By William J. Furney
Manuel is from Seville and lives in Edinburgh, where this morning and with me as his passenger, he is dithering and delaying. “There are two ways to the airport,” he tells me, “left and right.”
“The quickest way, please,” I implore, having sat with him through clogged city traffic for the last half an hour, before dropping son Reuven off at his Festival Fringe location, where the aspiring actor and theatre-lover will work for all of August.
But Manuel is not sure and is still eyeing up the route though the tourist-thronged city centre.
“The ring road, avoiding all the traffic,” I urge, and he obeys, swinging left out of Pleasance Courtyard, an artistic venue considered the heart of the famous, three-week-long Fringe described by the organisers as “one of the greatest celebrations of arts and culture on the planet”.
Manuel, along with his son, Ubers for a living, taking it in turns to use the same car. He likes to return to his native Spanish city as often as possible, and so far this year (it’s late July), he’s been back twice. Currently, Manuel, aged 62, is driving extremely slowly along the ring road — a dual carriageway fringed by fertile fields — to the airport while he talks nonstop and in typical Spanish rapido fashion.
He’s talking, en español, about his family and the cost of living in Britain compared to Spain. I tell him that Pedro Sánchez, the Spanish prime minister who may soon be out of a job, owing to a recent general election his Socialist Party failed to win, said several months ago that Spain has the cheapest electricity of any country in Europe. Manuel agrees, but then tells me that his son pays “maximum £60-80 per month for electricity and gas”.
I am, as it turns out, heading to the same place as the prime minister this Thursday: the volcanic, otherworldly island of Lanzarote off the northwest coast of Africa. Pedro is going for a summer holiday with his family; me, to run, swim, hike and write. Manuel and I talk Spanish politics and the rise of “la extrema derecha” (the far right), in the frightening form of Vox and its thundering leader, Santiago Abascal, noting what happened in Italy almost a year ago, when right-wing Brothers of Italy and its head, Giorgia Meloni was swept to power.
Then there is no more time for talking because we have finally, and mercifully, arrived at Edinburgh Airport. I shake Manuel’s hand and wish him well.
Scotland: Land of Kilts and Whisky
Reuven and I arrived two days earlier on a narrow and packed train from Leeds, in northern England; the trip took just under three hours. It’s a scenic route along flat, green lands, towering forests and the abundant North Sea, where Scotland generates billions from oil and gas — a natural treasure fueling the country’s daring independent drive, even if it’s at the cost of the horror of climate change and its effects that are now ravaging the planet.
It’s Reuven’s first visit to Scotland and my second, and he’s keen to know how the celtic nation differs from England. There’s one visible clue, right before him, as we exit the train station: “Lots of red hair,” he observes.
And kilts, and bagpipes. Wearing them and playing them for the tourists; wandering around town in the tartan man-skirts traditionally worn sans underwear; shops specialising in kilts and all the other items associated with the traditional Scottish attire, like the sporran, where you can handily keep your keys, phone and hipflask — containing, naturally, Scotch. One such kiltmaker we passed, Hector Russell, on the Royal Mile, advertised “Highland dress outfits” for £649 (reduced from £749).
You could probably fit some haggis in your sporran too, and then you’d be all set for the day. We found such a peculiar product at a supermarket, in a can. I’ve previously come across vegetarian versions in Edinburgh, devoid of the sheep’s stomach and all the other bits of animals that make up Scotland’s otherwise revolting “national dish”.
And Scotland is swimming in Scotch. In Edinburgh you can’t escape the number of pubs and specialty whisky stores. After a two-hour wander around the fantastic National Museum of Scotland — where, among an army of stuffed creatures, the remnants of Dolly, the first cloned animal, rotates on a stand — we went to a nearby pub and saw people with whisky flights on the table before them, allowing the punters to sample a range of Scotland’s uisge beatha, or water of life.
We had pints, and left, and outside, danced a wee jig before dinner in another pub, then had a walk around the castle that towers over the beautiful city, and finished the evening in another pub, one that Reuven had earlier noticed because it had the Scotch he liked.
As I know from my previous encounter with expansive Scotch menus in Edinburgh, it’s best to ask the barman for a recommendation, which is what I did, although Reuven, the budding connoisseur, knew exactly what he wanted. We sipped our wee drams and compared the taste and flavours while all round the packed boozer, American and other foreign accents boomed, fuelled by the potent fumes of one of the world’s most famous drinks.
A Chaotic Getaway
What are all these people doing outside the airport? I wondered as I approached the departures area of Edinburgh Airport at midday after Manuel, the taxi driver, dropped me off. To get in, it turned out, in long and snaking lines. Since covid ended, Britain’s dilapidated airports have been bursting with people desperate to leave the sodden land devastated and cut off by the act of national suicide known as Brexit.
And then another, larger, slower queue inside the airport, at security. Reluctantly I joined it and stood, mostly unmoving, for around 10 minutes. Until I peered deep into the bowels of the security area and saw the winding line far into the distance: a dark vision of travel hell. I ducked under a security cordon and left, and paid to join the Fast Track lane that had no one in it. In seconds, instead of surely around an hour, I was through and into the freedom of duty free and beyond.
The flight was delayed by an hour and a half, and when we eventually boarded, the plane taxied to near the start of the runway and then stopped and turned off its engines. I looked up from my notepad to see many people leaping from their seats and dashing to the rear of the aircraft. “What’s going on?” I asked the dour Scottish man beside me who I had earlier said hello to as I took my seat, the affable traveller that I am, and I removed my earbuds and turned off my music. There had been an announcement, which I didn’t hear, due to loud music, saying there was an issue with air traffic control and we would be here for a while.
Some time later, the engines spun to life and the smell of aviation fuel entered the cabin. No one seemed alarmed, and the craft bolted down the runaway, leaving a gloomy Edinburgh quickly behind as we raced towards the Spanish sun. But the ethereal feeling of Scotland and its majestic capital linger: a unique British city in a nation that prides itself on a bold independence of spirit, the warm embrace of people from all lands and a culture imbued with centuries of daring history.
- Title photograph by Jörg Angeli.