Breathes there a man,
with soul so dead,
who never to himself
“This is my own.
My native land”.
I’ve been on pub tours before, but never one that fired my imagination like this.
Twelve of us were led through the cobbled streets of the Old and New Town’s of Edinburgh on a Literary Pub Tour. It began at the Beehive Inn, a large pub with an appropriately aged appearance, just off the Royal Mile.
We were led by an inimitable pair, commencing with the foul-mouthed, heavy-drinking Mr. Clart. The second, dubbed Mr. McBrain by the sarcastic Clart, stepped in with an assuming intellect to complete the duo. They gave different sides to the stories, but each story has at least two sides, and both possessed a thorough knowledge of Scotland’s most famous literary figures.
What ensued was a fiery duel of wits. Clart jabbed at McBrain with Burn’s raunchy verse, and the fellow defended himself and his beloved national bard with historical fact and anecdote. Points, in the contest, were taken on both sides, but the jury is still out on a final decision.
Perhaps the true winners were the twelve of us, the enraptured audience, as we listened greedily between pints. Occasionally we were forced to duck into pubs, out of the intermittent showers. But that is, apparently, typical of Scottish weather, and therefore fitting for such a tour.
Between swigs from a flask, the duo quoted verses in Scots, and then again in loosely translated English. They told us how Robert Burns first came to Edinburgh, and about his undoubtedly debaucherous exploits on the very streets we were strolling.
Clart brought Sir Walter Scott to life for a moment in the courtyard in front of The Jolly Judge, complete with limp. We learned how Scott turned his hand from poetry to prose and began to write novels. He didn’t know it at the time, but Scott was to make his fame that way. We also learned about his financial indiscretions and subsequent heroic recovery as he wrote his way out of debt and into ill health.
When the subject of the world traveler (but Scotsman!), Robert Louis Stevenson, came up, our foreign tongues were schooled by Mr. Clart in the correct pronunciation of Jekyll and Hyde (Jee-kuhl and Hide). He did not forget to mention that Hollywood was simply too daft to check up on it, either. Even more intriguing, however, was where they speculate Stevenson found inspirations for that famous book. Jekyll and Hyde may have been about the good-by-day, wicked-by-night Deacon Brodie, or about the differences between Edinburgh’s Old and New Town. Or was it the fundamental duality of man’s nature that inspired Stevenson, as it has inspired so many storytellers throughout the history of literature?
Our journey ended at The Cafe Royal in the New Town where, it was said, Queen Victoria herself liked to enjoy a gin or four. We continued drinking after the tour ended with our new friends, inspired by anecdotes about Robert Burns’s favorite liquid inspiration.
In total, the journey through Scottish literature in the past three centuries lasted only two hours, but the twelve of us recently introduced to Edinburgh history will not soon forget it. The entertaining storytelling dynamics of Clart and McBrain, and the work of Scotland’s great writers, have ensured that these stories will stay with us for far longer – as long as we’re not too drunk to remember them.