Friday, 17 February 2017

Edinburgh in Safety

I seem to have lost a day. I want to refer to the day I flew back from Canada as yesterday, but apparently it was the day before yesterday.  Well, on February 15, I wandered about my parents' spacious, high-ceilinged, non-attic home moaning, "Two weeks is not enough. I don't want to go back to Scotland. I want to stay with you guys"

"We need you," said my father, "but [Benedict Ambrose] needs you more."

As B.A. had told me of a healthy supper that consisted of pork pies chopped up on a bed of salad leaves, I had to agree. So off I went to Scotland. B.A. met my train from Glasgow and we went straight to the Brew Lab for brunch. The excellence of the cappuccino, plus the merry face of B.A., reconciled me to the end of my holiday. And when I returned to the Historical House, I discovered that the kitchen was tidy, that the endless miles of carpet were hoovered, that there were bright tulips in the sitting-room and that B.A. had got me a very pretty Valentine's Day present. I have to admit that I have a very nice husband.

Someone asked me today about the safety of the area around Edinburgh's Haymarket railway station, and I have to admit that when I think about railway stations in other parts of Europe, Haymarket is a virtual paradise. However, as I have witnessed (if not always experienced) a dozen anti-social acts in Edinburgh, I do have a few safety tips for visitors and newbies.

1. If you are a tourist, stay in the tourist zone. Do not go out into the peripheries (e.g. Newcraighall). If you really want to go to Portobello Beach by bus, take a book so that it is hard for anyone mischievous to catch your eye. Make sure the book is in English. Most Edinburghers are kindly people, equally able to mind their own business as they are exchange pleasant remarks in a witty fashion  and, above all, willing to accept that other people aren't exactly like them. But others are not. The fact that you are in any way different enrages some people, and these people tend to live in the peripheries. Because they hate their circumstances themselves, they assume that you are judging them, which is a capital crime. (N.B. Talking to strangers is a trait of Scots throughout Scotland's Central Belt.)

2. Avoid large groups of noisy (and therefore drunk) people, be they male or female or both, on the street, bus or train. If, however, this is impossible (e.g. on the train), do not betray an ounce of hostility or judgement. Smiling tolerance and witty comebacks is the way to go. Keep your distance, but never ignore the cheerful remark of a drunk Scot on a train. Respond cheerfully. If attacked by children, however, feel free to scold them. In the approved tourist areas, all the adults will be on your side. On the peripheries, most adults will be on your side, even if you are foreign. See #1.

Yesterday a presumably sober young Scot addressed B.A. and I on the train while he scooped caramel-chocolate spread onto chocolate chip cookies. He informed us of the greatness of his feast. I said, "A short life but a merry." He made some non-committal reply and that was the end of it. In hindsight, that was a bit judgey, but my banter skills were rusty and it was the first thing that came to mind. I point this out merely to underscore the willingness of Scots to address strangers and their assumption that strangers have the politeness to answer them. Not answering at all is considered aggressive. 

I will never forget how B.A. dealt so beautifully and cleverly with a drunk on the bus. This guy was opening drinking from the neck of a bottle of wine. He also had an audience of chippy class warriors delighted that their drunk acquaintance was ragging a man wearing a tie. (It was a Sunday and we were returning home from church.) B.A. matched him witticism for witticism, deftly introducing working-class Scots vocabulary from his childhood into the conversation. Thus, he won over the crowd and the drunk.

Lord, this city can be exhausting.

3. You know nothing about football (soccer), unless you really are interested in football, in which case your team is never a Scottish one, and you don't care about it THAT much. This is particularly important if you are male between the ages of 6 and 50. One of my more frightening trips by train involved a group of feisty Glasgow boys trying to get up an argument with my youngest--and Scottish-looking--brother about football. When they discovered he was Canadian and knew only about ice-hockey, they decided to leave him alone. 

4. If you think a stranger's behaviour is intolerable, disgusting, a scandal to their innocent children, etc., be sure to tell them that--if you have a black belt in karate. If you don't have a black belt in karate, don't tell them. See #1.

5. Keep your voice down in public. Americans and Canadians are intolerably loud. Really. I used to think it was just Americans, but Canadians also speak uncomfortably loudly in public. It is seriously annoying to British people and me. If you talk too loudly and too long in a non-Scottish accent, you risk some aggravated Scot telling you to shut up. This has happened even to B.A., for he is frequently mistaken for English. 

6. If you are female and you walk into a pub alone, a man will start talking to you. The danger is not that he will magically seduce you. The danger is that he will bore you to death. 

7. Some Scottish accents are really difficult to understand, which is rather a problem when you need to make a quick and witty comeback or just prove that you are a polite, non-hostile individual or understand what your taxi cab driver just said. Therefore, I recommend that you watch Trainspotting (Update: fast-forwarding through the sex scenes*), The Legend of Barney Thomson and any other films featuring unabashedly strong Scottish accents beforehand, so as to educate your ear. These films will scare the heck out of you, of course. See #1.

8. Never take a mini-cab. If you get into a car driven by a stranger, make sure it is a proper black taxi cab that you have called for or found at a taxi rank. (You can't always depend on flagging down a cab on the street. Your best bet is to find a taxi rank.) There is a kind of man to be found throughout the UK who thinks white women, or any women out after dark alone, deserve whatever they get--from insults to rape--especially if these women are drunk. Unfortunately, some of these men become Uber drivers.

One of the most bizarre and uncomfortable British problems nobody "nice" likes to talk about is the "all white women are sluts" libel to be found in certain (but not all) immigrant communities in the UK. This is not a big problem in Edinburgh, where the number one threat to safety is a drunk offended ethnic Scot of either sex, but it is something to keep in the back of your mind, especially when encountering other foreign (especially England-born) tourists and/or students. 

9. Do not be drunk in public alone, especially if you are female. This is good advice for the whole world, actually. 

10. Compared to the rest of Europe, Edinburgh's railway stations are paradise.

Update 1: True confession: I haven't seen all of Trainspotting because I hate violent films. I've read the book.  Reader Juliana says there are sex scenes, and I don't remember sex scenes in the book. The language will indeed be bad. The language of the peripheries is bad. (The language on British TV is bad, too.) Since you are going to avoid the peripheries, maybe you should avoid Trainspotting and find the Inspector Rebus TV series instead. The point is to see Scottish films in which the accent hasn't been watered down for foreign distribution. You want Scottish films to which producers have had to add sub-titles. The drawback is that such films are usually, er, dark. Local Hero is safe for children, but unfortunately the protagonist is American, so it's not the best for ear-training.

Update 2: More on Aggressive Friendliness. One of the most extreme forms of aggressive friendliness is being handed a beer by a group of happy drunks on their way between Glasgow or Motherwell and Edinburgh. Naturally women should not accept drinks from strangers ESPECIALLY IF THEY ARE OPEN. Have an excuse ready so you can turn down the drink with grace. In general, Glaswegians are more aggressively friendly than Edinburgher. Thus, Glaswegians often think Edinburghers are stuck-up snobs, and Edinburghers often think Glaswegians are overfamiliar, vulgar or crazy. If you are from New York or Boston, all this Scottish bonhomerie may delight you, of course.


  1. I'm surprised you recommend Trainspotting - I started watching it with my husband and had to turn it off. The s*x scenes were really graphic and the language was abysmal. And I don't think I'm particularly strict when it comes to what films I'll watch...

  2. I didn't know about the sex scenes. Sorry about that. (I have never been able to watch all of it because of the violence.) I will update my post to warn people. The language, though... If you want to know what people in the peripheries talk like, that is how they talk.

  3. I don't remember the sex scenes in Trainspotting at all, and the violence is fuzzy in my mind though I do remember it. What really lingers in my memory is the physical filth of its settings, especially the scatalogical stuff, and the death of the baby, from neglect by its heroin-addicted parents. *Those* are the reasons I can never watch it again. Lest that sound like some kind of moral oneupmanship, I'll add that its the dirt/scat that really lingered for me. But what can you expect from someone who literally has nightmares about having to walk through dirty public lavatories?