As A-Level students across England found out their results on Thursday, I cast my mind back 28 years ago to when I received mine. Those three letters on a small piece of paper meant I’d been accepted into the University of Edinburgh. I always knew I’d live one day in Auld Reekie. When deciding on higher education establishments to put on my UCAS form, I made some token visits to English universities supposedly to help me decide but, in my mind, there was no doubt. Edinburgh was the only place I wanted to be. And, for the past 40 years, Edinburgh has evoked a range of emotions in me, both good and bad.
I have seen Edinburgh through many different eyes: Child, student, teacher, friend and parent. Each vision has revealed a different Edinburgh to me. And I have been completely bewitched every time.
My love affair with Scotland’s capital began as a small child. Bank Holidays at the end of August automatically meant an early morning rise to travel northbound – A595, M74 then the torturous drive along the A702. But it was worth it, when, as we descended the steep hill next to Hillend artificial ski slope, the skyline of the castle and Arthur’s Seat came into view. I would come with my parents and the day would follow the same pattern. Park at King Stables Road, walk through the Gardens then park ourselves on Princes Street for the day!
I think the logic behind our visits was due to the fact it was a bank holiday in England. In those days, places did actually shut down so we had to decamp north of the border to find any trace of civilisation. This also meant Scottish schools had started back. As I walked silently past the shops, I imagined that I was being judged by the locals, whose children were all in lessons. A small part of me felt like a rebel. Unless I spoke and gave away my nationality with my accent, they would think I was a terrible truant. However, a large part of me felt conspicuous, out of place, impudent. I wanted to yell “I’m not bunking off! I’m English!” In hindsight, it was probably a good thing that I kept my mouth shut! The highlight of my visit was the trip to John Menzies to purchase my new stationery supplies for the autumn term. I was in heaven. My dad and I had abandoned my mam in Marks and Spencer’s (she probably didn’t notice; she was in her element) and headed to the shop at 107-108 Princes Street which, it turned out, we mispronounced for years (it doesn’t rhyme with lenses!)
Whilst standing with my back to some modern, soulless shop, waiting for my mother, I loved looking across the Gardens and up the Mound at the much more appealing view; the individual, equally mesmerising yet distinct buildings on Mound Place and North Bank Street and the dominant castle astride its uneven rock. I loved them for their irregularity, non-conformity, rebellion. Edinburgh, for me, was unpretentious with its blackened buildings and dark, cobbled courts and closes off the Royal Mile. Edinburgh was saying “take me as I am; I’m changing for nobody.” And that’s something I could relate to.
Loneliness, guilt, inferiority, fear
As a student, life wasn’t necessarily a rose garden. On arriving at Pollock Halls, there was the initial feeling of complete solitude, as I watched my parents walk away and I didn’t know which way to turn. A friend had warned me about this as she has started her uni a week before but I was still completely unprepared. There was then, stupidly, the feeling of guilt as I made new friends, for I felt disloyal, such was the strength of the friendships I had built over the last few years. Next, came the inferiority complex. The big fish in her French A-Level class of 4 pupils at Whitehaven School was now a mere tiddler in her tutorials at 60 George Square. Any confidence I did possess vanished in one fell swoop. Finally, somewhere along the line, there was fear. Fear of finals, fear of failure, fear of letting everyone down. My final year seemed to be spent with my head in a book; it was utterly unenjoyable and this was only compounded by unmanageable grief when my aunty died just before my exams began.
Inspiration, joy, trust, liberty
Obviously it wasn’t all doom and gloom! Thanks to Edinburgh, I met one of my dearest friends – my maid of honour and godmother to my eldest. I trusted her complicity, and still do, and Edinburgh is the bond which tied us together. In tutorials I made new discoveries and found inspiration from Gallic authors or immersed myself in French colonial history. Topics I would never have imagined studying or embracing. There was the joy of new experiences: self-defence classes, pubs, concerts, ceilidhs, balls. The sense of freedom which came from being independent with the added bonus that someone else was paying for all these experiences!
My time as a student in Edinburgh did result in some negative emotions. But this had nothing to do with the place; rather they were the results of people, work, events outside of my control or just plain me. I am sure it was the fact that I was in Edinburgh which meant I could cope with all that life threw at me during my time there.
And now history is repeating itself. My children are dragged up to Edinburgh for an annual pilgrimage and have to listen as I point out my own personal historical monuments. I am designated tour guide which is slightly risky as my sense of direction is questionable. I know where I’m going; I just can’t explain it clearly, as I point to my right but shout to turn left. I never feel lost though in Edinburgh. I may talk with a funny accent but I feel as if I belong. Belong to the pubs down Grassmarket, belong to the pathways across the Meadows, belong to the bustling crowds on Princes Street. Belong to the anonymous paths, walking nowhere in particular but knowing where I am.
My dad was born in Edinburgh at the Royal Infirmary. Although he lived in RAF married quarters, he spent time in the shadow of Tynecastle when taken to see his ‘Aunty’ Margaret on Gorgie Road. He also frequented Leith where his mam’s uncle John lived. For any football fans, Hibs won the battle. His allegiance to the Hibees is engraved on a stone in the West Stand which he’ll hopefully be able to see soon once this pandemic is gone. His grandson has adopted the green mantle of Easter Road and therefore the next generation’s link has been forged. Despite only living in the city as a youngster, he feels drawn to the place like me. Once you fall in love with Edinburgh, an invisible elastic band wraps around you and it’s futile to resist its kinetic energy. You will have to return.
I would love to live again in Edinburgh one day. I always joke that if I ever go missing, I’ll be easily found. Be it atop Arthur’s Seat, sitting in George Square gardens, wandering for all times’ sake along Spottiswoode Street. Edinburgh is just perfect for me. I’m a small town girl: it’s compact without the feel of a big city. It’s hilly: I’ve spent my entire life looking down from above into the valley of Whitehaven. It’s near the water: I’ve grown up smelling the sea air. If Edinburgh was a person, it would be my first love. Just as the Proclaimers sang in Sunshine on Leith, Edinburgh has my heart.
“You saw it,
You claimed it,
You touched it,
You saved it.”