After a Taste of Scotland, having arrived safely in Edinburgh and already experienced a bit of haggis, neeps, and tatties, what else is a group of American college students supposed to do but wander Edinburgh and wind up at Finnegan’s Wake?
It was a short walk down South Bridge Street, right turn onto the Royal Mile, and a meandering up the hill. We ended up on Victoria Street, a fascinating street that seems sunken into the ground as the facades of buildings closely lining the street rise multiple stories above. Finnegan’s Wake was hopping – after all, it had to have been at least 20:30 – and so, under the guide of a fellow student, we entered into a pub voted one of the best pubs for students.
On the wall as you enter is a board boasting student discounts and weekly specials. It’s a small space – the ceiling feels low but not oppressive, giving the entire place an atmosphere of heaviness, solidity and also comfort. I have always loved the pub feel – and this is what I imagine. There’s football (soccer, to us Americans) playing on various TVs, folks are gathered at the closely-placed thick wooden tables, stools, chairs or barrels scattered throughout. Our group of about seven manages to snag some stools set around tall barrels-made-tables, which I guard while the others go and grab a pint or something of that sort. On the small stage, barely raised and separated from the rest of the space by a low railing draped with paraphernalia in a way similar to how garland wraps a banister, two men sit, tuning their guitars, setting up mics, and, of course, preparing for the night with a tall glass of brew. You have to speak up to be heard over the noise of the others around you. The lighting is low, setting that “bar” aura and the tone for the evening. Soft lights illuminate our two-man band, and the lead taps the mic for an introduction.
I look to my left and see Kevin, eyebrows raised, looking from me to the man who’d just spoken.
“They’re the Cherry Pickers, they play here every week, and they’re going to be doing three sets for us,” I say with a smile.
The music starts, two guitars and one, occasionally two voices. We realize they’re playing almost exclusively American music – hits by folks like Billy Joel, Johnny Cash, and Bob Marley – and everyone is singing along, many of them knowing more words than I do. Kevin beside me seems to know every word to every song the Cherry Pickers play. At first it throws me off – I came to a pub in Scotland to hear people play Scottish music, didn’t I? If I wanted to hear Tracy Chapman, I would have stayed at home, right?
In thinking about it, I didn’t come here to find some lost and mystical Scottish culture that feels authentic according to my American perception – I came here to be in Scotland. And if this is where people go – of course, I have to ask myself, is it? – then who am I to call it not Scottish? There is so much at play here in this popular little pub, even yes on a Wednesday night. The dancing and singing along, which became more prevalent as the glasses piled up; the laughter and conversation held at slightly raised voices; the architecture of the space, from the lighting or the furniture to the street signs from around Scotland decorating the walls and the bathroom signs indicating gender in some short non-English text (“fin” for male and “mrh” for female) – this is what Finnegan’s Wake offers and so that is what I am taking in. We’ll see what happens when I go back, because I am definitely returning here.