Elspeth Wills : walking with ghosts, disco dancers and Outlander

Walking up Victoria Street recently, or do I mean Potter Street, my progress was impeded by three groups of foreign tourists escorted by guides carrying yellow umbrellas and by a flock of Far Eastern visitors, many armed with selfie sticks, who were being shepherded by a bus driver down Upper Bow Steps. Outside St Giles were the two extremes of the walking tour – an older man in a tweed sports jacket giving an informed account of the history of St Giles to a small group of interested visitors and a much more boisterous group being entertained by a larger than life Australian student. He was regaling them with tales of the Maiden, ‘the worst torture machine ever invented, so vicious that they could not sell it anywhere in Europe.’

That was a Saturday morning in May. What will it be like at the height of the Festival where competing tours drown each other out in the Grassmarket as they tell the tale of Half Hangit Maggie Dickson, an unfortunate woman whose fate was little known until the advent of the mass market walking tour? Although statistics are difficult to come by the walking tour market has mushroomed, a phenomenon that Old Town residents are more than aware of.

There are now over 20 walking tour operators in the city centre. The Council requires them to hold a Street Trader licence as they are ‘offering to carry out for money or money’s worth any service to any person in the public place’. Street trading is generally not allowed in the city centre ‘although exceptions apply’. New applications for trading in the city centre are reported to the Licensing Sub-committee which usually attaches a condition when licensing street tours, to control the numbers of persons participating in any one tour. The erection of a ticket booth or advertising placard potentially requires planning permission especially if permanent.

This sounds as if the matter is in hand until one scrutinises the street trader applicants’ register. Only one walking tour company is registered and it is unclear whether the 15 individuals listed as ‘Mercat Cross’ are guides or some other trader. Will the new ban on A-boards extend to the street clutter of booths and other hoardings that act as meeting points for people wanting to join tours?

As with so many tourist initiatives, it all comes down to quality and authenticity. Some guides like members of the Scottish Tourist Guides Association are highly trained, courteous and manage their groups to cause the least disruption. Some tours like the award-winning Curious Edinburgh and Jean Bareham’s Greenyonder tours offer a genuine experience taking visitors to hidden corners and engaging them with the background to the communities that they pass through. Other guides are self-employed offering ‘free tours’ in return for a donation at the end: some have to pay a percentage of their tips to the operator in return for support with marketing. They are often foreign students with limited English much less knowledge of the city seeking to fund a gap year. Operators are not interested in the quality of the experience as long as the money continues to come in. A good example of what is euphemistically called the ‘collaborative economy’!

For residents there are two main issues – noise and difficulty in moving through the streets. If you happen to live near a historic site the constant visitation of tour groups can wear you down especially if combined with the audio from the tour buses. At night screams from the ghost tours and their audiences add to the general disturbance of the peace from pubs and revellers in the streets. A ghoul jumping out from a nearby close so maddened one resident that she stabbed the actor. Another could not enter or leave her house when the entrance was being used as a stage set. I used to be regaled every night at 8.30pm by an actor repeating the immortal words of Taggart, ‘There’s been a murder’. Locals greeted the recent arrival of disco tours where participants are encouraged to sing along, with resignation.

The current issue is pavements blocked with tour groups. If you are behind one, your pace can be reduced to a crawl. Allow at least an extra five minutes to reach Waverley from the Grassmarket in summer. Leaders with 40 or more tourists stop at popular spots like Greyfriars Bobby or the top of Victoria Street and passersby are expected to wait until they are ready to move on. When requested politely to gather at a less crowded spot, leaders can be extraordinarily rude – ‘ignore that old bat’ or worse. The audience just laughs.

So much of the ‘history’ is also bunkum. One guide claimed recently that Scotland had more witches than any country in the world.’ Really! Another informed his group that James I flew from Edinburgh Castle. Actually it was James IV whose courtier, friend and alchemist attempted to fly from the battlements of Stirling Castle in 1507. Why not get your facts right? In a World Heritage city why are we offering tours on Harry Potter and Outlander?

Still there is some light at the end of the tunnel. One guide was overheard recently advising his group not to eat or drink in the Grassmarket as it was a pricey, tourist honeypot. Presumably no pub was paying him a backhander to direct his audience there.

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