To begin straightforwardly – writing about architecture in Edinburgh is proving more difficult than I had imagined. Before I moved up, I had thought that I would hardly need to try, that my hitherto uninspiring blog would reach new heights, spurred on by the sheer drama of Edinburgh’s built environment. I would, I had hoped, pen kaleidoscopic visions of the vertiginous tenements; I would ruminate on Arthur’s Seat, how it shadows the city like the shattered visage of a vanquished golem; I would rail against the violent orthodoxies of the Enlightenment embodied in the strict proportions of the neoclassical style.
The thing about neoclassical architecture is, it gets repetitive very quickly, and so too did all of the clichés which I and countless others have heaped upon Edinburgh’s back over its long and storied history. Enough breathless panegyrics and enraptured blog posts have been written about Edinburgh’s ‘landmarks’ to trammel up the channels of the internet for good, and trying to write about any one recognisable structure felt like a task already doomed to failure. Besides, I never really wanted to write about this city – or indeed any other city – in such a way. For me, it’s always been the labyrinthine, the barely visible, the lurking presence of innumerable histories barely subsisting someway beneath the asphalt – the city as palimpsest. Mercifully, Edinburgh abounds in semi-legible signs, things rarely glimpsed, passages not taken, buried histories, choked but still breathing. An inexplicable gable, an ostensibly pointless alleyway, an indecipherable inscription, a strangely weathered piece of masonry. It is this side of Edinburgh – or rather, this strata of Edinburgh – which I’m hoping to begin to document here.
On the Royal Mile, halfway between the Tron Kirk and the Canongate, is a humble example of the sort of thing I mean. The actual building in question is relatively unassuming – pleasant but unremarkable Scottish Baronial in the mid-19th century style: a crow-step gable, decorative crenellation, non-specific pseudo-heraldry. Amid the innumerable Walter Scott-isms of the Old Town it would be easy to miss. But if the passerby were to pause outside it – to gawp at the window of the whisky shop which inhabits the ground floor, say – they might notice a small sculpture accompanied by an inscription, forming the base of an oriel window above the entrance to Paisley Close. The sculpture is the face of a young man, and the inscription above reads “Heave awa’ chaps, I’m no’ dead yet!”
Although many older Edinburgh buildings have a tradition of ‘speaking’ – of carrying sometimes cryptic (and often biblical) inscriptions – the decorations on the ‘Heave Awa Hoose’ (as I later discovered it was known) are uniquely beguiling. They speak of explicitly localised history, of some latent fable embedded within the walls of the place. When I first noticed them I allowed my fantastical speculations to run wild for more than a moment – I imagined some dramatic, morbid scene; the burial of a live boy under the very floorboards, perhaps to hide forever the knowledge a horrific family secret harboured by a withering dynasty of grotesque aristocrats – shades of Poe (shades also, perhaps, of Burke & Hare).
The truth is a little less dramatic, though delightfully (and in a rare case) hardly less so. The actual course of events goes roughly as follows: Prior to the 19th century, Edinburgh’s Old Town contained a very large number of 16th and 17th century buildings which were, to put it bluntly, disintegrating. One such house stood where the ‘Heave Awa Hoose’ is now, until in 1861 it collapsed utterly, killing all 35 of its inhabitants. Amidst the clamour of the rescue effort, during which all seemed lost and not one life remained to be salvaged, a cry was heard from beneath the rubble – ‘Heave awa lads, I’m no deid yet!’*. It was the voice of young Joseph McIvor, sole survivor of the catastrophe.
This dramatic episode ultimately gave impetus to the programme of demolition and rebuilding – beginning in 1867 with the passing of the Improvement Act – which still characterises much of the Old Town today. For good or ill, vast swathes of Edinburgh’s historic buildings were demolished, to be replaced by the deadly serious whimsy of the 19th century Scots Baronial style. In the process, young Joseph McIvor’s words were given a second significance – in the light of such sweeping architectural metamorphosis, the words ‘Heave Awa’ take on another meaning altogether.
*The spelling of the Scots word ‘deid’ and the use of the word ‘lads’ were both changed upon the making of the inscription for the benefit of English tourists.