Install

Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Deep-Fried Haggis and Lots of Bracing Walks

Mealtime in Scotland can give you nightmares. It's bad enough just to read about the national dish, haggis: a barbaric-sounding concoction of sheep's lung, heart and liver, mixed with oatmeal and pepper and boiled up inside the sheep's stomach. That's not the end of it, either. How'd you like that haggis deep-fried? With some neeps and tatties (turnips and potatoes)? And for dessert, how about a Mars bar -- also deep-fried?

"Scotland's pantry includes many such foods to die for, and from," wrote the Wall Street Journal a few years back. The paper cited "desserts such as 'cream crowdie' (cream, oatmeal, sugar, rum); a breakfast of Scotch eggs (hard-boiled, wrapped in sausage and deep-fried, forming what one tour book describes as 'a greasy cannonball'); and refreshments such as 'heavy' (bitter beer) and 'a nippy sweetie' (a glass of spirits, usually whiskey)." So unhealthy is the traditional diet that there is a national commission charged with persuading Scots to start eating fruits and vegetables.

And yet, every time I visit, something bothers me. It's not that the critics are wrong -- most Scots eat badly and, even by European standards, smoke like fiends. No, what troubles me is what I don't see, in Edinburgh or the Highlands or anywhere else. For all its dietary sins, Scotland seems to have very few obese people. On a recent visit with my father, I think I finally figured out why.

We were in Edinburgh, and we were going for a walk. It was early evening when we set out toward the base of the Royal Mile, the sloping thoroughfare that rises from Holyroodhouse Palace, the British royal family's local pad, all the way up to Edinburgh Castle, a fortress commanding a rocky peak at the center of the Scottish capital. At the base of the Mile, we passed a group of drunks gathered around a bench, with a couple of scruffy-looking dogs. "If I haef to walk up that hill one more time," one man was saying, "I think it'll kill me."

I sympathized. My father is an Olympic-class walker whose thoroughbred-length strides carry him faster than many people can jog. He was setting his customary brutal pace, half-stepping me up the hill: No matter how fast I went, he'd always stay a half-step ahead. So I dangled in his wake a while, as we followed the route taken in 1566 by the pregnant Mary Queen of Scots, fleeing her homicidal husband in Holyroodhouse for the safety of the castle. Only we seemed to be in more of a hurry.

It wasn't long before I noticed that the locals were all moving just as quickly, on their way home from work or out to dinner.

It turns out that walking is kind of a Scottish passion. The countryside is laced with public footpaths, many traversing private lands that in the United States would be guarded by No Trespassing signs, nasty dogs and perhaps a peppering of shotgun pellets. Under Scottish law, however, you're not trespassing unless you cause deliberate, tangible damage to the landowner's property, such as shooting his grouse, catching his fish or bothering his sheep.

Edinburgh itself, one of Europe's youngest capitals, is practically toy-size; its interesting topography -- including a miniature extinct volcano, Arthur's Seat, looming over the center of town -- practically demands to be explored on foot.

Because of the feudal land-ownership system and fear of attackers, Edinburgh grew upward rather than outward. The result was a city of tall tenements, or "lands," towering above narrow, twisting and often filthy passageways. The richer you were, the higher up you lived. Down below, chamber pots were routinely emptied into the streets with a cry of "gardey loo!" When the New Town was developed in the late 1700s, the well-heeled fled for its spacious avenues and wide row houses, with their extra-high windows to let in every bit of precious light.

While the New Town touted itself as "the Athens of the North," the Old Town remained a plague-ridden slum, but things have been looking up lately. Chamber pots are no longer emptied from windows, and the collapse-prone tenements have been shored up and restored. The Royal Mile itself has become a tourist promenade, anchored at its lower end by Holyroodhouse, where the queen still stops on her way through to her summer palace at Balmoral, in the Highlands. Just across the street, cranes tower over the future home of the Scottish Parliament, the first full-powered legislative body Scotland has had in almost 300 years.

In the evening, Edinburghers head for the volcano. Rising above Holyroodhouse, whose residents once used it as a royal hunting ground, the conical peak of Arthur's Seat and its surrounding fields draw runners, cyclists, walkers and soccer players of all ages and genders. So I donned "me trainers" (my running shoes) and plodded through the city -- taking care on the cobblestones -- to the wide, grassy expanses of Holyrood Park.

I don't know if it's the climate or the culture, royal maintenance or some kind of spillover effect from the national golf obsession, but Edinburgh has some of the world's best public grass: firm yet springy, an even, green carpet covering the smallest city squares and the busiest playing fields alike. As I fell in with the procession of joggers -- working off their fried Mars bars, no doubt -- I saw no bare spots, no clumping and not a single weed.

Turning off the main trail by a quiet loch, I ran -- slowly -- up the hill, which grew ever steeper until I was walking on crumbled stone steps, toward the peak of Arthur's Seat; from below, it looked far-off and almost unattainable. But the scale was deceiving, and I reached the top inside 10 minutes. The city spread out below me like one of those early maps -- this must have been where the mapmakers stood -- from the spine of the Royal Mile across the squares and circles of the New Town. I spotted soccer fields, golf courses, the 150-year-old glass houses in the Royal Botanic Garden, where Edinburghers still flee their dark and rainy winters to stroll among the palm trees and cacti. Beyond that, some more cranes marked the port town of Leith.

To the north and west, far in the distance, jagged peaks jabbed the horizon, some as many as 90 miles off, according to the compass point at the summit; to the south, the massive, rounded Pentland Hills beckoned.

Later on, I was sitting in a warm pub on Broughton Street, admiring the pint of hand-brewed ale on the bar in front of me. I lifted the amber glass to my lips and contemplated the day: an omelet breakfast in a funky diner, followed by a stroll around the New Town and quick ducks into the National Gallery of Scotland and the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art; then, after lunch, a good, hard, three-hour hike.

And, OK, a sausage-filled roll and a wee beer at lunch.

The editors of the Wall Street Journal would probably have been horrified.

Bill Gifford, a freelance writer based in Philadelphia, contributed this travel essay to The Washington Post.