“Have you heard about the Scottish dinosaur?” a clerk at my hotel asked me on a bright April day. Before I could answer, or find out more, the woman was distracted by an incoming phone call and I was left to wonder. At first I pictured a delicate little baby dino decked out in a jaunty tam o’ shanter. But then as I tromped down Princes Street, past all the tartan shops, the dinosaur morphed into something bigger. In my mind, it was a fully blown McBrontosaurus, wearing a tarp-sized kilt, draining a loch or two, chomping on his bagpipe, pipe by bony pipe, before belching up a few gassy bars of “Bluebells of Scotland.”
The afternoon newspapers explained all. “The most radical shake-up of the dinosaur family in a century,” the Guardian reported, “has led scientists to propose an unlikely origin for the prehistoric beast: an obscure cat-sized creature found in Scotland.”
Maybe this wasn’t big global news but in Edinburgh it was greeted with an almost euphoric excitement, partly since the timing seemed so fitting. That’s because the other big news in town was the swirling talk of Scottish independence. And regardless of how the negotiations played out, the mere possibility was infusing the capital city with fresh energy. That loch-side dinosaur was just another emblem of a proud country, its resilient roots running all the way back to prehistory, that deserved a new kind of patriotic celebration, a serious revival, and a Braveheart leap of faith into the future.
The itchy energy, in fact, was palpable all over the capital city.
As I took my first hike up and down the hilly downtown, I felt immersed in a big spring awakening. On the north side of Princes Street, the crescents of Edinburgh’s Georgian New Town — new being a relative word here — were flush with stylish boutiques and brasseries. The doors of its austere, gray 18th-century townhouses were painted green, red, aqua, like a happy wink. On the south side, the cobbled medieval Royal Mile, crowned by the craggy Edinburgh Castle, was bristling with outdoor cafes and even the bagpipers were playing some pop tunes, along with “The Bonnie Banks o’Loch Lomond.” Everywhere signs were already announcing the Edinburgh International Festival (held Aug. 4-28 this year), which has become nothing less than the world’s largest arts festival and the surest sign that Edinburgh is no cultural outlier.
Museum celebrates Scotland
That sense of rediscovery was fully on display at the city’s vibrant constellation of museums, less sterile galleries than busy hangouts crowded with families, students and aesthetes. At the National Museum of Scotland, an expansion had just debuted, its 10 new galleries partly devoted to a survey of Scottish creativity, from a display of designs by Charles Rennie Mackintosh and Glasgow-born Christopher Dresser to an elegant little glider, hanging from a ceiling, that represents the oldest aircraft in Great Britain.
“We collect both Scottish and international stories,” curator Xerxes Mazda told me, as we walked past the stacked bones of a dinosaur swimming with Scottish DNA. “Our motto is we bring Scotland to the world and the world to Scotland.”
The same thirst to tell a proud Scottish story gets realized just across town at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, where the canvases of Great Scots — princes, burghers, rebels and artists — fill the whitewashed rooms. (Best comic relief: a portrait of all 16 16th-century Tweeddales squeezed into the frame, like the world’s first and worst selfie, their nimbus of frizzy brown periwigs approximating an explosion in a wig factory.)
The fresh accent here was a gallery of photos revealing the changing face of Scotland, though not all that changed. My favorite picture, of contemporary artist Maud Sulter, the daughter of a Scottish mother and Ghanaian father, looked familiar; she wore the same direct, regal, fiercely independent face as the portrait of steely-eyed Scottish patriot Flora MacDonald, draped in a tartan, hanging in the historic wing downstairs.
The next day, the modern face of Edinburgh was popping up everywhere when I visited a 21st-century kilts shop in New Town and joined a crowd of the pierced and bearded, all looking through catalogs of next-wave kilts made from black leather, purple denim and yards of camouflage fabric.
A ‘modern cosmopolitan age’
Farther south, in the recently gentrified docklands of Leith, any sense of the old had given way to an entirely re-imagined present. Until recently a gritty, red-light back pocket — one very dodgy port — the area was now all trendy signifiers. Dive bars had given way to hipster dive bars, streetwalkers to joggers, sailor tattoos to Zen tattoos, barmaids to baristas, pawnshops to boutiques. But the real sign of the area’s reinvention was the busy network of ambitious restaurants running along its canals and dockfront. The best known of these and the forerunner of them all is the pioneering the Kitchin restaurant, which sits in a long line of stone warehouses now crowded with sleek bistros and cafes.
“We opened in 2006 with just a secondhand stove in a closet-sized space, and then expanded year by year,” Tom Kitchin told me, his blue eyes rounded under a tangle of red hair. For good reason. One of the first area chefs to start seriously raiding the locavore larder, and invest in local sourcing, Kitchin threw down a revolutionary gauntlet. “For too long Edinburgh restaurants were doing the same old chicken and sea bass dishes. I wanted to shout from the rooftops we have the best larder — the finest crab, lobster, scallops, langoustine, venison, grouse, pheasant, asparagus, strawberries, wild mushroom in the world. Why not use them?”
The payoff is a fresh iteration of Scottish cuisine (the restaurant’s motto is “From nature to plate”) dished up in a sleek Scandi-Scottish dining room, all neutral tones accented with naturalist accents, from a stool topped by lamb’s fleece to a wall covered in rough bark. Landing on my table, along with a scrolled map of Kitchin’s regional suppliers, was a revitalized Scottish feast. Hand-plucked Orkney scallops baked in the shell came paired with foraged carrots; a selection of Scottish beef was roused by bone marrow marmalade; a Knockraich Crowdie cheesecake was crowned with poached Tomlinson’s Farm rhubarb.
“Before,” Kitchin told me, “we always lived on tradition, the kilts and the haggis. We haven’t abandoned those. But now Edinburgh is moving into a new modern cosmopolitan age. We’re stepping it up.”
The mind-set is also evident in even newer gentrified neighborhoods like Stockbridge, a once-glum north-side area suddenly sprouting its own contingent of bistros and boutiques, and posing as the latest hipster contender.
But thankfully new Edinburgh — all those black leather kilts and wild buckthorn dishes — isn’t edging out the old.
Seeing the classics
Any place smart enough to reinvent itself knows to leave the classics alone. So toward the end of my week I explored the best of the city’s landmarks.
Edinburgh Castle itself, lit up at night in silhouette, crowning its high rocky perch, was still doing duty as the city’s beacon and lighthouse. Farther down the Royal Mile, Holyrood Palace, the royal manor where the queen still stays when she comes to town, looked like the more regal monument. Though the gift shop was filled with dish towels featuring Warhol’s candy-colored lithograph of Queen Elizabeth, the palace itself was all old-school grandeur, a whirl of cut-glass chandeliers, gilded antiques, four-poster beds and aristocratic portraits.
My favorite time-warped refuge, though, was Dean Village, a spellbound Brigadoon tucked into a deep west-end river gorge and inhabiting its own parallel universe. The village, originally a grain milling center, is seamed by the babbling Water of Leith walkway, which I wound up, in my final days, regularly hiking, setting out on some leafy pilgrimage. The path, doggedly following the constantly rumbling creek, came studded with little surprises: a mini castle; a waterfall; a neoclassical goddess; a gabled cottage; a monumental bridge. Blue herons, appearing out of nowhere, regularly flapped overhead.
That would have been enough of a poetic climax to my Edinburgh stay but I decided to wait for the Saturday morning Castle Terrace Farmers Market, which takes place under the stony gaze of the Edinburgh Castle. At first the market looked like a predictable tumble of cabbages and apples, Scottish jams and chutneys, baked scones and oh-no haggis. But when I followed the crowd to the busiest vendor I found a surprise. He was selling sausage rolls, a classic Scottish comfort food snack. Yet these weren’t the standard beef and pork rolls. No. Stacked up in wavering rows were falafel rolls, chicken tikka rolls, lamb tajine rolls, beef pho rolls, Goan curry rolls and satay rolls. It shouldn’t have been a surprise.
Always ready to retrieve a tradition with fierce pride, and reconsider it with renewed creativity, Edinburgh wasn’t about to let even a homely snack get left behind.
Raphael Kadushin lives in Madison, Wis., and travels the world. His work has appeared in magazines such as Condé Nast Traveler and Bon Appétit.