Rhubarb and Edinburgh

My next vocation will be a hazardous one. It will involve walking through great crowds. There will almost certainly be fire eaters. Chainsaws may be buzzing and the noise will be infernal. That is a modest description of Edinburgh's Royal Mile during the Edinburgh Festival in August.

Eh? Oh, let me explain. I am on my way to qualifying to become a member of the Edinburgh Festival Voluntary Guides Association. We conduct guided walks from along the five streets which comprise the Royal Mile. (Did you know that no such street exists?) As the name suggests they are entirely free. EFVGA is under the auspices of the City of Edinburgh Council, but the guides give their services on a voluntary basis.

Fine, but what has this to do with rhubarb?

Ah, you want to know more about rhubarb? Happy to oblige. Had we not been on a West Indian theme at the time of the last alphabetical, rhubarb would probably have pipped rum to the post. Technically, it's a vegetable, and, left unchecked, can grow like a weed. Occasionally you'll find it served relatively unsweetened - a great counterpoint to oily fish such as mackerel - but we generally use it in puds. Many a person of my generation will have memories of being given a stalk of rhubarb straight from the garden with a newspaper cone filled with sugar to dip it into. Actually not the best idea, especially if the rhubarb has been exposed to cold (ie grown in Scotland). Something to do with oxalic acid. Come to think of it, I do recall some stomach aches.

Prestonfield House

It's been around for a long time as a medicinal plant, but the origins of edible rhubarb are unclear. Sir Alexander Cunyngham-Dick, whose family owned Prestonfield House, now a luxury hotel on the south east of Edinburgh, was awarded a gold medal for introducing rhubarb to Scotland in the 18th century. In all probability the credit was due to a legendary traveller, James Bruce of Kinnaird, who brought seeds back from Abyssinia.

Today, chefs prefer the early forced rhubarb which is available round about now. It produces pinker stalks which are sweeter. In Britain, this comes mainly from Yorkshire. The forcing, bizarrely, happens in dark sheds, where the stalks grow at an astonishing rate, about 15 centimetres a week. Growers swear they can hear the plants squeak as they grow.

OK, we get the Edinburgh connection, but what the **** has this to do with being a tour guide? Will you stop interrupting?

Tourists love tales of gore. Edinburgh history has it in abundance. Murders, lynchings, hangings, take your pick. But they especially love tales of gardyloo. This was a city of tenement buildings up to 12 or 14 storeys high, with no running water or internal sanitation. The traditional way of emptying your chamber pot was to chuck its contents out of the window. You should have the good grace to warn pedestrians below by shouting out, gardyloo, a corruption of the French for look out for the water. Needless to say, the city was notorious for its foul smell.

Yes, but...? SHUT UP! A previous owner of Prestonfield, Sir James Dick, had the brilliant idea of contracting with the council to clean the streets. The waste was then taken to Prestonfield and spread, making the farmland some of the most fertile for miles around. Perfect, in fact, for growing rhubarb. Now do you get it?

The last word. A favourite story of my wife's late father, a keen vegetable grower, narrating an exchange between two neighbouring gardeners.

- What jobs have you got on today?

- I'm going to spread some dung on my rhubarb.

- Oh. We put custard on ours.

Boom, boom!

The principal restaurant at Prestonfield House Hotel is named Rhubarb, and regularly features puddings using its home grown stuff.

Get more information about Edinburgh Festivals Voluntary Guides Association on their website www.edinburghfestivalguides.org

Two weeks left to enter our restaurant review competition to win a meal for 2 at Tapa.

Tom's Food! is away next week.


  1. Sarah Walker on 8th March 2024 at 7:20 pm

    Love this! And will definitely come on a tour. After food, history is my other love.

    Thank you for an entertaining. Love the link. Very clever.

    Hope all well.


    • Tom Johnston on 9th March 2024 at 6:09 pm

      Lovely to hear from you. These tours are just a practice for the Festival, but I’d be happy to lay on one for you, perhaps with lunch afterwards. You’ll find the email address on the main site.

Leave a Comment