Saturday, June 04, 2005

Edinburgh – Of Elevators, Rolling out the Barrels, and More Ghosts

On Thursday morning, I had a less-than-full Scottish Breakfast. And, evidently, what they say must be true: Hair one day, gone the next. I had to check out of the Kenneth Mackenzie Suite by 9:30 but they were kind enough to let me leave my suitcase there until my train left in the late afternoon. (Incidentally, Edinburgh has got to be the most backpacker-friendly town I’ve ever been in.)

Since it was raining and I didn’t really fancy a four-hour train ride home in damp clothes, I figured I’d try an inside activity…one that didn’t involve crawling about in dark spaces. So, I went to the Scottish National Gallery. Upon entering on ground level, I was directed to the free cloakroom down stairs. I walked down a spiral staircase (wide but centrally-supported)…down, down, down some more…and eventually come out on the bottom level. Walking down the corridor and turning right, I saw beautiful gardens and bright daylight. (You’ll remember that I entered on ground level and then took the stairs down two stories.) This perfectly illustrates what Edinburgh buildings are like – you enter on ground level, go down flights and flights of stairs and end up on…ground level again due to the hills.

Anyway, after checking my jacket and backpack, I decided to take the elevator up. Remember the centrally-supported spiral staircase I mentioned? Well, in the central core was an elevator. And, what’s more, when the elevator got to your floor, the door lit up. And, what’s even more, the elevator was circular (the car, that is, not the path…the elevator itself just went up and down) – with rounded doors and walls. It was great.

After that, I saw some paintings and stuff.

(Okay, how’s that for sad? I go on for paragraphs about the engineering aspects spiral staircases and a bloody elevator but don’t mention at all any of the Roman sculptures, famous French Impressionist paintings, Dutch masters, or anything like that. Oh well, I suppose they’re right: you can take the boy out of engineering school but you can’t take the engineering school out of the boy.)

For lunch, I went to Pizza Hut.

What? They had a buffet.

And, FREE REFILLS!!! (Heck, that alone would have been worth it…it’s the first time I’ve gotten a free drink refill in Europe. Ever.) And then they gave me five of those little mints.

After lunch, I had one of the oddest experiences I’ve had in recent memory. And this is after the climbing about in dark, plague-abandoned underground rooms. I visited the Scottish Whiskey Heritage Centre. Basically, it’s one big ode to drinking. The main message is, ‘Scottish whiskey is great, particularly if you buy it in our shop on your way out.’ Upon entering the tour, they start you off with an Official Scottish Whiskey Tasting by giving you just a tiny dram (I suppose that’s the right term although the thesaurus says I could use nip, slug, shot, drop or tot) of Official Blended Scottish Whiskey in your very own Official Scottish Whiskey Heritage Glencairn Glass. We learned The Five Steps to Appreciating Scottish Whiskey: Colour, Body, Nose, Palate, Finish. (It sounds rather creepy thinking about it now…) And just so you don’t get too worried, I didn’t remember all that, I’m simply reading it off the Official Scottish Whiskey Heritage Glencairn Glass Cardboard Box they gave us.

After the tasting, we went into a small auditorium where we watched an Official Scottish Whiskey Short Film About How Whiskey is Made. It involved a cheesy American tourist (camera around his neck) visiting a Scottish pub, musing about the origins of whiskey, uttering ‘saliente’ (crud, I can’t figure out how to spell it…the blasted computer will correct spelling in 20 types of Spanish, 14 types of French, and 10 types of English, but evidently not in Scottish), getting mystically transported across Scotland to a distillery, and then back to the pub. It was enough to put one off drinking altogether rather than encouraging one to buy some whisky.

After that, we moved into another small auditorium where we saw an Official Small Scottish Whiskey Illuminated Model of a Distillery, watched a short film on how whisky differs based upon the region where it is distilled, and then had a short lesson on how Scottish whisky differs from grain whisky. Then, we got to smell three different kinds of the stuff.

Next, we were herded into yet another small auditorium, this one decorated as an Official Scottish Whisky Bar of Yore. (I dunno…there was a counter and lots of bottles.) This time, the movie was in the form of a simulated hologram – a green, ghostly figure of an Official Scottish Whiskey Master Blender was projected from below and reflected off of a mirror placed 45 degrees to the horizontal. (See how enthralled I was with the whisky making process?) Oh, and did I mention how vital the making of Scottish Whiskey is to the economy of all of Great Britain? I mean from the farmers to the distillers to the very men who make the oaken casts in which whiskey gets its deep, yellow colour…

Finally, we were walked up two flights of stairs and sat in an Official Scottish Whisky-Mobile. Actually, I don’t know what it was called. It was a small car made in the shape of two cut away whisky barrels, each barrel providing two seats. Once in this car, it moved very slowly through the Official Scottish Whisky Throughout Time Exhibit. How the car knew where to move and when to turn is a mystery to me – there were no visible tracks, just a worn path on the floor…perhaps there were imbedded sensors in the floor. I did see some reflectors places so that when the car broke the light beam, it activated certain aspects of the display.

So, here I was, sitting in an Official Plastic Scottish Whiskey Barrel Mobile puttering through the Official Scottish Whisky Throughout Time Exhibit. And by puttering, I mean moving at a crawl. Really. We were passed by an escaped baby from the car behind us. No, not that’s not true. The baby was from two cars behind us.

Anyway, the Official Scottish Whisky Throughout Time Exhibit took us from the farmer and his family who made whiskey in the farmhouse they shared with their pigs (really), past the distiller illegally making whiskey in the forests, through to the glory days of American prohibition. Once we passed by the glorious barley fields from which Scotland makes this, the glorious brew that is so vital to life, the Official Scottish Whisky Throughout Time Exhibit was at long last, finally, mercifully over.

After making my escape from the Scottish Whiskey Propaganda…I mean Heritage… Centre, I decided to go someplace a bit less freakish. So, naturally, I took the Auld Reekie’s Ghost and Torture Tour. Really.

Once again, I found myself entering the South Bridge vaults. This time, we paid our money, stepped up the highest doorstep in Edinburgh and climbed another spiral staircase (centrally-supported, of course) one flight up in order to go underground. Remember way back, about ten pages ago when I said that at one point, I had to climb up a flight of stairs from street level in order to go underground? By now, this shouldn’t surprise you at all. Anyway, the way the story goes, a few years ago a university student was living in this dark, windowless flat when he decided to put off studying for exams by knocking out a wall. He had done some tapping on the walls and noticed a hollow-sounding spot. When he took his sledgehammer (What? Don’t all kids take sledgehammers off to university with them?) to the wall, he knocked his way into a vault that had been hidden for more than a hundred years.

With that story, we entered the vault. And it wasn’t just a room…it was a hallway that lead to a long corridor, off of which were a number of side vaults. Now, due to insurance regulations and some plain common sense, a few emergency lights have been installed. But still, the place is dark. Very, very dark. We were shown an empty vault and told that up to fifteen people or more may have lived there in total darkness during the height of Edinburgh’s housing troubles. We were shown an actual pagan temple. Really. There is a coven of witches that has received permission to use one of the vaults for their ceremonies. We were assured, though, that these were white witches who practice only good ceremonies not bad.

We were then taken up the corridor and shown a staircase where The Watcher has sometimes been seen. (The Watcher is the name of one of the local ghosts.) We were taken into the vault that used to be used by the witches’ coven. They moved vaults after a particularly bad series of happenings (the mirror they were using for ceremonies kept moving mysteriously, people would see strange ghosts, the previously dry vault suddenly began to drip water despite no pipes being anywhere nearby, that type of thing…oh, and one couple who had entered the sacred circle woke up the next morning covered in scratches and there was fresh blood on the sheets). Before entering the final vault, we were separated: men on the left, women on the right. It seems that the poltergeist that haunted this particular vault had a habit of attacking only women and only when they stood on the left of the vault.

Upon leaving the vault, we stopped in at the torture museum. While eating our complimentary shortbread and pretending to drink out complimentary whiskey (after my tasting lesson I knew that this particular whiskey was crap) we got to browse the various implements of torture.

And somehow, after visiting the Scottish Whiskey Heritage Centre, none of this seemed too strange.

But you know, I’ve got a pretty cool idea…they start the Ghost Tour with a video of an American tourist walking into a Scottish pub and musing about ghosts. With a swig of whiskey he is transported through time and space to the South Bridge vaults. Then there’s a model of the vaults. Then a ghostly faux hologram proclaims how the economy of Great Britain is aided so wonderfully by the addition of these ghost tours. Then people pile into plastic cars for a creeping tour through some old vaults.

Naw, people would never pay for something like that.


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