Modern sanitation means it’s no longer Reekie, but the old town hasn’t changed too much; as we roam from one howff (meeting place) to the next, it’s not hard to picture the Ploughman Poet doing the same as he searched for inspiration.
They say there are no answers to be found at the bottom of a glass, but then they also say ‘write what you know’. In The Beehive, a 300-year-old former coaching inn, we hear 21-verse epic Scotch Drink. Actors play our two verbally sparring guides and rakish Clart sets the tone for the evening: “In 1786 Burns rode in, singing and carousing with the best of them … and boy, they knew how to drink in those days.”
Burns was in the right place then, in Grassmarket’s pub strip.
Clart notes that English poet Wordsworth also preceded today’s stags and hens, though as the straight-laced McBrain points out, this was after Burns.
Clart’s bonhomie and McBrain’s contrasting pedantry are a good device to hold our attention, but Clart knows we’re here for fun too: “Drink up — for that’s how Burns found his muse!”
The first Unesco City of Literature, Edinburgh’s nooks and crannies have plenty of boltholes for thirsty scholars. After a short climb through narrow alleys and dark stone walkways, we arrive at more pubs in Lawnmarket.
Passing chip shops with deep-fried versions of everything from pizzas to Mars bars, what had seemed revolting now sounds like ideal winter comfort food. And camped under the low-beamed ceiling of The Jolly Judge, pubs seem much cosier.
After supping another ale while watching our guides’ intellectual jousting, we’re soon off down the impressive Royal Mile, and past Deacon Brodie’s Tavern. In Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting this is the bar where psychopath Begbie starts a fight by randomly throwing a pint glass into the crowd. Appropriately, the pub takes its name from an infamous Edinburgh villain: city official Brodie was a pillar of the community by day and burglar by night. Hanged on a gibbet that he designed himself, his double life inspired RL Stevenson’s classic novel Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde.
We discover the correct pronunciation is actually “Jeekle”, and the implication is obvious: those dastardly English disrespecting the colourful Scottish dialect.
“Even if you don’t understand what it means, it has a certain music to it don’t you think?” asks Clart. He’s not wrong.
Below the imposing castle, Princes Street is a shopping destination in the new town during the day, but tonight we stop at the floodlit Walter Scott Monument. With his Waverley novels, Scott did his bit for tourism, casting Scotland as a wild and romantic landscape where brave knights performed glorious deeds.
We don’t find the Holy Grail, but turning a corner we do find a hidden gem: the Victorian mirrors and murals of the Cafe Royal make the perfect setting for eating local oysters.
“The landlord told Burns he wasn’t welcome here, you know,” Clart tells me.
“Why?” I ask, appalled.
“He said: ‘I can’t serve you — you’re bard’”. As the penny drops, I smile and raise a glass to a poet who liked a laugh himself.
Celebrating the poet
Revered in Scotland for his nationalism but also his common touch, Robert Burns was viewed as a working-class hero in Russia, and Bob Dylan quoted him as his biggest lyrical influence.
Ritualistic revelry takes place wherever there’s a group of Scots on Burns night on January 25, but in keeping with the great man’s egalitarian nature, the celebrations are open to everyone.
Traditionally, these festivities include a Burns supper. The main dish is haggis. It’s a sheep’s pluck (heart/liver/lungs), minced then cooked in its stomach, and it receives an apology before it’s carved. Drink — usually whisky — features prominently and toasts include the haggis, “the immortal memory of Robert Burns” and “the lassies” (ladies) of whom he was so fond. Music and traditional dancing follow.