Here’s the thing. On arrival in any city, first pinpoint the tourist hordes – then scarper. You wouldn’t really want to plan a stay around Piccadilly Circus, Times Square or the Champs Elysées. Would you? I wouldn’t.
Like most cities, Edinburgh has a lot to offer: the vibrancy of Leith; the Georgian splendour of the New Town; taxi rides to pubs and clubs. Trainspotting. A Royal Yacht. Tom Kitchin.
But there’s a tourist central too, focused on Edinburgh Castle, Scotland’s numero uno attraction, which stands at the top of the cobbled Royal Mile, itself a gauntlet of tartan gimcrackery and kilted mannequins, whisky emporia and bagpiping buskers where cafes and restaurants offer haggis this and haggis that, “real” fish and chips (as opposed to…?), multi-flavoured fudge and any combo of pizza/curry/Starbucks you care to think of. At Festival time it’s stand-up room only. It’s McMadness.
However, just a few yards from the castle gates is The Witchery. Don’t bother looking for a hotel-style entrance. Down a wee close (for the uninitiated, that’s an open communal entranceway to tenement housing) lies a door off to the original restaurant, then a second door which leads up a 16th century spiral staircase to a couple of suites, then outside to stairs which lead down to The Secret Garden, a second restaurant which was once a school playground. Back out on the street, another “Close” (Jessie’s, if you must know) leads to another ancient spiral stairway and some more suites (there are only nine in total). No reception, no elevators, no concierge – except Roxy, to whom we shall come back later. The nearest you’ll get to hotel culture here are the working rotary dial telephones you use to contact the staff.
Camp? It’s as camp as a row of mauve marquees, mate, with dashes of opulence to make you gasp
The Witchery is named in memory of the “witches” burned here in the 16th century – hundreds of them apparently – and could have been so kitsch it would have gone horribly, horribly wrong. But it didn’t. Creator James Thomson crammed in so much gothic, Victorian, and medieval decor, so many fragile artefacts, delicate fabrics, tweeds, muted tartans and furniture along The Witchery’s narrow, wonky, velvet lined corridors and skew-whiff wood panelled bedrooms, that the sheer theatricality of it all overwhelms. There isn’t an unadorned vertical or flat horizontal surface to be seen. It’s what you might call a singular vision; Thomson literally left himself no room for doubt. It is so far over the top that my partner commented that it made Strawberry Hill House (Horace Walpole’s gothic mansion) look “utterly minimalist”. Camp? It’s as camp as a row of mauve marquees, mate, with dashes of opulence to make you gasp. Heavy oak doors reveal bathrooms with double roll top baths, and walk-in showers for two. Remotes make flat screen TVs spring from the furniture. Search around, open a few more oak doors, fabric panelled or not, and you’ll find the Nespresso machine. Or a small kitchen.
The top-floor Turret Room is a riot of royal purple and damask red velvet. Dozens of mismatched cushions combine to create a soft-furnishing cloud nine, interrupted only by the generous silver punch bowl that holds a bottle of house champagne on ice. The armoires, chests, ancient doors and walls are inscribed with ancient carving and scribblings, mostly original, which is apparently what intrigued Da Vinci Code author Dan Brown to leave a mystery message (so we’re told) under the carpet in his apartment. Elsewhere, The Armoury Suite’s four-poster bed lurks at the far end of a long, dark, wobbly passageway with doors off revealing little drawing rooms with wing back chairs, a circular causeuse sofa, or a cast iron bath concealed behind heavy velvet drapes. And the Armoury Suite is not just a name: there are helmets and chest plates, for god’s sake, and vast parchment guest books in which visitors inscribe screeds and screeds on how they love the place. A surprising number of guests are from Edinburgh itself, including one chap who had lived in the city all his life and “never knew The Witchery existed” until his wife arranged a birthday surprise.
The views from the upper floors stretch across the city’s slate rooftops to the Firth of Forth and beyond. Even those without views have stained glass, or windows overlooking the neighbours’ ancient slates. This area may be Edinburgh’s toytown, with its castle, soldiers and phalanxes of tourists snapping the city’s fantasy architecture. But inside The Witchery, you’re isolated from all that. In fact, you’re insulated from real life altogether, swaddled instead in a period capsule which elegant wordsmith Austin Powers would no doubt sum up as “shagtastic”.
My introduction to the pleasures of The Witchery’s “Secret Garden” restaurant was courtesy of my late mother, who wore a hat to indicate that we were going to be having a posh lunch
By contrast, my introduction to the pleasures of The Witchery’s “Secret Garden” restaurant was courtesy of my late mother, who wore a hat to indicate that we were going to be having a posh lunch. It was spoiled only by her explaining that the elegantly proportioned room in which we sat had once been a school playground. The idea of screaming weans running around where I was now eating posh food with – heavens – wine was too disturbing to be true, so I dismissed it as urban folklore immediately. Wrongly, as it happens. Despite that odd history, it’s generally regarded as the most attractive dining room in Edinburgh: even on a grey day, the light sparkles on the crystalware, and at night, lit only by candles, it becomes impossibly romantic.
Some years later, having explored the pleasures of the table worldwide, I concluded that the summer lunch I would have immediately before my death would have to be here: I’d have a chilled bottle of Alsace Rolly Gassman Pinot Blanc to accompany a full Scottish seafood platter of whole lobster, oysters, langoustines, clams, mussels, crab et al – the very same crustacea one savours in London, Paris and the Cote d’Azur, whizzed by refrigerated lorry from the freezing coastal waters off Scotland.
It’s still a dream but, at a more modest dinner recently, I got as far as the Pinot Blanc to accompany some succulent scallops (from the Ethical Shellfish Company on Mull), served by an unfeasibly good-looking waiter from Vancouver Island who we assumed was an actor between jobs. His educated description of the residual sugars to be found in my favourite wine indicated more than a passing interest in the subject. “You the sommelier?” we asked, impressed by his depth of knowledge. “Heavens, no,” he demurred, indicating that he was just a lowly wine waiter, whole notches below the dizzy heights required by sommelierdom. A sparkling career awaits.
Which brings us neatly to breakfast. And Roxy. At an assigned and agreed time in the morning, Roxy will bring your preselected breakfast to you – hauling up those spiral staircases in a hamper anything and everything fresh you might want, set out on the crisp white napery of your suite’s own elegantly proportioned table. Every hotel is really about staff, about the way you’re treated and greeted, and Roxy, a petite, charismatic blond who has been at The Witchery since the year dot is not only a particularly entertaining Edinburgh character, he knows how to chat and make people laugh. All the staff are charming but Roxy’s the one you remember, with his jokes and low-level flamboyance, his banter and wit. He’s The Witchery’s secret weapon, its WMD – a Wee Miracle of Delight.
Which is exactly what The Witchery is. C
The Witchery, Castlehill, The Royal Mile, Edinburgh EH1 2NF, United Kingdom
0131 225 5613; thewitchery.com
Derek Guthrie flew to Edinburgh with Virgin Little Red, currently flying six times a day from Heathrow. Additionally, the long (nay long, long, long) awaited Edinburgh tram is all but up and running which means that finally Edinburgh Airport will have its first ever “rail” connection to the city centre