The March darkness spiderwebbed and steamed on the bar’s window panes. Edinburgh Castle, the Balmoral Hotel, the buildings on The Mound glowed in the black sky above the city, but they didn’t help you get to The Café Royal. No, it was all hunched shoulders and long strides through unbelievably ill-lit and deserted streets, and then neon pink light dripping down The Café Royal’s facade.
Savage darted inside.
There was a large island bar surrounded by ceramic murals and Victorian and Baroque flourishes beneath a detailed plasterwork ceiling. Incandescent globes and mirrors warmed the interior but also created unsettling shadowplay. The place was crowded. After a few circuits of the bar, Savage settled at a tall round table near one of the doors and ordered a water. Another pint might take the edge off, but it’d also dull his wits. He was early, as usual.
Earlier he’d downed a bowl of hot Cullen Skink and a pint at the Halfway House before crossing over to New Town by way of Waverley Bridge. The Scott Monument, a terrifying Gothic missile at night, marked the divide between old and new, dark and light. So many juxtapositions, so many questions.
Inside the Royal, waiters cruised by with platters of oysters as Savage studied patrons over his glass of water. Every time someone entered he wondered if that was him. Savage smiled to himself. It was hard to believe the little bird he’d sent in the dead of January had actually resulted in this fateful meeting. This was Bourdain-esque, sitting in one of Edinburgh’s most historic bars waiting to speak with Ian Rankin, crime fiction mastermind and the latest scion in Edinburgh’s great literary lineage.
He flipped through the second-hand copy of Rankin’s The Black Book that he’d picked up earlier in the day and swirled his glass until the ice clinked. When he looked up a tall man in a flannel overcoat approached. Others didn’t trail after him and no one tried to catch his attention, but it was him. It was Ian Rankin. Savage jumped out of his seat to shake his hand.
“What’ll you have,” Rankin asked nonchalantly with a tilt of his shaggy, straight brown hair toward the bar. A subtle Scottish brogue tinged his speech.
“Whatever you’re having,” countered Savage. He was sure his eyes were fit to burst from the adrenaline rush.
Rankin carried two pints of Deuchars IPA to the table and sat easily across from Savage. He’d been having dinner (and a few pints) upstairs before coming down to meet this travel writer from America. They briefly exchanged pleasantries and Savage marveled at how at ease the conversation went.
“When I read your books, I think ‘these are quite dark.’ That dark aspect, is that what’s going to start drawing people to places rather than the wholesome, touristy stuff? Perhaps travelers don’t want to be sold something that’s half right,” Savage said and sipped his pint.
Rankin leaned over the small table. “There are certain travelers who don’t want the world to be shown to them in aspect. They actually want to see the real city, not something in amber, not something preserved. Something with a bit of life about it, not just Disney World, not a Disney-fied city. I think Edinburgh, if you just scratch the surface, you leave behind that Disney-fied city. You know, the castle, the bagpipes-”
“The Royal Mile,” interjected Savage.
“Yeah, get rid of that. And you can actually find an incredibly interesting city just below the surface with lots of very interesting stories. I mean the stories are actually built into the stone here,” Rankin gestured around the Royal. “Everywhere you go there’s something etched into the stone, a story can be told. It means you become an explorer. You’re not led around by your nose, shown stuff. But it’s not too dangerous, it’s not too dark. It’s just dark enough.” He leaned back and glanced out the steamy windows.
“Dark enough to be interesting,” Savage nodded. “You obviously know Edinburgh extremely well. Where are some off-the-beaten-path places you’d recommend travelers visit in Edinburgh?” The Royal was packed and getting louder as bottles clanked against tabletops and laughter pierced the hum of conversations.
Rankin folded his hands in front of the Deuchars. “One thing I would do is take a walk along the Water of Leith, which is a little secret river that runs through Edinburgh. You can pick it up at Bell’s Brae. It’s in a part of the city called Dean Village. It’s not far from the west end of Princes Street, about a 15 minute – 10 minute walk. You can walk all the way to Leith from there. It’s about four miles, but at any point you can come back into the city. You can do a village-y bit like Raeburn Place, which is nice. Then you come down to Leith, and you’ve got the Leith of Trainspotting but then you’ve also got really nice Michelin restaurants. You get a sense of a secret city that hides itself away from the world. It’s quite a nice walk to take, and it’s all in the flat.” Savage had been planning to check out Dean Village and it was nice to hear confirmation from such a reputable source.
“Obviously we’ve got all these hills that are free to go up,” Rankin continued. “You can climb up Calton Hill at the east end of Princes Street. You can climb up Arthur’s Seat. You can climb up to the castle, and where you’re standing is an extinct volcano. You’re going to get 360-degree views of the city for nothing. Quite nice.” Savage sat transfixed, his notebook and pen untouched as Rankin rattled off the kind of common knowledge only obtained from living in a place for decades.
“But also I think a bit of Edinburgh that’s not much used by pedestrians or by tourists would be round about the bridges,” Rankin looked Savage in the eyes. “You walk south from North and South bridge and you actually see layers of the city. It’s nice, then it’s a bit rotten, then it’s nice again. You go past some really nice shops: a lot of second-hand shops, junk shops, record shops. You name it. It’s a very studenty part of town. Some interesting bars. But a lot of tourists are scared off because it looks a bit rough at first, but it’s not. I don’t think so.”
Rankin had spent years in Edinburgh attending university. Surely he knew of some excellent pubs for an enthusiast like Savage to explore. “You mentioned interesting bars – what’s your favorite pub in the city? Is it this one?” Savage asked. The Deuchars was disappearing with alarming rapidity.
“I’d have to say The Oxford Bar,” Rankin brushed the hair from his eyes, “because that’s where Rebus drinks all the time, but there are some terrific small local bars in Edinburgh. Every part of Edinburgh’s got a good pub. I like Kay’s bar in New Town, Clark’s Bar’s in the New Town. Café Royal in the city center’s very good. Bennet’s Bar, which is in Tolcross, is very good. Canny Man in Morningside is very good. There’re so many nice, old bars all with their own atmosphere.”
Savage nodded. This was good, real good. “Alright, that’s a nice list of pubs. So what’s the malt you come back to again and again?”
Rankin hardly hesitated. “Probably Highland Park, which is from Orkney. Highland Park is good. It’s not lifeless, but it’s not too heavy. It’s not too peaty. It’s a nice amalgam of things. A little bit of seaweed, a little bit of iodine, a little bit of heather, a little bit of peat. It’s just a nicely balanced whisky.”
“Right, yeah. I think it’s got a little bit of everything. That’s actually what my wife and I drank in our wedding ceremony,” Savage reminisced. “Are you talking about the 12 year?”
“Eighteen, preferably.” A row of single malt bottles ran along the top shelf inside the island bar.
Rankin seemed perfectly content to chat, so Savage looked at his notes and continued, “What’s your favorite corner of Scotland?”
“There’s a little bit of Scotland north and east of Inverness called the Black Isle. Number one it’s not an isle, it’s not an island, it’s attached to the mainland. Number two it’s not black. But it’s beautiful. It’s near enough to Inverness so you’re still quite close to a big town. But it’s got dolphins. You look and see dolphins playing, like 30 yards away. It’s got its own brewery, Black Isle Brewery. It’s got tiny wee villages, good food, good seafood. It feels like you’re a long way away from anywhere. I like it. I like Orkney as well. I mean, Orkney’s phenomenal, but a little bit harder to get to.” Rankin pulled out his phone and started flicking through photos of Black Isle for Savage. They were gorgeous, unblemished blue sky shots from this past November. It’s a straight three-hour shot north from Edinburgh.
The two men drained the last swallows from their pints. It’d been a long, friendly chat and Rankin probably had places to be. “I have one final question: It seems to me that Edinburgh is a character in its own right. Do you think of it as a character as you storyboard or plot out your stories?” Savage asked and waited.
“Yeah, I think Edinburgh is the most important character in anything I write,” Rankin confirmed. “When I walk through it, it’s almost as if it’s breathing. I can feel it breathing. It’s got a history, its got a life, its got lungs, its got a heart, got a brain. I mean it’s like any city in a way. Every city is an entity in itself, but Edinburgh is easily visible because it’s so small, so containable. And because it has these extremes: it has the Old Town/New Town, east/west thing going on. To the west you’ve got the Hearts ground, to the east you’ve got the Hibs ground. To the north you’ve got the rationalism and to the south you’ve got the chaos of the Old Town. To me it feels like a physical entity. And it changes, it grows, it’s organic. And the books have been an attempt to chart the organic changes of the city and what that tells us about the physical and mental changes of Scottishness. It was really useful to me that during the course of writing the Rebus novels we got a Parliament.”
“Yeah, that’s right,” said Savage.
Rankin sat back, the foam sliding down the inside of his empty pint glass. “And everybody was saying what does it mean to be Scottish? Why are we different from English? Why do we need this? And it’s been this whole thing in the last 10 or 15 years with people saying: “Who are we?” Of course literature, even if it’s crime fiction, is very good at asking the questions. Not so good at answering them, but good at asking them and readers like to reflect on them. I think crime fiction is the best possible genre for looking at where we are, how did we get here, and where are we going. What social problems have we got? What psychological problems have we got? What religious problems have we got? What economic problems have we got? Crime fiction can take on all of that.”
“They’re all mysteries,” Savage muttered.
“Yeah. So why would you want to write anything else?” Rankin smiled a crooked smile.