An ode (and guide) to some favourite Scottish coffee shops

There are many things to miss about life as we knew it.

I’m sure we could all make endless lists on the subject. There’d no doubt be disagreements on what each deemed ‘essential’ — and others wrote off as superfluous — but we’d probably all admit that simple pleasures are more important than ever.

With that in mind, I wanted to share some words about a simple pleasure that I miss. It’s in no way paramount but is nevertheless a pastime that punctuated my social life far more than it does now: going to cafés, whether in Scotland’s countryside or cities.

Spending time in a coffee shop can be an experience of itself, not simply the act of sipping a hot drink. When you arrive, you’re welcomed by a pleasant yet bitter scent in the air, which lingers on your clothes and hair. There’s the background hum of other lives — always more melodic than the music they’re playing through the speakers.

The background hum of other lives, loves, families — always more melodic than the music they’re playing through the speakers

Being with someone you care about, the comfort you feel in their presence even though the chair is hard or the space characteristically crammed, is special. The conversation can be so good that you don’t even remember to check your phone. Because few notifications are really that urgent (the temptation to take a photo for Instagram persists, though).

The motifs made with frothed milk; the pastries and cakes and buns arranged like art. Each bite a memory, each mouthful a reminder that goals and careers and money and worries and life can be put on hold, if all just for this one moment in a coffee shop.

Back when you had a commute, you would occasionally get a shot of espresso and a change of scene before meetings started at the office. Sitting high at the window ledge in Nomad by Haymarket station, watching commuters of all faces flock past, each wearing a similar uniform and the same expression of detachment.

The start of March, the month lockdown came to Scotland, the weekend of your partner’s thirtieth. Watching the River Tay roll away in the winter morning light, the taste of bitter coffee and sweet almond croissants from Aran Bakery in your smiling mouths. The swelling headlines muffled, for a minute, in your pocket.

Or last year, the weeks before Christmas, touching delicate decorations and perusing potential presents at Loch Leven’s Larder. Sitting at the parquet breakfast bar in the afternoon twilight, shoppers and families bustling by as you hold hands over lattes and the best salted caramel brownie (why do you always share?).

The layers of your lives tied up in those spaces, those smells

That last normal summer, a family birthday. Different slices of cake dotted around the table, specialty teas and creamy coffees, the paraphernalia of elevenses — or fika, or goûter — at the Watermill in Aberfeldy.

Later, the extended family get lost in the bookshop, each room opening up like Russian dolls. You get so transfixed by pages about life in a forest cabin, words about the wonders of nature, that you barely notice the call for closing time.

All the Edinburgh afternoons spent at Soderberg, plotting and planning the future with your partner. Broughton Street, the Meadows, Stockbridge… Sundays lazily strolling into gift shops and through the Botanics, always bookended in some way by weaving chats over a cinnamon or cardamom bun.

The layers of your lives tied up in those spaces, those smells, that simple pleasure of spending incalculable hours holed up together in a corner of a coffee shop.

Featured image: Bostock Bakery in North Berwick, East Lothian.

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