Living in Edinburgh: A Guide

One US citizen offers a guide to starting a life in Edinburgh. If you're prepared to walk, get lost, and chat up strangers, Edinburgh will never run out of treasures to offer you – until your visa expires

Article by Aidan Ryan | 15 Nov 2017

A squat, stubbly, sweating man pushes through the doors of Doctors, a pub at the head of Middle Meadow Walk in Edinburgh. He pops open the neck of a light blue quasi-military shirt, revealing a tattoo of a muscled, grimacing bear – what I will later come to know as Broxi, the mascot of the Glasgow Rangers. My eyes are fixed on this when the man notices me – and, of greater interest to him, the notepad and pen in my hands, and the battered Canon around my neck.

“Ay! Laddie! What’r’y writin’ there? Gev’s a lek!”

Saturday, 13 November, 2014, 10 a.m. I had been in the city four days, and was still unfamiliar with the major roads, neighborhoods, and Lothian bus schedules – and, most importantly, the way people relate to each other in this place. The Scottish Independence Referendum was just five days away. I’d heard the 'No' side would be holding a 'parade,' and told my editors in the States I’d try to get some quotes and photographs. I expected to find a few ragtag regiments of veterans, some miniature Union Jacks, a local politician delivering a stump speech to a small crowd. Instead I found 15,000 marchers, another 15,000 spectators, lining narrow cobbled streets, all clashing in traffic-cone-orange, Phoenician purple, head-to-toe red, white, and blue.

I was confident that the man wouldn’t be able to read my frantic scratches, but on principle I couldn’t turn the notebook over to him. “I’m covering the referendum,” I said, clicking the pen. The man drew up close, raising both of his arms around me indecisively. The parade surged around us. “Can I ask you how you’ll vote?” I said.

He blinked. “What’r’y going t’write?”

“That depends on your answer,” I said.

Five minutes later I was sitting down for a pint with the Apprentice Boys of Derry. Though we found we disagreed on everything from football to fiscal policy, I learned that day everything I’d need to know about navigating and living in Edinburgh over the next year: travel on foot, walk with your head up, and wear comfortable shoes. Wherever you’re going, you can be late. Everyone has something to say if you ask the right way. And it’s never too early for an ale.

Housing in Edinburgh

When I was in Edinburgh, finding a flat was a grueling ordeal; a part-time job; a campaign. Unfortunately, metastasizing private student housing companies have only worsened the market. You may need a U.K. guarantor – someone with a work history to co-sign – but even this doesn’t 'guarantee' you, the renter, anything. Come to the city without arrangements, and you could be homeless or hostel-hopping for months.

If possible, visit the city before you make the move and spend a long weekend visiting potential addresses. If you can’t do this, plan on staying with a friend or, if you must, paying for a hostel while you search. In any case, planning is essential: thoroughly vet listings and schedule several visits before you arrive.

I came to do a Master’s in U.S. Literature at the University of Edinburgh. Writing gigs in Germany kept me out of the city until a few days before classes started, so I took Uni accommodations. There can be downsides – like poor flatmate hygiene, slow repairs, and an unglamorous spartan aesthetic – but the convenience of student accommodations is worth it, even if you only use the uni flat to buy time and space to find the next one.

My flat on West Mains Road was a little over two miles from George Square, where my classes were, and Bristo Square, which was once a sort of student’s gateway into the rest of the city, and is now, friends tell me, a bougie gutter. Walking Mayfield-Causewayside-Buccleuch two or more times a day, in icy rains, somehow uphill both ways, on some nights made me resent being so far from the city. But the pleasure of waking on a foggy morning and making a hard sprint to the top of Blackford Hill outweighed all this.

Most people who advise visitors on Edinburgh’s picturesque peaks talk mostly about Holyrood and the Crags, maybe mentioning Blackford’s snow-covered slopes on a clear gold-white winter morning (head to the top floor of Edinburgh Uni library for the best view of these) – but rarely talk about going there. Even better than Arthur’s Seat, though, I hold that Blackford at sunup or sundown is the best place to survey the city.

And once you do survey it, you’ll find that while flat-searching can be stressful and exhausting, it’s also a great way to explore the city more intimately than you could just stopping at pubs, cafes, and museums. You’ll find Edinburgh’s accommodations are full of those little charming features – mansard roofs, hidden staircases, and big bay windows perfect for sitting with a book and a cigarette – that make a flat a home.

Oh, and mice. There’s no getting rid of them.

Getting Around (the) Town(s)

Edinburgh isn’t an intuitive choice for anyone’s list of walkable cities. There is no 'city center,' for one: the city is halved like an enormous brain into Old Town and New Town, with Waverley Station and Princes Street Gardens as the longitudinal fissure, and North Bridge as a corpus callosum between them. Arthur's Seat, part of the the inactive volcanic formation (including Calton Hill and Castle Rock) that defines the city skyline, is a pleasant sight you can catch from nearly anywhere in the city – but it also makes getting from Blackford or Marchmont to Leith or Portobello into a bit of a trek. Other attractions, like the Royal Botanic Gardens or the modern art galleries, are quite out of the way. The bridges and staircases in Old Town can make a trip to a destination that’s very close – vertically – into an hour-long, roundabout, up-and-down affair. All the closes (alleys), loans (a different kind of alley), and crofts (yet another type of alley) get confusing.

And the UK’s maddening habit of putting, say, Grange Loan, Grange Loan Gardens, West Grange Gardens, Grange Terrace, and Grange Crescent all in the same place is bewildering, especially for an American. On my first night in Edinburgh I had a few too many pints at Teviot and had to stumble the 2.4 miles back to my new flat. I crossed the Meadows in the dark and soon realised I was lost. Google Maps, even without WiFi or data, was a bit of a help, and I knew I was getting close when I saw 'Blackford' on the screen. That is, until this 'Blackford' multiplied into Blackford Avenue, Blackford Bank, Blackford Hill Rise, Blackford Hill View, Blackford Hill Grove, and Blackford Hill Rise Grove View Loancroftclose (pretty sure I remember this last one).

These frustrating features are also some of the city’s strongest charms. As I said before, if you’re prepared to walk, Edinburgh becomes an old stone wonderland that never ceases to yield up surprises. Take a different route to school or work each day. Go to the Saturday farmer’s market under the castle and chat up the vendors. Take advantage of the extremely cheap 'student' or 'young person' tickets to museums, galleries, plays, and concerts, which can keep you out of your flat and exploring new corners most nights of the week. Get drunk and get lost. Pick a distant spot on the map and walk to it – but plan to take the rest of your morning or afternoon off. And wear comfortable, sturdy shoes (especially in the wet winter, when the large, often steeply pitched paving stones of Old Town get very slippery).

Be sure to get out of the city, too. The trains are expensive, but Megabus is a wonder, and can make a day trip to Stirling, Glasgow, or other cities possible for only a few pounds.

Working on the Tier 4 Visa

Student (Tier 4) visas for non-EU/EEA residents currently allow 20 hours of work per week. Edinburgh’s known for having a square mile with more pubs than any other place in the country (and possibly the world, though that's harder to prove either way), and I blithely thought I’d get work in one of them – despite having no bar experience. I dropped off about 10 CVs, got no calls, became dejected, and gave up.

Now, I’m sure with more persistence a student on a Tier 4 visa with no restaurant experience could find work somewhere, but the best way to get this type of job in Edinburgh is through a contact. Make friends with the bartenders, or with friends of bartenders. Let it slip, casually, that you’re looking for work. Before too long, someone will make an introduction. Fishing for work with your feet up and a pint in your hand will cost a bit – but it’ll spare your feet and ego.

After failing to break into the bars, I tried to drop off a resumé and writing sample to Jamie Byng, the famous head of Canongate Books. I didn’t find Byng, but I stumbled into a Canongate office party for the departure of an assistant. It was a story fit for the silver screen: American boy charms Scottish indie publishing office, gets hired, rises through the ranks, places his own first novel with the house, wins the Man Booker, takes over in Jamie Byng’s senescence, marries into royalty and acquires a title, and saves print media from its once-thought-inevitable demise.

I didn’t get that job, either.

I did snag an internship with the lovely folks in the University of Edinburgh Communications and Marketing Department, and I recommend that any student search internal postings for plum gigs and sinecures like this.

Mine was very, very part-time, though. I made most of my money with a friend busking for tourists’ change on the Royal Mile. We’d buy a couple of Tenants Supers, stand under St. Giles for a few hours, and make enough money for a hearty dinner and a bit of a rip. You can make anywhere from 20 to 100 quid in a day depending on your talent, charisma, and location, and the time you’re willing to spend. You might think you can make more during the Festivals, but competition for attention gets very stiff.

I was pretty hard up after nine months of this, though, and I had to host a friend from Germany. Quite successful as a jazz guitarist today, he was then unknown – and broke. To make matters worse, it hadn’t occurred to him that the pound was worth more than the euro. After running out of funds two days into a two week stay, we decided to take our last coins to the Ladbrokes, where we placed outlandishly complicated bets on the Champions League. We won.

I don’t recommend this method.

The Language and the People

A month into my stay I was struck by a fever, an escalating headache and pain in my jaw, and a sore, swollen throat that soon prevented me from speaking. I put my trust wholly in the NHS, thinking back with comfort to that absurd healthcare dance sequence in the 2012 Olympics opening ceremony, and went to the Conan Doyle Medical Centre, where I managed to whisper my symptoms. The pleasant receptionists handed me a sheaf of papers to sign.

“Do I just wait here, then?” I rasped, handing back the completed papers.

“Noo, that’s you, then.”

“But… the doctor?”

“Ah, noo, you’re free to go now.”

I wanted to say so much more than I could then manage.

“We need t’pro-sess the pay-per-werk,” the woman informed me.

“... Do I just wait here, then?”

“That’ll be two weeks, about.”

I thought again of that nightmare-farce at the London Olympics, and went weak at the knees.

What’s left of the Spirit of Empire, I decided, was a crusty bureaucratism and irrational trust in processes. I croaked out my indignation and went around the corner to the Cameron Toll Sainsburys, where I bought a box of Barrys, a hunk of fresh ginger, three lemons, local honey, mint leaves, and a handle of Famous Grouse.

That assessment of the Scots was unfair, I know, but I was frequently bothered by little acts of priggishness and rigidity – as when cashiers would object that I had not signed the back of my debit card, and demand photo identification before I could leave with my bulk yogurt purchase. This insistence on “the way things are done” can infuriate visitors from other countries – but take a deep breath, and you’ll get over it. Beneath this odd mossgrowth of conservatism in civic interactions, the Scots are a lively, hilarious, sensitive, and vital people.

What I came most to love about the Scots is the way they use - and listen to - language. Everyone here, no matter a person’s occupation, political orientation, level of education, or preferred way to spend a Sunday morning, cares more for language than most people in other countries – excepting the Irish, but certainly more than my tin-eared Americans. Go to Sandy Bell’s after four o’clock any afternoon; strike up a conversation with the cab driver; or eavesdrop at the post office: listen closely and you’ll feel more alive because of the inventiveness and musicality of the language here.

Of course, the language can be confusing, too. Go into the country, and you’ll end up communicating with hand-gestures. The Scots make common use of words antiquated in American English – like fortnight – and they’re also freer with their obscenities. Getting used to hearing 'cunt' – both a pejorative and a term of endearment, as universally applicable as Philadelphia’s 'jawn' – is almost as hard for an American to get used to hearing in Scotland as it will be to remove from your vocabulary if and when you return to the States.

For delightful lessons in Scottish English usage, pick up a copy of The One O’Clock Gun.

Finding ‘Home’ in Edinburgh

Of course, Scots aren’t the only inhabitants of Edinburgh – it’s a cosmopolitan world capital. That means that if you’re in Edinburgh and you miss home, wherever that is, you can probably find a piece of it here.

And foreigners have a way of sniffing out their native corners of the city. Because of close friends from Thailand, Iceland, and Costa Rica, I enjoyed tons of excellent 'local' food that didn’t feature haggis. The city also boasts excellent cuisine from South Africa (The Caffeine Drip), Swedish baked goods (Söderberg), Chinese produce (loads of places on Mayfield), and curry and biryani (Kebab Mahal and the Mosque Kitchen), to name a few.

As a Buffalonian, I found myself missing good pizza, chicken wings, hockey, and Tim Horton’s breakfast sandwiches (egg, American cheese, and ham on an English muffin or biscuit). I learned to make the latter for breakfast with a Scottish twist – substituting haggis for ham. Then, on the night of the NHL draft, I ran into a man wearing a jersey from my home team, the Buffalo Sabres. I was so emotionally overwhelmed by this reminder of home in the frigid crotch of Lake Erie that (having given up on good pizza), I decided to search for chicken wings.

Now, wings are not easy to make. The sauce is usually too thin, too thick, too greasy, or too weak. But even if you get a good sauce, no amount can cover up a poorly cooked wing, which must leave the skin firm but pliant and the insides full, moist, and tender. I’ve eaten bad wings in at least seven countries and 10 American states. But I gave Wings, in Edinburgh, a shot – and I wasn’t disappointed. This little sauce-cellar halfway up Old Fishmarket Close is full of nerd-culture schlock including Dragon Ball Z table mats, a shelf of games and nerf guns, and Star Wars toys and models everywhere. The wings are also very good: hot, meaty, ably cooked. It is incredibly reassuring for the expat to know where to find havens like this in an adopted city.

Making Edinburgh ‘Home’

I was broke and in love and wanted to find a way to stay in Edinburgh. I was grateful for a spot in the Uni’s English PhD program, but, without EU citizenship, there was no funding source I could even apply for. I went to the Uni’s career service to ask for advice, and was surprised to find an American behind the desk.

He said: “Can you work for the Big Four [Banks]?”
I told him I was a writer.
He told me I was out of luck.
“You’re American – how are you here?”
“My wife has a Tier 2,” he said.
“And what does she do?”
“She’s an auditor with Lloyd’s.”

I left here and for the next two weeks considered marriage – first to the woman I was living with at the time, and then to a friend, who generously offered to delay proposing to his own girlfriend because, as he said, “I always wanted a gay marriage on my books.”

Get married to a native, get another degree, or seek skilled employment with a major corporation – these are the options for American students in the U.K. riding on the fumes of a Tier 4 visa. Because of Brexit, EU students may soon face a similar plight, though this remains uncertain.

Ultimately I took an offer of a teaching job in the States and said goodbye to Edinburgh, after one profoundly important year. But I left with the confidence that some day I would return and, ascending Waverley’s steps, say to myself, as Mark Renton does in Trainspotting:

This is no’ bad, eh?”