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Issue 72 - Exploring the past

Scotland Magazine Issue 72
December 2013

 

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Exploring the past

Roddy Martine looks at the need to save Edinburgh's architectural heritage

It may have something to do with the temperament of the average Scot, but the idea of embracing modernity alongside conserving the old has been around since the Scottish Enlightenment era which followed Scotland's political union with England three hundred years ago. Fuelled by the intellectual and scientific accomplishments of men such as David Hume, Adam Smith, Dugald Stewart, Robert Burns, Adam Fegusson and John Playfair, among others, the Scots emerged with an uncompromising sense of their own identity and place in the world. By all means look to the future, but never forget that it is the past that has made you what you are.

Following in this tradition in the early part of the nineteenth century came Lord Cockburn, described by one of his contemporaries as “one of the most popular men north of the Tweed.” Scottish advocate, judge, journalist and diarist, winter sports enthusiast, swimmer and conservationist, Henry Cockburn was a kenspeckle figure if there ever was one I was reminded of this recently when I was invited to a fund raising ceilidh for the Cockburn Association held at The Hub, the Edinburgh International Festival's headquarters at the top of Edinburgh's Royal Mile. Since the ceilidh was taking place in Cockburn's name at the heart of Scotland's Capital, just below the castle, it struck me how fitting it was to remember this luminary from another age. But as the largely youthful dancers reeled and hooted to the sounds of the Scottish Country Dance band, I found myself rather patronisingly musing on just how many of them would have the slightest idea who he was. Back in the 1969, my late lamented friend, the immensely talented actor Russell Hunter, staged a brilliant one-man performance entitled Cocky, based on the memoires of this remarkable man and it saddens me that, although televised, it failed to reach a wider audience. At least his name is perpetuated in his native town. A one-time Solicitor General for Scotland, and a Judge of the Court of Session, it was Henry Cockburn who in his lifetime influenced the rescue from demolition of such iconic Edinburgh landmarks as John Knox's House and Tailor's Hall in the Cowgate. Inspired by such achievements, the Cockburn Association was created some thirty five years after his death. Launched by Lord Moncrief of Tullibole in 1875, it happily remains very much alive and well under the sure hand of its President Sir Sandy Crombie.

Moreover, in its present manifestation as Edinburgh's Civic Trust, it continues to challenge the wilder excesses of the Capital's city planners. Post 1945, historic Edinburgh suffered appallingly from re-build vandalism. During the 1960s, and despite protests from the Cockburn Association, two sides of George Square, dating from 1766, were swept away to provide accommodation for the University of Edinburgh, which should have known better. At the the top of Leith Walk, St James Square, with its pleasant collection of Georgian houses and tenements, was annihilated and replaced by an absurd light sculpture which ultimately fused.

In the years that followed, it was only thanks to the intervention of the Cockburn Association that such astonishingly ill-conceived schemes as the inner city motorway were scrapped. “In towns, the great modern object has uniformly been to extinguish all the picturesque relics and models of antiquity, and to reduce every thing to the dullest and baldest uniformity,” wrote Lord Cockburn in 1856. Alas, nothing much changes in the cyclical self-destruct nature of the world we live in. However, so far as Edinburgh is concerned its great defender, wherever his spirit resides, can at least be assured that his legacy and the city he cared so passionately about endures. Somebody will always be on hand to fight for his causes.