mental health and travel
I’d never been to Scotland before and though my uncle, auntie and two cousins live there and have shown enthusiasm in conversations for the place they love, I didn't know anything about Scotland apart from kilts, bagpipes and a wee bit of dram. But stepping onto Princes Street (the main road) in the centre of Edinburgh from the train station, the first view was spectacular. An instant panorama of huge stone buildings on the hill skyline including Edinburgh Castle. It wasn’t like other cities that are often flat with buildings obstructing any ground level panoramas. The view from the station on the left stretched at least a mile of grand structures on the hill that runs east to west. In between the station and the hill was Princes Street Gardens. On the right was no hilltop skyline but massive department stores and hotels, that looked a bit like Harrod’s. I was surprised and impressed.
We took the train from Euston in London direct to Edinburgh, the Caledonian Sleeper. It travels slowly (80 mph) to give you time to sleep and takes seven and a half hours. I was eager about this and excited as I’d never taken a night train before. Stepping on though I found myself feeling just a tad claustrophobic in the corridors which were very thin. Our room was tiny too and I couldn’t really shake the feeling, throughout the night while I slept, strangely aware of the time. I was expecting it to be like in films where the space seemed ample. But I wasn’t actually anxious and it was very interesting. Another new experience to add to the book.
Our hotel – The Mercure, was one of the big stone buildings on the right about 150 metres from the station, a very good location. From the first floor restaurant we had the view of the skyline, from the station on our left to Edinburgh Castle about 500 metres away at our two o clock, which was about 100 metres higher up. Below the castle and in-between it and us was the Scottish National Gallery and the Royal Scottish Academy, were it not for the buses and trams on the busy central street and the fact that such buildings usually have concrete walls, I could have looked at the paintings from the hotel restaurant through my binoculars. Parallel to Princes Street about 200 metres away on the hilltop the street is called the Royal Mile, where all the impressive buildings were built, running left to right including St. Giles Cathedral and ending with the castle on the right from where you can see pretty much all of Edinburgh.
We got off the Sleeper train at 7.20 am and to the hotel 2 minutes later to drop off our baggage. Poor me though – I didn’t sleep well and we couldn’t check in for another 7 hours. We decided, or rather my mum did, to walk the royal mile (which is at least two) and see all of these grand elaborate places. First we went to the east end and we looked at Holyrood Palace and the Scottish Parliament. I stood in the Parliament debating room which was empty, picturing Nicola Sturgeon and Alex Salmond having a friendly exchange of opinions, and probably seeing how far they could advance their own personal agendas disguised as politically honest ideas that are good for the nation (power tends to corrupt), and I’m sure that many important people had stood where I was. We walked to the other end of the Royal Mile to Edinburgh Castle, past the University of Edinburgh, the High Court, and into loads of eateries and tourist shops that at first seemed slightly clichéd. We didn’t get to the castle until about midday.
The culture of Scottish things really beckons you in and then holds you in its grip. With each hour that passed I became more interested in tartan scarfs and jumpers, the whiskies, the kilts, the Harris Tweed, the men playing bagpipes in the street in tones that really are beautifully musical and the accent. I thought the sporrans were really cool too, you can see cheap ones, but also really nice ones worth hundreds of pounds. In London it is rare to see people in tartan and tweed, but it is the pinnacle of fashion up there along with Barbour jackets. About ten percent of the men wear kilts, 50 percent of the suit jackets are tweed, tartan clothes are common, and I was learning why. They look nice and the Scots are rightly proud to wear them.
I bought a woollen tartan scarf and jumper and we stopped into Harvey Nichol’s where they had a big display of Tom Ford aftershaves which I am a huge fan of, and I sprayed about two pounds worth of the ‘Tuscan Leather’ aftershave on myself and my scarf still smells of it now. Tuscan leather is my favourite aftershave and shops rarely stock it (it’s expensive stuff). I also shopped in Jenner’s department store and bought a Barbour jacket and some Ralph Lauren jeans. My suitcase is small but I made allowances for new things like I always do because holidays are when I like to shop.
Edinburgh, as my uncle warned us, was windy and cold. By the second day I was wearing my PJ bottoms underneath my jeans and I was much happier. My first experience of Edinburgh Castle was wet and bone chilling at times, but that’s OK because it makes you appreciate the warm indoor parts that little bit more. The restaurant of EC was right at the top and views were fantastic. The cannons aimed at the commoners below were cool and the crown jewel room was glitzy and gold, though I suspect the display is not the real thing as it was minimally guarded. I’m fairly sure The Stone of Destiny – an important part of history that sits in the crown jewel room was the real thing though. My mum’s favourite part was the Royal Apartments – the decoration, artwork, woodcarved wall features, big fireplaces…
We checked in to The Mercure at 2.30pm. Having had such a weird sleep my day had started at 9pm the previous evening when we left the house and I was so happy to finally lay down for a bit. After a nap we went for dinner just around the corner at an Italian place called Amarone after trying The Ivy, which was full. The service was quick and the food was very good. Where we were there were many great restaurants, something that online research confirms. Then the rest of the evening I switched the TV on and watched snooker. I’d made a good day of it.
The next morning we had breakfast at 9am, a buffet at the hotel with the usual stuff as well as porridge, haggis, and cranachan. Cranachan is a little bowl of thick cream bolstered by oats (and sometimes oat flour) with rasberries and whisky and it is very nice and a new favourite of mine. At 10am we crossed the road and looked at The Royal Scottish Academy and The Scottish National Gallery. Just a quick visit, it was peaceful and I sat on couches making mental pictures of things from the displays to store in my own imaginary art gallery in my minds eye, part of my ‘memory palace’ where I store bright or interesting pictures (sometimes of thoughts) that I want to remember. Before long it was time to meet my auntie for lunch at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. It was a nice place with old wooden facades on the walls with intricate carvings. I saw a big statue of Robert Burns and in one large room the walls were painted 360 degrees with ‘heroes of Scotland’s past’, a 120 strong timeline of them that began with a reference to a scientifically important stone age figure, and the most recent figure was Thomas Carlyle from the 19th century. Tom was an important philosopher, writer, historian and teacher. He died aged 85, far above life expectancy of the time.
After a quick hotel dinner of battered squid, goujons (fish) and shrimp we headed to the party, my twin cousin’s 30th. At a church hall it was fantastic to see family and their friends and it was great fun. There was a lot of traditional Scottish dancing with many uninitiated triers getting it all terribly wrong, people laughing as they barged into each other, but also lots of seasoned professionals getting very enthusiastic in their kilts. I didn’t join in but it was good to watch and sit with rarely seen family and chat over a beer or two.
After a comfortable sleep on quite a large single bed I had the same fantastic breakfast (cranachan, haggis, fruit and porridge), chilled in my room on my phone for a bit and then walked ten minutes to my uncle and aunties house on London Street for brunch. A previous resident of their very nice house was the artist Anne Redpath OBE but if my uncle and auntie had found any priceless relics hidden in the walls, they were keeping schtum.
There were 20 people for brunch, and I got the chance to talk about my mental health writing for a bit (I was asked), which of course, as it always does, turns the conversation onto mental health. Everyone has a friend or family member with mental health stuff, and for various reasons it isn’t often spoken about, so when people get the green light, I find they want to discuss it. Mental health has been a big part of the last 18 years of my life so I have a lot to say. I can always remember an anecdote or two from my own experiences.
Having had a party with 100 guests, it took my cousins 2 hours and 39 minutes to open presents during which time I was making do with a piano stool. It was a lovely brunch.
Mum and I had some more time at the hotel, I played with my phone some more, then we went for dinner at Bella Italia about 50 metres away from the hotel. I had a seafood pizza but forgot to take a photo until I had picked off the toppings. It was very good, but the service was sloppy and our waiter had minor B.O. A large group came in and sat nearby, all talking French, but after 10 minutes they all switched to either Dutch or German, and I must admit I was impressed. We got back ‘home’ to the hotel (that’s what Mum kept calling it, I wandered whether that was so people couldn’t tell we were tourists that might be a good theft target) at nine and I watched the snooker and drifted off.
The next day we got a regular train home, travelling in sunshine on the East coast which had fantastic ocean views. All the way to Newcastle we were talked at by a man about Brexit, who had lots of opinions but no new information. After Newcastle the train was quiet and very pleasant.
So that was Edinburgh, an impressively beautiful and cultured city, with good restaurants, shopping and points of interest to entertain everyone. It seemed to me that Scottish women are very good looking too. I enjoyed it even more than I thought I would.