Review – The Edinburgh Literary Pub Tour

Aug 2 2013 | By More

★★★★☆   Douce and dirty

The Beehive Inn, Venue 178: 29 July – 1 Sept
Review by Irene Brown

Forget A Tale of Two Cities – this is a tale of one city with two very different faces.

An evening stroll through Edinburgh’s Old Town to its New Town, visiting some of Edinburgh’s oldest pubs on the way, offers an entertaining evening of enlightenment told through the Capital’s rich and varied literary history.

The two characters who lead the illuminating promenade are Clart (a Scots word for muck or a mucky person) and McBrain. Clart (Paul Murray) is a coarse, whisky-drinking, bawdy, feet–on-the-ground type who doesn’t shy from life’s realities. McBrain (Hilde McKenna) is a pinkie up, bool-in-the mooth, teetotaller who has pretensions of the finer things in life and prefers a sanitised view of the world.

Hilde McKenna as McBrain in the Edinburgh Literary Pub Tour. Photo credit Edinburgh Literary Pub Tour

Their opposing views perfectly embody the Capital’s dual characteristics that have so often been shown in Scottish literature, from Hogg’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner to Stevenson’s better known Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

Starting off in the top room of the Grassmarket’s old Beehive Inn, the characters begin their spiky dialogue. Their style is direct and informal. Their costume is everyday, relying solely on their not inconsiderable skills of memory and acting that has also to accommodate the promenade style and ever changing audience.

While the audience is addressed in English, the texts quoted are in Scots and the actors take the opportunity to explain the importance of a language in any culture – even a language that has faded from use in formal life but remains very much alive informally and in literature.

The emphasis is less on understanding every word, and more on listening to the very different sounds and rhythms of Scots. They do give some explanations, but the overriding sense is of the existence of a separate tongue. This is done to particular effect at the end of the tour in the back room of the Kenilworth with a recitation of a verse from Hugh MacDiarmid’s poem Bonnie Broukit Bairn.

Raucous revelling in the Capital’s clarty closes and wynds

The tour illuminates literary figures across the years, from Allan Ramsay, Robert Fergusson, Robert Burns, James Hogg, Sir Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson and Smith to Hugh MacDiarmid and his Scottish Renaissance contemporaries. When Irvine Welsh gets a mention at the end, the roles of Clart and McBrain are briefly reversed on ideological grounds when they cross swords as to what constitutes Scots.

A window in the Kenilworth, where the tour finishes. Photo credit: Edinburgh Literary Pub Tour

A window in the Kenilworth, where the tour finishes. Photo credit: Edinburgh Literary Pub Tour

Clart does not shy from revealing the double lives of these otherwise respectable men with their private drinking clubs and womanising. Sex and drugs are nothing new. No rock’n’roll, but plenty of raucous revelling in the Capital’s clarty closes and wynds. He even quotes briefly from Burns’ bawdy and lesser-known publication, The Merry Muses of Caledonia. A comic rendition of Rattlin’ Roarin’ Willie sung to the tune of The Yellow Rose of Texas reveals that the verses of American poet Emily Dickinson can be also sung along to this.

Ironically, Dickinson is the first mention of a woman in the evening, other than those who were lovers or whores. It is only at the end that women, mainly in the form of Muriel Spark, get a token and rather hurried mention as part of Scotland’s literary world. McBrain – rightly – suggests that a tour for female literary figures should be on the cards.

The tour was launched in Edinburgh in 1996 and plays the year round. A recently launched daytime version allows families to take part in this bit of Edinburgh enlightenment. It takes over 2 hours, allowing for stopping to take pictures while walking through the town.

The pace is fairly gentle, but some level of fitness is required particularly for the climb through the Upper Bow to the Jolly Judge. There is a break in the ancient low-beamed Ensign Ewart with its swords, pistols, tankards and hunting horns giving a suitably atmospheric setting.

This potted history tour of Auld Reekie is a salutary salute to Scottish language and culture. A walk worth taking.

Running time 2 hours 15 mins.
Leaves the Beehive Inn, Grassmarket, ends at the Kenilworth, Rose Street, New Town.
May-Sept: Daily, 7.30pm; Oct: Thurs-Sun 7.30pm; Nov, Dec: Fri, 7.30pm; Jan, Feb, Mar: Fri/Sun, 7.30pm; April: Thurs-Sun 7.30pm.
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