We struck gold in our first year at the Edinburgh Festival when we picked Sibbet House from The Which Guide to Bed & Breakfasts, using that well-renowned and virtually infallible method of selection, “eeny meeny miny mo”. It was run by Aurora and Jim Sibbet.
When Janet rang to inquire whether there were any rooms available at the inn, we were fortunate to find that there was just one left. As repeated in the glossy literature that subsequently arrived, Jim promised over the phone to play the bagpipes at breakfast – but we went anyway.
The house had a wonderful hanging staircase that elegantly snaked its way up to the top floor. It was beautifully decorated and furnished by Aurora. The highlight was a French style drawing room that looked like something straight out of one those country mansions where visitors are allowed to look but not to touch. Well, the room was for use by the guests although we sat down very gingerly on the first occasion that we eventually managed to summon up the courage to cross the threshold.
The highlight was breakfast. Jim was “front of house”, with Aurora acting as the chef. He was an assiduous host, deciding on the seating arrangements, and ensuring that he introduced the guests to each other. He used any foible or relevant point of interest to break the ice, along with the occasional subtle sales pitch: “these are the Cohens, Susan and Cal from Washington DC, festival aficionados who have been staying with us for the last 15 years”.
Service was punctuated with: keen observations such as American guests’ use of cutlery – what are they doing with the other hand?; frequent demonstrations of his encyclopedic knowledge of bus routes for those requiring directions; taking bookings for bagpipe recitals after breakfast; and recommendations on places to eat, usually to the north of Princes Street, as he proclaimed that the Old Town was “foreign parts”.
This was followed by the daily joke, two if you were lucky, delivered in a dry style, perhaps accompanied by an anecdote or apocryphal tale. This could be followed by: a lesson in business; reviews of the shows that Aurora and he had seen the previous day; the role of organised religion in modern society (well in any society actually); plus totally unbiased views on the political scene (?!). They were all among the many topics in his catholic repertoire. It was always important to ensure that requests for extra toast were made between topics, so as not to disrupt the flow.
There were occasional references to the chef, protesting that, while he had been married to her for over 40 years, it was never going to last. Aurora’s arrival on completion of her duties in the kitchen was always the signal for a more in-depth discussion of the festival.
There was no discrimination: people of all nationalities, religions, political hues – even “woolly liberals” as he called us (for several years we used to sport a “Friends of the Earth” bag for carrying our bits and pieces around during the day) – were welcomed and encouraged to participate in the performance. His virtuoso routine was typically completed in around 45 minutes, but those who were acquainted with Jim, as we came to be, knew that we had only to toss an appetizing snippet into the air on one of his other little specialist subjects to get the performance extended to an hour, possibly more: Human Resources (a job in one of his previous existences); the effectiveness of Edinburgh City Council – discuss; shocking changes in local architecture; or his latest property acquisition were all staple items.
It was only the fact that the breakfast dishes were gradually disappearing around us, being quietly removed by a patient member of staff who had probably heard enough over the years to make a passable stand-in for Jim should the need arise, that we were eventually forced to face the day, and we departed to see some shows, have a few beers and a bite to eat, all to help kill the next 23 hours until it was time to experience this coup de theatre all over again.
This piece was written about 15 years ago, as part of our general Edinburgh experiences. I have resurrected it in honour of Jim Sibbet who is approaching his 90th birthday.