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Historical Fantasy in Scotland's Capital

Scottish Review of Books May 2011

‘It is as much a matter of course to decry the New Town as to exalt the Old,’ noted Robert Louis Stevenson in his Picturesque Notes. By 1878 when the Notes were published, the first sections of the New Town which had been completed in 1800 as an alternative to the squalour of the Old were now considered stale: an anaethema to a generation who had read the novels of Sir Walter Scott and wanted to see Romanticism everywhere, especially in their architecture. The New Town with its rational plan, which had so improved the lot of the bouregoisie who moved there was now considered retrograde. Stevenson himself noted critically of its planner, James Craig that ‘the country did not enter into his plan; he had never lifted his eyes to the hills.’

Not for the last time in Edinburgh’s history, modernity was not a goal in itself but the last resort
Perversely, as soon as the Old Town was identified in opposition to the New, it became an object of Romantic speculation. Once the wealthier citizens of the capital migrated across the Nor Loch, they looked back from Princes Street at the spine running from Castle to Palace, and began to think of it as a Romantic set-piece, a pageant of Scottish history. Edinburgh led the United Kingdom in showing the change of fashion. The neo-classical National Monument on Carlton Hill stalled due to lack of funds in the 1830s. During the next decade the Scott Monument attracted £16m of public subscriptions. From its completion the wealthy citizens looked back on the squalid city they had come from through its Victorian Gothic arches and rewrote its history.

This Romanticising of the Old Town has often been described simply as an ongoing act of sanitation and building improvements, performed exclusively for the betterment of the workers who were left behind. These factors certainly existed as they did in other cities during the Victorian period, but to explain the creation of Cockburn Street, with its Scots Baronial chimneys, as an act of civic improvement benefitting the common man fails to take into account the role it served in linking the High Street to the New Town, between where the middle classes lived and where they worked. It also Romanticised the Old Town ridge, creating a fantasy of Scottish history for the regard of the city’s wealthy citizens now living to the north.

Both the Chambers Improvement Scheme of 1867 (which gave the city Chambers Street) and the Sanitary Improvement Scheme of 1893 affected the livelihoods of the working class citizens who were displaced. The civic authorities on both occasions deemed the existing housing market to be sufficient to accommodate those who were made homeless by the improvements, and note again that these authorities were subsequently proved wrong. Indeed after the 1893 scheme, the city authorities were forced, following agitation by trade unions and, against their own inclination, philanthtropic bodies to take the unprecedented step of actually building homes for their citizens. Not for the last time in Edinburgh’s history, modernity was not a goal in itself but the last resort, a means to compensate for the failure of the past.

The renewals of Edinburgh in the nineteenth century were as much an act of aesthetic control by philanthropic groups such as the Social Union, a society that Patrick Geddes was instrumental in forming as a means of improving the lot of the common man. The removal of working families from the Old Town was inevitable particularly if the market was expected to pay for new homes. This occurred with the full connivance of the Social Union who, influenced by the teachings of Octavia Hill, believed that the state provision of housing was pernicious, because it discouraged private developers from setting up well-organised properties for poorer tennants.

Certainly Geddes’s approach has been a success on its own aesthetic terms, and the Old Town of Edinburgh is at least in part an inhabited part of the city, albeit by those with a bit more cash than the common man. His model for ‘conservative surgery’ has provided an architectural model long after his death, drawing tasteful contextual modernism work from architects, even modernists as Basil Spence. His example though has been used to champion a culture in which, under the guise of greater democracy, planning control was deferred from the civic authorities to self-interested anti-development groups. His name has been used to create a climate in which large-scale modern projects (such as trams and geology-themed tourists attractrions) were not just unpalatable but impossible to deliver well.

Geddes whilst engaged with the redevelopment of the Old Town was certainly capable of producing the unexpected. His advocates tend to gloss over the fact that his main intervention into the public realm was his belief that the closes which so define the area today should be opened out into squares, such as that at Lady Stair’s Close. The Outlook Tower defined Edinburgh as a place in which cultural institutions exist as oddities, morraine which remain after the glacial flow of the city’s financial and legal transactions have been made. His analogy between the city and body were too easily co-opted by arch-conservationists. The small public housing projects that were built in Portsburgh and Tron Square were influenced by the `conservative surgery' approach but still involved removing the inhabitants from the city.

The 1990s may have seen a sensitive upgrading of the buildings to the area to the south of Canongate, with work by Richard Murphy and Malcolm Fraser which arrested the decline in population. However that can only be a short-term arrest in the areas fate. It has been blighted by the opening of crass office developments to the south, such as the Scotsman, as well as the hilariously mis-sited Dynamic Earth tourist attraction. Meanhile the Dumbiedykes estate which succesfully replaced tenaments in the 1960s is on one hand criticised for lowering the tone and on the other eyed jealously by developers.

Instead the monstrous Scottish Parliament lurches across the bottom of the Royal Mile, a product of an over-Romantic fascination with the landscape to its south and east. The country may not have entered into James Craig’s plan, his eyes may have never lifted to the hills, but Enric Miralles can’t have been looking at anything else. Cities are for living in first and foremost and the Old Town Edinburgh for all its aesthetic worth is increasingly becoming uninhabited and uninhabitable.