A city engulfed in fog, the air thick with it, it walks along with you, a misty gray sheath before your eyes covering up the edges of the whole city; its streets, its buildings and its people. This is the first glance I catch of Edinburgh, Scotland’s capital city, as I walk up the ramp out of Waverely train station one summer morning at 10am.
written and photographed by Mariam Tawfik
The station is located right in the center, with Edinburgh’s Old Town on the left-hand side and its New Town on the right. A few hours later I realize that the fog is here to stay, from the early hours of day, passing through the afternoon and into the night. A whiff of cold air and even wind is always at hand as well. But perhaps these are the only constant factors in this City of Ghosts. Nothing much stays the same here, especially in August. Next month there will be colors, banners, costumes, music, and performers dancing around come Edinburgh’s Fringe Festival, making for an obvious contrast to the ancient gothic city.
Edinburgh is the birthplace of Robert Lewis Stevenson, author of Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle met Stevenson at the University of Edinburgh, from which they both graduated, and it’s where the latter met his teacher Joseph Bell, the inspiration for Sherlock Holmes, and wrote his stories.
Built on a hill, Edinburgh’s streets are winding and steep (a potential hazard if it rains), sometimes acting as bridges with other streets underneath — a bit unsettling at the start until I got used to it. Only a bridge, Waverely Bridge, connects the Old Town and New Town and overlooks the train station and the city below.
A couple of steps away from the station, the Scott Monument stands tall and proud in Princes Street Gardens, a dazzling Gothic memorial dedicated to Scottish author Sir Walter Scott, which hosts statues of his characters as well as a marble statue of him right at the center. It is this monument that Charles Dickens once called “vulgar” and “a failure,” which is rather harsh. It and Edinburgh Castle are the main symbols of the city, visible for hundreds of meters, sometimes far away and at other standing high just before you.
I walk along the Old Town’s winding streets and venture into its dark, narrow closes that barely fit one person — my shoulders almost touch the walls as I walk through one. However morbid they are (they could very much be settings for murder scenes!) I find that sometimes they open up onto courts with stone houses all around, black pipes and metal gates circling them, and benches set up around the court with metal plates nailed to their backs etched with quotes dedicated in memory of a friend or a loved one. “June’s Seat-1997, A Dear Sister and Friend. Her Smile Lightened Up a Rainy Day” reads one of the benches.Those benches however, are all over the city, in both its Old and New towns, particularly in and around Princes Street Gardens.
Ancient cities rarely come without their mysteries, and Edinburgh is certainly not an exception. A whole street is dedicated to one, in fact. The celebrated legend takes place just a few minutes’ walk from the Royal Mile in Grassmarket, an ancient marketplace still in use, though now full of restaurants and shops. The street is located at the end of the city’s winding slopes and right below Edinburgh Castle, which towers above it — you could strain your neck trying to look up at it. The market took a darker path in the 1600s and was used as an execution ground, where the story of Maggie Dickson unfolded, a young woman who is said to have survived the hanging and ended up living to an old age. The locals gave her a nickname “Half-Hangit Maggie”… Ring a bell?
Edinburgh has long been a center for the arts, its vibe managing to inspire great works of literature, and it still does. Fans of magic and wizardry would probably have guessed it, Nearly Headless Nick, perhaps? Gryffindor’s ghost. Edinburgh, city of mysteries, winding narrow alleyways and cobblestone streets, is also home to celebrated author J.K Rowling, creator of the Harry Potter books and who is believed to have gathered bits and pieces of inspiration from the city, its streets, buildings and strangely even graveyards. The Elephant House located close to Grassmarket is a small coffee shop in Old Town, which hosted the author, who needed a warm place to stay since she couldn’t afford to heat her own home, as she wrote the first three books in her now-famous series.
Right next to the Elephant House is Greyfriars Kirkyard, a graveyard built in the 1700s, argued to be haunted, and which chilled my bones for a moment when I first stepped in, the leaves rustling and swaying, is home to various kinds of tombs, some that are even caged for some horrific reason, and perhaps the most famous, especially for Harry Potter fans, is the acclaimed tombstone of Thomas Riddell, which was the inspiration for her antagonist and Harry Potter’s rival Tom Marvolo Riddle also known as Lord Voldemort. Fans from far and wide have long been visiting the tombstone and even leaving notes by it.
Not very far off, Edinburgh Castle sits proud on its high cliff engulfed in greenery and overlooks this bizarre city with all of its mysteries and stories as it has always done for centuries — but perhaps not on dark alleyways, pointed spires, winding streets and its beloved authors sitting somewhere and dreaming up their tales. Not now. Now it watches over Edinburgh’s youth in all of their madness and freedom. Now it listens to the music resonating across the Royal Mile’s wet cobbled stone pavement, the main street going through the Old Town, which is the main host of The Fringe that is closed off during the festival. The Royal Mile hosts hundreds of performers on either side, its gothic stone buildings blackened by exhaust, standing watch over the commotion of colours and music piercing through the whole street, an eclectic wave. Costumes, banners, painted faces and people dancing or simply setting up their gear and singing a song or two in a corner are not odd sights. Men in top hats and women in Victorian dresses and heavy makeup graciously hand me flyers to their Dungeon Walk, a tour into Edinburgh’s deepest closes and as I walk deeper into the street, I am flooded with more flyers (I’ve collected a bag of them) to all kinds of shows and plays, from stand-up comedies to dramatic plays starring a couple of actors, sometimes only one actress. I spend the time being heaved through the crowds watching the performers, with arms reaching out for me with colourful flyers that I fill my jacket pockets with.
I am fascinated by Edinburgh’s history of literary presence, and attend Your Fragrant Phantom, a play narrating the tragic story of F. Scott Fitzgerald, author of The Great Gatsby, and his wife Zelda. The plays mainly take place in ancient buildings in the Old Town, with tiny wooden stairways that creak and small rooms that thud and rattle whenever the actors jump or make sudden movements, the stale smell of wood creeping from the corner. The small rooms have high ceilings and no more than four rows, seating a maximum of 20 people with the actors standing barely a meter away from the first row. The actors always greet the audience before and after the show like they’re old friends, giving an overall pleasant and safe environment.
Edinburgh not only houses shows and performers, it is also home to the Edinburgh Book Festival, where talks and book signing events are held in Charlotte Square Gardens situated in New Town, a more modern part of the city. It is nonetheless quite similar mainly because all buildings are required to be the same height and overall formation as the Old Town. The gardens have countless seating areas which might not be so pleasant when the skies cloud over your head after barely a couple of minutes of sunshine and the huge droplets of rain smack over you, forcing you and everyone in sight to rush under the tented pathways set up. Present during my visit were authors Neil Gaiman, Matt Haig, Marcus Sedgwick and Haruki Murakami. The small bookstore set up in the gardens where the signing events are held is warm and dense with the rustic smell of books and wood, ensuring a relaxed and heartwarming conversation with the authors. I remember Haig’s enthusiasm and gnawing curiosity when I told hims that my brother and I were Egyptians, an opportunity to know more about people from a different place, and how Marcus Sedgwick, author of mostly gothic novels, seemed equally impressed and intimidated by my name which makes me wonder if he would ever write up a character with my name.
Listed among the top five safest cities in the UK, Edinburgh’s puzzling legends, its Gothic vibe, winding streets and tiny cobblestone closes from which every corner nevertheless scream paranormal and welcome travelers to its mysterious, eerie arms. You’ll never want to leave till it spills out all of its secrets.
This story was submitted in Dr. Richard Hoath’s Travel Writing Class (Spring 2016) at AUC and has been selected as our first prize winner.