Saturday, 4 April 2015

An Introduction to Edinburgh history

This morning I gave a short talk on the history of Edinburgh, at the request of a friend. For various domestic reasons (nobody’s fault) there was little preparation time. I discovered, on arrival, that my audience would be a small number of highly educated and interested Chinese visitors. I did my best.

This is more or less what I said. The talk was not written beforehand, though I had worked out the structure. It occurs to me that it might be of more general interest.

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Good morning and welcome. I am a history teacher, born and brought up in London, who moved here forty years ago. My family and I like it so much that we have settled here. I have been asked to introduce the history of the city in twenty minutes. This means that I shall leave out far more than I include. So there is no point bothering about that. Also, I should make it clear that there is nothing official about this presentation. It is a personal view.

I reckon that it is useful for the visitor to think of four Edinburghs.

One is the Old Town. You will know from the map of Scotland that Edinburgh on the east coast and Glasgow on the west are very close together. Between the two is a trench of flattish land, with big hills to north and south. The geological collapse of this trench, millions of years ago, was accompanied by some volcanic activity, so that round here we have a lot of small but steep-sided hills. There is the Castle Rock, of course. Also Arthur’s Seat, Calton Hill, the Bass Rock and so on. These rocky hills were ideal for defence, and it says something about life all those centuries ago that defence was more important than water. People settled on the Castle Rock because they felt safer. From the Rock the glaciers of the Ice Age left a slope running away east, down to where Holyrood Palace is now, and this became the Old Town, with its wall.

The second Edinburgh is the eighteenth century expansion. At last, in the 1750s, there was no likelihood of invasion from England and no likelihood of civil war and so people of vision began to think of building outside the city wall. Because of all those steep little hills this was quite an engineering challenge, and you will see lots of signs of earth-moving and levelling and the building of bridges. There used to be a lake, the Nor’ Loch, where Princes Street Gardens are now; that had to go. They built on the South Side, where George Square is now. They built the First New Town, and then the Second New Town. These two are often run together and called The New Town. I think this is a mistake. The First New Town, Princes Street, George Street and Queen Street, was built to be as different as possible from the Old Town. As a result the streets had to be straight and wide, the houses had to be low, and there was to be no decoration. One famous citizen of the time, Henry Cockburn, said of the New Town “What a site nature gave us for our New Town. What meanness in its execution!” But then the Second New Town, below Queen Street Gardens, was built with a different sort of plan. Great architects were encouraged to build streets and buildings of grandeur and beauty. Today the First New Town has been rebuilt and rebuilt, with modern shops and hotels. The Second New Town is strictly protected by planning regulations and is preserved as a great architectural site.

The third Edinburgh is the great modern expansion that started in about 1850 and is still going on. Tourists don’t come to see it, but it is where most of us live. It involved hundreds of thousands of people, and a great deal of fresh water and sewage and new parks, and shopping centres and housing schemes. However, thanks to geography Edinburgh cannot have a huge urban sprawl. The hills to the south and the sea to the north are never far away. Also, you will notice as you look around that sometimes the nineteenth and twentieth century development has been allowed to change the Old and New Towns.

The fourth Edinburgh is too often forgotten. This is Edinburgh by the sea. Most great cities in Scotland developed partly as ports, built on the sea for trade. Edinburgh was built for defence, on a rock. But a port developed, at Leith, and when Robert I – that’s Robert the Bruce – gave Edinburgh a new charter, he gave Leith to the city. Leithers did not all approve of this and in the 1830s, when Britain’s cities were reshaped by burgh reform, Leith became a separate burgh. But the lawyers of Edinburgh are a powerful lot – consider how recently they managed to get Scotland’s parliament in this city, not in Glasgow – and in 1929 they managed once again to have Leith brought under the government of Edinburgh. So Edinburgh is a sea-side city, and trade, fishing and so on are part of its history. So is relaxing by the sea, at Portobello or Cramond.

I have described four different bits that make up Edinburgh. I would now like to use a few dates to help fix the history. There is no need to remember them precisely

In the 1130s that great king David I decided that the people who lived below the Castle should be a chartered burgh, with a provost and baillies, a privileged market and so on. He was the founder of Edinburgh, if anyone is. He also set up the abbey, Holyrood Abbey, at the other end of the hill that leads down from the Castle.

In the 1320s Robert the Bruce had finally driven the English invaders out of Scotland, which included recapturing Edinburgh Castle in 1314 when Thomas Randolph led a small party in the dark to climb the rock. This was when he refounded the city, and issued it with a new charter. [Question: Yes, this is the story that you can see some of in the film “Braveheart”]

In the 1560s there was the revolution that led to Mary Queen of Scots being driven out and Scotland becoming Protestant. The most important person in this was John Knox. It is very hard to know now which Scots lords were genuinely Protestant and which saw the Reformation as a chance to get money, land and power; probably a bit of both. As far as Edinburgh was concerned it meant that the monks were thrown out of Holyrood Abbey and the city council got control of the whole Royal Mile, and of the land that had formerly been run by the Canons of Holyrood Abbey.

In 1603 there was one of those accidents of marriage, birth and death that can happen with royal families. The King of Scotland, James VI, became James I of England as well. For ages the English royal family had schemed for this to happen the other way round, and it never did. That’s by the way. The point is that with the same person as king of both countries there was hope that the interminable wars between the two would cease. It did not work out quite like that. There were still too many wars and civil wars for over a hundred years. [Question: Yes. Just as in Hong Kong and China you have one government and two systems, so it was in England and Scotland.]

In 1707 the two countries officially joined to become one country, the United Kingdom. Historians have been arguing ever since whether this was a good thing or not. I doubt if they will ever agree. But those who say it was an English take-over of Scotland are definitely wrong. Yes England was and is bigger, richer and stronger than Scotland, so was always likely to be the dominant partner. But it was a partnership. The main concern of the English government in 1707 was to make sure that Scotland did not become an ally in war of France. In return for that guarantee they were quite happy for Scotland to keep its own legal system, its own education system and its own church. Even today, when Elizabeth II is in England she is head of the church, as Elizabeth I established centuries ago. In Scotland she has no special position in the church, and when she stays in Holyrood or Balmoral she visits the local parish church more or less as an ordinary person, and plays no part in running the church here.

Finally, between 1794 and 1815 there were the great wars against Napoleon’s France. There are often forgotten. But they involved everyone and went on a long time, at a very important period in Edinburgh’s history. On Calton Hill you can see great monuments to Waterloo, to Admiral Nelson, to the dead in the French wars. Henry Cockburn, whom I have mentioned, spent many nights as a volunteer guarding the Martello Tower that was built for defence in Leith. There was a real fear of French invasion at the very time when the Second New Town was being planned and the city was still enjoying being called The Athens of the North.

This is to be a short talk. But before I stop I would like to suggest three things that have affected the character of the city.

One is its closeness to England. This has been for bad and for good. For all those centuries of war it was far too close to be safe from invading armies, supported by the powerful English navy. Far too often Edinburgh was a war zone, with gunfire in the streets, and explosions, and the clash of weapons and cobble stone slippery with blood. There are many cities in the world that are war-zones today. Edinburgh was too often like that. Sometimes it was English invasion; sometimes it was civil wars. But then for the last three hundred years Edinburgh has not been some remote provincial city beyond the sea or beyond the mountains. It was easy for people and books and ideas to come and go to everyone’s benefit. During the Napoleonic Wars, which I mentioned, there could be no Grand Tour of Europe for enterprising young men; it was to Edinburgh they came, and the University flourished.

A second is that the city has managed, for many reasons, to become the leading place for Scotland’s professional life. This is where the new parliament was set up. This is where the General Assembly of the Kirk meets. Edinburgh solicitors can call themselves “Writers to the Signet” and put WS after their names. This can be very irritating to Glasgow, which is certainly bigger, and probably a lot richer; but this flourishing professional life certainly is part of Edinburgh’s character. It has – as has Glasgow – several universities and teaching hospitals.

A third feature that seems to me to give character to Edinburgh’s history is a certain democratic way of thinking. I am not talking of politics. Until the 1830s reforms Edinburgh’s two Members of Parliament were chosen by 33 people. But in the Old Town everyone lived close, often on top of each other on the same stair in the same building, so that the rich, the middling sort and the poor would meet every day and know each other. There are plenty of stories of the eighteenth century, when the Scottish Enlightenment was flourishing, of gatherings in pubs where great men of power, learned philosophers of international reputation, ordinary city professionals, and any local who could afford to stand a round, would drink and talk and argue together. Some attempt was made to keep this in the New Town, with richer streets and poorer streets side by side. Now I’m afraid much of this has been lost and in Edinburgh there are “good areas” and “bad areas”, as there are in most big cities. But something of this democratic spirit remains.

I have gone on far too long. I hope you enjoy your visit to Edinburgh, and I do hope it includes a walk down the Royal Mile. We have mentioned the Scottish Enlightenment. You will see a statue of David Hume, the innovative philosopher. You will see a statue of Adam Smith, who invented the science of economics. Go into St Giles and see the memorial window to Robert Burns, a great poet. Further down, see a statue of Robert Fergusson, who died far too young, but whom Burns so much admired. And at the bottom of the hill go to Dynamic Earth and learn about James Hutton, the father of modern geology. He was the first, at least in Europe, to look at the way rock strata lay on each other – on Arthur’s Seat particularly – and start to reconstruct how they might have been formed not thousands but millions of years ago.

In fairness it should be noted that they were not all sons of Edinburgh. Burns came from Ayrshire, and Adam Smith was born in Kirkaldy and did much of his work in Glasgow. The great engineer and developer of steam power, James Watt, is of the west of Scotland, and the philosopher Thomas Reid, whose “Common Sense” lies behind those famous sentences “We hold these truths to be self-evident” and “It is a truth universally acknowledged”, was at Aberdeen. The Scottish Enlightenment was not just an Edinburgh phenomenon. Nevertheless, I have been very lucky to settle here for so long, and I am sure you will enjoy your visit.

I have been allowed to add a little advertisement. Since I retired I have done some writing, and I’ll mention three of my pieces here, in case you would like to know more. They are available on Amazon Kindle.

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