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Signet Library

While in Edinburgh, Scotland in October of last year, we garnered experiential knowledge of a luxury ritual used in high end Scottish and UK hotels.  There was even one afternoon tea ritual in a library, near the famous St. Giles Cathedral. near the ancient Edinburgh Castle.

The luxury tea ritual is an unusual experience, as it does have all the earmarks of a ritual, yet now experienced by those who have their afternoons available for a few hours and desire peace and relevant conversation. 

Historically, the concept of ritual has evolutionary origins as they helped diverse communities bond and promote a sense of belonging and cultural identity. And course, the drinking of tea as a ritual originated in China but was carried on in Japan by Zen monks who drank tea, to maintain wakefulness and focus, during long sessions of soulful meditation. 

Since then, and across cultures, the afternoon tea ritual maintains, and, unlike its origins, it is now part of many luxury hotels and restaurants.  Thankfully, away from the din of city noise, there are still places within branded luxury places where soft music, velvet couches, and the peaceful ritual tea service is served daily. 

The luxury tea ritual experience is alive and very well on Scottish afternoons.  An example came months ago, when we asked our family of three if they wanted to go high-end shopping or go for high tea at two of the most famous hotels and one library in Edinburgh. They all opted for afternoon tea. 

“We have enough stuff” said my assertive granddaughter, age 14. 

A bit of unknown history here: In Scotland, the high tea ritual is also called afternoon tea, because 19th and early 20th century Scottish laborers often didn’t receive lunch breaks, so arriving home hungry, they wanted to sit down to a hearty meal ASAP, no matter what time.  But what evolved between breakfast and dinner were tea breaks, starting with a carb-rich savory dish served with bread and sides, followed by sweet baked goods and a pot of bracing, hot tea. The need for worker sustenance became a necessity, then moved on to a tradition.

It was only during the latter part of the 19th century that the tradition evolved from the working classes to the high net worth and the ultra high net worth groups. Now, afternoon tea became even more refined. The sweet/savory menus have sandwiches filled with cucumber, egg, (water)cress, ham, and smoked salmon. The sweet portion of afternoon tea featured scones with whipped cream and jam, as well as cakes, pastries, Macarons, fruit cake and Victoria sponge.

When we were in Edinburgh, we went to three high-end afternoon tea experiences, The first was in the Rocco Forte Balmoral Palace, a five-star hotel on Princes Street. This experience — in a peaceful, quiet, velvet-chaired tearoom with a harpist playing on the Mezzanine, allowed us to ponder the substantial menu that displayed 88 types of tea, each well-described and always unique.  I had Malawi rose tea, then had to try their Chai Masala. The experience reminded us of descriptions taken from Jane Austen novels or Emily Bronte’s. The Tea Room was quiet, peaceful, a true sanctuary. The tea server poured the hot water to teapot with great delicacy, and the savory and sweet trays were unique and tasty. 

The second was at the newly renovated Waldorf Astoria Caledonian Hotel, called by locals as the Caley.  (Caledonian is a geographical term used to refer to places, species, or items in or from Scotland. The word is derived from Caledonia, the Roman name for Scotland.)  The afternoon tea was presented in a quiet area called Peacock Alley, where accents of peacock blue and gold were seen on the menus, reflected on the wall décor. It also had soft music—harp again—playing in the background.   The macarons were among the most unique, as they were not sweet as many macarons are, but created from Roquefort cheese, with a walnut filling. 

But the last experience was, according to many Edinburgh residents, among the most unique — as it is in a library, right across from St. Giles Cathedral. Signet Library is also close to the gravestone of John Knox, one of the founders of the Presbyterian Church, the leader of the Scottish Reformation.  His gravestone lies in a parking lot near the library. The parking lot used to be a cemetery, adjacent to the Cathedral.

The Signet Library is an actual library, on the Royal Mile in Old Town, and home to the Society of Writers to Her Majesty’s Signet.  This Society goes back to the 15th century, where the officers produced royal manuscripts with the King of Scotland’s seal, ‘the Signet.’ The Society today remains a highly respected body of lawyers.  So, because of all the writing, re-writing, and studying law, and, like the 18th century Scottish workers, and the Zen Monks, those who partook of the tea ritual also needed afternoon sustenance and cognitive clarity. 

At the Signet Library, tea is served in the Colonnade, a large salon with fluted Corinthian columns surrounded by ornate balustrades in neo-classical style. And the Signet Library afternoon tea is further complimented by a seductive Zeitgeist, where the redolent scent and substance of leather-bound books and old manuscripts define a place where the ritual of afternoon tea seemed profoundly meaningful, and appropriate.  

In all these areas, The Rocco Forte Balmoral, The Waldorf Astoria Caledonian and the Signet Library, afternoon tea defined a ritual of needs fulfillment, a time when, after a busy morning and lunch on the run, there could be time when solitude and relevant thought could be realized, and were attainable, readying the afternoon tea participants for the lively remains of the day. 

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