Friday , December 9 2022
Exploring Scotland’s great cities: festivals, folklore and a love for the written word

Exploring Scotland’s great cities: festivals, folklore and a love for the written word

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Scotland is, has been, and always will be a veritable storyland. A compendium of crafty narratives and trenchant fables. There couldn’t be a more fitting celebration than Year of Stories 2022 for a country so brimful and buzzing with the bravura of words.

Scotland is our novelists: Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting and its depiction of the seamier side of Edinburgh set the literary world ablaze in its time. Then there’s Douglas Stuart, whose 2020 Booker Prize-winning novel, Shuggie Bain, painted such a vivid and moving portrait of growing up in working-class Glasgow in the 1980s. And nae wonder, when they’re following in the footsteps of the likes of Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Scotland is the poetry of Robert Burns and, now, its contemporary makars/national poets: Edwin Morgan, Liz Lochhead, Jackie Kay, Kathleen Jamie.

Scotland is the thrilling video games plots sculpted by Rockstar Games. Scotland is our superlative comedians: Billy Connolly, Kevin Bridges, Fern Brady; and our standout actors and film-makers: Sean Connery, Shirley Henderson, Ewan McGregor, Ncuti Gatwa, Karen Gillan, Mark Cousins, Margaret Tait. It is our artists and music makers: Eduardo Paolozzi, Rachel Maclean, Charles Rennie MackIntosh, Rod Stewart, Young Fathers, Garbage, Lewis Capaldi. Suffice to say, when it comes to storytellers, we’re nonpareil. The same might be said about the tongues of our cities.

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For me, Edinburgh and Glasgow operate as an exquisite pair of lungs – the sacred breath makers of the central belt of Scotland. In the inhale: my people, their stories and folklore. In the exhale: the music and rhythm of the streets. The irreplicable cities of Aberdeen, Dundee, Inverness, Stirling, Perth and Dunfermline make up the rest of Scotland’s vital organs.

I live in Glasgow, but hail from and work in Edinburgh. Both cities punctuate my life and writing: their architecture; the tongues and vernacular of our international denizens; the vagaries in the weather; the arts extravaganza of the summer season; the hubbub of Hogmanay; the magnetic pull of the Highlands; and the infinite promise to spend more time up in the hills when meeting chums in our palmary watering holes and eateries. I’m smitten with these cities.

Glasgow’s more of a secret for some visitors, but it shouldn’t be. It’s a magic place to roam or ride through. I bide in Glasgow’s leafy West End – the slice of bucolic parkland that’s home to the River Kelvin. I’ve sauntered its stunning riverside walk so many times I know the lone heron’s business better than it does.

Kelvingrove Park spills into the striking – and publicly accessible – grounds of Glasgow University. Posing in between its statutes of a lion and a unicorn (Scotland’s national animal, don’t you know) flanking the staircase leading to the university’s Memorial chapel, might just be the photo of any holiday to the city.

It’s worth noting that Glasgow’s majestic Mitchell Library, which is one of the largest public libraries in Europe and home to more than a million books, looks like it’s been plucked from a film set. Within it, you’ll find literature galore and a cracking cafe to hide away in and write up that travel journal. While we’re on the subject of libraries, a cap must be doffed to the magnificent Glasgow Women’s Library, the only resource of this ilk in the country and a true national treasure – as welcoming as it is salient, and packed to the rafters with sublime archive material, artefacts and memorabilia.

To many folks’ surprise, Glasgow has an underground network. Sure, it’s like a terrific toy train but handy, quick and splendiferously clamorous. My several-times-a-week commute takes me from Glasgow to Edinburgh’s Summerhall, an arts centre that looms over the bustling Meadows area. Barbecues, buskers, beaded jugglers and picnic stalwarts pepper these verdant plains all year round.

Fireworks over the Edinburgh skyline, as seen from Calton Hill.
Fireworks over the Edinburgh skyline, as seen from Calton Hill. Photograph: georgeclerk/Getty Images

I grew up by Edinburgh’s seaside, Leith and Portobello – they’re cool, vibrant areas, pullulating with bookstores, gastropubs and chic cafes. The canny visitor shops indie and supports local. And why wouldn’t you with such a smörgåsbord of belters at your disposal?

Another Edinburgh jewel is the picturesque village of Duddingston: boasting Scotland’s oldest inn, the Sheep Heid Inn, and an abode from which Bonnie Prince Charlie evaded capture with the help of a gutsy lover.

An extinct volcano, Arthur’s Seat, famously broods above the city. Clamber up its massiveness and behold one of the world’s ancient capitals from a peerless vantage. Your een (eyes) will feel amazing.

If you want to talk about cities having an underbelly then you’ll certainly find one in Edinburgh. A warren of streets frozen in time dwell under the thronging Royal Mile. Ravaged by plague, the poorest of the city once tended to live here when it became easier to dig down than build up. There’s beauty in the darkness below, mystery in the labyrinthine walkways that undoubtedly thrummed with patter and laughter, but there’s heartbreak too – either way, to take this tour is to time travel.

While we’re hitting a spooky note, just down the road is Canongate Kirkyard, where you’ll find the resting places of economist Adam Smith and poet Robert Ferguson – no, not Robert Burns, but an inspiration to him. The Scott Monument, too, is unmissable when you emerge from Waverley Station – a rocketship of charcoal and shale, and the second largest monument to a writer on the planet!

Is it any wonder Edinburgh was the first ever Unesco City of Literature and continues to play host to the Edinburgh International Book Festival, one of the largest public book festivals in the world. Appropriately, the city is also home to the Scottish Storytelling Centre, which hosts the Scottish International Storytelling Festival every autumn.

It’d be barbarous of me not to flag some for the stunning cities farther north.

Royal Research Ship Discovery at Discovery Point, Dundee with V&A Museum
V&A Dundee sits on the quayside next to the Royal Research Ship Discovery. Photograph: Allan Wright/Alamy

First up, the double splendour Dundee proffers by being both the home of the monumental V&A Dundee and the birthplace of many much-loved comic book creations – the historic Dundee publisher DC Thomson having crafted everyone from Desperate Dan to Minnie the Minx and Oor Wullie. Mary Shelley and Dundee aren’t often thought of in the same sentence, but that’s changing. The Frankenstein author spent crucial time here in her teens, recuperating and ruminating, and you better believe Scotland’s keen to shout about it. A plaque on the wall at South Baffin Street marks where Shelley resided for nearly two years between 1812 and 1814. So stirring was the impact of her Scottish stay that her dwelling (The Cottage) was even mentioned within the text of Frankenstein.

The historical building Provost Skene’s House in the city of Aberdeen, Scotland, UK.
Provost Skene’s House in the city of Aberdeen. Photograph: Simon Price/Alamy

Also a firework for fair Aberdeen, our glistening granite city. Where your first stop should absolutely be Provost Skene’s House – open after a major refurbishment, it celebrates how the pioneering people of the north-east of the country have shaped both this toon and the world beyond. And then a flare for Aberdeen’s annual festival of light, Spectra, which illuminates the frosty February nights with lucent lore. Nuart Festival’s events and talks rush art through the city in considered annual dollops, and their year-round walking tours keep it at the conversational acme.

Inverness, the UK’s most northerly city, is gallus – that’s Scots for bold – in its charm. Inverness Castle being the focal point of much of the tumult and drama of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, and, of course, it’s this great city that boasts the birth certificate of one of Scotland’s most extraordinary creatures, the Loch Ness monster. No trip to the Scottish Highlands would be complete without a visit to the enchanting Leakey’s Bookshop, and take heed of the glorious writers centre of Moniack Mhor, which offers year-round residencies and tutoring.

Scotland, I love you. I could live nearly anywhere else, but I don’t. I’m not saying I never will, but I’ll always come back. You will forever be my favourite bedtime story.

Michael Pedersen is a prize-winning Scottish poet and author. He’s unfurled two acclaimed collections of poetry (Polygon Books) with a prose debut, Boy Friends, due with Faber & Faber in July 2022. He’s read all over the world, won a prestigious Robert Louis Stevenson Fellowship, and co-founded the infamous Neu! Reekie! literary production house.

Scotland’s Year of Stories 2022 spotlights, celebrates and promotes the wealth of stories inspired by, written, or created in Scotland. More info on the programme can be found here

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