Taking Edinburgh in Stride

By Bill Gifford
Sunday, March 10, 2002

Mealtime in Scotland can give you nightmares. It's bad enough just to read about the national dish, haggis: a barbaric-sounding concoction of sheep's lung, heart and liver, mixed with oatmeal and pepper and boiled up inside the sheep's stomach. That's not the end of it, either. How'd you like that haggis deep-fried? With some neeps and tatties (turnips and potatoes)? And for dessert, how about a Mars bar -- also deep-fried?

"Scotland's pantry includes many such foods to die for, and from," wrote the Wall Street Journal a few years back. The paper cited "desserts such as 'cream crowdie' (cream, oatmeal, sugar, rum); a breakfast of Scotch eggs (hard-boiled, wrapped in sausage and deep-fried, forming what one tour book describes as 'a greasy cannonball'); and refreshments such as 'heavy' (bitter beer) and 'a nippy sweetie' (a glass of spirits, usually whiskey)." So unhealthy is the traditional diet that there is a national commission charged with persuading Scots to start eating fruits and vegetables.

And yet, every time I visit, something bothers me. It's not that the critics are wrong -- most Scots eat badly and, even by European standards, smoke like fiends. (In fact, Scottish chefs have begun to discover their nation's bounty of free-range lamb and fresh-caught fish and beautiful beef and, thanks to European unification, actual imported vegetables.) No, what troubles me is what I don't see, in Edinburgh or the Highlands or anywhere else. For all its dietary sins, Scotland seems to have very few obese people. On a recent visit with my father, I think I finally figured out why.

We were in Edinburgh, and we were going for a walk. It was early evening when we set out toward the base of the Royal Mile, the sloping thoroughfare that rises from Holyroodhouse Palace, the British royal family's local pad, all the way up to Edinburgh Castle, a fortress commanding a rocky peak at the center of the Scottish capital. At the base of the Mile, we passed a group of drunks gathered around a bench, with a couple of scruffy-looking dogs. "If I haef to walk up that hill one more time," one man was saying, "I think it'll kill me."

I sympathized. My father is an Olympic-class walker whose thoroughbred-length strides carry him faster than many people can jog. He was setting his customary brutal pace, half-stepping me up the hill: No matter how fast I went, he'd always stay a half-step ahead. So it was useless to try to keep up, and any complaint, I knew, would be met with a blank look that said, "Who's walking too fast?" So I dangled in his wake a while, as we followed the route taken in 1566 by the pregnant Mary, Queen of Scots, fleeing her homicidal husband in Holyroodhouse for the safety of the castle. Only we seemed to be in more of a hurry.

It wasn't long before I noticed that the locals were all moving just as quickly, on their way home from work or out to dinner. Back home in New York he gets funny looks, but in Edinburgh, my father fit right in.

It turns out that walking is kind of a Scottish passion. The countryside is laced with public footpaths, many traversing private lands that in America would be guarded by No Trespassing signs, nasty dogs and perhaps a peppering of shotgun pellets. Under Scottish law, however, you're not trespassing unless you cause deliberate, tangible damage to the landowner's property, such as shooting his grouse, catching his fish or bothering his sheep. Edinburgh itself, one of Europe's youngest capitals, is practically toy-size; its interesting topography -- including a miniature extinct volcano, Arthur's Seat, looming over the center of town -- practically demands to be explored on foot.

My father and I are drawn to Scotland for different reasons. I like the pure air, the lonely landscape and the unique twistings of the English tongue. Beyond that, I crave the clear, angled light that gives Edinburgh an almost Scandinavian air -- "the feeling," as native detective novelist Ian Rankin puts it, "of being a long way northward of anywhere, some place reserved for only the hardiest and the foolhardy."

My father comes to walk among his own kind, as it were, and also to worship in the holy land of golf. The following morning, therefore, we got up early to sprint around the links at Muirfield, home to the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, and site of this year's British Open. Set 20 miles down the coast from the city, the course is spectacular, an open, treeless expanse overlooking a flock of grassy dunes, the wind-whipped Firth of Forth and the North Sea beyond. But we weren't exactly reveling in the views. In Scotland, a round of golf is not the leisurely four- to five-hour affair it is at an American country club. It's more like an aerobic sport, and there is no greater sin than "sloo pley" -- slow play. In the time it takes an American player to size up his shot, choose his club, take a few practice swings and a few more "waggles" before finally getting down to business, a Scot will have walked straight up to his ball, whacked it onto the green, walked ahead and holed out.

"It's almost like polo," my father said admiringly. "They hit it as soon as it stops moving."

We were playing, naturally, in the Scottish style: with one ball for the two of us, alternating shots. (The Scots have little patience for the dreaded American four-ball, a foursome where each player insists on playing his own ball.) He'd drive, I'd take the second shot, and so on. Dad plays golf every chance he gets, while I suffer through one or two rounds a year, and consider it a success if nobody is injured or arrested. Playing

Scottish-style had the advantage of equalizing the game. Even though a fair number of our shots landed in the rough -- his as often as mine -- I was sweating by the sixth hole, and our jet-lagged American guest, who was playing his own ball, was begging for a Coke.

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