Here in Edinburgh there are hints that spring is in the air, the crocuses have appeared along Melville Drive, there are birds beginning to sing tentatively in the pre-dawn (by the time the sun rises the rush hour has started and the noise drowns out the birdsong, so the birds have given up the competition and started singing early). However, don’t be fooled by those clear blue skies and bright sunshine, it is cold outside, and in spite of the wall to wall sunshine the maximum day time temperatures are not yet getting into double figures.
The important thing now is to get out and enjoy it, there are dark mutterings among the locals that this might be more sun than we will see in summer (just like last year), and remember that when March comes in with the lamb, it goes out with the lion…
We are twelve days off the solstice and the days are short. So when we came to look for a place to go on a Sunday afternoon we didn’t want to venture too far afield. We wanted somewhere with a view and a chance to use our Historic Scotland membership, this was how we came to visit Craigmillar Castle. For those unfamiliar with Craigmillar its name comes from the Gaelic Crag Maol Ard, meaning “High Bare Rock”, it is a league to the south east of Edinburgh Old Town (i.e. about 3 miles), for us this means it is just a 15 minute cycle ride away.
Craigmillar is said to be an “up and coming area”, that is to say that they have set about demolishing much of the post-war housing schemes (which have a reputation as being a setting for the film Trainspotting) and are replacing them with something newer. Sitting above this is the “High Bare Rock”, the bit where Simon Preston (son of Sir Simon de Preston, Sheriff of Midlothian) or possibly his son, Sir George Preston (no one is entirely sure) built a tower house in the late 14th Century. Over the following centuries this has been expanded (then ruined) to become the Craigmillar Castle we know today. Rather than witter on about, it I think I will just show you some of the photos we took.
The castle in the changing winter light:
And then there were the views:
Berwick Law and Bass Rock in the gloaming
the Edinburgh skyline
including Salisbury Craigs
There is snow on the Ochills hills beyond the Forth
Not too sure about the way the Quartermile was allowed to impinge on the Edinburgh skyline
Then finally the sunset behind the Pentland Hills.
We had returned from nearly a month away (skiing in Austria, since you ask) and this was our first Saturday back. The Edinburgh farmers market was calling, wandering across The Meadows we were surprised to see the numbers of fallen trees, we had been told there had been a big storm while we were away with a gust of 102 mph (164 Km/h) being recorded at the Observatory on Blackford Hill, but even so this was more damage than we had expected. I also noted that the Council have planted a number of new trees in The Meadows to replace previous losses. Some of these new trees include exotic conifers, which I feel are inappropriate to an urban park.
Arriving at the market we set about buying the necessary provision, butter from Stichill Jerseys (finalist in the BBC Food and Farming Awards 2011), Bacon from Puddledub Pork, game from Border County Foods, fish from A & D Patterson, etc. Just as well that Gartmorn weren’t there this week as we don’t have the space in the freezer for a chicken, chatting with the stall holders with like old friends, the sort of thing you just don’t get shopping at the supermarket.
Shopping done, we decided to make use of the membership of Historic Scotland we had been given for Christmas. The nearest Historic Scotland property was obvious, the Castle! Walking on to the Castle Esplanade, I was surprised to see a tour bus disgorging a large group of tourists. I had naively thought that in January tourists would be thin on the ground, how wrong I was, it was busy, but fortunately not crowded. We wandered up to the guy wielding a barcode reader to check tickets and flashed our membership cards, only to be told that we should have picked up free paper tickets at the ticket office (there is a separate window for members). We explained that this was our first visit as members and we were simply waved through in a friendly way.
Once inside, we headed up on to the ramparts to take a few photos of the city and were bemused to be approached by one of the “official photographers” offering to take our photo. We polity declined, but with hindsight, it would have been fun to agree and watch her face when we replied to her next question which would have been “where do you come from”. There are times in Edinburgh when I could wish for a badge saying “I am not a tourist, I live here”, although not usually in January. You don’t have to be a tourist to visit your own heritage. On this occasion we didn’t go to see the Honours of Scotland (also known as Scotland’s crown jewels or the Scottish regalia), the oldest royal regalia in the United Kingdom. Now that we have membership cards, we can go back any day.
Well here it is, the beginning of December and the first snow has arrived, causing much excitement on Twitter and, and, well not much else. The gritters have been out and the Sunday morning traffic is moving normally.
It is more like a normal winter, although we have just have the warmest November on record with hardly a sign of frost. As I write, I can see Nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus) growing out of doors untouched by frost. All this is rather unlike last year when there was a week of sub zero temperatures in November, with the daytime temperature struggling to reach -1° C. When the snow did arrive, the ground was deep frozen. It settled straight away and wasn’t going anywhere, also it was heavy snowfall, 20-30cm at a time, not the 2cm we have had this morning. Sadly I can’t see there being any ski touring on Arthur’s Seat this December (which I have just noticed was exactly a year ago today). Meanwhile in the Alps, many of the ski resorts are still waiting for snow…
It is November and what the Scandinavians call the murk time has arrived, the days are short and the nights long. Not that this is all bad, there are those bright sunny days when the air is crystal clear and your soul sings!
The traditional Scottish approach to dealing with the arrival of the long nights is to light bonfires and let off fireworks (this is not to be confused with schemies setting fire to tenements which can happen at any time of year). This usually starts around Halloween or Samhain (the celtic new year), but that is for another post, this is about November when the lighting of bonfires and letting off of fireworks reach a crescendo on the 5th. As the rhyme has it, “Remember, remember, the fifth of November, Gunpowder, Treason and Plot”! I am often amused by English people who ask “is Guy Fawkes Night celebrated in Scotland?” This shows certain failings in the teaching of history in English schools, which seems to stop with the death of Elisabeth I in 1603, totally ignoring the fact that her successor was her cousin James VI of Scotland. It was James as King of Scotland, England and Ireland, who was the target of this Gunpowder Plot by a group of provincial English Catholics. So, “Guy Fawkes Night” celebrates the failure of an English attempt to assassinate a Scottish King, now why wouldn’t the Scots celebrate this? OK, granted it is more fervently celebrated south of the border, mainly due to the passing of the 1605 Observance of 5th November Act by the English Parliament and so hasn’t quite as long a history in Scotland. While the habit of adding effigies of the Pope to bonfires (which is still common in some parts of England) would doubtlessly appeal to some Rangers supporters, it would also fall foul of the new Scottish sectarian bigotry laws.
Of course lighting bonfires and fireworks aren’t the only way to cheer things up as the nights draw in, and so the town council strings up lights all over the place, and just for good measure the odd fir tree. I am not sure where all these trees come from, but the one on the Mound is kindly donated by the generous people of Hordaland, Norway. From the Mound you can also see the Ferris wheel in Princes Street Gardens, this is the source of another Edinburgh tradition which takes place in November, namely writing to the papers to complain that it is too close to the Scott Monument and could be blown over.
Ah yes, that brings me round to the weather in November. It used to be that November would signal the start of winter, but these days things are a lot more variable. Back in 2006, we had four outdoor grown tomato plants on the allotment which were yielding over 1Kg of fruit a week throughout November. These plants were finally killed by blight in December (there wasn’t any frost until January 2007). In contrast, last year (2010), for the last two weeks of the month, daytime temperatures struggled to rise above freezing. However at the same time it was dry and sunny, making it pleasant to go out and about, apart from when it was snowing heavily. This year, November has been relatively mild but there have been a few stormy days, such as today. It can turn from bright sunshine to rain, hail, sleet and even snow in a matter of minutes, but wait a while and it will be back to sunshine. And then there is the wind, on a stormy day in Edinburgh you can see people being blown down the streets, yes literally. The sort of wind speed we get in Edinburgh would be described as a hurricane down south, but up here we consider them to be just normal run of the mill storms.
Come the end of the month, and we have a bank holiday for St Andrew’s Day, the 30th of November or the following Monday if it falls on a weekend. There were those question the value of having a bank holiday in November, but there are plenty of people on Princes Street who understand the value of an extra shopping day at this time of year.
One of the things about living in Edinburgh you just have to get used to is that there are always people who want to visit you in August. It is a curious fact that people you haven’t seen in ages, or hardly even know, will suddenly decide that they have to come and see you and that they have to visit during August. Why is this? Maybe it is to do with the F, oh dear, looks like I am going to have to use the F word!
I had thought of trying to write a blog post about Edinburgh in August without using the F word, but there is just no way around it. In the month of August Edinburgh is home to a, whisper it, festival, or more accurately there are several festivals running semi concurrently, which are referred to as The Festival. This leads to the rather erroneous view that there is only one festival a year in Edinburgh. This is definitely not true, “Edinburgh is the world’s Festival City”, there are festivals for all sorts of things throughout the year, and in August alone there are numerous festivals.
So the Edinburgh International Festival is the first and core festival in August, but it is far from alone, other festivals have grown up around it. There is, for example, a festival for walking up and down, and this may, or may not, involve playing a musical instrument. This on is known as the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo, or The Tattoo for short. I have to admit to having been to see the Tattoo and actually rather enjoyed it, but it tends to be the sort of thing you only do once. I had a friend at Uni, who wangled a job at the Tattoo in the lighting box. She said that the first night was really exciting, but by the end of the first week it was becoming rather a bore, and there were still two more weeks to go. To me, the highlights of this year’s Tattoo has to be the unique Dutch Army Bicycle Band, not that I have seen it other than on this video:
Ah yes, The Fringe, this is the bit which many people think of as being “The Festival”, as it has grown to be the largest of all the festivals in Edinburgh in August. Indeed it can reasonably claim to be the World’s largest arts festival (beware of imitations). Certainly when taken together, all the festivals in Edinburgh in August do amount to the largest arts festival in the World. In the month of August the city receives over 500,000 visitors, the standing population Edinburgh is about 448,624. The Fringe alone sold almost 2m tickets last year.
So how did this come about? Well when Rudolf Bing, Henry Harvey Wood and a bunch of big wigs from the City establishment first established the Edinburgh International Festival in 1947, they did so to “enliven and enrich the cultural life of Europe, Britain and Scotland”, and they intended that performances at the Edinburgh International Festival would by invitation only. This left a number of performers feeling rather miffed that they had not been invited, so they just turned up anyway and booked “performance spaces” around the fringes of the official festival. Over the years this has grown like wildfire and the other festivals have been bolted on to make up the numbers.
As a consequence of all this, accommodation in Edinburgh in August is at a premium, hence people you only vaguely know suddenly want to visit you. This isn’t always such a bad thing, when I was a student one of my flatmates announced that her brother in-law was going to sleep on the living room floor over the festival. He was just starting out on the comedy circuit and this was his first time at Edinburgh. The upshot of this was that we got free tickets to his shows for many years afterwards. He told me I had a laugh comics would pay for, but he hasn’t had a show on the Fringe for some years now. The last time I saw him he was reduced to acting with amateurs, things like this…
Well Omid, if you are back in Edinburgh for the festival and need a living room floor to crash on, just let me know, actually you can have the spare bedroom, if we don’t have other visitors.
There are downsides to being in Edinburgh in August, for those of us who live and work here it can get really tedious that you can’t get about town so easily. In some places you can’t walk down the street without some would-be actor handing out flyers for a show [http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-14422594]. The visitors tend to forget that not everyone is on holiday. They forget that this is not their country and we do things differently, so if you don’t like it, stop whinging and go back to London.
Yes, we do sometimes go to the odd show, but we don’t all have money to throw away, and we do pay for the privilege of having the mad circus in town. The Edinburgh festivals cost the Scottish tax payers over £5m a year and more if you are also an Edinburgh council tax payer (it should also be remembered that more money is collected in tax in Scotland than is spent in Scotland in public spending, but that is for another post).
Another thing the “struggling” theatre groups from London complain about when coming to Edinburgh is the cost of renting a flat through August. Yes, it is more expensive than at other times of year, but there is a reason for that. As any experienced landlord will tell you, a group of thespians can do more damage in three weeks that a flat full of students will do in a year. No only that, they will leave it in need of a deep clean, before even students will agree to move in. So new landlords, think carefully before letting your flat out for the Festival.
There are two sound which are commonly heard in Edinburgh in July. One is the sound of swifts (Apus apus) screaming overhead and the other, the rattle of suitcase roller wheels on pavements. Both sounds tell the locals that the summer visitors are here, yet the city seems to be quiet. This is Scottish schools start their holidays early in July, this gives Scottish parents the opportunity to take family holidays before the rush from the south and so avoid the higher prices. For those visiting Edinburgh, this can be a relaxed time to visit the city.
This year, there is another sound which has characterised Edinburgh in July, the drum roll of thunder. Edinburgh’s weather is often variable and July is often the monsoon season, with intense but, localised rain. This makes it easy to differentiate between locals and visitors, the locals wear Gore-Tex® if the rain is heavy and ignore it if the rain is light. Whereas the visitors can be seen wearing plastic ponchos, or even black bin liners while walking about when ever it is raining. Speaking of rain, if you are lucky (or unlucky, depending on your point of view) you can experience the uniquely Edinburgh phenomenon of rain falling from a clear blue sky (well I have never experienced anywhere else, although I have seen snow fall from a clear blue sky in the Alps). All this talk of rain may give the misleading impression that it rains a lot in Edinburgh. This is not so, Edinburgh is actually one of the driest places in Britain, it is in the rain shadow of the Pentland Hills to the south, the Fife Hills to the north and Glasgow to the west.
The rain is not the feature of the weather in July, it is also one of the warmer months of the year, with temperatures averaging over 20°C. The local can be seen in summer cloths (under their Gore-Tex® jackets) through out this month, whereas visitors tend to look as if they wish they dressed for winter. Yes, Edinburgh can have a green winter in July, but then there also those warm sunny days as well, it is just that you can never quite tell which you are going to get. You have to understand that up here on the edge of the sub Arctic, summer is the bit of the year with longer day length. Although the locals will tell you that now we have passed the solstice the nights are drawing in, however, visitors can be confused by it still being light at ten o’clock at night.
If you are looking to buy property in Edinburgh, then July can be a good month to buy. The Scottish system of property sales often involves completive bidding, with so many people taking holiday in July, this can lead to there being less completion and so bargains to be had. The other thing about the Scottish system of property buying is that it is fast, I know from personal experience that you can have a bid on a flat accepted in July and have the keys in your hand to move in the first week in September.
As the weather hadn’t been great all day we decided to take a wee walk up Arthur’s Seat (the largest of Edinburgh’s extinct volcanoes) before dinner just to get a bit of fresh air. Naturally I grabbed the big Nikon on the way out. We had got as far as the Scottish Widows building when the first photo opportunity was spotted, the water lilies (Nymphaea sp.) in the moat. Fortunately I had a polarizing filter on the lens and so had some chance of controlling the reflections.
So there was me trying to take photographs of the water lilies, when Ulli said “Look there’s a tandem coming!”, I swung around to grab a picture. I was just was just trying to pull the zoom to frame the shot when the pilot said “Hi Kim”, it was Colin a cycling instructor I used to work with, and his wife.
Tandem passed and water lily photos taken, we headed on to Holyrood Park and tried to dodge the flooded bit (we have been having monsoon rains recently). We squelched our way across the grass to the wee bealach separating Arthur’s Seat from Salisbury Craigs. There was a group of noisy German teenagers on the first of the Craigs, so we decided not to hang about, and set off away from the Gutted Haddie. I took a few photos trying to capture something of the atmosphere before we toddled on home for dinner. I hope enjoy some of the pictures below, if you like any of them, just click on them to see a bigger image:
June is possibly one of my favourite months to be in Edinburgh, it is that period between the students leaving and the tourists arriving en masse. The city is quiet, it’s just the locals, the long term residents, who are in the city. We who actually live here have our city to ourselves for a short while.
As I write today, the sky is blue and the sun is shining, but the weather in June is not always so kind. A few days ago it was decidedly dreich, not for nothing has Edinburgh been described as the Reykjavík of the south, we are on the edge of the sub Arctic here. Another effect of this is the length of the day, visitors from the middle latitudes are surprised to find that it is still light at 10:30 at night. We are not so far north though that there is enough light to read by at midnight without turning the lights on (I have experienced this in Norway). At this time of year the nights are short, and so birds start singing early. It reminds me of my student days, wandering home as the birds are starting to sing.
Although the tourist masses have yet to arrive, that doesn’t mean that there is nothing going on in Edinburgh in June. There is the Edinburgh International Film Festival, although this is a shadow of its former self and no longer attracts the big stars that it once did. There is the Meadows Festival, the Royal Highland Show, which in spite of its name is actually held at Ingliston out by the airport, and a number of other events.
Then there are those quintessentially Edinburgh things, such as a group of archers doing a spot of target practice in the middle of a public park, because that is what they have always done since 1676. Health and Safety be hanged, it is important you know, without this essential target practice, how can they be expected to guard the monarch when she visits Scotland, if they don’t practice?
If you want to eat out in Edinburgh in June, book early, as the Graduation season has moved (in my day it was in July). The new graduates of Edinburgh’s four universities and their (rightly) proud parents, dine out in the better restaurants across the city, but worry not, there are plenty of good places to eat in Edinburgh.
Another feature of Edinburgh in early summer is the rash of For Sale and To Let signs that appear across the city. This usually starts in May, with a sudden rush of For Sale boards (although in recent years it has been less pronounced) and is followed by the To Let signs in June, as the students end their studies and exit the city. For savvy students looking to rent (or their parents looking to buy), this is the time to find the good flats. The ones with easy access to their chosen university and/or the fleshpots of the city centre.
The denizens of this southern Reykjavík are always ready to celebrate the appearance of the sun. This is done by heading to the parks and open green spaces to show copious quantities of white flesh to the sky in the hope of frightening the sun away. Should this tactic fail, they resort lighting fires to sacrifice burnt offerings to the gods of rain. This tactic usually works.
Arthur’s Seat on an evening in June.
Life in Edinburgh is never dull, however, June is rather more laid back.