Home is where the heart (and whisky) is

Steeped in history ... Edinburgh's Royal Mile.
Steeped in history ... Edinburgh's Royal Mile. Photo: MCT

Although he's never lived there, Edinburgh feels like home to Cameron Atfield.

There's something fundamentally moving about visiting the homeland of your ancestors.

It's an almost physical manifestation of a connection quite literally written in blood that cannot be adequately explained in words.

Post-modern sore thumb ... the Scottish Parliament building in Edinburgh.
Post-modern sore thumb ... the Scottish Parliament building in Edinburgh. Photo: Will Salter/Lonely Planet

It's a feeling of familiarity, of belonging. A feeling of coming home to a place, despite having never lived there.

As a country largely descended from migrants, most Australians have such a connection with a foreign land. For this scribe, that place is Scotland.

And while Edinburgh itself was not home to any of my known ancestors - my Mackintosh Clan has its roots in the highlands and, more recently, in some of the more industrial areas near Glasgow - it's the Scottish capital that haunts my dreams.

It's my fifth visit to the city and I've decided against doing "the backpacker thing" this time around, thanks largely to an aversion to tinea I developed at a Munich hostel during my last Eurotrip. Ah yes, the memories.

I book into a small boutique hotel in the West End run by a Russian family. The proprietor, who I will call "Boris" for purely lazy stereotypical reasons, seems to have more than a little trouble understanding my accent. That's OK, because the feeling's mutual.

Luckily, I have no need to ask for directions. My hotel is a 15 minute stroll to Princes Street, the inner-city's main thoroughfare on the edge of the New Town, Edinburgh's economic district.

What really stands out about the New Town is how starkly it contrasts with the equally imaginatively named Old Town, which is dominated by Edinburgh Castle and looms over the rest of the city.

Where the New Town is made up of relatively modern buildings (although, they'd be heritage treasures in any Australian city), the Old Town is medieval Gothic to the core. That is, until you reach the bottom of the Royal Mile, where the inexplicable Scottish Parliament sticks out among its Gothic neighbours like a post-modern thumb.

Parliament buildings aside, the Old Town is so steeped in history you can almost hear the sounds of the medieval peasantry arguing in the street over a chicken.

Turns out that was just a couple of drunk Scotsmen, but the history of this place is so easily absorbed it could be considered some sort of osmosis.

Sure, there have been plenty of fiery battles and nationalistic triumphs (we don't like to talk about the defeats), but the cultural impact this city has had on the English speaking world has seen it named a UNESCO City of Literature.

These are the streets where Walter Scott created the historical novel genre. The streets that sowed the seeds for Robert Louis Stevenson's Jekyll and Hyde, where "The Bard" Robert Burns penned Auld Lang Syne. The setting of Irvine Welsh's Train-spotting and, for the youngsters, where JK Rowling created the Harry Potter universe.

It's where Sherlock Holmes creator Arthur Conan Doyle grew up, and the place that Sean Connery - the best Bond of all - still calls home, even if only in the spiritual sense.

And it's home to a majestic castle that has withstood centuries of battles, overshadowing the city like a giant sentinel.

While Edinburgh Castle, quite rightly, holds pride of place in this city, it's an attraction just outside the castle gates that catches my attention.

The Scotch Whisky Experience may be a little hackneyed. It may be more than a little touristy. But if you like your whisky - and I do - it's worth a visit for the selection alone.

"What would you like to try?" asks the young lass taking orders in the bar (I avoid the tour this time around).

How do you pick from a 20 page selection? I'd have to leave it to fate.

"Give me whatever you'd have if you were told you only had a day to live."

She did, and while it was nice enough, my best whisky experience was at the Grassmarket - a region in the Old Town that sits in the shadow of the castle.

The best thing about the Grassmarket is just how convenient it has made the traditional pub crawl.

At the top end of the Grassmarket is the Last Drop, so named because of the gallows that used to be the focal point of public executions just outside its front door. Legend also has it that this is where the condemned would enjoy, quite literally, their last drop in the form of a wee dram of whisky.

(Incidentally, I can say without fear of contradiction that the Last Drop is also the best pub in the world. No further correspondence on that topic will be entered into.)

Just down the hill are some other excellent pubs, including the Beehive and the White Hart Inn, built in the 16th Century and reportedly frequented by William Wordsworth and Robert Burns.

While those literary giants should be enough to entice the historically minded, it's some fine 30-year-old Macallan Speyside whisky that proves its biggest attraction for me.

At £16 a dram, it would want to be good. It is.

In fact, it's like drinking silk. Only without the inherent choke hazard. Great whisky, combined with enchanting company, is an intoxicating mix. Life gets no better.

The next morning, surprisingly sans-hangover, I say goodbye to Boris and walk down to Haymarket to catch the Airlink bus to the airport.

There are probably more exciting cities in the world. More vibrant cities. Some would possibly argue there are more picturesque cities in the world, but the person they'd be arguing with would be me.

They say home is where the heart is. As naff and clichéd as that may sound, Edinburgh is the place that, for me, proves that hypothesis.

Simply put, Edinburgh is my home. It's just a home in which I have never lived.

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