Scotland: heat, history and, yes, haggis

It was 65 degrees F and the Scots were on fire. Summer’s here, the locals kept blissfully declaring, as they peeled off jackets and dabbed beading brows and dipped into pubs for emergency pints, as if they were dangerously parched from the sizzling rays of a vengeful sun.

This was comical to me, who was strolling about in long sleeves and a quilted black jacket and feeling just right in the rare Scottish weather event called “sunshine.” A cool breeze mussed your hair and creeping cloud cover furnished a periodic chill. 

Not so for the delightful natives I encountered in Edinburgh and Glasgow last week, where miles of pale flesh — as pasty and pink as a baby’s — almost required Ray-Bans.


Part of why I went to Scotland for my biannual travels was for the cooler late-spring weather (it’s going to be 90 in my parts this week — disgusting). And so watching the denizens get in a happy lather when temps broke the 60s amused me a bit (a “wee bit,” to borrow the local vocabulary).

Scotland was a lovely surprise (“lovely” being another highly trafficked descriptive). Why Scotland?, even the locals asked me. Dunno. Been around the world a couple times, looking for someplace new — and climatically cool — and my research convinced me it holds sights and treasures and, yes, food, worth checking out. 

Food? That’s the big punchline with Scotland. I’ve written about it here before, and when I texted a friend I was there, she wrote back sarcastically, “Enjoy the great food” with a dubious emoji. 

But first, the big national rivalry: Edinburgh vs. Glasgow. Who wins? No brainer. Glasgow can use the excuse that Edinburgh is too touristy. But there’s a reason for that: It kills Glasgow, a big, homely city with a few historical sights and other feeble points of interest (hey, here’s a university and over there’s a giant mural).

Meanwhile, Edinburgh is encrusted in history, flush with medieval flavor, cobblestone, and an attractive village vibe, especially as the country’s capital. The ancient Castle is there, sure, but the city’s overriding character stomps the generic urban tang of Glasgow. Yeah, I said it.

Royal Mile, Edinburgh

Scottish pub culture is familiar to all of the UK, and much of its food is delicious. But dig deeper, beyond the burgers, fish and chips, Eggs Benedict and bangers and mash, and a quality bounty awaits. Like Cullen skink, a thick, fantastically savory soup of cream, smoked haddock, onions and hearty potato chunks that I had at a pub before (one of many) whisky tastings. 

Here’s some of the rest:

Scottish Eggs: eggs wrapped in sausage, breaded and fried
Lamb shank atop mashed potatoes in wine and onion gravy
Potatoes, with haggis on the right (sheep & beef guts with oats — fantastic)
Hake fish with potatoes and baby asparagus
Fresh peas and scallops
Cod wrapped in pork, with poached egg at right

And for dessert:

The charming, super-historic Grassmarket, where I stayed in Edinburgh

And, of course, a fragrant flight of whisky at one of several mandatory tastings:

To that last one I say, Slàinte Mhath!, or Slanj-a-va, meaning ‘cheers’ in Scottish.

Scottish cuisine — really?

So I was walking around the hood recently and I spotted a squirrel in the road squished like a jelly donut. It was gruesome and sad and got me thinking about mortality, careless drivers, blameless rodents and, yes, Italian food. 

I envisioned the shockingly good meals I ate last year in Rome and Naples: pizza margherita, caprese salad, pasta carbonara, ravioli, gelato, etc. And that led to thoughts about the kinds of food I might eat on my upcoming journey to Scotland. 

This was tricky, because I don’t really know what native Scottish fare is, except for the shuddering national dish haggis, dubiously defined as “a pudding composed of the liver, heart and lungs of a sheep, mixed with beef or mutton kidneys and oatmeal and seasoned with spices, which is packed into a sheep’s stomach and boiled.” 

Suddenly, I see that pulverized squirrel.

This is a job for some A.I., I mused, too lazy to grab my Scotland guide books. So I asked ChatGPT to spit up some famous Scottish dishes and it gave me haggis (#1), smoked salmon, porridge (!), black pudding (sausage made with pig’s blood) and other grub that doesn’t sound wildly appetizing on paper, but rather Dickensian.

That said, I’ve made reservations at seven restaurants in Edinburgh and Glasgow that seem delicious, and almost all of them boast Scottish cuisine (the exception is an Indian joint that looks otherworldly). I’m particularly amped about Makars Gourmet Mash Bar in Edinburgh, which merrily touts affordable farm-to-table dishes featuring lots of mashed potatoes and scads of fresh meats and veggies. Bangers and mash? Um, yeah. 

I was watching “Top Chef” the other night and the show’s deceptively sweet host Padma Lakshmi — she of the cutting parting words, “Please, pack your knives and go” — reminded me how food is of paramount consideration when choosing where to travel. I go partly for the local cuisine, be it sushi and takoyaki (octopus balls) in Japan or jamón ibérico and patatas bravas in Spain (or, gulp, haggis in Scotland).  

This trip is different. Despite my A.I. research, nothing but the cursed haggis stands out, and yet the menus at my reserved restaurants are thoroughly enticing. A quasi-foodie — sort of a Foodie, Jr. — I’m all about adventuresome eating, be it silkworm cocoons in China or that whole cobra in Vietnam I’ve mentioned here a thousand times. Will I try haggis? Maybe. Yet I don’t want to order an offal-filled sheep’s stomach only to gag on the first bite and then where will I be? Embarrassed and out 20 bucks. 

I rarely strike out in my gastronomical exploits — OK, the silkworm cocoons were disgusting — so anxiety is low. I bet I can do haggis. Right? After all, it really isn’t like it’s roadkill or something. 

Damn. That poor, pitiful little squirrel. 

Haggis. There you have it.

Kilt me now

I’m trying, I really am. 

I’m trying to get super excited about Scotland, much as I tried a year ago to get jazzed about Ireland. 

We know how that turned out: I bought a flight to Dublin only to exchange it a week later for a flight to Paris. It was after I studied the destination with a flea comb, burrowed into my research, only to arrive at the great existential query: What am I thinking? (I ask this frequently in my life.)

I’m sure Ireland is splendid, despite the fact that pubs, pubs and pubs are invariably named the top experience in everything I read. A friend just returned from Dublin and said it’s terrific — for two or three days. Then you run out of things to do. At that point, of course, you rent a car for the verdant countryside and … yawn, you lost me. 

I’m an urban traveler. I seek culture, cuisine, cobblestone. Art, edifices, bustling humanity and idiosyncratic neighborhoods. I also seek cool climates — I’m done sweltering in the tropics — for summer travel. Last July I went to Buenos Aires to, among many reasons, escape our heat. I slipped on my jacket each day with a big grin. 

And so, Scotland. I’m eyeing a May trip to the capital Edinburgh and Glasgow, the largest city in the country, both of which brim with museums, castles, street art, music (here is where I make peace with bagpipes), hearty food (do I dare try haggis?) and, a-ha, whisky. May weather hovers in the mid-50s and below and I’m already happily shivering.

Like Ireland, Scotland is comprised of highlands, lowlands, islands, cliffs, crags, rolling pastures and billowing grass. It’s lousy with forts and castles. It doesn’t look like I’ll get into all that, though I might be whisked away on a day trip. I probably should.

Maybe I’ll spot Nessie, the wondrous Loch Ness Monster, and hitch a ride on her mythical scaly back through the chill waters. (As a kid, I used to love Nessie, that bashful and elusive lake dinosaur. I thought she and Bigfoot should get married.)

I am a wee nervous about the language, specifically the knotty Scottish brogue, which contorts familiar English into musical pretzels and thick-tongued tootles that leave some of us wincing with incomprehension. I once worked with a native Scot named Alan Black and I couldn’t understand a damn word he said. We got along swimmingly, but I’m sure I missed 60 percent of what he was telling me. 

This worries me, the rogue brogue. I’ll be made the fool by cheery locals who will snicker at me between sips of lager and Glenfiddich, doing spit takes. I’ll be the dumb American carrying around an ear funnel, going, “What’s that, mate?”

I can do this. The more I excavate, the more Scotland attracts. I’m thinking seven days between the two cities, yet there’s more to explore. The trip could get longer, epic, out of control. It could go from a jaunt to a journey. I like that. (Cue: “Loch Lomond.”)

Am I sure about this?