotton tartan weaving mill is almost entirely staffed by Japanese women. It’s like moving Huis Ten Bosch to Holland.

At the other end of town, down by the fairly hideous new bamboo-slatted parliament, the Queen’s Gallery at the Palace of Holyroodhouse is showing her private collection of Canalettos, the most impressive of which are the dozen-plus-two scenes of the Grand Canal, and the most intriguing of which are the capriccios: not merely rearranged but entirely imaginary cityscapes and views: fragments of a fantasy Venice.

Beyond the palace and into the park, a small street runs under a railway line: this is Croft-an-Righ, where my great-great-grandparents lived when it was the Irish part of Edinburgh. Through the park which looks up to the Salisbury Crags and around the corner is Milton Street, where my grandfather was born in 1900, at number 29. This is the first time I’ve been here. These tenement buildings are three to four stories high, containing flats with communal hallways. Being built of stone, they’re much sturdier than anything brick-built from a similar period in London. Most of Edinburgh’s pre-war housing is stone-built, mostly of a sandy-grey colour which glowers under cloud but is strangely radiant in sunshine.

I start to rediscover the way in which Edinburgh is put together. On Christmas Eve we walk from Cramond village down onto the esplanade that skirts the Firth of Forth. The tide is out and the low sandbanks close to the shore are drained of all but a few pools. Black and white oystercatchers strut and dip their bright orange beaks in the mud. Folks are out walking and cycling, and quite a few English accents are to be heard. At Granton, factories and docks push the road inland, and beyond them, new blocks of flats are naturally being built to take advantage of the views over water.

When we round the corner at Newhaven, the first thing I recognize is the Market Buffet opposite the old fish market. When I was a child, a mojot treat on our summer visits to Edinburgh was to be taken to the fish market by my Uncle David. We’d get up cold and early and drive to the market where wooden crates of fish were auctioned fresh off the boats of the small Newhaven fleet. David would slap labels with his name down on the boxes and leave them for the porters while we retired to the Market Buffet for a bacon sandwich and a cup of tea. Cod, haddock, herring; everything came in here. I remember seeing a shark once.

We’d load up David’s van and deliver the fish to his brothers’ shops (they took turns going to the market), stopping finally at his own, where he’d unload and begin gutting and filleting. The brothers had shops all over Edinburgh: I remember Pennywell and Gorgie. The last time I went to the market I ended up spending the day learning some rudimentary filleting and preparation skills in the West Port shop, which was also a haven of sorts for some local down-and-outs. Sandy would bank his dole at the beginning of the week with David to stop himself blowing it all on drink. Schizophrenic Keith told me about the voices he heard and cooked his lunch on a gas stove in the kitchen out the back.

Now the fish are gone. A few fishing boats linger in the harbour at Newhaven, and a small part of the market still operates, but even what was the fishing museum is being redeveloped into craft shops and café bars. David gave up the trade in the early nineties, and cleans windows now, getting up just as early to beat the yellow lines.

Further along the shore, we reach Leith, or Ocean Terminal at least. Though things are still made and traded here (what looks from a distance like an enormous block of flats is in fact the Chancelot flour mill), Leith’s waterfront is now dominated by the Ocean Terminal development, an enormous indoor mall with the added attraction of the disused Royal Yacht Britannia moored alongside.

On Boxing day we walk across the causeway to Cramond Island, something my grandmother never let my mother do. Curious pyramidal concrete posts run from the shore to the island, and we’re not sure whether they were to stymie U-boats or what. The island itself is wooded and craggy with a few shells of WWII military emplacements and occasionally plays host to a punk rock festival. We can at last see the twin Forth bridges around the corner and up the firth. On the way back we see men digging for cockles or mussels, despite signs all along the coast which warn of contamination.

The train home is old and crowded; people sit glumly on their cases by the toilets, girlfriends and boyfriends scout seats together up and down the train with their mobiles. Across the aisle from me a man holds his year-old son on his lap and explains at length to a friend on the phone how his life has fallen to pieces: the child’s mother has post-natal depression, has abandoned the child and goes out clubbing, is seeing a former boyfriend, is going back to Africa. He talks of sleepless nights, heartbreak and living hell. By the time we’re in Yorkshire it’s dark again, and I try to make fireworks out of the lights that fly by with my mobile phone.

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