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Issue 5 - Edinburgh – Athens of the North

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 5
November 2002

 

This article is 15 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

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Edinburgh – Athens of the North

Kate Patrick explains what makes Edinburgh such a magnificent and lively city, sublimely combining the modern with the ancient

Too well known to admit description,” was how Dr Johnson felt about the city of Edinburgh in 1775, although he is said to have acknowledged the “noble appearance” of the breadth of the streets and the loftiness of the buildings. But it’s true that because Scotland’s capital city is
generally the first stop on touring agendas, there are many people who know at least a little about the place. To those of us who live and work here, Edinburgh is a city with increasingly modern dynamics that thrives within an exquisite Georgian and, in some parts, mediæval setting. Which makes it, in short, a cracker of a place to live.

Edinburgh is, crucially, not trapped in its colourful, historical past. The modern world has arrived, in the shape of much new development in the past five years, particularly since July 1999 when Edinburgh became the home of Scotland’s first devolved parliament since 1707. Stylish smoky-glass buildings have sprung up as the Scottish headquarters of banks and insurance companies, hotels and theatres – well conceived, coruscating additions to the architectural landscape. But what’s inescapable in Edinburgh is the way in which it is geographically defined by the once-volcanic hills on which it is built, dominated by Arthur’s Seat and the Castle Rock; as you move around the city – and the centre is best seen on foot – vistas open up from nowhere, with heart stopping views of the sparkling waters of the Firth of Forth to the north, of fertile fields and golden beaches to the east, and towards the steeper ridges of the Pentland Hills, which circle round the south and west.

A small city with such a keen sense of space is a rarity in itself; but so is having a New Town whose planning was started in the 18th century. Up to that point, Edinburgh had consisted of towering, tottering, mediæval tenement blocks, centred around the street that is now the Royal Mile, which drifted downhill from the castle fortress eastward to the Palace of Holyroodhouse. The tenements were spectacularly insanitary, and contemporary writers could not avoid commenting on the stench of ‘Auld Reekie’. But the castle and Holyrood Abbey did play their part during the turbulent centuries of Anglo-Scottish conflict – hosting kings, nobles and the troubled Mary, Queen of Scots – and Edinburgh wielded a surprising amount of power in the north, considering it was little more than a one-street hill town.

The New Town was laid out to face the Old Town, separated by the chasm that is now Princes Street Gardens. George Street, named after King George III, formed the axis of James Craig’s 1766 plan, and the wide streets built around it formed a system of ‘windy parallelograms’, as they have been described, with St Andrew Square and Charlotte Square forming the classically perfect end pieces. The architects of the New Town could hardly have imagined that their elegant, disciplined, Græco-Roman designs would, by 2002, have become home to some of Britain’s best-known, most upmarket shops; but with their lofty ceilings and balance of space and light, these buildings are as perfect for modern
retailers as they were for the banks, insurance companies and homeowners of the early 19th century.

With the recent arrival of the fashion retailer Harvey Nichols in a brand new building on St Andrew Square, Edinburgh has come of age as a serious shopping destination. But there are urban ‘villages’ within the city that make interesting visiting in their own right: laid back Stockbridge, straddling the Water of Leith – the river that trickles through the centre and comes out at Leith Docks; Leith itself, a regenerating port
now attracting restaurateurs, housing and office development and visitors to the Royal Yacht Britannia, which has come to rest at the Conran-designed Ocean Terminal; the Morningside ‘golden mile’; the West End, with its irresistible boutiques; and the burgeoning, eclectic ‘East Village’, which starts at Edinburgh’s best-known Italian delicatessen, Valvona & Crolla, and takes in the Playhouse Theatre, bohemian Broughton Street and the not-yet-opened Glasshouse development, before running up to Calton Hill and its monuments. Breathing space is provided by some of the world’s most famous and enchanting Botanical Gardens and by huge parks such as the Meadows, Leith Links and the Braid Hills, where it’s virtually impossible to believe you’re in the middle of a city.

That other well-known indicator of the health of a city’s economy – its hotels and restaurants – is currently experiencing a mercurial rise. Stylish boutique hotels aimed at both business and leisure travellers are opening every year, some of them masterly conversions of older buildings. Restaurants are hot news – not just because there’s a style of food for everyone, but because restaurateurs are catching on to the Italo-American model of ‘restaurant as theatre’, which makes eating out in the capital a much more entertaining experience. There are also, for information only, of course, 700 pubs in the city, some of which stay open until three in the morning.

If the return of a parliament to Edinburgh reinforced awareness of Scottish identity, Edinburgh’s cultural tradition has rarely waned in 200 years.

During the Scottish Enlightenment of the 18th century – the period when the New Town was being built – there was intellectual flowering in the shape of philosopher David Hume, economist Adam Smith, historian William Robertson and medical scientists William Cullen and Joseph Black. Literary Edinburgh flourished, especially in the early 19th century with Sir Walter Scott; and indeed Edinburgh was known for the three Bs: beer, books and banking. Only the latter plays a major role in today’s economy, although the smells of the brewery at Fountainbridge still permeate the air for miles around, mixed occasionally with the waft of grain whisky being distilled at the North British Distillery.

Today the city fills up in July and August with visitors and summer students keen to tap into the pulse generated by the International Arts Festival which, since 1947, has brought music and drama of the highest order to the city. It has been joined, over the years, by a Fringe Festival (literally hundreds of comedic, musical and dramatic events), and concurrent book, jazz, film and TV festivals, all of which attract some major players. The character of the city alters as mime and acrobat artistes take to the streets and every church hall is suddenly transformed into a venue. Evening ghost tours leave from points down the Royal Mile, luring expectant visitors through the tiny closes and wynds that lead off
the main streets and dip down into an eerie network of ancient catacombs and alleyways that, bizarrely, survive beneath the living city.

The past is everywhere you look in Edinburgh; but it’s also preserved in galleries, museums and visitor attractions. The Royal Scottish Academy, at the time of writing, is undergoing structural changes; but alternatives for art-lovers include the wonderful National Portrait Gallery on Queen Street, and the Gallery of Modern Art and its sister, the Dean Gallery, just out of the centre at Belford Road (these also have
very congenial cafés). The history and techniques of malt whisky production are presented in a lively, user-friendly way at the Scotch Whisky Heritage Centre on the Royal Mile; and the Royal Museum of Scotland, in Chambers Street, covers everything you ever needed to know about Scottish history and is even a good outing for kids, as is Our Dynamic Earth, which was built in 1999 to look like London’s Millennium Dome but has been rather more successful. It takes visitors on a scintillating journey through the planet and the solar system. In fact, there’s a museum for everything in Edinburgh: writers, childhood, fishing heritage, war … you name it
.
The city’s character is still defined partly by the fact that the legal, education, church and medical systems have played prominent roles here since the union of the crowns under James VI. The professions gave Edinburgh a conservatism, respectability and restraint traditionally mocked by our Glaswegian cousins. But the city manages to avoid parochialism by attracting people and businesses from all over the world, seduced by its raw beauty on a cold, sunny day and the magnetic lure of a better quality of life.