To be philosophical about it, it could have been worse. The guy at the tail-end of the crowd of eight (or ten or whatever) only grabbed the top of my head as I passed. In that space of time, he could have broken my nose.
However, I didn't get a sense of violence from either this guy or the guy in front of him who had made a grab at my friend and missed: I just felt a wave of disrespect. I am not sure how if it was merely Disrespect for Women or Disrespect for LOCAL Women. All I really know about these guys was that they were all white ("very white" observed my friend) and that they weren't speaking English. I am good at recognizing languages, but I hadn't been paying attention.
I hadn't been paying attention because my friend and I had had a small dinner and cocktails at our favourite cocktail bar before donning our berets and long wool coats (mine tweed) to go back into the dark evening and walk to a ceilidh dance. We were cozy and comfortable and looking forward to the dance, which was only a brisk walk over Edinburgh's South and North Bridges and down Clerk Street, hey presto. We were chatting and although I saw the big group of 20-something men--too old to be language students--coming towards us, it simply did not occur to me to get out of the way.
It has been over fifteen years since a random stranger on a Toronto street suddenly screamed in my ear, and about that since a former-Yugoslavia demonstrator on another Toronto street blew a shrill whistle in my ear. (Idiot--I supported his political opinions and would have said so, had he asked.) But I cannot remember anyone grabbing me in the street, and I always put that down to a certain inner intimidation factor. I have a rapid, don't mess-with-me walk.
And although I have seen way more than my fair share of assaults in Edinburgh, I have not seen men lay hands on women. Solitary men or pairs of men (especially under 30) are at much more risk of attack by men than "lassies" or, in our case, "wifies." The idea that however "hard" a man you are, ye cannae lay hands on a lassie or wifie (especially if unrelated to you by blood or affection) was deeply entrenched in the Scottish male psyche for a long time. Thus, although not as safe as they could be, the Bridges are not Tahrir Square.
My pal thought the men were tourists. I hope they were tourists. Because if they weren't tourists, they live here. And as aggravating as it is to experience a gang of drunken tourists acting as though they owned the streets of your town (like hundreds of "England" fans in Frankfurt in '06), it is way worse to imagine blue-collar continentals working out their resentment of Edinburgh life by grabbing at (they would have presumed) Scottish wifies as they passed.
Or is it? Did the nationality of the idiot who grabbed the top of my head and give it a shove matter one whit? Would it not be fairer to assume that he would have behaved the exact same way in his native country, towards women of his native country? And I am reasonably certain he would be much less likely to behave this way had he not been in a big group of male drinking buddies, which makes the issue of the Group and the Drink rather more important.
One way to avoid harm as a woman in an urban environment, even in elegant little , Edinburgh at 8 PM at night, with a friend, wearing a beret and a tweed coat as if you were your own Edinburgh great-granny, is to avoid crowds of drunk men. As angry as I am this morning at the thuggish way this particular man acted in his crowd towards me, I am also a little angry I allowed myself to be caught unawares. Usually it is easy to avoid crowds of drunk men; all you have to do is back up or speed up and cross the street. But I wasn't paying attention.
However, as I said, it could have been worse.