Edinburgh has reinvented itself many times, all the while remaining a stolid, bourgeois place. As Scotland goes to the polls, could another renewal be around the corner?by Michael Fry / May 26, 2007 / Leave a comment
Urban history has become fashionable, flourishing in the hands of Jan Morris and Alistair Horne, of Peter Ackroyd and AN Wilson. And readers buy the results. Yet the story of Edinburgh remains oddly neglected.
Edinburgh is worth a book (indeed, I am in the early stages of writing one) for being among the first of modern cities. It was rebuilt in the 18th century as a machine for rational living, like, more recently, Brasilia and Chandigarh. But it did better than these imitations by then becoming the setting for something of global significance: the Scottish Enlightenment of David Hume and Adam Smith.
This was the finest example of its capacity for renewal, but not the only one. As I organise my material, what strikes me is how many other renewals there have been. And when I glance up from my desk, on the fourth floor of a typical tenement, to look across the rooftops where the saltires flutter over Edinburgh Castle, perhaps I see another transformation in the making.
Edinburgh could have died once James VI, King of Scots, took the royal court away to become James I, King of England, in 1603. The same might have happened after the Scots parliament followed him at the Act of Union of 1707. But instead the city became, rather than a mere national capital, a republic of letters, a universal realm of progress free from the constraints of borders.
In the 19th century, Walter Scott wrote so lovingly about Edinburgh, “mine own romantic town,” because he feared it was doomed in its old self. His contemporary, Henry Cockburn, called theirs “the last purely Scotch age,” as British and imperial modernity impinged. Instead came decades of high Victorian prosperity. In fact, the bulk of the city as it now stands dates from this period. It may have a stately air of greater antiquity, but that is because Edinburgh is built better than Manchester or Birmingham, let alone London.
The wheel turned, with depression and decay, after 1918. Edwin Muir wrote of “this blank, this Edinburgh” at the heart of Scotland; Hugh MacDiarmid, of its sabbath mornings, “stagnant and foul with the rigid peace of a frigid soul!”
Yet the story was far from over. In culture, the city found fresh ways to flourish. Citizens may once have read poetry or played the fiddle while a fire burned in the grate and rain…