Friday, June 30, 2006

A date with 1000 pipers and haggis

Anyway, we partied hard into the wee hours of the morning and fronted up some time later at the food hall for a canteen-style breakfast. Black pudding was on offer, but the prospect of pig’s blood and guts for breakfast didn’t bode well after a night on the razzle. I settled for the far more comforting bacon and eggs.

We spent the morning exploring the historic Edinburgh Castle – a massive old fort perched on top of the highest hill in the city. It afforded great views of Edinburgh, out across the mountains and sea. It was blowing a gale and bloody cold, but very scenic.

I headed down into the Royal Mile, which is the heart of the city’s Old Town. I find when I’m travelling these days, I avoid the hideous High Streets and shopping malls, and seek out the old, quaint parts. The Royal Mile stretches from Edinburgh Castle at the top of the hill, down to Holyrood Palace at the bottom. Holyrood Palace is one of the royal residences in Edinburgh, and while not as flash as Buckingham Palace, it’s not bad for a wee cottage up north.

All sorts of quaint boutiques lined the streets, together with loads of Scottish paraphenlia like kilts, fake bagpipes, tartans and all sorts of warm wooly stuff.

I found fantastic little arts and crafts markets in an old cemetery in the streets below the castle and wandered back up the Royal Mile, checking out the many buskers and street performers that were there as part of the festival.

I recently heard a comedian describing the Edinburgh festival, and how “every corner is home to a bloke with bagpipes in a kilt” – and that was certainly the case. It was a scream!

After a mid-afternoon backbash, the group headed back into town and had a quick dinner and beer before joining the massive queue for the Military Tattoo. Here’s the thing with the Tattoo…it was the final night of the Tattoo, which had been playing for about a month, with two performances each night. They jam about 10,000 people into a purpose-built stadium in the car-park of Edinburgh Castle. Police line the streets, and they close of many of the main access ways into the castle, and pretty much filter people in, while also doing security searches. When the early show finishes, they have to get 10,000 people out, and let another 10,000 people in, which equates to a truck load of people in the narrow cobbled streets around the castle.

I spose it took about an hour to get in, but when we eventually got seated, the atmosphere was electric. By 10.30pm, when the show was due to start, the sky was pitch black and the castle was illuminated with flaming torches. It was even colder and windier than it had been during the day, but at least the rain held off.

The first pipers burst into the stadium and for the next couple of hours I sat mesmerized by what the Scots consider to be a deeply traditional and proud celebration of their military might.

Pipe bands from around the world performed various songs, and when the Scottish band played Scotland the Brave, the crowd went completely nuts. My favourite part of the show was when the entire 1000 or so performers played Mull of Kintyre – one of the best songs ever! And then they played “Sailing”, which again, with the strength of several hundred bagpipes, was awesome.

The grand finale was a haunting rendition of the Last Post, played by a loan piper at the top of the castle. Throughout the show, the wall of the castle had been used as a huge projection screen, and lit various colours – but for the last song, they turned out all the lights, had huge flaming torches on the castle’s main pulpits and focused a spotlight on the piper.

It actually moved me to tears – the whole Last Post thing. It was an extraordinary setting, and having spent the day in Edinburgh, it became very clear that the Scots are intensely strong, proud people. The show concluded with huge fireworks over the castle and the predictable rush and crush to get out, but it was one of the most amazing shows I’ve ever seen – and well worth it if you’re able to get tickets.

We kicked on at one of the many overflowing nightclubs and once again, partied our little hearts out.

The next day, I wandered round some more, before meeting Iain, an old IR colleague, who lives in Edinburgh, for lunch. We hadn’t seen each other for yonks, and it was a great to catch up. Cheers Iain!

The atmosphere in the city was fantastic, and the people-watching opportunities were spectacular. I spent the rest of the day pottering round the streets and checking out the main points of interest.

That evening, there was an option restaurant visit for what, we were promised, was a traditional Scottish meal. I had been debating whether to try haggis (mashed up, cooked offal), and decided that out of respect to the locals, I should give their celebrated delicacy a go. Holding my nose and shutting my eyes, I threw it down the hatch and managed to keep it there. The morsel I had was well cooked, so I couldn’t taste any of the potentially gross stuff…so there you go. I can at least say I tried haggis. Probably not likely to give it another go however…

After the main meal, we were treated to Andy the Piper/Comedian – a solo piper, who cranked up his bagpipes and between tunes, chatted about the history of the pipes and heckled everyone in the room. He was rude, completely un-PC and thoroughly hilarious. His finale was to play the theme song from Star Wars, which was one of the most bizarre things I’ve ever heard.

We kicked on at one of the many overflowing nightclubs and once again, partied our little hearts out. One travel buddy partied so hard he wound up in Edinburgh hospital at 5.00am with a torn ligament. This was of course, the morning we had to drive back to London. With an 8.00am departure, we all (somehow) managed to make it back onto the bus for the long drive home.

Things were predictably quiet for the first few hours, then the natives got restless, talked crap, asked if we were there yet (10 thousand times), pondered the horrors of M1 traffic, talked more crap, and finally, some 10 hours later, pulled into the now familiar Bedford Way at Russell Square – Contiki’s drop off point.

As we said our goodbyes, Scotland the Brave was no doubt ringing loudly in our minds, after one truly awesome long weekend.

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