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Edinburgh and The Lothians
Chapter XI - Kirk O’ Field, the University and the Hospitals


THE street that runs by the Tron Church, that convenient centre point of all Edinburgh, begins at the Register House, crosses the ravine by the gigantic North Bridge, jumps the Cowgate valley by the South Bridge and proceeds by a short ascent on its way past the University. Here we will stop. Let us take our place at one of the booksellers’ windows on the east side of the street. You see before you, across the way, a huge building of massive stone, built round a quadrangle; within is a covered way by which you may walk round and round; from it the large class-rooms on the ground floor open out. If you ascend one of the numerous stairs you come upon another set of classrooms. These are like others of their kind; in each is a raised platform, a desk and a chair at one end, and rows of benches rising from the floor so as to make an amphitheatre and fill up the rest of the room. On the south side is the library, the reading-room, the senate hall and so forth. In session (or, as they say in the south, "term "), as the bell clangs forth the hour, the whole place hums and throbs with life; streams of young men pour forth from every direction and cross and recross in every way. A babel of tongues, a rush of feet for five noisy minutes and then quiet. The human currents drain off to the different class-rooms and the quadrangle is deserted. This is changing classes. You note that the students have neither caps nor gowns.

The University, though not a mushroom institution of the last half century, is one of the youngest of the great European schools of learning. The Academy of James VI. is still its proper title; the Town’s College was long its popular name, justified by the fact that for some centuries the Town Council were its lords and patrons. The buildings are nothing like as old as the name would imply, but before I in brief tell their story I wish to direct your attention to the historic ground on which they stand. There was once the Ecclesia Sanctae Maria in Campis, otherwise Kirk o’ Field, known to all time as the scene of the Darnley murder. The Kirk has its history before Mary and Darnley, but it has no great interest or meaning for us to-day. It was called in Campis because it was beyond the old walls, which, you will remember, did not even include the Cowgate. The house of Kirk o’ Field attached to it, but a little way distant, was built just on the wall at the north corner of Drummond Street, a few yards from where you stand by the bookshop window. Indeed, a door in the wall led right into the kitchen. It was a little house of two stories.  The top entered by the outside stair, as you see it still in many an old Scots house. It held but four rooms or so. The Kirk had fallen into swift ruin since the Reformation, and the house itself was in no good repair when Darnley was brought there from Glasgow on the 31st January 1567. The tragedy so terrible, so momentous, so impressive, must here be briefly recalled to notice for the hundredth time. Why were all Scots criminal tragedies so impressive and romantic? The actors seem to have crowded them, as if of set purpose, with striking wealth of picturesque detail. It was the shock and conflict of elemental passions, the violence of the time, the striking character of the scenery, which, whether town or country, made a weirdly appropriate background. Darnley was sick, well nigh to death, of a horrid disease; he lay in one of the upper rooms of the house; Mary was in constant attendance, a loving and devoted wife to all seeming. She meant to have passed the evening of the 9th February with him, but there was a masked ball at Holyrood preparatory to the marriage of Margaret Carwood, one of her attendant women. As the evening fell she returned there, attended by a gallant band with torch and sword—a very jewel set in ghastly night! Darnley had some dim presentment of the coming tragedy. Ominous warnings had reached him from various sources; he had read strange matters in the faces of the Thanes. Ill at ease in mind and in body he passed the final hours of his life. His last known act was to read one of the penitential psalms. Some of the verses had a startling appropriateness. In Holyrood the dance went on. At midnight Bothwell crept from among the revellers, hastily changed his rich ball dress for some plain stuff, and was soon knocking at the Netherbow Port demanding admittance into the silent city for the friends of My Lord Bothwell. "What do ye out of your bed at this time of night?" was the random but pertinent query of the grumbling keeper. None of the five answered; they soon reached the house and joined the other conspirators. One Hepburn of Bolton, a friend and namesake of Bothwell, lighted the match; they then locked the doors, withdrew and waited. The match was slow and Bothwell fretted. How deadly that dread vast and middle of the night! Would that match never burn its way? Exactly at two o’clock a wild light flared to the sky; the whole house rose solid from the earth and then burst into pieces with a roar that shook with dread at least one of the conspirators—poor timid French Paris, lured from the gay warm south to his destruction among those northern wolves. "I never felt as I do now," even Bothwell murmured, perhaps realizing dimly that he had brought about one of the world’s great historic tragedies. This at least forthwith ensured. Every human being in Edinburgh was awake on the instant, but there is no record of crowded streets, or a curious mob pressing towards Kirk o’ Field. "No rash interference in the quarrels of great folk" was a maxim impressed on the minds of those honest burghers by every day’s experience. Bothwell was allowed to return as he came with not a question. He retired to what can scarcely be called his rest, presently to be summoned, and to hear with such surprise as he could assume the story of the deed which was in fact his own. Darnley was found dead in the garden, and it was soon whispered with no mark of burning on him. It was thought he was strangled as he tried to escape. Not even the superfluous wealth of powder had availed to touch him, living or dead. It was exactly eleven months since Rizzio’s murder. Mary’s prophecy had been fulfilled; ere a year was gone a fatter than he should lie as low. In "hugger-mugger" Darnley was "greenly interred" well nigh in the next grave to the other.

I return to the more prosaic records of the University, whose story I tell in a few dates and a few words. In 1558 Reid, the last of the Romish bishops of Orkney, gave 8000 marks to the city to found a University. The other three Scots seats of learning had their beginning in papal bulls. It is only just to point out that even in the fourth and youngest, and always most essentially modern, the old faith had its share. In 1566 Queen Mary drew up a charter for the foundation, but in the subsequent troubles it came to naught. In 1582 her son, by his charter, really founded it, and the small and quaint buildings of that period rose on the present site. James VI. gave it little else but this charter, and for long years the poverty-stricken University lived on, cherished indeed by the Town Council, who appointed the professors. It was not till 16th November 1789 that the foundation stone of the place, as it now appears, was laid, and it was not till 1834 that Playfair, with some modifications, completed Adam’s original design. Twenty-four years afterwards the Scottish Universities Act remodelled the organization of the University, and took away from the Town Council the all powerful influence which they had hitherto exercised, and exercised, it is only just to say, on the whole, sanely and wisely. Since then it has had its full share in the rising tide of Scots wealth; its students have reached 3000; splendid new buildings for the Medical School were erected, 1878-91, to the south-west of the old structure, and between them is the great M’Ewan University Hall, called from its donor; and there is a new Infirmary, 1870-80, conveniently near the Medical School. As late as 1887 a dome was placed on the old building, thus completing Adam’s original design. Altogether the place is as complete and perfect of its kind as you shall anywhere find, and there are endless new professorships of every subject under or over the sun; and what is there that you would like to learn that the University of Edinburgh cannot teach you? And now the Carnegie Trust has given to the Scot, almost for the asking, a college education. You can only wonder and admire how the devout dreams of mediaeval bishops and passionate reformers alike (for whatever their faults and feuds they were one in their zeal for the advancement of learning) have been fulfilled in our own day by American ironmasters and local brewers, and indeed men of all denominations. In old Scotland they would have said, "It is the hand of God," and whatever your creed you will contemn the selfish nobles who sneered at the devout imaginations of prelate and preacher alike, for these last had lofty ideals which the wealthy commoners, nobler than the nobles in after ages, made realities. This is an outside view of the University. What of its inner life? The typical student is not in the majority nowadays. For many are law and more are medical, and some are science, and it is among the residue who look to the Kirk, or perhaps teaching, as their calling that we find what has usually been accepted as the student of the north.

There is a charming paper by the late Professor Veitch, in Edinburgh Essay; on the feeling of a student of philosophy when he entered Edinburgh and Sir William Hamilton’s class, devoted to that subject. The motto on the wall, "On earth there is nothing great but man, in man there is nothing great but mind," struck the confident note most likely to appeal to his youth. But of all University cities Edinburgh ought most to stimulate the imagination of a native. Here is the theatre of his country’s past. What better place wherein to explore that past or be fired to exertion in any field? There is a fascination that Scotsmen have felt in metaphysical studies; many eminent philosophers have called Edinburgh their own town by birth or adoption. She has not yet lost the inspiring tradition, she has yet eminent men among her teachers or writers. Again, for those destined for the Kirk and faithful to its traditions, Edinburgh is the sacred city, the city of the Covenants, of the Assemblies, still more, the city of the martyrs. And not less those inclined to pour new wine into old bottles, to try old dogmas by modem scientific tests, have here found, for the last half century, an ever growing strong, daring, inquiring, sceptical spirit, that with startling rapidity tears off their old spiritual vesture and leaves their minds in a state of bewildering, though it may be pregnant, disorder. Can we doubt that many who came here to learn were moved by high impulses to rich and profitable exertion in various fields of activity?

There are other types less pleasant to contemplate. The Scots student was left, and to some extent still is left, curiously alone. He lives where he likes and as he likes; he goes to lectures, and he often has a mere nodding acquaintance with those who sit next to him; he retires to his solitary lodgings and sits there over his books, and one day is like another. It not rarely happened that he was badly educated to start with, and a man of no real ability. Scotland used to be, and still is, though to a less extent, a land of many sects and many churches. Those who ministered therein were numerous and had poor stipends, for which an early settlement in life and a certain position possibly compensated. Thus there was a great demand, and the supply was not of the first order; many a mediocre young man studied for the Church. Till recently there was no entrance examination; our student passed through the classes and learned very little during his seven or eight years of college training, for such it needed to make a minister. The only heroism about him was a stoical endurance of cold and scanty commons, for he managed to subsist on an incredibly small sum, little more, if more, than a shilling a day, and Edinburgh is not a cheap town, far from it, but a little goes a long way if one lives like a prisoner in his cell. Sometimes even the small standard which the little country kirk required was not reached, and the man became what is known as a "stickit minister," a being whom kail-yard romance has endowed with wondrous virtues, but who is mostly a very dull dog indeed. Times have changed for the better. The elementary schools are more organized, the secondary more plentiful, and there are entrance examinations which help to keep off the useless and the unworthy. But the lonely life is still too frequent, and sometimes it drives men to the bottle, and that has destroyed some of the finest and most genial natures in Scotland; a painful subject, at which it is fortunately unnecessary for us here to do more than hint. Now athletic sports are more in evidence, and certainly for good, and the Students’ Union and University Settlements, established in some of the historic houses in the High Street, must have brought many men together, and will do so still more in the future, though again the enormous diversity of studies may, in some ways, prevent this union. Take it all in all, this great University ought to have a splendid future, as it has an illustrious past. There, if anywhere, the student should live—

 "Nourishing a youth sublime,
With the fairy tales of science and the long results of time."

It were tedious to speak in detail of the other educational institutions of Edinburgh. Chief is the High School, dating from 1519 at any rate. Once it stood on the site of the old Infirmary, a little way to the east of the University. There Scott and a hundred other famous men fought and studied. In 1825-29 it was re-edified in the Doric style, on the south slope of the Calton Hill.

I cannot leave the buildings of the old Infirmary without referring to one incident in its career memorable for all who love English letters. W. E. Henley was a patient for twenty months in the place in 1873-75. There R. L. S. visited him, "And the poor fellow sat up in his bed, with his hair and beard all tangled, and talked as cheerfully as if he had been in a king’s palace, or the great King’s Palace of the blue air." In the series of poems—In Hospital, Rhymes and Rhythms—Henley has recorded his impression. I think he never did better work. Here is realism without grossness, charming verse on a subject difficult to touch. Among the most famous of the etchings is Apparition__the portrait of it L. S. drawn from the life. Henley’s account of their first meeting was given some fifteen years afterwards in the lines to Charles Baxter which he added on collection and re-publication:

"Do you remember
That afternoon—that Sunday afternoon
When, as the kirks were ringing in
And the grey city teemed
With Sabbath feelings
and aspects,
Lewis—our Lewis then,
Now the whole world’s!—and you,
Young, yet in shape most like an elder, came
Laden with Balzacs,
(Big, yellow books, quite impudently French)
The first of many times,
To that transcendent back-kitchen where I lay
So long, so many centuries—
Or years is it !—ago?"

I pass on to George Heriot’s Hospital in Lauriston, built 1658-60, a peculiar Scots mixture of French, Flemish and Italian, blended to a harmonious whole. It is said that, save in one case, no two of its two hundred windows are decorated alike! You remember it is called after "Jinglin’ Geordie," as the British Solomon delighted to nickname his favourite goldsmith, he who followed his master from Edinburgh to London, and in both cities made money which he devoted to this foundation. The present entrance from Lauriston only dates from 1833; before that you entered by Heriot Bridge from the Grassmarket. There is, moreover, a long series of hospitals, as these foundations were called, an infinite variety of schools endowed and unendowed, and parts of the University are repeated over and over again throughout the town. Edinburgh is a city of schools. "Every man gets a mouthful and no man gets a bellyful," sneered Doctor Johnson of Scots education in his own time. The shaft had enough truth to wing its flight; but now whilst every man has his mouthful a great many have their bellyful also, and the lack of it in any must be counted to them for unrighteousness.


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