Destinations | The Smooth Guide

A long weekend in Edinburgh with Alexander McCall Smith

The writer tells Charlotte Sinclair why the Scottish capital, with its stirring views and secret walks, makes a fine setting for a novel as well as a holiday.

March 19 2012
Charlotte Sinclair

“Edinburgh is a profoundly beautiful city. It has the good fortune of being a planned city, so there’s a great deal of graciousness here. And history, too, as a lot of its original buildings remain intact. You can cross from one side to the other quite easily and the experience is rather like exploring a wonderful opera set. I recommend first-time visitors walk around the city to get a feel for its physical setting. Here, you have a real sense of where you are in Scotland; you can see the hills behind you, the sea, the Firth of Forth and Fife. We get all sorts of wonderful weather blowing through, so it’s a bracing place; in fact, it’s vibrant in every sense – geographically, physically, intellectually and artistically.

While walking around, don’t forget to raise your eyes; there is a highly eccentric skyline of spikes and spires and black stone, beyond which are the constantly changing skies. A lot of people visit during the summer, and that’s fine, but bear in mind that when the city’s full of theatrical and musical events, you’ll only get a sense of a much-visited city – rather like Venice. But, even with the festival crowds, Edinburgh seems able to handle the influx. Somehow it all becomes one great open-air performance.

For lunch I always suggest a place called Glass and Thompson. I even write it into my books – my characters often go and eat there. It’s a very nice bistro-type café, serving coffee, cake, pasta and salads. And it has the benefit of its location on Dundas Street, which has the finest views of any street in Edinburgh. Also, everyone should experience Valvona & Crolla, the most famous Italian delicatessen in Scotland. It’s run by Philip and Mary Contini, and has a coffee house and restaurant at the back, as well as the most extraordinary collection of foodstuffs. Mary writes cookery books, and Philip is something of a musician when he’s not busy selling panforte and salami.

Edinburgh pubs, in my opinion, aren’t its greatest glories, but the city does excel in its coffee houses. There’s a rather nice place called The Elephant House on George IV Bridge. It has a lot of character – fairly old-fashioned and cosy. (I must confess, I also visit the Starbucks at Holy Corner in Morningside to discuss the state of the world with my neighbour, Ian Rankin.)

For dinner I always recommend The Dining Room at The Scotch Malt Whisky Society – I am a member, though you don’t have to be to dine there. The restaurant is on the ground floor of a restored Georgian house and serves hearty, delicious food. There are several good fish restaurants in Leith, including Restaurant Martin Wishart, which serves excellent Scottish seafood, such as Orkney scallops and Loch Ryan oysters, and has a well-deserved Michelin star.

For an atmospheric experience, it’s difficult to match Prestonfield House, a grand and glamorous hotel set on an estate on the outskirts of the city. In the summer it’s particularly appealing, with peacocks on the lawn and, invariably, some young men playing the bagpipes outside your window. Prestonfield’s owner, James Thomson, also owns The Witchery by the Castle, a wood-panelled, medieval-style restaurant with rooms.

There are lots of places for people to stay. The Howard is an elegant hotel in the New Town, on Great King Street. It’s comfortable and conveniently located, and guests can even enjoy the service of a butler. I have real affection for the two great stately hotels at either end of Princes Street: The Caledonian and The Balmoral. The Balmoral used to be the North British Hotel, and people (like me) who don’t like things to change still call it the North British. Both hotels are very luxurious, with fine views of the castle.

Edinburgh has been very fortunate in recent months in having two arts institutions reopen. The National Museum of Scotland at Chambers Street has been completely renovated; it has an impressive collection of historical artifacts from Scotland, but also pieces from all around the world. The Scottish National Portrait Gallery has also just reopened. The galleries have been painted and the hanging of the portraits – which include famous pictures of Mary, Queen of Scots, Robert Burns and John Knox – is wonderfully done. Seeing both museums gives you the full sense of the history of Scotland.

The Scottish National Gallery on The Mound is another essential visit. I always suggest people look at the Poussins and the great Titian – Diana and Actaeon. And, of course, Henry Raeburn’s Reverend Robert Walker Skating on Duddingston Loch – it’s Edinburgh’s Mona Lisa.

Few people know about the terrific Queen’s Gallery, which shows regular exhibitions from the Queen’s collection and occupies the shell of the former Holyrood Free Church. Cross the road and you can go to look at parliament; the building is quite a controversial one, but it’s actually rather nice inside. It’s quite accessible too – you can even take a tour.

Edinburgh is quite a churchy city, and you would be remiss not to visit at least one. At the Canongate Kirk you will find a memorial headstone of that wonderful 18th-century poet Robert Fergusson. He only published one volume of poetry and his life was tragically short, but his work inspired Robert Burns. Inside, the church has that clear light and simplicity of Scottish Presbyterianism. It’s a building that expresses a moral and aesthetic position, which is very, very important in Scotland.

The city is wonderful for antiques and anyone searching for the unusual should head to The Thrie Estaits, in Dundas Street. They have eclectic things for all – Minton porcelain and anonymous Georgian portraits, 19th-century English slip-decorated pottery – and the objects are very whimsically arranged and described. The Edinburgh Bookshop, in the Bruntsfield area, is the city’s best independent bookseller; it’s very well edited and stocked, with wonderful children’s titles.

I always send male friends to Stewart Christie, an outfitters in Queen Street. You can have a kilt or a pair of tartan trews made, find hunting gear and a good Scottish flat cap – called a scone. I bought a pair of Irish Dubarry boots there that changed my life.

And you’ll need good boots, since Edinburgh is best explored by foot. A local secret is the walk along the Water of Leith. It follows the river up from Stockbridge, passing under the Dean Bridge where the buildings tower above you like great cliffs, and leads to Dean Village, with its little mill pond and old mill house – the most romantic bit of Edinburgh. The walk goes all the way to Colinton, across an amazing aqueduct, and through a Victorian railway tunnel, which has only been lit recently. In the past, you had to walk its length in complete darkness – quite an experience.

I think of Edinburgh as a setting for my characters. In one of my books a character writes poetry, and there’s a poem in which he talks about the associations a city has for people: “I remember a street, I was happy there once, I cried on this corner, I left my raincoat in that place,” and so on. These local and very personal histories are what make up a city; writing about a place reminds you to be aware of what is around you, to be inquisitive about it.”