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Life Jottings of an Old Edinburgh Citizen
Chapter Thirty-One


I HAVE spoken of the discreditable proposals for buiIding up the valley between the old and new town by erecting a second side to Princes Street, and putting a cross street on the Mound, and building shops on the North Bridge. A first step in this amenity destroying policy was taken in the erection of what were called the "New Buildings," on the site now occupied by the North British Railway Hotel. For about a century that line of street buildings presented its coarse rubble back to Princes Street, without one redeeming feature in its ugliness, made, as it was, even more objectionable by tradesmen's advertisement names in great letters, conspicuous in white or gold, so that they could be read afar off by those in Princes Street. Such buildings, once erected, could never be removed, unless to give place to other buildings. It is certainly a matter for regret that the view from Princes Street out towards the sea, with the Bass Rock and North Berwick Law n the distance, has been finally closed up. Had the New Buildings not shut out that view, it may be doubted whether the Post Office would have been buuit on its present site. If the low building of the old Theatre Royal, and the disreputable Shakespere Square beside it had been removed, and if there had been no New Buildings at the end of Princes Street, the open view eastwards would have been of high value to the city's charms. But it was not to be, and one can only have a modified satisfaction in the fact that the rubble backs of the bald New Buildings have been superseded by a structure which at least does not present an unrehewed and dirty back wall to the passer-by. It is to be regretted that this is all that can be said regarding the outlook at; the east end of our glorious thoroughfare. And no one can fail to see, when descending the hill of the North Bridge, how cruelly the chaste and beautiful front of the Register House is obscured by the Post Office and the Railway Hotel.

During my time two widenings of Princes Street have been carried out—both absolutely necessary in view of the increase of traffic. Let it be remembered that in the Town Council's scheme for buiIding a south side to Princes Street had been accomplished, not only would the amenity—the priceless amenity—of that glorious terrace have been ruined for ever, but the street must have remained a paltry narrow passage for all time. I here would have been hopeless congestion as the city grew and the traffic increased. The putting down of tramways on Princes Street, although providing for the convenience of the citizens, could not but be deplored on aesthetic grounds. The presence on such a street of great, broad, double-decked vans, running on fixed rail, having to pick up and drop passengers in the middle of the street, and unable to give accommodation of passage to other vehicles, necessarily caused greater congestion, making further widening a necessity. As that widening could only take effect on the garden side, there was naturally much anxiety on the part of many citizens to have as many of the trees spared as possible, it being well known that to a contractor a tree was an object, his only feeling ;n regard to which was. that it stood n his way, and should be hacked down as a preliminary to proceeding to business. When the work was begun, I was passing along in front of St. John s Church, where there was a promising row of trees which might well be spared, as they ran in the line of the edge of the proposed pavement. I found two navvies vigorously plying with axes at one of them, and I said, "Are you going to cut down all these trees?" "Indade an we aar, yer 'onner, every blissed wan—that's the aarder." I dashed across to the Club and wrote what I admit was a most impudent letter to Lord Provost Falshaw, saying that when I was told of the intended destruction, I shouted, "Idiots!"— by which I said I did not mean the navvies who were obeying the orders, but the Town Council which issued them. I went straight up to the City Chambers and saw my friend Mr. Skinner, the Town Clerk. All the satisfaction I got was that I should not say anything about "half-done work," and that it was the intention to plant a line of trees at the outside kerb. There were still a few good trees in the same position, and with a view to these being spared, a deputation went to meet a committee of the own Council. We got a very marked illustration of the truth of Lord Cockburn's words: "There is often little perception of the beauty of street trees." The meeting was presided over by a most worthy bailie, but it was soon evident that there was no hope. The bailie told us that often when he drove along Princes Street, he said to himself how ugly all these trees were. This struck us dumb, and he proceeding, asked if we had ever seen the plan for making West Princes Street into a really fine terrace. "Haw, haw," said he, "you should see that, that's something really tasty." The plan was sent for, and unrolled with a flourish. It represented a flat terrace with no trees. There were many box-beds, in the centre of which were fountains and marble statues, both suggesiive of shivering, in a climate like ours. It was a French ifiedparterre, without a single feature :in harmony with the view of nature beyond. I left that meeting with a groan, ready to quote Lord Cockburn's words. There is cause for thankfulness that we still have our "ugly" trees, and that the pedestrian, casting his eyes across the street, has not to look upon the natural beauties of the Castle Rock over a bad imitation of the artfficial beauty of cities, which have no such glorious scene to give its mandate as to how its surroundings should be treated. May it never be vulgarised in such a manner.

As regards the trees, the promise which was made that there would be a row along the outer curb has never been fulfilled. If there was a real intention, it has gone towards the paving arrangements of a different place from Princes Street. But we Still have our trees beside the pavement, and that is a good half of the loaf spared to us. We had cause lately to tremble as to what those may do who think Edinburgh would be improved by great glass erections in either East or West Princes Street Gardens, sweeping away more trees and vulgarising the valley, whose chief beauty is in its being free from modernisation— a suitable foreground for the Castle Rock— the glory of Edinburgh. It is already vulgarised by the ill-designed band stand thrust upon the. eye. If it is desired to improve the aspect, the first thing to be done is to abolish the present band-stand and to erect a semicircular one of less pretentious character under the north slope, where it would be out of view when the spectator looked at the Castle Rock from the pavements of Princes Street. The present band-stand is an offence to a beautiful natural scene, both by its style and by its being there at all.

As in the case of the widening of Princes Street the rebuilding and the widening of the North Bridge was not accomplished a day too soon.

The increase of traffic both on the streets and in the railway station below made a change iinperative. The old North Bridge, and the buildings of the street called by that name, were nota credit to Edinburgh. The bridge, with its narrow arches and its somewhat steep gradient, was unsightly, and the two end gables of North Bridge Street, with their narrow and bald fronts, presented a by no means good architectural feature to Princes Street, particularly as the gables were high, and the street so narrow as to be paltry. The new bridge, with its improved gradient and wide arches, is on the whole a satisfactory provision of a necessary communication between the old and the new town, as little offensive as is possible, and the buildings substituted for the old bald-fronted houses present a much better aspect, appearance being of great consequence on such a prominent and elevated situation. The increased breadth is not more than enough, notwithstandiing the partial relief from congestion of traffic—always increasing—by the construction of Cockburn Street. If all future improvements are earned out in as satisfactory a manner, there will be little to complain of it, the conduct of our municipal fathers in caring for the amenity of the city, and the convenience of the citizens.

Would that it were possible to say that other erections in the neighbourhood of Princes Street were as little open to objection as the North Bridge improvement, The North British Station Hotel, while its erection has certainly freed the city from the discredrtable rubble backs of the New Buildings, and substituted a structure on the same site which cannot be called an outrage, has had a by no means satisfactory effect. From its great height it dwarfs the view of the Calton Hill very seriously. And strange it is that the only part of it that ought to be high is not high enough, the tower, looking to the enormous mass and height of the rest of the building, should certainly have been considerably more lofty. But any feeling of dissatisfaction which can be reasonably expressed as to what has been done at the east end of Princes Street, almost fades out of the mind when one turns to the west end. No one who remembers the lookout from the top of the Mound towards Corstorphine Hill can fail to view with disgust the establishment of what looks like the straight roof of a block of tenements, cutting across the campanile of the church in Shandwick Place and the Episcopal Cathedral spire, which formerly carried the line of view out westwards most satisfactorily towards the green hills beyond. I believe the Caledonian Railway Hotel has a high reputation as regards its interior. If so, it is the converse of the cup made clean externally, but full within of the horrible, The excellence of the accommodation and the cuisine of this hotel will not ever compensate for its hateful, not to say disgraceful, disfigurement of unrelieved horizontal tine beside the unexcelled picturesque aspect of the Castle Rock. 1 have heard it whispered that some who held influential positions, but whose influence, alas, did not prevail, desired to buy up the decayed Rutland Square and obtain a splendid site for the hotel. How much better this would have been. There <s a well-known saying about the difficulty of kicking a Corporation, which is too graphic to be reproduced here. But good citizens may join with me, if they will, in saying to those who are personally responsible for what was done, addressing them as individuals: "Consider yourselves kicked."


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