EDINBURGH IS A city of firsts for me. I spent the majority of my junior year as a university student there, studying away. And now, as a small toll for writing this piece, I must date myself — this was in 1999, three years after the release of “Trainspotting.” “Trainspotting” was the biggest cultural remapping of the Scottish capital in a century, a title it held for only a heartbeat before being usurped by that bespectacled kid with the wand.
Edinburgh was my first time out of the country. My first legal drink. My introduction to the plays of J. M. Barrie. It was the first European city I ever saw, a fact that ruined me for life. Not every old city features a castle jutting up through the streets as if the building itself had been born underground and decided, on a whim, to get some air. It is impossible to convey how deeply and instantly I adored Edinburgh. This half ballerina, half rugby player of a town that flashes its priorities (the Sir Walter Scott monument is the largest of its kind dedicated to a writer) and its private parts (there’s no such thing as modesty — or cold — for a university student) with equal aplomb.
When it came time to go, Edinburgh became home to yet another first: my first missed flight. I stayed up all night with a boy from Aberdeen, drinking under a sky that refused to darken, and slept through my alarm. My last memory is of sprinting across George IV Bridge, cutting through the streets in my pajamas, and flinging myself onto the next Heathrow-bound train. What a terrible sensation it is to rush at breakneck speed away from a place you don’t want to leave.
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As a graduation gift, my parents gave me “The Best American Short Stories of the Century,” inscribed with a note: “Welcome back to America. We’re not so bad.” It’s the best present they’ve ever given me — not so much the book, but the lie. Scotland is not a difficult place to get to as a grown person. I could have gone back. But I’d pressed it so firmly in the past that I worried I’d obliterate my memories by returning.
Everything is eerily familiar when I land in Edinburgh in mid-May of 2022. The weather still ping-pongs, and the wind brings the occasional whiff of malt from the distilleries. In the car to my hotel, Forth 1 radio is having a throwback weekend to, yes, 1999. As I listen to Britney Spears’ “Baby One More Time” (tell me about it, Brit), the volcanic peak of Arthur’s Seat comes into view, exploding with yellow flowers. Pigeons, possibly the same pigeons I saw in the ’90s, or at least their descendants, perch on the heads of every monument. Even my hotel, The Balmoral, is not a mere hotel but an indelible part of the skyline and surely one of the most arresting-looking hotels on the planet. I used to see tourists asking the kilted doorman if they’d reached Balmoral Castle, the summer home of the royal family. If I could tell my Tesco-sandwich-eating, H&M-wearing, cartilage-piercing 20-year-old self that she’d be staying in a meticulously remodeled suite at The Balmoral with castle views and seagulls soaring past her field of vision, she’d choke on her chips.
But there is something in the air besides malt. Something new. The Scottish have long fancied themselves a liberal country, and, especially post-Brexit, talks of independence are once again circulating. This ideological marriage between independence and the Scottish is a well-known one. May I direct your attention to a little film called “Braveheart”? Still, there’s been a palpable shift since last I checked. The spirit of independence and of individuality can be found in every corner of daily life, from fashionable restaurants to National Museum exhibits focusing on Scottish designers (Alexander McQueen, obviously, Holly Fulton, less obviously) to local retail chains like Biscuit that sell upstart brands. None of this existed at the turn of the century. Most of it didn’t exist a decade ago. What may seem like inevitable gentrification and a global trend probably is. But the pulse of such things is profound here.
“Trainspotting” made the port district Leith famous for being a dodgy neighborhood with a major heroin problem. As a foreign student, I didn’t venture too far into Leith (let us consider Danny Boyle’s early films as my college orientation videos). But in recent years, the area has completely transformed. Now it’s home to coffee shops like Twelve Triangles (try the apricot coconut twist) and the Edinburgh Honey Co. It also boasts upscale restaurants like Martin Wishart and The Kitchin — Tom Kitchin’s aptly named Michelin-star tribute to Scottish cuisine, featuring mussels flown in from the Shetland Islands, langoustines from the Isle of Mull, and wild mushrooms from the Ochil Hills. Kitchin tells me that people often congratulate him for having the foresight to open a restaurant in Leith when he did in 2006. “But we didn’t know,” he says, smiling. “We only knew we could afford it.”
In returning to this place, I realize I am in danger of getting not one but two cities wrong: past Edinburgh and present Edinburgh. It’s the interloper’s curse. Yes, housing was always cheaper for students in Leith. And yes, Edinburgh is small enough; one can’t just avoid whole swaths of it. But imagine, if you will, the contrast between Williamsburg, Brooklyn, in 1999 and now. Now multiply that contrast by a factor of ten.
Even in Old Town, which plays host to legendary destinations like The Last Drop (hangings used to take place outside the pub), unexpected aspects of the city have changed. My student housing was located off the pub-strewn Cowgate Street (a stretch of road I’m happy to report still resembles a kind of causeway in Hades). It now features a courtyard with bamboo plants and an elevated deck, built directly over the site of many a late-night meal, exiting out the wrong way. It’s a stone’s throw away from Mary’s Milk Bar, an au courant retro gelato shop. Upscale tweed stores like Walker Slater on Victoria Street have added modern touches to bespoke tailoring (Stewart Christie & Co. is also excellent).
In New Town, Rose Street is home to an off-kilter cocktail speakeasy called Never Really Here. If you can find it. Independent record stores like Thorne Records in Bruntsfield and bookstores like The Golden Hare in Stockbridge and Topping & Company in New Town (which opened just before the pandemic) have exploded. Topping & Company, in particular, is symbolic of a kind of regional arts and culture takeover — the building used to house bankers’ offices.
As lovely as upscale Edinburgh is to behold, I do wonder if student life has undergone a similarly dramatic transformation. Auditing classes would both be impossible (I’m only here for a week) and futile (not reflective of my experience). But the day before I leave, I do my best to inhabit the life of a contemporary Edinburgh student: I walk through the Meadows, a stretch of freshly cut grass fields that you can smell on approach to the campus as clearly as you can smell the sea in Leith. I buy a bottle of Irn-Bru, a Scottish orange soda that still tastes like a Tic Tac and a pen cap had a baby. For some mysterious reason, it is only drinkable when massively hung over. I climb Calton Hill with its Parthenon-inspired columns, going up and down the steep pathway of Jacob’s Ladder, which, 20 years later, is a trial for the lungs on the way up and a trial for the knees on the way down. I eat lunch near campus, going to Union of Genius for soup, where signs of modernity emerge — every last person who walks in orders the vegan chili.
That night, I gear myself up, mentally and sartorially, to do what Edinburgh students do best: go out. On my own. My friends and I used to get pitchers of flavored vodka at Bar Kohl and dance at Honeycomb and Pure. Those places have all gone the way of the dodo. If there are cool private clubs, I know not of them. But Why Not?, in the center of town, predates me. Opened in 1995, Why Not? features lots of elements that are massively unappealing to a woman in her early 40s (an LED room, for starters). But the line moves quickly, and before I know it, I’ve got a stamp on my wrist that reads “Filthy Fridays” and am surrounded by clusters of early 20-somethings.
One of them offers to buy me a drink, making the entire trip worth it. He confesses that he’s embarrassed because he graduated in 2016 and “probably shouldn’t be here.” If that isn’t my cue to leave, I don’t know what is, but just then, a group of girls totters past me, wearing dresses made of less material than their earrings. “I’m having a malfunction!” one of them cries. “My shoes are broke!” But her cohort is out of earshot. I offer her my shoulder while she fiddles with her ankle strap. Then a song that’s 90% bass comes on, and she grabs my hand to come dance, which I do until the respectable hour of 1 a.m. Something that hasn’t changed? Nightlife in Edinburgh has always been more about joy than exclusivity. Similar could be said of the whole country.
Walking back through the lobby of The Balmoral feels like walking back into adulthood. As I pass the front desk, the fireplace crackling, I try to look as put together as the sculptural flower arrangements. I’m not sure it’s working. But the next morning when my alarm goes off, I wake up very much in 2022. I go for a swim in the hotel pool and sit in the sauna, sweating out the alcohol. Coffee in hand, I stroll over George IV Bridge at a normal pace but feeling the same pang of anticipatory homesickness I felt in 1999. So much has changed and so much time has passed, but on this score, this city and I picked up right where we left off.
Header image: Leith’s docks under a dramatic Scottish sky.
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Sloane Crosley Writer
Sloane Crosley is the author of several essay collections, including "I Was Told There'd Be Cake" and "Look Alive Out There," and the novel "The Clasp." Her new novel, "Cult Classic," is out now.