In 1980 a London Cabbie won the BBC television quiz, ‘Mastermind’. I remembered this, but I didn’t remember (or perhaps I didn’t ever know) that he was Scottish – a Dundonian, in fact. I’ll swear that a relative of that same erudite man from Dundee picked me up in his cab at Waverley Bridge the other night. My driver was amazing in his breadth of knowledge. I had just flown in up the Firth of Forth, west and low towards the bridges, before we swooped south to the airport. My seat was on the right hand side looking over to Fife. “What’s that big flame I could see over in Fife tonight?” I asked the taxi-man. “Augh, that’s the Mossmoran plant. Petrochemicals, been going for days. The whole of Edinburgh is a smoke-free zone and then that thing is burning day and night. Ridiculous.” I get his point, though the flare is strangely beautiful. I wonder if it might be entered for this year’s Turner Prize, as it could pass for the most mesmerizing open-air art installation I have ever seen.
My driver stayed on message. “You’ve heard Edinburgh’s called ‘Auld Reekie’?” I nodded. “Well that’s because of the smoke and the stench that used to hang over it. Smoke from coal fires, paper making, printing, breweries, distilleries – they were all pumping out smoke. The place was one big sick soup – they had to get a handle on it.”
He tells me about Old Calton Burial Ground, close to where I live. I’ve walked past it many times, but I’m put off by the ant colonies of tourists lined up and trouping in. He tells me to go, anyone who was anyone in the Scottish Enlightenment is there. “Lincoln’s there you know.” I must have looked confused, for he went on to tell me that, obviously, it was not Lincoln’s burial place, rather home to a statue of him. Lincoln’s statue is part of a monument dedicated to the Scottish-American soldiers who fought and died in the Civil War. “The only monument to the American Civil War outside of the United States and the first statue to a U.S. President outside of its own borders.” He seemed proud. I understood.
“Then there’s Iain Stewart, you should look him up.” We were coming up Abbeyhill and he gestured over his shoulder to Arthur’s Seat and the Crags. “There’s thousands of Iain Stewarts in Scotland, but this one is a geologist, doing incredible work. Young fella, only in his fifties.”
My head was beginning to spin with information when he mentioned ‘Samson’s Ribs’. “Back up, I’m lost,” I tell him – wondering if I’ve become over-familiar with my 10-minute friend. “It’s the local name for funny looking columns of basalt around the back of Arthur’s Seat, on the Duddingston side.” From my daily walks I knew what he was talking about, though I hadn’t known the name. I tell him it looks a bit like the Giant’s Causeway, close to where I come from. “Well, that’s Iain Stewart’s area of expertise. He could tell you all about how it was formed. If you ever get a chance to hear him speak, go.” I told him I had little need for Iain Stewart when I had him for a taxi driver.
“Are you on for long tonight?” I asked him as I paid, struggling with over-sized bags. He jumped out and came round the side of the taxi to help me. “I’m knocking off now, home for pizza and salad. Now be sure and follow up on some of these things I’ve told you about, will you?” I sure will. Thank you Mr. Taxi, – sorry not to have got your name – you’re a great ambassador for your city and for its cabbies.