Wandering around a city’s streets at night is never something I’m prone to do, unless I’m stumbling out of a pub (which happens about twice a year…) or I’m wandering home from work in the depths of winter. And so it was that a few Fridays ago — as the dark fell early yet again on Edinburgh — I met up with the lovely Frances (a friend I met through Instagram) for a nighttime wander around this magical and mysterious part of the city.
Edinburgh is fabulous even in the harsh light of day, but in the dark — as I discovered — the sense of history that hangs over these streets really is palpable. The paths that ancestors trod before you, the stone-clad buildings which have stayed the same for centuries, the legends (like dear old Greyfriars Bobby) which have attained stardom as the years have gone by… It’s a city rich with stories. It’s no wonder so many authors found inspiration from these surroundings!
The Grassmarket area of the city is quite European in appearance, but entirely Scottish in its gory history. It’s been a trading space for cattle, crops and cloth; it was at the heart of the eighteenth-century Edinburgh hotel trade; and most notoriously it was place for public execution. A fable still survives — and is immortalised in the name of an adjacent pub — of a local woman, Maggie Dickson, who allegedly survived her hanging and was therefore resurrected as ‘half-hangit Maggie’.
But if local legends and a pub crawl doesn’t quench your thirst for a Grassmarket evening, then why not find a few cafés instead? This area is well known for its eateries — just check out the weekend food fair or nearby coffee shop Lovecrumbs — and so Frances and I decided to make the most of a mild winter evening and stopped by Mary’s Milk Bar.
It’s one of the city’s most popular gelaterias and for good reason. With flavours like salted caramel, rice pudding, milk chocolate and lavender, you can understand why the milk bar is always mobbed. Even at 7 o’clock in the evening, the tiny tables were all taken by office workers, tourists and students making the most of their weekend’s beginning. (Side note: Mary’s only accepts cash!)
So Frances and I took our single scoops of salted caramel ice cream back outside into the dark Grassmarket and simply wandered. The volcanic plug of Edinburgh Castle‘s rock rose out of the darkness to the north; crowds began to gather on pub thresholds, preparing for the Six Nations kick off the following day and — as we climbed Victoria Street’s crescent — its façade colours faded further as midnight came closer to the city.