WELCOME TO SCOTLAND
There’s a café in Edinburgh called The Elephant House that proudly claims to be where JK Rowling wrote her first Harry Potter book. It’s just above the haunted tombs, up the road from the statue of a dog and minutes from the castle where kings were besieged and heirs cut off, sometimes by the head.
No wonder Rowling wrote about wizards: there is something magical about Scotland. From the upside-down architecture of Charles Rennie Mackintosh to the pitch-black waters of Loch Ness; to the bacchanalia of Edinburgh’s Hogmanay and Festival Fringe, Scotland is a surprising, and surprisingly gay, destination.
The journey begins in otherworldly Edinburgh, where the Castle juts out from its promontory like a monarch on horseback… with a stiffy. Across the valley, Calton Hill overlooks the New Town like a modern-day Arcadia of rotundas and colonnades, offering a view of the hilltop hosting (former King) Arthur’s Seat.
The place is pure barry (translation: fabulous). The Royal Mile is one of Europe’s grand avenues, a boulevard that runs from Holyrood Palace to Edinburgh Castle at a gentle slope, bordered by a hot architectural mess of Tudor taverns and mediaeval alleyways. Ghost tours come recommended – this is the town that pioneered grave robbery for medical cadavers, reaching its peak with the camp, murderous opportunism of Burke and Hare.
Where better to stay than in a former asylum? It sounds grim, but the Hotel du Vin in the heart of the old town is as warm as a whisky, with the best wine list in town and a late bar for cheeky nightcaps.
Gays of Thrones will flock to the Castle but dog-loving queens should pay their respect at the statue and gravesite of Greyfriars Bobby. When his owner died in 1858, this loyal Skye Terrier refused to leave his master’s graveside… for 14 years. There’s a statue commemorating this totally real dog and completely true legend. And remember bitches, every time somebody doesn’t believe this story, a puppy dies.
While we’re speaking of the ghosts of Scottish past, tartan shops along the Mile let you buy your very own kilt, so that you can remember the heady, mystical past of 1993 when gays decided that kilts were dance-party appropriate attire. Or if you’re seriously obsessed, a visit to The Scotland People’s Centre is awesome. For this 21st Century Benzie, it meant discovering that 19th Century Benzies were known for stonecutting, being sluts and dying young. Here’s tae us!
For present day sluts, the gay scene is mostly cute and unpretentious. The jewel in the crown is CC Blooms (so gay they named it after Bette Midler’s character in Beaches), which has two neighbouring gay pubs: Café Habana and Planet Out. All three have the hallmarks of the provincial gay bar: 10-year-old hairstyles, bitchy twinks and a complete disregard for fresh meat. But there’s also fabulously cheesy music and cheap drinks, so order a double, get over yourself and go boogie to Girls Aloud.
Bears shouldn’t miss The Newtown (which has a ‘Men’s Club’ in the ‘Basement Bar’ during ‘Euphemism Hour’) but my personal favourite is The Regent, a hidden diamante near the base of the Royal Mile. It’s delightful, very mixed and full of Chatty Cathys.
That’s Edinburgh, and it’s adorable, but it’s not when the town is at its peak. That’s during the Edinburgh Fringe and that’s why this little queer duck is here, for his fifth festival. For hardcore Muscle Mary clubbers, there are the circuit parties. For hipster musos there’s Glastonbury. But for gays with a theatrical bent, the Fringe is nirvana.
The Edinburgh Festival Fringe is one of life’s great joys. In 2013, there were 45,464 performances of 2,871 shows performed in 273 venues, in just over three weeks. The event is a booze-layered trifle of comedy, music and unclassifiable performance that somehow runs like clockwork, if the timekeepers were naked contortionists or dragons that do magic.
Of course there are other fringe festivals – but nothing comes close to the scale of the Edinburgh Fringe. All the town’s a stage: every pub, nightclub, deconsecrated church and B&B basement sprouts garden furniture, a spotlight and a tatty black curtain.
Brilliantly, almost all shows are about 45 minutes long. No bum-numbing epics here! There’s time to run from a re-creation of a 1940s radio play at 11am to a musical about Linda Lovelace at midday. The length also means if you catch a dud, it’s going to be over quicker than you can say Six Women Standing In Front Of A White Wall (an actual show from 2011).
It sounds daunting but it’s easy if you get in early. Register at edfringe.com and get posted a free copy of the hefty programme months before. Think outside the Old Town – Leith might sound like a different town but it’s only a 10-minute taxi from the centre and home to luxury hotels like the Malmaison.
A big kick of the Festival is the nightlife. For three weeks the streets are overflowing, every single night, with glorious al fresco boozing and thickly-brogued laughter. This is a true festival vibe, enhanced by a sun that doesn’t set until ten.
The Royal Mile also bulges with performers who are ‘flyering’, from the earnest (think drama students plugging their trench warfare Macbeth) to the bitter (a man dressed as an enormous turd). Part of the fun is taking a random flyer and gambling and this year it paid off with a glorious one-man performance about the Choose Your Own Adventure books, where the audience determined the narrative. (Our leading man drowned in quicksand).
What were the highlights from 2013? The Aussies did their nation proud by taking the piss out of Europeans with the return of EastEnd Cabaret and Die Roten Punkte. And Dusty Limits’ mental illness cabaret Psycho was razor sharp and hilarious. (He’s a Brit, but he’s from Brisbane.)
But we didn’t come just to watch Aussies. American performance artist Dandy Darkly told gripping gay culture horror stories: think AIDS zombies and flesh stealing bears. Glaswegian gay actor Robert Softley Gale’s If These Spasms Could Talk skillfully balanced laughs and pathos with the smartest, sexiest striptease in town.
And what else do you do when you’re in the bosom of heaven? Take a 12-hour round trip to a lake, of course! If you’ve come this far, you’re going to want to see the Scottish Highlands, and there are plenty of bus tours offering one, two and three day jaunts from the Royal Mile. The single day is an economic use of time – but the constant loop of Scottish folk songs may drive you insane. You take the high road and I’ll take the low road, but I’ll stick hot needles in my ears to silence the bagpipes before ye.
If you can block out Mull Of Kintyre, the trip offers scenery that’ll truly smack your gob. The mountains are dramatic and slightly uncomfortable to look at, like a Lars Von Trier film. Thankfully, the sparseness is spectacularly punctuated by lush waterfalls and violet heather; it’s easy to see why it’s been the backdrop for such unlikely lads as Harry Potter, James Bond and King Arthur (Monty Python’s version). For Antipodeans with an appreciation for an Outback that is equal parts beauty and terror, the Highlands are unmissable.
Of course the mountains are just part of the quest. The aim of the trip is to wind our way to the tip of Loch Ness and to join the thousands of tourists who fail to catch a glimpse of a monster that doesn’t exist and never has. And yet once on the Lake, it’s damn near impossible to stop staring at the murky water like a moron for that elusive, imaginary brontosaurus.
Needless to say, none of our cohort saw anything except gorgeous forest and shimmering water, although there were a few surprises. Most visitors imagine Loch Ness to be ovoid, but it traverses Scotland like an incision 40 kilometres [25 miles] long and only 1.5 kilometres at its widest. The water is as black as eels, thanks to peat particles in the formerly glacial bed. Swim in the lake and you can’t see your own nipples, let alone Nessie.
Yet there is one more Scottish destination not to be missed and it doesn’t have puppetry or castles or fictional beasts. It’s Glasgow. Trust.
Poor Glasgow. The city will always be the less attractive sibling of Edinburgh: the Khloe to its Kim. But that’s really not fair. Glasgow is a fascinating metropolis with a varied gay scene, welcoming locals and a thriving arts community. It can be rough and ready or chic and sophisticated, but it’s definitely worth a visit.
For starters, you will feel like you’ve been here before, in a good way. With wide streets in a central grid on steep slopes, Glasgow >>
The water in Loch Ness is as black as eels. Swim in the lake and you can’t see your own nipples, let alone Nessie.
>> seems more American than European. The resemblance hasn’t been lost on film producers, who in the last five years have shot scenes here for Cloud Atlas (as 1970s San Francisco) and World War Z (as Philadelphia’s financial district).
Yet among the familiar edifices there is the presence of architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh, whose Art Nouveau tea rooms grant the town a retro sheen that’s just the right side of camp. It’s in stark contrast to my futuristic accommodation – the high concept and rather fab CitizenM, where you can adjust the mood lighting in the shower, the height of the blinds and the volume of the porn from one remote control (called a ‘mood pad’).
Mackintosh’s Glasgow School Of Art is also fantastically eccentric. Start in a basement bathed in bright natural light (because cellars are normally gloomy), tour a top floor filled with redundant arches (to reassure vertiginous visitors of the building’s strength) and clamber down shadowy stairwells (to discourage students from dawdling).
Speaking of men loitering in dark places, the gay scene is perhaps the city’s happiest shock. It’s bigger than Sydney’s and grander than Melbourne’s. We’re sorry, but it’s true. For clubbers, AXM have expanded their Manchester franchise to satisfy the most demanding doof-loving lunk, while Delmonica’s provides camp tracks, balloon drops and a mixed crowd. The gay scene is big, but not ghettoised. At the Underground (a leather bar sans people wearing leather), a pool competition includes jovial straight men alongside the billiard-challenged gays. And the Polo Lounge is like the fantasy gay bar of the fey footman from Downton Abbey, with curtained booths, plush couches, a basement disco and a cabaret space.
That’s the good news. The bad news is that the local newspapers wage an annual publicity war against the Glasgay Festival, which would be embarrassing if it weren’t so vile. Venue owners have been at loggerheads in a battle of the independent watering holes versus a growing franchise.
It’s not quite a gay utopia then, but proud Glaswegian Alan Miller reckons it’s worth fighting for. As Press Officer for the 20-yearold Glasgay Festival, he’s proud of a season that features new commissions and a happy mix of gay and straight artists, many of whom are producing work all the year-round. With Glasgay events like the controversial 2009 hit Jesus, Queen Of Heaven and a close-knit community of musicians and artists, the hilly streets of Glasgow feel like the best of 1970s San Francisco.
Told you Scotland was magic.
more: Tim Benzie visited Scotland courtesy of Visit Scotland, Edinburgh Festivals, Highland Experience Tours and See Glasgow. He stayed in Glasgow courtesy of CitizenM and in Edinburgh courtesy of the Hotel du Vin Edinburgh and the Malmaison Edinburgh Hotel.