The Question Burns: Where to Find Literary Giants?

In Con's Corner, Scotland by Con JagerLeave a Comment

There’s this small Celtic country, home of many literary giants. Ha! Sorry, Ireland, not you this time! Sure you are the only country in the world with 4 Nobel Prizes for Literature, and yes, Yeats, Shaw, Beckett and Heaney are literary giants. But today is the day to appreciate the other one: Scotland, where it’s Burns Night!

January 25th celebrates Scottish literary giant Robert Burns, born this date in 1759. Many Scots, those of Scots descent and just plain old fans of Scotland will enjoy a Burns Supper tonight, in the spirit of the 1786 Burns poem “Address to a Haggis”.

Don’t scupper the supper

A proper Burns Supper evening consists of bag piper music, reciting the Haggis poem (good luck with that unless you’re a true Scot), and a traditional meal that is supposed to start with a soup.

I rather like “Cullen Skink”, a haddock-based creamy fish soup that’s great on a cold and long hike if you’re lucky enough to find a pub or inn serving it.

The main will of course have haggis – a dish I have become incredibly fond of: one day on a recent trip I had it with breakfast, lunch and dinner, and it exists in many odd forms, from appetizer to main to even potato crisps – and other famous trads like neeps & tatties.

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Then you get your whisky toasts, speeches and poems, followed by dessert: cheeses, cakes, sweets or perhaps a nice trad cranachan. After dessert, it’s time to recite more Burns poetry and sing his songs. Songs, you say? Well, yes: ever heard of a little ditty called “Auld Lang Syne”? Written by Burns in 1788, 8 years before he passed in 1796.

Pubs and poets: a walking tour

I’m not in Scotland today alas, but in honor of “Rabbie” Burns, I have a neat literary adventure to share from a Scots trip last October. We spent a most enjoyable evening joining the Edinburgh Literary Pub Tour (“The Original Since 1996!”) that combines the fab four criteria I look for on my travels: reading, walking, fun and pubs!

Oh Beehive!

The evening tour starts at 7:30pm. Meet your Guide and group at the “Beehive Inn”: shades of Austin Powers, as these guides don’t necessarily “beehive”… The Beehive Inn is on the north (Castle) side of Grassmarket in Old Town, near several hotels I like to use for clients.

Go upstairs to the presentation room, where your Guide “Clart” will welcome you and starts outlining the program. Soon, he is interrupted by what at first appears to be an obnoxious audience member but, of course, turns out to be Guide number two: McBrain. The “Clart & McBrain” duo tumbles through the evening, showing off their literary knowledge in a battle of wits and wisecracks. Bantering back and forth, they take you on a hilarious yet educational journey through history and anecdotes, while walking to – and stopping in – pubs!

Not so fun fact: Scots pub laws, licensing rules and certification to allow young’uns are somewhat complicated. The Tour makes it simple by stating that Junior needs to be at least 18 to join in the fun.

A two-level-headed start

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After a drink downstairs, we trot up the famous two-level Victoria Street, ascend the stairs towards the Castle and head over to nearby James Court. Built in the early 1700s, it was very spacious – compared to the old squalid Closes (narrow alleys between high buildings) that were demolished to make room for it.

Famous literary names abound here as tenants: David Hume, David Boswell and his most famous visitor, that ultimate British man of letters Dr. (Samuel) Johnson. James Court went into decline in the Victorian era, late 1800s, as did much of Old Town. But hang on:  Patrick Geddes to the rescue!

Giddy about Geddes

Under the visionary scientist Geddes: geographer, sociologist, surveyor and revolutionary town planner, James Court went on the upswing again. As did much of Old Town: Geddes is credited with basically saving it for us. Walk the Patrick Geddes Heritage Trail to appreciate his work; it’s a pretty mile through Old Town. You’ll find a guiding plaque for the Trail here on the wall at James Court.

Judge the performance

Our watering hole at James Court was the “Jolly Judge” pub, where you can get a pint to carry outside into the courtyard. Clart and McBrain performed their next bit here, enlightening and entertaining us under the by now dark skies.

October is very different from summer’s long daylight but the darkness added a bit of mystique. I could just picture these now-revered authors stumbling from pub to pub in order to keep, as they defensively stated, not the beer but their creativity flowing. Yeah right….

Meet your Makar

Remembering to leave our glasses on the outdoor tables at the Jolly Judge, ‘twas a short stroll to nearby Makars’ Court. Odd name? In Scots, a “makar” is an author or writer – and Edinburgh even has its own official Municipal Makar these days! Makar Court is off the Lady Stairs Close, which connects the Castle Mound with the Royal Mile. Appropriately, the Scottish Writers Museum is here and the courtyard has literary inscriptions in the pavement.

Capture the Flag

Our Guide duo does their next bit here, followed by a break in the pub of choice: the Ensign Ewart, named after a Scotsman who managed to capture a French flag at Waterloo in 1815. The Ensign Ewart is almost next-door to Edinburgh Castle, a site to see in the dark, lit up, looming broodingly over “Auld Reekie”, the old nickname for Edinburgh: self-explanatory but fortunately not deserved any longer!

Rocket science

Walking down from Old Town, we head towards Rose Street, known for its pubs and shops, in between Princes Street and George Street in New Town. When crossing Princes Street, take a peek at what looks like a Gothic rocket: the Scott Monument, largest monument to a writer in the world. Honoring Edinburgh’s own literary giant Sir Walter Scott, it appropriately dwarfs us mere mortals, towering as it does over Princes Street Gardens.

Rebels and refills

The Tour has several pub options here for the final presentation, depending on what’s busy. We end up at Milnes pub on Hanover Street, hangout of choice in the 1920s for many writers aiming to establish Scots as a true language of literature. The “Roaring Twenties” was a time of rebellion and revolution, from Russia throughout the European Continent, and Milnes became known as the “Little Kremlin”. It was late and dark but we had a cozy outdoor patio area to enjoy another pint, befitting the finale and roundup!

Thank you so much “Clart and McBrain” for a unique, off-the-beaten-path educational evening of frolicking fun, literature and libations, literally in the footsteps of those famous literary giants we learned so much about tonight.

Burning desire for more Burns?

For those wanting to experience more Robert Burns after doing this tour, you can visit his birth cottage and museum in Alloway, Ayrshire. It’s a 2-hour drive west then south from Edinburgh, on the coast. Handy spot to stop at if you’re driving to or from the Cairnryan Ferry to Belfast, Northern Ireland.

Their heart is in it

But wait, there’s more! Edinburgh is Scotland’s capital, the heart of Midlothian (title of a “Waverley” novel by Sir Walter Scott) and buzzes with culture. Here and all through the land, producing literary giants did not end with Burns, Scott, Stevenson, Hume, Boswell and the like. Today, Burns Night, Scotland boasts any number of awesome authors. I particularly enjoy Scottish crime writers: Ian Rankin’s John Rebus, Val McDermid and her “Tartan Noir” series featuring Dr. Tony Hill, Stuart MacBride’s Logan McRae, Peter May’s Outer Hebrides books. And who doesn’t know the genre’s classic literary giant, the granddaddy of them all: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, recently renovated in the BBC’s brilliant “Sherlock” series with Benedict Cumberbatch.

Scotland and Edinburgh inspire the mind of writer and traveler alike. We can’t help you become a literary giant – but we can get you to the places where they did and still do their thing!

He cooks, he Burns!

Now, it is time for me to face my own Burns Night dilemma. Do I try to help my spouse prepare a Burns Supper? She’s the better cook in the family and may not even allow me into the kitchen: instead of cooking a Burns Supper, I might be the guy that burns the cook’s supper! You know what? Let’s go into town: there’s a pub nearby where they serve up neeps & tatties, haggis, and a good selection of Bellhaven brews. And then go home to enjoy a cup of kindness: a wee dram or two of my favorite Scots brands: auld acquaintances never to be forgotten…

DISCLAIMER: My travel blog “Con’s Corner” takes a sometimes irreverent look at 4+ decades of travel in the British Isles. My trips are real: no months of staging the perfect photo, no waiting for the perfect weather, no Photoshopping, no promo story in exchange for a freebie: I pay full fare. It’s true travel. Note that my opinions and views are not necessarily shared by the company. In fact, they may be shaking their heads. The photography is mine except where credited as noted, as are all typos, grammatical errors, and odd expressions. It’s a blog, people, not literature! I also accept full responsibility for any puns, varying on a scale from hilarious to ouch… Be all that as it may, I intend to keep at it until I get it right. Con Jager, Santa Rosa, USA.

(R) Photography by Robin Gabbert

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