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Edinburgh and The Lothians
Chapter XIII - The New Town and the Suburbs by the Sea


THE beginning and substance of modern Edinburgh is the New Town. Many a citizen, who gazed from the Castle Hill or his own back windows across the Nor’ Loch at the Lang Gait or Lang Dykes and Bearford’s Park that make the Princes Street and George Street of to-day, may have reflected that here was the building site of the future. But they were terribly poor in old Scotland, and they were terribly concerned about all sorts of things that were to them more important than fine streets and houses—the right to the Throne, the right Faith, crossed and re-crossed with private quarrels, so that they could merely hold on to what they had. That unlucky Darien business of itself set back the clock of enterprise for ever so long. As things settled down after the ‘45, Edinburgh at last burst her bonds, outran the Flodden Wall in various ways, and in 1765 began the North Bridge that spanned the Nor’ Loch, and enabled you, on a nearly level street to walk over to a fresh civic world. James Craig, the nephew of Thomson, the poet, planned the New Town as a series of exact parallelograms; that shape was predestined. The evils of the old, its crowded, shut-in closes,, its irregularity, its wearisome declivities, must not be repeated; here was to be ample space and light and air; the classic rather than the Gothic; the systematic rather than the romantic. The New Town was certain to be a violent reaction in stone from the old. It still consists of those great, regular parallelograms with regular gardens in the midst of the spaces, and regular houses, for the most as like one another as two peas. The New Town proper lies between Princes Street and Queen Street Gardens, and St Andrew Square and Charlotte Square. To-day this is but the centre piece of much building. It is about as long as the Old Town, and, roughly, about as broad. At first it must have seemed sufficient to double what already existed, especially as the south side early showed a desire to rival the north. For instance, you had Brown Square and George Square, to which last Walter Scott’s father, a perfect type of the reputable citizen of his time, flitted from the College Wynd. The original New Town was finished about 1800 but since then it has grown continuously, so that now the whole land, right down to the sea, is well taken up with rows of streets and great institutions, of which the Fettes College is, perhaps, the most striking. It absorbed a number of villages or little communities of one sort or another that stood on the ground. Thus, at the end of the North Bridge, where is the Register House, was Moultrie’s Hill, and then there was Silvermills and Broughton, and near by, Picardy; and on the Water of Leith—now clear as a Highland stream, though not long ago little better than a sewer—Canonmills and the little village of Dean, on which you look down from the lofty Dean Bridge. All these places have long histories with much entertainment for the minuter kind of antiquary, and little for anybody else. Various changes took place within the New Town itself; for instance, Princes Street was once a row of uniform houses with sunk flats, and there were successive alterations in the hollow which was once the Nor’ Loch. Alexander Smith has said Edinburgh would be perfect if you could only dash a river through that deep gorge where to-day you only dash railway trains. Something like this was part of Craig’s design. The Nor’ Loch was to be set a-flowing and was to connect at the east end with a canal, which, in its turn, was to connect with the Firth, and up this great ships were to sail, and Leith was to be dished for ever as a trade centre. This fond dream vanished in thin air. I don’t know whether it ever was possible; it was never really tried. The trains had to come, and there was their appointed path. And the general effect? We must put down this railway in the hollow to the bad. It is very prominent, and railway lines must be ugly

"it is their nature to." There are many good things to balance this evil. Regularity and order have their attraction. Spacious streets intermingled with green gardens are pleasant to see. George Street, with St Andrew’s Square to the east and Charlotte Square to the west, and its long line of straight, handsome houses between, is a very fine street indeed. It is perfection of its kind. You see it best on a Sunday forenoon, when all the good folk are at kirk and it lies empty to the day. The Trajan-like column to Melville in the one Square, the Prince Consort Memorial in the other, and the various statues at the intersection of the streets are all effective. George IV. at the Hanover Street junction, on these empty days, rules the mast. Chantrey never did better; there he is, every inch a king, and the first gentleman in Europe without a doubt. William IV. scarcely counts, and it was a misfortune for George, who counted in his time for a great deal, to be succeeded by a monarch the very pattern of the domestic virtues in which his portly Majesty was so singularly lacking. You impute a certain air of bravado, though of the most Royal kind, to the stone figure, with his sceptre much in evidence. The very inscription is insolent: "George IV. visited Scotland in 1822." It seems an odd thing nowadays, when Scotland is the happy hunting-ground of Kings and Princes, to make such fuss about a Royal visit, till you remember that since Charles I.’s time no King, having actual possession of the throne, had come north. On the other hand, Princes Street is not, as some have said, the finest street in Europe. As mere street it does not equal George Street, and although the gardens are well enough, the statues to Edinburgh’s very worthy sons are, to speak plainly, only so-and-so. On the other hand the Scott Monument is beautiful in itself and suitable for its purpose. The Princes Street houses are now of all sizes and shapes, and if some may be called handsome none is strikingly so. It is the evil of that regular style that you can always go one better by increasing the size; also, all minor streets are inferior editions of the best, and when you have once seen that best, what is there after worth the looking at? There is not that infinite diversity which attracts and stimulates in every part, ay, in every nook of the real Old Town.

One thing in Edinburgh obviously saves the situation on almost every occasion, and that is the prospect. It is the singular charm of the Castle Rock and the long slope to Holyrood that each is not only a centre from which you gaze on diversely fair and beautiful things, but, itself seen from afar, composes the most enchanting of pictures. The Castle Rock is not to be spoiled! Crowned with the very fool’s cap of a hideous huddle of barracks, vexed at its base with engine smoke, it remains unconquerably majestic, still the Maiden Castle not to be overcome. It gives to Princes Street a glory not properly its own. The Calton Hill closes the view to the east, and that again is impressive, spite its mad jumble of monuments. It is now an old saying that Edinburgh is like Athens in more ways than one. "Why not make it more so?" said the architects, as they raised that quaint ruin called the National Monument, and the Grecian temples on the Mound, and many another building. Whatever be the points of likeness in one thing, the comparison signally breaks down. "Most ambrosial air" could by no stretch of the imagination apply to the Edinburgh atmosphere, with its easterly haar and its days of endless drizzle. Finally, a part of Arthur’s Seat must be included among the hill prospects from Princes Street. You have but to follow one of the cross streets northward and you lose the Castle and its rock only to gain a surprising near view of the sea and the Firth, with its continual procession of great ships, and the hills and shores of Fife. A stroll on a summer evening in the northern parts of the New Town is an experience of beautiful and inspiring prospects. Of the interiors of New Edinburgh, I will only observe that space is a tradition of the New Town. The dining-room of a house in (say) Drumsheugh Gardens will strike you as large, the drawing-room as endless. A change, indeed, from the narrow quarters of 150 years ago.

"Happy is the nation that has no history!" Happy, but not glorious or splendid, or even interesting. The New Town has no real history. By 1765, when they began the North Bridge, the history of Scotland, in so far as it was not merely one of the units of the British Empire, was over. Nothing could happen, and nothing did happen, and if this was true of Scotland it was also true of Edinburgh, its capital. The only exception, small but real, is the Disruption, the central incident of which by a mere accident came off in St Andrew’s Church near the east end of George Street. A little earlier, or a little later, the memorable General Assembly of 1843 had met in the appropriate spot—that is, in the High Street, but the old place in St Giles’ was done away with, and the new one at the head of the Lawn-market, begun in 1842, was not finished till 1844. An odd little trick of Fate thus cheated the historical proprieties.

The only associations of the New Town worth the mention are connected with the dwellings of famous men—mainly of famous literary men. David Hume and Robert Burns, and Walter Scott and R. L. Stevenson are the names that most readily occur to mind, and the first three of those have more to do with Old than New Edinburgh. A certain interest attaches to the house of Blackwood and its famous magazine, still in a so vigorous age that you do not think of it at all as old. That belongs to the New Town, first to Princes Street, but much more to George Street, which is now, as it has long been, the headquarters. But all this is but the shadow of life, tame and thin after the particularly full-blooded existence of former days. It used to be said everybody lives in the New Town. To-day this is far from obvious. Improved means of locomotion, suburban trains, motor cars and what not have made distance of less account; there are suburbs of fine houses in every direction. Nay, in Ramsay Gardens, on the slope of the Castle Rock and in touch with Castle Hill, are some new and good houses of a superior class, and one or two University settlements have again brought a touch of higher life to the old places. Still if you could cross-question the individual members of the hordes of tourists that throng the Castle and Holyrood, and peer curiously into the dark closes that lie between, as to where he pitched his tent, Princes Street, or a stone’s throw from it, would be the inevitable answer.

Scots character, like Scots history, is made up of violent reactions and contradictions. The folk of the New Town are as different as may be from the old High Street residenters. These were of sharp, brief, caustic speech; these swore horribly, quaffed liquor, what would seem to us incessantly, and were of such sudden, passionate fits of temper that it is told the fire-irons in the old Edinburgh houses were invariably chained down, to prevent their use in a chance brawl. Also they neglected the conveniences and proprieties of life in the most scandalous manner. But the formal houses, and large spaces, and settled ways of our own day, have framed the newer generation in another mould. Your Edinburgh citizen strikes you as a quiet, precise, formal person, of careful manners and cautious utterance, neat and conventional in his dress and ways, walking by the letter of the law, moving in sets and castes, with the horror of the strange, and is what an earlier day would have called "genteel." Convention is in the very marrow of his bones; his life is humdrum from beginning to end. He will keep up appearances to the last, and is given to the state and ceremony of the wealthy on quite insufficient means. This is not a popular or engaging picture, but he is not, it is whispered, counted by his fellow Scots a popular or engaging person. This is the sum and substance of hostile criticism. At the most it is only true of a type, and there are many types in Edinburgh. Some know how to combine the vigour of the old without its coarseness and the refinement of the new without its formalism. In this city of courts and schools and kirks, wherein the common industry is the learned one of printing, the average culture is high. Your scratch Edinburgh crowd would pass a competitive examination far better than any other miscellaneous lot in the kingdom. Each one would answer well in history, theology, philosophy, and each one, like the Sir Pertinax of the old unkindly comedy, would have his "modicum of Latin." Learning is, and has always been, loved and honoured for its own sake in Edinburgh.

I must say some words on one or two spots on the Firth. Granton, the most westerly of these, is a new place, only dating from the late Queen’s reign, and a sort of rival port to Leith. Further east is Newhaven, once a quaint old village, the home of those fishwives whose peculiar dress, and the heavy creel on their back, supported by a strap across their forehead, makes them still the most picturesque figures in the streets of the capital, where they are no rare sight. Though there is the usual amount of rebuilding at Newhaven, some of the old Scots two-storey dwellings, with outside stairs and quaint gables, remain. You see women at the windows weaving the nets in which their husbands and brothers catch the fish they seek nightly. Wester Close is the most characteristic. Still a distinct community, they live, marry and die in their own little circle; they are said to have peculiar beliefs, peculiar ways, even peculiar speech. Charles Reade, English as he was, is thought to have got very near them in his Christie Johnstone (1853). I fear you will wait in vain to hear a fishwife of genius expound the true inward life of the community, and I fear peculiar Newhaven will soon lose its salt and become as deadly insipid as all around. How else, when the electric tramways roar through it with incessant din, and long lines of undistinguished houses crowd on it from every side? It is still possible to catch a glimpse of its quaint ways, and to recreate yourself with the historic fish dinner, at the Peacock, the Anchor, or some other of its numerous taverns, but how long this will be possible it is hard to say.

You pass on to Leith, the Port of Edinburgh, and "sair hadden doun" in former days by the rulers of the capital. You could fill pages with its history. The Pier o’ Leith is famed in Scots song, and even in Scots law, for the Pier and Shore of Leith were regular places for proclamations of outlawry and what not, and in its obscurer byways there are still traces of old buildings; a door here, a window there to catch your eye, if you be curious of such matters. Many a famous person landed here and passed on to Edinburgh. Queen Mary, most famous of all, disembarked on the 20th August 1560, at 8 a.m., for it was an early age. But the Pier on which she set her foot has long vanished. In 1779 Paul Jones was in the offing with three ships, and caused no little bother among the honest burghers. Leith Races, of which Fergusson sung so blithely, are now held at Musselburgh. Leith Links, whereon the Duke of York, afterwards James VII. and II., played the half-mythical game of golf that gave Patterson the Golfer’s Land in the canongate, are to-day quite unsuitable for this classic diversion. But I will not pick out any more plums from the historic pudding. To-day the stranger will find little to interest him in all the busy ways of Leith, it serves but foil to the glories of Edinburgh. A walk by the seashore takes you past what are, or were, the sewage meadows of the Edinburgh Corporation, and are still in any case unsightly enough. And so on to Portobello, always in view of the Fife coast on one side and the Lion Hill on the other. Portobello is the Margate of Edinburgh. There are Marine Gardens that excel in attractions the Hall by the Sea. The Pier, however, is deserted, the automatic machines there look as if for ages they had not distended " their ponderous and leaden jaws" to the open sesame of a penny, and the marvellous landscape and seascape find few admirers; but the Promenade is thronged, and reminds rather of Southend than Margate. Farther on is Fisherrow, once another Newhaven, and the "honest town" of Musselburgh, and Levenhall, and Morrison’s Haven, and Prestonpans with its coal and beer. And you may ride by tramway right on past the fishing village of Cockenzie to Port Seton, and only there will you say Edinburgh ends, and that is because the land beyond is not to feu and there is in the meantime no possibility of further planning and building.


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