EdinburghCategory: Land + People
By Gordon Rae and Charles Brown
Edinburgh, the capital of Scotland, is today a great city of half a million inhabitants. Her buildings cover high, rocky ledges and the valleys between them and spread in every direction over the surrounding country and to the sea at her feet. In her very midst the ancient Castle Rock towers up, rising sheer from the valley below except in the east. A mile or so away, the bare rounded hump of the hill called Arthur’s Seat with its Lion’s Head and attendant crags, also lifts the eye upward and outward. Both are landmarks for miles around, and from their summits are unforgettable views of land and sea and sky. There below widening to the North Sea, lie the open waters of the Firth of Forth; beyond them, the pleasant shores of Fife beckon towards the north. To the south bare hills, smooth and rounded, roll away to the Borders and England. Far to the west, on a clear day, other, higher peaks appear, the outposts of the Highland hills.
Edinburgh is built of stone, not brick. The houses look hard, solid, austere. Some people would call them grim, especially on a wet and squally day, for though the sun can shine in Edinburgh beautifully and radiantly those who live there know the vigours of grey days and furious, gusty winds. This stone, fine and clean-looking in itself, is blackened by the smoke of countless fires.
Whatever the cause, Edinburgh became in the last quarter of the eighteenth century very much alive. In her many bookshops, taverns and clubs men already famous, for their books were read in London and the capitals of Europe, rubbed shoulders unconcernedly with all who came and went.
To Edinburgh came, attracted by its literary reputation, distinguished visitors, among them Dr. Johnson and his devoted biographer James Boswell, just about to start on their adventurous tour to the Hebrides. A little later the young poet, Robert Burns, was among them, and it was into such an Edinburgh that Walter Scott was born.
The town had another and less enviable reputation, but one equally deserved. She had become notorious for the overcrowded and dirty conditions in which her inhabitants had to live. The need for improvement grew daily more insistent. It could only be effected by expansion on a grand scale, and so the City Fathers eventually saw. “Let us boldly enlarge Edinburgh to the utmost,” was their cry, and, undeterred by formidable obstacles literally on every side, they set to work to join to the Old Town a New Town. Here in time rose then splendid New Town, its buildings classical rather than medieval in appearance, its streets, squares and crescents spacious and nobly designed, giving the light and air that the citizens had long so sorely needed. Along this lower ridge now runs Princes Street, one of the most famous avenues in the world.