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Edinburgh: Split personalities

On the corner of Candlemaker Row sits ‘Greyfriars Bobby’ — which sounds like the start of a fairytale in itself. Bobby was a Skye terrier who lingered around his master’s grave for 14 years, earning himself notoriety among the city’s affluent class and, eventually, a bronze statue and shrine-like grave of his own.

Edinburgh: Split personalities
Greyfriars Bobby, Edinburgh Image: Thomas

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Bobby’s headstone is perpetually strewn with toys and sticks for him to chase, but nearby, that of the owner who inspired such loyalty is largely ignored. In fact, John Gray’s very identity is disputed.

The irony is puzzling, but it does encapsulate the air of madness that seems to consume this city. It doesn’t make any sense, but why let that get in the way of a good story?

Historically, Edinburgh is the home of poets and artists, penniless dreamers and aristocrats with more pound notes than sense, and it’s still notorious for its biannual festivities. The Edinburgh Fringe dominates the entire month of August, while Hogmanay rings in the New Year with an explosion of street parties, fireworks and hot toddies.

But once the costumed comedians have gone home and their flyers are left peeling from lampposts, and when the revellers are finally in bed, Edinburgh reveals itself to be even more carnivalesque than it first appears.

The topsy-turvy old town is alive with stories of ghouls, spooks and gristly history. Rationality is unwelcome here, and even the streets dismiss logical thinking. It is not uncommon to see bands of tourists baffled that they’ve ended up on a road exactly 30 feet below where they wanted to be.

The new town is worlds away, a journey over enormous bridges and railway lines. Here, grand Georgian buildings house shiny high-street shops, while alleys lead to tucked-away cocktail bars and boutique restaurants.

They say that this city inspired Robert Louis Stevenson to pen his famous gore-fest The Strange Case Of Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde, and this is highly believable. But, Edinburgh is certainly not a city with a personality split two ways.

On the one hand, there’s the historic, myth-driven old city, crowned by the castle and forever in fairytale mode. On the other there are all the modernisms to rival any European capital. But what about the part that’s tranquil and contemplative — The Meadows, or the peak of Arthur’s seat where one can marvel at the craggy countryside?

And, how about the suburbs, where pensioners shuffle home after a full day down the pub, and where one-in-five families live below the poverty line? Or, the other end of the scale: huge leafy crescents of equally huge houses? Or, the jazz bars where musicians jam until the wee hours?

Nowhere is one-dimensional, but nowhere else is quite so gleefully juxtaposed in so many directions, and so unconcerned for the hoards of tourists stroking old Bobby’s bronze nose for no good reason at all.

Edinburgh is comfortable in its wonkiness, and that’s what makes it so absorbing. Amid the fairytales, traditions and madcap parties, there’s a distinct feeling that however long you hang around here, you’ll only ever scratch the surface.