A Tale of Two Cities – Why Edinburgh’s the way it is

Image by Philip Wadler
Image by Philip Wadler

I’d never expected, somehow, to have any connection with Edinburgh. Then we wound up with a child at university there, with a view of Arthur’s Seat right outside her window. I hadn’t allowed for the political consequences of Scottish semi-independence and a huge hike in University tuition fees for Sassenachs. Scottish universities spotted an economic opportunity and began to look south of the border for lucrative recruits. This coincided happily with DD’s interest in German and Scandinavian Studies – UCL was the only other option for her rather unusual combination of degree subjects.

Dropping her off at the Pollock Halls was a rushed affair. We didn’t want to linger and embarrass her, and there was also an enormous sporting event going on in Holyrood Park which made parking well-nigh impossible. So we didn’t really get a feel for her new surroundings until we returned mid-term for a flying visit.

This time we arrived by train, which I think is by far the best approach. Can there be any more dramatically situated railway station than Waverley? You know at once that you’re arriving somewhere remarkable. In fact, you could say you’re arriving in two places. Turn south, and you run smack into the vast ornate bulk of the Scotsman Building. Right next to it, there’s a tantalising glimpse of a kind of thoroughfare that looks very alien to English eyes – I believe it’s known as a wynd. A narrow passage, barely bigger than one human body, and a seemingly endless flight of steps going off into the gloom.

EdinburghWynd. Image by J Durward
EdinburghWynd. Image by J Durward

These vertical streets were the social bedrock of old Edinburgh. Even comparatively wealthy families occupied apartments in these blocks, which could rise to the height of 14 stories in places, sharing vertical thoroughfares with a wide range of other social classes. Old Edinburgh was a cramped and filthy place; originally built for defensive reasons, it was hemmed in by steep ravines on both sides, and had nowhere to go but up. It was, in essence, a one-street town, so lacking in public buildings that business had to be transacted in taverns, or at an outdoor market cross.

Where the railway terminal now stands was once the deep Nor’ Loch, essentially an open sewer, and until the wealth and visionary ambition of the second half of the eighteenth century made Edinburgh the powerhouse of the Scottish Enlightenment, it was an insuperable barrier. The story of George Drummond, City Treasurer and Lord Provost, and his efforts to have the northern end of the Loch bridged, is one of many narratives woven together in James Buchan’s book Capital of the Mind. And it explains why exiting Waverley station to the north is an altogether different experience today.

Today you proceed up a lengthy escalator, which induces a slight sense of vertigo, but that’s nothing to the scale and ambition of the project to build the North Bridge in the 1760s. Its total length was 1,125 feet (343 m), the height of the central arches, from the top of the parapet to the base, was 68 feet (21 m), five people were killed when the foundations gave way at one end in 1769 and it eventually cost around £30,000 to complete – a staggering sum for the time. But its construction opened the way for the grid-panned Hanoverian symmetry of the New Town, in effect the world’s first city suburb.

Birds-eye view of the neat layout of the New Town

Here houses were laid out in elegant squares and crescents, and in the English style – that is, one family of quality to each front door. The quality duly fled old Edinburgh in their droves, leaving what we would now call a ghetto behind them, as Irvine Walsh points out in his review of Buchan’s book. The egalitarian squalour of the wynds was gone for ever, a vacuum now filled by seemingly endless shops selling ersatz tartan, shortbread and, increasingly, Sofie Gråbøl style sweaters.250px-Forbrydelsen,_DVD

I can’t claim to know Edinburgh well. But the shock of this dual identity remains, undimmed by the over 200 years of history. The North Town is order, classicism, airy vistas, and wide and windy skies. The Old Town has a far more hemmed-in, Gothic and occasionally Scandinavian feeling to it. It’s a jarring, fascinating contrast. The two Edinburghs, opposite poles of contrasting values – dark vs light, Classic vs Romantic, Medieval Gothic vs Enlightenment symmetry, face off over the chasm of the old Loch, now occupied by the railway terminal and the Princes Street Gardens, in a never-ending contest for cultural dominance, and that’s what gives the place its exhilarating, unique energy.

Or maybe it’s just the wind.


One thought on “A Tale of Two Cities – Why Edinburgh’s the way it is

  1. I am a bit Edinburgh fan. We spent our honeymoon there back in 1981 and love to visit from time to time. Love exploring the canal and places around it, as well as the new town and it’s basement cafes and bars.

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