After Hours in Edinburgh

One of the first things one notices about the TEDGlobal schedule is that each day contains either the word “party” or a synonym thereof. Sleep? Five hours a night, if you’re lucky.


The weeks prior to TEDGlobal are a purgatory reminiscent of the hours between bedtime and dawn on a childhood Christmas Eve. You can hardly stop imagining the big event. As the first day in Edinburgh approached—this was TEDGlobal’s first time in the Scottish capital—TED Fellows Director Tom Reilly condensed his considerable conference survival wisdom into an email; it was a collection of very sensible admonitions about wearing comfortable shoes and remembering to perform basic human functions, like eating and sleeping. In particular, Tom advised us to try and get five hours of sleep a night so we didn’t turn into zombies.

As it turns out, being plugged into the intellectual electric grid that is TED provides enough energy to avoid zombification in the course of a sleep-deprived week. Of course, part of the experience is that you don’t actually want to sleep (“You can do that when you get home,” is the thinking among many). So, each night I ventured out with both veteran TEDsters and newly minted Fellows to explore TEDGlobal’s new stomping grounds in Edinburgh.

Monday’s welcome reception found freshly arrived attendees in the courtyard of 12th century Edinburgh Castle, a grandiose fortification that sits high on Castle Rock above the city, giving breathtaking views of the surrounding countryside. A chilly wind brought everyone closer than they may have been in warmer weather. It also made for good whiskey sipping, a theme of the week (it was Scotland, after all; the Dewar’s distillery was a snifter glass’s throw from the parapets).

On Tuesday, TEDGlobal began in earnest. I looked at the schedule to discover that something called the “Grand Opening Party” awaited us at the National Museum. But we’d just been to the castle. How much more grand could it get? Plenty, as it turns out. Inside, the museum’s golden sandstone halls hummed like a beehive as TEDsters pored over dinosaur bones, pre-Reformation reliquaries, and royal tombs. After canapés and wine, the tide of TEDsters washed out of the museum and on to the first after-hours event of the week at the Caves, a multi-chambered brick cellar built into the guts of an 18th century bridge. Conversations continued over glasses of scotch (again).

Wednesday contained TEDGlobal’s only unscheduled evening, where TEDizens foraged freely for their own dinners. But somehow, everyone met again for late night cocktails at Ghillie Dhu, an elegant old Scottish pub that featured great arches and pillars, and had vaulted ceilings, from which hung crown-like iron chandeliers. Scottish songwriter Eddi Reader tried to quiet the crowd for a few folks songs, but ended up leading a sing along. Then, the wildly talented chanteuse and TEDGlobal Fellow Somi appeared alongside the soulful violin of TED Senior Fellow Robert Gupta, and the crowd began to sway, rapt and snake-charmed. The evening ended loudly when TED Musical Director Thomas Dolby took the stage and the sway turned into the shake of raucous dancing.

And then the end was upon us. After the final sessions, we wandered out onto the green at Holyrood Park to lie on blankets at the farewell barbeque amid new friends. The purgatory until our next gathering stretched into the future, but this time, it will be lined with pillows, blankets, and the promise of a very deep sleep.

TED Fellow Lucianne Walkowicz works with NASA’s Kepler mission to understand stellar magnetic fields.

Photography by James Duncan Davidson and Robert Leslie / Courtesy of TED

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