13 January 2009

notes from auld reekie

Almost as soon as the rest of the family headed back across the pond, Trevor and I were on a plane to Edinburgh (pronounced ED-in-bur-uh). As compensation for being the family's and Trevor's tour guide, Mom paid for my flight and even gave me an allowance for our travels. Edinburgh is a delightful city: visually striking and gritty, intellectual, chronically inebriated, reasonably cosmopolitan and yet thoroughly Scottish. You are far more likely to see St. Andrew's Cross flying than the Union Jack, even in a city that has historically been more loyal to the crown than most of Scotland. On the same latitude as Ketchikan, Alaska, Edinburgh has the kind of low winter sun that I remember from my time in the last Frontier.

Encounters with unexpectedly good Scottish food. At last I had my first encounter with haggis, Scotland's famous dish of sheep organs, oatmeal, and spices boiled in a sheep stomach. The stomach was not included as part of the presentation on my plate, which was probably for the best. To my surprise, the haggis was not bad, not even merely tolerable, but quite tasty. Which is a good thing, because next week Trevor and I will be eating haggis again. Our next MCR formal commemorates Burns Night, an annual fete honoring Robert Burns, the Scottish national poet. As is customary, the haggis will be paraded into the hall while one of our Scots reads Burns' poem "Address to a Haggis." See how much of it you understand.

Edinburgh takes to the streets. Edinburghers love their outdoor festivities, and we stumbled on not one, but two large public gatherings during our weekend. One was a road race, which warmed my runner's heart, and the other was a street protest against Israel's military actions in Gaza. The protesters were numerous and quite vehement. I'm certainly no fan of Israel's response to date, and I can understand why Scots might be particularly disposed to be sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, but the whole event oozed hyperbole and unwarranted moral clarity. George W. Bush's mirror image.

Scottish politics. Scottish-English relations are tamer these days than when William Wallace was fighting Edward Longshanks, but things are still in a state of remarkable flux. I was floored to learn that Scotland just got its own Parliament in 1999, after almost 300 years of being ruled exclusively from London. We visited the new, ultramodern Parliament building, which sits across from Holyrood Palace, the Queen's home when she's in town. (We didn't visit Holyrood, but Trevor did leave his mark; as we stood outside the gates he dropped his Coke can, which was summarily swept under the gate and onto the Queen's front yard by a strong gust of wind.) Scotland's Parliament only has authority over certain, "devolved" areas of government, but it was nice to see signs of a new budding of civic consciousness. In general, I was surprised by how kindly the Scots I met spoke about England. Some -- and I should probably note that most of these conversations happened in pubs after many beers -- took great pains to emphasize how much influence has traveled from north to south and not just in the other direction. Those age-old antagonisms are more like sibling bickering or collegiate rivalry than a blood feud, and Scotland's incredibly violent history seems to be receding in the face of prosperity. Below, Parliament and Trevor, Coke can still in hand.

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