Capital mood music
Edinburgh is a city of moods, and it lacks both the guile and the geography to conceal them.
Under blue skies and sun, its buildings reflect the light, and it beguiles with the distant glimpse of sparkling blue from the Forth, at the bottom of forever sloping streetscapes.
On grey days, buildings and sky merge, in walls of angry gloom, often made aggressive by a biting wind, which hurries round corners and nips at your face without so much as an excuse me.
In the rain, in the elegant streets of the New Town, street lamps are reflected on cobbles, warm light spills out of cold windowed drawing rooms, and the monochrome landscape gleams, like a reconditioned Ealing film from the 40s.
The broom, the grass, the rocks and the scrub of Arthur’s Seat all change to signal the seasons, and the castle stands impervious, occasionally donning party colours of fireworks and floodlights, like a serious grandfather persuaded to go with the moment.
So whether it’s Festival, Hogmanay, snow or sun, Edinburgh and the mood of its people is easy to sense. It haunts the streets or brightens them, holds your hand or turns away, opens it arms or hurries on by.
Today of all days, while the country votes in the Independence Referendum, it is interesting to look around the capital – not from a political point of view, but rather to try and sense that atmosphere.
The city is quiet and wears a sensible overcoat of grey in the haar. The mist is hanging round corners, attempting to seem inconspicuous. But, when you raise your eyes to the distance, you find this place, hardly sprawling at any time, has shrunk to town dimensions. The hills, the Forth, and even the tops of trees in Queen Street’s private gardens are all hiding, lost in their own thoughts. Bells are muffled, as for a funeral, and car headlights, automatically triggered by the gloom, even at midday, catch the eye unnaturally.
But this is no fog; it doesn’t feel like a shroud.
The feeling is that of a muslin, translucent, swirling dress, that can’t disguise the fluid movement beneath the cloth. Up there, as high as ever, the sun seeks to break through – so some parts of the city are brighter than others, in places the mist seems lit by electric light, as if a switch had been flicked.
And Edinburgh will do this.
It betrays its mood, but you can never take it for granted. Down vennels and stairways, in lanes and mews, by gardens and yards, it delights in the unpredictable – a pot of red red geraniums, burnished ivy clinging to an iron wrought balcony, a dog in a dooorway, a rocking horse grazing behind a leaded window, a wide eyed cat on a first floor window ledge.
Today there are the signs of a political campaign. The Union flags tend to be draped from the larger New Town flats: the more expensive the address, the bigger the flag. The blues and reds and greens of the Yes Campaign are less conspicuous – neat posters in first floor windows, sometimes round car stickers almost apologetically stuck to door panels, and the show includes a fair number of home made efforts. Seen from street level, the combined effect of these banners of democracy is like a code for background, expectations and lifestyles
But these are passing symbols, there are others which take the eye and inform the brain on a long term basis. Here’s a nameplate well polished on a gloss painted door which states “Mr” and “Advocate”. In a basement ‘area’, bright red and yellow toys betray a nursery within; discreet plaques are found in the most unexpected places Chopin visited here, this was the home of Compton Mackenzie, a Polish General spent the war here, this was the birthplace of a musician, an inventor, the studio of an artist.
And beyond, where more modest houses climb the gradients to the hills around Edinburgh, and suburban bungalows jostle for position in streets too narrow for the cars that are parked, the mist is not so marked, the roofs are lower and the spaces more measured, as people walk to rows of shops or drive to retail malls, and dogs are walked on impossibly green golf courses.
North and south, in endlessly redeveloped housing developments, messages are more roughly written by people less affluent than those with polished plaques, but more visible in their neighbourhood
From the west, trams snake their smooth way from airport to city, and in the east, the curved sands of Portobello seem to point to the twin boulders of North Berwick Law and the Bass Rock.
And over it all, the air is grey, watchful and waiting. It moves to match the currents, reflects the flow of traffic, protects the city from prying eyes.
Whatever the political result, Edinburgh will remain – caught between the hills and the sea, balanced on rock and leaning on mountains, an English outpost that feels so Scottish, balancing Glasgow on the end of the central belt see-saw, drawn in on itself, but willing to welcome others, wearing its history like a mackintosh raincoat, occasionally parting to show unseasonable colours beneath.
It’s some city, and even up on Dunsapie Crag, where the first men of the Iron Age had their fort, it’s hard to classify this place. It’s old and new, and north and south. It sends bitter winds with a smile of beauty, and its grey stone glistens like diamonds in the sun.
And that haar – like its name, it comes from Scandinavia – where maybe this city would feel more comfortable, with its pantiled roofs and northern light.
But its accent marks it out as south, and it shows no signs of wanting to set sail.