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Life Jottings of an Old Edinburgh Citizen
Chapter Sixteen


"What then is taste? a discerning sense
Of decent and sublime with quick disgust
For things deformed or disarranged or gross."
- Akenside.

1845 - 50

DURING boyhood, one naturally saw more of our native city than when all the walks were "on the chain," in the control of nurses and governesses. Many a visit did I pay with my companions to the Calton Hill, where was the best place near home for kite-flying. At that time the hill, which is a valuable asset as a place of beauty and recreation, presented some features which one can only recall with shame. The upper part of it was frequently occupied as a place for beating carpets with flails, which sent clouds of insanitary dust over the neighbouring ground, and into the mouths and nostrils of the children who came to the hill to play there. On the north slope linen was washed, and the ground slopped around water-cocks, which should never have been allowed to disfigure the scene. The washings were hung up on ropes stretched on shabby, badly set-up poles, disfiguring the view in a manner altogether shame-fu!. The space at the back of the great pillars, which tell of Scotland's folly n attempting to build a great national monument, was enclosed by a high paling fence resembling a builder's yard, large placards informing the public that for sixpence a head they could see "Forrest's Statuary" within. We boys wondered what our deficiency in sixpences was depriving us of, but having since seen some of the so-called statuary, it's not possible to do otherwise than wonder that our municipal fathers should have condescended to let the city's property in order to enable Mr. Forrest to draw money by showing his so-called artistic productions. The enclosure was hideous and discreditable, and the contents were unworthy to be provided with accommodation on our classical hill. It was only by an effort of the citizens that the Town Council were prevented from placing these inartistic figures as adornments to the main walk of West Princes Street Gardens' Farther eastwards one Miss Short had succeeded, after several efforts, in leasing a space for what was called an Observatory, a mean wooden erection, where a camera lucida or obscura—I forget which—enabled the visitor to see the country round on a flat, white table, and where at night an inferior telescope gave a vew of the heavens. The scientific part of the exhibition was farcical to a degree. A big kaleidoscope, in which the things moved about were imitations of flowers instead of bits of coloured glass, was called a flora-scope. lie only other exhibit w as of a would be electric telegraph. We were shown how a needle could be moved from side to side, but while there was a dial telegraph, it would not work—indeed, even a boy could see that the wires were not attached to any battery, and the demonstrator moved the pointer round with his finger. It was a sorry affair, and another example of the way in whick our municipal governors, instead of guard -


THE CAl.TON HII.L, SHOWING SHORT'S OBSERVATORY, &c.

and to have left it unoccupied, so that the view along the valley should not be interrupted. But if any building was to be put upon it, nothing could have been more suitable than the Gallery as it now stands. From the east it is a good architectural feature. Upon the west it could not look well as long as the line of the Mound, sloping up, cut off an irregular portion of t from view. But the growth of trees 011 the west bank has gradually cured this fault by obscuring the slanting line of the Mound. here is nothing now that ;s offensive. All this was done when I was a boy, and took little interest in such things; but I know from what I heard at the time, what a relief t was to the "no mean city" feeling, to see those awful wooden booths pulled down and carted away, removing once and for all what was the most terrible blot on the city's fair face, and also putting an end to the disreputable misuse of the part of the Mound not required for carriage-way.

But to make tip for this improvement another outrage was committed, and submitted to without a murmur. Edinburgh had the misfortune to have its gas-works set down in the very heart of the city, on the low ground between the Canongate and Calton Hill. With a too common want of prescience, similar to what was shown in the case of the railway station, it was apparently not considered that the consumption of gas must increase enormously as the size of the town became greater from year to year. Thus it came about that in the course of time the works extended greatly, befouling the streets around, and pouring smoke over the town, with the result that the gas company, which apparently had been put under no restrictions as to building operations, proceeded to erect a chimney of gigantic proportions, which from every point of view was a cruel disfigurement of the scene, although it was as inoffensive in design and proportion as a chimney could be; as Stevenson says: "A shapelier edifice than Nelson's monument" Still it was an eyesore. From Princes Street it loomed up in front of the view of Arthur Seat as seen over the North Bridge. From Calton Hill it cut the eye in the picturesque view of the old town. From the Queen's Park it dwarfed all the buildings, and caught the eye offensively when one turned to look up to the splendid view of the town with the Castle crowning it. It will give an idea to the rising generation, of this gigantic eyesore, to say that it was some feet higher than the Great Pyramid of Ghizeh, and very nearly the same in height as St. Paul's Cathedral in London. Though rising far below the level of Calton Hill, it overtopped by many tens of feet Nelson's Monument on the top of the hill. One would have thought that so terribly ugly a chimney-like erection as dishonours the memory of Nelson, would have been a warning against further disfigurement of the city. And there this vast stalk remained for half a century, a hateful monument to the inefficiency of public rule and the supineness of the Edinburgh citizen. Strange to say, the same cause which led to the erection of the stalk brought about its much to be rejoiced over removal. The increase of demand for gas led to the accommodation for the works proving to be inadequate, and as they could not be extended, they were removed, and the great chimney, and another that had been erected, not so great, but equally a sad eyesore, were taken down. The man who would to-day propose to put up such erections in the valley would probably come as near to being tarred and feathered as the squeamishness of our twentieth century civrlisation would allow. So there may be hope that the Nelson chimney may be taken down,, and something less offensively staring the promenader of Princes Street in the face, may be erected in honour of the great seaman. Something less like a Brobdingnagian reproduction of his nautical telescope might surely be substituted for what no architectural opinion will defend. Its paltry sham battlements instead of improving it, make it more contemptible.

At the same time at which this gigantic chimney-stalk was erected to make a sad blot visible from everywhere on the city's beauty, and in the same neighbourhood, an ancient and honourable bi .Icing was removed. The evil not confined to secular buildings. In the valley, opposite the Regent Arch in Waterloo Place, stood Trinity College Church, worthy and venerable, which as it was in the way of railway extension was ordered by Parliament to be removed, a deed which Lord Cockburn called "a scandalous desecration." The authorisation for its removal was fenced by a condition that it was to be taken down carefully and re-erected as t was on some other site. I saw it from North Bridge when the preparations were being made. Every stone had a number placed on it in large white figures, corresponding no doubt with figures on plans. It was a very strange sight. The stones were then removed to the slope of Regent Road and laid down there, But it should be settled where the church was to be rebuilt It cannot be said to have been to the credit of the city and its rulers that the wreckage lay there for many a year, while difficulties were made about a site, and the only one proposed by the Town Council being anything but appropriate for such an interesting relic of the past. Lord Cockburn's phrase has an added pungency from this failure to fulfil the obligation undertaken. Many thought then, and many think now .that the failure had some sectarian wilfulness about it. But whether this was so or not, nothing was done. Not until Jeffrey Street was buiIt about 1870 was a single stone removed from the heap that lay below Burns' Monument; and when the church was built, it was no reproduction of that winch had been pulled down, though some of the features were retained. This s not a very pleasant episode in the city's history. Many a severe criticism did I hear passing among my elders as to the almost wilful obstruction which was put in the way of the carrying out of an obligation, both of duty imposed by Parliament, and of honour in a matter of interest to the credit of the city's good name. It was rather a mess, to which Uncle Toby's injunction may apply: "Say no more about it."

It may well be that it was the terrible neglect of, and actual outrage upon, the beauties of our city, which led to a certain citizen being filled with evil thoughts regarding our municipal fathers, who ought to be our protectors, and not themselves at one with the evildoers. To give vent to his spleen he was m use when engaging a maid —after adjustment of hours and wages, &c.— to use these words: "Now there is only one other thing, which please take note of. If ever I catch you entertaining any of the magistrates of Edinburgh in my kitchen, than your Term Day!"

Another case of an ecclesiastical building calls for notice. Among the many outrages on good taste in matters relating to buildings, was one which did not exhibit itself to the eye upon the street, but which was as offensive an interference with an ancient edifice devoted to divine worship as ever was perpetrated by people calling themselves Civilised. St. Giles' Cathedral, as we now see it, is a noble pile, and though injured to some extent by the polished ashlar which was so foolishly used to cover up the old rugged exterior— so suitable to the character of the race whose sons worshipped in it—nothing can be said against the grand simplicity and sobriety of the interior, restored through the munificence of the late Dr. William Chambers. There the original simplicity has been retained, w th excellent effect. But incredible as it may appear, the interior had been absolutely destroyed, and remained destroyed for many generations. By the aid of thousands of laths and tons of plaster, the noble church was divided up into three great boxes. As the visitor entered at the north side he found himself in a long passage which went right across the church, a bald alley, without a single architectural feature. From this alley doors admitted to the great divisions, in wl 3ch, being deafened off from one another, three congregations sang and prayed and listened to discourses. The building was made by the lath and plaster partitions to present a symbolic representation of "The Schisms of the Churches." It is a tradition that the tone and character of the teaching conveyed in the three sections of the great building varied considerably, but whether this be true or only rumour, deponent sayeth not. The division of the building was evil enough. Yet for generations no one lifted up his voice against this degradation of a great work, erected no doubt in a time looked upon now as a dark age, but which at least in its efforts to honour God did so with grandeur and good taste.

Thus was Edinburgh destined for a long period of her history to witness against herself both by the outside and by the inside of her ecclesiastical, her national, and her municipal buildings. It is vain to mourn over those wrongs to our city winch are irreparable. -The best signs of repentance would be a thorough awakening to the need for guarding against such failures of duty in time to come. If the evils that must be held permanent do some service as warning for the future, it will be well. 'The burnt child dreads the fire.' Let us conserve and not destroy, and let the eye be jealous in scanning every scheme for change, both as to the advisability of the change itself, and as to the mode of the carrying-out.


Facade of Royal Exchange


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