Broadcaster Gemma Cairney’s guide to Edinburgh
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Sitting outside LeftField restaurant eating seafood with a friend a few years ago, I knew I was meant to have a chapter of my life living in Edinburgh. I moved here in 2021, but the city has had a place in my heart since I was a teenager, when I started coming to the Fringe festival. I love that Edinburgh feels very international yet isn’t too big and overwhelming; that it’s by the seaside, and you can escape into the wilderness in under an hour.
On my third day living here, I broke my leg walking up Arthur’s Seat – the extinct volcano in Holyrood Park. So I had a slow start in getting to know the city, taking my crutches around the local streets, but it meant I really looked at things, such as all the roses in the front gardens of Marchmont – an area that has a fairytale feel to it. It’s very pretty and classic – lots of grand tenement buildings – but at the same time there are no hoity-toity rules.
LeftField remains one of my favourite local places; it’s a small and friendly family-run seafood restaurant overlooking The Meadows – the parkland where I walk my Australian Cattle Dog, Billie. I’ll order oysters and a glass of one of the delicious natural wines. The nearby Argyle pub is also great; it’s a cosy, old-school local, perfect for weathering the storm of a long Scottish winter. You’ll find all sorts of people there – that, for me, is the foundation of a good public house. There’s also a cellar bar downstairs, where they hold an amazing monthly night called La Beat, put on by some dedicated, music-loving DJs who play Motown, northern soul, old-soul classics, all on vinyl. It’s a real pilgrimage for dancing.
Edinburgh is a great city for walking. You can get from one side of the city to the other in 40 minutes. My tip for visitors is not to over-plan; leave time to meander and mooch as there are lots of alleyways and little passages leading to unexpected spaces. And if you see a charity shop, go in; you’ll thank me later because Edinburgh’s antiques game is strong – especially for blankets and crockery. For vintage fashion, I love W Armstrong & Son, which has various sites across the city.
I spend a lot of time at MF Coffee – the coffee shop run by my boyfriend Cameron – which is in the middle of an arts village called Summerhall. The building used to be a veterinary school; now it houses artists’ studios, galleries and event spaces. It’s a fun, quite madcap place; you might walk past a ceilidh in one room, an experimental performance in another.
Lighthouse Books, our radical bookshop, also hosts events in its back garden. Last summer, I saw Travis Alabanza – a brilliant polymath artist, author and playwright – talking about their book None of the Above. I feel like this kind of multifaceted approach to creativity is well embraced in Edinburgh, which is why I’m so happy to be involved with the Edinburgh Art Festival in August. It’s a smaller festival than the Fringe; it’s agile, open and socially engaged, representing performance and poetry as much as visual art.
We’ve really tried to mix up the programme and make it accessible; a big proportion of the events are free. So there are exhibitions – from The Scottish Gallery to contemporary space Fruitmarket – but also salons and in-conversations. At the National Galleries of Scotland, for example, two art collectives – Haven For Artists, based in Beirut, and Array Collective, from Belfast – will be talking about making art in conflict (12 August). And on the opening evening (11 August), a free performance of an experimental opera-film called History Of The Present by Maria Fusco and Margaret Salmon is taking place at The Queen’s Hall.
The city is a bubbling, flourishing place in August, with the festivals underway. But it’s also a lovely time to explore the coast. We’ll go to Portobello Beach, a few miles out of the city, or a bit further down towards North Berwick. In the Dunbar area, there are beautiful sea-swimming spots that take my breath away. I also go to the indoor swimming pool in Marchmont: Warrender Swim Centre. It’s a grand, old Victorian building, originally opened in 1887 and recently refurbished.
Another special place to swim is at Jupiter Artland [the board of which I am on] – the private family home of Robert and Nicky Wilson, which they opened as a sculpture garden in 2009. It’s about a half-hour drive from the city, and worth the trip just for the Gateway Pool – an artwork by Joana Vasconcelos, made up of colourful, swirling Portuguese tiles. And you can book swimming sessions. It’s like diving into a portal.
In terms of where to stay, The Artist’s House at Jupiter Artland is amazing. But finding accommodation in the city itself can be tricky; an independent, artistic and inspiring place to stay doesn’t seem to exist. I should open one… Meanwhile I am making plans for my own space at 22 Argyle Place in Marchmont. It’s yet to be revealed what will happen in there – think pop-ups, conversation, books – but I have the keys and I’m fizzing with excitement.
Edinburgh Art Festival runs from 11 to 27 August, edinburghartfestival.com