Reflections on a year in Scotland

Stuart Buchanan
6 min readApr 26, 2018

I did one of those life-altering things in 2017 and changed jobs, home, oh and hemisphere. Here at the one year mark of moving from Cape Town to Edinburgh, I’ve been reflecting on what I’ve learned in the process… 🤔

Conquering the capital

Edinburgh was built on seven hills, and no matter which direction you go, they will kick your ass. Even if it feels like you are moving downhill, wrong.

Well, this is awkward.

The city was constructed with this in mind, and so 2D maps are useless here. Arriving at a supposed intersection can leave you staring up at the road you need, three storeys above you, like Ellen Page has just Inception’ed it away moments before.

Despite this, it is small and walkable, and doesn’t take long to feel familiar. And there is always some intriguing side street, green space, close or wynd to explore. There’s an extinct volcano in the middle of the city centre, just to keep things interesting. It’s the freshest damn air I’ve ever breathed, and I haven’t gotten sick once so far (and if I do, basic healthcare is free).

There is a *lot* of old shit here, so you know, if that’s your thing, this is the place to be. Although, much of it was financed by the slave trade. So there’s that.

Place names get interesting. Here’s a handy pronunciation guide:

  1. Read the name of the place
  2. Pronounce it as it’s spelled
  3. Nope.

Milngavie? “Mulguy”. Anstruther? “Ainster”. Culzean? “Cullane”. Kirkcudbright? “Kirkoobray”.

It’s easier just to point.

Who put that volcano here?

Tis the seasons

Snow. Much less fun than it looks here.

Growing up in Durban, I knew one season: summer, and a bit less summer. Cape Town introduced me to what I thought was the concept of winter. And in Edinburgh, autumn and spring are actual real, distinctive things. It’s just a pity that sandwiched between them is REAL winter, like a guest who comes to the party, leaves the front door open, uses up all your resources and overstays their welcome. I’ve never felt as underprepared for anything. Man’s not hot.

You literally have to learn to walk again — on pavements covered in ice, or in snow that hides kerbs and pedestrian crossings. And despite the quaintness of cycling along a cobbled street, it is deeply unfun.

You have to learn new words — my South African vocabulary simply did not cover the spectrum of “stuff that falls from the sky” that exists between rain and snow.

And I suddenly had to care about concepts like correct window insulation (I learned about this one the hard way).

To be fair, when spring rolls around, it doesn’t disappoint.

Inner city pressure

Life is expensive here, and the city has the some of the same pressures as Cape Town: an unfettered increase in tourism, rising demand for short-term rentals that results in less housing for locals, and a generous sprinkling of gentrification.


But if you can afford it, day-to-day life is defined by being spoilt for choice. You can wake up in your choice of IKEA bed, and your morning alarm could be one of hundreds of radio stations. Your breakfast, a dizzying array of cereals. You could choose to take the tram, bus, car, bike or walk to work, if you’re in the city centre.

The shops offer options on just about everything. I’m not sure the world needs nine different flavours of hot chocolate, but hey, they exist. When you reach the till, you can choose to chitchat with a cashier or attempt to successfully navigate the self-checkout counter (lol good luck). And if you can’t find what you need, there is an even more tempting, ultra-convenient option that offers a staggering array of products, same- or next-day delivery, and is all too easy at taking your money: Amazon Prime.

I’ve learned to find affordable options among all this, like the ubiquitous BOGOF deal, reduced goods near their best-by date, Groupon-type deals for restaurants, and yes, the occasional Amazon Deal of the Day.

*Guiltily shakes fist at Jeff Bezos*

Oot and aboot

So many choices! Too many choices! If you have money, you have no excuse for being bored here. International acts are coming through all the time, covering all kinds of musical genres, theatre, comedy, you name it. And it’s easy to travel around for more — in this year I’ve seen Frank Ocean in Manchester, Chance the Rapper in London, and Kendrick Lamar in Glasgow.

Is it about to deliver a poster child?

As if you needed more ways to throw your hard-earned pounds away, Edinburgh goes buck wild for an entire month in August and hosts like six festivals at once. It’s a nonstop jol… so you better be in the jolling mood. And the ‘getting squashed by tourists on every conceivable pavement space for weeks’ mood. Try to fight the temptation to smack some out the way with the large and weighty Fringe festival programme.

Once again, there are ways to entertain yourself for free. The libraries here are awesome, many of the museums and parks are free, and you can even catch some free acts during festival time.

The National Museum of Scotland. Three trips down and we haven’t seen the half of it yet.


There are things I already knew about the UK before arriving, like the country being in the midst of its biggest political self-own in recent history. I had no illusions about the so-called ‘developed’ world being any kind of utopia.

But it has been weirdly refreshing to be reminded that some things are shitty wherever you go. Incompetence is universal, it would seem.

There are people doing their jobs badly, no matter the setting. Politicians are essentially driven by the same self-interest. Local governments try, and regularly fuck up. Companies treat their customers badly, or sell your information to unscrupulous advertisers. More importantly, the most marginalised people in society are routinely left to suffer the worst. Edinburgh has plenty of its own problems, some different, some very familiar.

One year down, I feel I’ve barely scratched the surface of what Edinburgh is all about, and what it has to offer. I’ve gotten to know a handful of amazing people, and I hope to meet more. It’s been a hard year for many reasons, and full of learning. I’ve had so many second thoughts, they are more like eleventh or twelfth thoughts by now. But we are still here, and for lack of a profound final thought of my own to finish on, here’s one from Grace Hopper:

A ship in port is safe, but that’s not what ships are built for.