Haggis for Breakfast
When I woke up, Carla had already left for her tour to Loch Ness. Not visiting the highlands and Lochs would be one of the few regrets from this trip. If only I had the time and the money.
Like most hostels, Smart City served complimentary breakfast. Unlike most hostels where complimentary breakfast consisted simply of the basic bread and spreads, Smart City pulled out all the stops. Breakfast here was the full works. Sausages, ham , bacon, scrambled eggs, tomatoes, baked beans and the quintessential Scottish dish – HAGGIS.You get the holy trinity of breakfast beverages too: Coffee, Tea & Orange Juice.The best part – breakfast is served buffet style at the bar! When I proclaimed Smart City Hostel Edinburgh to be the best hostel I stayed in the entire trip, I wasn’t kidding.
Haggis is widely regarded as the National Dish of Scotland.It’s what Kaya is to us Singaporeans, Vegemite to the Aussies…you get the idea. A versatile dish, it can be eaten for breakfast, lunch or dinner. I’m a sucker for all foods weird and disgusting so I attacked the brown gooey mess on my plate first.
For those of you who are interested in the recipe: Haggis is made up of primarily of sheep’s pluck ( Heart, liver, lungs) simmered for hours together with various spices and condiments before it’s encased back into the sheep’s stomach. Essentially it’s cannibalism.Taking out the upper half of a sheep’s entrails and putting it back in the animal’s own stomach! If you choose to/able to get past it’s gruesome components and preparation, Haggis actually tastes quite good. Creamy, chewy and full of flavor. If you intend on bringing some back home, supermarkets readily sell tins of them.To give you an idea of just how deep the Scots affinity with this dish goes; here’s a poem by Scottish poet, Robert Burns.
Address to a Haggis
Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face,
Great chieftain o the puddin’-race!
Aboon them a’ ye tak your place,
Painch, tripe, or thairm:
Weel are ye worthy o’ a grace
As lang’s my arm.
The groaning trencher there ye fill,
Your hurdies like a distant hill,
Your pin wad help to mend a mill
In time o need,
While thro your pores the dews distil
Like amber bead.
His knife see rustic Labour dight,
An cut you up wi ready slight,
Trenching your gushing entrails bright,
Like onie ditch;
And then, O what a glorious sight,
Then, horn for horn, they stretch an strive:
Deil tak the hindmost, on they drive,
Till a’ their weel-swall’d kytes belyve
Are bent like drums;
The auld Guidman, maist like to rive,
Is there that owre his French ragout,
Or olio that wad staw a sow,
Or fricassee wad mak her spew
Wi perfect scunner,
Looks down wi sneering, scornfu view
On sic a dinner?
Poor devil! see him owre his trash,
As feckless as a wither’d rash,
His spindle shank a guid whip-lash,
His nieve a nit;
Thro bloody flood or field to dash,
O how unfit!
But mark the Rustic, haggis-fed,
The trembling earth resounds his tread,
Clap in his walie nieve a blade,
He’ll make it whissle;
An legs an arms, an heads will sned,
Like taps o thrissle.
Ye Pow’rs, wha mak mankind your care,
And dish them out their bill o fare,
Auld Scotland wants nae skinking ware
That jaups in luggies:
But, if ye wish her gratefu prayer,
Gie her a Haggis
You guys probably did not understand a single word of that huh? Here’s the English Translation.
Fair and full is your honest, jolly face,
Great chieftain of the sausage race!
Above them all you take your place,
Stomach, tripe, or intestines:
Well are you worthy of a grace
As long as my arm.
The groaning trencher there you fill,
Your buttocks like a distant hill,
Your pin would help to mend a mill
In time of need,
While through your pores the dews distill
Like amber bead.
His knife see rustic Labour wipe,
And cut you up with ready slight,
Trenching your gushing entrails bright,
Like any ditch;
And then, O what a glorious sight,
Warm steaming, rich!
Then spoon for spoon, the stretch and strive:
Devil take the hindmost, on they drive,
Till all their well swollen bellies by-and-by
Are bent like drums;
Then old head of the table, most like to burst,
‘The grace!’ hums.
Is there that over his French ragout,
Or olio that would sicken a sow,
Or fricassee would make her vomit
With perfect disgust,
Looks down with sneering, scornful view
On such a dinner?
Poor devil! see him over his trash,
As feeble as a withered rush,
His thin legs a good whip-lash,
His fist a nut;
Through bloody flood or field to dash,
O how unfit.
But mark the Rustic, haggis-fed,
The trembling earth resounds his tread,
Clap in his ample fist a blade,
He’ll make it whistle;
And legs, and arms, and heads will cut off
Like the heads of thistles.
You powers, who make mankind your care,
And dish them out their bill of fare,
Old Scotland wants no watery stuff,
That splashes in small wooden dishes;
But if you wish her grateful prayer,
Give her [Scotland] a Haggis!
I bumped into Thierry and Marie on the way out. Even though they were clearly nursing bad hangovers, they still looked every bit gorgeous. Thank God for the French!
12 Hours in Edinburgh
12 hours is an insanely short amount of time to discover a city and I would seriously advise against it. If you find yourself in my predicament: short on time and money, fret not,you’ll still get to see most of Edinburgh’s main sights. Edinburgh has a relatively small city center which makes it a very walk-able city.The main attractions are located close enough to each other.
Most major cities in Europe have free walking tours and this is the best way to discover a city especially if you’re pressed for time. I still regret not going for them in Paris and Rome.These tours depend on a network of freelancers who operate on a tipping system. If you enjoyed the tour, you leave a tip for the guide. If you thought it was boring, you can simply walk away free but that’ll be just rude.
Pick up a brochure at your hostel to find out the details. In Edinburgh, they run tours in English and Spanish twice a day.These tours are organized by Sandeman’s NewEurope, a highly regarded company in the backpacking circuit.They organize free tours in numerous European cities
I met up with James, our tour leader outside a Starbucks. He was everything you’d expect of a Scotsman. He had a Scottish accent and slightly auburn hair.The only thing left for him to do was wear a kilt and play the bagpipe. He shocked the entire tour group when he mentioned that he was originally from Portugal. He moved to Edinburgh to study theater a few years back.Now that made sense.Only a theater student could pull off such a convincing identity swap!
I hadn’t encountered any Singaporeans so far on the trip.The closest I got to home were the Malaysian family offering me kueh at St Pancras and the Hong Kong family in Venice.The question of when I’d cross paths with another Singaporean was definitely lingering at the back of my head.
The tour began with an introduction of all the participants. It was on this particular tour where I finally crossed paths with not 1 but 3 of my fellow countrymen. Singaporeans being very reserved, we didn’t immediately talk to one another despite having just introduced ourselves to the group. Maybe they didn’t realize I was Singaporean?
We headed down the Royal Mile towards the castle.The Royal Mile is most famous street, succession of streets to be specific, in Edinburgh. It’s exactly one Scot Mile long with Holyrood Palace at one end and Edinburgh Castle at the other hence the name.
Here’s a few highlights from the tour:
First stop on the tour route was the Mercat Cross. It’s the name given to a market cross found in most Scottish towns, cities and villages. Historically, it served as a physical landmark of the right bestowed by the bishop, baron or monarchy to hold a regular market or fair. It was therefore regarded as a symbol of authority and an indicator of an area’s prosperity. Beside’s its official functions, the Cross was also a venue for public punishment.Thieves were tied to the cross and made to suffer from the elements and the humiliation of the public as well.
The Heart of Midlothian
Legend has it that if you throw a coin backwards over your left shoulder into the Trevi Fountain, you’ll ensure your return to Rome. If you throw two more coins, you’ll have a new romance and get married in the future. Here in Edinburgh, it’ll cost you nothing to ensure your return to the city. All you have to do is spit at the Heart of Midlothian. Did I mention you get good luck thrown into the deal as well?
The Heart of Midlothian is a granite mosaic built into the pavement alongside High Street. It has a rather dark history. The Heart was built as a marking for the entrance to the prison where the executions took place. Back in the day, spitting on the heart symbolized the released prisoners disdain at the prison.The tradition of spitting probably originated from there.Since you can’t spit in Singapore without getting slapped with a fine, I reveled in my new found freedom and unloaded my saliva onto the heart.
Here’s a little bit of football trivia. Heart of Midlothian Football Club is the local team in Edinburgh and is based on the mosaic itself. It is believed that rival teams too spit on the heart to show just what they think of Hearts.
Greyfriars Kirkyard is a graveyard. Not any ordinary graveyard, It happens to be the most visited graveyard in Edinburgh.There’s no royalty or nobility buried here so why do visitors throng to this particular graveyard? The “Star” grave here actually belongs to a special Skye Terrier. Yes you read that right! It belongs to a Dog!
Greyfriars Bobby is somewhat a celebrity among Dog-Lovers. If you’re a dog owner, you’d probably be familiar with his story. Bobby’s claim to fame lies in his extreme loyalty to his master. The story is as follows- Bobby belonged to a man named John Gray who worked as a night watchmen for the Edinburgh City Police. When John died in 1858, he was buried in Greyfriars Kirkyard. Bobby stood by the grave every single day for 14 years until his death on 14th February 1872. He was buried right beside the grave of his master.
Whoever came up with the phrase ” A dog is a man’s best friend ” wasn’t kidding. A touching tale of love and loyalty. All you single people out there whose biggest fear is dying alone- Go get yourself a sky terrier and name him Bobby! If such a thing as a national dog existed, Greyfriars Bobby would be the one. He has a statue and fountain erected in memory of him, a bar named after him and his collar is also in the National Museum.
I decided to make the first move and talked to the Singaporeans when the tour stopped for a break at a cafe.The couple( or were they?) were students studying in different universities in England.The guy was chiding the girl for eating so little and not finishing the food she ordered. He dragged me in to back him up. No way I was getting in the middle of that. He was rather vulgar, spewing off Singaporean vulgarities at everything under the Sun(mostly towards the girl LOL). He probably missed saying them. It was entertaining at first but then it got annoying when he didn’t stop.The other girl, Joanne was much more cultured. She was an exchange student from NUS who had just completed an exchange semester in Germany. No guessing who I chose to hang out with.
After the tour, both of us decided to explore the city together. First up was the Castle! We had passed it earlier on in the tour but could only admire it from the outside.
A full day admission costs you 16 pounds. Pretty steep but you get your money’s worth.There’s so much to see! A complimentary guided tour is also included in ticket price subject to availability and timings.
The castle sits atop a hill, overlooking the entire city and the harbour. Picturesque views all around. Edinburgh looks even more gorgeous from above! It is not unusual for medieval castles to have such a location since fortifications were a prime consideration.This seems to be the case for Edinburgh Castle where massive cannons form a 360 degree arc of fire around the castle.
The most famous of these cannons has to be the one o’clock gun which has been in daily operation from 1861 to date. The gun obviously changed a couple of times throughout the years but the tradition remains.The concept of firing a gun to serve as a time signal is not new or exclusive to Edinburgh Castle.There’s a one o’clock gun in Liverpool as well. As it’s name implies, the cannon is fired off every day at one o’clock except Sundays, Good Friday and Christmas. Historically fired off as a time signal to primarily ships in the harbour, these days it’s a popular tourist attraction.
Prima facie, Edinburgh Castle seems rather small for a royal dwelling. Well, never judge a book by it’s cover or rather never judge a castle by its towers.The Castle Grounds are bigger than you’d expect from the external facade. It houses the royal palace, royal hall, war memorial,chapel and museum. That’s just the main buildings!
The museum showcases Scotland’s proud and colorful(as in bloody red) history. Well-crafted exhibits complete with wax figurines and replicas tell the story brilliantly. Indomitable Scottish Heroes such as William Wallace & Robert the Bruce take center stage as the fight for independence from England is celebrated.You’ll also be acquainted with Scottish Royalty. From the first Queen of Scots to the first Scottish King to rule the Great Britain. Replicas of Scottish Regalia such as the crown jewels, sceptre and sword are also situated in the museum. If Scottish History never quite interested you, a visit to Edinburgh Castle will change that for sure.
St Margaret’s Chapel
Throughout history, man has gone to great lengths to profess his love for a woman.The most famous example of this would be the Taj Mahal. Romance aside, the greatest love of all remains that between a mother and child.The Chapel is a symbol of King David 1’s love for his mother whom he named it after.Constructed after Queen Margaret’s death in 1093, it remains the oldest structure in the castle compound and also one of the few pre-12th century Scottish monuments. Like the Taj Mahal, it has withstood the test of time. Numerous sieges, fires and bombings through the ages have not been able to shake its foundations.
There are a few gift shops on site if you would like getting a souvenir. Nothing you couldn’t get in the town maybe except for a 60 year old single cask limited edition whisky.This whisky was distilled in commemoration of the Queen’s Golden Jubilee in and cost a whopping 8000 pounds. It’s the only bottle left so it might be gone by the time any of you get there!
D.I.Y Harry Potter Tour
Both Joanne and I are ardent Harry Potter fans so we embarked on our very own Harry Potter tour around Edinburgh.The best part of this tour- it is completely free! The two stops are within walk-able distance from each other. An English Tea set at a cosy cafe is available for a small price at your discretion.
Unknown to many, the Harry Potter series was conceived in Portugal and delivered in Edinburgh(Pardon the pregnancy terminology).
The early years of Harry Potter coincided with a very low point in Rowling’s life. She was recently divorced, broke and a single mother with a daughter to support.The additional stress and toll ultimately led to Rowling suffering from depression. People cope with depression in a multitude of ways.Fortunately for all us muggles and Rowling herself, writing was her coping mechanism.The book was a welcome distraction and relief from the harsh reality of life.
Every writer has a sanctuary. A place where they’re able to devote themselves fully to the world of fiction.The Elephant House was Rowling’s sanctuary. A quaint cafe located on George IV Bridge.
When you enter the cafe, you’d understand why she chose it out of all the other cafes in Edinburgh. Beautiful wooden furniture sprawled across a spacious chamber with a view of Edinburgh Castle in the background. Antique quirky elephant ornaments decorated the room. I didn’t want to leave.
The Elephant House opened in 1995 without much fanfare around the time when Rowling was still working on her first book. This was indeed a very conducive space to write today and even more so back then without the crowds. Add the free refills of tea and the coloring materials(located in the pull out drawers of each table), you could see why a broke single mom with a young toddler would frequent the cafe.There’s a Harry Potter memorial wall at the back of the shop so feel free to pen down something before you leave… if you can find space that is.
Harry Potter trivia aside, The Elephant House does actually serve a wide range of artisanal teas, coffees and baked goods.You can get what I had: A nice steaming cup of strawberry tea and a Carrot Cake; or explore the rest of the menu.The Elephant House caters all meals of the day(breakfast,lunch,tea,dinner) so you can visit it any time of the day! I would highly recommend tea time though.
George Herriot’s School
Hogwarts appears prominently as one of the few key settings throughout the Harry Potter series.The inspiration behind Hogwarts coinicidentally is a school too. A short walk from the Elephant House lies the magnificent George Herriot’s School. An all boys elementary school founded in 1628, it’s still in operation today. All of you muggles who have dreams of studying in Hogwarts, this is the place. Unfortunately for me, I’m overage.
George Herriot’s School is not only the inspiration behind the physical external facade of Hogwarts but also its housing system. Students at George Herriot’s belong to one of the four houses: Lauriston, Castle, Raeburn and Greyfriars. Rings a bell eh? Slytherin, Gryffindor, Hufflepuff and Ravenclaw? Since it’s an actual functioning school, visitors are restricted to relatives/acquaintances of students. So unless you know someone inside, you cannot get in. If you’re still persistent, you can try climbing the gate after dark! The best time to visit the school is at night when it’s basked in a warm orange glow from the lighting.
Joanne and I had a good experience with James earlier on in the day and since we both had nothing planned for the night, we signed up for his night tour: The Dark Side.This tour unlike the earlier one wasn’t free. It costs 10 pounds(student pricing) inclusive of a free drink at a bar after the tour.
The Dark Side explores the supernatural history of Edinburgh.Witch-hunts, vampires, zombies you name it! A little advice, take a piss before the tour begins. It’s 2.5 hours long through mostly secluded parts of Edinburgh. Most of the shops along the way were closed too. I put off a trip to the loo as I did not want to delay the tour group. It was a decision I would later regret. A full bladder and the supernatural was undoubtedly a recipe for disaster. So with a bladder full of Starbucks Macchiato and a pot of strawberry tea earlier on, I set off.
How I Desecrated a Holy Site
Joanne and I made a new friend from the tour group. Rebecca was tall blue-eyed blond from Germany who was also backpacking through Europe. She spoke fluent English so the three of us chatted at the back of the group.We walked through most of the old town past a few sites which had an association with the occult. I felt chills running down my back but that was probably due to the weather. It was freezing!
My bladder was bursting by the time we reached Calton Hill.Calton Hill is a sacred hill to the Scottish dating back to pagan times.That explains the numerous structures built on the hill.There’s the Scottish Parliament and Holyrood Palace on the southern slope. At the top of the hill, it gets pretty crowded.The summit hosts a large number of structures: National Monument, Nelson Monument, Dugald Stewart Monument, Robert Burns Monument and a City Observatory.
The most notable of these structures is the National Monument due to it’s striking resemblance to the Parthenon. Building commenced somewhere in the 19th Century to commemorate the deaths of Scots involved in the Napoleonic wars but was never completed due to financial struggles. Henceforth, it has been mocked with a litany of derogatory names: Edinburgh’s Folly, Scotland’s Disgrace and the Poverty and Pride of Scotland.
The temperatures dipped further when we reached the top of Calton Hill. James was in his element, spinning tales of the supernatural activities that used to take place here. I was moments away from wetting my pants. I didn’t want to interrupt James’s flow and the rest of the group who seemed engrossed in the supernatural tale.
I informed Joanne beforehand (in case they left me behind) and slipped away.You can imagine how awkward that conversation was for me or anyone for that matter. I found myself a secluded area surrounded by bushes near the Dugald Steward Monument.I made sure the coast was clear before committing the sacrilegious deed. Dugald Stewart whoever you are, I apologize.
When you’ve not taken a piss the whole day, you are guaranteed a waterfall. It certainly sounded like one.The gush of liquid hitting the bushes broke the dead silence of the night. Just after the floodgates opened, I realized I wasn’t alone.Through an opening in the bushes, I spotted a couple all over each other. I felt like a perverted voyeur. I tried to speed up the process but nature operates on her own timetable right? Thankfully the couple were too busy caught up in the heat of passion to notice. I scurried back to the group like a criminal on the run. I had just desecrated one of Scotland’s most sacred hills.
I rejoined the group who were still in the vicinity. Physically relieved, I was finally able to soak in the views of Edinburgh at night. I guess you can call this tale ” Nick’s Disgrace”.
Next up we visited the Calton Cemetery. A public cemetery, it happened to be unlocked.There was no one(human) in the immediate vicinity except for us.There was an abandoned mansion west of the compound and a huge (willow?) tree in the center. This place gave me the creeps.
James pointed out a particular grave which had a ghoulish face imprinted at the back of the tombstone.The imprint only reveals itself in pictures taken at night. Freaky.
We were then led to a white marbled mausoleum with black iron grilles east of the compound. Apparently it housed a famous Scotsman from a noble family. Mausoleums in Scotland and pretty much anywhere else in the world are a symbol of status. Your typical mausoleum was intricately decorated inside and outside with a white marble finish.
However, in Edinburgh especially, Mausoleums served a more practical purposes.Back in the day, body-snatching was big business. Medical Colleges created the demand for fresh bodies and grave-snatching was rampant. It was not uncommon to find a recently dead relative missing from the grave the very next day.That’s if you even bothered to dig out the coffin.The grave snatchers did a pretty bang up job covering up their tracks.
James opened the grill which was unlocked and gently coaxed us like a flock of sheep with tales of zombies and an interesting artifact inside the mausoleum. Piqued by curiosity, we obliged. As soon as all of us were inside, a loud shriek pierced through the stillness of the night and the door slammed shut. It startled all of us and there were a few screams all round.
James appeared in front of the gates, laughing at our reactions. Another successful fright.This guy was good. My decision to desecrate a holy hill didn’t seem so bad after all. I would have DEFINITELY pissed my pants from James’s prank. Now that would be an embarrassment I would never recover from!
The Iceman who wasn’t so cool
The tour ended at a bar. Rebecca, Joanne and I settle at a table and claimed our complimentary drink. I went for a good ol lager while the ladies had wine. We were joined not long after by a towering giant. I forgot his name but for convenience’s sake let’s just call him M.
M was from Iceland and was massive.Well over 6 feet with a growing beer belly. He looked rather clumsy. He had been a continuous migratory flux for the past 10 years. Iceland- Germany- Canada-California and now he was looking to settle down in Europe. He was a talkative bird. He seemed more interested in the ladies though so we didn’t talk much. Then the conversation moved into uncharted territory. His reasons for leaving California bordered along the lines of spiritual discovery and sexual healing. He was going on about one of his stories when he gesticulated suddenly knocking over Joanne’s wine glass. You see Joanne was wearing a white blouse and it became a bloody red mess after that. The girls were rather uncomfortable with talking to M so that was the perfect excuse to leave. We left M at the bar and took off.
If you need cheap last minute souvenirs, fear not because McCondom is here! Available in the toilets of most bars in Edinburgh.
Jokes aside, there are a couple of “Visit Scotland” shops that close late. Grab an ordinary postcard or purchase a full highland dress if you’re feeling Scottish. If you’re a girl, I’ll go with the kilt. The Authentic Mini-skirt.
I still had one last thing to do on my Edinburgh checklist- Drink some authentic highland Scotch.I initially invited M but after talking to him and that incident, it obviously did not materialize.
There’s no shortage of Whisky Bars along the Royal Mile.The more established joints would be Whiski which boasts the widest collection of the amber gold liquid. If you feel peckish, they serve decent bar grub too. Many famous celebrities such as Noah Gallagher of Oasis fame are known to visit Whiski whenever they’re in town.
Whiski was filled to the brim so I settled at a near empty nondescript bar a few blocks down. It seemed to be Turkish owned. Large banners/scarves of Fenerbache and other football memorabilia adorned the walls.
The menu was extensive with over 100 different varieties of Scotchs. There’s the synonymous Johnny Walker and Macallan but I wasn’t going to drink that since it’s available back home.The rest of the menu was as foreign as the Scottish lingo. Names that I could barely pronounce and never heard off.
I pretty much knew nought about Scotch back then and this was exposed by the conversation that followed.
Shop-owner: What kind of whisky would you like?
Me: Single malt?
Shop-owner: All our Scotch’s are single malt
Defeated, I left it to the owner to recommend a couple of good Scotch varieties. He returned to the bar and emerged with a tray of glasses not long after. He had selected for me three different varieties from the highlands.There was a glass of water to clean your palate in between tastings.
The whiskies were out of this world. I’ve never tasted anything like that.They were strong both in flavour and alcoholic content. I usually have a high tolerance. Not meaning to boast but it usually takes me 6-8 glasses to get me tipsy. Three glasses of Scotch here and I was seeing double figures. I still had to return to the hostel to grab my luggage and make my way to the train station for my midnight sleeper back to London. I asked the owner for the time as I paid the bill of 12 pounds. Pretty cheap for good quality scotch.They overcharge everything in Singapore! I had an hour to get to the train station. I exited the shop and the street was near empty. I staggered back to the hotel past occasional zombies along the way. People get drunk here rather early. It was only 10 o’clock. I managed to reach the train station with half an hour to spare.The train still hadn’t arrived.While waiting,I drifted off into sleep. I was awoken by loud footsteps. A drunk blonde girl was staggering towards me. Her friend swooped in and pulled her away at the last moment. If not for that I’d probably miss my train! I checked the clock-Phew 5 minutes before the train left! Half sober, I rushed to the train which was making its final call for passengers. What a crazy 12 Hours it has been!