Edinburgh: First Thoughts

I’ve been in Edinburgh for almost two months, which I think warrants some sort of hurried treatise on the place, and as I’ve got the evening off I might as well see what I can muster.

On this blog, I usually deal with, at the very least, an individual building or set of buildings. Edinburgh has no shortage of such buildings – buildings abound here; they seem to spill out of corners and sprout from cracks. They tower over you like golems and burrow up underneath you like expanding subterranean fungi; they clamour to fill the entirety of the space made available to them, they crowd towards you and shrink away from you in equal measure. They are not friendly, and nor should they be. It is this characteristic which makes it difficult to concentrate on one particular building: Edinburgh appears first as an assemblage, as a seething mass of architecture, rather than a union of individual buildings.

Edinburgh, 1649

Edinburgh, 1649

I’ve been trying to tease out exactly why this image is stuck so resolutely in my head, so that when I try to think of one particular building ten others spring up immediately beside it in my mind’s eye. It could, in part, be the many-layered nature of the city. Edinburgh does not take place (if cities can be said to take place) on a flat surface, or even on a slightly uneven one, but on the raised spine of a ridge connecting two vast, looming deposits of basalt. On either side of its Old Town – its nucleus – Edinburgh falls away into the depths of the Cowgate on one side and the rush of the railway tracks on the other (the railway tracks around Waverley station, as an incontrovertible flow through which walking is impossible, take the place of a large river – indeed the glassy roof of the station itself even allows it to appear like a vast body of water). Beyond both these canyons the city rises again, collecting itself into Georgian formality in the North and sprawling vein-like into Victorian suburbs to the South. 18th and 19th century bridges and walkways range over or through the subterranean netherworlds in-between, forming layers, stratifying the city, making you feel constantly either above something or below something, creating a sense of endless proliferation and of sublime dislocation. Such a sense might be found elsewhere in Piranesi’s sketches of vast, labyrinthine prisons:

The Pier With Chains, from 'The Imaginary Prisons' (1761)

The Pier With Chains, from ‘The Imaginary Prisons’ (1761)

Or perhaps not. Perhaps the reason for this unshakeable sense of agglomeration is Edinburgh’s sense of compaction, of expanding into the scanty space available to it until nothing remains but stone piled upon stone. There is a historical root to this: in the late Middle Ages Edinburgh was, due to numerous military threats to its livelihood, compelled to construct fortified walls around its environs. In this way it protected itself from attack, but it also walled itself in. As the city expanded in the seventeenth century, the lack of space meant that building had to be done upwards rather than outwards, and so the lofty tenements of the Old Town were born. These weren’t merely slightly higher than usual – for the time in which they were built they were unconscionably high, almost grotesquely high. In his 1771 novel ‘Humphry Clinker’, Tobias Smollett has one of his characters suggest that “the surprising height of [Edinburgh’s] houses” might make it difficult for a person dwelling on their highest storey to breathe, due to the altitude. These buildings were proto-skyscrapers, a few with storeys reaching into the double figures in which nobility and pauper alike could be found to reside (the more moneyed residents tended to live on the upper floors, removed as they were from the notorious stink of the streets).  In this way, the architecture of Edinburgh imparts an almost frenzied desire to make use of any scrap of land which it can, and seems to threaten to devour you along with it.

Or, perhaps the reason that Edinburgh appears in this way to me could be the simple fact of its being dwarfed by the silent bulk of a dormant volcano – the elephantine rock of Arthur’s Seat. Nothing inspires images of solidity like a gigantic mass of basalt. Conversely, it could be the unnerving 18th century uniformity of the New Town, in which one building seems to flow endlessly into another until the whole city is knit together in one unbroken mass. It could simply be a miasma in the air. Whatever the cause, I wait eagerly for the point at which I might be able to think with more clarity about the individual buildings of Edinburgh as distinct subjects to be written on, rather than as a solidified, monolithic entity. They are, after all, by turns beguiling, monstrous, imposing, monumental, brutal, fanciful, whimsical, exaggerated, stoic, humble and utterly, endlessly fascinating.

About raspurr

criticism not only welcome but utterly necessary
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