When it comes down to it, I cannot remember who told us to go to the Royal Oak.
I would put money on Allan, the man who gave the literary tour of Edinburgh that Heather and I met and discovered we enjoyed each other’s company during – which, in hindsight, was quite easy to do given that we were the only two people on the tour because of what Allan called “another miserable Scottish day” – but I can’t be sure.
It was uncanny how on the same track Heather and both were – both 24, both traveling solo for 3 to 4 months, both from small towns where our families meant the world to us; small towns that ironically, because of my placement in Montana and her situation in Saskatchewan, were nearly exactly due north and south from each other. Over dinner the next night on the upper floor of a pub just off the Royal Mile, we compared notes on our single pairs of multi-purpose shoes (both suitable for mountainside trails and ballets in opera houses), discussed the change in the last four weeks of our trips where we’d said “screw it” and given up being frugal to taste everything local in sight, and devoted a large chunk of time to laugh at the tropes we heard on a near daily basis due to being solo women travelers – “All alone? Your parents must be terrified!” “Aren’t you afraid?” “If you were my girlfriend, I’d never have let you attempt this on your own.”
It was one of those moments where you simply clicked with someone. We split our bills, wrapped our braids in our tartan scarves and walked out to The Captain’s where we settled in for a continuous stream of conversation. Tucked into an old church pew at the back of the pub, we had a perfect view of the man singing and the woman pressing the bellows of an accordion.
“Are you Scottish?” Heather asked me, as we rolled into a conversation about heritage in between “Black is the Colour of My True Loves Hair” and a rollicking tune in Scots Gaelic.
I shook my head, sipping at my newest pint. “But I did take Scottish dance for four years.”
“Sláinte!” she proclaimed, testing out the new word our waiter had taught us earlier.
We bounced back out into the cold night a bit later, cheeks flushed, and through the crowded entrance of the Royal Oak, where a chaotic rendition of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” was being sung by everyone in the bar and accompanied by a musical group that included a man playing the bagpipes and the bartender on his mandolin.
There was no room to even stand, and so we followed the arrow signs that led down into the lounge below. As the door closed, the quiet that followed effectively muffled the chorus of “Jolene” and threw into ear shot the vocals of an older woman who sang with her eyes closed, as the man next to her strummed a guitar.
“This is what we were looking for I think,” Heather whispered as we gathered our scotches into another corner near the back of the room. People nodded as we brushed past to sit, and then turned their focus back to the couple seated in the inner sanctum of the bar.
We would learn later in the night that their names were Pat and Norma, an Irish couple on holiday, and the man they would alternate turns singing with was Robert, a regular player at the pub. Near them was another man who kept looking over at us to see, it seemed, if we were enjoying ourselves.
It was an open concert of sorts. Occasionally, they would call for a song from a person sitting near the bar, and they would stand and deliver an acapella folk tune. Everyone that sang had that note in their voice, the slight tremble in all the right places that spoke of their culture and their history, and I fell more and more in love with it as the night wore on.
The man who had been watching us eventually wound his way over to ask where we were from. His name was Ian, and he was eager to tell us other places we should go in the city for music. “Though here is always the best,” he said, laughing, “you have to come back here, of course.”
We chatted, and as it got later, people shifted and Ian ushered us both into the area where the musicians were seated with a quick, “C’mon.” The introductions were made – Norma smiled back at us, and the music resumed. Heather and I locked eyes and clinked glasses with each other, giddiness evident.
Then there was a pause between songs and applause, and Pat looked over at both of us, eyes squinting. “Do either of you sing?”
And Heather, because she now knew this about me after nearly six hours of learning about each other, said, “She does!”
Pat smiled at me. “Then we must have a tune, aye?”
“Are you being serious?” My heart nearly stopped.
In response, he held out a hand as if to say, What are you waiting for?
As tends to happen with most people when they’re put on the spot, my mind blanked. There was chatter, some good-natured laughs from everyone in the lounge, and Robert even leaned over with a wink and said, “How about a cigarette to ruin your voice love, so you can get out of it?”
But then there was a song in my head and I opened my mouth.
“A holiday, a holiday, the first one of the year…”
Matty Groves, my favorite folk song, started to trickle from my lips. It was the song I sang with my best friend in our apartment, the words I found when I was on the river in a canoe, and the go-to hum in my head whenever I went out walking. Here, I was tentative at first, eyes squeezed shut as the whole pub began to hush and then fell completely silent. I kept singing, and when I dared to open my eyes for a moment, all of the others were fixed on me.
I shut them again. My heart thrummed against my ribcage, but as I found the cadence in the verses, my voice began to smooth. The thing I love about folk songs is that they tell narrative stories in a way that modern music never will. And I am nothing if not a storyteller. My eyes opened, my voice got stronger with each chapter; I was looking people in the eyes now, voice rising and falling – I was storytelling.
“It’s true I have two beaten swords and they cost me deep in the purse. But you will have the better of them, and I will have the worse.”
I felt full to the brim with content.
When I finished, they clapped and congratulated me, and Heather elbowed me triumphantly in the ribs. I looked over at Pat, who gave me the broadest smile, before Robert kicked into the next song. After that, I was part of the circle of trade-offs – Ian asked me for another and I borrowed a guitar that would help lead everyone in a rousing chorus of “Wagon Wheel.”
These are the kind of connections I live for, and they brought into focus again just how clearly and quickly music makes friends of strangers.
Everything blurred after I sang – smiles, lyrics, conversations – Heather and I leaned back against the booth, our glasses both empty, our multipurpose boots crossed at the ankles, heads lolling on each other’s shoulders. It was just past two in the morning, and the crowd was winding down. We looked at each other and shrugged into our coats, thanking everyone as we got up to leave. Ian shook both of our hands as we made our way to the stairs. “Come back tomorrow, aye? The both of you.”
It was misting when we stepped out into the early morning, fog cloaking all the tops of the buildings as we stood in a collective silence.
When we parted and I began the walk back to my bed, all I heard was music.