The year is 1743. Horse-drawn carriages and busy pedestrians parade down the gray cobbles of a bustling Scottish street. Dirt-covered green weeds poke through the gaps of rock and the echoes of horseshoes ricochet off the exterior stone walls. In the air, an aroma of loose-leaf tea and firewood intertwines with the dominant smells of mud and evergreens.
The street descends toward the edge of Edinburgh, where the dark, wind-stricken sea meets a cloudy-painted sky. The temperature outside is comfortable, but an unexpected gust of wind stirs a frigid bite. It’s nonetheless an all too familiar dreich, or gloomy, day in this part of Scotland.
Nestled on a corner is a coffee shop. It is tucked between a tailor’s shop off the high street and a blacksmith on its other side.
Visible from the coffee shop’s paneled window, a pair of horses neigh and stomp lazily while a man brushes a long-maned, chocolate steed. The first two horses are tied comfortably to a post, awaiting their owners’ return.
The man is wearing a wool kilt with a dark green and royal blue tartan, a symbol of the Clan Douglas. Thick socks come up to his knees and he sports a dark gray overcoat and a tilted, tam beret to match. Off-white linen fabric pokes out from the top buttons of his warm coat.
In tandem with the horses, Douglas kicks his feet against a bulgy cobblestone, chunks of mud detach from his leather boots and fall onto the street.
He then proceeds to tie his horse to the same post as the other two. The rope feels thick and damp in his hands as he wraps it around the metal structure to secure his companion.
The man then proceeds toward the entrance of the coffee shop. The cafe’s straightforward name is displayed on a sign above the door, written in an embellished font. Below the name reads “established 1732.”
The wood-paneled door opens with ease, creaking on its hinges. Inside the richness of coffee and freshly-baked pastries fill the air. As the door closes behind the man, small chatter, laughter, and clinking tin mugs replace the outside sounds of quick footsteps, illegible shouting, and horses.
There is a calmness to the space. Its stone walls feel cool to the touch, and melting pillar candles cast their flickering shadows against them. They are hung on metal fixtures that unevenly dot the walls.
There is also a grand, rustic chandelier hanging above a long table in the dining hall. It is layered with waxy candles that drip down onto the metal of the fixture. It creates a soft, buttery glow that fills the room and spills onto polished wooden furniture.
Warm lighting also comes from the various black metal stands with caged lanterns inside of each. Freshly washed flagstones gleam against the soft light of the candlesticks and lanterns in quite an atmospheric way.
The coziest spot in the coffee shop, however, is toward the back where a roaring fireplace and two armchairs reside.
For a moment, the man lets himself enjoy the aroma of crackling firewood and how it mixes with notes of coffee, chocolate, and butter.
Despite all the lighting, the place is still relatively dim-light and cozy. Just the soft gray light of the window and sporadic lanterns create most of the coffee shop’s light.
The man makes his way to the counter. It is made from smoothed-out dark wood and is nestled in the right-middle of the cafe. There is an older gentleman and a bonnie lass behind it.
The man behind the counter wears a kilt. It is a different tartan than that of Clan Douglas, but it is too dark for the new guest to recognize.
The woman brushes a caramel-colored, flyaway curl behind her ear before glancing up to greet the man. She wears a long gray dress with sleeves. It is tight around her waist and bevels out at her hips. For just a brief moment, the man admires her simple beauty before returning her greeting.
Douglas looks over the counter at the day’s pastry display. His eyes glance over triangular slices of pound cake, shortbread, plain scones, and sweet, caramel-flavored tablet. The place is known for its shortbread, as the man recalls.
He looks up at the young Scottish woman. Her face is lit with a cheerful glow as he makes his order… One black coffee and two shortbread biscuits.
The young lass takes care of his order, and Douglas props one arm on the bar and pulls out an old, worn-out book while he waits.
She turns her back to the dining hall and approaches the coffee grinder. It involves a small wooden box with a drawer adorned with a knocker handle. On top of the box is a smooth brass catchment bowl with a long iron handle that bends at a 90-degree angle in the middle. The end of the long handle has a fruitwood knob that matches the wood of the wee drawer.
She takes a jar of dark beans and pours them into the bowl of the wee machine. They clank and repel as they clash against the metal dish.
From there, she turns the handle steadily. Notes of rich coffee waft over the bar area as the beans crush and grind together to form a coarse powder.
In the meantime, she can hear the rattle of the fire-burning stove and the hissing sound of the kettle. The barman is boiling water for the coffee pot.
Once the beans disappear from the top, the lady pulls on the drawer to reveal a pyramid of ground coffee.
In a natural rhythm, like she’s done this a thousand times before, she transfers the powder to a sophisticated silver coffee pot on the counter. The metal has been molded into an intricate floral pattern at its bottom, lid, and spout. The pot is pear-shaped with a thick handle and thin spout that curls up like the trunk of an elephant.
The pot’s elegance almost clashes with the rustic ambiance of the coffee shop, but the woman does not mind. She is proud of her coffee, and after trading three bags of coffee and her secret shortbread recipe to the wife of a notable clan chief in Edinburgh, she simply must keep it on display.
She opens the lid and fills coffee into the filter just under the lid. She pours it in until the top is filled. She doesn't press down on the grounds to compact them. Instead, she let them remain loose.
She takes the kettle and slowly pours the boiled water over the coffee. She moves her arm in a slow, circular motion wetting all the powder while careful to not let the water overflow.
The lass looks up and notices the man just as he flips a page of his book. She glances at the book cover and smiles in approval.
She continues with the kettle as steam curls up toward her nostrils. Soon enough the brewing is complete and the lass sets down the kettle and wipes her hands on her apron.
She turns back around and lifts herself up onto the tip of her toes to reach a modest tin mug. While these wee mugs are not nearly as sophisticated as her Sterling silver coffee pot, they get the job done and keep coffee warm longer than the dainty ceramic ones.
The older gentleman places two shortbread biscuits on a tin dish and slides them across the wooden counter.
As he does this, the lass holds the handle and top of the coffee pot with both hands and gently lets hot coffee flow into the tin mug. The coffee makes a trickle sound as it taps against the bottom of the mug.
The man – noticing that his order is ready – looks up and closes his book before placing it back into his coat pocket. He undoes the buttons of his coat and pulls a coin pouch from his left pocket.
He places a few shiny pence on the counter and slides them back toward the lady. She picks them up, feeling the coolness of the metal in her hand before placing them at the register.
They exchange their ‘thank yous’ and ‘goodbyes’ and Douglas walks towards an armchair by the crackling fireplace.
He arrives at a square, wooden table. The pallets are uneven, and some of the nails need to be screwed back down. Douglas couldn’t care less though. He is only eager to be in the braw atmosphere that the fireplace provides.
He places his tin mug and plate on the table. Then, he sheds his coat and proceeds to hang it on a coat rack at the nearest corner of the room. Two other jackets hang on the other hooks of the rack. Douglas looks behind himself at the other guests. Two men look up, and he gives a friendly head nod before placing his coat and walking back to the armchair.
Once he is back by the fireplace, he loosens the cloth around his neck and settles into the softness of the chair.
He picks up the tin mug and brings it to his mouth before taking a generous sip. Placing the mug back down, coffee droplets cling to his mustache before he wipes them away with the back of his hand.
As he picks up a buttery, shortbread biscuit, Douglas hears the creak of the front door as it begins to open.
He turns his head and sees a trio of men shuffling into the dining hall, instruments in hand. Two hold fiddles, and one shorter man proudly displays an accordion.
They sit down at a small corner table near the lantern stands. One of the fiddlers places his instrument in his chair and exchanges some words with the other musicians before making his way to the bar.
Douglas returns his attention to the biscuits and coffee, savoring each buttery bite of the shortbread. His body feels warm and cozy with the help of the armchair, warm fireplace, and smooth coffee.
After a minute or two, Douglas hears the jingle of coins on the wooden counter. Then, he spies the fiddler returning to the table juggling three tins of ale in his hands.
The other men grab their drinks and cheers by saying “Slàinte Mhath” or to “good health” before taking a large gulp of their beverages.
The dreamy mood of the coffee shop slowly lifts from the quiet conversation over the clinking of tin mugs and crackling fireplace to the irresistible energy of fiddlers playing a spirited Scottish tune.
Soon, the other guests in the dining hall are tapping their feet to the rhythm and looking back to admire the musicians’ craft. Smiles cross the faces of many as they turn to listen to jolly fiddles and reedy accordion.
In the end, the trio plays just two songs before they settle into the coziness of the coffee shop. The place seems to have that effect on its visitors. The candles, the low light, and the aroma of fresh pastries, coffee, and firewood create such a relaxing environment that even the musicians were quickly lulled into a dreamy state.
Instead of playing music, they begin a peaceful game of cards while sipping warm coffee in the corner of the shop. Their instruments lay open in their cases on the stone floor as the accordion player refreshes the deck of cards.
Douglas, still sipping his coffee, goes to retrieve his book from his jacket pocket. With this serene and quiet environment, a wee firelit read in the armchair is in order.
The book’s cover is well-worn and loved with a torn edge and a few stains. It has uneven, deckled edges. Douglas runs his pointer finger along the edge before sliding into the bookmarked page.
The page texture is velvety with natural nubs. Each page feels pleasant between his fingers as he turns each one.
Across the room, the lass is preparing another coffee for a guest. As she works, there is the beady sound of the coffee beans hitting the brass bowl, the sound of chatter in Gaelic (gal-ick… gay-lick is Irish Gaelic) and Scots, along with notes of tatties and carrots as the barman prepares soup over the stove.
The gentleman stirs the pot of soup with a wooden ladle. Warm curls of steam begin to travel up and out of the pot. It is nearly time for tea, and the coffee shop likes to have food readily available for its guests.
Today they are serving warm crusty bread and tattie soup with carrots and leek.
Another lady has just brought out a fresh loaf of bread from the oven in the back kitchen.
She places the loaf on a cutting board, wipes her hands on her apron, and happily scurries back into the other room.
The other young lady hands a woman across the counter a fresh brew of coffee. The woman jingles some coins and points to the bread and soup.
She then takes a tray of warm, steamy food back to her table. The other guests at her table follow suit, digging out coins to pay for the day’s soup and crusty bread.
Soon, the sound of silver against tin incorporates into the lullaby of the coffee shop as guests enjoy the tattie soup.
Douglas, on the other hand, is still engrossed in literature. There are just ten odd pages left in his book, and he is too distracted to think about a meal just yet.
So, he takes his time savoring the resolution of the story. He has his back rested comfortably against the armchair, and one leg resting on his knee. His elbows and buried into the arms of the chair with the book nestled between his hands. Occasionally, he reaches for another sip of coffee.
He feels completely relaxed in this moment. His right hand turns page after page until there is just one paragraph left.
After he finishes the book. He stares at its last words for a moment, as if contemplating its ultimate meaning. Then he lets out a small sigh, closes the book, and places it cove-side-up on the wooden table.
He lifts his head to look around the dining hall, noticing everyone hunched over enjoying soup and casual conversation under the candle-lit chandelier.
Douglas breathes in the aroma of hearty vegetables and bread. He places his palms on the table to lift himself out of the armchair. Then, he grabs a coin from his trouser pocket, saunters his way to the counter, and hands the money to the barman in exchange for the warm, delightful meal.
A group of guests waves to Douglas, inviting him to have his meal with them. They are sitting at the long, bench-style table at the center of the dining hall.
He gives a nod and walks over. They all exchange greetings and kinship. Douglas discovers he knows the brother of the men and the aunt of another. They are of Clan Elliot and Clan Fletcher, two courageous and respected clans, much like that of Clan Douglas.
So, the group of men and women enjoy their meal, forming new bonds and connections with other Scots. The muted daylight outside is slowly dimming, and the dreich weather and clouds only make it seem darker.
Nonetheless, they stay gathered in the warmth of the coffee shop. Soon, the musicians join the table too and another jolly game of cards commences.
Someone leaves the table to feed the horses outside, and returns a few minutes later shaking the rain off their shoulders.
The evening ends in good Scottish company. The inviting sense of community just keeps growing when the barman and lady join in for cards and banter around the wooden table.
From outside, the gloomy and damp cobblestones reflect the flickering lights of candles and lanterns from the coffee shop window as a single horse and carriage stroll down the road.
Anyone who peaks through the window would see a group of cheerful Scots united in good company and the cozy atmosphere of this Edinburgh coffee shop.